From time to time, I become aware of cases that are particularly good examples of the flaws, the problems, the shortcomings, the failures, and the actual injustices of our so-called justice system (that I have been writing about here for the last 3 1/2 years). This is Part 2 of what is intended to be a continuing series highlighting these cases. These cases have been selected as representative and demonstrative examples, but be aware they are just the “tip of the iceberg.” This kind of stuff is happening every day in every state. You can see Part 1 here.
[Note: To the best of my knowledge, everything in this article is a matter of public record. If it can be shown that there are any misstatements, I will immediately post a retraction and an apology. This article has been reviewed and approved for posting by both Courtney Bisbee and her family.]
“Part 2” is the case of Courtney Bisbee in Arizona. Courtney Bisbee is a clearly innocent woman who was wrongfully convicted of improperly “touching” a male adolescent. There is compelling, documented evidence of Courtney’s innocence, but she continues to be incarcerated in Perryville prison in Arizona, where she has been for the last ten years. I’ve been studying this case for two years, and it is a “perfect storm” of what is broken and wrong with the justice system. At the end of the article, I’ll enumerate at least some reasons for this, and the list is long. Let me also comment that this is an overview of the case. The more deeply one digs into the details of this case, the murkier, the dirtier, and the more putrid it gets. We just don’t have the time or the space to cover all of that here., but I can say that, in general, it relates to the state of the justice system in both Arizona and Maricopa County. This is the kind of horror story that the average citizen would say “can’t happen here,” but it does.
Stephen Lemons, writing for the Phoenix New Times in 2008, wrote a comprehensive and detailed summary of Courtney’s case. See that story by Stephen Lemons here. If you have even a casual interest in the case, I suggest you read the article. Here’s an “abbreviated” version of the case:
Courtney Bisbee was raised in Michigan in a traditional family that worked hard, played by the rules, and was living the American dream; and had never had any exposure to the justice system. In 2004, she was a successful single mom of a 4 1/2 year old daughter, living and working in Scottsdale, AZ, and life was grand. She had begun a new job as a high school nurse, while completing the final weeks of her master’s degree. A compassionate and caring person, she was even tutoring some troubled teens, and therein begin the problems, because two of these troubled teens had an even more troubled non-custodial mother, with a prior criminal record.
To understand the details of the alleged incident, I refer you to the Lemons article. But basically what happened was that the non-custodial mother of two of the teens Courtney had been mentoring learned, by accident, that the boys were secretly living with another family while their custodial father was completing work-furlough for DUI. She was irate about this, and after learning that Courtney had been at this family’s house with her two sons and several other teens, cooked up a plot to sue for money based upon Courtney’s allegedly “touching” her 13-year-old son inappropriately. She even consulted several attorneys prior to ever taking her son to talk to the police.
After the accusation was made, Courtney was arrested at her home by a SWAT team, without a warrant, and in front of her 4 1/2-year-old daughter. This was after the detective on the case, just prior to her warrantless arrest, had illegally searched Courtney’s home, also without a warrant, confiscating her computer and her camcorder. And because that same detective later lied to the Grand Jury about the case, Courtney was held non-bondable for 66 days, until a second Grand Jury could be convened, which was forced by her initial attorney. Only then was she able to be released on $100,000 bond in this “he said – she said” case.
The only detective on Courtney’s case clearly went into it with the presumption that she was guilty, failing to thoroughly investigate, and concocting his own information to support his preconceived belief. This included not following established rules and protocols for interviewing children (Multidisciplinary Protocol.2003), badgering and coercing Courtney during her lengthy interrogation, lying to the Grand Jury, and lying in court. He also did not investigate one critical, verifiable fact that would have disproved the “victim’s” story (see the Lemons article), and would have, most likely, resulted in Courtney’s acquittal.
