Fmr. Texas DA’s Capital Case Disbarment Upheld

February 10, 2016
By David Lee
AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A former Texas prosecutor was correctly disbarred for his role in the wrongful death sentence of a black man who was exonerated after spending 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, the Texas Supreme Court Board of Disciplinary Appeals ruled Monday.
In a 12-0 ruling that is not appealable, the board affirmed the disbarment of former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta.
The State Bar of Texas revoked Sebesta’s law license in June 2015 after concluding he engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by withholding evidence as lead prosecutor in the murder conviction of Anthony Graves.
The board of appeals’ Monday ruling called Sebesta’s conduct “egregious” and said that “quasi-estoppel is not available to parties with unclean hands.”
Sebesta is accused of failing to disclose to Graves’ attorneys a confession by Robert Carter that he had murdered six people in 1992 alone.
Carter had implicated Graves but no physical evidence linked Graves to the murders.
Graves was released in 2010 and filed a disciplinary complaint against Sebesta four years later.
Sebesta argued in January that the State Bar decided in 2007 not to disbar him and that it cannot change its mind in pursuing Graves’ complaint. He cited changes to disciplinary rules in 2004 that result in disciplinary findings now having a res judicataeffect – that they cannot be adjudicated again.
The appeals board disagreed, saying the summary disposition panel that dismissed the accusations against Sebesta in 2007 has fewer investigatory tools than grievance committees before 2004, that did not have res judicata effect.
“The Summary Disposition Panel has no subpoena power to compel production of documents or to compel testimony; and it hears no witnesses,” the Opinion and Judgment on Appeal states. “The pre-2004 grievance committees had subpoena power to gather documents and to require testimony; and they had the opportunity to hear and cross-examine witnesses under oath. The Summary Disposition Panel has fewer tools than the pre-2004 grievance committees to attempt any adjudication of merits, and the Summary Disposition Panel is not charged with any adjudicatory function.”
The 2004 changes did not “transform the role of the screening entity into an adjudicatory body” with res judicata effect, the board said.
The board also concluded it is “not unconscionable” for a screening entity to reach one conclusion in 2007 and another in 2014. The latter included a 2010 affidavit from a special prosecutor stating his belief that there was no credible evidence of Graves’ involvement in the murders.
Sebesta said Monday that he is still believes Graves was correctly convicted.
“My opinion is that we presented the evidence we had and felt like it was sufficient,” Sebesta told Reuters.
Graves called it a “good day for justice.”
“The bar stepped in to say that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work,” he told The Dallas Morning News.

From Courthouse News.

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Prosecutorial Misconduct Frees Two Dallas Men From Life Sentences

DA Craig Watkins releases duo after proo by Dallas County DA, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   DA Craig Watkins,   Dallas County DA 

