Sunday, August 14, 2011

Exonerees not eligible under compensation statute face uphill climb in civil court

A jury ruled against the plaintiffs, two Mexican nationals, in a federal civil rights suit out of Lubbock (discussed earlier in this Grits post) after they'd served 12 years in prison based on erroneous convictions overturned because of ineffective assistance of counsel. Attorneys for the state sounded exultant:
Karen Matlock, with the Attorney General's office, called it "a great day".
"We are glad that this trial is finally concluded and has come to a very happy ending," Matlock said. "We are very happy that our system has allowed Ranger Sal Abreo of the Texas Rangers to clear his name."

Matlock also released a single quote on behalf of Mr. Abreo

"Men of integrity when attacked will not respond but will wait patiently until time proves him right," Matlock said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they respect the jury's verdict and that their clients are ready to move on.

"We are grateful that they are free from prison," Fernando Bustos, the plaintiffs' attorney, said. "We are disappointed with the jury's decision but we certainly respect it and we are grateful that these men can live the rest of their lives as free men."

Bustos said they will not seek further action in the case.
It's probably a bit overstated, though, to say that Ranger Abreo was "proven right" since we're talking about a pair of false convictions. If he was "right" the plaintiffs would still be in prison, so the state in these cases didn't get it right at all! Plus, it's difficult ignore Abreo's unorthodox investigation methods, or to un-ring the bell when a memo was introduced in court from the Lamb County District Attorney calling Abreo “the worst Texas Ranger you will ever meet.” That's all just out there now, caveats and post hoc explanations notwithstanding. Indeed, prosecutors had to call in Abreo's boss to testify that the arrests in question were valid "despite mistakes made by lead investigator Sal Abreo."

Williamson County DA John Bradley, of all people, was called as an expert witness (@ $175 per hour) to testify why the DA claiming the defendants committed crimes in the press when he can't prove it in court wasn't actually defamatory, leading me to wonder: Since when is Bradley an expert on libel and slander law? The only reason I can think of that he'd be considered an "expert" on that topic is because he routinely engages in the same behavior!

Bottom line, this case demonstrates the flip side to the compensation debate going on in Dallas about whether lawyers should be paid for filing civil suits on behalf of people who've been falsely convicted. When an exoneree chooses to sue rather than accept state compensation - or when, as in this case or with Anthony Graves (before recent legislation), defendants are freed on any procedural grounds besides a habeas writ finding "actual innocence" - such litigation is never a slam dunk, particularly in the US 5th Circuit where Texas resides. There is no Texas civil rights statute, so the only option for pursuing such cases is in federal court, where a defendant must prove a "pattern and practice" of misconduct, not just that some wrong was done to them in particular. Even then, it's such an extraordinarily high bar to breach the various court-created immunities on police and prosecutor misconduct that even deserving plaintiffs, as a practical matter, are likely to lose.

DNA doesn't exist in most cases, leaving folks like these two plaintiffs in a position where, to secure their freedom, they must prove a negative - that they didn't do something. (The Todd Willingham case is a great example of this conundrum - the evidence used to convict him was a bunch of phony, unscientific hokum, but since even a stopped clock is right twice a day it's impossible to say investigators weren't accidentally right despite the litany of error presented as fact in court.) Then, for exonerees who aren't eligible under the (relatively narrow) state compensation statute, to win compensation in civil court, plaintiffs must basically prove not just that law enforcement pro-actively framed them but that such behavior was institutionally tolerated - an even higher bar than merely proving one's innocence. Whenever attorneys take such cases on a contingency basis, there's a very real chance, as in this instance, that they'll sink a tremendous amount of time and resources into a case and still wind up with nothing.

Despite exultations from the Attorney General, this was hardly a "great day" for anybody except the county's insurance carrier who would have been on the hook if they'd lost. Police errors and shoddy tactics were exposed and two men who are very likely innocent will receive no redress for valid grievances. That's a pretty shaky platform from which to gloat to the media that somehow the system works.


Anonymous said...

Who Killed Evangelina Cruz?

Cruz, a mother of four, was shot nine times at close range, including once in the face, on Aug. 6, 1996, at a Jolly Roger convenience store in Littlefield, in the Texas panhandle. In her last dying moments, she called 911 and described her assailants to police. In part, she said they were Hispanic, between the ages of 18-20 and driving a gold car.

Anonymous said...

You have really outdone yourself, revealing a bias of liberal proportions. No matter the facts, you twist the meaning to make law enforcement the bad guy. I'm sad for you.

Anonymous said...

Guess you don't want to mention that case was reversed for ineffective assistance and not innocence. Sue those lawyers if you want money. But that wouldn't fit your warped sense of the world.

Anonymous said...

Information about victims (such as Evangelina Cruz) seems to always be left out of GfB stories.

Anonymous said...