From the onset, the prosecution employed a “win at all cost” strategy to obtain a a conviction in Courtney’s “high profile” case. At that time, the Maricopa County Attorney had been conducting a five year “witch hunt” reign of terror, even investigating and charging sitting judges and county supervisors who he believed had “crossed him.” Please see the very revealing American Bar Association Journal article about this prosecutor here. He openly boasted about his 200,000 felony convictions. Also at that time, there was a nationwide moral panic going on about the safety of children in schools, and this was a hot-button political issue for the prosecutor; resulting in a rush to judgement based upon false allegations with no presumption of innocence. Courtney was clearly a victim of all this, and her family has documented multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the course of the investigation and trial in the prosecution’s drive to rack up another politically advantageous conviction.
At trial, Courtney was represented by an expensive but inadequate attorney from a well known Phoenix law firm who presented a lackluster defense. This attorney had coerced Courtney into opting for a bench trial. He even failed to call a key defense witness who was there waiting in the court house to testify during the trial, and who had exculpatory testimony to give. This witness had been present when two of the state’s key witnesses had discussed the fact that the accuser was lying, and that nothing ever happened between Courtney and the alleged victim. In my opinion, this very well could have changed the outcome of the trial. Also in my opinion, this was just boneheaded legal incompetence. (Either that, or it was intentional. I’m sure we’ll never know. Why would he not call this witness?)
In 2006, the bench trial judge, who had been under investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney, ultimately found Courtney guilty, and imposed the mandatory minimum sentence plus one year – 11 years.
In 2007, the state’s key trial witness, the “victim’s” older brother, who was present at the time of the alleged incident, came forward with a sworn affidavit stating that he had lied in court during Courtney’s trial, that his brother had lied in court, and that the whole case was a scam for money perpetrated by their mother. Additionally, the “victim’s” (accuser’s) best friend was deposed by Courtney’s civil attorney, and stated under oath that the victim had confessed to her several times that nothing ever happened between Courtney and him, and that his mother was making him do it for the money. I have read the transcript of the deposition, and it is unequivocal; and what’s particularly striking about this is that the prosecutor was present for the deposition, and has failed to take any action as a result of it. This just makes my brain explode. This affidavit and the deposition have yet to be acknowledged or considered by a court. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has steadfastly ignored all this new evidence. Phoenix Fox News 10 did a story about the older brother’s affidavit recanting his testimony, saying that nothing ever happened, that his brother (the alleged victim) was also lying, and that their mother made them do it so she could sue for money. See that video here. In the video you’ll see Courtney sobbing as she declares her innocence and begs the judge not to separate her from her daughter; and maybe it’s my imagination, but I could swear the judge is actually smirking.
When Courtney was tried, convicted, and sent to prison in 2006, her parents lived in Atlanta. They moved to Phoenix with the idea that it would take them a year or two to get Courtney out of prison. They would ultimately have to sell Courtney’s and their homes, close their successful businesses, and cash in many of their assets to pay for Courtney’s failed defense. Ten years later, they are still in Phoenix, and Courtney is still in prison. Over this time period, they have dealt with a veritable parade of attorneys, none of whom have actually accomplished anything – except for collecting their fees. This was up until the point that her New York City attorneys were retained and filed her Writ of Habeas. Courtney has had an absolutely compelling habeas petition pending before the court for the last 2 1/2 years, but it is yet to be heard. I’ve read the petition, and it’s very well done, and anybody who reads it has to say, “Wait a minute. There’s something very wrong with this conviction.”
And here’s the real kicker. The people in this case who actually committed crimes – false accusation, perjury – get off scot-free. And the prosecutors, the judge, and the lawyers all suffer no consequences whatsoever. And they were all, all, complicit in sending an innocent mother to prison. And on top of all that, Courtney has been separated and alienated from her daughter by an antagonistic ex-husband, and has neither seen nor heard from her daughter in over 10 years.
What I believe this case exemplifies and demonstrates is ….
1) …. that the pitfalls, minefields, and booby traps in the justice system are both many in number and formidable in size. A criminal prosecution and trial, and all that goes with it, are NOT – to my view – straightforward, logical, transparent processes.
