This bullshit is really OUTRAGEOUS. I was a prosecutor, and when I had ANY doubt about a defendant’s guilt, I dropped the charges. READ THIS, AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS TO SOME OF THE THOUSANDS OF INNOCENT PEOPLE IN PRISON IN AMERICA. Prosecutors tell innocent defendants that they will be freed if they plead guilty to a lesser charge; if they do not they will be retried, which could mean many more years of prison.
Some prosecutors say these types of offers are inherently coercive when the alternative is staying in prison. “It flies in the face of our most basic concepts of an accurate and just system: Simply put, I think the whole thing is despicable,” Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney and a former defense lawyer, said when asked to comment on Mr. Dennis’s case and another similar deal arranged by his predecessor.
Excerpts from the Article:
Outside of Jimmy Dennis’s house, on a quiet block, it was one of those perfect summer days. But Mr. Dennis preferred to stay inside, behind drawn shades, where there was little risk anyone would misinterpret what he was up to. Twenty-five years on death row can do that to a man.
Since being arrested for a 1991 murder in Philadelphia, Mr. Dennis has maintained his alibi — that he was on a bus — and his innocence. But not until 2016 did a federal appeals court tell the state to start a new trial or release Mr. Dennis. Neither happened. Instead, prosecutors offered Mr. Dennis a deal: sign a plea of no contest to third-degree murder and he could leave prison instantly. If he declined, a new trial would most likely take years.
The deal gave the city a potential out. Without an affirmative finding that he was innocent, the city would later argue, Mr. Dennis should not be able to bring a civil suit seeking payment for his years in prison.
“The whole thing was they didn’t want me to sue,” Mr. Dennis said. “That’s what it all comes down to.”
Mr. Dennis’s deal is one of several nationally that federal judges are taking a close look at, weighing their fairness and whether they stand up under legal precedent. The deals suggest an emerging strategy in potentially costly wrongful conviction cases: Set people free, but pay them nothing.
Governments are fielding huge bills as the number of overturned convictions mounts. Since 1989, municipalities have paid $2.5 billion to exonerees, who can seek money under compensation statutes in more than 30 states or via civil lawsuits, according to research from Jeffrey S. Gutman, a law professor at George Washington University.
Some jurisdictions are having trouble paying. Michigan this year had to pass legislation to replenish its wrongful conviction claim funds after it almost ran out of money, while tiny Gage County, Neb., which has been ordered to pay $28 million to six exonerees, has considered raising property taxes and declaring bankruptcy.
In Beatrice, Neb., where a 1985 murder sent six people to prison. More than 30 years later, those wrongful convictions have saddled the county with a $28 million legal bill.
In order to bring a civil rights claim, defendants must have a favorable termination of their criminal case, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1994 decision Heck v. Humphrey.
In the prevailing interpretation of that ruling, favorable termination means an affirmative finding of innocence. But such findings are rare. If a conviction is vacated, the defendant is typically granted a new trial rather than declared innocent outright.
Prosecutors may then retry the case, or they may drop it — either because so much time has passed that the case would be too difficult to retry, or as a de facto acknowledgment that the person probably did not commit the crime. Or, as in Mr. Dennis’s case, they may strike a deal requiring the defendant to forgo seeking civil damages.
Some prosecutors say these types of offers are inherently coercive when the alternative is staying in prison.
“It flies in the face of our most basic concepts of an accurate and just system: Simply put, I think the whole thing is despicable,” Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney and a former defense lawyer, said when asked to comment on Mr. Dennis’s case and another similar deal arranged by his predecessor.
When Mr. Dennis was offered the deal, his mother was sick and his father had already died. His daughters, one born after he was jailed, were in their 20s. “When your mother doesn’t ask you for anything your entire life and she says, ‘You’ve proven your innocence, and what else do you need to prove?’” He trailed off, his voice cracking. “To this day, sometimes I hate the fact that I let these people off the hook,” he said.
In a 1997 Alaska case, four defendants — all Native Americans or Native Alaskans — were convicted of the murder of a white 15-year-old named John Hartman. As problems with the case against them came to light, supporters began to call them the Fairbanks Four.
At a hearing in 2015, the four presented exculpatory evidence — including some that pointed to lapses by law enforcement. Prosecutors began shaping a deal that would free the men if they agreed not to pursue a lawsuit.
