Saturday, October 15, 2011

McLennan DA fights DNA testing because exonerations override juries

Another Texas District Attorney, this time in Waco, is opposing post-conviction DNA testing in a possible innocence case. Reported Cindy Culp at the Waco Tribune Herald (behind paywall)
The McLennan County District Attorney’s office will oppose a request for new DNA testing in the decades-old Lake Waco triple murders case.

Waco attorney Walter M. Reaves filed a motion asking for the testing Wednesday. It is part of an effort to exonerate Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in the 1982 slayings of three teenagers.

In the motion, Reaves argues the testing is warranted because DNA analysis was not available when Melendez was convicted. He pleaded guilty but has since recanted, claiming he falsely confessed because his lawyers told him he would almost certainly get the death penalty if he went to trial.
Waco attorney Walter M. Reaves filed a motion asking for the DNA testing in the Lake Waco trople murder case Wednesday. It is part of an effort to exonerate Anthony Melendez, the only living defendant in the 1982 slayings of three teenagers
The motion does not ask the state to pay for the DNA testing. It only asks that 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson order the testing be done.
Remarkably, DA Abel Reyna said he prefers erroneous jury decisions over facts if they prove innocence:
Reyna said every request for post-DNA conviction must be carefully considered.

But in general, he doesn’t support such testing because it overrides what a jury decided, he said.
That seems like a bizarre stance for someone charged in state law with seeking justice. If the jury convicted an innocent person, their decision should be overridden. In any event, the Texas Legislature this year eliminated most grounds for prosecutors to oppose post-conviction DNA testing where the results might be probative, so I expect the DA's opposition will fail and the testing will eventually go forward.

When Reyna was elected he announced he intended to model how he ran his office on John Bradley's shop in Williamson County and hired one of Bradley's prosecutors as his first assistant. So it's not surprising to see him fighting DNA testing, just like John Bradley did for years in the Michael Morton case. But it's remarkable that he'd mimic Bradley's stance on post-conviction DNA testing after all that's happened recently in Williamson County. He's unlikely to prevail in court and if the DNA evidence proves exculpatory, Mr. Reyna will find himself in the crosshairs just like his role model from a few miles south down I-35.

MORE: From Simple Justice.

34 comments:

quash said...

All "such testing" shows is that the jury didn't get to hear all the evidence. The ability to even consider such evidence didn't exist then, so it offers no indictment of how the DA proceeded. Until now, of course.

Anonymous said...

Because really, little things like whether the person actually committed the crime are secondary to whether a prosecutor managed to convince 12 people that they did.

Anonymous said...

He pled guilty? What jury decision would there have been?

Anonymous said...

Retards, a DA's job is to present the State's position and that position is that the conviction was valid. The judge is fully aware of this and takes that into account.

If the DA did not attempt to uphold convictions by that office, he/she would not be in that position very long.

Unknown said...

Rayna's stance in this matter reveals a rather low and cynical opinion of the good citizens who serve in juries. The only thing a vast majority of juries want out of their time and effort is to see that justice is done. I highly doubt that there are many jurors who would feel anything other than horror knowing that a defendant they convicted was, in fact, innocent. Most reasonable jurors would feel grateful and relieved if reliable evidence were able to clarify their verdict, even if it meant overturning one they made in good faith, yet turned out to be wrong. Rayna’s over-riding concern here seems to be his career and reputation, rather than that of justice, a concern that this particular juror finds repugnant.

Anonymous said...

The prosecutor's job is NOT justice. The prosecutor's job is to obtain and retain as many convictions as possible, and to ensure that those convictions receive the harshest possible sentences. It's SUPPOSED to be about justice, but most prosecutors will actively obstruct justice if it means their conviction rate goes down.

Anonymous said...

Suppose that the DNA that was collected doesn't match him. Does that mean he is innocent? No it doesn't. DNA collection was not done at that time and forensics didn't know what would need collecting and what wouldn't. There could have been evidence at the scene that has the convicted persons DNA on but it wasn't collected because it was of no value at that time.

Anonymous said...

From the article: "That seems like a bizarre stance for someone charged in state law with seeking justice."

A prosecutor's job is not to seek justice; his job is to get convictions.

Anonymous said...

"Retards, a DA's job is to present the State's position and that position is that the conviction was valid. The judge is fully aware of this and takes that into account.

If the DA did not attempt to uphold convictions by that office, he/she would not be in that position very long."

