Prosecutorial Misconduct

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.”

Utah Prosecutor Drops Death Penalty in Prison Killing After Corrections Officials Withheld Evidence

A Utah judge has excoriated the Utah Department of Corrections for practices he called “sneaky” and “deceitful” and a state prosecutor has dropped the death penalty after learning that state prison officials had withheld nearly 1,600 pages of prison records from a defendant facing capital charges in a prison killing. Despite a court order to produce all prison records, the department had failed to disclose medical and mental health records detailing psychiatric medication Steven Douglas Crutcher (pictured, right) had been receiving in the months before he killed his prison cellmate. On March 28, 2018, following disclosure of the records, Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels (pictured, left) withdrew the state’s notice to seek the death penalty and Judge Wallace Lee sentenced Crutcher to life. Preparing for an April 9 capital sentencing hearing, the defense learned in mid-February that the department had withheld medical and mental health records that Crutcher’s lawyer, Edward Brass, said “went to the heart” of the defense’s case. Brass alerted Daniels to the prison’s violation of the court order and Daniels, saying he was “irate” about the prison's misconduct, withdrew the death penalty from the case. “I hold myself to the highest ethical standard,” he said, “and any withholding of information is an affront to justice. The whole concept of justice is that you put all the evidence, all the cards on the table, and if you go where the evidence leads you, it’s a just result.” “This could have been a disaster,” Brass told reporters. “If it wasn’t for the integrity of the county attorney, it would have been a disaster.” Judge Lee said he was “beyond angry” over the department’s behavior. “This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections,” he said. In a statement, the department blamed its failure to produce the records on a “misinterpretation” of Judge Lee’s October order, but defense lawyers said medical doctors at the prison had been so difficult to work with that one doctor even refused to tell them what medical school he had attended. The judge questioned how the department could have misunderstood an order that had directed it to produce Crutcher’s “entire file,” including all mental health records. “That is something I would expect from Russia or North Korea, not a society like we have under the Constitution,” Lee said. “It’s got to stop. I’ve worried that if it’s happened in this case, it’s happening in other cases out there.” A prison spokesperson told the media that the department has retrained its clinical services records staff on responding to court orders and records requests and has started reviewing other cases to determine whether court orders had been responded to appropriately. Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers executive director Stewart Gollan said the department also has been uncooperative in releasing prisoners’ medical records in civil rights cases.

Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence of William Montgomery

Ohio Governor John Kasich has commuted the death sentence of 52-year-old William Montgomery (pictured) to life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery was scheduled to be executed on April 11. The one-page proclamation granting clemency (pictured right, click to enlarge) did not specify the grounds for Kasich's action and was not accompanied by a news release or statement to the media. The order, issued March 26, stated simply, "after consideration of all relevant factors, I ... have concluded that a commutation of the death sentence of William T.  Montgomery is warranted." Faced with issues of prosecutorial misconduct and questionable forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 on March 16, 2018 to recommend that Kasich grant executive clemency to Montgomery, who was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he maintains he did not commit. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates opposed Montgomery's clemency application. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned Montgomery's conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined the state's version of how the crime occurred, but the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction in 2009, with five judges dissenting. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors in the case withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Debra Ogle, one of the women Montomgery was found guilty of murdering, alive four days after the date prosecutors said Montgomery had killed her and left her body in the woods. An independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard, told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory, and instead of facing the death penalty, he was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. The clemency grant was the sixth time Kasich had commuted a death sentence to life without parole. It was the second time a governor commuted a death sentence in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted Thomas "Bart" Whitaker's sentence on February 22, less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed. There have been 287 grants of clemency to death-row prisoners in the United States on humanitarian grounds since 1976. Ohio governors have granted clemency to death-row prisoners twenty times in that time period.

Jury Notes Show Georgia Prosecutors Empaneled White Juries to Try Black Death-Penalty Defendants

