Prosecutorial Misconduct

Colorado Supreme Court Overturns Prison-Murder Conviction, Says Prosecutors Withheld Evidence in Death-Penalty Case

The Colorado Supreme Court has upheld a trial court ruling overturning the first-degree murder conviction of David Bueno (pictured) after Arapahoe County prosecutors who sought the death penalty against him in a prison killing hid evidence that pointed to another suspect. The January 22 ruling comes in the wake of a trial court ruling that prosecutors in the state's 18th Judicial District, which includes Arapahoe County, also suppressed more than twenty pieces of evidence that should have been disclosed to the defense in the capital trials of death-row prisoners Sir Mario Owens and Robert Ray. Bueno's lawyer, David Lane, called the pattern of prosecutorial conduct in the 18th Judicial District, "Mississippi in the mountains." "Ethically, prosecutors are required to seek justice, not convictions," he said. "But they apparently lose sight of that on a regular basis, especially on death-penalty cases in the 18th Judicial District." Bueno and a second Latino prisoner, Alex Perez, were charged with stabbing a white prisoner, Jeffrey Heird, to death in 2004. The day before the murder, another white prisoner, Michael Snyder, told his wife in a phone call recorded by the prison that he had been ordered to stab a prisoner. The evening after the murder, a prison nurse found a note containing threats by a white supremacist prison group to kill “men of the white race who refuse to accept their proud race.” The nurse immediately prepared an incident report that included a copy of the letter. One day later, another white inmate died under suspicious circumstances and a prison lieutenant who was investigating the death prepared a second report suggesting the deaths might be connected. The court wrote that undisputed evidence established that "the prosecution possessed both of these reports within days of Heird’s murder but did not provide copies of them to Bueno until five years later," after he had been convicted. Despite specific requests by the defense to be provided all incident reports, and in violation of its constitutional obligation to disclose all potentially exculpatory evidence, the court found prosecutors had made “a conscious decision ... to keep the information from the Defendant." The court agreed with the trial judge that these violations were prejudicial because "[t]he identity of Heird’s killer was the core issue at trial, with Bueno arguing that white supremacists had committed the murder," and the jury had taken four days to deliberate, including asking the court how to overcome a deadlock. The jury then imposed a life sentence, rejecting the death penalty in the case. In a 2010 interview with Westword after the trial court had overturned Bueno's conviction, Lane called it "truly stunning that the prosecutors in this case hid evidence that was so favorable to the defense" and said "it is particularly shocking in light of the fact that this was a death penalty case." A 2015 study showed significant racial and geographic disparities in the prosecution of death-penalty cases in Colorado, with non-white defendants and defendants in the 18th Judicial District statistically more likely to be capitally prosecuted. All three prisoners on Colorado's death row are from the 18th Judicial District. 18th District DA George Brauchler, who opposed the grant of a new trial in the case, is currently seeking election as Colorado's Attorney General.

“Innocence Deniers” and Coercive Plea Agreements Impede Death-Row Exonerations Across the U.S.

