Man Formerly on SC’s Death Row Suing Prosecutors

COLUMBIA, S.C.  – A man condemned for decades to South Carolina’s death row says prosecutors wrongfully pursued a case against him in a widow’s 1982 death.

Edward Lee Elmore filed a federal lawsuit last month accusing prosecutors of planting evidence that implicated him and conspiring to convict him.

Elmore was sentenced to death in the slaying of a 75-year-old widow for whom he had done odd jobs.

That verdict was overturned on appeal three times. Elmore left death row in 2010 when his attorneys argued he was mentally disabled and had a low IQ.

In 2012, he left prison altogether after entering an Alford plea to murder. Prosecutors agreed his punishment should be the 11,000 days Elmore spent incarcerated.

Court papers listed no attorneys for the prosecutors and officers named in Elmore’s lawsuit.

(The Associated Press)

ARIZONA – Debra Milke to be retried in killing of 4-year-old son

PHOENIX – Prosecutors formally told a court Monday that they plan to retry an Arizona death row inmate whose conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court four months ago.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office hasn’t filed a notice on whether they intend to seek the death penalty in the case of Debra Milke.

Milke, 49, was convicted in 1990 and sentenced to death for sending her 4-year-old son off to visit a mall Santa Claus with two men who shot the boy execution-style in the desert in 1989.

She is one of three women on death row in the state.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out Milke’s conviction on March 14, concluding that prosecutors hadn’t turned over evidence of the history of misconduct by a detective who testified at her 1990 trial that she had confessed to him in a closed interrogation room.

Milke has always maintained her innocence, saying she had nothing to do with her son Christopher’s death.

Since Milke’s conviction was overturned, prosecutors have said they were planning to retry her.

Still, they officially declared they were seeking a retrial after a ruling Monday by U.S. District Judge Robert Broomfield. The judge ordered Milke to be released from custody unless prosecutors say within 30 days that they were going to retry her.

“Today’s filing is consistent with what the county attorney has said for some time, namely that our office is preparing to retry this case,” said Jerry Cobb, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney’s office, which is handling the retrial.

Michael Kimmerer, an attorney for Milke, told The Arizona Republic that he will try to secure bond for Milke after she’s transferred from state prison to the county jail.

Prosecutors claimed Milke had her son killed to collect on a $5,000 insurance policy.

The two men convicted in the case — Roger Scott and former Milke roommate James Styers — also are on Arizona’s death row.

Scott confessed during a police interrogation and led detectives to the boy’s body. Neither Scott nor Styers testified against Milke. (AP)

TEXAS – Should prosecutors be punished for withholding evidence ?

may 23, source 2012

Must-read stuff from Texas Monthly, including a fascinating roundtable discussion among exoneree Anthony Graves, the prosecutor who helped clear him, Kelly Siegler, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, Austin police chief Art Acevedo, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey, and Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins:

Lots of interesting tidbits from the roundtable, but let’s point out one interesting discussion below the jump about whether training is sufficient to cause prosecutors to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense, or if punishment is needed for noncompliance.
Remarkably, Kelly Siegler declared that ” I have been a prosecutor my whole life, and I am telling you, we are not properly trained in how to deal with Brady. That’s separate and apart from criminal prosecutors like Charles Sebesta. We are talking two different things here.” Given that Brady has been around since (just) before Grits was born, I find that extraordinary. So did Chief Acevedo, who had this exchange with her:

Acevedo: … I’ve got to tell you, it really bothers me when I hear prosecutors say that prosecutors don’t understand Brady, when, as a police chief, I use Brady to fire people.

Siegler: You’re thinking that Brady is this black-and-white, clear-cut thing. That’s not what Brady is in the world of prosecutors. …

Acevedo: I’m not an attorney, but if I’ve got information that is exculpatory, I have a moral obligation to—

Siegler: “Exculpatory” is an easy word to use, but we’re talking about inconsistent evidence, mitigating evidence—that too. And I guarantee you every single one of the cops that work for you don’t put in their offense reports every single little inconsistent thing they know.

Acevedo: Oh, absolutely. But you know what? Here’s the piece that is missing, that Anthony’s talking about. You can train people all you want, but you’re dealing with human beings. If there are not consequences for willful misconduct, you can have all the training in the world, you can have all the rules in the world.

Graves: You gotta do more than train.

Acevedo: It drives me nuts that I have 180 days [from the time of misconduct to discipline a police officer]. That’s all I have. One hundred and eighty days. That’s nothing. There should not be a statute of limitations when it comes to violating the public trust. And cops will hate me for saying that. Prosecutors will hate me for saying that. But in a democracy, if our criminal justice system doesn’t work, we are in deep trouble. And it starts with those consequences.

Acevedo called for criminal prosecution of prosecutors who break the law, as Kelly Siegler alleged Charles Sebesta did in Anthony Graves’ case. (She called the retired DA a “criminal”; I’ll bet TM’s libel lawyers had a field day vetting that one!) The problem with criminalizing prosecutor misconduct is, as in Sebesta’s case, what prosecutor would prosecute it, especially against a sitting elected DA who’s the boss of all the prosecutors who might do so?