New court filings argue that Columbus, Georgia prosecutors had a pattern and practice of systematically striking black prospective jurors because of their race, discriminatorily empanelling all- or nearly-all-white juries to try black defendants on trial for their lives in capital murder cases. In a supplemental motion seeking a new trial for Johnny Gates (pictured)—a black man sentenced to death by an all-white jury in 1977 for the rape and murder of a white woman—lawyers from the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Innocence Project presented evidence from seven capital trials involving his trial prosecutors, showing that they carefully tracked the race of jurors, struck every black juror they could, and repeatedly wrote derogatory comments about blacks and black prospective jurors. “Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” said Patrick Mulvaney, managing attorney for capital litigation at the Southern Center. “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of race discrimination.” Jury selection notes from the seven cases contain “W”s next to the name of each white juror and “N”s next to the names of the black jurors, and variously describe black jurors as “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “cocky,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.” They say one white male would be “a top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that works for his construction co.” Prosecutors also kept racial tallies of the empaneled jurors, with twelve marks in the white column and none in the black column. In Gates' case, prosecutors rated jurors on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most favored, and ranked every black juror a “1.” The only white juror ranked a “1” had said he was opposed to the death penalty. The Muscogee County District Attorney’s Office’s office repeatedly refused to disclose the jury notes to Gates’s lawyers until the trial court issued an order in February directing them to do so. The notes were never disclosed to the defendants in the other cases, three of whom—Jerome Bowden, Joseph Mulligan, and William Hance—Georgia has already executed. Gates was prosecuted by Douglas Pullen and William Smith. Pullen prosecuted five capital trials involving black defendants between 1975 and 1979, striking all 27 black prospective jurors and successfully empaneling five all-white juries. A decade later, he prosecuted Timothy Foster, another black defendant sentenced to death by all-white Columbus jury for strangling an elderly white woman. Foster's lawyers subsequently discovered jury selection notes that documented similar discriminatory practices in his case, and in May 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated Foster’s conviction saying that “the focus on race in the prosecution’s file plainly demonstrates a concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.” Gates’s second prosecutor, Smith, was one of the prosecutors in four capital trials of black defendants between 1975 and 1979. In three of those case, prosecutors struck all of the black prospective jurors. In the fourth, Gates’s motion says, prosecutors struck ten black prospective jurors, but could not empanel an an all-white jury “because the final pool of prospective jurors had more black citizens than the prosecution had strikes.” Gates was taken off death row in 2003 because of intellectual disability. He is also challenging his conviction on grounds of innocence and arguing that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence in the case. Blood found at the scene was a different blood type than both Gates and the victim and DNA testing of implements used to restrain the victim did not match Gates. After interrogation by police, Gates gave a taped confession that was inconsistent with the physical evidence. A different confession, given earlier by a white man caught fondling the victim’s body in the funeral home, more accurately described the crime scene. The next court hearing in the case is scheduled for May 7.

Ohio Parole Board Recommends Clemency for Death-Row Prisoner William Montgomery

Faced with doubts about prosecutorial misconduct and the accuracy of forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board has recommended that Governor John Kasich grant executive clemency to William T. Montgomery (pictured), scheduled to be executed on April 11. Montgomery was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he has long maintained he did not commit. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned his conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined its version of how the crime occurred, but with five judges dissenting, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors argued at trial that Montgomery murdered Debra Ogle and then killed her roommate, Cynthia Tincher to prevent her from testifying against him, then dumped Ms. Ogle's body in the woods where it was not discovered for four days. However, prosecutors withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Ms. Ogle alive four days after she supposedly had been killed and an independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ms. Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. The report noted that a body left in the woods for four days in above-freezing temperatures would have shown signs of decomposition, insect infestation, and animal predation, none of which were present, and the body's state of lividity indicated death had occurred within twelve hours of its discovery. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory and, instead of facing the death penalty, was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. Montgomery’s lawyers also presented the parole board with affidavits that undermined its confidence in the jury verdict, including one from a juror who was confused as to what the law required, another from a juror who had doubts about Montgomery’s guilt, and a third juror whose psychiatric behavior raised questions about her ability to serve. The Board majority cited both the State’s failure to disclose the witness reports that Ms. Ogle was alive after the State claimed she had been killed and the jurors’ affidavits as reasons for recommending commutation. Four Board members opposed commutation, arguing that the information presented was insufficient to overturn the jury verdict and finding no “manifest injustice” in the case that they believed warranted clemency. In an op-ed in the Toledo Blade, Phyllis Crocker, Dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law and a former member of the Ohio Supreme Court Joint Task on the Administration of Ohio’s Death Penalty, wrote: "At best, Montgomery was convicted on a false set of facts and at worst, he may be actually innocent. In death penalty cases there must be no doubt whatsoever. There is too much doubt to allow this execution." Montgomery's lawyer, Jon Oebker, reiterated that his client's assertion of innocence and said the defense plans to "explore every avenue we can." Governor Kasich must issue a decision on the pardons board's recommendation before the April 11 execution date.

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