Prosecutorial Misconduct

Louisiana Prisoner Alleges Prosecutor Got Death Verdict By Coercing Witness, Presenting Fabricated Testimony

Michael Wearry, a Louisiana prisoner whose conviction and death sentence were overturned by the U.S Supreme Court in 2016 because prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, has filed suit against Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perriloux (pictured) and former Sheriff's Deputy Marlon Kearney Foster based upon new evidence that they deliberately fabricated testimony against him. Wearry's complaint charges that the Louisiana officials "knowingly and deliberately fabricated" testimony from a troubled adolescent, Jeffery Ashton and coerced Ashton "to falsely implicate Wearry in the homicide of Eric Walber." The lawsuit says Wearry first learned that Perriloux and Foster had fabricated Ashton's testimony during the course of preparing for Wearry's re-trial, when his defense team located and interviewed Ashton and "Ashton told Wearry’s lawyers about the falsification of his witness accounts." Wearry was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002, although no physical evidence linked him to the murder. His alibi witnesses testified that he was at wedding reception 40 miles away in Baton Rouge at the time of the murder. The U.S. Supreme Court has described the case against Wearry as "a house of cards." The prosecution case relied heavily on the testimony of Sam Scott, a jailhouse informant, whose story changed so dramatically over the course of four different statements that, according to the Supreme Court, by the time of trial "his story bore little resemblance to his original account." Police records that prosecutors withheld from the defense at trial revealed that Scott had may have had a personal vendetta against Wearry, having told another prisoner he wanted to "make sure [Wearry] gets the needle cause he jacked over me." Prosecutors also failed to disclose that they had offered another witness a reduced sentence for an unrelated conviction in exchange for his testimony against Wearry, and then lied to the jury that the witness had "no deal on the table." Wearry's lawsuit concerns allegations of misconduct involving the testimony of Jeffrey Ashton, who was ten years old at the time of the murder and fourteen when he testified at Wearry's trial that he had seen Wearry throw the victim's cologne bottle into a ditch and get into the victim's car. He now says he was attending a festival on the night of the murder and had never seen Wearry before the trial. "Ashton was subject to juvenile court proceedings at the time, and was vulnerable to intimidation by authorities such as Perrilloux and Foster," the lawsuit says. In an affidavit, Ashton says he was "forced" to provide false testimony. "I went along with it because I was just ten years old. I was scared," he said. Jim Craig, Wearry's attorney, called the alleged misconduct "very disturbing," and said, "[t]he abuse of power by District Attorney Perrilloux and Mr. Foster is an outrage that should disturb anyone who believes in justice." He added that he believes the case may have implications for other cases handled by Perriloux, saying, "I think the integrity of this and other cases in that district is at stake and we expect this to be a very hard fought case. We are confident that what we have filed is correct and truthful." District Attorney Perrilloux called the allegations that he coerced testimony from Ashton "ridiculous."

STUDY: Local Mississippi Prosecutors Struck Black Jurors at More than Four Times the Rate of Whites

