Prosecutorial Misconduct

Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct, but Allows Colorado Death Sentence to Stand

An Arapahoe County judge has denied the appeal of Colorado death-row prisoner Sir Mario Owens (pictured), despite finding that prosecutors withheld evidence and failed to disclose money, gifts, and favors they provided informants in exchange for their testimony. In a 1,343-page Order and Opinion issued on September 14, Senior Judge Christopher Munch found that county prosecutors had presented false evidence from two of their most critical witnesses and unconstitutionally withheld more than 20 separate pieces of evidence that could have helped the defense challenge the testimony of seven prosecution witnesses, but said a defendant "must establish more than helpfulness to sustain a claim of constitutional error." The ruling followed the controversial removal from the case of Senior Judge Gerald Rafferty, as the judge was preparing his decision after having presided over the case for more than a decade. Rafferty had ordered the prosecution to produce hundreds of pages of records and granted 37 weeks of hearings on what he had characterized as prosecutors’ “deliberate choice” to withhold evidence from the defense. Owens was sentenced to death in June 2008 for the 2005 shooting death of Javad Marshall-Fields (the son of a Colarado state representative) and Fields's fiancé, Vivian Wolfe. A co-defendant, Robert Ray, was separately tried and sentenced to death. The case against Owens was largely circumstantial. As described by news reports in The Colorado Independent, there was "no definitive physical evidence, no confession, and no eyewitnesses who identified Owens in a case prosecutors built almost entirely on the testimony of informant witnesses to whom the DA’s office gave plea bargains, funds, or both in return for their cooperation against Owens."  Owens alleged that the prosecution had withheld evidence from the defense that they had secured the testimony of cooperating informants by making thousands of dollars of cash payments and providing undisclosed favors in unrelated criminal cases. The Denver Post reported that one witness had been "promised and later given a district attorney’s office car" and another "received $3,400 in benefits, including cash for Christmas presents in the months prior to testifying on behalf of the prosecution." The Colorado Independent's review of court records reported that "one of the main witnesses [had been] threatened with being charged for the murders Owens was accused of and with receiving two life sentences" if he didn’t cooperate. Another witness had been granted an undisclosed suspended jail sentence conditioned upon cooperating with prosecutors in Owens’s case. "People working for the prosecution would appear at informant witnesses’ court hearings and ask for lesser sentences on the condition that they testify against Owens," the paper wrote, and "informants who had been convicted of crimes were allowed to violate probation and commit future crimes without consequences as long as they cooperated." Owens's appeal has attracted attention because it was the first in Colorado's "unitary review" process that had been billed as speeding up capital appeals. Instead, it has substantially increased the length of appeals. It also raised questions of transparency because of the extraordinary levels of secrecy throughout the proceedings. Court files were sealed and a gag order prevented the parties from speaking about the case for seven years, until the order was lifted in 2013. Numerous case exhibits remain under seal. Owens's lawyers issued a written statement saying “We disagree with the court’s conclusion that none of this matters and can be tolerated in Colorado in any case, never mind a capital one. This is a sad day for ... the Colorado criminal justice system.”

