Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On jailhouse snitches and access to courts for non-DNA innocence claims

A long list of DNA-based exonerations in recent years have overturned the convictions of innocent people locked up in prison, sometimes for decades. The reasons are pretty consistent - mistaken witness identification, faulty forensic evidence, prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence, false confessions, and lying snitches cause the bulk of cases where innocents are convicted.

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."

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.
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.

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:

The Justice Project’s Recommendations for Improving
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.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

While all of these elements constitute a fractured Texas justice system , the defense attorneys have to held accountable for a portion of these problems. The State Bar Association should work with the Texas Legislature to improve a defendent's right to a fair trial.The Public Defenders are still under funded and can not adequately defend their client due to a lack of resources.The paid attorneys ,in my experience, delay the proceedings as long as possible adding to a defendent's attorney fees he must pay.You know your case is over when you tell the attorney you are out of money.The Texas Bar Association should develop a standard contract for services that attorneys would be required to use.Clients should have every part of the contract,not written in leagal ease,explained to them untill they completely understand the services their attorney will render on their behalf.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Certainly I agree that poor representation by defense counsel contributes significantly to wrongful convictions. But in this scenario, when a witness simply lies, knowingly coached in the mendacious details by a win-at-any-cost DA, there's little even a top-flight, 100% ethical and zealous defense attorney could do to stop it.

Soronel Haetir said...

I would clarify the corroberation requirement. I've seen cases where snitches produce materials, maps etc they claim to come from the D. Whether they do or not I would not allow such materials to count. Now, cases where a snitch is able to get the D on tape talking can be a different issue entirely.

Anonymous said...

WAAAAAAAAAAAAY off-topic but can you attempt to focus in or cast more light on the ridiculous instances of police using tasers on people that could, in all likelihood, have been dealt with in another more reasonable manner. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I have always wondered how the judicial system can state that convicted persons are not trustworthy, or are terrible people that should not be in society; However they will use the statements from these same individuals to convict someone else.

The use of jailhouse witnesses should be dropped whether for or against the defendant unless there is physical evidence that can accurately place the testimony. Anythin else is hearsay.

Cicero Lost said...

Not to throw a monkey wrench in the "evil win at every cost prosecutor archetype thats all the buzz", but it is getting tiresome. It rings one dimensional and unfair.
One man was convicted due to this man who is now saying he lied under oath.Now this man is saying its the prosecutors fault. He made him do it.
The prosecutor's incentive was "he was new" and the case had a lot of circumstantial evidence."
What's this man's incentive for speaking out now? Does he have axes to grind? I can't believe it is a guilty conscience in that people with a conscience don't usually place the blame squarely on someone else's head. Criminals and liars usually do, everything is always someone else's fault.
I would think that in the analysis of the justice system a fair and balanced approach absent of stereotypes of either side would be fitting.
Ultimately I do not believe these stereotypes are the norm but a few exception cases. Prosecutors and defense attorneys both have large case loads. Huge case loads lead to mistakes and oversights. How do you reduce those case loads? Taxes, taxes that go to crime prevention, putting more cops on streets, more prosecutors and defense attorneys. The community has to set a standard and say "Enough! I want my children to be safe when they walk down the street." and hold their public servants to that standard. It can be done. It has been done in other communities but it requires the people to accept personal responsibility for their community.
Making cartoon stereotypes of their public servants and blaming them is what the bad guys do.

Anonymous said...

Cicero: Mounting evidence where there IS DNA to examine is showing too many innocent folks convicted and serving years for things they didn't do. Poor defense you say? Or prosecutors with a win-at-any-cost attitude? These can't be shrugged off as isolated incidents anymore.
I think Nifongs are common. You remember the Famous Dallas DA Henry Wade's quote?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Cicero asked, "What's this man's incentive for speaking out now?"

I think it's probably because the statute of limitations for his perjurious testimony has now run out.

Otherwise, we're not talking about any stereotypes here - or I'm not. You are. This blog post was about a specific instance in which a lying informant may have caused an innocent person to be convicted.