On the civil side, Siegler insists there can be no reduction of immunity, but I wish Acevedo had pressed that point, too. Police officers only have “qualified” instead of “absolute” immunity like prosecutors, which basically means they can be held liable only when they knowingly and intentionally violate someone’s civil rights. (In practice, qualified immunity covers nearly all lawsuits citizens bring against police – very few get past the summary judgment stage.) But the actions for which police officers have immunity are usually things done in the blink of an eye – the gun fired, the punch thrown, the chase engaged, the red light run, etc.. By contrast, prosecutors can sit in their offices for months deciding whether or not to disclose exculpatory evidence, but if they knowingly, intentionally withhold it they have “absolute” immunity. Grits sees no good reason prosecutors should have greater immunity than police officers, and I’d love to hear any prosecutors or their defenders please explain in the comments WHY they should.

There’s quite a bit more in the roundtable discussion, from which I just pulled one interesting tidbit, so read the whole thing.

OHIO – Death as bargaining chip? Ohio prosecutor slammed

May 17, 2012 Source :

COLUMBUS — Within days of a drug-related slaying in suburban Cleveland, six men were indicted on charges that carried the possibility of a death sentence. Six months later, all had been allowed to plead to lesser charges, including four who received probation and never went to prison.

In short, the men quickly went from facing the possibility of being strapped to a gurney and having 5 grams of pentobarbital injected into their veins, to prison sentences more typical for robbers and thieves.

“It probably was a negotiating tool,” said defense attorney Reuben Sheperd, who represented defendant Alex Ford. “You’ll be more motivated than you were in other circumstances.”

Such scenarios are typical in the county home to Cleveland, where prosecutor Bill Mason pursues dozens of offenders on capital charges each year at added expense to taxpayers and at the risk of some defendants ending up on death row for charges that would be minor elsewhere, even as the number of death penalty prosecutions plummets in Ohio and nationwide, according to an analysis of records by theAssociated Press.

Elsewhere in Ohio, prosecutors are pursuing only the most heinous crimes as death penalty cases and are refusing to plea bargain, or are using a 2005 law that allows them to seek life with no chance of parole and never place capital punishment on the table.

Mason denies he uses the death penalty as a negotiating tool but also says he never rules out the possibility of lesser charges as more information about a case comes to light.

The 2010 case in the suburb of Parma cost Cuyahoga County taxpayers more than $120,000 — the price of the experts and attorneys appointed because the cases involved the death penalty.

Defense attorneys have long complained about the high number of capital indictments in Cuyahoga County, a practice that precedes Mason but that he continued after first taking office in 2000. But now one of the state’s most conservative and pro-death penalty prosecutors is weighing in.

Joe Deters, prosecutor in Hamilton County, renewed questions about Cuyahoga County’s approach during meetings of an Ohio Supreme Court task force. The group, which meets again Thursday , is looking for ways to improve the state’s death penalty law.

“To use the death penalty to force a plea bargain, I think it’s unethical to do that,” Deters said in an interview.

Hamilton County, home to Cincinnati, has sent the most inmates to Ohio’s death row — 61 over 30 years — though the county has indicted fewer than 200 people in three decades. Deters doesn’t accept plea bargains once he decides to pursue a death penalty case.

Mason says a committee of assistant prosecutors reviews the evidence of each death penalty case and encourages defense attorneys to produce reasons that could weigh against the death penalty.

“When we seek the death penalty it is not to secure a plea bargain, but instead to equally apply the law,” Mason said.

Despite the higher number of capital indictments, Mason’s record of winning death sentences is no better than other counties, some of them smaller than Cuyahoga, with about 1.3 million residents.

From 2009 to 2011, for example, Cuyahoga County indicted 135 defendants on charges that could result in a death sentence, according to records maintained by Mason’s office. Only two of those offenders were sent to death row, including Anthony Sowell, convicted in 2011 of killing 11 women.

The rest either pleaded guilty, usually with the death penalty charges withdrawn, or were convicted but not sentenced to death. In six cases, charges were dismissed.

By contrast, Butler County in southwest Ohio, with 368,000 residents, recorded three death sentences during the same time but indicted just six people on capital charges.

“The proof of guilt in a death penalty case has to be near absolute, not a crap shoot,” said Butler County prosecutor Michael Gmoser . In addition, “The case has to shock the conscience of the community,” he said.

Other prosecutors and counties have faced similar criticism for high numbers of indictment. In Philadelphia, former district attorney Lynne Abraham was once dubbed “America’s deadliest DA” by The New York Times Magazine for her aggressive pursuit of the death penalty. Some African-American groups had criticized her for her death penalty stance.

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, capital cases were so numerous that in 2007 the state’s Supreme Court Chief Justice convened a task force to look at ways “to address the unprecedented number of capital cases awaiting trial” in the county.

Cuyahoga County brings so many death penalty cases that, in a twist on tough-on-crime politics, candidates running for prosecutor promised to vastly reduce the number of indictments. Mason is not running for re-election.

Mason’s approach runs counter to a 40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision that threw out the country’s death penalty laws in part over the arbitrariness of the laws in place at the time, said Ohio state public defender Tim Young.

