The Thin Blue Line

An older attorney I know recently recommended that I watch the movie, The Thin Blue Line.  We were discussing and analyzing some of the developments in recent cases of exonerations.  The Micheal Morton case in Williamson County absolutely baffles me.  I heard Anthony Graves speak at the Advanced Criminal Law seminar in Houston, and it was truly inspiring to hear a man's story who had been incarcerated almost his entire life as an innocent man.  I also found the Cameron Todd Willingham case something that was troubling when I read what his last words were:

Just before Willingham received the lethal injection, he was asked if he had any last words. He said:

"The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne."

A friend of mine recently asked what I thought of the death of Troy Davis.  While I didn't know the specific facts of the Davis case, I no doubt thought if I did, I would have been as deeply troubled with this one as I have been with the others I mentioned.  

I had a friendly conversation recently with a relative of mine who does NOT practice law.  He mentioned that he felt, despite all the new DNA evidence and subsequent exonerations, that only in a very rare circumstance would a jury convict an innocent man.  He does not work in the criminal justice system as I do.  I told him I respectfully disagree.

I wrote the following to my friend in response to him asking my thoughts on the Davis case, and how such a travesty could occur in our system:

"Our justice is far from being just.  I lost a trial once where I believe a man was convicted for a crime he did not commit.  I couldn't believe it.  From the deepest pit of my soul I knew my guy was innocent of the charges brought.  It was a sexual assault charge where the girl said it was not consensual, and he said it was.  I thought the facts were unreal.  She remembered literally nothing from almost the entire day.  She had been using cocaine the entire day, and she drank large amounts of trashcan punch continually (which every knows is loaded with Everclear).  She then slept with the defendant I represented.  He said it was at the end of the night, and she was the one who pursued him and inititiated their encounter."

"She woke up, however, the next day and realized what's happened.  She told her boyfriend that she was raped.  He became very upset.  He made her go to the police to make a report it.  She did not go to the police on her own volition. They asked what happened, she told them (which was the day after) "I do not remember anything."  

"They made her recount her story again a week later.  This time they asked her pointed questions designed to ilicit the answer they wanted.  Now her statement was "I think he raped me."  My guy swears up and down it was totally consensual, and I believed him.  The girl had a long history of extreme promiscuity, but of course none of that would ever come into trial (under the Rape-Shield Laws).  In fact, when she tells her boyfriend she was raped, they have sex, and then go to the police.  She declines the SANE kit (swabs to determine if penetration was forced, etc.) because she was unsure what semen would be found.  Literally.  I couldn't have been more confident about those facts going in to trial."

"At trial, the alleged victim got on the stand stand and cried her eyes out.  This time, she tells the jury "I know and AM 100% sure I was raped."  I question her about all of her inconsistencies, and she downplays it.  The jury sympathized with the girl they perceived as having been raped.  The punishment recommendation before trial was 10 years in prison.  He gets convicted, and he ends up getting 8 years probation.  Most people tell me I won, because I "beat the rec."  

"I felt sick and I wanted to throw away my license to practice law.  There were other facts that played into this, like how the other attorney I was trying it with advised him NOT to testify, and I told him that he should.  My thinking was no way they believe our story if he doesn't get up there and look the jury in the eye and tell them it was completely consensual.  To this day, I think I was right.  Who knows though, the other attorney thought if jury felt he was lying, the jury would have held it against him during the sentencing phase of the trial.  Maybe he was right, because we did score a win after guilt/innocence.  He could have gotten 20 in the Texas Department of Corrections, and he ended up with 8-years probation with no jail time as a condition, which is rare."

"After the trial this older attorney who has tried a ton of cases said I did a great job and commended me on my passionate closing argument.  I obviously didn't think I did a very good job because we lost.  I told him I was sick that an innocent man was convicted.  While he didn't get time in the penitientary, this kid was now a convicted felon and what's worse, a registered "sex offender" for life.  The stigma for that is unbearable." 

"When I told him how I thought it was a travesty what occurred, the older attorney told me he estimated he had about 60 former clients currently somewhere within the Texas state prison system whom he genuinely felt were completely innocent of the charges brought when they were tried and convicted.  I was shocked.  I was young, but I never before considered how an innocent man could literally be put in prison for something they didn't do.  He told me it happens daily at the courthouses all over Texas and in the entire country.  After doing this for some time now, I now know he is right."

I remember that when watching The Thin Blue Line, Randall Dale Adams, the innocent accused and the defendant convicted following the trial, said the story of the main witness changed at almost every stage in the investigation.  The main witness was the partner of the police officer who was shot and killed, later identified by the man David Harris.  While the officer walked up to the vehicle after initiating a traffic stop, he was callously killed in the line of duty.  His partner was inside their patrol car drinking a milk shake and eating a hamburger.  She then got out of their vehicle and begain firing her weapon, missing the vehicle with every discharged shot.

The interviewer asked Mr. Adams at one point why he was convicted.  He pointed to the the main witness for the police.  He said her story changed at almost every change of the investigation, and literally pulled a 180 when giving testimony at the trial.  

I couldn't helped but be reminded of my case, in that the story of the victim changed at least 3 different times as well.  In my case, she said "I do not remember anything" when asked if they had sex the previous night.  Maybe a week later, in the forensic interview, she said she "thought she was raped."  At trial, when questioned by me, she unequivocally stated "I know and AM 100% sure I was raped."

Randall Dale Adams remarked about how the testimony of the witness changed throughout the investigation eerily reminded me of my case and how the victim had a story that was different each time I'd heard it.  In my opinion, this should be a red flag in any criminal investigation.  It is very clear that this kind of "changing" testimony leads to people being wrongly convicted. 

It is startling to me just how easy it is for someone innocent to go to prison.  Statements change.  Recollections fade.  The police are incredible about obtaining statements from witnesses they need to make a case.  It's their job.  Sometimes it works and the guilty person gets convicted.  But all too often, the wrong guy takes the blame.  And this, as we have seen, can lead to serious and major mistakes.  Just like it sounds like with Mr. Davis, Mr. Willingham, Mr. Randall Dale Adams, Mr. Morton, and Mr. Willingham.

Now, the events which transpired in Mr. Morton's case is altogether a different story.  When I read the events that transpired back then, I cringe.  I cannot believe what occurred.  If everything stated in the media is true, those in charge both in the trial and the subsequent attempt to free Mr. Morton, should have their licenses to practice law immediately revoked, and perhaps should be punished criminally.  If what is being said is true, they maliciously robbed a man of 25 years of his life.  When someone takes something away so precious in our society, we punish himthem by charging them with a crime and we assess what we believe is an appropriate punishment.  For me, personally, I have no idea why this situation should be any different with assessing punishment to those in authority who so egregiously abused our system of justice.