No Way Out? The Rodney Reed Affair [UPDATED!]

Rodney Reed was convicted by a Texas jury in 1998 and sentenced to die for the rape and murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites two years earlier. On April 23, 1996, Stites’s body had been found on the side of a country road outside of Bastrop, Texas. Marks on the woman’s  neck led investigators to conclude that she had been strangled, and she had had sexual relations with someone before she was killed.

Police tested the recovered DNA against that of Reed, then 29 years old.  There was no other evidence tying Reed to the murder, other than the fact that he initially lied to police, claiming that he didn’t know the victim. Finally, Reed said that he was having a sexual affair with her, and that the two had sex a couple of days before Stites was found dead. The witnesses Reed’s defense called to confirm the relationship between the two were not convincing, for varying reasons. It didn’t help Reed’s cause that he was regarded as a serial sex offender, with many arrests on his record.

As The Intercept explains in detail, the case against Reed has deteriorated over time, and was never strong to begin with. Many forensic pathologists have concluded that the verdict lacked scientific support. The medical examiner who conducted Stites’s autopsy has recanted his testimony. In 2018, both a state crime lab and a private DNA lab undercut the testimony of their own employees who had testified at Reed’s trial.  Nonethless, Reed is scheduled to be executed in five days, on the 20th of November.

The new evidence indicating that he was wrongly convicted has not been reviewed by a court and apparently will not be because of the judicial principle of finality, the very old concept that hold that legal disputes at some point achieve a resolution that cannot be appealed and must be regarded as final. The principle is deemed necessary because without it, the public could not trust in the meaning of any law, or the result of any legal process. It is a utilitarian principle: individual cases may have unjust results occasionally, but the system as a whole benefits from the certainty of finality.

When the finality principle will result in the execution of a someone who appears to have been wrongly convicted, however, the gap between law, justice and ethics is difficult to accept.  The Supreme Court will consider Reed’s case today. There is also a plea to Abbott and to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to intervene.

The ABA has also made an appeal to the Board, via a letter from American Bar Association President Judy Perry Martinez.  Continue reading

In Search of Accountability, Fairness, Justice and a Champion: the Unending Persecution of Anthony Graves

Job would pity Anthony Graves

Governments and other bureaucracies are capable of unimaginable callousness, stupidity, and wrongful conduct, allowing individual fools to multiply their power to harm exponentially, and then to see an inhuman computer-driven monstrosity run amuck as everyone denies responsibility. You could not devise a better example of this process than what Texas is doing to Anthony Graves.

He is an innocent man convicted of murder in 1994 who was released last October after spending 18 years in prison, condemned to death. He had been convicted with fabricated evidence and coached testimony employed against him by former Burleson County District Attorney Charles Siberia, and a state investigation got a Texas judge to set Graves free. But the maw of Texas bureaucracy wasn’t through ruining his life. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: Wrongly Imprisoned Victim John Thompson

“I don’t think training would have had anything to do with nothing really, to be honest with you, because you could have trained them and they would still do it. You need to punish them for doing it, then they won’t do it.”

John Thompson, who was wrongly and illegally convicted of murder in Louisiana and spent 14 years on death row because prosecutors withheld exculpatory blood evidence from his lawyers and his trial. His civil suit against the prosecutor’s office, run by Harry Connick, Sr. (yes, the singer’s father) for millions in punitive damages, on the theory that the prosecutors who framed him were inadequately trained, was overturned last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This statement apparently was made by Thompson last October, when the Supreme Court took the case, and I missed it. It surfaced again this morning in a Washington Post editorial calling for harsher punishment for prosecutors who violate the rights of accused suspects and send innocent people to prison or execution. The Post has never been more right, and the $14 million originally awarded to Thompson by an appalled jury for his ordeal is still inadequate compensation for the 18 years he spent behind bars because of a prosecutor’s dishonesty.

But the theory used to get Thompson his money—that the tragedy would have been prevented if Connick’s office hadn’t been negligent in training its lawyers in prosecutorial ethics—was a sham, and deserved to be rejected by the Court, no matter how much Thompson deserved the money, or indeed, ten time the money. Continue reading

The Training Myth and Connick v. Johnson

The U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating on the issue of whether a District Attorney’s office can be held liable when individual prosecutors commit serious misconduct, on the grounds that the government breached its duty to train its prosecutors and ensure their competence. The case is Connick v. Thompson, and it began when it was discovered that a New Orleans man had been sent to Death Row for 18 years for a crime he hadn’t committed. John Thompson was innocent, and a lab report proving that the blood found at the crime scene belonged to someone else would have proven it. Prosecutors withheld the evidence from the defense attorneys.

When Thompson was freed he was understandably angry, but the options for redress when the criminal justice system ruins your life are severely and unjustly limited. In 1976, the Supreme Court decided in Imbler v. Pachtman that prosecutors have absolute immunity from lawsuits, even when there is genuine, malicious and illegal conduct. The Court acknowledged that its ruling “does leave the genuinely wronged defendant without civil redress against a prosecutor whose malicious or dishonest action deprives him of liberty,” but declared the alternative was worse: making prosecutors timid and fearful of making a mistake that could leave them penniless. The Court suggested that professional discipline would be enough to keep prosecutors honest, but that hasn’t been the case: a USA Today study found that even in egregious cases of prosecutorial misconduct, attorneys who put innocent people in jail almost never had to endure any punishment at all. Thompson sued the District Attorney’s Office on a theory of negligent training, and won 14 million dollars from a sympathetic jury. Now the Supreme Court is deciding whether such suit can stand in light of the ruling in Pachtman.

It should, but the theory behind the lawsuit is a myth, and I suspect that everyone knows it. Continue reading

The Ethics of Compensating the Unjustly Imprisoned

The New York Times last week published the stories of two men, in different states, who were recently freed from prison after it was proven that they were wrongly convicted. Michael A. Green spent 27 years in a Texas penitentiary for a rape he didn’t commit. Thomas Lee Goldstein was locked up 24 years ago for a murder committed by someone else.

The lives of both men have been destroyed, obviously. The important question now is, who is accountable? What is owed to a human being who has been robbed of what should have been the best and most productive years of his life, and who owes it?

Both men will be getting some compensation from the state governments involved, though obviously no amount of money could make them whole: what would you accept in exchange for spending the years from 35 to 60 in a maximum security prison? Goldstein settled a lawsuit for nearly eight million dollars; Green is mulling an offer of $2.2 million from Texas, and may decide to sue to get more. 2.2 million dollars for 27 years in prison…let’s see, that works out to less than $81, 500 a year. Should he take the deal? I would not accept 2.2 million dollars to spend one year in jail, much less 27. Continue reading