News

Brady Violations Result in Habeas Relief for Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoner

By David Reutter / Prison Legal News

To correct a “grave miscarriage of justice,” Pennsylvania U.S. District Court Judge Anita Brody granted a writ of habeas corpus to a state prisoner and vacated his conviction and death sentence for a murder that “in all probability he did not commit.” The court found violations under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) due to the state’s withholding of evidence.

James A. Dennis was convicted in Philadelphia for the October 22, 1991 killing of high school student Chedell Williams. Williams, 17, and a friend, Zahra Howard, were approached by two men who demanded they give up their earrings. The girls fled; Howard hid behind a fruit stand while Williams ran into the street.

The men chased Williams. One of them held a gun to her neck and shot her; they then jumped into a car and sped away. Williams was pronounced dead shortly after her arrival at a hospital.

Dennis’ conviction was “based on scant evidence at best,” the district court wrote in an August 21, 2013 ruling. “It was based solely on shaky eyewitness identifications from three witnesses, the testimony of another man who said he saw Dennis with a gun the night of the murder, and a description of clothing seized from the house of Dennis’ father that the police subsequently lost before police photographed or catalogued it.”

The police never recovered a weapon, never found the car used by the assailants and never found two accomplices described by witnesses. Judge Brody said confidence in Dennis’ conviction was significantly diminished by flaws with the investigation and prosecution of the case, and noted “There was virtually no physical evidence presented at trial.”

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Jury’s Tasteless Gag Gifts to Judge and Bailiff Fail to Demonstrate Unfair Trial

By Prison Legal News

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the denial of a death row prisoner’s habeas corpus petition that contended he was denied a fair trial by an impartial judge and jury because the jurors gave inappropriate gag gifts to the judge and one of the bailiffs.

The habeas proceeding involved Georgia death row prisoner Marcus A. Wellons, who was convicted of the murder and rape of a fourteen-year-old girl in 1989. During his trial, Wellons did not dispute that he had killed and raped the victim; rather, he claimed he was either not guilty by reason of insanity or guilty but mentally ill. After finding him guilty, the jury recommended a sentence of death for the murder and life for the rape.

Defense counsel learned during post-trial interviews that some jurors gave gag gifts to the judge and a bailiff either near the end of or immediately following the penalty phase of the trial. The judge received chocolate candy in the shape of a penis while the bailiff received chocolate in the shape of female breasts. Wellons’ counsel also learned that when the sequestered jurors dined at a local restaurant, the judge had spoken to them.

Motions for a new trial and for recusal of the judge were denied, Wellons’ convictions were affirmed on appeal and the Supreme Court denied review. Likewise, a state habeas petition was denied. After the federal district court denied Wellons’ habeas petition, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. This time, however, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and the matter was subsequently remanded for an evidentiary hearing on the “disturbing facts of this case.” The district court again denied relief and Wellons again appealed.

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Accused of Stealing a Backpack, High School Student Jailed for Nearly Three Years Without Trial

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

On the evening of May, 15, 2010, 17-year-old Kalief Browder had no idea his life was about to change. The chain of events that led to Browder’s bizarre life change began when he and his friend were walking through the Bronx coming home from a party and were stopped by police. Browder soon found himself surrounded by a police squad with a spot light blinding him. You would have thought he was being accused of murder, but in actuality he was framed for stealing a back pack.

The police informed Browder and his friend that a Mexican individual claimed they stole his back pack. Browder revealed to the police his personal items in the back pack he carried and insisted he did not steal the back pack. A police officer stepped away to speak with the alleged victim who was sitting in a police car. When he returned he informed Browder the accuser had changed his story to indicate his back pack was stolen a few weeks ago. Apparently, the information was enough to warrant a trip to the Bronx precinct. The police officer promised Browder his visit to the precinct would be short lived, but the nightmare was just beginning.

Browder was interrogated and strongly encouraged to take a plea deal if he wanted to go home soon. Browder adamantly refused to accept a plea bargain and insisted on his innocence. His friend was released, but Browder was retained because he was currently on probation for being present during an auto-theft and accident. Bail was set at $3000, which Browder’s family was unable to post.

