Two Dallas men, Dennis Allen and Stanley Mozee, who were convicted based on Mozee's disputed, un-recorded confession and the testimony of now-discredited jailhouse informants, appear poised to have their convictions overturned, the Dallas Morning News reported last month (Sept. 11). My employers at the Innocence Project of Texas along with the national Innocence Project are representing Allen and Mozee. The paper's editorial board opined the next day that, "As the underpinnings of the convictions come out, criminal justice advocates in Austin will inherit more ammunition for one overdue reform: mandatory recording of suspect interrogation." The editorial board elaborated:
Key to the prosecutions is what transpired between Mozee and a detective in the interrogation room. The detective said the suspect was well-rested and lucid for the last session. Mozee said he was strung out on drugs and alcohol and was off his psychiatric medication. Moreover, he said the detective threatened him with these words: “Somebody’s going to get the needle, and it’s going to be you if you don’t come up with something.” That last interrogation ended with Mozee signing a statement depicted by prosecutors as a confession but later disputed by the suspect himself. Further, it was at odds with other evidence in the case, the Innocence Project brief says.According to the Morning News report, the habeas writs hinge not just on DNA testing techniques that didn't exist at the time of trial but also newly discovered evidence that prosecutors allegedly concealed informant deals from both the defense and jurors.
The phenomenon of false or coerced confessions has been established in recent years as contributing to an alarming percentage of convictions later overturned by DNA tests. It would be foolish for state lawmakers to ignore the chance to build in a common-sense safeguard and require police to start a recording when they formally question a suspect. Jurors would be thankful for eliminating the guesswork.
The Allen-Mozee cases also illustrate the wisdom of reforms enacted by lawmakers just last year. The Michael Morton Act, which took effect Jan. 1, requires prosecutors to share key case information with the defense. Innocence Project lawyers cited numerous documents favorable to Mozee and Allen that weren’t divulged before trial — such as correspondence with jailhouse informants who expected favors in return for testimony against the murder defendants.
If prosecutors stitch together a case with witnesses such as this, the reality ought to be clear to the court. The Constitution demands it, now with backup from Texas law.
Though [Dallas attorney and Innocence Project of Texas board chair Gary] Udashen said the DNA evidence is compelling, he said attorneys were startled by additional evidence they found in the prosecutor’s original case file. Under an “open file” policy adopted by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2008, attorneys filing a writ can view the file while preparing their case.
In that file, attorneys found letters from the inmates who had testified that they’d heard the two men admitting to the murder.
During their court testimony, the informants said neither had been “promised, sought or expected any personal benefit for their testimony.”
But letters from those inmates found in the file demanded benefits, such as reduced sentences for pending charges, that they “believed they had been promised from the State in direct exchange for testifying.”
“The prosecution not only failed to turn over this material,” the brief said, but concealed it while insisting to jurors “that no such discussions with these informants had ever occurred.”
The two inmates have now told the defense attorneys their testimony was false, the filing says.
[Retired prosecutor Rick] Jackson said he “never, ever made any type of deals up front. I told every single lawyer I ever dealt with that was the case and that was no different in that case.
“There were no deals in place, period, end of story.”
Udashen said he has a “high degree of confidence that the convictions are going to be set aside.”
“Whether or not it ultimately results in an actual innocence finding,” he said, “I think a lot of that is going to depend upon what the DA’s office determines in their own independent investigation.”The Morning News is exactly right about the significance of this case vis a vis legislation to require police to record interrogations. Who doesn't think justice would have been better served - then and now, whether these two men are innocent or not - if Mozee's original interrogation and confession had been recorded and everyone could see for themselves what happened there?
As recording tech and storage gets cheaper and easier to manage, there are increasingly scarce few viable arguments against recording interrogations except that police are afraid the public may disapprove of their techniques.