A new study shows that the Mississippi District Attorney's office that has prosecuted Curtis Flowers for capital murder six times—striking almost all black jurors in each trial—has disproportionately excluded African Americans from jury service for more than a quarter century. Reviewing the exercise of discretionary jury strikes in 225 trials between 1992 and 2017, American Public Media Reports discovered that during the tenure of Mississippi's Fifth Circuit Court District Attorney Doug Evans (pictured) prosecutors have exercised peremptory strikes to exclude African Americans from jury service at nearly 4½ times the rate at which they struck white jurors. APM Reports collected and analyzed data on more than 6,700 jurors called for jury service in the the Fifth District. Its study—which was reviewed before its release by a statistics expert and two law professors who had conducted prior jury-strike studies—found that Fifth District prosecutors struck 50 percent of all eligible black jurors compared to only 11 percent of eligible whites. Looking at potentially race-neutral factors raised during juror questioning, APM Reports found that prosecutors were still far more likley to strike black jurors than similarly situated white jurors (click here to enlarge graph). Controlling for these factors, the study found that the odds prosecutors would strike a black juror were six times greater than the odds that they would strike a white juror. APM Reports prepared the study in connection with its acclaimed podcast series In the Dark, which this season focuses on the Flowers case. Evans' office has been scrutinized for alleged race-related abuses of powers during the course of Flowers' six trials for the murder of four furniture store employees. Flowers has consistently professed his innocence. In his first three trials, Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries. In each of these cases, the state Supreme Court overturned the convictions and ordered new trials. Just before the second trial, Flowers' parents' house burned down. Shortly afterwards, his mother was told of a threat made by a white resident that, "If they let that n----- go, another house is going to burn." Jurors deadlocked in Flowers' fourth and fifth trials, split along racial lines. All the white jurors voted for death in both of those trials. Only one black juror served on the sixth jury, and Flowers was sentenced to death in that trial. Although it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors from service based on race, the practice is ubiquitous in many jurisdictions that heavily use the death penalty. Over the course of 332 criminal trials in CaddoParish, Louisiana in the decade from 2003-2012, prosecutors struck black jurors at more than triple the rate of other jurors, approximately the same disproportionate rate at which black jurors were struck in 35 cases resulting in death sentences in South Carolina in the fifteen years between 1997-2012. In 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period in North Carolina, and in more than 300 capital trials over more than two decades in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prosecutors struck black jurors twice as frequently as other jurors. Most recently, in Georgia, Johnny Gates, who was sentenced to death in Columbus, Georgia in 1977, has challenged his conviction with evidence that his prosecutors struck every black juror they could in the seven capital trials they prosecuted between 1976 and 1979, empaneling all-white juries in six of those cases. 

STUDY: Pervasive Rubberstamping by State Courts Undermines Legitimacy of Harris County, Texas Death Sentences

State-court factfinding by judges in Harris County, Texas death-penalty cases is "a sham" that "rubberstamps" the views of county prosecutors, according to a study of the county's capital post-conviction proceedings published in the May 2018 issue of the Houston Law Review. In The Problem of Rubber Stamping in State Capital Habeas Proceedings: A Harris County Case Study, researchers from the University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Center examined factfinding orders in 191 Harris County capital post-conviction proceedings in which factual issues were contested, and found that in 96% of the cases, Harris County judges adopted the county prosecutors' proposed findings of fact verbatim. In the vast majority of cases, judges signed the state’s proposed document without even changing the heading. Looking at the 21,275 individual factual findings that county prosecutors had proposed, the researchers discovered that 96% of the judicial findings were word-for-word what prosecutors had written. The study's authors—Capital Punishment Center Director and Judge Robert M. Parker Chair in Law Jordan M. Steiker, Center Co-Director and Clinical Professor James W. Marcus, and Clinical Fellow Thea J. Posel—identified two related state post-conviction practices that they say "undermine the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty" in the nation's most prolific county for executions: "the reluctance of state trial courts to conduct evidentiary hearings to resolve contested factual issues, and the wholesale adoption of proposed state fact-finding instead of independent state court decision-making." State post-conviction applications typically present affidavits from witnesses and experts containing evidence that could have been, but was not, presented at trial. This evidence may "relate[ ] to the accuracy of the conviction, including forensic, alibi, or eyewitness testimony; or the affidavits might highlight important [penalty-phase] mitigating evidence regarding the inmate’s psychiatric or psychological impairments, abused background, or redeeming qualities." The systemic rubberstamping rejects this evidence, often without any evidentiary hearing into contested factual issues. The "inadequate development of facts" caused by this "one-sided consideration of contested factual issues," the researchers say, "prevents Harris County post-conviction courts from enforcing federal constitutional norms." The sham state-court proceedings also lead to unreliable federal habeas corpus review of Harris County death sentences, the researchers said, "[b]ecause even rubberstamped findings receive deference in federal court." When federal habeas relief is denied and an execution occurs, "prosecutors and newspapers recount the many layers of review undertaken" in the case, notwithstanding the underlying reality that "those layers of review afforded no meaningful consideration of the inmate’s constitutional claims." The reality of rubberstamped state-court factfinding and illusory federal appellate review, they say, "undermines the legitimacy of Harris County executions."