A prosecutor's duty, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in 1935, "is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done." Yet prosecutors across the U.S. have refused to acknowledge the innocence of defendants who have been wrongfully convicted, obstructing release by retrying death-sentenced defendants despite exonerating evidence, or conditioning their release upon "Alford pleas," which force defendants to choose between clearing their names or obtaining their freedom. In an article for Slate, Lara Bazelon chronicles cases of prosecutors whom she calls "innocence deniers," and the exonerations they have willfully obstructed. Bazelon highlights the retrials of exonerees Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in Illinois. After their initial conviction, a serial murderer, Brian Dugan, confessed to committing the crime alone, but prosecutors persisted in retrying Cruz and Hernandez. Their second conviction was also overturned, but despite DNA testing that had corroborated Dugan's confession, prosecutors subjected them to trial for a third time. Cruz was acquitted and prosecutors dropped Hernandez's charges. After the exoneration, three prosecutors involved in the case were indicted but acquitted of obstruction of justice and perjury. A related phenomenon, the use of Alford pleas, is described in a New York Times story by Megan Rose. In an Alford plea, the defendant admits that the evidence against him or her would be sufficient to convict, but continues to assert innocence. The prisoner remains convicted of the crime and is resentenced to time already served and allowed to go free. These deals are often used in exoneration cases that involve official misconduct, because defendants who enter these pleas are typically barred from bringing lawsuits against prosecutors. Montez Spradley (pictured), an Alabama death-row prisoner, agreed to an Alford plea in 2015 after his attorneys discovered constitutional violations in his case, including undisclosed payments to a key witness. The agreement ended investigation into the prosecutorial misconduct. In June 2017, Ha'im Al Matin Sharif was released from Nevada's death row, nearly 30 years after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, after medical evidence revealed that the baby died from infantile scurvy, rather than from physical abuse. Police had coerced the girlfriend into providing false testimony implicating Sharif by threatening to take her other children away if she did not cooperate. Prosecutors insisted that Sharif plead guilty to second-degree murder to obtain his release. One month earlier, Jimmy Dennis was released from twenty-five years of solitary confinement on Pennsylvania's death row after pleading no contest to lesser charges. His release marked the culmination of three unrelated cases in which misconduct by the same two Philadelphia homicide detectives had framed capital defendants. Innocence denial has the serious side effect of leaving the real perpetrators free while prosecutors continue to oppose release of innocent prisoners. The Innocence Project has secured the DNA exonerations of 353 people, and identified 152 actual perpetrators in those cases who went on to commit at least 150 additional violent crimes. Official misconduct is the leading cause of wrongful capital convictions.

Former Death-Row Prisoner Exonerated in Illinois, Seized by ICE

Former Illinois death-row prisoner Gabriel Solache (pictured), a Mexican national whose death sentence was one of 157 commuted by Governor George Ryan in January 2003, was exonerated on December 21, 2017 after twenty years of wrongful imprisonment, but immediately seized by agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Cook County prosecutors dropped charges against Solache and his co-defendant Arturo DeLeon-Reyes after Circuit Court Judge James Obbish overturned their convictions, finding that disgraced Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara had told “bald-faced lies” under oath when he testified to having no memory of interrogating Solache and DeLeon-Reyes and denied having beaten false confessions out of the men. DeLeon-Reyes also was immediately arrested by ICE agents. Solache and DeLeon-Reyes were convicted in separate trials, and Solache was sentenced to death, for the 1998 stabbing deaths of Jacinta and Mariano Soto during a home robbery. No physical or biological evidence linked either man to the murder, but they were convicted based upon confessions they have long said were coerced by Guevara over the course of three days of interrogation in which they were denied their right to consular assistance by the Mexican government, deprived of sleep, and given little food or drink until they falsely implicated themselves. Solache's purported confession was written entirely in English by an assistant state attorney who did not speak Spanish. Solache did not speak or read English and said that Guevara never translated the written statement for Solache before getting him to sign it. Guevera has been accused of framing defendants of murder in 51 cases. According to Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions, Solache and DeLeon-Reyes are the sixth and seventh defendants freed in the last two years as a result of misconduct by Guevara. To date, nine defendants have been released in cases in which Guevara was alleged to have beaten them or coerced witnesses into providing false testimony. Solache is the 161st person wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the United States to have been exonerated since 1973, and the twenty-first in Illinois. At least a dozen of those exonerations have involved misconduct by Chicago police, including five cases in which the notorious "Burge Squad" beat or tortured confessions out of innocent defendants. Aaron Patterson, Leroy OrangeMadison Hobley, and Stanley Howard—members of the "Death Row Ten," who asserted that their convictions were the product of false confessions obtained as a result of police torture at the hands of notorious Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge—received full pardons by Governor Ryan. Ronald Kitchen, another member of the Death Row Ten, was exonerated in July 2009. Among the tactics the "Burge Squad" employed to elicit confessions were shocking suspects in the genitals with cattle prods, beating suspects over the head with phonebooks, and pointing guns in the faces of minors.

