Thursday, April 2, 2015

When injustice is so blatant . . .

Anthony Ray Hinton is finally a free man after 30 years on death row for murders he did not commit.  He had no history of violent crime and passed a polygraph test, which the trial Judge refused to admit as evidence.  And his alibi was as airtight as you can get.  Here's how this awful conviction went down.
In 1985, two Birmingham area fast-food restaurants were robbed and the managers, John Davidson and Thomas Wayne Vason, were fatally shot. There were no eyewitnesses or fingerprint evidence; police had no suspects and pressure to solve the murders grew as similar crimes continued. On July 25, 1985, a restaurant in Bessemer was robbed and the manager was shot but not seriously wounded. Anthony Hinton was arrested after the manager identified him from a photo lineup, even though he was working in a locked warehouse fifteen miles away at the time of the crime. Police seized an old revolver belonging to Mr. Hinton’s mother, and state firearm examiners said that was the gun used in all three crimes. The prosecutor—who had a documented history of racial bias and said he could tell Mr. Hinton was guilty and “evil” solely from his appearance—told the court that its experts’ asserted match between Mrs. Hinton’s gun and the bullets from all three crimes was the only evidence linking Mr. Hinton to the Davidson and Vason murders.
The prosecutor was not only biased but exuded a hubris that terrifies me.  But what about the state firearms examiners, who are they?  How many others did they assist in wrongfully convicting?  Were they  incompetent? or careless? or malicious?  Whatever you want to ascribe to their motives and/or intent, you cannot deny that they were a very big part of the problem.

The similarities to Scott's case are striking.  4 responding officers decided that very night that Scott was responsible for Laci's disappearance and he in fact had murdered her; that's exactly why Duerfeldt called for a homicide detective.  And Brocchini knew Scott was guilty that same night.  2 of those responding officers told Greg Reed that very night that they already knew what happened.  All they had to do was prove it.

Experts are a very necessary element to ensure a wrongful conviction.  Distaso said in his closing argument that the jury could convict on Cheng's testimony alone.  Yet, Cheng used the wrong NOAA reporting station to obtain his tidal data, failed to use verified tidal data instead of predictions, grossly exaggerated the strength of the winds in the storm on April 12, prepared a PVD that still had Conner a ways off shore at high tide on April 13, and apparently didn't know anything about the massive breakwater that Conner would have to cross to come ashore.

In spite of what Distaso said in his closing argument, he and Harris knew that Conner's age was such a strong exonerating factor that they needed an expert to "prove" Conner died on the night of Dec 23 or morning of Dec 24, and so they employed Devore to do just that.  When his first results produced a death date of December 25, he was sent back to the drawing table.  Finally he produced 3 possible death dates, only one of which helped the State, but, sadly, that was enough.  It's like the phrase they use, "consistent with" -- it doesn't prove that the defendant committed the crime, it only raises the possibility that he did.  Forget beyond reasonable doubt -- if it's possible he did it, then he did it, because we already knew he did it.  Devore's death date was deed sufficient to offset all of the other evidence that Conner couldn't possibly have died on December 23-24.

For some reason, jurors think every member of every State Crime Lab is integrity personified, always to be trusted, never to be disbelieved or doubted.  The same with other experts working for other companies.  There's never any reason to doubt their integrity -- most don't even know that they get paid for their services, though the media and public are quick to raise the cry of "hired gun" when the Defense calls experts.  I hope the Hinton exoneration finally starts to make people think.

One last comparison -- a faulty defense.
 Mr. Hinton was appointed a lawyer who mistakenly thought he could not get enough money to hire a qualified firearms examiner. Instead, he retained a visually-impaired civil engineer with no expertise in firearms identification who admitted he could not operate the machinery necessary to examine the evidence. With no credible expert to challenge the State’s assertion of a match, Mr. Hinton was convicted and sentenced to death. Last year, the United States Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction based on his attorney’s deficient representation, and Judge Petro ordered a new trial.
Geragos did hire two top-notch experts -- Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht -- but these two failed Scott miserably.  They either didn't notice or didn't have the courage to present some very exonerating evidence for Scott.  Dr. March tried his best, but he wasn't the right expert to call.  And Geragos failed to call an expert to counter Cheng.

I doubt very many people will even notice the Hinton exoneration, much less learn anything from it.  But perhaps when Scott is exonerated, because his case is so high-profile,  it will shine the necessary spotlight on cops, prosecutors and experts who corrupt the system.

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