As of July 21, 2022, the National Registry of exonerations reports that there have been 3,184 exonerations in criminal cases since 1989.
These numbers reinforce what many over-policed communities have known for generations: the nation’s criminal justice often fails in its binding legal obligation to ensure that each criminal defendant receives fair and impartial justice. This failure is compounded by the fact that two-thirds of the exonerations involved some form of official misconduct:
- Prosecutorial misconduct concealing favorable evidence and using perjured testimony.
- Law enforcement engaging in pretrial perjury, falsifying police reports, coercing false confessions, and fabricating evidence.
- Courts allowing flawed expert testimony, and excluding or admitting evidence that favors the prosecution,
- Defense attorneys failing to provide competent and zealous representation.
Ironically, the very people charged with protecting the justice system’s integrity are the ones who most often corrupt the system with unethical and, often, criminal behavior.
Louisiana DA Scott Parrilloux Forced Child to Fabricate Testimony
In a June 5, 2022 post, we called attention to a district attorney and police detective who knowingly and deliberately fabricated evidence to send an innocent man, Michael Wearry, to Louisiana’s death row. Despite a federal court finding that Livingston Parish District Attorney Scott Perrilloux intentionally presented fabricated evidence, an “actual innocence” finding has yet to be made in the case.
There is a difference between a wrongful conviction and exoneration. The former can result in a reversal of a constitutionally flawed trial and a subsequent dismissal of prosecution. The latter is both a factual and legal finding of “actual innocence” by a reviewing court—a finding that completely absolves the exoneree of any criminal conduct.
Texas Court Criminal Appeals Avoids Finding Actual Innocence
A recent Harris County case illustrates the judicial difference between a wrongful conviction and exoneration.
In July 2013, an 18-year-old teenager was arrested in Webster, Texas, for possessing a $100 counterfeit bill. He confessed to knowing the bill was a fake. In December that year, the teenager pled guilty to a reduced charge of attempted forgery. He was sentenced to 180 days of state jail time. He completed service on the sentence in February 2014.
In 2019, the Secret Service informed Webster police that the $100 the teenager possessed was not counterfeit. It was not until August 2021 that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office informed the defendant of the Secret Service finding. It is not known how long that office had been aware of the conclusion.
The defendant, through an attorney, immediately filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, asking that the attempted forgery conviction be set aside. The District Attorney’s Office conceded the writ should be granted.
On September 15, 2021, Harris County District Court Judge Nikita Harmon not only granted the writ application but made a finding of “actual innocence.”
The Hicks case found its way to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. On February 16, 2022, the court ruled that the teenager was entitled to have his guilty plea set aside but failed to find actual innocence, concluding that the District Attorney’s Office could file an appropriate criminal charge against the teenager. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the case.
On the issue of “actual innocence,” the appeals court overruled Judge Harmon’s finding of actual innocence:
“Applicant has not demonstrated actual innocence. The Secret Service letter does not help to exculpate him from a criminal attempt. According to the arresting officer’s report, Applicant admitted to an illegal intent: he said he knew the bill was fake and had attempted to use it at a bonding company. With this evidence, a reasonable juror could have concluded that Applicant had a ‘conscious objective’—an intent—to engage in passing a forged document.”
Harris County’s History of Convict at any Cost
By 2017, Harris County had transitioned from being the “death penalty capital” of the United States to the nation’s “exoneration capital.” As far back as modern memory can recall, the policy of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has been “conviction at any cost.” Additionally, to complement this policy, the city’s police department and the county’s sheriff’s office have targeted the black community and other people of color for crimes they did not commit.
In a March 8, 2017, news story, NBC News offered these reasons why Harris County had one-quarter of the nations’s record high 166 exonerations in 2016:
“There are a number of culprits, researchers say: policing that focused enforcement on black and Latino people, faulty field drug tests that identified household items like soap and cat litter as illegal drugs, backlogged crime labs that took months or years to clear cases, and a pretrial detention system that civil rights groups say keeps people behind bars because they can’t pay bond.”
“It’s the biggest single focal point of exonerations in the country, this past year, and the year before, and the year before that,” says the National Registry of Exonerations Samuel Gross, a University of Michigan law professor.
That was, and in many respects remains, the county’s criminal justice system nationwide: police falsely accusing minor offenders on trumped-up charges. At the same time, prosecutors delay their prosecutions to coerce guilty pleas.
This prosecutorial strategy is precisely what happened in 1995 to three black teenagers in New York City. They were arrested for firebombing a subway token booth in Brooklyn in which the attendant was killed. The trio confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
A July 15, 2015 New York Times article revealed that the case against the trio began to unravel in 2013 when evidence surfaced that one of “New York City’s finest” detectives had built a stellar reputation as a homicide detective by framing innocent people and lying on guilty ones. Detective Louis Scarcella, according to the Times, investigated as many as 500 homicides in a year.
Wrongful Convictions in Slain Rabbi Case
One of those cases that garnered international media attention was the murder of a prominent Jewish Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, during a robbery attempt in 1990—one of the 2,245 murders in the city that year as compared to 488 in 2021.
The Werzberger killing became known as the “Slain Rabbi” case. A task force of 40 detectives, led by Scarcella, arrested an unemployed drug addict named David Ranta. The city’s Jewish community demanded the “death penalty.”
The Times reported in March 2013 that Detective Scarcella and his partner Stephen Chmil, “broke rule after rule. They kept few written records, coached a witness and took Mr. Ranta’s confession under what a judge described as highly dubious circumstances. They allowed two dangerous criminals, an investigator said, to leave jail, smoke crack cocaine and visit with prostitutes in exchange for incriminating Mr. Ranta.”
The case against the three black teenagers drew renewed investigation by the Brooklyn district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) after investigations into Scarcella’s tactics in homicide cases, like the “Slain Rabbi case,” drew public attention. The CIU, and after exhaustive investigation, determined that their confessions to Detective Scarcella were false.
The Times reported that in addition to coercing false confessions from the teenagers, Scarcella “failed to divulge the shaky nature of witness identifications and ignored factual inconsistencies in evidence and in the young men’s confessions.”
In effect, Scarcella railroaded three teenagers into the New York prison system, where they remained for more than a quarter of a century.
On July 15, 2022, a state district court judge cleared the three men from any involvement in the crime. One of the men had been released on parole in 2020, and the other two walked free out of the courthouse. The district attorney’s office supported the judge’s decision.
The tragedy, in this case, is that the district attorney’s CIU has only investigated 70 of Scarcella’s murder investigations, resulting in more than a dozen exonerations. The city has been forced to pay out tens of millions of dollars to the exonerees.
It is not certain whether the district court that “cleared” the three teenagers made a specific finding of “actual innocence”—the key legal ingredient for exoneration—but the city will be forced to settle for millions of dollars in damages with the three men because of Detective Scarcella’s horrendous misconduct.
Texas Leads Nation in Exonerations
The consequences are the same whether an individual is wrongfully convicted or exonerated. Real people with families, friends, and loved ones are sent to prison, violating the law and the Constitutional rights guaranteed to all.
There is no reason or justification for cheating and fabricating in our nation’s criminal law enforcement system. Guilty or not, no person should be sent to prison based on prosecutorial or police misconduct, no one.