Monday, January 27, 2014

The wrongful conviction of Gerald O’Donnell

The following opinion by David Cameron was published on January 18, 2014 by the New Hampshire Register.

On Wednesday (January 15, 2014), Gerald O’Donnell was sentenced to four years in prison for bribing and tampering with Doreen Stiles, the key witness in the 1995 trial of George Gould and Ronald Taylor for the 1993 murder of Eugenio Vega in New Haven. O’Donnell worked as a private investigator for Gould and Taylor’s lawyers prior to their 2009 habeas trial.

There was no evidence linking Gould and Taylor to the murder — no fingerprints, DNA, hair fibers, weapon, eyewitnesses. There was only Stiles’ testimony. Stiles, a drug-addicted prostitute, testified that as she walked toward Vega’s store on Grand Avenue in the early morning of July 4, 1993, she saw a large black man cross the street heading toward the store. Hiding in an alleyway next to it, she heard voices arguing, a demand to open the safe, screams in Spanish and a gunshot, and saw two men leave the store. Later, she identified photos of Gould and Taylor as the men she saw. The men were convicted and sentenced to 80 years.

Eleven years later, O’Donnell, working as an investigator for Gould and Taylor’s habeas lawyers, tracked down Stiles in early December 2006 in a nursing home. In their first conversation, she told him she wasn’t near Vega’s store that morning, had not seen the men, and had made up the account over the course of a six-hour interrogation during which she experienced withdrawal symptoms, was threatened with arrest for prostitution, and was offered money to buy drugs. He immediately provided the state’s attorney’s office with a tape and transcription of the interview.

Five months later, while visiting Stiles, O’Donnell noticed that she and two other women were listening to a television that had no picture. He went to a Walmart and bought them a cheap television. Over the next couple of years, he would drop in on her from time to time and sometimes bring her a pizza or give her a small amount of cash.

At Gould and Taylor’s 2009 habeas hearing, Stiles reiterated what she told O’Donnell in their first meeting — that she wasn’t in the vicinity of the store that morning and made up the whole story during a six-hour interrogation in which she was threatened with being charged with prostitution, was “dope sick,” and was offered help in buying heroin. Persuaded by her recantation, Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr. threw out the convictions and released the men.

The state appealed and in July 2011, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed Fuger and remanded the case to the habeas court for a new trial, claiming — bizarrely — that, despite the absence of any other evidence that implicated the men, Stiles not being at the scene of the crime didn’t prove they were innocent.

Soon thereafter, Stiles was visited by two state inspectors, both former New Haven police officers. What they said is not known. They may have informed her that she would be subpoenaed to testify at the new habeas trial. They may have mentioned that in 2010 the state had removed the five-year statute of limitations for perjury, meaning she could be charged with perjury for her original trial testimony if she repeated her 2009 recantation at the new trial.

Whatever they said, her response led them to ask if she would speak with the New Haven police and to contact a New Haven detective and suggest that he speak with her. The detective did so in a videotaped interview in which Stiles attributed her 2009 recantation to O’Donnell and his offer of clothes and money and purchase of pizza, a television and a stereo. It was that videotaped statement that provided the basis for the bribery and tampering charge.

At Gould’s 2012 habeas trial — Taylor died in October 2011 — Stiles, acting upon the advice of her attorney, invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to testify. She did so because, without immunity, whatever she said — whether she repeated the account she told at the original trial or her 2009 recantation — would have exposed her to a charge of perjury.

So at O’Donnell’s trial last fall, the state granted her immunity, thinking that if she was protected from prosecution for any previous false testimony she would repeat what she said in the July 2011 interview. Instead, she repeated her 2009 recantation, saying once again that she was not near Vega’s store that morning and did not see the men at the store.

Explaining her original testimony, she said she was a drug addict at the time, was going through withdrawal, and the officers interrogating her offered to assist her in buying drugs. “They bought drugs for me, bought me clothes. It made it easy for me to go on with the lie.” While acknowledging that O’Donnell bought her a television and gave her some money, she denied his gifts had anything to do with her recantation; when asked why she recanted, she said, “I had a chance to make right what I did wrong then.”

In convicting O’Donnell, the jury ignored Stiles’ sworn testimony and chose to believe instead what she said in the 2011 videotaped interview, despite the fact that the circumstances that prompted that interview are not known and the fact that at various points in the interview Stiles acknowledged that some of her original trial testimony was false and that some of what she said in the interview itself was false.

