The Tragedy of a Wrongful Conviction

To protect the confidentiality of a client, I’m not going to use any names, but working on this case recently has me thinking again about why it is so difficult to get clients relief in the criminal justice system. It’s incredibly frustrating. And heartbreaking. Here’s a short story of how our criminal justice system can go horribly off the tracks and how difficult it can be to achieve justice.

My client had a trial around 12 years ago. He was accused of murdering a man who was in this particular neighborhood buying drugs. During the course of his case, my client was provided with three different attorneys. Each one had to withdraw due to conflicts, with the last lawyer leaving the case due to a health condition. A young lawyer who never tried a murder case volunteered to try it. She was a family court lawyer. She took the case and reviewed it. She talked to my client a couple of times. My client rebuffed several plea offers because he has adamantly maintained he did not shoot and kill the victim.

The trial was a disaster. Trial counsel did not know basic criminal law in South Carolina—like the fact that mugshots are inadmissible, for example. But most importantly, it appears that she did not investigate an eyewitness to the crime who gave a statement to law enforcement that someone other than my guy killed the victim. This statement and investigator notes were provided to me by the deputy solicitor of this jurisdiction. It was, apparently, in the State’s file. My client is convicted after a 3-day trial based solely on circumstantial evidence. No gun was ever found; no statements indicating my client killed the victim. Just his fingerprint on the decedent’s car (where my client admittedly was selling drugs to him on that night), his DNA on a Bluetooth found in the apartment complex (and not even near where the shooting occurred), and the fact that shortly after the victim’s death my client and a friend travelled to New York (in the words of the State he was “fleeing” from the area). Also, my client’s 14-year old friend initially gave a statement to law enforcement that she claims she was coerced into giving and indicating that my client intended to rob the victim on this fateful night. On the stand she recanted and testified the police made her implicate my client and threatened her with prison. A child—threatened by police that she would go to prison. This was a very, very weak circumstantial case. My client was, however, convicted, and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

I represented this client on direct appeal but lost. I raised a sufficiency of the evidence claim, but the appellate courts rejected it.

My client was then entitled to a post-conviction relief proceding. He was appointed a lawyer who, under South Carolina’s current procedure, received a check for $800 to handle this murder case. That’s it. The Office of Indigent Defense pays mostly new and young lawyers under a contract system a flat fee to handle post-conviction relief cases for indigent defendants, and they strictly limit the amount of money a lawyer can earn on these cases. Unsurprisingly, PCR counsel did not do much by way of investigation. My client lost his PCR.

Now my client is in federal habeas and I am his lawyer, again! In speaking to my client, he told me there was an eyewitness to the crime who he believed gave a statement to the police. I track him down. I meet with him. He tells me that’s true. He tells me, more significantly, that he was present when the victim was killed and that another guy actually killed the victim. This other guy, by the way, is currently serving two life sentences in prison on other, unrelated, murder cases. This guy is a stone-cold murderer and I read in a news article that the Solicitor considered seeking the death penalty against him after the second murder. This eyewitness provided me with an affidavit attesting to what he observed that night. As part of my investigation, I then reached out to the Solicitor’s office to see if there was a statement in their file given by this same witness. He told me he had given one, but my client told me he had never seen it. Sure enough, this eyewitness’s statement was in the file, along with investigator notes memorializing this discussion with the witness.

I complete the habeas petition and attach these two affidavits and the investigator notes. I allege that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel for not interviewing and presenting this eyewitness. I alleged facts that, if true, would entitle my client to habeas relief, which is the standard I have to meet at this point. I then ask for an evidentiary hearing so we can call trial counsel and get to the bottom of all this. I would also call my eyewitness and allow him to be cross-examined by the State. In short, I ask for a hearing so all of this can be aired in an open courtroom where the truth can come to light.

The federal district court denied my petition and refused to give me an evidentiary hearing. My claim, the court found, was not “substantial.” How in God’s name is it not “a substantial claim” (which only requires under the law that the claim have “some merit”) that trial counsel did not interview an eyewitness who saw someone other than my client kill the victim? My client is convicted of murder and serving a 45-year sentence but it’s not a “substantial claim” that his lawyer failed to do what any reasonable lawyer would do? As a side note, shortly after this trial, my client’s trial lawyer was disbarred by our state Supreme Court. Among other problems she was found to have given a false statement to the disciplinary board.

So now I have appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In denying my petition, the federal district court also denied me a certificate of appealability, which essentially means I have to first ask the Fourth Circuit to hear my appeal before it commits to doing so. I’m working on that appeal now and hope I can just get an evidentiary hearing so we can put on our case.

But this is what it’s like for so many of our clients in the South Carolina criminal justice system. As I mentioned, my client was tried around 12 years ago. We’re probably another year or so from a resolution to the case. And what happens if the Fourth Circuit simply decides it doesn’t want to review the case? We work in a system that values the finality of convictions more than being willing to suffer the discomfort of acknowledging that maybe the system did not work in this case.

To be continued . . .