Friday, June 03, 2016

Convicted by media, exonerated by prosecutors

A case out of Houston gives Grits modest hope that some of the innocence-related criminal justice reforms implemented in recent years are beginning to pay off, not just by creating procedural changes but changing the culture of how police and prosecutors approach evidence. In a horrific case last month, an 11-year old boy was brutally stabbed to death and police arrested the wrong guy. Eventually, charges were dropped after his alibi was confirmed, reported the Houston Chronicle. So in this case, law enforcement did the right thing. The press, though, not so much.

In a May 18 story, the Chron's Dane Schiller reported that, "the 11-year-old was savagely attacked, without apparent provocation, by a man with a history of mental illness" who they identified as Che Lajuan Calhoun. The paper informed readers Calhoun was homeless, though he was staying with his fiance in Pearland the night of the attack. Schiller reported that he had a "string of arrests ... since 2012, for making terroristic threats, assaults, violating a protective order and resisting arrest." A story the next day said neighbors, when told of these arrests (by the reporter), were "wondering how Calhoun built such a long criminal history so short on punishment." 

Schiller also suggested the man suffered from mental illness, but with only the barest of support for the premise: "a judge appointed an attorney with experience at handling mental health issues and ordered mental health records be released from the county about his mental competency, court records show." However, Calhoun apparently was never declared incompetent and it's impossible to know what was in those records.

Even more damning, there was not the slightest reference in the story even to the possibility that the person arrested might not be the killer until the cops issued another press release.

One is reminded of the Queen of Hearts in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, who insisted on having the sentence pronounced first and the verdict after. Similarly, the press too often, as here, would have us issue convictions first, investigations after. It's an unhelpful dynamic.

That sort of convict-em-first coverage probably contributes as much to wrongful convictions in high-profile cases as errors by police and prosecutors. Many of Texas' DNA exonerees had perfectly good alibis that checked out but which police, prosecutors and ultimately juries ignored in the face of eyewitness evidence. In those cases, like this one, the media had assumed from the get-go that the arrested man was the real killer and widely touted his guilt, even though he'd only been accused and nothing had been proven.

But remarkably, in this case, when evidence was presented that confirmed Calhoun's alibi, he was released. Despite the eyewitness. Despite media having already pronounced his guilt in their coverage, and despite the cops having already claimed credit for getting their man. There are plenty of guys with alibis just as strong who had to wait decades for DNA evidence to clear their names. Maybe it says something about changing law-enforcement culture if eyewitness testimony is no longer considered an absolute gold standard but just another piece of evidence which may be confirmed or denied by others. The episode perhaps bespeaks a greater appreciation of the dangers of tunnel vision and confirmation bias than law enforcement has demonstrated in the past.

When the wrong person is accused of a heinous crime, it's a double tragedy. An innocent person is punished while a guilty one goes free. So getting it right earlier than later in the process is particularly important.

It's a small moment, just one case, but perhaps a cause for optimism. For once, cops and prosecutors passed the test. The press failed theirs.

16 comments:

Jennifer Laurin said...

I'd love to know more details about how this near miss was caught. What were the lines of communication that facilitated the additional investigation? How was the alibi evidence confirmed by the defense (were the lawyers key here, or other players) and what was the process of convincing [who? prosecutors? the police?] to double back?

Anonymous said...

Smith county Nazi's AD Clark, Jack Skeen, Dobbs and Bingham have been making a living from this strategy for years.
Grits why haven't you or your team gone after the Smith county lawlessness convictions?

sunray's wench said...

Thus shows the difference between reporting, and investigative journalism.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Jennifer, great questions. Sounded from the story like it was cops confirming the alibi instead of defense counsel, but hard to tell.

@sunray, that's EXACTLY the distinction here.

@5:44, there are 11 years of posts (nearly 9,000) on this blog and my hometown has gotten its share of attention. But I can't cover everything and my focus shifts over time depending on what I'm working on. It's a big damn state and this blog covers an expansive beat.

Anonymous said...

For years, media fueled public pressure in these "high profile" cases has contributed to tunnel vision on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors. It takes a pretty strong will to resist the steady drumbeat of media coverage which in turn promotes a temptation to rush to judgment, file a charge, make an arrest, etc.. In my opinion, the most seminal event which exemplified the need for law enforcement and prosecutors to remain objective even in the face of a media outcry was the Duke lacrosse case and the mistakes made by Mike Nifong. There's a great ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that recently came out about that case. If you're in law enforcement or a prosecutor, it should be required viewing.

Pat Hartwell said...

Living in Houston, I am too aware of the predatory press. A press conference has just ended Saturday, June 4th), announcing the REAL killer in this tragedy has been arrested. Hopefully this is true and the mentally ill man will get the help he needs. However, we all know, this is not going to happen. The press will play its role in not "being able to see the forest for the trees". Mental illness, homelessness, veterans coming back with problems and poor neighborhoods not getting good city services will not be addressed. The Harris County DA and the Houston Police Department, aided and fueled by the press, will lead the attack on this one person, not the whole problem. This man will end up in TDC, not a mental hospital, the Salvation Army facility will probably be closed and life will go on as usual.

miketrials said...

What's especially pathetic is this is "big city journalism," ostensibly more independent and better-resourced, and therefore more able to look behind the curtain. Sadly, it's not just Houston. In my home town, it often is difficult to distinguish the difference between a prosecution press release and a newspaper article about the same case. While there are and have been a few writers who are willing to take on the power structure, eventually they get beaten down and/or transferred. And don't even ask about the TV coverage.

Anonymous said...

Mike what do you call Tyler, TX. A big city?
The media in Tyler can not or will not report with without Bingham's approval out of fear. Bingham first tries the case in the local media to set the stage then prosecutes. Why is Smith county immune from grits and his gang? It is his home town is that why Tyler gets a pass?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not "immune," 11:41, just not the only place in the state. I've written a great deal about Tyler over the years but, if there's so much more to write about there, by all means start your own blog and show me how it's done. Don't just whine that I don't do more free work.

gravyrug said...

Anybody that thinks Grits is exempting Tyler (and Smith county) hasn't read very much of this blog. I've been reading for years, and have seen plenty of Grits stories about the less-than-stellar behavior of the various law enforcement entities there.

Anonymous said...

Who or where else in the state is Mr.Kerry Max Cook going to trial to be exonerated from injustice from prosecutorial misconduct for 40yrs. Smith county nepotism covered up for the murdered James Mayfield to send a innocent man to death row. AD Clark, Jack Skeen, David Dobbs and wife Tittle, FR Files and Matt Bingham...are any of these Tyler nazi's in the tree Grits?
Oh, keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

graveyard, when was the last time you read about Mr.Kerry Max Cooks last trial on this blog?
Where the DA Binghan is in full protection mode of current and past elected nazi's ...they are at least looking at prison time for their crimes of cover up.

Anonymous said...

Case in point the "rock thrower" has been arrested and APD chief acevado the media magnet has set the stage for conviction.

Anonymous said...

Gravy, name some of grits Tyler or Smith county articles? Refresh our memories? Blood thicker than water...

Richard Carter said...

Had the privilege of having you visit our class at St. Ed's several years ago. Keep up the good work

Richard Carter said...

Had the privilege of having you visit our classroom at St. Edward's several years ago. Keep up the good work