October 28, 2014
By David Lee
DALLAS (CN) – Two Texas men were freed Tuesday when their life sentences were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct during their murder trials.
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins agreed Tuesday morning to overturn the convictions of Stanley O. Mozee, 55, and Dennis Lee Allen, 52. The men were convicted of the robbery and stabbing death of the Rev. Jesse Borns Jr., who was killed in April 1999.
Dallas County Judge Mark Stoltz released Mozee and Allen on $25,000 bond during a hearing packed with their friends, family and other exonerees.
Both men await appellate rulings on their case and new trials.
Allen told the media outside the courtroom that he feels like he is “in heaven.”
“Try to imagine the best joy you ever experienced in your life,” he said. “That’s what I’m feeling right now.”
Mozee said that despite his ordeal he is not mad at anyone.
“I give the Dallas County judicial system a positive note,” he said. “The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals [must now] act and do the just thing in this matter.”
District attorney spokeswoman Debbie Denmon said Watkins’ office was approached by the Innocence Project in late 2008 and allowed its workers to review of the case files, in accordance with Watkins’ open file policy.
“It was only after this open file review that the Conviction Integrity Unit and the Innocence Project discovered letters written by jailhouse informants who were ultimately called as witnesses by the state,” Denmon said in a statement.
“In these letters, the witnesses demanded certain benefits from a former Dallas County prosecutor in exchange for testifying, and/or sought to have the prosecutor deliver on promises that the witnesses believed had been made in exchange for their testimony.”
The letters and “substantive discussions” were not disclosed at either Mozee’s or Allen’s trials.
“Consequently, at least one witness was allowed to mislead jurors about why he was testifying,” Denmon said.
Watkins said the prosecutorial misconduct occurred in an administration before his, and that the tactics used to win a conviction were “wrong back then, and it is wrong today.”
“Allowing a jury to be swayed due to prosecutors playing dirty just further erodes the trust of the criminal justice system,” he said after the hearing.
Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck urged state officials to “conduct a thorough investigation of the prosecutor’s handling of this matter and hold him accountable if he violated professional responsibilities, as the evidence strongly suggests.”
DNA tests conducted on “a trove of physical evidence” from the crime scene did not match Mozee or Allen, he said.
“However, DNA from one or more persons that does not match the defendants or the victim was identified on several items, including a bloodstain from the scene, a hammer found next to the victim’s body, and a hair underneath the victim’s fingernails, potentially from a close-range struggle in which the victim suffered numerous defensive wounds to his hands,” the Innocence Project said Tuesday afternoon.
Allen’s attorney, Gary Udashen, said the record showed “there was never a shred of credible evidence pointing to either” man.
“Instead the prosecution built a case from several unreliable jailhouse informants. As the court found, under questioning by the prosecutor, these informants falsely denied that they expected help from the prosecutor with their own cases,” Udashen said. “In fact, as the court also found, these jailhouse informants testified against Mozee and Allen only in exchange for promised help from the prosecutor.”

From Courthouse News.

Man Walks From Texas’ Death Row to Freedom

October 9, 2014
By David Lee
DALLAS (CN) – An innocent man walked from Texas’ Death Row to freedom Wednesday after spending nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
Manuel Velez, of Brownsville, was released Wednesday morning from the Huntsville Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He spent four of his nine years behind bars on death row, convicted of killing his girlfriend’s infant son.
“Manuel never belonged in prison, let alone on death row,” said Velez’s attorney Brian Stull, with the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project.
“He is indisputably innocent.
“My joy for him and his family today is tinged with sadness for the years our criminal justice system stole from him, all because he was too poor to afford better counsel than the lawyer the state appointed to him.”
Velez was arrested in 2005 and convicted in 2008. The ACLU claims his court-appointed attorney failed to discover or use medical expert records that contained “clear proof” that Velez was working construction in Tennessee at the time and could not have possibly caused the child’s head injuries.
“Nor did the lawyer discover and present the testimony of the many witnesses who said the girlfriend threw, hit, and dropped the baby and abused her children, while Manuel was never physically rough and always peaceful,” the ACLU of Texas said in a statement.
“The lawyer also bungled his challenge to the typewritten statement that police persuaded Velez to sign, which said he had mistreated the child. Velez was unable to read the statement, which was written in English. Velez’s primary language is Spanish; he is functionally illiterate in both English and Spanish. His IQ is 65.”
County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.
He told CNN, however, that Stull’s statement was “factually inaccurate and full of half-truths.”
Velez’s attorneys say he was given the death penalty because a state prison expert falsely testified that Velez would pose a danger to society if given life without parole.
That false testimony resulted in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossing Velez’s death sentence in June 2012.
The state’s high court upheld his murder conviction, however, resulting in Brownsville County District Judge Elia Corenjo Lopez ordering a new trial in April 2013 based on evidence of lack of quality counsel.
Saenz responded that the high court rejected all but one of Velez’s defense team’s 45 points of error in the conviction.
Velez’s attorneys say that prosecutors still refused to dismiss the first-degree murder charges against Velez, so he pleaded no-contest to a lesser charge of injury to a child rather than face a new trial.
“We should be ashamed of the errors that put Manuel on the brink of execution,” Stull said. “He is far from the only innocent person to receive a death sentence. A recent study estimated that, conservatively, one in every 25 people sentenced to death in the United States is innocent. In such a broken system of justice, we are foolish and cruel to continue capital punishment.”
The ACLU says that it and the American Bar Association were alerted to Velez’s case in 2008 by Maurie Levin, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
The ABA’s Capital Representation Project then notified Dallas law firm Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, and Denver law firm Lewis, Roca & Rothberger to help free Velez.
Lewis Roca partner Tamara F. Goodlette spoke with Courthouse News after Velez’s release as his attorneys were driving him home to Brownsville.
She said Velez “is really excited” about his newfound freedom.
“He’s looking forward to being at home with his family tonight, mostly because his mom and dad are elderly,” Goodlette said. “He’s happy as can be. He just had his first meal outside of prison in nine years.”
Velez is “unfortunately not eligible” to file a claim against the state for wrongful imprisonment under the Tim Cole Act due to the circumstances of his case, Goodlette said.
Passed in 2009, the law allows those that are falsely convicted to seek $80,000 in compensation from Texas for each year of their incarceration, and free college tuition.
Saenz steadfastly asserts Velez “did contribute to the death of Angel Moreno, and he was and is being punished for that crime.”
“At no point did any court, trial or appellate, or any jury make any finding that Mr. Velez was actually innocent of murdering Angel Moreno,” Saenz said in a statement Wednesday. “In fact, every time the issue was brought up, it was found to be without merit.”

