Prosecutorial, police and expert witness misconduct are a blight on the nation’s adversarial criminal trial process.
The ideal purpose of a criminal trial should be a search for truth and justice, but given the overwhelming competing interests in the outcome of such a trial, a different kind of truth often emerge.
It reminds us of the old rabbi story. The rabbi listens to the husband complaining bitterly about his wife, to which the rabbi replies, “you are right, my son.” The rabbi then listens to the wife’s complaints about the husband, to which the rabbi replies, “you are right, my daughter.” A curious student who has observed the exchanges remarks, “but they can’t both be right,” to which the wise old rabbi replies, “you are right, my son.”
In the context of a criminal trial, famed law professor and criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz applied the rabbi story: “… the prosecution is right when it says it is searching for the truth – a certain kind of truth. The defense is also searching for a certain kind of truth. Yet both are often seeking to obscure the truth for which their opponent is searching.”
Truth Not Always Self Evident in Criminal Courts
That is the true nature of the adversarial criminal trial process. Truth is not always self-evident or clearly defined in the trial arena. The search for truth is often shaped and steered by competing circumstances, perspectives and events—and each, by any reasonable doubt measure, can sometimes be true to a certain extent.
False Testimony Shreds the Constitution
But before a criminal trial gets underway, the truth is not subject to such a flexible interpretation as it is in a courtroom. The truth is the truth is the truth—and when the police conceal evidence of the truth, and prosecutors suppress evidence of the truth, and expert witnesses misrepresent the truth, they have ploughed up the level field upon which a constitutionally fair criminal trial should be played out.
The past several weeks have produced undeniable evidence of the human tragedies that occur when the forces of the State undertake concerted efforts to either conceal or obscure the truth before trial in order to secure convictions of innocent defendants at trial.
Conroe Man Released After 18 Years in Prison
Take for example the case of 41-year-old Neal Hampton Robbins, a Conroe man convicted in Montgomery County for the 1998 suffocation of his girlfriend’s toddler. Hampton was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent nearly 18 years in the Texas prison system before the real truth emerged and set him free.
Robbins’ freedom came after a former Harris County associate medical examiner named Dr. Patricia Moore changed her initial finding in the case from homicide to “undetermined” some eight years after Robbins was convicted. The county’s new medical examiner has since concluded that there is “no way” the toddler’s death could have been a homicide.
Defense Lawyer Who Never Gives Up
Houston attorney Brian Wice waged a herculean effort to get Robbins’ released from the wrongful conviction. The attorney made three trips to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals before finally securing a reversal of Robbins’ conviction.
In the wake of that decision by the appeals court, Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon filed a motion to dismiss the charge against Robbins and the motion was granted by a district court judge. Robbins is now a free man.
Wice told the local media that his client’s conviction was based on “junk science;” that Dr. Moore rushed to judgment with faulty evidence to make the homicide determination—a determination that allowed the prosecution to go forward with the criminal trial.
DA Will Not Concede Innocence, But Dismisses Case
DA Ligon said he dismissed the charge and elected not to pursue a retrial because of insufficient evidence, not because he believed Robbins was actually innocent. Ligon said the child’s mother still believes Robbins is responsible for the death of her child.
Be that as it may, opinions don’t, or certainly should not, count in the decision-making process about whether to prosecute a criminal defendant.
The truth in the Robbins case is self-evident. The state’s own medical examiner witness said she was wrong in classifying the toddler’s death as a homicide and the current medical examiner says there is “no way” the child’s death could be ruled a homicide.
While Ligon’s decision not to proceed with a retrial is laudable, his refusal to accept medical science over circumstantial inference—namely, that because Robbins was alone with the toddler, he had to be responsible for the baby’s asphyxiation—is disturbing.
Flawed Forensic Evidence to Blame for Too Many Wrongful Convictions
The Robbins case underscores a serious problem in the criminal trial process—that prosecutors too often obtain criminal convictions based on flawed forensic evidence, sometimes given by paid “expert” witnesses, who recognize the importance of a conviction for the prosecution, and shape their testimony to continue getting paid.
And, as in the Robbins case, it is sometimes difficult for prosecutors to accept post-conviction evidence of actual innocence in these cases; that their witnesses either misrepresented the truth or fabricated evidence upon which the conviction was based.
Pennsylvania Man Released After 25 Years in Prison
That brings us to the case of Anthony Wright who was convicted and spent 25 years in the Pennsylvania prison system for the horrific rape and murder of a 77-year-old neighbor. Wright was 20 years old when arrested. He was recently released from prison after a jury took less than 90 minutes to acquit him following a retrial.