Capitally Charged, Alabama Man Imprisoned 10 Years Without Trial

In a racially charged case raising questions of prosecutorial overcharging, inadequate representation, and questionable jury practices, Kharon Davis (pictured), an African-American man charged with capital murder in Dothan, Alabama, has been imprisoned for 10 years without trial. Davis—who has consistently maintained his innocence and whose prior offense was driving without a license—was 22 years old when he and two others were arrested for the shooting death of a man from whom they were purchasing marijuana. After refusing a plea deal, Davis’s case has gone through two judges, three prosecutors, four sets of defense lawyers, and nine scheduled trial dates, and he has been placed in segregation in the county jail for minor infractions, faced restrictions on his ability to review legal documents, and been denied visits by his mother. A New York Times report described the pre-trial delays as “among the most protracted” the paper could find, and George Washington University law professor and constitutional consultant Jonathan Turley said “It is impossible to look at [the case] and not find it deeply, deeply troubling.” Houston County’s District Attorney Doug Valeska’s decision to seek the death penalty reignited questions of the county’s overuse of the death penalty. Despite a population of only 103,000, its 17-person death row makes Houston County one of the most prolific death-sentencing counties in the country. The county’s prosecutorial and law enforcement practices have also come under scrutiny: a number of capital cases have been overturned for racially biased jury selection, presenting improper evidence, and improper comments to juries. In 2015, Valeska also was accused of covering up evidence that a group of Dothan police officers with ties to white supremacist groups had been planting drugs on young black men. Davis’s case has been rife with questionable activity. His first lawyer, Benjamin Meredith, was the father of one of the investigating officers in the case and cross-examined his son in the preliminary hearing. That conflict was not disclosed for four years, after a new judge was appointed in the case, when Valeska brought it to the attention of the court. In those four years, Meredith had filed only two motions on Davis’s behalf. In that same time, Davis’s co-defendant, Lorenzo Staley, who told police where to find the gun used in the murder, went to trial in 2009 and was acquitted. A second co-defendant, Kevin McCloud—a childhood friend of Davis’s who had no criminal record—had pled guilty and agreed to testify against Davis to avoid the death penalty, although McCloud later said in a letter that Valeska had asked him to “get on the stand and lie” about Davis’s involvement in the case. The case was further delayed when, looking through the court record of Staley’s trial, new defense counsel discovered a gunshot residue kit that prosecutors had failed to disclose. A new district attorney who had once represented one of the co-defendants was elected in February 2017, requiring the case to be transferred to the attorney general’s office. At that point, the prosecution dropped the death penalty from the case. Finally, on September 19, the trial was again held up amid allegations that some members of the newly empaneled jury of 11 whites and one black may have had improper contact with people connected to the case.

STUDY: Worst Crimes Carry Highest Risk of Bad Evidence, Wrongful Convictions

Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders. 

Divided Pennsylvania Court Upholds New Sentencing Hearing in Judicial Bias Case Overturned by U.S. Supreme Court

In a case that led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on judicial bias, a divided Pennsylvania Supreme Court on August 22 upheld a lower court's order overturning the death penalty imposed on Terrance Williams (pictured) for the murder of a Philadelphia church deacon. The court split 2-2 on the outcome of a new appeal that had been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court after former Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille—who had personally authorized seeking the death penalty against Williams—participated as a state supreme court justice in deciding a 2014 appeal that reinstated the death penalty against Williams. Under court rules, the tie vote left in place a 2012 decision by a Philadelphia trial court judge that had granted Williams a new penalty hearing. Three other justices who had participated with former Justice Castille in deciding the 2014 appeal recused themselves from the new appeal. In 1984, Williams—then barely 18 years old—killed Amos Norwood, who Williams alleges had been sexually abusing him for years. The teen never met his defense lawyer until shortly before the trial and did not confide in him that he had been sexually abused. Instead, Williams testified that he was innocent and had never met Norwood. With Williams facing an execution warrant in 2012, the state's lead witness, Marc Draper—a childhood friend of Williams and a co-defendant in the case—came forward and admitted that prosecutors had instructed him to be silent about the sexual abuse and to testify that the murder had been part of a robbery. Williams filed a petition for clemency that drew support from Norwood’s widow, five of the jurors in the case, and advocates against child abuse. Three of the five members of the Pardons Board—including the state attorney general—voted in favor of clemency, but Pennsylvania law requires a unanimous vote before the governor has authority to commute a death sentence. Days before the scheduled execution, Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ordered the prosecution to turn over its files to her to determine whether they contained any evidence that should have been disclosed to the defense. The files contained evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from Draper; withheld evidence that it had given him favorable treatment for his testimony; suppressed evidence that Norwood had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that Norwood had been simply a "kind man" and "innocent" good Samaritan who had been murdered after offering Williams a ride home. Judge Sarmina upheld Williams' conviction, but ruled that the combination of the government's suppression of exculpatory evidence and deliberate false argument to the jury denied Williams a fair sentencing decision. Williams was facing a new execution date when Governor Tom Wolf issued a reprieve and imposed a moratorium on executions in February 2015. The Philadelphia District Attorney's office challenged the governor's use of the reprieve power, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Williams's favor in December 2015.  Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Williams's judicial bias claim. The case now returns to Judge Sarmina for resentencing proceedings. Williams’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, who heads the Philadelphia federal defender's capital habeas unit, thanked the court for its decision and urged the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to drop the death penalty in the case. “[T]hey should never have sought death against a teenager who killed his sexual abuser,” Nolan said.