From Courthouse News.

Dallas County: Center of Death Sentences

Death Chamber, Oklahoma by joshrushing, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   Death Chamber, Oklahoma,  joshrushing 

December 23, 2013
By David Lee
DALLAS (CN) – Dallas County’s reputation as a criminal justice reformer is belied by its disproportionately high number of death sentences, death penalty critics say.
In a new report , the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says Dallas County is the state’s most active death penalty jurisdiction. Dallas County has accounted for 20 percent of death penalty sentences in the state since 2008, according to “Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2013: The Year in Review.”
“While most of Texas is moving away from the death penalty, Dallas County has emerged as a major outlier in its pursuit of the ultimate punishment, particularly for defendants of color,” Kristin Houlé, executive director of the TCADP, said in a statement. “These troubling patterns directly counter Dallas’s reputation as a leader in criminal justice reform.”
Dallas County has handed down nearly twice as many death sentences in the past six years as Harris County (Houston) has. Death sentences statewide have declined by more than 75 percent in the past decade – less than 10 a year for past five years.
Despite the decline, Texas conducted 42 percent of the executions in the country this year – twice as many as any other state. Texas has executed 269 people under Gov. Rick Perry – more than any other governor in U.S. history.
Half of all new death sentences in the state are imposed on blacks, TCADP says.
“In Dallas County, this pattern is even more pronounced – of the 11 men sentenced to death there since 2008, 8 are African-American and 2 are Hispanic,” the TCADP said in a statement. “All three of Dallas County’s new death sentences in 2013 were imposed on African-American men.”
Seven inmates scheduled for execution this year have received reprieves, either stays or withdrawal of execution dates. Four other condemned inmates were granted date changes but were executed this year.
Based in Austin, TCADP is a grassroots anti-death penalty advocacy group, according to its website.

From Courthouse News.

