Author Archives: Phil Locke

Update on the Hannah Overton Case

Five days ago, we happily posted here that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Hannah Overton’s conviction for murdering her 4-year-old stepson by salt poisoning.  The basis for the ruling was ineffective assistance of counsel, and we bemoaned the fact that the court let the prosecutor off the hook for egregious Brady violations.

Well … the happy ending is still a long way off.  The day after our posting, on October 18, 2014, Nueces County DA Mark Skurka announced that his office will retry Hannah Overton.

Given the evidence that the prosecutor had early on, and did not disclose to the defense, Overton never should have been charged in the first place. This was a “crime” that never happened.

Read the full story by Pamela Colloff for the Texas Monthly here.

If you can read Colloff’s article through, and not be bristling with anger, then you just don’t understand, or you need to read it again, or you’re just on the wrong blog.

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) – Bad Science and the Race for Massachusetts Governor

In an op-ed piece that will appear in tomorrow’s (10/19) print edition of the Boston Globe, Lee Scheier takes former prosecutor Martha Coakley to task for her “deft misuse of science” in the SBS conviction of Louise Woodward, a British nanny who was working for the Eappen family when their 8-month-old son Matthew died in 1997.

Coakley is currently running for governor of Massachusetts, and recently set up a photo op with Deborah Eappen, Matthew’s mother, trying to defend her record on “protecting children.”

This quote from the article:  “Coakley’s odd invocation of this case demands that we look at the facts. What cannot be lost in all of this political maneuvering is the truth about the Woodward case and all the thousands of shaken-baby cases before and since Woodward. The truth is that Martha Coakley’s deft misuse of science actually came very close to sending an innocent caretaker to prison for life.” (emphasis mine)

See the Boston Globe op-ed here.

Thanks to Dr. John Plunkett for passing this along.

Texas Appeals Court Grants New Trial … but Lets Prosecutor “Off the Hook”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted Hannah Overton a new trial based upon her claim of  “ineffective assistance of counsel” (IAC).  She has served seven years of a life sentence for capital murder in the death of her 4-year-old stepson who died of a sodium overdose (salt poisoning).  She truly did have ineffective assistance of counsel, because her attorney did not present the videotaped deposition of a salt poisoning expert saying that the overdose was likely unintentional, and there was nothing she could have done.

But here’s the part of the story that really gets me.  Overton had also filed a claim that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence (Brady violation), and the court was presented with both the IAC claim and the Brady claim.  In it’s ruling, the court declined to rule on the Brady claim, saying it was unnecessary since they had granted a new trial based upon the IAC claim.  They let the prosecutor off the hook.

Story from KRIS TV (Corpus Christi, TX) here.

For a current update, see the KRIS site here.

Exoneration in California Yesterday

MellenYesterday, Susan Mellen was released from prison after doing 17 years for a murder she did not commit.  She was serving a term of life without the possibility of parole.

Thanks in large part to the work of the organization Innocence Matters, a year-long investigation revealed that she was convicted solely on the basis of testimony from a woman who was proven to be a pathological liar, and that the defense at her trial had not researched that, and it was not presented in her defense.

The judge took only two minutes to vacate her conviction and dismiss her case. He was quoted as saying, “Ms. Mellen is not only not guilty. I believe, based on what I’ve read, that Ms. Mellen is innocent.”  “The justice system failed.”  The prosecution cooperated.

See the DAILY BREEZE story here.

California Governor Vetoes Bill to Protect the Innocent

Jerry Brown, the same California Governor who recently signed an ‘anti-junk science forensics bill‘ into law, has vetoed a bill that would provide protection for the innocent, and hold prosecutors “mildly” more accountable.

The vetoed bill would have allowed judges to inform juries when prosecutors had been caught intentionally withholding exculpatory evidence, which is already a breach of ethics and arguably illegal.  Note that the bill did not even include sanctions for ethics-breaching prosecutors.

See the San Francisco Examiner story here.

See the Washington Post story here.

 

California Anti-Junk Science Forensics Bill Signed Into Law

Mike Bowers, on his blog Forensics in Focus, has posted the news that a new “anti-junk science forensics” bill has been signed into law in California.

The law permits post conviction defendants the ability to contest expert testimony that was presented against them at trial. In other words, convictions in which experts have either repudiated their past testimony, or used forensic “science” that is later deemed faulty by legitimate research, are subject to later proceedings reversing that conviction.

This is a huge deal, because it prevents prosecutors and judges from just using old case law as an excuse for ignoring habeas corpus appeals expressing new forensic research and attitudes.

Prosecutors Have All the Power

Mara Leveritt is a journalist and author who wrote the book Devil’s Knot, which was subsequently made into an award winning movie.  The book chronicles the case of the West Memphis Three, in which three young men were wrongfully convicted of the gruesome 1993 multiple murder of three eight year old boys.  See previous WCB posts on the West Memphis Three here and here and here.

In 2007, DNA and hair evidence recovered from the crime scene excluded all three of them.  A deal was struck with the prosecutor whereby the three were released from prison in 2011 (after 18+ years), but only after entering an Alford plea.  In an Alford plea, the defendant maintains his/her innocence, but concedes that the prosecution’s evidence would likely be enough to convince a judge or jury of guilt.  (Editorial Note:  In this editor’s opinion, the Alford plea is nothing more than a gimmick built into the justice system system that gives prosecutors an avenue to back out of a case while saving face.  It does nothing to change the facts of the case.  Just my opinion.)

Ms. Leveritt has recently taken on the responsibility of Director of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity‘s Wrongful Convictions Academy, which is brand new, and is just spinning up.  She is an Arkansas native, and has also authored a recent article about prosecutorial misconduct and the attendant lack of accountability and sanctions in Arkansas –  Prosecutors Have All the Power.  In the article she states, “Despite documented misconduct, especially Brady violations, no prosecutor in this state has been sanctioned in the past 25 years.”  While this article is Arkansas-specific, it can be applied to the situation nationwide in general.