Taken Off Death Row in 2014, Intellectually Disabled South Carolina Man Now Gets New Trial

South Carolina prosecutors announced on July 25 that they would not appeal a trial court ruling, granting a new, non-capital trial to former death-row prisoner Kenneth Simmons (pictured). Finding that prosecutors had presented false DNA testimony that "severely deprived" Simmons of his due process rights, a Dorchester County Circuit Judge overturned Simmons's conviction. Simmons had been sentenced to death for the 1996 sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman based on false and misleading DNA testimony that purported to link him to the murder and a confession obtained under questionable circumstances. Simmons's death sentence was vacated in 2014 and replaced with a life sentence after the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that he has Intellectual Disability. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins vVirginia that applying the death penalty to persons with Intellectual Disability violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Prosecutors had initially asked Judge Doyet A. Early III to alter his 2016 decision granting Simmons a new trial. On June 23, he declined, reaffirming his finding that the prosecution's "misrepresentation of the strength of the DNA evidence to the jury" was "overwhelming," given that the confession had been extracted from "an intellectually disabled man, after multiple non-recorded interrogations, [who] had falsely confessed to other crimes before confessing to the murder." Judge Early wrote that the prosecution had presented the jury with "confusing, misleading, and inaccurate" information about the DNA evidence, including showing the jury a chart that contained fabricated DNA results, using the chart to make additional incorrect claims about the DNA evidence during closing arguments, and falsely arguing that Simmons was the only possible source of the DNA. During state post-conviction proceedings, the state's forensic witness recanted her testimony about the DNA, and the court found that her trial testimony "had no evidentiary value in identifying" Simmons. Simmons's efforts to obtain a new trial drew support from The Innocence Network and advocacy groups for people with disabilities, which stressed the increased risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction in cases with intellectually disabled defendants. In 2000, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentence imposed on another intellectually disabled death-row prisoner, Earl Washington, who had falsely confessed to a rape and murder after DNA testing suggested he had not committed the offenses. Governor Jim Gilmore later granted Wahington a complete pardon after additional DNA testing excluded him as the rapist. In 2014, two intellectually disabled brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, three decades after having been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Both had been subjected to coercive interrogations and said they were unaware they were signing a confession.

Report Finds High Levels of Misconduct in Four Top Death Sentencing Counties

Four counties that rank among the most aggressive users of capital punishment in the United States have prolonged patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, according to a new report by the Harvard-based Fair Punishment Project. The report, "The Recidivists: Four Prosecutors Who Repeatedly Violate the Constitution," examined state appellate court decisions in California, Louisiana, Missouri, and Tennessee from 2010-2015, and found that prosecutors in Orange County, CAOrleans Parish, LASt. Louis City, MO; and Shelby County, TN—all of which currently face allegations of significant misconduct—ranked among the most prolific perpetrators of misconduct in their respective states. Orange and Shelby counties ranked 7th and 13th among the 2% of counties responsible for a majority of death-row prisoners in the U.S. as of January 2013, each having more individuals on their death rows than 99.5% of all counties in the country. In the midst of a scandal on an illegal, multi-decade practice of placing informants next to targeted prisoners to attempt to extract confessions from them, Orange County imposed more death sentences from 2010-2015 than all but five other U.S. counties. St. Louis City ranked 10th in executions from 1976-2012, and Orleans Parish has long been known for its prosecutors' failures to disclose exculpatory evidence to capital defendants, including three cases that have been the subjects of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. The statewide misconduct rankings produced by the Fair Punishment Project show that these counties are outliers not only in their heavy use of the death penalty, but also in their patterns of prosecutorial misconduct. Among the types of misconduct found by appellate courts were withholding exculpatory evidence, improper arguments at trial, and hiding deals and favorable treatment offered to informants in exchange for their testimony. In one case from St. Louis, prosecutors: suppressed evidence in the death-penalty trial of Reginald Clemons that would have supported Clemons' claim that he confessed only after having been beaten by police; never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator; and presented testimony in a co-defendant's trial that another person had committed acts attributed to Clemons at his trial. Longtime prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. also advised police officers to omit certain observations that were initially included in their reports. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, but was awarded a new trial—scheduled for 2018—because of this misconduct.

