Prosecutorial Misconduct

Bo Cochran, Acquitted in 1997 After 19 Years on Alabama's Death Row, Dies at 73

James Willie "Bo" Cochran, who spent 19 years on Alabama's death row for a killing he did not commit, has died at age 73. His lawyer, Richard Jaffe, said that Mr. Cochran and his case "are reasons why the death penalty does not work. He did not kill anyone, was wrongfully convicted and found innocent because he had lawyers that took up his cause."  Mr. Cochran, who is black, was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store clerk. His jury, which was composed of 11 white and one black jurors, had been told that the victim had followed Cochran out of the store after a robbery and that, after police had arrived on the scene, Cochran shot the clerk, leaving his body under a trailer in a nearby mobile home. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual murder. Cochran was arrested nearby with a gun that had not been fired. Cochran won a new trial after proving that prosecutors unconstitutionally removed black jurors from his case on the basis of race. He presented testimony from former prosecutors that the DA's office had a pattern of striking black jurors, had a philosophy that prospective black jurors "were anti-police, anti-establishment and should not be left on juries, if at all possible,” and that race was a factor in these strikes, "particularly where you had a white victim and a black defendant․" On retrial, Cochran was acquitted after presenting evidence that the victim had been accidentally shot by two officers responding to the robbery, who then panicked and moved the body under the trailer, where it was discovered by other officers. After Cochran's acquittal, he and Jaffe made frequent appearances to talk about the case. Jaffe described Cochran as "never bitter, always grateful." He called Cochran's life "a story of redemption and forgiveness," exemplifying the lesson that "We can be forgiving, no matter what happens to us. He truly touched a lot of lives. We loved Bo. He'll be missed." 

Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

Fair Punishment Project Issues Report on Deadliest Prosecutors

A new report by Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project has found that a small number of overzealous prosecutors with high rates of misconduct have a hugely disproportionate impact on the death penalty in the United States. The report, "America's Top Five Deadliest Prosecutors: How Overzealous Personalities Drive the Death Penalty," shows that, by themselves, these prosecutors are responsible for more than 440 death sentences, the equivalent of 15% of the entire U.S. death row population today. Exploring what it calls "the problem of personality-driven capital sentencing," the report details the effects of Joe Freeman Britt of Robeson County, North Carolina; Robert Macy of Oklahoma County, Oklahoma; Donald Myers of the 11th Judicial District of South Carolina; Lynne Abraham of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Johnny Holmes of Harris County, Texas. Britt, Macy, and Myers personally prosecuted a combined 131 cases that resulted in death sentences, while Abraham and Holmes oversaw offices that the report says imposed 108 and 201 death sentences, respectively. They also disproportionately sent innocent people to death row, prosecuting 1 out of 20 of the nation's death-row exonerees. The report found similar patterns involving these prosecutors, including high rates of prosecutorial misconduct, statements and actions that revealed a win-at-all-costs mentality, and a sharp decrease in death sentences once they and their proteges left office. Britt, Macy, and Myers were found to have committed misconduct in one-third to 46% of the death penalty cases they prosecuted. Prosecutors in Abraham's and Holmes' offices were found to have engaged in misconduct, including racially-biased jury selection and failures to disclose favorable evidence. Of the five prosecutors profiled in the report, only Myers—who is not seeking re-election—is still in office. After the other four prosecutors left office, the number of death sentences has declined significantly. Robeson County has imposed two death sentences in the last 10 years, Oklahoma County and Philadelphia County have each imposed three in six years, and Harris County dropped from an average of 12 death sentences a year during Holmes' last decade as prosecutor to one a year since 2008.

U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

Former Louisiana Chief Justice Asks Supreme Court to Review Case Presenting "Endemic" Prosecutorial Misconduct

Pascal Calogero (pictured), former associate and chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, has called upon the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of David Brown, a Louisiana death row prisoner who is challenging his sentence on the grounds that prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence. Brown says prosecutors violated the Supreme Court's ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which requires disclosure of evidence that would be favorable to a defendant, whether relating to his guilt or in reaching a sentencing decision. In Brown's case, prosecutors had known for months that one of his co-defendants had confessed to having committed the killing with the help of a third co-defendant. They nonetheless withheld the confession from the defense, undermining Brown's claim that he was not the killer and that the victim was still alive the last time Brown had seen him. The evidence withheld in Brown's case is strikingly similar to the evidence presented to the Supreme Court in Brady itself—a co-defendant's admission that he, and not the defendant, was the actual killer. Nevertheless, the Louisiana Supreme Court said the withheld evidence would not have been favorable to Brown and ruled that no constitutional violation had occurred. "Brady issues are and have been, for decades, an endemic and persistent problem in Louisiana courts in both capital and noncapital cases," Calogero wrote in an op-ed in The National Law Journal. "The Louisiana Supreme Court had a chance to address this in Brown, but instead, once again, neglected to do so." The Open File, a website devoted to prosecutorial accountability, said that "Louisiana has a uniquely sordid history when it comes to prosecutorial misconduct." The Supreme Court has overturned three Louisiana death penalty cases for withholding exculpatory evidence, including the case of Michael Wearry earlier this year, and police or prosecutorial misconduct has been a factor in all ten Louisiana death-row exonerations to date. In addition, The Open File reported that the state court's rejection of Brown's Brady claim has "perversely ... undercut" the state's process for attorney discipline. Although it is undisputed that the prosecutors knew about and withheld evidence of the co-defendant's confession, the Louisiana Office of Disciplinary Counsel was unable to disclipline the prosecutors involved because the state court had ruled that the confession was not "favorable" evidence and the so the failure to disclose it could not be considered a violation of state ethical rules. The Court is scheduled to conference on June 16 on whether to accept Brown's case for review.