Okay 2:34, who is the "Retard?" Shouldn't the state's and the DA's position be to seek justice. Are you really telling me that you think the state's position is to uphold a conviction, regardless of the truth? You need to actually think about what you're saying. It's been said here already but, by statute, the DA's job is to seek justice. Yet, you are advocating the position of these DA's like John Bradley who believe there is job is to convict at all costs, regardless of the truth, and then obstruct justice if it means that those convictions might be shown to be wrong. You are arguing that it is a DA's job to obstruct justice, to obstruct truth seeking. You are saying that is the state's position. If that's true, its time for a revolution. That ain't the kind of government I want to live under. Do you?

Anonymous said...

Texas just likes killing people. They don't even have a supreme court to over ride bad decisions but a heavily biased high court.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the McLennan County DA's office has nothing better to do than reopen old, closed convictions---even those who pled guilty. It's not like they've had a crime occur in Waco in the last 7-8 years. I'm guessing the prosecutors just sit around twiddling their thumbs.

Seriously, you people are a bunch of liberal idiots. Most prosecutors I know have a hard enough time finding time and resources to prosecute guilty criminals, without prosecuting the innocent. But heaven forbid we don't give every inmate in TDC unlimited appeals and all the DNA testing money can buy. You know they're all innocent? If you don't believe it just ask them!

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, according to Article 2.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, "It shall be the primary duty of all prosecuting attorneys, including any special prosecutors, not to convict, but to see that justice is done. They shall not suppress facts or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocence of the accused."

http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/CR/htm/CR.2.htm#2.01

Alex S said...

Very few DA's care about innocent people and wrongful convictions--it wasn't until Dallas DA Craig Watkins created a special section to examine inmates' claims of innocence. TX needs a law to mandate all DA's offices to have sections like this. Unfortunately TX law enforcement and prosecutors have a reputation of doing anything and everything to prevent from having to admit they made a mistake. It is that type of thinking that needs to change. New technology should be used not only to convict but to exonerate.

Sam said...

If the defendant pleads guilty, no jury is involved. The prosecutor's argument is specious.

sunray's wench said...

Anon 8.29 (who is probably either a prosecutor or a TDCJ guard - and no, I don't mean correctional officer) so people are "liberal idiots" because they do not want to see an innocent person rot in prison? How is that liberal or idiotic exactly? The DNA could cement the conviction, so where would that leave your argument?

DNA testing is not really about someone getting away with a crime, as you seem to think, it is about being as sure as can be possible about a conviction. It may or may not prove that someone else did the crime, but either way, it generally helps to back up the existing evidence for one side or the other.

And as for all inmates being innocent, nope, think again buddy. My husband is as guilty as they come, which is why he took a plea rather than put everyone through a trial. But if you were innocent, you'd be telling anyone and everyone in an attempt to make someone listen, wouldn't you?

Tetsubo said...

Better a thousand guilty men go free than a single innocent man be imprisoned.

Grandmom said...

The statements of some of your readers make it very clear why the death penalty must not be a part of this convoluted, unjust justice system. The "system" seems to prefer finality over justice.

RSO wife said...

Who put these people in office anyway? The voting public, of course, or maybe I should say the non-voting public.

Convictions are much more important than guilt or innocence to the prosecutors and judges who are elected. Convictions get votes, if they waiver even a little, they are suspected of not being tough enough on crime and thus do not get re-elected.

The people who cry foul when innocent people are incarcerated are the ones who voted these jerks in office in the first place. Everybody wants somebody who's "tough on crime" until it hits home and somebody they know or love gets railroaded.

As the wife of someone who was railroaded, I have looked into the histories of the prosecutors and judges running for office in Harris Co and have vigorously campaigned against the ones with bad track records at election time.

Everybody complains but nobody wants to do anything like vote them out of office. And God forbid you should sign your post with a screen name rather than just "Anonymous".

Chasing Justice said...

Just about everyone convicted of a crime says they're innocent in prison. But given what had happened to me, when I would hear someone from the gurney just before execution claim they were innocent, it haunted me.

Such was the case of David Spence and the Lake Waco Murders, or the "McLennan DA FIGHTS DNA Testing>" David Spence, who was executed told me on death row he was innocent. After he was executed things have come out in this long forgotten case that tend to give those claims legs. If the DNA gets tested and goes on to exonerate Melendez, sleep is gonna evade me for a lot longer....

Phillip Baker said...

Chasing Justice, you and other TDCJ staff who deal with Death Row and executions are included in our silent protests each killing day. We are there in silent witness against the death penalty, and in remembrance of the man to be killed and his family and friends, the victims and their families and friends, and the TDCJ staff who often work with these men for years before execution and especially for those who must actually carry out the killing. There is nothing good or positive that ever comes out of these judicial killings. We as a people should be better than than this, to kill in cold blood solely for revenge.

Anonymous said...