Former Louisiana Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Agreement, Amid Evidence of Innocence, Misconduct

More than twenty years after being convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he has long said he did not commit, Corey Williams (pictured, center, with his defense team) walked free from prison in Louisiana on May 22, 2018. The deal was bittersweet for Williams, for despite the evidence of innocence, he had to agree to plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter and obstruction of justice to obtain his freedom. In a statement released to the media, Amir Ali (pictured, left), Williams' lead counsel in his U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, said: “Imagine your child leaving to hang out with friends, and then losing him or her for twenty years. No one can give Corey back the time that he wrongfully spent behind bars, away from his family and friends. Today, we ensure this tragedy ends here—Corey can finally go home." Williams, who is intellectually disabled, was just sixteen years old when he was arrested for the murder of a pizza deliveryman in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Police interrogated him overnight, eventually leading him to confess, despite knowing that he was intellectually disabled and therefore more susceptible to confessing falsely. Williams' attorneys said, "His confession was brief, devoid of corroborating details. Having just assumed responsibility for a homicide, Corey told the officers, 'I'm tired. I'm ready to go home and lay down.'" Witnesses reported seeing several older men rob the victim. Fingerprints from one of those men were found on the murder weapon, and the victim's blood was found on the clothing of another man. A third possible suspect, Chris Moore, nicknamed “Rapist,” was the only witness who testified against Williams. Prosecutors withheld recordings of witness interviews that supported Williams' innocence claims. Those recordings showed that police suspected Moore and the two other men were trying to frame Williams. Williams was sentenced to death, but his death sentence was vacated six years later after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the use of the death penalty against people with intellectual disability to be unconstitutional. Hugo Holland, who along with Dale Cox, is responsible for 75% of death sentences imposed in Louisiana from 2010-2015, prosecuted Williams' case. He was later investigated for withholding evidence in a separate case, and had to resign his post due to other misconduct. At the time the plea deal was made, Williams had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of his case based upon the prosecution's improper withholding of exculpatory evidence. Forty-four former state and federal prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey—filed a brief in support of Williams' claim, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant him a new trial. The plea deal ends the litigation of that case. Ali said, “The District Attorney’s decision not to defend the tragic decisions of his predecessors is commendable. Corey’s release is vindication that he was wrongfully targeted years ago by prosecutors who had no regard for truth or justice.”

NEW PODCAST—Culture of Conviction: Brian Stolarz on How Houston Prosecutors Convicted His Innocent Client

In 2005, Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured left) was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Houston, Texas police officer based on false testimony Harris County prosecutors obtained through coercion and threats. After spending a decade on death row for a crime he did not commit, Brown was finally released with the help of his attorney Brian Stolarz (pictured right), who is the guest on DPIC's latest podcast and author of Grace and Justice on Death Row, a book about Brown's case. Stolarz, who represented Brown in post-conviction proceedings, tells the story of his "decade-plus long journey to help out this one man." In the discussion, Stolarz describes how he and his team realized upon investigation that every witness had been "pressured and frightened" by the prosecutor—who used tactics such as threatening to charge witnesses with crimes—in order to secure Brown's conviction. Stolarz calls this Harris County's "culture of conviction." Brown's girlfriend, Erica Dockery, who had initially testified before the grand jury that Brown was at her apartment at the time of the crime, became a critical witness against Brown. As Stolarz explains, Dockery's choice to "abandon the truth," commit perjury, and testify against Brown came only after the prosecutor brought a baseless perjury charge against her for her truthful grand jury testimony and jailed her with a bond so high she couldn't pay it. In what Stolarz describes as "luck," the retired case detective found a box from the case while "spring cleaning his garage," and the box contained phone records that supported Dockery's initial testimony and consequently Brown's alibi. This evidence, along with other witness recantations, helped win Brown's release in June 2015. Although Brown has been free for almost three years, Stolarz explains that his fight for justice is still ongoing, as he seeks compensation for his unjust conviction. Before Brown can be compensated under Texas state law, the District Attorney must sign a formal declaration finding him innocent and prosecutors had opposed such a declaration. The podcast was recorded in April 2018, several weeks after recent revelations that Dan Rizzo, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Brown, had received an email informing him that the phone records proved Dockery was telling the truth about Brown's alibi before he charged her with perjury and prosecuted Brown for murder based on false testimony. Since the time of podcast recording, the current Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg, has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Brown's innocence. Ogg said the recent discovery of the email showing Rizzo knew years before trial that Brown's alibi checked out "brought clarity to a very hotly contested allegation as to whether or not [suppressing that evidence from the defense] was intentionally done, whether it was done to obtain a guilty verdict at any cost." Ogg said she believed the email "tended to show Brown's innocence, and not just his lack of guilt." 