Browder was soon on his way to Rikers Island. He was held without bail while the case literally crawled through the system. Browder was continually pressured to plea out, but he didn’t give in because he was innocent. Browder was adamant about getting a trial to prove his innocence, but every time he went before the judge the trial was delayed for various reasons. One of the main reasons for a trial failing to transpire was the overload of cases in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, which was clogging-up the court system, making it impossible for a short staffed judicial system to deliver. 

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U.S. Citizens without Remedy in Military Torture Case

By Derek Gilna / Prison Legal News

In an 8 to 3 decision, the en banc Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by Illinois U.S. District Court Judge Wayne Anderson, as well as an appellate panel that had partly affirmed that ruling, and held the judiciary should not “create a right of action for damages against soldiers who abusively interrogate or mistreat military prisoners, or fail to prevent improper detention and interrogation.”

The three appellate judges who dissented from the majority opinion argued that the plaintiffs, private American security contractors in Iraq, should have been afforded a Bivins remedy to redress their claims.

The dissent noted that both the facts and law provided an avenue by which Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, employees of Shield Group Security (also known as National Shield Security) stationed in Iraq, could seek damages for what they contended was torture by U.S. military personnel.

According to the en banc decision, “Vance came to suspect that Shield was supplying weapons to groups opposed to the U.S.,” and became an FBI informant. However, after the individuals they had fingered accused Vance and Ertel of “gun-running,” they were arrested by American military officials in April 2006.

They were then “held in solitary confinement and denied access to counsel … [and] interrogators used ‘threats of violence and actual violence, sleep deprivation and alteration, extremes of temperature, extremes of sound, light manipulation, threats of indefinite detention, denial of food, denial of water, denial of needed medical care, yelling, prolonged solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, falsified allegations and other psychologically-disruptive and injurious techniques.’” Vance and Ertel were classified as “security internees.”

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Seventh Circuit Upholds FTCA Venue Transfer

By Prison Legal News

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the transfer of a former federal prisoner’s negligence action from Illinois to Kansas.

Daniel Hudson relocated to Illinois following his release from a federal prison in Kansas. He filed a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) suit in U.S. District Court in Illinois, alleging that Kansas medical staff had negligently misdiagnosed a blood clot in his leg.

The district court granted the defendants’ motion to transfer the case to a federal court in Kansas pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a), because the principal witnesses were located in Kansas and the per-judge caseload in that state was lighter than the caseload in Illinois.

Hudson then filed a mandamus petition with the Seventh Circuit, seeking to return venue to Illinois. He argued that he and five of his witnesses – including three treating physicians – resided in Illinois.

The Court of Appeals agreed that mandamus was the proper method to challenge the district court’s transfer order: “The grant of the government’s motion to transfer the case was an unappealable interlocutory order, but an unappealable order can in exceptional circumstances be reviewed by a mandamus proceeding. The grant of a motion to transfer is an appealing candidate for such review.”

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The Ramifications of Peugh

By Tommy Walker

I. Peugh v. United States, (No. 12-62)(S. Ct. June 10, 2013)

Recently, the United States Supreme Court decided Peugh referenced above. At first blush it may not seem to have been a decision which would have significant impact with many defendants. However, upon closer review, the ramifications of Peugh are a lot more subtle, and therefore, Tommy Walker and his assistants have given us a more in-depth review. Peugh may also be the forerunner of the upcoming Alleyne case.

In Peugh, the United States Supreme Court held that sentencing a defendant under a version of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines that was promulgated after he committed his crime and increased the applicable range of the incarceration violates the Ex Post Facto Clause.

The Supreme Court defined the ex post facto clause as: (1) every law that makes an action done before the passing of the law, and which was innocent when done, criminal; and punishes such action; (2) every law that aggravates a crime, or makes it greater than it was, when committed; (3) every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed; and (4) every law that alters the legal rules of evidence, and receives less, or different, testimony, than the law required at the time of the commission of the offense, in order to convict the offender (slip opinion at page 7). (citing, Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall 386 (1793)).

At issue in Peugh was Calder’s third category of the ex post facto clause laws that “change the punishment, and inflict a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed”. (slip op., at 8). Peugh’s claim was that the ex post facto clause was violated because the 2009 Guidelines call for a greater punishment than annexed to bank fraud in 2000, when his crimes were committed. The Government on the other hand, claimed that because the mere punitive guidelines applied at Peugh’s sentencing were only advisory, there was no ex post facto issue. Id.

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