So, 8:29, I guess DA's are too busy to deal with pesky little things like "justice" (that provision in that statute shold be elimiated, I guess). So far you have called those who disagree with you two names: "Retards" and "liberal idiots." Its been my experience that those who are incapable of carrying on an intelligent debato resort to name calling. Instead of name calling, why don't you try putting together an intelligent argument to support your position. A position, that appears to me, to hold that DA"s who have no time to deal with claims of actual innocence, should spend considerable time and resources opposing the examination of evidence that, as one poster aptly noted, will likely add to the weight of the evidence one way or the other. Think about what you said. You said the DA's lack the time to deal with these issues, yet you advocate that they spend time fighting DNA testing. Wouldn't it take less time just to agree to the testing? That would be the sensible thing to do. It seems someone interested in justice would want more information, not less. Once you have that additional piece of evidence, then you decide what to do with it. If it doesn't tend to prove innocence, as one poster argued that it may not, then a court can decided it isn't relevand and uphold the conviction. If it does, the court can order a new trial and the prosecutor will get to argue to the jury that the DNA evidence doesn't prove innocence (of course the burden should be on the prosecutor to prove guilt but we all know that's a fallacy). So, let's see if you are capable of making a coherent argument without resordting to name calling.

Dave C said...

I am Scottish, but live in Texas.

The reprehensible state of the US judicial system is entirely due to the fact that it is too politicized. The DA is in theory charged with seeking justice, but due to the political ambitions that are inherent in the office in the USA, and the fact they are measured by conviction rates rather than accuracy.

When the USA was created in the 18th century, the governance system was modeled on those of England and Scotland (the UK didn't exist then) with branches of government set up to follow the same roles:
- the House acts like the House of Commons, as the main democratic body;
- the Senate acts like the House of Lords, with people who aren't as worried about being re-elected and can be more objective and less party line;
- the judicial branch implements the rule of law and guards constitutional rights;

By allowing politics into the process of selecting DA's and even worse judges, all of the weaknesses of the political process that have turned the USA into a de facto plutocracy pollute its fairness.

It offends my basic sense of justice that a DA would be elected as a Republican or Democrat, or indeed have any political affiliation - for best effectiveness, it should in fact be illegal for them to do so. It's also a huge conflict of interest for DA's to be measured on conviction rates, since that is an incentive to pervert the course of justice even in cases (unlike this one) where the DNA evidence is 100% exculpatory.

The fact that judges are similarly political is even more worrisome: the outcome of 95% of cases sent to the US Supreme Court can be predicted by the political leanings of the current members, and the opinions always split along party lines.

The people who agree with Antonin Scalia that factual innocence is irrelevant to the judicial process have no idea how much that viewpoint undermines justice, and should be subjected to the treatment that innocent convicts are. Are you really happy to have the government knowingly commit murder in the name of the people by executing the innocent?

There is plenty of injustice in the system even if perfectly run: innocent people have their lives ruined by mere accusations, and remember that even in Texas nearly 1/3 of criminal defendants are found not guilty in law (not just in fact).

Waco voters may be happy for any random non-white person to be executed for any given murder, but that does not in any way make it moral or right. The purpose of a well maintained judicial system in a democracy is to protect everyone from mob rule and to ensure fairness. Do you really want to turn the place into Iran?

Those who believe the DA's job is to obtain a conviction and to continue to defend it even when there is new evidence which establishes strong reasonable doubt need their heads examined. A criminal case is not the Superbowl where you get to pick a side and cheer for it. You are morally bankrupt, and so is the perversion of Jesus' teachings that you call Christianity.

(continued below ...)

Dave C said...

Finally, to the people who think a jury is somehow a source of deep wisdom: these are the people in the courtroom least qualified to judge the evidence, as they have no experience. They are also the least intelligent people in the process - as any trial lawyer will tell you, the definition of a jury is 12 people not smart enough to get out of jury duty. In the USA and doubly so in Texas, they are also biased by race: to get OJ Simpson off from his murder charge, the defense only needed to empanel one black juror.

I get a jury summons about once every 3 years, and in the past I've always called in and told them "Nope, not a citizen". However, I was inspired by a work colleague who accepted a seat on the Travis Co grand jury last year, and next time I plan to serve, and there will be someone in the jury room who has the intellect, scientific background and emotional self-discipline to objectively weigh the evidence and ignore the lawyers orations and my own opinions about the defendant. It'll likely be a cut and dried case - for all this malfeasance, most defendant are genuinely guilty, but maybe it will be a highly politicized murder case, and maybe I'll prevent the death of an innocent person. Of course, as any trial lawyer will also tell you, smart jurors are a land mine they would rather avoid.

Anyone who thinks this Waco DA's actions in any way make sense or can in any way be defended as ethical needs to research some of the Innocence Project cases. For an easily digested dramatization, I recommend the movie Conviction and the John Grisham book An Innocent Man.

