Wrongful Convictions in Houston Caused by Bad Forensics

May 6, 2009

Now it’s the turn of Houston to develop a rash of wrongful convictions.  Gary Alvin Richard is expected to be released any day due to errors from the Houston crime lab.  He has spent 22 years in prison for a rape. The conviction for that rape was based upon forensic tests which now indicate he did not commit the crime.

Richard is the latest case to discredit the Houston Police Department crime lab.  Richard , if ultimately cleared of this crime, would be the fourth person whose conviction was overturned because of faulty forensics from the lab.

Both prosecutors and Richard’s defense lawyers agree that Richard should be freed on bail, but prosecutors are not convinced Richard is innocent of the crime. Prosecutors agree that the new lab results contradict the findings that were used to convict Richard at trial, but prosecutors maintain they do not know Richard is innocent of the rape.  Gary Alvin Richard’s lawyer, Bob Wicoff, claims the new tests prove his client’s innocence.

Other problems in the Houston lab have prompted a review of past cases.  A review was undertaken of more than 150 cases involving questionable blood-typing evidence.  The review showed in Richard’s case that crime lab analysts had conflicting results from their tests but reported only conclusions that pointed toward conviction.  Then they destroyed the physical evidence that was tested, thus eliminating any possibility of DNA testing.

While Richard was in prison, his mother, father and brother died.  His son, nine years old when he entered prison, is now 32 years old with two children.   But Richard himself is philosophical about it all.  Richard not surprisingly had prior convictions, convictions for drug dealing and theft. He said it was “God’s will that he ended up in prison.”  “I probably would have ended up back in prison or dead,” Richard also said in an interview from jail.  “I have gotten a hold of my life. I am not angry.”

Without waiting to pour over any other evidence, without a moments thought about any scintilla of evidence they might use to convict Richard in a retrial, the prosecution ought to dismiss all charges against Richard just for his attitude.

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Cheating Prosecutors May Face Rare Penalties As Conviction is Reversed and Justice Department to be Investigated

April 27, 2009

It is not unheard of for the prosecution to cheat, hide evidence, manufacture evidence and generally manipulate the justice system to achieve injustice.  But in the case of former United States Senator Ted Stevens Republican-Alaska, not only was the ill-gotten criminal conviction dismissed but the Judge has vowed to investigate the Justice Department.  This is rare on both counts, especially for a Judge to pursue sanctions beyond the routine tongue-lashing.

“In nearly 25 years on the bench, I’ve never seen anything approaching the mishandling and misconduct that I’ve seen in this case,” United States District Judge Emmet Sullivan said, as he spoke for 14 minutes with thinly-veiled anger.  The trial of the former Alaska Senator was held in the District of Columbia, where Judge Sullivan sits.   Judge Sullivan appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the Justice Department lawyers who prosecuted Senator Stevens.  They repeatedly withheld evidence from Senator Stevens’ lawyers during the trial.  The trial resulted in Stevens’ conviction last October for lying on federal disclosure forms about gifts and home renovations he received from wealthy friends.  The rules of federal procedure provide for the appointment of a special prosecutor for contempt investigations, but is rarely done.

Judge Sullivan, appointed Henry F. Scheulke III of Washington, D.C., to investigate contempt and obstruction by the Justice Department lawyers.  Mr. Scheulke is a former prosecutor and experienced defense attorney who oversaw a Senate Ethics Committee investigation and influence-peddling allegations in 1989 against former New York Senator Alfonse D’ Amato.  Scheulke will investigate six career lawyers with the Justice Department, including the William Welch, chief, and Brenda Morris, deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section, an elite unit that deals with official corruption.  The other lawyers to be investigated for possible criminal charges are Joseph W. Bottini, James A. Goeke, Nicholas A. Marsh and Edward P. Sullivan (no relation to Judge Sullivan or to Brendan Sullivan, attorney for Senator Stevens).