EDITORIAL: California Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

In an April 27 editorial, the Los Angeles Times said the death penalty should come to an end and the recent exoneration of California death-row prisoner Vicente Benavides Figueroa illustrates why. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — spent more than 25 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter. His conviction rested on extensive false forensic testimony provided by prosecution medical witnesses who had been given incomplete hospital records and who erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. One California Supreme Court justice described that testimony as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” The Times called Benavides's conviction "an egregious miscarriage of justice" and said "[h]is exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case was prosecuted in Kern County during the administration of long-time District Attorney Ed Jagels. Elected multiple times to head the California District Attorneys Association, Jagels successfully pushed to remove three justices from the California Supreme Court whom he claimed were anti-death-penalty. His official Web page as district attorney touted that Kern had the highest per-capita imprisonment rate of any county in state, and as of January 1, 2013, the county had more people on its death row than were sentenced to death in more than 99% of U.S. counties. The county also has the highest per capita exoneration rate in the state. Benavides is reportedly the 26th innocent person wrongly convicted by Kern County prosecutors, most of whom were wrongly convicted as a result of official misconduct. As of March 2015, 22 of the 24 Kern County exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations had involved official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Benavides's exoneration, the Times said, is also a reminder "of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year that Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." Washington Post columnist Radley Balko put it more starkly: "if Prop 66 had been in place when Mr. Benavides was convicted, he’d almost certainly be dead. He’d never have lived to see his exoneration." Balko notes that "[t]his problem isn’t just limited to California. Even as we learn more about the extent of wrongful convictions, prosecutor misconduct and misuse of forensic evidence, states such as Texas, Alabama and Florida have also moved toward limiting appeals and speeding up executions." He says "[i]t's almost as if some lawmakers and law enforcement officials think that the problem with wrongful convictions isn’t that there are too many of them, but that they’re bad PR for the law-and-order cause. And that the best way to make them go away isn’t to fix the problems that allowed them to happen, but to execute people before we ever get the chance to learn that they’re innocent." But the problems, the Times editors said, may be beyond repair. "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution," the editors conclude, "is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

After 22 Years, District Attorney’s Office to Examine Possible Innocence of Philadelphia Death-Row Prisoner