O’Donnell compiled an impeccable record as a police officer in Cheshire and later as an inspector in the New Haven state’s attorney’s office. He did not bribe and tamper with Stiles; her recantation occurred long before he bought her a TV and gave her pizza and small amounts of money when he visited.

In prosecuting O’Donnell on the basis of Stiles’ unreliable comments in the 2011 videotaped interview, Tolland State’s Attorney Matthew C. Gedansky abused the powers of his office. O’Donnell’s conviction was, as Judge Fuger said of Gould and Taylor’s, a “manifest injustice.” And his sentence, by Judge James T. Graham, was excessive, indeed so excessive as to be gratuitously cruel.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Too many questionable guilty pleas

Emily Sasso is a freshman at Columbia University. Her father, Tampa lawyer Gary Sasso, represents Michael Perez in the appeal before the Florida Supreme Court. She wrote the following opinion exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.  It was published on January 24, 2014.

In court, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But on the long journey from the back of a squad car to the dock, they are too often presumed guilty, and the legal system is heavily stacked against them before they get their day in court. That needs to change.

A case in point: high school dropout Michael Perez. Nearly 15 years ago, Miami detectives questioned the then 16-year-old Perez about the murder of Jimmy Ramirez. Perez repeatedly asked for a lawyer and to see his family, but the detectives told him that a lawyer was unnecessary and that they could not get his family. Perez says the detectives screamed at him, and he says he told them Ramirez was killed in a drive-by shooting. He said that he was innocent.

Late that night, the detectives got Perez to confess. Only then did they start to record the interrogation.

After Perez confessed and was charged with murder, he was assigned a public defender who argued that Perez was not mentally capable of making a valid confession. The teenager had frequent seizures and low brain function. The examiner concluded that Perez was mentally capable of confessing but expressed no view on whether he had been intimidated into doing so. Perez then pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Recently, another eyewitness came forward to say that Perez is innocent and that a now-deceased gang member killed Ramirez in a drive-by shooting. The new eyewitness waited to speak out until the gang member was killed because he did not want to risk his own life.

Perez is seeking to revoke his guilty plea and says the real killer told him he would kill Perez and his sister if he told the truth. A Miami trial judge rejected Perez's challenge, but a state appellate court overturned that decision and ordered that Perez should receive a full hearing on these new developments. The state has appealed this decision to the Florida Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has established rules to protect innocent people from pleading guilty. It requires that all pleas be fair, voluntary, and taken only by a guilty defendant facing little chance of acquittal. But these criteria appear to be ineffective.

The Perez case is one of many cases where guilty pleas are entered in questionable circumstances. The Innocence Project, which helps exonerate wrongly convicted defendants, has produced two studies showing that innocent defendants are too often coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit through overly aggressive interrogation. Of nearly 250 defendants who have been exonerated in the last 30 years, 32 percent suffered from mental disabilities, 63 percent were under the age of 26, and some, like Perez, lacked legal representation before confessing.

More disconcerting, the courts are too often accepting these problematic confessions as valid, and innocent people are being sent to prison. It is the defense counsel's job to protect defendants from this fate. But these lawyers have not witnessed the interrogations. Defendants must convince their attorney the confession was false, and the attorney must convince a court or jury that the confession was false. That can be an uphill battle.

When caught in a legal bind, the wealthy can afford to hire a defense team with substantial resources to devote to the case. With this edge, private-sector lawyers can protect them from confessing to crimes they did not commit and from accepting a plea agreement in desperation.

Indigent defendants must rely on court-appointed attorneys engaged only after the interrogation and confession. These attorneys are usually highly capable, but they often have too many cases to handle. They cannot devote the same attention to each case, and they may arrive too late to prevent overreaching by zealous law enforcement authorities.

Our justice system is not doing its job. To protect the innocent, better safeguards are needed. We need to apply the presumption of innocence from the beginning, not only at a trial. Courts should not accept dubious pleas, especially when the defendant has previously insisted on his or her innocence. Authorities should refrain from pressuring suspects to confess absent overwhelming evidence of guilt. This is especially important when the subject is young, unrepresented by a lawyer and facing serious charges like Perez did. To help ensure confessions are voluntary, all of a defendant's interactions with police interrogators should be recorded. Finally, the criminal justice system has to slow down the conveyor belt; the system needs to give each case a closer look in order to provide the protection the accused need and deserve.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Scott Lewis case shows need for Connecticut conviction integrity unit

The following opinion by David R. Cameron was published in the New Haven Register on January 11, 2014.

