Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The jails are full of innocent people

I am kidding, of course, but if you walk through the hallways of any prison, you might be led to believe that, based on inmate claims that they didn't do it or were railroaded or the witnesses lied under oath. But the courts will entertain claims of "actual innocence." These claims are hard to win, but they are winnable.

The case is Stephenson v. State of Connecticut, a summary order decided on February 24. This guy was convicted in state court of robbery in Macy's. Post-conviction, the principal witness (a security guard named Sinclair) sent the court an unsworn but notarized statement that clarified his trial testimony. At trial, the security guard said defendant pushed and shoved him when he confronted the defendant. That would be enough for a conviction of robbery third degree. But post-trial, the guard said in this unsworn statement that he did not really mean to testify that defendant had pushed and shoved him. Instead, this witness said, he learned from the newspaper that defendant was convicted based on the "pushing and shoving" testimony but that, in fact, "I made a slip of the tongue when I said that there was 'a little pushing and shoving.' My intention was to convey the fact that there was no fighting whatever and that it was a minor incident." He added, "I thought the jury would understand that there was only arguing involved and no force whatsoever."

Since that testimony about "pushing and shoving" was central to defendant's conviction, this letter was a big deal, even if it was not provided under oath. You can win a habeas corpus petition on "actual innocence" grounds only with compelling evidence, the Supreme Court has said. The case is sent back to the federal district court to make factual findings about whether defendant has established a credible and compelling claim of actual innocence. Specifically, the Second Circuit (Leval, Livingston and Carney) says:

It may be appropriate for the District Court to conduct a hearing if it deems further investigation necessary to properly ascertain the motives and credibility of Sinclair, identify, explain, and weigh inconsistencies (if any) between the letter and Sinclair’s trial testimony, and otherwise analyze and weigh the merits of Stephenson’s claim.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, most inmates don't claim to be innocent. It is an urban legend that they all claim to be innocent.

On the other hand, there are a lot of cops who lie. The lies aren't always merely to assure a conviction, but to anger the judge into giving the defendant a more severe sentence. Sometimes, a cop will lie because they don't like the defendant, for example, because the defendant has challenged the police in the past or the defendant was rude to the cops.

It is normally easy for cops to lie and get away with it--after all who is the jury likely to believe: the cop trained in (and having lots of practice) how to appear believable or the defendant "who always claims to be innocent but is as guilty as sin" so always has a motive to lie because they are "all" guilty. If the defendant is perceived to be evil, the jury is even more likely to believe lies or overlook them. There are many more motives for police to lie, but you get the point.