2) …. the depths of depravity to which humans will sink for money. In this case, the false accusation and lies in court were driven solely by a scam for money, and they sent an innocent person to prison.
3) …. a bad cop (detective) that ignored all established protocols, and based upon his own mistaken and faulty beliefs about the case, goes for the “kill” (conviction) without regard for exculpatory evidence, proper procedures, or actual justice. In this case, the detective coerced an untrue incriminating statement from Courtney during her interrogation, after she had asked for an attorney. Cops get to decide what they investigate and what they choose to ignore. They will also lie in court with seeming impunity.
4) …. a justice system, at least in this case, that when confronted with its own egregious error, responds by ignoring, lying, denying, and obfuscating in an effort to preserve the “sanctity” of the broken system. The affidavit by the key prosecution witness recanting his testimony, and saying that nothing ever happened, and that the whole thing was their mother’s scam for money was executed in 2007; and is yet to be considered or acknowledged by any court. Courtney’s convincing and compelling habeas petition has been before the court for 2 1/2 years with no action. There’s just no way to describe this other than “broken.”
5) …. a judge who “owed one” to the prosecutor, and may have conducted a trial with judicial bias. For example, although the court allowed Courtney to travel to Georgia to be assessed by an expert psychiatrist, his supportive testimony was stricken from the record during Courtney’s trial at the prosecution’s request.
6) …. an elected prosecutor, who was ultimately disbarred (along with his deputy county attorney), who had conducted a five year “witch hunt” reign of terror; and bragged openly about his 200,000 felony convictions. Courtney was convicted under this administration, and was clearly a victim of this. He had even investigated and charged sitting judges and county supervisors who he felt had “crossed” him. A prosecutor who, according to the Arizona Supreme Court, “outrageously exploited power, flagrantly fostered fear, and disgracefully misused the law.” (Those are the Arizona Supreme Court’s words, not mine.)
7) …. a very high-priced defense attorney who proved to be actually incompetent and uninvolved, and who persuaded his client to improperly opt for a bench trial, because the judge was “like a brother” to him. Investigation and trial preparation for the case had essentially been turned over to paralegals. He also failed to call a key witness who had flown in from Hawaii for the trial, and who had exculpatory testimony to give. Subsequent to Courtney’s trial and conviction, as the result of a host of lawsuits from clients, the Arizona Bar investigated the firm, and the Arizona Supreme Court suspended the partners; and the firm was forced into Chapter 7 Bankruptcy.
8) …. an actually innocent person convicted of a sex offense who, after serving time (11 years for “touching.”) will be condemned to life on the sex offender registry.
9) …. if you’re accused of a sex offense, you are presumed guilty, and you’re stuck with having to prove your innocence, which often comes down to just a battle of “he said – she said.” According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 81% of wrongful convictions for child sex abuse had perjury and false accusation as a contributing cause.
10) …. eyewitness testimony, even though it be false, mistaken, or perjurious, will prevail over any truthful argument or alibi to the contrary in court.
11) …. yet another family that has been financially ruined trying to overcome a wrongful conviction. Courtney’s family estimates their expenses are approaching a million dollars. Courtney and her family have had to sell their homes and assets to pay for the parade of lawyers, private investigators, experts, consultants, and the unending fees and expenses that occur from protracted litigation.
12) …. police deciding who is guilty, and then conducting their investigation with the objective of supporting their preconceived belief, ignoring exculpatory evidence. This is equivalent to vigilante justice.
To say that this has put Courtney’s family through hell would be the ultimate understatement. Courtney’s mother, Camille Tilley, has been tireless in advocating for her daughter’s innocence and freedom. Also, as a consequence of what they’ve had to endure at the hands of the justice system, she is Founder and Director of the Arizona Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and a number of other “grassroots” initiatives.
You can see Courtney’s petition on change.org here: http://chn.ge/1DQCcix.
End of story.