Clark County, Nevada Losing Capital Convictions Because of Prosecutors' Race Discrimination in Jury Selection

The racially discriminatory jury selection practices of the Clark County, Nevada, District Attorney's office are now causing it to lose convictions in capital cases. In a December 18 article, the prosecutorial watchdog, The Open File, details repeated violations by Clark County death-penalty prosecutors of the constitutional proscription against striking prospective jurors from service on the basis of race. Four times in the past four years, the Nevada Supreme Court has ordered new trials in Clark County cases because prosecutors violated the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky  by discriminatorily excluding jurors of color, including in three cases in which the death penalty had been imposed. The Open Files writes that “prosecutors in the Clark County District Attorney’s office either do not know, ignore, or gamble on Batson, unsuccessfully hoping the courts will not hold them accountable to it.” In June 2014, the Nevada Supreme Court reversed the conviction and death sentence of Charles Conner, after prosecutors used six of their nine peremptory strikes against jurors of color, claiming that the jurors were “weak” on the death penalty. The court ruled that this purportedly race-neutral justification was pretextual, noting that one of the black jurors to whom prosecutors claimed the justification applied was an Air Force Reserve officer and full-time correctional officer, who had previously served in the Navy and as a police officer. The court found that the prosecutors' explanations for striking this juror were "belied by the record" and that manufacturing "[a] race-neutral explanation that is belied by the record is evidence of purposeful discrimination.” In March 2016, the court granted African-American death-row prisoner Jason McCarty a new trial after Clark County prosecutors excluded two of three eligible black jurors, pretextually attempting to justifying the strikes on the grounds that one worked in a strip club and the other had a brother with a criminal record. However, prosecuters had run detailed employment background checks on only two of the 36 potential jurors, suggesting to the court that prosecutors had not been genuinely concerned about the excluded juror's employment. The prosecutors also disparately questioned jurors whose family members had criminal histories, asking the black juror whom they struck 15 follow-up questions, while asking a similarly-situated white juror a single follow-up question. In granting McCarty a new trial, the court observed: “Discriminatory jury selection is particularly concerning in capital cases where each juror has the power to decide whether the defendant is deserving of the ultimate penalty, death.” In October 2017, the court also granted a new trial to third death-row prisoner, Julius Bradford, after the trial court had permitted the prosecution to strike one Hispanic and one African-American juror without providing the defense an opportunity to contest the race-based nature of the strikes.

NEW RESOURCE: Academy for Justice Report on Reforming Criminal Justice Tackles the Death Penalty

The Academy for Justice has recently released a new four-volume study, Reforming Criminal Justice, featuring research and analysis by leading academics and a wide range of proposals for criminal justice reform. The project, funded with a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and produced with the support of Arizona State University and ASU's Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, contains more than fifty chapters covering a wide range of subjects within the areas of criminalization, policing, trial procedures, and punishment—including a chapter on Capital Punishment by renowned death-penalty scholars Professors Carol S. Steiker (Harvard Law School) and her brother, Jordan M. Steiker (University of Texas School of Law). The Steikers—authors of the critically acclaimed 2016 book, Courting Death: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment, explore the challenges in reforming the institution of capital punishment, which they describe as being "in a state of flux and fragility." They attribute the near ten-fold decrease in new death sentences since 1996 and the near 70% decrease in executions since the peak in executions in 1999 to “growing concerns about the fairness, accuracy, and effectiveness of the capital justice process across the United States.” The Steikers point to endemic arbitrariness and unfairness resulting from the wide discretion afforded to prosecutors and juries in death penalty cases. Prosecutorial discretion, they say, has produced “wildly divergent capital charging decisions” between prosecutorial offices, making geography, rather than the circumstances of a murder, the chief determinant of whether a case is capitally prosecuted. In turn, they say, the practice of "death-qualification" allows prosecutors to exclude jurors who oppose capital punishment, and the jurors who are empaneled in capital cases exercise the broad discretion they are afforded to produce unfair sentences disproportionately influenced by irrelevant factors such as race and gender. The Steikers also challenge the notion that the reduced use of the death penalty means it is being used more effectively when it is imposed. They say that the death penalty is not limited to “the worst of the worst,” and so lacks meaningful retributive value, while its continuing arbitrariness impedes any arguable deterrent effect. Indeed, they say, offenders with mental illness are disproportionately represented on death row and continue to be disproportionately executed, despite widespread public support for excluding the severely mentally ill from the death penalty. They further question the accuracy of death-penalty verdicts, citing research that estimates more than 4% of those sentenced to death may be actually innocent. The Steikers argue that these systemic issues are “difficult to adequately address through constitutional regulation or legislative reform,” concluding that “the most appropriate path forward may well be moratorium or repeal, solutions embraced by a growing number of jurisdictions.” For states that opt to retain capital punishment, they recommend three major policy reforms: the establishment of capital defense offices at all levels (trial, direct appeal, and state postconviction) to “improve the delivery of capital representation services” in compliance with the American Bar Association's Guidelines for the Appointment and Performance of Defense Counsel in Death Penalty Cases; centralized state-wide charging processes to combat the politicization of the death penalty by local prosecutors and the resulting geographic arbitrariness in its appliation; and the adoption of legislation to exclude people with severe mental illness from capital prosecution and execution. 