The risk of someone ending up on death row for a crime that might be a far lesser offense elsewhere “seems like a wildly dangerous use” of the death penalty, Young added.

Just 78 inmates nationally were sentenced to death in 2011, the lowest number since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, and nearly two-thirds lower than the 224 death sentences in 2000.

High numbers of capital charges, and the use of plea bargains in death penalty cases, have been examined in several states by the American Bar Association. The ABA’s 2007 review of Ohio’s death penalty system also cited Cuyahoga County’s high number of indictments.

In Kentucky, the ABA noted that the large number of capital indictments — dozens if not hundreds — compared with death sentences “calls into question as to whether current charging practices ensure the fair, efficient, and effective enforcement of criminal law.”

In Tennessee, a 2004 report by the state’s Comptroller of the Treasury that examined the law’s cost found widespread disparities with how prosecutors used the law, with some treating it as a “bargaining chip” to secure plea bargains. “Meanwhile, defense attorneys must prepare their cases, often without knowing the punishment the prosecutor intends to seek,” the report said.

After 20 years in prison, man cleared in ’86 Waukegan rape – Bennie Starks

may 15, 2012  Source :

Starks case dismissed

Lake County prosecutors have dropped rape charges against Bennie Starks, who spent 20 years in prison before DNA pointed away from him.

Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Newman appeared at a brief hearing and dropped the sexual assault charges.

“He is a free man and he is not guilty,” said Starks’ lawyer, Jed Stone.

Starks, dressed in a burgundy sport coat and black and white checked shirt, accepted a hug around the shoulder from another of his lawyers, Vanessa Potkin from the New York-based Innocence Project.

“This has been a great day,” Starks said.

As to his plans, he said, “Spend time with my grandkids and just…living.”

Starks, 52, of Chicago was convicted in 1986 of raping a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan. He was in the middle of a 60-year sentence when the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006 and he was released on bond. As with three other recent Lake County cases, prosecutors insisted on his guilt even after DNA pointed toward someone else as the attacker.

The possibility of a retrial had been thrown into doubt by court rulings barring prosecutors from using the testimony of the victim, who identified Starks as the rapist.

She died several years ago, and a Lake County judge ruled in January 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony at the retrial.

The state appeals court affirmed that decision in February, writing that Starks’ lawyers would not have a fair shot at cross-examining her and holding that the original cross-examination was inadequate.

Since February’s ruling, Starks has waited to learn whether prosecutors planned to retry him.

After the conflicting DNA evidence became public in the early 2000s, prosecutors responded much as they did to other cases involving forensic evidence suggesting a suspect’s innocence.

Prosecutors argued that the DNA did not clear Starks because the woman could have had consensual sex with someone else, although she said at trial she had not had sex in the weeks before the attack.

The woman identified him as the man who pulled her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. A dentist said bite marks on the victim matched Starks, and his jacket was found at the scene.

Starks said the jacket and money were stolen from him after he passed the evening in a local tavern, and the defense attorneys have called the scientific rigor of the bite-mark evidence into question.

In the early 2000s, testing turned up a genetic profile from another man on the victim’s underwear. Later, testing on a vaginal swab found DNA that didn’t come from Starks, and the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006.

This morning, it first appeared that Starks’ wait to have his name cleared might continue.

Newman, the assistant state’s attorney, surprised Starks’ defense lawyers at the start of today’s hearing when, instead of immediately dropping the charges, he asked for a continuance while the appeals court considers Stark’s challenge to his battery conviction. Starks hopes to see that conviction — which stems from the same crime — wiped from his record.

Without pause, Judge John Phillips tersely declined that request and told prosecutors to make a decision on retrying Starks immediately. Newman left court for a few minutes to consult with his superiors, then returned to begin filling out paperwork for Starks’ case before the judge returned.

Stone, one Starks lawyers, approached Newman as he filled out a court form and smiled as he said, “That’s N-O-L-L-E,” a reference to the Latin phrase, nolle prosequi, which indicates a prosecutor is dropping charges.

When Phillips returned, Newman dropped the charges and hurried from the courtroom. He declined to comment on the decision.

Demand “Justice” But Beware The Rush To Judgment In The Trayvon Martin Case

march 31, 2012 source :

There are many disturbing questions surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin, many of them outlined here.  A rigorous independent investigation geared towards answering these questions and determining the extent to which George Zimmerman committed criminal acts is essential.  But as rallies today by civil rights groups and others “demand justice” and call for Zimmerman’s “immediate arrest,” I want to urge caution.

I remain very uncomfortable with the demands and petition drivescalling for Zimmerman’s prosecution (not to mention the vigilante response) based only on the selected facts to which we, the public, have become privy.

There are very good reasons to doubt the good faith of local law enforcement and the prosecuting agencies in this case, and we should certainly be demanding justice.  But we can’t know yet what a just response is.  We should await the findings of the special prosecutor — which may very well spur more legitimate questions and demands — rather than rush to judgment now based on the limited information filtered down to us from the media.

Far more often than not, in the wake of a tragic death it is the suspicious-looking African American in the hoodie for whom there is this kind of clamor for “swift justice.”