Ex-Wife of Exonerated Man Loses Payout Claim

May 14, 2014
By David Lee
DALLAS (CN) – A man exonerated of a rape for which he served 25 years in prison does not have to split compensation from Texas with his ex-wife, an appeals court ruled.
Steven Phillips had been married to Traci Tucker for just under two years when he was arrested and charged in 1982. She divorced him 10 years later while he was serving a lengthy prison sentence.
DNA evidence cleared Phillips in 2008, however, after he had spent 24 years behind bars.
The Tim Cole Act in Texas entitles Phillips to about $6 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and Tucker sued him in 2010 for lost wages during their marriage, which she argued was community property rather than Phillip’s separate property.
Judge Lori Chrisman Hockett with the 255th Judicial District Court awarded Tucker some of the money in September 2012.
“Of the compensation and benefits received by the respondent for his wrongful imprisonment during the marriage to petitioner, $228,919 was the community property of the petitioner and the respondent, which was not divided by the divorce,” Hockett wrote. “Petitioner is entitled to receive from the respondent $114,459.50 for her 50% community property interest.”
A three-judge panel with the 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the award Monday, saying the plain language of the law states the payments is “based solely on the period of wrongful incarceration and is not based on, or related to, any particular exoneree’s economic loss or lost wages while in prison.”
Phillips’ attorney, Randy Turner in Fort Worth, said his client “really deserved a break.”
“Steven was thrilled when I gave him the news,” Turner said in an interview. “First he was imprisoned for 25 years for crimes he did not commit. Then, when he was finally exonerated and released from prison, a greedy Lubbock lawyer claimed he was entitled to half of the $2 million Steven received from the state. We litigated that lawsuit and, when it was finally concluded, Steven’s ex-wife sued him so she could get a piece of the pie. He was ready for the lawsuits to end so he could get on with his life.”
The Monday reversal rejected Tucker’s attempt to liken her ex’s Tim Cole Act payout to a settlement, since exonerees give up their right to sue the state in federal court for compensation.
“As Tucker concedes, however, the act itself does not characterize any portion of the monetary compensation awarded under the act as lost wages,” Justice David Evans wrote for the panel. “On the contrary, all eligible exonerees are entitled to compensation based solely on the number of years wrongfully incarcerated multiplied by $80,000 without regard to the exoneree’s education, work history, earning capacity, or other evidence of the economic losses incurred while wrongfully imprisoned.”
While sympathetic to the suffering of families of exonerees, the appeals court noted the law has a provision for the recovery of unpaid child support. Tucker was paid under this provision, Evans noted.
“But nowhere in the act does the Legislature provide compensation for the spouse of an exoneree,” Evans wrote. “Allowing spouses and former spouses of the wrongfully convicted to sue the exoneree for a portion of their statutory compensation might well require the exoneree to expend a considerable portion of his recovery on extended legal proceedings to defend his award.”
Phillips sued his former attorney, Kevin Glasheen, of Lubbock, in 2009 claiming that Glasheen failed to inform Phillips he was, at the time, entitled to $50,000 for each year of his wrongful imprisonment, even without filing a lawsuit.
Passage of the Tim Cole Act in 2009, after Phillips’ release, increased the per-year payout to $80,000.
There are other exonerees like Phillips who feared they would also be sued if the 5th Court fuled for Tucker, attorney Turner said.
“If the court had ruled in his ex-wife’s favor, it would have opened the floodgates to litigation by all exonerees’ ex-wives,” he said. “Whenever a future exoneree walked out of the prison gates, his first stop would have to be at an attorney’s office to prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. Most exonerees’ wives divorce them while they are in prison. Some of these men, who spent decades in prison and have no concept of how to manage money, have spent the lump-sum check they received from the state. If they were sued by their ex-wives, they could be hit with judgments for money they no longer have and forced to file bankruptcy.”
Tucker’s attorney, Jerry Patchen in Houston, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

From Courthouse News.

Fabricated Evidence Resulted in 15 Years for a Wrongful Conviction, Suit Claims

cell block d by seantoyer, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   cell block d,  seantoyer 