A number of wrongful convictions and likely wrongful convictions have come to light in the state in recent years. But perhaps none more emphatically underscores the need for a conviction integrity unit than the case of Scott Lewis.

Lewis was tried and convicted in 1995 for the murders of Ricardo Turner and Edward Lamont Fields in New Haven in the early morning of Oct. 11, 1990. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison. Stefon Morant was tried separately for the murders and sentenced to 70 years.

Now, after years of unsuccessful appeals in state courts, Federal District Judge Charles S. Haight Jr. has ruled the state committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose evidence that was favorable to Lewis and impeached the testimony of the key witness for the prosecution. He ordered that Lewis be released within 60 days unless the state declares its intention to retry him.

There was no forensic evidence linking Lewis to the crime. The weapon used in the murders never was found. He was convicted on the basis the testimony of Augustine Castro, 16 at the time of the homicides, who went by his brother’s name Ovil Ruiz. His testimony was supported by that of Jose Roque, also 16 at the time of the crime and, like Ruiz, part of a drug operation in which Lewis and Morant were involved.

Ruiz was arrested in January 1991 in connection with another shooting. After questioning by New Haven Detectives Michael Sweeney and Vincent Raucci Jr., he told Raucci he overheard Lewis and Morant discussing the possibility that Turner, a banker and supplier for drug operations, might abscond with money and drugs. He said he, Lewis and Morant drove to Turner’s residence, Lewis and Morant went in, he heard gunshots, and Lewis and Morant came running out with two bags. Several weeks later, he saw Lewis throw the gun in the Mill River.

The evidence that was suppressed came to light in Morant’s 1999 habeas trial. Sweeney testified that on several occasions during the interrogation of Ruiz he had to ask Raucci to step outside, and tell him to stop giving him facts about the homicides. After Raucci resumed the interrogation without Sweeney and later emerged to say Ruiz had given him the full account, Sweeney went in and asked Ruiz if he was telling the truth. He said no, the information had come from Raucci.

Sweeney’s testimony in Morant’s habeas trial was entered into the record in Lewis’ 2001 habeas trial. But the judge rejected Lewis’ petition, claiming that all exculpatory evidence had been furnished to the defense in the original trial and the alleged evidence that Raucci influenced Ruiz’ testimony was available through the due diligence of the defense.

Judge Haight ruled the judge was wrong: Sweeney’s testimony was exculpatory, the defense wasn’t told about his interactions with Raucci, and the information wasn’t available through due diligence. He said the state clearly violated Brady v. Maryland (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that suppression of evidence favorable to a defendant violates the constitutional right to due process.

Lewis contacted the FBI and claimed he had been “set up” for the homicides by Raucci, who, he said, was a partner of the man who headed the drug operation and to whom Lewis owed money. An FBI investigation developed information that Raucci used drugs. He was suspended, later charged with billing the city for extra-duty work he didn’t do and assaulting his former girlfriend and, after pleading no contest, was given a suspended sentence.

The FBI also interviewed Ruiz and Roque. Both said their testimony against Lewis and Morant was false. Ruiz said they didn’t do it, that he had agreed to help set them up and had met with Raucci to plan it, and that he knew who did it because he was there. He said most of the account was true except that he replaced the names of those who were with him with those of Lewis and Morant.

Roque, who, like Ruiz, now is incarcerated, said he was threatened by Raucci with arrest for the murders if he didn’t provide a statement implicating Lewis and Morant, and that Raucci provided him with the information.

The state must decide if it will release or retry Lewis. In view of Sweeney’s testimony and the statements by Ruiz and Roque to the FBI, it’s inconceivable it will retry Lewis. But it needs to do more than release him; it must examine why it has taken so long for this egregiously wrongful conviction to come to light.

Perhaps more than any other, this case underscores the need for a statewide conviction integrity unit that would examine the basis for conviction in cases in which there is suspicion of official misconduct or perjury by highly unreliable witnesses. A number of major cities — Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Cook County, Manhattan and Brooklyn in New York — have created such units over the past half-dozen years. Connecticut should do the same.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale and a member of the state’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force.