The judge said the matter was too serious to be left to an internal investigation by the Justice Department, which had dragged its feet, he said, before looking into the misconduct.  He criticized Attorney General Michael Mukasey for not responding to complaints.  The said reaction of the Justice Department was “shocking but not surprising.”  Of course, this is the usual result of charges of misconduct by the prosecution: File 13.  Nothing ever happens, the prosecutors know nothing ever happens, so what disincentive is there not to do again.  It is similar to police who manipulate evidence: they only rarely suffer any penalties for their constant corruption of the justice system.

But Judge Sullivan did not let die the wrongdoing of these prosecutors.  He called on Attorney General Eric Holder, who dismissed Senator Stevens’ conviction on April 1st in recognition of his department’s ill deeds, to retrain all prosecutors in the Justice Department.

Some observers have remarked that, notwithstanding the wrongdoing of the Justice lawyers, there was a healthy amount of evidence incriminating Senator Stevens.  These observers suggest he has not been convicted, but he really doesn’t look innocent of wrongdoing.  Senator Stevens was defeated in his Senate reelection campaign days after the guilty jury verdict in this trial.

Regardless of the guilt or innocence of this Senator or a thousand other accused citizens, if the United States Justice Department, and its elite Public Integrity Section no less, cannot carry out its work in an ethical manner, our system of justice is corrupt.

During the five-week trial, the prosecution lawyers were repeatedly forced to admit they had not turned over materials to the defense.  Judge Sullivan even said then,“How does anyone have any confidence that the Public Integrity Section has any integrity?”  But the judge overruled defense objections, as always happens, and allowed the prosecution’s tainted case to go the jury.  Not surprisingly, the jury found the Senator guilty.  However, the surprise came when Judge Sullivan then threw out the jury verdict.  The still-further surprise came when the Judge gave notice that the wrong-doing prosecutors would not just go home to cheat again in their next trial.  This time they might have to pay some penalty for wrongdoing—for a change and for the better.  It’s about time.


Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals Judge De-frocked, What Goes Around Comes Around

February 20, 2009

When a jury trial results in a conviction, or for any reason one of the parties in a criminal case wants to seek reversal of the trial judge’s decision on a matter, the issue must be taken to and decided by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals. That is the highest court, the court of last resort, for criminal matters in Oklahoma. Oklahoma is one of only two states in which appellate criminal matters are decided by court dedicated to criminal matters. Texas is the other state. In all other states, all issues of last resort are heard by the same court as the court that decides civil matters, usually called the state supreme court.

The five members of the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals are appointed by the governor. Every four years of their term, their names appear on the retention ballot for decision by the voters. The voters of Oklahoma have never failed to retain a judge on the retention ballot.

For all these reasons, Judge Steve Lile had a job that was secure. He was one of the five judges who sat on the Court of Criminal Appeals. He could rule against every defense lawyer who brought a legal issue to the Court of Criminal Appeals for his decision. He could overrule every motion any lawyer urged on his defendant client’s behalf. He could rubber stamp practically every conviction brought to his court for review, and find no legal merit in any reason to overturn a conviction. And he did.

But then it was his turn.

Steve Lile traveled to attend project conferences, meetings of the Regimented Inmate Discipline (RID) Program offered by the Department of Corrections. He routinely applied for mileage reimbursement for that travel and was paid. But there were no meetings on those dates. Lile was filing false claims to the state so he could visit his illegitimate son, Loran Michael Wilson, in prison. Lile made almost weekly trips between June and October, 2004.

Lile had gotten caught intervening on behalf of his then-loverr, Dawn Lukasik, to get out of drug charges in Lawton. The Lawton District Attorney there dismissed the drug charges for the flimsiest of reasons, obviously as a favor to Lile, and from that incident, the travel claims came to light. Dawn Lukasik is the mother of Loran Michael Wilson, and Lile is his father, Lile later said. Lile had not known Wilson was his son until recently.

When Lile’s behavior came to light a few years ago, Lile resigned rather than fight the efforts of the Attorney General to remove him. Since then, Lile has been a private lawyer, a lawyer representing people accused of crimes, the kind of lawyer for whom Lile had such contempt for so many years.