But there was a hitch: One defendant, Marvin Roberts, had received a lighter sentence and was already out on parole. He would not have to choose between incarceration and taking the deal.
Marvin Roberts had already left prison on parole when prosecutors began shaping a deal that would let his three co-defendants go free if all four agreed not to sue. One former prosecutor wrote in an email that Mr. Roberts “may be convinced if it means the release of the other three.” Otherwise, he warned, the state could “face exposure of tens of millions of dollars.”
Alaska’s attorney general’s office formalized its offer, agreeing to drop charges and release the remaining three men if they relinquished any claim of wrongdoing by the police or the state. If any of the four refused to sign, the deal was off. “In the end, for going through what I went through, I would not get any compensation whatsoever,” Mr. Roberts said. “I spent over 18 years in hell, in a nightmare.”
He had already experienced the financial impact of so many years in prison: Though he had been a high school valedictorian, the only job he could initially get was property maintenance, with duties like shoveling snow.
“But my three friends, my brothers, they were still in jail,” he said. “So I was going to be out for Christmas and they weren’t — if I didn’t make the deal.” He signed.
The corner of Ninth Avenue and Barnette Street in Fairbanks, Alaska, near where John Hartman, 15, was killed in 1997. There was no physical evidence connecting the four defendants to the murder.
Alaska’s former attorney generl, Craig Richards, who approved the settlement, declined requests for comment, as did the current attorney general.
In 2017, the four men filed a lawsuit citing police misconduct and civil rights violations in the original case. They argued that the prosecutors’ dismissal of the charges counted as favorable termination.
Last year a federal judge ruled against them on the grounds that the signed agreements specifically said the parties had not reached an agreement on guilt or innocence. The four are appealing.
Mr. Roberts, left, joined Kevin Pease, Eugene Vent and George Frese in Fairbanks in December 2015 after they were freed from prison. “Once there’s compelling evidence that there’s serious misconduct in obtaining the conviction, why should prosecutors have the power to stop a civil rights suit?” said Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, a lawyer for two of the men. Among other things, officials had failed to disclose inconsistent statements by a key witness.
It can be difficult to understand why a person would sign away the right to sue, even if doing so means freedom. At one hearing, Sean Kelly, a brother of the victim, said the bargain underscored his belief that the four were guilty. If they were innocent, he asked, “would they accept a deal that basically gives them nothing?”
Shaurn Thomas walked out of prison in 2017. Philadelphia’s conviction integrity unit, a division of its district attorney’s office that re-examined old cases, had vacated his decades-old murder conviction, deciding there was evidence that could have shown that Mr. Thomas was not guilty. But at the time, the city was being sued by another exonerated man, who would ultimately win a record $10 million. His name was Anthony Wright.
“Would be nice to avoid a second Anthony Wright-type case and get a nolo contendere” — a plea of no contest — a city lawyer wrote to a colleague.
But Mr. Thomas refused to sign a deal saying he would not pursue a lawsuit. “You are going to bankrupt the city,” the acting district attorney told one of Mr. Thomas’s lawyers, according to a court filing.
In the end, prosecutors used a “nolle prosequi” — translation: “to be unwilling to pursue” — to dismiss the charges. The city argues that a nolle prosequi does not count as a favorable termination.
A wrongful conviction does not necessarily mean the defendant’s rights were violated. A conviction can be vacated for many reasons, including exculpatory DNA evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, errors during the trial, new witnesses, new evidence or, as in Mr. Thomas’s case, a prosecutorial review.
If there is no evidence the police or prosecutors acted improperly, the defendant cannot sue.
The considerations for overturning a conviction and for determining a city’s civil liability are different, Mike Dunn, a spokesman for the City of Philadelphia, wrote in an email: “They are not interchangeable. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to consider and avail the city of all available defenses.”
Mr. Thomas argues that there were civil rights violations against him. The Philadelphia police pressured a participant in the crime to name Mr. Thomas, he said in a federal lawsuit, and ignored evidence that he was at a youth study center at the time of the crime.
In August, Judge Gene E.K. Pratter of Federal District Court decided the suit could go forward. The city’s “nol pros decision is indicative of the plaintiff’s innocence” and indicates “favorable termination,” she wrote.