Louisiana Justice Recused From “Angola 5” Death-Penalty Appeal After Radio Interview Commenting on the Case

Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Scott Crichton (pictured) will not participate in deciding the appeal of a prisoner sentenced to death in a controversial, high-profile prison killing, after Crichton publicly commented on the case during an appearance on a local radio program. On November 21, Crichton recused himself from the pending appeal of death-row prisoner David Brown, one day after Brown's lawyers sought his removal from the case because of Crichton's on-air comments about the "Angola 5" case and the judge's derrogatory references to capital appeals. Brown is one of the five men charged in the murder of prison guard, Capt. David Knapp at the Angola State Penitentiary in 1999. Crichton's "notice of self-recusal" provided no explanation for his decision. However, Brown's lawyers had argued in their recusal motion that, during an October 23 talk-radio appearance on the KEEL Morning Show with Robert and Erin, "[Crichton] and his interviewer agreed that inmates with life sentences 'have nothing to lose' and that murders by prisoners, like 'the Angola 5 in South Louisiana,' prove that the death penalty is a deterrent because inmates who have been executed cannot then harm prison guards." The lawyers also argued that Crichton had expressed personal opinions about the death penalty both on the October 23 program and in other recent radio interviews that violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and disqualified him participating in Brown's death-penalty appeal. In addition to his comments about the Angola 5 case, Justice Crichton—a former death-penalty prosecutor and judge in Caddo Parish, where the rate of death sentences per homicide was nearly 8 times greater between 2006 and 2015 than in the rest of Louisiana—disparaged death-penalty appeals, saying that it "boggles my mind" when an "inmate who has committed capital murder who is on death row is begging for his life. Think about the fact that the victim gets no due process." In 2014, a trial court had reversed Brown's death sentence after finding that Hugo Holland—another former Caddo Parish prosecutor who had been appointed as a special prosecutor to handle the case—had withheld evidence that a prisoner interviewed in connection with the murder had told prosecutors that two of the five men charged in the killing had admitted to him that only they had committed the murder. The Louisiana Supreme Court later reinstated Brown's death sentence, ruling that the suppression of this evidence was not "material" to the jury's sentence. Crichton had complained in previous appearances on the talk show about the appeal process in the death-penalty case of Nathaniel Code, against whom Crichton had obtained a death sentence in the 1980s: “He’s been on this crazy post-conviction relief status,” Crichton said. “He had 18 years of [post-conviction appeals] in the state system, which is absurd, obscene, and hideous.”

Nevada Pardons Man Imprisoned 21 Years as a Result of Wrongful Capital Murder Prosecution