The New York-based Innocence Project took up Wright’s cause. After a long fight, the group secured DNA evidence which showed that the semen found in the victim belonged to a crack addict named Ronnie Byrd who lived in Pennsylvania at the time of the victim’s murder and who died in a South Carolina prison at age 62.
Despite Newly Discovered Favorable Evidence, State Retries Case, Risks Wrongful Imprisonment
Wright was granted a new trial based on the newly discovered DNA evidence. Despite this indisputable evidence of innocence, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office elected to retry the case. The second jury wasted little time on the prosecution’s case before finding Wright not guilty.
Wright’s attorney, Samuel W. Silver, was not as forgiving as attorney Brian Wice was toward DA Ligon.
“There’s a lot of false evidence that people ought to be held accountable for,” he told the media. “But the key is the science, and what the Innocence Project did in bringing forth that
Jurors Say Case was Waster of Taxpayers Money
One juror said the retrial was a “waste of taxpayers’ money” and cost Wright two more years of his life sitting in prison waiting on the retrial.
When asked by a reporter if he wanted an explanation from prosecutors, Wright responded: “These people don’t need to explain nothing to me. Explain why you took me away from my family, a 4-year-old boy, my parents, everybody? I don’t want anyone to explain anything to me. I want somebody to look my son in the face and explain why his dad was gone for 25 years. For what?”
1872 Documented Exonerations
As of this writing, the National Registry on Exonerations reported that there have been 1872 documented exonerations in this country. Most involved some form of official misconduct, much of it knowingly engaged in.
Three Men Release After 20 Years Thanks to Innocence Project
For example, three inmates—Derrick Wheatt, Laurese Glover, and Eugene Johnson—were all released after spending 20 years in the Ohio prison system for a crime they did not commit. The three men—just teens and high school students at the time—were convicted for the 1995 murder of a 19-year-old Cleveland man. Each received sentences of 18 years to life.
Wheatt and Glover were offered at the time of their arrest—and the offer remained on the table throughout their imprisonment—no jail time if they would point a guilty finger at Johnson. They rejected the deal when it was initially offered and steadfastly over two decades of imprisonment refused to take the prosecution up on the offer.
In 2013, the Ohio Innocence Project discovered police reports that contained information about two suppressed witnesses who said the fatal shots were fired from a nearby post office parking lot, not from the truck occupied by the three defendants. The reports also contained information about unknown people who had shot the victim’s brother just days before the victim was killed. There was also information about threats made against the victim the day before he was gunned down.
Neither the prosecutors nor the police involved in the concealment of this information that was patently favorable to the defendants were held accountable for their unlawful actions in failing to disclose this to the defense. The judge who set the three men free did present in court a “blistering critique of the outrageous decision to try [the three men] in the first place.”
Another Pennsylvania Man Sees Opportunity for Release After 24 Years in prison
In yet another Pennsylvania case, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 227-page opinion reversing the conviction of James Dennis on August 23, 2016. Dennis has spent 24 years in prison for the first degree murder of Chedell Williams. The appeals court found:
“The prosecution failed to disclose to Dennis’s counsel three pieces of exculpatory and impeachment evidence: (1) a receipt revealing the time that [a witness] had picked up her welfare benefits, several hours before the time she had testified to at trial, thus corroborating Dennis’s alibi … (2) a police activity sheet memorializing that [another witness] had given a previous statement inconsistent with her testimony at trial, which provided both invaluable material to discredit the Commonwealth’s key eyewitnesses and evidence that someone else committed the murder … and (3) documents regarding a tip from an inmate detailing his conversation with a man other than Dennis who identified himself as the victim’s killer …”
It is uncertain at this time whether the prosecution will elect to retry Dennis. If it does, we hope a jury will rebuff the effort with a not guilty verdict in his case just as the jury did in the Wright case.
Search for Justice Blocked by Prosecutors Desire for Convictions
With the exception of the Robbins case, all these cases have one thing in common: the prosecution was not committed to a search for truth but rather a pursuit to the quickest path to the conviction of innocent people. They either knowingly allowed prosecution witnesses to commit perjury or they manipulated the truth to secure the guilty verdicts.
Our system of justice is fortunate to have dedicated attorneys like Brian Wice committed to correcting wrongful convictions of innocent people. And the interests of our justice system are served when district attorneys like Brett Ligon can set aside their personal opinions and chose not to prosecute a case in which there is insufficient evidence to convict—as was demonstrated in the Anthony Wright case.
What do these cases collectively illustrate? Years wasted in tortured prison existences, families destroyed, the search for the truth corrupted, and the culprits who brought about these horrific human tragedies allowed to keep their honorable positions to do the same thing all over again.
And that’s the truth!