“See how gorgeous he is?” said Corby Johnson, Jimmy Dennis’s fiancée, showing pictures of Mr. Dennis just after they first met as children, at an elite choir for Philadelphia public school students.
When a teenage girl was shot and killed in 1991 near a transit stop, Mr. Dennis was miles away on a bus en route to singing practice, he said.
After decades of appeals, a judge found that prosecutors had suppressed statements and evidence that backed up Mr. Dennis’s alibi and pointed to another perpetrator. Mr. Dennis “was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit,” the federal judge, Anita B. Brody, wrote in a 2013 decision. Mr. Dennis still carries his copy of it, worn and water-stained, almost all the time.
Life has resumed some regular rhythms since he has left prison. He moved in with Ms. Johnson; he has been writing and recording songs. But he is not normal, and he knows that. He keeps his phone locator on at all times so Ms. Johnson can track him. He panics if she so much as double parks, worried it will attract the police. When he travels, he insists on hotels lined with cameras. “What was taken away from me so easily could easily be taken away from me again,” he said.
He has nightmares about his trial, with the judge and police officers looming cartoonishly above him.
“This side of the bed is dry but my side of the bed — ” he said. “Soaking wet,” Ms. Johnson finished.
In May, Mr. Dennis got some good news. A federal judge, Eduardo C. Robreno, had found a novel way to let his lawsuit against Philadelphia proceed even though he had entered the plea deal in 2016.
Judge Robreno determined that the deal was the second of two separate convictions, and said that Mr. Dennis was entitled to sue based on the first one, which had been declared invalid by a federal judge.
If Judge Robreno’s decision is upheld by higher courts, it could present a new way forward for the wrongfully convicted.
Mr. Dennis, for now, is trying to figure out each day. “I’m sitting here a semblance, trying to get back to me,” he said.
He rose to shake hands, and then stopped at the threshold of his house, not willing, for now, to go any further.
Letter to the Editor or Op Ed Submission – Cheating Exonerees Out of Fair Compensation! – 10/6/19
We can never know the precise number of innocent people in prison, but, depending upon which study one reads, it is between 10,000 and 100,000. The justice system is such a train wreck that thousands of innocent people are imprisoned and convicted, for various reasons. For the lucky ones, the truth eventually comes out. But prosecutors are now scheming to cheat them out of fair compensation for their years behind bars.
Consider this: governments are facing huge bills as the number of overturned convictions mounts. Since 1989, municipalities have paid $2.5 billion to exonerees, who can seek money under compensation statutes in more than 30 states or via civil lawsuits. $2.5 Billion!
Now there is a new, dangerous, unfair, and insidious practice afoot by prosecutors, to try to avoid liability and having to pay for government wrongdoing. In order to bring a civil rights lawsuit, the mechanism for the exonerated to get compensated, defendants must have a favorable termination of their criminal case, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1994 decision Heck v. Humphrey. “In the prevailing interpretation of that ruling, favorable termination means an affirmative finding of innocence. But such findings are rare. If a conviction is vacated, the defendant is typically granted a new trial rather than declared innocent outright.Prosecutors may then retry the case, or they may drop it.” Or, as in some cases, they may strike a deal requiring the defendant to forgo seeking civil damages.
Prosecutors tell innocent defendants that they will be freed if they plead guilty to a lesser charge; if they do not they will be retried, which could mean many more years in prison.
Some prosecutors say these types of offers are inherently coercive when the alternative is staying in prison. “It flies in the face of our most basic concepts of an accurate and just system: Simply put, I think the whole thing is despicable,” Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney and a former defense lawyer, said when asked to comment on such cases.
You can read more about this problem in this article from Citizens for Criminal JUSTICE: Wrongly Convicted, They Had to Choose: Freedom or Restitution. Prosecutors are adopting strategies to keep from having to pay for mistakes. – With Letter to the Editor – kra = http://www.citizensforcriminaljustice.net/wrongly-convicted-they-had-to-choose-freedom-or-restitution-prosecutors-are-adopting-strategies-to-keep-from-having-to-pay-for-mistakes-with-letter-to-the-editor-kra/
Ken Abraham, former Deputy Attorney General, founder of Citizens for Criminal JUSTICE, Dover, DE 302-423-4067
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