According to the Lubbock newspaper "Bradley also noted that, contrary to the actual innocence proclaimed by Sifuentes’ and Ramirez’s attorneys, 24 jurors and 12 appellate judges had found the men guilty prior to their release".

Enough Said.....

doran said...

Waita minute, you anonymous doofi. If Sifuentes and Ramirez are guilty, why are they not in prison?

And who indeed killed Evangelina Cruz? Do you think for a moment that, since Sifuentes and Ramirez are not in prison for the crime, that the Glorious Texas Rangers will re-open the case and seek out the real perps?

HA! Rangers would rather let the killers go free than admit to making a mess and a huge mistake.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And yet, 12:57, the state doesn't have enough evidence convince a grand jury these men committed the crime. So what exactly does your recitation tell us?

1:27, save your pity. If law enforcement had gotten this one right, these guys would be in prison. Instead, they botched it and in all likelihood the real killers went free as a result.

1:38, I actually agree with that sentiment. I don't know why they didn't sue the defense attorneys, who should be bonded, but even the jury foreman said the case against them would have been strong.

1:58, see the response to 12:57. And if you think I don't provide adequate detail, a) read the MSM for yourself on this widely covered story and/or b) feel free to start your own blog and say whatever you like. I offer my own opinions here, Grits does not pretend to be a comprehensive news source.

2:50, if the case is so strong, why won't the grand jury re-indict? Answer: Because information arose post-conviction that cast doubt on the conclusions of all those jurors and appellate judges. There's only "enough said" if you add that tidbit, you neglected to mention.

BTW, for more detail (I hadn't seen this before writing this post but just looked it up in response to the comments) see the findings of fact and conclusion of lawfrom the trial judge that casts more light on what the ineffective assistance constituted. It's pretty clear why they're not going back to trial with the case that's left.

There's also plenty in there that doesn't make the state look good. Here's an excerpt from the findings of fact in that document:

"Shortly after deciding to seek an indictment the defendants for the murder of Ms. Cruz, [District Attorney] Yarbrough learned that Ranger Abreo had lied to him to get him to file the case against Sifuentes and Ramirez. Sometime after learning that his lead investigator had lied to him Yarbrough prepared an internal memorandum describing the state's witness entitled "Witness Profiles" and in describing Ranger Abreo, the prosecutor wrote: "Sal Abreo--he was Ranger in charge--he lied to me to get me to file this case.

"Mr. Yarbrough provided this internal memorandum to special Prosecutor Sandra Self ... prior to the Sifuentes trial.

"At the habeas hearing, District Attorney Yarbrough acknowledged that neither he nor anyone in the Lamb County District Attorney's Office ever produced the "Witness Profiles" document describing Ranger Abreo to defense counsel."

The trial court ruled that failing to disclose that was not a "Brady" violation, however, on the grounds that "the State's impressions [of a witness] do not constitute 'evidence' under Brady." So the fact that the DA thinks a witness they're presenting is a liar? Not Brady material according to Judge Felix Klein. Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Grits said:
" If law enforcement had gotten this one right, these guys would be in prison. Instead, they botched it and in all likelihood the real killers went free as a result."

How does "getting it right" change the fact they were guilty or innocent? No matter how good or bad a job LE did, their guilt or innocence doesn't change. Either they did it, or they didn't.

This story reminds me of a job my brother had as a tech in a food and drug testing lab. Even though a substance would test bad for human consumption, they would keep running multiple tests on the substance on the outside chance that they would get back a good test. When they did, the joke was: "OK, the stuff must be good - let's all eat!"

Anonymous said...

Grits said of John Bradley: "The only reason I can think of that he'd be considered an "expert" on that topic is because he routinely engages in the same behavior!" I agree. I also believe ineffective counsel is rampant in "Bradley" county.

It is my belief that Bradley and his assistants routinely fabricate extraneous offenses and bad acts in the sentencing phase and during plea bargaining as well. How many Williamson County people have been wrongfully convicted or harshly sentenced as a result of such fabrications (lies)? Also, why are some lawyers afraid to defend their Williamson County clients against fabricated b.s. (lies) Bradley's been at it a long long time. Should be an expert by now.

Not to fan the flames of resentment…just wondering.

Anonymous said...

lmao -- Bradley used as an expert witness and paid to cover for one of his own.

Kind of like Perry's appointment of Bradley to the Forensic Science Commission.

Anonymous said...

Wanna see John Bradley lie to Senator Ellis?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, in closing - two human beings were represented by goofballs from start to finish. They will all shred the case files after around five years and act like it never happened.

The only good thing that came out of this was freedom for two falsely arrested and wrongfully convicted humans and the public at large learned the names of those responsible. With this chapter closed, we can add the names of those that made it go away (the Jury) & those that reveled in it (Karen Matlock, John Bradley, Mark Yarbourgh, Sal Abreo).

Warning! one of them will run for Governor, one for Judge, one for Attorney General, one for Senator.

*R.I.P. Evangelina Cruz