Nevada has pardoned Fred Steese (pictured), who spent 21 years in prison after Las Vegas prosecutors wrongly sought the death penalty against him while witholding evidence that he was not even in the state at the time the murder occurred. In what news reports described as "a clear rebuke to the Las Vegas prosecutors," the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners voted 8-1 on November 8 to grant Steese a full pardon. “I’m a new man now,” Steese said. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.” The seven justices of the Nevada Supreme Court and Governor Brian Sandoval voted in favor of clearing Steese's name; only Adam Laxalt, the state's attorney general and a current candidate for governor, voted against the pardon. Steese was charged with capital murder in the high-profile 1992 killing of Las Vegas circus performer, Gerard Soules. He was prosecuted by Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, who both went on to become district judges in Las Vegas. Steese was in Idaho at the time of Soules's death, but signed a false confession after a five-hour interrogation and 35 hours without sleep. At trial he presented numerous alibi witness who testified that he was in Idaho at the time. Kephart—who also committed misconduct in several other capital trials before being elected as a judge in 2014—argued to the jury (with no supporting evidence) that the witnesses had seen Steese's brother in Idaho and that Steese had manufactured the alibi. After Steese was convicted in 1995, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty and Sreese was sentenced to two life sentences. He spent two decades in prison before federal public defenders proved that his brother, estranged since childhood, couldn’t have helped with Steese’s alibi. The federal defenders' investigation also unearthed phone records in the prosecution’s files that proved Steese was in Idaho at the time of the murder. In 2012, a Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court judge issued an Order of Actual Innocence, declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office refused to admit it had convicted an innocent man. In 2013, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told Steese she’d agree to release him from prison only if he entered an Alford plea, in which, while maintaining his innocence, he admitted there was sufficient evidence on which he could be convicted. After gaining his freedom, Steese—still with a murer conviction on his record— struggled to find employment and experienced periods of homelessness before finding work as a cross-country trucker. At the pardon hearing, Steese’s pro-bono attorney lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, said that from the time of his interrogation through the time of his release from prison, his constitutional rights had been “violated in a huge way.” Rasmussen condemned the prosecutorial misconduct in the case as “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada." After Steese himself testified, the board heard from Kathy Nasrey, the sister of Gerard Soules, who demanded that Kephart, Herndon, and others be held accountable for knowingly convicting an innocent man while her brother’s killer remained on the loose. “Now that it was clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man,” she said, “will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?”

Federal Court Finds Intentional Misconduct by Alabama Prosecutor, But Lets Death Penalty Stand

Finding that an Alabama prosecutor with a history of misconduct had "intentionally" made improper comments in the capital trial of Artez Hammonds (pictured) "in flagrant violation" of a pre-trial order warning him not to do so, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit nevertheless denied Hammonds's appeal and permitted his conviction and death sentence to stand. While the court noted that the prosecutor, District Attorney Douglas Valeska "had been reprimanded in prior cases for engaging in precisely the same unconstitutional and unethical behavior" and said it was "very disturbed" by the prosecutor's deliberate unconstitutional references to Hammonds's decision not to testify and to his prior incarceration, the court ultimately held that the comments did not affect the jury's verdict and denied him relief. While in prison for an unrelated offense, Hammonds was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Houston County in 1997 for the rape and murder of a white woman in a high-profile case that had gone unsolved for six years. Despite a population of only 100,000, the county currently has 18 people on its death row. As of January 1, 2013, its death row ranked 30th in size among all counties in the United States, even though it was less than one-quarter the size of any other county in the top thirty, and two-thirds of those counties had populations of more than one million. Valeska served as Houston County's district attorney for three decades until his retirement in January 2017, obtaining more than a dozen death sentences during that period. A study by the Equal Justice Initiative in May of 2008 reported a 16-fold increase in the number of death sentences in Houston County between 1995 and 2008, while Valeska was in office, over the death sentences imposed in the previous two decades. During his time in office, Valeska was found to have violated the rights of capital defendants on numerous occasions by unconstitutionally striking African Americans from death penalty juries because of their race and making improper inflammatory comments during trial. Because of this history, Hammonds's trial lawyer specifically requested the court, before the trial started, to order Valeska to refrain from commenting on Hammonds's decision to exercise his Fifth Amendment right not to testify. But, as the Eleventh Circuit wrote, "neither the Constitution nor a direct order from the court inhibited Valeska" from improperly commenting on Hammonds's choice not to testify. The court critcized the Alabama Attorney General's office, which represented the state during the appeal, for "perpetuat[ing] the charade that Valeska did not intend" to violate Hammonds's rights, saying that the state attorney's "insistence on defending this improper conduct implicitly condones the unethical tactics that Valeska used" and invites other prosecutors to engage in similar "unsavory conduct." The court provided a copy of its opinion to the Alabama State Bar to review Valeska's conduct for possible disciplinary action.

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