June 12, 2014
By David Lee
TULSA, Okla. (CN) – A vindicated Oklahoma man claims in court that Tulsa police fabricated evidence that convicted him and wrongfully imprisoned him for 15 years for armed robbery.
Sedrick Courtney sued Tulsa and at least 16 police officer and city employees in Federal Court on Monday.
Courtney says in the lawsuit that after an armed robbery at an apartment in April 1995, his name was provided by the victim, who claimed to recognize Courtney’s voice as one of the attackers. Courtney denied any involvement in the robbery.
Courtney said police found no fingerprints or any other evidence linking him to the attack, that no witnesses saw the robbers enter or leave the apartment. He said no evidence connected him to the gun and no firearm was found in his possession.
“All the detectives had was a voice identification, and they knew that was not enough,” the 41-page complaint states. “Faced with this reality, acting individually and in concert, the defendants then intentionally fabricated falsely inculpatory evidence against Mr. Courtney, irreparably and unconstitutionally tainting his criminal trial by distorting the only two pieces of evidence presented against him – faulty and false fair comparison evidence, and fabricated and improperly bolstered details of the victims’ identification.”
The falsified evidence resulted in his conviction in February 1996 for burglary and armed robbery, the complaint states. He was cleared by DNA evidence in July 2012, the indictment was dismissed and he was released on parole. His actual innocence was certified in July 2013, according to the complaint.
Courtney claims that defendant criminalist Carol Cox, the assigned trace analyst on the case, planted or fabricated the results of a forensic hair examination. Courtney claims the exam actually excluded him as the source of hairs recovered from two ski caps from the crime scheme.
“Among Mr. Courtney’s known standard, Cox now claimed to have discovered one, bleached red human hair fragment,” the complaint states. “This was false. Sedrick Courtney, who is an African American man with black to very dark brown hair, had never bleached or dyed his hair, and had no red or bleached red head hairs.”
Courtney claims Cox is “no stranger to wrongful convictions.” Testimony she provided in a 1993 case regarding hair analysis resulted in a wrongful rape conviction that was not dismissed until 1997, the complaint states.
Courtney claims the city obstructed his quest for DNA testing after his conviction. He says in the complaint that the city’s forensic’s lab’s former director, (nonparty) Mark Boese, was fired in 2010 for “incompetence, inefficiency, and gross neglect of duty.”
“Boese had maintained a policy, custom, or pattern and practice of improperly obstructing access to forensic and physical evidence with deliberate indifference to the rights of both pre-trail and convicted defendants, including Mr. Courtney,” the complaint states.
“[In 2000,]Mr. Courtney specifically requested access to the following evidence: the ski caps, the bloody piece of duct tape, hairs and slides with hairs and fibers from the masks.”
Courtney claims he was told – falsely – that the hair evidence from the case had been destroyed in spite of no documentation verifying the destruction of the evidence.
“In reality, the ski caps, hairs and slides with hairs and fibers from the masks had not been destroyed, but were still in the possession of the city of Tulsa,” the complaint states. “The report of their destruction was completely false. Informed that the evidence no longer existed, however, the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System justifiably relied on that representation and closed Mr. Courtney’s case.”
The Innocence Project requested the evidence in 2007 on Courtney’s behalf and was again told the evidence was destroyed. In September 2011, it made one final request for the evidence and Tulsa police responded they had it – one year after Boese was fired, the complaint states.
Tulsa city spokeswoman Kimberly Marsh MacLeod declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday. She said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
Courtney seeks actual and punitive damages for malicious prosecution, negligence, conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of his Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. He is represented by Richard O’Carroll in Tulsa.

From Courthouse News.

DNA Clears Man Who Spent 12 Years in Prison

July 25, 2014
By David Lee
DALLAS (CN) – A Texas man falsely convicted of rape will be exonerated Friday due to prosecutors conducting DNA testing even though the man did not publicly proclaim his innocence or ask for the DNA testing himself, the Dallas County district attorney said.
It’s the first exoneration of this kind in the country, Dallas County D.A. Crag Watkins said Thursday, and the 34th exoneration by Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit.
Michael Phillips, 57, of Dallas, served 12 years in state prison after pleading guilty in 1990 to raping a 16-year-old girl at a Dallas motel. Phillips claimed his attorney told him not to risk going to trial. The victim picked Phillips out of a photo lineup.
Phillips was released from prison in 2002 and is wheelchair-bound due to sickle-cell anemia. His innocence was discovered when Watkins’ office reviewed untested rape kits from the year 1990 on that met certain criteria.
“Mr. Phillips is very lucky that we tested rape kits from the year in which the heinous crime took place,” Watkins said. “DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free. We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”
Watkins said Phillips did not have a DNA profile on file to compare with semen in the rape kit because DNA was not regularly collected from suspects in 1990, as it is now. He said the semen in the kit was run through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which matched another resident at the motel.
Phillips said Thursday he “never imagined” to live to see his name cleared.
“Six of my siblings died from the same disease, so I thank God for sustaining me in prison,” he said. “I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me.”

From Courthouse News.