Thursday, December 22, 2011

Are federal courts less responsive to innocence claims than Texas?

Journalist Michael Hall from Texas Monthly emails to let us know about a possible innocence case discussed in the magazine this month. He writes:
Here's a link to a Behind the Lines I wrote in our current issue on Richard LaFuente, who's been in a federal prison for more than 25 years for a murder he didn't commit on a North Dakota Indian reservation.

I try to make the case that, compared to the fed criminal justice system, the state one is all sweetness and light--or at least it responds to veritable cases of injustice. Not like the feds. 

Here's a link to a longer story I did on LaFuente in October 2006:

Thanks, and have a great Christmas. 
I hadn't heard of this one. According to Hall:
Like [Michael] Morton and [Anthony] Graves, LaFuente is innocent. I’ve been convinced of this since 2006, when I spent four months reporting a story about his case. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. The murder victim’s own mother,  brother, and sister have testified to parole officials that LaFuente didn’t kill their son and brother. Two federal courts ruled that LaFuente’s trial was unfair and recommended he get a new one (they were  each later overruled, a turn of events one judge labeled a “gross  miscarriage of justice”). The newspaper that covered the trial 26 years  ago recently called the verdict “scandalous.”
So, asks Hall:
Why have Morton and Graves found justice while LaFuente has not? It’s simple, really. The first two were convicted in Texas state courts;  LaFuente is in the federal system. The Texas criminal justice system,  despite its reputation for being harsh, can be quite responsive to  criticism. In part, this is because it is run by elected politicians  or—in the case of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles—political  appointees who are subject to, and sometimes swayed by, public opinion.  If enough attention is drawn to an injustice, something eventually gets done. After Morton’s case became front-page news, not only did district attorney John Bradley dismiss the charges, but the attorney general  launched an investigation into what happened. 
Interesting comparison. Certainly Texas state courts have created fairly good mechanisms at least for defendants with access to exonerating DNA evidence, though on any other type of innocence claim it's still pretty tough to prevail. But it probably is true the feds are more immune to media scrutiny. I don't know enough about innocence cases in the federal system to judge which is the more difficult row to hoe - it's not quick or easy, much less "sweetness and light" for any innocent person, anywhere to be exonerated, has been my observation.


KBCraig said...

I am not a student of law, but as an interested observer I have to say it's unequivocally true that federal courts aren't interested in actual innocence.

I've read hundreds of federal court transcripts, where the appeals were based on various objections. Lack of effective counsel, lack of Miranda warnings, the usual 4A/5A objections, etc. The point that has stood out most strongly to me is the federal courts always ruling that they cannot overturn the "finder of fact".

In other words, you could have a trial in which everyone except the prosecutor agrees the accused is innocent, but if the judge/jury finds him guilty, the federal court will not overturn that verdict, no matter the strength of the evidence.

Stare decisis is the festering sphincter of jurisprudence. It's the base upon which all unjust case law is built.

PastorMike said...

There is GREAT TRUTH to this article concerning the responsiveness of Texas (or state) courts then the federal courts. One reason is that the burden of proof is a lot harder to convict in the state versus the feds. The federal courts needs less evidence to convict, have far harsher sentences, and have judicial staff in place that have placed themselves above the very law that they dish out. Thus, we have a 99.9% conviction rate in the federal system. Even with mafia cases like John Gotti, the federal courts were able to convict with less evidence, then the state with more evidence. The United States Attorney is able to fabricate evidence, persuade those already convicted to testify, and has far more monies to investigate and fabricate its case. The federal courts are not bound by the state lines or jurisdiction, and a host of other technicalities that the states are bound by.Because the federal courts has the mind set of "We've done nothing wrong and everything right", there is no reason for them to be more concerned with the innocence of anyone they have convicted. One of the greatest proofs of this is the Crack Law, that has for more than 23 years, charged and convicted persons to the 1 to 100 ratio of drug quantity. Most of these cases would have been either not brought to trial or less severe in punishment, but because of the federal courts stance on what is and what isn't justice, this is not the case. Until there is a more visible platform, more people involved in the injustices and miscarriages of justice, and until federal authorities are placed in the spot light, this will not change. Sad, but true!

john said...

Well, it's interesting, truly. But not a good thing to have courts or prisons or anything like that run by politicians OR appointees. Only folks who might be accountable through elections can really have enough checks and balances. But i guess almost everything is a court of celebrity and must be tried in the media, anymore. That's not right. We certainly cannot trust the media--who is the most paid off and the most celebrity-seeking of all!

Phillip Baker said...

All I know is that when I worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1980-85, I saw the feds use a lot of abominable tactics. THey wanted one guy for making meth, so the arrested him plus his three sons, his wife, and his neighbors! It was well known none of these others had anything to do with the meth business. They were leverage to make the guy plead guilty. They even threatened to make sure his youngest son(early 20's) would be raped in prison. This sort of tactic was so common that nobody even blinked an eye. I saw it over and over.

Kevin Stouwie said...

Mr. Baker, unfortunately, they do those kinds of things in state court prosecutions too.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that, at least in civil actions, the fed courts are bound by more strict rules when it comes to discovery and evidence. That's why it's a common practice to first sue in state court, where the discovery process can be a wide open fishing expedition. Then, file suit in fed court and have all evidence you gathered in state court admitted into the fed suit.

However, I will agree about the fed judges. We once had a fed judge in southern district announce at the beginning of trial that he had something to do at 3pm that day, and we better get it wrapped up before then because he wasn't going to hear any more after that.

Anonymous said...

Scott Henson
In response to your story by Michael Hall...

Dear Mr. Henson,
We, Jim Brooks family are writing you today to bring your attention to the Houston trader cases, and in particular court case 09-20871 - Phillips, Walton Brooks vs. United States Government. We want to let you know this appeal case is set for oral arguments at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans during the first week of March 2012. In light of other federal cases being brought to the forefront with the Innocence Project, and Michael Hall's timely article, “Fed Up”, we want you to write about Brooks, Walton, and Phillips, a white collar case which closely parallels the LaFuentes case, in that innocent men sit in prison due to the Federal governments refusal to correlate justice and truth. Bill Anderson, professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, another advocate against federal prosecutorial misconduct and federal injustice has been informed of the proceedings as well. We believe the more attention that we can bring to this case will hopefully continue to enlighten the public to the dark hole that has become the DOJ, and the lack of accountability of our government when it comes to actual justice of the wrongly accused. We believe the only way to further the cause of the wrongly accused is to continue exposing the truth. We hope you will use this case to continue to bring these issues to light.

J.R. Brooks
San Antonio, Texas

Also copied on this email...
William Anderson
Michael Hall
Tom Kirkendall