Now the matter of Lile’s license to practice law has been heard by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. It was an ethical violation for Lile to file those false travel claims, even if he has paid back $1523.64 for false travel claims and paid back $1560.40 for false claims Lukasik made for her personal use under the pretense of using the purchases to remodel Lile’s state judge’s office.

Lile told the Supreme Court that he was regretful and remorseful for his misconduct. He was just not thinking straight, he said. Giving the limpest of possible excuses, Lile urged the Supreme Court to forgive his misconduct, that his conduct merited only a private reprimand.

The Supreme Court found no merit in Lile’s excuses, denials, and minimizations. Lile had sought and accepted an office of the highest responsibility from the sovereign state of Oklahoma. He had taken an oath to follow the law. He should have known better. He betrayed all of these. He does not deserve to practice law in Oklahoma. So decided the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court listened to and considered all of Steve Lile’s arguments. The Court ruled against him, but he received full consideration of his position by the Court. That is all defense lawyers wanted when they appeared before Lile when he was sitting on the bench.


Another Corrupt District Attorney Makes Citizens Pay

January 17, 2009

Harry Connick, then the New Orleans District Attorney, wrongfully convicted a man named John Thompson in 1983. Thompson spent 18 years on death row but eventually was proved to have been wrongfully convicted. Then Thompson sought compensation in federal court for this injustice. The jury awarded Thompson $15 million, but the District Attorney’s Office is now making noises about taking bankruptcy because it cannot pay the judgment.

Harry F. Connick , now deceased, was no stranger to controversy. The father of the well known jazz singer, Harry Connick, Jr. Harry F. Connick had been put on trial in 1990 himself. The then-District Attorney since 1974, was tried in federal court for racketeering by aiding an illegal gambling operation. Connick was accused of returning to the big time gambler, Walton Aucoin, gambling records that had been seized in a 1988 raid. The trial was originally prosecuted by the local U.S. Attorney, who had worked for Connick, John Voltz, who then recused after accusations of his personal bias against Connick. Besides Aucoin, six other defendants included gamblers Wilson Abraham, a New Orleans businessman and customer of Aucoin, who lent Connick $15, 000 in a political campaign and actor Paul Burke, Palms Springs, California. Connick was acquitted, although all the other defendants were convicted.

Nor is the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office a stranger to controversy. In October, 2007, Eddie Jordan, the then-District Attorney resigned from office, pressed by a $3.7 million dollar race discrimination civil rights verdict against his office that threatened to shut down the office. Jordan had already faced criticism for dismissal of high-profile murder cases, mass resignations in the office, and failure to prosecute crimes n a city with the nation’s highest murder rate, especially the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. The race discrimination judgment came from the 2005 federal court case in which the jury found he had, as accused, discriminated against the 43 white employees whom he fired because of their race. Only after Eddie Jordan had resigned from office did state and city officials help pay the $3.7 million judgment. Ultimately, the State of Louisiana agreed to pay $1.6 million, the city of New Orleans agreed to pay $1.1 million, and the District Attorney’s Office pay $600,000 to satisfy the judgment.

Now the facts of the latest verdict against the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office for the wrongful conviction of John Thompson. Thompson had had his execution postponed half a dozen times until it was discovered he did not commit the armed robbery of which he was convicted. Then it was revealed prosecutors at his trial had hidden blood tests that proved he had not committed the robbery. Put on trial again for the murder of Raymond Liuzza, Jr. Thompson at this latter jury trial used all the evidence the District Attorney had hidden from the jury in the original trial, and the jury acquitted him after only a half-hour deliberation.

Now exonerated from having committed the crime yet imprisoned for 18 years by the wrongful acts of the District Attorney’s Office, Thompson filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The jury decided in favor of Thompson and award him $15 million. The present District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, defended that lawsuit and now must come up with a way to pay for it. Cannizzaro did not do himself proud when arguing to the appellate federal court that Thompson did not deserve this $15 million in the trial court. Canizzaro argued to the appellate court that death row wasn’t really all that bad, that Thompson had been allowed all that gotten to watch TV and play chess and all his medical care was taken care of as he waited for execution date after execution date to be re-set.