A specific, named prosecutor was alleged in court documents to have suborned perjury. It's not a stereotype, it's what the informant says happened. His word was considered good enough to help convict the guy, so it can't be dismissed out of hand now. No, he's not very credible, but he wasn't during the trial, either, and that didn't stop the state from putting the SOB on the stand.

Cicero Lost said...

DNA exonerations have nothing to do with bad prosecutors.
The judicial system is not and cannot be perfect. The jury is dependent on information that is never and can never be perfect. The judicial system can err in either direction with the best defense attorney and best prosecutor.
DNA exonerations are an example of better information being supplied to the justice system.
SO maybe we should make villains out of scientists and engineers for withholding this technology from us for so many years? They get paid better than public defenders and prosecutors after all.
Also DNA is often not available or in domestic cases sometimes meaningless.
Quoting cases in the press proves my point. The press is all about the exception case. They are all about the hero and the villain. They can't print anything else, no one would read it.

Gritsforbreakfast I get what your saying just trying to supply balance. A lot of blogs digress into finger pointing based on stereotypes and allegations which are just that, neither fact nor truth. I was hoping for more. Problems are solved in the boring details. I guess you wouldn't have many readers then either.
Is there any indication that the defense attorney didn't point out the witness credibility issues or how much the other circumstantial evidence weighed in the jury's decision or what that was?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Cicero, apparently you believe you've accused me of something. If I understood what that was I might respond. Or perhaps not. You truly do seem lost, amigo - I honestly can't tell what you're talking about.

You opined that "DNA exonerations have nothing to do with bad prosecutors."

Some do. Some don't. Many false convictions result from honest error. Some stem from aggressive overreaching by prosecutors or police, including Brady violations. So, to be blunt, you're dead wrong to make that categorical statement.

Otherwise, my post discussed this one case - a case that actually exists in the world and was reported in the press. You're the one here dealing in stereotypes. You want to pretend I said all prosecutors behave this way? Go ahead, but it's not true. You're reading your own petty beefs into the issue, not responding to anything I wrote.

Your final paragraph is absurd. The defense attorney could not have known if the DA told the witness to lie in exchange for dropping charges against him. I'm sure if that tidbit were available the jury might have questioned the snitch's credibility more rigorously, just as it would have rightly caused jurors to look more closely at the shaky circumstantial evidence on which the rest of the case was based, as the appellate courts should do now.

Cicero Lost said...

I had no intent to attack anyone nor did I intend to invite it upon myself.
I will restate in a different way to better communicate my point.
DNA Evidence is neither an indicator of a good prosecutor or a bad prosecutor. It only can prove a bad result. That result can be attributed to a variety of reasons one of which is a judicial system that can never produce 100% success.
As to the credibility of the witness...Of course he could not know what the DA did or did not say. Nor do we. Defense attorneys know that informants get deals. Did he point that out to the jury? Ultimately the jury decides who is telling the truth based on what they think their motives are.

"Shaky evidence"..what was the other evidence?

I am not saying there are not bad prosecutors or bad public defendants. They exit. Just not willing to jump to conclusions based on this particular witness. I think the majority are hard working men and women who believe in what they do and make much less than those in the private sector.

The stereotypes appear all over the media...didn't mean to accuse you of stereotyping..just a knee jerk reaction after seeing it again.

I am not a public servant by the way.

Anonymous said...

The real question should be: How many examples of people wrongfully imprisoned for life-ruining sentences does it take before some retribution and punishment is due the public officials who ruined these men? 10? 11? 18? 50?

Anonymous said...

Providing inadequate indigent defense seems to be the underlying cause of many wrongful convictions.
Assigning attorney's to indigent cases that have little or no expertise in that particular field would be like have a brain surgeon operating on someone with urinary problems. It seems that has to part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

The paid attorneys ,in my experience, delay the proceedings as long as possible adding to a defendent's attorney fees he must pay.


You must be thinking of civil court. Most criminal cases are flat-fee contracts so defendants are not billed hourly rates.

Anonymous said...

It is time to get rid of the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard and replace it with "beyond a shadow of a doubt?"

Anonymous said...

All interviews with the snitchs should be recorded in full.