Sheriff Admits Improper "Activity" in Orange County, California Snitch Scandal

Orange County, California Sheriff Sandra Hutchens appeared before Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals (pictured) on July 5 to explain her department's 4-1/2-year failure to comply with court orders directing the department to produce documents related to a multi-decade practice in the county of misusing prison informants to illegally obtain incriminating statements from accused defendants. In May 2015, Judge Goethals barred the entire Orange County District Attorney's office from participating in the sentencing of Scott Dekraai—who has pleaded guilty to eight killings in a Seal Beach salon in 2011—for withholding evidence about the informant program and lying about its existence. Hutchens—who was appointed sheriff in 2008 following the conviction of the prior sheriff on corruption charges—denied that her office had systemically housed informants with targeted defendants, calling the description of the office's practice “a matter of semantics." “There is no program, per se,” she said. “There is activity.” Deflecting responsibility for the illegal questioning of defendants by informants and the destruction of logs describing the informant program, Hutchens said “There may have been a few deputies who took their duties to different levels than were authorized.” She explained her department's failure to turn over documents whose production had been ordered by the court by saying of her subordinates, “They possibly did not look hard enough.” Hutchens testimony came a week after Sheriff's Deputy Jonathan Larson testified that officers in the Sheriff's Department's Special Handling Unit had been tasked with developing snitches and intentionally placing them near pretrial prisoners to obtain confessions. Larson said he had "assumed" the practice was allowable because it was "approved by our sergeants and lieutenants." Larson also testified that he was certain he had made entries in the Special Handling Unit's log during a four-month period in 2011 that is now missing from the record. Lieutenant Mike McHenry had previously testified that perhaps all of the deputies in the unit simply forgot to make entries during that period. Orange County was one of the 6 most prolific producers of death sentences in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015, a period included in Judge Goethals' investigation into misconduct by the Sheriff's Office and the District Attorney's Office. The sentencing of Dekraai, which brought the informant scandal to light, is now being handled by the California Attorney General's Office, which intends to continue pursuing the death penalty. Bethany Webb, whose sister, Laura Webb-Elody, was allegedly killed by Dekraai, wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times opposing the death penalty in the case. "Over and over again, the authorities have tried to bring families closure through the death penalty, but have succeeded only in keeping old wounds open," she wrote. "Through these painful years, it’s become clear that personal and political ambition have so corrupted the death penalty process that it does not serve us, nor does it serve the interests of justice."

Las Vegas Prosecutor Who Obtained Wrongful Capital Conviction Engaged in Pattern of Misconduct

A Las Vegas, Nevada, judge—who, as a prosecutor, committed misconduct in several death-penalty trials—now faces judicial misconduct charges arising out of another murder case in which a defendant he prosecuted has been granted a hearing to prove her innocence. The Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline has charged Bill Kephart (pictured) with several violations of the judicial code of conduct for giving a media interview about his controversial 2002 prosecution of Kirstin Lobato that the Commission alleges "could affect the outcome or impair the fairness of Miss Lobato's case." Kephart denies the charges. Kephart previously withheld exculpatory evidence from defendant Fred Steese in a 1994 capital trial and went on to commit misconduct in at least five other cases before being elected to serve as a judge on the Eighth Judicial District Court of Nevada in 2014.  A pair of articles co-published by ProPublica and Vanity Fair details the story of Steese's wrongful prosecution and what it calls Kephart's "long history of prosecutorial misconduct." In 1994, Kephart led the high-profile prosecution of Steese for the murder of a highly celebrated circus performer, Gerald Soules. After a five-hour interrogation by Las Vegas police and more than 35 hours without sleep, Steese signed a confession to Soules' murder, despite having been in Idaho when the murder occurred. Steese presented 14 alibi witnesses, but Kephart argued to the jury—with no supporting evidence—that Steese's brother had posed as him in Idaho while Steese committed the murder in Nevada. Kephart also presented misleading identification testimony and baselessly accused the defense of doctoring evidence. After Steese was convicted, prosecutors dropped the death penalty and Steese was sentenced to life. Steese's lawyer subsequently learned that prosecutors had unconstitutionally withheld phone records showing Steese was in fact in Idaho at the time of the murder. Nearly 20 years later, a judge handed down an Order Regarding Actual Innocence in Steese's case, and Steese was released in 2013. By then, Kephart had been cited for misconduct in five other cases, including a 1997 capital murder trial in which he made "deliberate" and "improper comments" and a 2008 death penalty trial in which the misconduct was characterized as "significant."  Despite the reprimands, he was elected as a justice of the peace in 2010 and became a District Court judge in 2014.

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