Monday, July 14, 2008

Man Bites Dog: Dallas appeals court tosses drug conviction for lack of evidence

Recently I argued that a prime reason for wrongful convictions is that courts frequently don't require sufficient evidence to prove an offense beyond a reasonable doubt, allowing convictions based on uncorroborated eyewitness testimony, sloppy forensics and coercive interrogation tactics. So I was pleased when, via Pete at Drug War Rant, I saw this Greenville Herald Banner story ("Eighty five year sentence for drug possession overturned," July 13) about a drug conviction overturned en toto by the Dallas Court of Appeals because the evidence presented did not conclusively incrimnate the defendant:
An appeals court has overturned the conviction and lengthy prison sentence given to a Greenville man, whom authorities said sold crack cocaine and ran prostitution and gambling operations from a residence near a local school.

But the Fifth District Court of Appeals of Texas at Dallas did more than just throw out the 85-year sentence for drug possession a Hunt County jury handed down after convicting Allen Lane Whittaker and order a new trial in the case.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the panel ordered Whittaker’s acquittal, claiming the evidence used to convict him was insufficient and the sentence was improperly enhanced.
It's hard to say whether this case will have broader implications, but it's sure an unusual outcome. Here's the explanation of the charge and the court's ruling:

The charge Whittaker was facing is typically a third-degree felony, punishable by a maximum sentence upon conviction of from two to 10 years in prison. The potential punishment was enhanced to that of a first-degree felony — or up to life in prison — due to Whittaker’s previous convictions and the fact the offense was in a Drug Free Zone.

However, on appeal, Whittaker’s attorney argued that at the time of the raid on the residence, Whittaker was not present, but was asleep at his mother’s house next door. The cocaine itself was found hidden between two slats of a privacy fence which was easily accessible to the public, the appeals court ruled, meaning that Whittaker was not in proximity to the cocaine and it was not accessible to him at the time.

There was evidence presented at trial that Whittaker had access to and may have resided in the house, raising suspicion that he knew about the cocaine in the back yard.

“However, proof amounting only to strong suspicion or mere probability will not suffice to show appellant had knowledge and control over the cocaine appellant was charged with possessing,” the appeals court ruled in its opinion. “Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s judgment and render a judgment of acquittal.”
Whether or not Whitaker owned the drugs, it's pretty clear the state couldn't prove it to the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, but that didn't stop a jury from convicting him.

This was a high-profile case in Greenville, which is not a large town; both the prosecutor and the officer involved even received civic awards. As a result, I'm sure locals will be circling the wagons around the officer and ADA, but that's actually a counterproductive tactic if the goal is to prosecute the guilty and avoid accusing the innocent. When officials feel pressure to "do something" about a situation like that, there's a natural temptation to cut corners in ways that courts have too often encouraged. Perhaps the Dallas Court of Appeals - having witnessed first-hand the Dallas fake drug scandal and a slew of DNA-based innocence cases - has decided to put its foot down and start requiring more solid proof instead of mere "suspicion" and "probability."


Ron in Houston said...

85 years? Even if he were guilty that would be just too excessive.

Anonymous said...

I used to live in Greenville in the '90's. That's a redneck town if there ever was one. It was still segregated by the RR tracks, and ask at the Cotton Museum about the sign that used to be over the entrance to downtown...It read "Welcome to Greenville...The blackest soil, the whitest people!"

Anonymous said...

Will Moss and Russell have to return their awards?