The appellate court remarked that the District Attorney presented a “misleading, rosy picture” of life on death row. The court knew that Thompson had spent nearly two decades of his life in the Angola prison in a six-by-nine foot cell without windows or air conditioning for 23 hours a day. The court heard evidence describing the prison with screaming out at all hours of the day and night, and with inmates who hurled human excrement and “the stench that permeated” the joint. Thompson received four visits a year from family members, but was otherwise left to himself to contemplate his impending execution. Experts testified that Thompson suffers from post-traumatic stress. No surprise there. So the District Attorney’s Office followed up the railroading of John Thompson with an attempt to cover up the extent of their wrongdoing.

Caught red handed now, with no where else to hid its crimes, the New Orleans District Attorney is now asking the State of Louisiana to grant his office permission to seek Chapter 9 bankruptcy.


Another Innocent Man Convicted

October 7, 2008

Darryl Burton was convicted in 1985 of capital murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole for 50 years. Two weeks ago, he was released from the Jefferson Correctional Center in Missouri. He was released after a judge ruled his 1984 trial was constitutionally flawed.

Burton said he hopes his case will convince the public that this country is jailing innocent people. “I come to prison thinking that is an isolated incident, I’m the only person this has ever happened to,” Burton said. “I thought, justice just don’t goof up like this, not in American justice, or what I term American injustice. But it does happen in more cases than we know.” Burton said he believes there are thousands of other innocent people in U.S. prisons.

Burton, of St. Louis, now 46 years old, was convicted despite the lack of physical evidence or any motive tying him to the fatal gas station shooting in St. Louis in 1984. He was convicted solely on the testimony of two men who claimed they saw the shooting.

One of these witnesses, Claudex Simmons, lied during Burton’s trial, having testified that Simmons had been convicted of a crime only one time. The truth about Simmons’ criminal record was that he had been convicted of at least seven felonies and five misdemeanors. For that reason, for failure to disclosed Simmons’s complete criminal history to the jury, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan ruled that Burton’s conviction was a violation of due process of law, as guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution. In that ruling, Judge Cole gave the prosecution 15 days within which to decide whether to put Burton on trial again. Burton was released when the prosecutors in St. Louis decided not to try Burton again.

When informed of Burton’s release, the warden told Burton the news in person and offered to have Burton driven back to his home in St. Louis. “I told him I’d walk to St. Louis if what you’re saying is for real. It was just surreal. You wait on these days, you wait and wonder and see other cases on the news. For me, I just said ‘my day will come,’” Burton said.

His attorneys and a clergyman who had befriended him drove him to his family in St. Louis. Attorney Cheryl Pilate joined Burton in hoping the case would point out the difficulty of exonerating innocent inmates. Many wrongful convictions are won on ‘snitch’ evidence from criminals seeking deals and weak eyewitness evidence, she said. “His story is dramatic yet all too common,” Pilate said. “There are hundreds if not thousands of people just like him still sitting in prison.”

Burton maintained his innocence from the beginning. He tried to get help. He wrote an estimated 600 to 700 letters and filed numerous appeals on his own. In 2000, his attorneys began working on the case with the help of Centurion Ministries, a national organization that provided investigators and money to help exonerate Burton.

Burton said he is not bitter but said prosecutors should not be allowed to offer “snitches’ deals for testimony. “The system we have in arguably the best country on Earth is locking up its citizens because someone wants to get a conviction,” Burton said. “It becomes a game. And you’re dealing with people’s lives…We can do better than what we have done with our system of justice. We have to.”

This situation definitely points out the inherent problems with informant testimony and certainly a need for vigorous legal defense from an experienced and competent criminal defense lawyer. There are many issues to be concerned with when someone is charged with a crime, which is why I invite anyone in that position to visit my website at http://www.oklahomacriminallawoffice.com to learn all they can to protect their rights.