But DNA evidence exists in just 10% of violent crimes and even more rarely in other cases. And while Texas law allows for post-conviction DNA testing if the evidence exists, there's no mechanism for evaluating innocence in non-DNA cases where these same problems arise.
A situation involving a mendacious jailhouse snitch out of Orange, Texas shows how such cases play out when DNA evidence doesn't exist to prove innocence to a certainty. KPRC-Channel 2 in Houston recently told the story of Daniel Meehan (Sept. 4) whose 1998 conviction and 99-year sentence was based in part on testimony by an informant who now says he lied to get his own cases dismissed and that prosecutors told him what to say:
Despite the strong circumstantial evidence he was the killer, Meehan maintained he did not do it. In 1998, he pled not guilty and the case went to trial inside an Orange County courtroom."It's unsurprising Meehan can't find relief in this instance, which raises broader questions about whether adequate access to the courts exists for innocent people who've been wrongfully convicted. Without DNA evidence to back up Harris' recantation, the law seldom allows people in Meehan's position another bite at the apple. Indeed, before 2001 when the Lege established rights to post-conviction DNA testing, even those cases had trouble making it back into court. But we know the same kinds of faulty evidence were used in cases, like Meehan's, where no DNA evidence exists.
About that time, their star witness came along that kind of saved the day for them is what it seemed like," said Meehan. "Because he seemed to be their case."He was Gary Harris -- a fellow inmate inside the Orange County jail.
When District Attorney John Kimbrough called Harris to the stand, Harris testified Meehan had confessed to the murder behind bars -- describing how he shot his girlfriend point-blank, saying, "I can't have her, no one can."
"When he looked at the jury and said that statement, you know, it blew me away," Meehan said. "It really did. I was 31 years old and I was thinking, 'My life is over.'"The jury convicted Meehan after deliberating less than half an hour.
Ten years later, inside a newly filed criminal appeal, Harris says his testimony was all a lie. Meehan believes it should change the decision that put him in prison for the rest of his life."All these years I've explained to them that one day the truth is going to come out and there's going to be some surprised people," said Meehan. "That's what I hope this is."
"He (Kimbrough) said you do this for us and we will help you," Harris said on a recorded phone call last year from jail included in the court documents. "They had a case, but it was very weak. He said he need a conviction and he needed it bad."Harris has been a career criminal before and after his testimony 10 years go.
Now, Harris says not only did he lie about Meehan's murder confession, Harris describes specific meetings with Kimbrough and his investigators that helped fabricate his testimony.
"He elaborated that he was new in his career as district attorney and this would make him look real good in everyone's eyes," Harris said on the recorded call. "It was his first murder trial and he wanted a conviction."Harris claims Kimbrough's team met with him in the DA's office for two hours and spelled out specific details of the crime. Harris claims they even told him exactly what to say.
"They said to make it even sweeter, that I want you to put in one last detail. He said, 'I want you to look dead at the jury and tell them that Danny told you, if he couldn't have her, then nobody else could have her,'" he said.
Court papers show three of Harris' relatives say Harris also told them about making up the jailhouse confession.
Records show Harris was released from jail days after his testimony. The charges against him were dismissed."When the prosecutor put Gary Harris on the stand, he said you can't take a check from this guy, but you can believe what he's saying here today," Meehan said. "I'm curious what John Kimbrough would say now."
Kimbrough initially told us the evidence was strong enough even without Harris' jailhouse testimony. However, Kimbrough later denied repeated requests from Local 2 Investigates for an interview.
Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice says Harris' testimony itself does bring up serious questions."My take in almost three decades of practicing criminal defense law is that you see jail house snitches by and large when the prosecution has to throw a 'Hail Mary', when they have a borderline case," Wice said. ...
Despite the recanted testimony, Wice and other legal experts we spoke with say the chances of a court ordering a new trial is slim.They all say it usually take new physical evidence like DNA or fingerprints to be convincing enough to force a new hearing.
Meehan's appeal has been denied by Kimbrough's office and the trial judge in his original case. Meehan's appeal is now sitting with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Given what we know about how and how often innocent Texans are convicted, the current system is too restrictive on non-DNA based writs alleging actual innocence. That aspect of the law needs significant changes to be fair to the falsely convicted. Virginia recently created such a process and its first actual innocence writ in a non-DNA case was granted in August.
Regarding jailhouse snitches, the Justice Project recently came out with a study (pdf) on the problem and suggested these reforms, all of which would require legislative action:
Standards for Admissibility of Accomplice and Snitch Testimony
- Required mandatory, automatic pretrial disclosures of information related to jailhouse snitch testimony, including witness compensation arrangements and other information bearing on witness credibility.
- Mandated pretrial hearings on the reliability testimony in cases where the prosecution intends to employ a jailhouse snitch.
- A requirement that jailhouse snitch testimony be corroborated.
- Cautionary jury instructions alerting the jury to the reliability issues presented by snitch testimony.