Twenty-two years after Walter Ogrod (pictured) was sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit, a new Philadelphia District Attorney’s administration has dropped the office’s long-time opposition to Ogrod’s request for DNA testing and has referred the case for review by a revitalized Conviction Integrity Unit. As that review proceeds, an hour-long documentary on the case—aired April 8 as part of CNN’s Headline News Network series Death Row Stories—presents what Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch describes as “compelling evidence that the snitch testimony that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office used to convict Ogrod was fabricated” and that the confession the intellectually impaired man gave to Philadelphia police was coerced. Ogrod was sentenced to death in 1996 for the high-profile 1988 murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, whose body was found discarded in a television box on a Northeast Philadelphia street. No physical evidence linked Ogrod to the murder, but four years after the murder, police questioned the 25-year-old truck driver—variously described as “slow,” possibly autistic, and lacking “common sense”—for 14 hours, telling him he was repressing memories of the murder. In the documentary, a friend of Ogrod’s recounts that Ogrod signed a confession after police told him that if he didn’t, he would have to wait for a lawyer in a holding area with other prisoners and “you know what they do to child molesters down there.” Author Tom Lowenstein, who investigated the case and wrote the 2017 book The Trials of Walter Ogrod, says in the documentary that the 16-page confession, hand written by the detective, “is a flowing monologue of thought and process and description that Walter Ogrod is not capable of…. He could not have given the confession.” Ogrod was tried twice for the murder. In 1993, the jury in his first trial appeared to have acquitted him, filling out “not guilty” on the verdict sheet. But as the verdict was being read, one juror said he had changed his mind, resulting in a mistrial. Following the mistrial, Ogrod was celled with John Hall, a notorious (and later discredited) jailhouse informant nicknamed “The Monsignor” for his proclivity in producing confessions. Hall’s widow, Phyllis Hall, explains in the documentary that Hall introduced Ogrod to another prisoner, Jay Wolchansky, and worked with police and prosecutors to feed Wolchansky information to implicate Ogrod in the murder. Wolchansky then testified against Ogrod in his second trial, claiming that Ogrod had confessed. Phyllis Hall says her husband “would get some of the truth and he would sit in his cell and make up stories—and he was darned good at it.” For years, Philadelphia's district attorneys—first Lynne Abraham, who oversaw Ogrod’s prosecution, and later her successor, Seth Williams—fought requests from Ogrod’s lawyers to test DNA evidence that might prove his innocence. While campaigning for District Attorney in 2017, Krasner told Bunch “it is clear that for decades the practice and policy of the District Attorney’s Office has been to win convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself.” When he took office in January 2018, Krasner rankled many entrenched prosecutors by emphasizing a reform agenda that included a willingness to take a look at questionably obtained past convictions. Krasner has not spoken about the specifics of the Ogrod case, but told Bunch, “Four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was murdered. If the wrong person went to death row for it—and I specify that I am saying if—then the person who did murder her walked free.”

NEW PODCAST—Racial Discrimination in Death-Penalty Jury Selection: A Conversation with Steve Bright

Race discrimination exists at every stage of the death-penalty process, says veteran death-penalty and civil-rights lawyer Stephen B. Bright (pictured), but “the most pervasive discrimination that is going on is in jury selection.” In a new Discussions With DPIC podcast, Bright—the former President of the Southern Center for Human Rights who has argued jury discrimination cases three times in the U.S. Supreme Court—calls the “rampant” racial discrimination in jury selection “a matter of grave urgency.” In an interview with DPIC’s Anne Holsinger, Bright speaks about the most recent of those cases, Foster v. Chatman, a Rome, Georgia case in which the Court granted Timothy Foster a new trial as a result of intentional discrimination by prosecutors. New evidence, Bright says, now shows that prosecutors in Columbus, Georgia systematically struck African-American jurors in at least seven other capital cases, including three in which defendants have already been executed. Bright explains how jury-selection notes were critical in proving that prosecutors had unconstitutionally targeted African-American jurors in Foster’s case because of their race. Those notes, he says, allowed defense attorneys to “pull back the cloak of secrecy” that usually shrouds decisions on jury strikes. Jury-selection notes recently uncovered from the files of Columbus prosecutors—including the same prosecutor found to have discriminated against Foster—showed the systemic and long-standing nature of this unconstitutional practice. In 1986, in Batson v. Kentucky, the Supreme Court declared the intentional striking of any juror on the basis of race to be unconstitutional. “Thirty years after [Batson] was decided,” Bright says, “it’s pretty clear that it has failed completely to prevent race discrimination in jury selection.” Batson “doesn’t really have any teeth,” he says, because it permits prosecutors to evade clear inferences of discrimination by providing race-neutral pretextual explanations for striking jurors of color that the trial courts routinely accept. To address the problem, Bright proposes a new legal standard for finding discrimination, moving away from ;a subjective assessment of whether the prosecutor intentionally discriminated to an objective assessment of whether “a reasonable person knowing all of the facts” would think the jurors had been stricken on the basis of race. Increasing the representation of people of color on juries would result in “much more faith in the courts and the integrity of the courts,” Bright says, because trials with all-white juries, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys erode the community’s confidence in the legal system. “People do not think that ... those trials are legitimate, because a big portion of the community has been completely excluded from participating in the judicial process.”

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