Texas Judge Dismisses Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate

A judge dismissed murder charges against former Texas death row prisoner Kerry Max Cook on June 6, after prosecutors conceded that his due process rights had been violated by the presentation of false testimony from an alternative suspect. The decision moves Cook one step closer to exoneration, nearly 40 years after he was originally convicted and sentenced to death for the 1977 murder of Linda Jo Edwards. Smith County prosecutors tried Cook three times, twice winning convictions and death sentences. After Smith's second trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors withheld evidence and misrepresented a deal they had made with a jailhouse informant who falsely testified in the third trial that Cook had confessed to him. An appeals court overturned that conviction and death sentence for what it called “pervasive” and “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct. To avoid a fourth capital trial in 1999, Cook pled no contest to reduced charges and was released from prison. He continued to maintain his innocence. Prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges against Cook after an alternate suspect in the case, James Mayfield—who had been granted complete immunity from prosecution—admitted that he had lied during Cook's trials. Mayfield, who had an extramarital affair with Edwards, had testified at the trials that he had not had sex with Edwards for weeks before her murder. However, several DNA tests identified semen in Edwards' underwear as Mayfield's, not Cook's. In a deposition in April, Mayfield testified that, in fact, he had sex with Edwards the day before she was killed. That admission also shed new light on the trial testimony of Edwards' roommate, who initially identified Mayfield as the man she saw in the apartment the night of the murder, but later changed her story to implicate Cook. Mark McPeak, who represented Cook during an earlier stage of his case, described his prior trials as "the quintessential railroading." Texas Defender Services executive director Kathryn Kase said: "It is long past time for the state of Texas to admit that it got the wrong man and that it prosecuted the wrong man repeatedly and sought the death penalty against the wrong man repeatedly." Cook continues to pursue a declaration of "actual innocence" that would make him eligible for more than $3 million in compensation from the state of Texas for the two decades he was wrongfully incarcerated on death row. The trial court is expected to rule on that claim later this month and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will then review the dismissal of charges.

Finding Prosecutorial Misconduct, Alabama Courts Grant Relief from Two Capital Convictions

In one week, courts in unrelated cases have granted relief to two Alabama death row inmates because of prosecutorial misconduct. On March 11, Alabama Circuit Judge Robert Smith dismissed capital charges against ex-state trooper George Martin and barred his retrial because of the prosecution's "willful misconduct." Martin had been convicted for allegedly murdering his wife in a car fire. In 2000, jurors recommended that Martin be sentenced to life, but the trial judge overrode their recommendation and imposed a death sentence. In that trial, the prosecution asserted that Martin had burned his wife alive, but suppressed a witness's statement that she kept a can of gas in her car. It also willfully withheld evidence that it had shown photos of every black trooper from Mobile County to a white witness who had seen a "large black man" in a trooper's uniform in the vicinity of the car, and that the witness not only had not identified Martin (who is 5'6"), but had selected the picture of a different trooper. Judge Smith wrote, "If the Martin case is not one which is appropriate for dismissal, there may never be one....The affirmative use by the prosecutors of partial truths and untruths with knowledge," he wrote, constituted "willful misconduct." One week later, on March 18, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Derek Horton because the prosecution had improperly attempted "[t]o buttress its weak case" against Horton for the murder of a woman in a burglarized mobile home by presenting evidence of his past drug use and of an investigation against him for domestic violence. The court said this evidence of bad character was "superfluous to the State's case" and "served no purpose other than to paint Horton as a drug-using, drug-dealing criminal who had a propensity to commit violent crimes against women." The court found the use of this evidence especially prejudicial because the state had "produced no witnesses or direct evidence placing Horton at [the victim]'s mobile home at the time of the crime" and his fingerprints were not found on any of the murder weapon or any of the items taken from the mobile home or strewn about the highway in the vicinity of the location in which the victim's stolen car had been abandoned.

American Bar Association Urges Reprieve to Allow Full Investigation of Kevin Cooper's Innocence Claims

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown has sent a letter to California Govenor Jerry Brown urging him to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Kevin Cooper to permit a full investigation of Cooper's possible innocence. The ABA President wrote: "Mr. Cooper’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system. We therefore believe that justice requires that Mr. Cooper be granted an executive reprieve until the investigation necessary to fully evaluate his guilt or innocence is completed." The ABA letter described Cooper's case as "a particularly unique example of a criminal justice system falling short at every stage" and referenced a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Cooper’s conviction and sentence violated his human rights. Cooper has exhausted all appeals in his case, but evidence that was previously suppressed as a result of official misconduct raises questions about his guilt. New evidence includes a statement by the surviving victim that the perpetrators were white or Hispanic (Cooper is black); police destruction of a pair of blood-spattered overalls before testing could take place; and unreliable forensic testing that may indicate evidence contamination. In 2009, five judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissented from the court's decision to uphold Cooper's conviction, writing, "The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man." The ABA letter agrees, asking Gov. Brown to use his clemency power to review the case: "We request that you grant this reprieve and order a meaningful investigation into Mr. Cooper’s case to prevent the possibility of a miscarriage of justice—one that can never be undone."

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