Anonymous said...

This puts the lie to the myth that the DA's mission is to seek justice, or even that he is a public servant.

Anonymous said...

In these high profile cases the public screams for action. And law enforcement must solve them quickly to at least appear competent. I recall the TCBY murders in Austin. Law enforcement "solved" the case, then it unraveled before their eyes. Now rumor has it that the TCBY murders were actually committed by Austin policemen who had molested a couple of the girls.

Red Leatherman said...

@Phillip Barker:
The commenter using the name "Chasing Justice" is not TDCJ staff, it's Kerry Max Cook who spent 22 years on Texas death row before being cleared of all charges in 1999.

Anonymous said...

DA Felipe Reyna is one of the true hacks of the Republican Party. I highly recommend reading The Lake Waco Murders by Carlton Stowers and you will see ample reason to question the certainty of this conviction.

Anonymous said...

I have had an opportunity to know some of the people "behind the walls" and it is rather amazing how the majority of them will freely admit that they are guilty and are where they are suppose to be. However a few hold fast to the fact that they are innocent, and when reading their files, it appears that they are in fact innocent and the trial (attorney, jury, judge) was a set-up from the get-go, and for reasons unknown they were thrown under the bus. Possibly it was political reasons. It now appears that Reyna is continuing the same as the previous DA, and even taking it to a new level and joining the likes of John Bradley from Williamson County. Every person that has been indicted is not automaticly guilty. every person deserves a fair trial, and we need to go back to the reason America was founded and back "every person is innocent until proven guilty" not the other way around. McLennan County has long taken the stance that a person is "Guilty until proven innocent" and if there is any reasonable doubt then they must be guilty.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the same day as Morton, this Waco DA comes out with this incredible statement. This is very disheartening, haven't we learned anything? Is this guy even listening to himslf? What kind of prosecutorial DENIAL is this? Will we someday read of a new syndrome? PTSD? Post Trial Standard Denial?
Abel Reyna, shame on you.

Anonymous said...

Remarkably, DA Abel Reyna said he prefers erroneous jury decisions over facts if they prove innocence

It's not remarkable if you know him.

He also fired Dean Toben's wife when he was elected, and she was one of the best crimes-against-children prosecutors in the state. Probably because she trounced him a time or two...



DaveC: I've tried almost 200 jury trials--of all types. What I can unequivocally tell you is that the people who joke about juries being too stupid to get out of jury duty are either law professors who wouldn't remember what the inside of a courtroom looks like or lawyers who lost a case and took it personally.

Your pronouncements about the jury system are foolish. Inevitably, the problem with the criminal courts is the evidence presented. Judges (usually former prosecutors) and prosecutors conspire to systemically exclude exculpatory evidence, and admit the sort of junk science that would never see the light of day in a civil court room. Juries work with what they are given, which is incredibly slanted against the Defendant.

Anonymous said...

As usual there is probably more to this than the writer is telling us. Not knowing the specifics of this case I can't say for sure, but it is possible that even back when the conviction took place, the absence of this guy's DNA would not preclude him from being guilty of the crime. DNA is not the end all either proving or disproving criminal activety. Good journalism gives the full story instead of the printed version of sound bytes.

speedle said...

Poor journalism here, because the entire story is not told. As is often the case there is probably more to this than is being written here.

For example, it is possible that even if the DNA testing had been available at the time of the trial, this guy may have been guilty and convicted anyway. DNA testing is not an end all in the justice system. Just because there was no DNA evidence does not necessarily absolve him of the crime.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:31/speedle: Nobody said "Just because there was no DNA evidence" it "absolve[s] him of the crime," so you're arguing against a strawman.

In any event, respect for a jury verdict (in this case, actually, a plea bargain to prevent a death sentence) is in no way grounds for opposing post-conviction DNA testing in old cases where the results might be probative, as I expect Mr. Reyna will soon discover when the courts interpret the recent revisions to Texas' DNA testing statute. I'd bet dollars to donuts Reyna will fail, utterly and completely, in his opposition to the testing.

Maybe the DNA won't exonerate the defendant, but there's no basis for refusing to test just out of respect for a jury that never even existed.

Anonymous said...

Tony Melendez was told that if he pled guilty and confessed that they would take the death penalty off the table for him and his brother, Gilbert. I was there.
The bite mark evidence, now junk science, and Homer Campbell the Forensic Odontologist, discredited, was the basis of the case along with inmate testimony.
The police had the right man the very night of the murders. When Melendez is exonerated, Spence will be the first proven innocent post mortem in history.
WHY doesn't this case get more attention?
Where is TCADP, Texas Tribune, Altered Statesman?