Thursday, May 28, 2020

Prosecutor-turned-TV-star cultivated ring of informants to give false testimony in cold cases, federal judge declares

Imagine prosecutors cultivating a "ring" of jailhouse snitches to give false testimony in cases where there otherwise was insufficient evidence to convict the defendant. Well guess what? You don't have to imagine.

A recent Houston Chronicle article by Julian Gill described remarkable allegations against former Harris County prosecutor turned TV star Kelly Siegler, with a federal district judge claiming that she concealed information about the recruitment of an informant from federal prison on Beaumont to convict Jeffrey Prible of capital murder in 2002. Judge Keith Ellison ordered a new trial for Prible, declaring he must be released in six months if the DA doesn't re-try him.

But reading the judge's 88-page order, the details are even more startling. The judge described a "ring of informants" in the federal prison - at least five or six, maybe as many as ten - who would essentially testify to whatever prosecutors needed them to say.

The leaders of this "ring" first tried to convince another man, Carl Walker, to testify against Prible before Mike Beckom agreed to do it.  Walker said the ring's leaders were “'always on the phone' with Siegler,” one of them “almost on a daily basis” regarding the case. Walker said the ringleaders “directed him to 'write a letter' to be sent to Siegler describing 'details about [Prible’s] case'” that the others had fed to him. Walker claimed that  “'common sense' told him that 'someone high on the food chain was feeding these guys the information because [Prible] wasn’t telling' Walker facts about the crime. '[T]he whole plot was made out before it was actually executed.'” 

"To Walker’s knowledge, however, Prible never actually confessed." Indeed, "Walker did not think that Prible had committed the murders."  "Overall," the judge observed, "Walker described a ring of 'five or six' informants who were trying to incriminate inmates like Prible."

That same ring, Walker explained, was “simultaneously involved in setting up another inmate, Hermilo Herrero, for another cold case murder. According to Walker, 'this is how you have [the] miraculous coincidence that the same group of guys . . . have been confessed to by two different people on two different murders, totally different murders.'”

Walker “said he came to a 'moral . . . crossroad' when he asked himself: '[Am I] going to openly lie about information I had no idea about and send this man to his death?' He added: 'I just know these guys is guilty of conspiring against him and working to recruit me and others or whomever that would listen to, actually, ah, get him on death row. I know that for a fact. I do know for a fact that Kelly Siegler was involved.'”

The informant who did testify, Mike Beckom, was recruited by his cellmate, Nathan Foreman. "Foreman testified that, after he became cellmates with Beckom in October 2001, they met Prible in the recreational yard.  By that point, however, Foreman already knew some facts about Prible’s case and had relayed them to Beckcom. Foreman had gotten his information from [another inmate, Jesse] Moreno and Siegler."

Siegler said she would not have relied on Foreman because she considered him a "liar." But she "conceded, however, that even though she similarly did not believe Foreman in Herrero’s case and accordingly did not use his testimony at trial, she nonetheless wrote a Rule 35 letter for him."

Beckom testified against Prible because he thought it would get him out of prison. Wrote Judge Ellison:
From the beginning, Beckcom testified that Siegler led him to believe that he would “get walked out . . . for [his] testimony” against Prible. Siegler told Beckcom, “[t]his probably will get you out of prison.” Beckcom thought that Siegler told him that she had talked to the federal prosecutors about his own case and they would “play ball.” He said that he had no other reason to develop evidence against Prible other than to receive a Rule 35 letter for a sentence reduction. Beckcom “knew [Siegler] had lied” because he only received one year off of his sentence for his testimony. 
The Court of Criminal Appeals said Prible had sufficient information to have claimed the informant conspiracy earlier. But, Judge Ellison concluded, "Although Prible may have suspected prosecutorial misconduct, including Brady violations, during the course of state court proceedings, Siegler’s efforts to suppress evidence of her contacts with Beckcom and the other informants left Prible with no concrete evidence to support such a claim during those proceedings, despite Prible and his counsel’s diligent efforts to discover such evidence."

To be sure, wrote Ellison:
In many ways, Beckcom was not a credible witness. From the Court’s review of the record and its observation of his live testimony, it is obvious that Beckcom was dishonest when it suited his needs. In other areas, however, Beckcom’s testimony corroborated other testimony and the timeline of events. While the Court finds that Beckcom was generally not a credible individual, certain areas of his testimony can be confirmed when compared to the record.
Kelly Siegler, it must be emphasized, denied any misconduct. But many of her answers to the most salient questions amounted to "I don't remember," while all the details that supported Prible's conviction she remembered vividly.

The judge noted that she'd received letters from several other people in the ring offering testimony against Prible but didn't follow up because she didn't believe them. "Curiously," wrote Ellison, "Siegler said that the letters were in the file open for Prible’s defense attorneys to read. This, of course, turned out to be untrue." Concluded Judge Ellison, "it is now undisputed that they were in her work product file and were not disclosed to defense counsel."

Further, Siegler "testified that she never saw Foreman after the August 2001 FDC meeting; yet, there is unrefuted evidence that she had a meeting with him in December 2001 at FCI Beaumont."

The only other evidence against Prible was DNA, but that wasn't enough to initially charge him because he freely admitted he'd been having an affair with the victim. Only the jailhouse snitch saying Prible confessed gave the state enough evidence to get a jury to convict. But even the DNA evidence was suspect. According to Judge Ellison, "The State did not disclose that it had developed evidence supporting the defense’s expert testimony on the DNA, but still presented testimony with directly opposite scientific conclusions."

Despite all this, Prible would normally be procedurally barred from making these claims because he did not include them in earlier habeas writs at the state level. But Ellison ruled that Siegler withholding critical evidence was sufficient to overcome that bar: After all, actions by the attorney representing the state itself was the reason Prible couldn't raise these claims before.

This was a remarkable ruling and the facts of the informant ring shopping testimony to prosecutors sounds like it came straight out of a movie. This isn't the first time Kelly Siegler has been accused of withholding evidence from defense counsel, but it may be the most sensational example.

Notes: Citations omitted from all quotes from the order. Also, Mr. Herrero's name was spelled two different ways in the judge's order. I looked him up in TDCJ's database and used the spelling corroborated there.


Anonymous said...

It's BS like this that causes the people to have no faith in the American Judicial System anymore. When prosecutors sink to the level of winning at any cost, and many of them have, our system of justice is absolutely doomed.

laughinguy said...

Color me amazed. . . Not!
Jailhouse snitches are usually the least credible evidence the State comes up with. If a prosecutor can't make a case without them, they shouldn't try the case.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing what some prosecutors get up to. I have never understood how Nancy Grace's career survived the Weldon Wayne Carr case in Georgia: And how curious, in the aftermath of the Birding While Black case, in which the false complaint was filed by a white woman, to note that both Siegler and Grace are white women. Do some white women feel they are on an anti-crime crusade?

Anonymous said...

And Kelly Siegler won’t be punished by the State Bar. Prosecutors are rarely disciplined for blatant ethical violations.

Anonymous said...

That's totally racist. but No, I believe it's more of a Political Power crusade. $$$$$