Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ACLU: CCA ignored evidence of false confession in capital case

Here's the text of a press release published today by the ACLU regarding a Court of Criminal Appeals decision in the Max Soffar case. I offer it FWIW, I have no personal knowledge of the details of the case:

Texas Appeals Court Rejects Appeal Of Innocent Man On Death Row For 28 Years

Death Sentence Upheld Despite Overwhelming Evidence Pointing To Innocence

AUSTIN, Texas - November 18 - The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today rejected the appeal of an innocent man represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Innocence Network (TIN) who has been incarcerated on Texas's death row for more than 28 years.

Max Soffar, whose mental illness left him particularly vulnerable to giving a false confession, stands convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing four victims during an armed robbery in a Houston bowling alley in 1980. Soffar appealed on the grounds that the trial court in 2006 prevented him from proving his innocence to the jury.

"Once again, this case demonstrates that serious error riddles the criminal justice system," said Brian Stull, staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. "When the state seeks a person's death as punishment, we must demand a process that produces accurate and reliable results. When an innocent man sits on death row for 28 years having never received a fair trial, when juries are not allowed to hear the evidence, and when appeals courts do not intervene to fix these problems, no one can trust the process."

In 1981, Soffar was convicted and sentenced to death based upon a false confession, but a federal court overturned the conviction in 2004 because his trial lawyers failed to argue that Soffar's confession contradicted the other evidence in the case.

In today's opinion, the court ruled that the false confession given by Soffar should stand, and that his constitutional rights were not violated when his 2006 trial court judge refused to allow him to show that the only correct details in his false confession were not the result of his involvement in the crime but instead had been obtained through widely disseminated media reports. The prosecution claimed, in an argument to the jury, that these details — although broadcast throughout Texas — could only have been known by the person responsible for the crime. Making an argument that not even the prosecutor made on appeal, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said in today's decision that even if the trial court judge erred by refusing to allow Soffar to utilize the media reports as part of his defense, the error was "harmless."

False confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and evidence shows that people like Soffar who are impulsive, have low intelligence, low self esteem and are prone to fantasy and disassociation are the most likely candidates for false confessions.

The appeals court today also rejected Soffar's argument that the trial judge erred by refusing to admit evidence that another man confessed to committing the murders, and that this man committed a series of highly similar robbery-murders in Tennessee. The man, Paul Reid, formerly of Houston, now awaits execution on Tennessee's death row. A photograph of Reid, taken in Houston nine days after the crime, strongly resembles the composite sketch the police prepared based on the description of the sole witness to the crime.

Soffar's false confession also contradicts the account of the sole surviving witness and other reliable evidence.

"This case represents a textbook example of a miscarriage of justice," said David Dow of TIN. "From a false confession to two unfair trials and death sentences, the problems with Max Soffar's case show the grave failures of the criminal justice system. With the court's ruling today, Texas comes closer to executing another innocent man."

Soffar intends to appeal his conviction and death sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as pursue any and all additional appeals.

A copy of today's decision is available online at:

Additional information on Max Soffar's case is available online at:

Lawyers on this case are Stull of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Dow and Jared Tyler of the Texas Innocence Network.


Chris Halkides said...

Is there a consensus here about whether the TCCA is doing a good job?


Soronel Haetir said...

A guy falsely confessed to setting the Great Fire of London, it was shown that he was in fact not in the country at the time of the fire, that he arrived by ship a few weeks afterward.

He was executed anyway, despite the crown and court being in agreement that he played no part in the blaze.

Perhaps if we had such a policy there would be fewer false confessions.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment 10:05. According to Wikipedia the Great Fire of London occurred on September 2, 1666. It would seem the criminal justice system in Texas hasn't progressed at all since that time. (I know, technically it didn't exist at the time, but you get my point).

Anonymous said...

Ass I read this Im in. Budapest. I'm told by my freinds here that the former regime here would approve of the CCAs logic

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Soronel, I'm sure you think you were being cute, but "if we had such a policy" it wouldn't lead to fewer false confessions, just more executed innocent people. More than 50 people falsely confessed to Austin's Yogurt Shop murders. This is a much more common phenomenon in high-profile cases than people realize.

Besides, the execution of the fellow from the Great Fire didn't stop false confessions, did it? The problem is still with us.

Halides, speaking for myself, the CCA has been a disgrace. There is a (still very conservative) minority on the court that wants to improve things and lots more decisions these days are 5-4 instead of the whole court climbing on Judge Keller's bandwagon automatically. But it's still Judge Keller's court. I've described them as having no liberal wing, but instead a conservative and a totalitarian wing, the latter of which presently rules the roost.

Anonymous said...

It is obvious that the CCA, and most other courts, simply don't agree with the concept of "false confessions." Judges, juries too, just can't accept that the police play a part in defendants giving false confessions. "Why would a person confess to something they didn't do?" The science is there but our judicial system will not give credence to the false confession concept. Pity, truly a pity. There is caselaw that states that a defendant can't be convicted solely on his extrajudicial confession, but courts don't give this theory any teeth.

Anonymous said...

Any evidence against a suspect is suspect. We can't believe confession or any other "evidence" presented by the prosecution.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the Soffar briefs or transcripts, but the opinion is unusually unpleasant and vindictive in tone toward appellate counsel - I got 3/4 of the way through before I checked the CCA's website to find out who counsel might be, since they don't give that information on the slip opinions. Ahh! David Dow. That explained it, I thought.

It might have been a better idea to have Dow write the brief and then have one of the suck-ups that the CCA likes sign off on it. It looks very much as though the court was taking out on the client its animosity towards his counsel.

ckikerintulia said...

A little off topic here, but I see in today's paper (AGN) that Gov. Perry rejected his parole board's recommendation for clemency (5-2 vote) and Texas executed a man yesterday--an accomplice to a 1996 murder. The shooter got life. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

It took 2 years of waiting before they issued this opinion. It is just unbelievable what they have said. All of Texas knew about what had happened at the bowling alley and yet they want to claim that Max knew about details. The witness who has stated who had actually confessed to the murder could not make his statement. If justice were interested in true justice, then they would have done everything possible to hear each side of this case. It is so obvious that this man has made a false confession. School classes who are learning about his case are upset since this man is still in prison. Hopefully he will find justice on his way through the courts. And it can be hoped for that it won't take too long. Almost 30 years and more stolen from this man's life, his whole childhood actually. When will someone show him that there can be justice after all. I hope that he will live to see that.