EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

California Cold Case Trial Involves Lividity Evidence

According to an article in yesterday's Ventura County Star,

The preliminary hearing for a man accused of the murder of a pregnant woman and allegedly dumping her body at a local high school parking lot and the killing another woman nearly 40 years ago began Monday.

Wilson Chouest, 64, dressed in blue and orange jail garb, appeared before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ayers. Prosecutors said Chouest is responsible for the July 1980 killings of an unidentified pregnant woman whose body was found at Westlake High School's upper parking lot and another unidentified female victim found in Kern County.

For the next 22 years, these killings went unsolved before "a 2012 search of a DNA databank of people arrested across the United States linked Chouest to DNA collected from the victims and their clothing."

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June 21, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Court Denies Missouri Man New Trial Despite Victim's Daughter Recanting Her Eyewitness Identification

According to an article in the Southeast Missourian

A Missouri judge refused to grant freedom to a man convicted of sexually attacking and killing a St. Louis woman more than three decades ago.

Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green last week ruled there was not enough evidence to back Rodney Lincoln's claim of innocence in the death of 35-year-old JoAnn Tate. She was killed in her home in 1982. Her two young daughters were assaulted.

The 2014 opinion of the Missouri Court of Appeals lays out the facts of the case in more detail:

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June 20, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

North Dakota Man Claims His Attorney Failed to Contact Alibi Witness Who Placed Him in Fargo at Time of Grand Forks Robbery

According to a story by KFGO, 

One of the men found guilty of a violent Grand Forks home invasion in 2012 has appealed his conviction to the North Dakota Supreme Court. Allen Ratliff was sentenced to 30 years in prison for breaking into the mobile home of Sherman and Carmen Jones. The two were beaten with clubs, and their heads, hands and legs were duct-taped. The suspects stole prescription drugs, jewelry, cash and two tvs.

Ratliff claims his trial counsel was ineffective because he told them he was in Fargo at the time of the incident. He says his attorney failed to call an alibi witness, prepare arguments for a new trial, or object to jury instructions.

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June 15, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 13, 2016

Iowa Man Denied New Trial Despite Problems With Witness Reward & Comparative Bullet Lead Analysis

It's rare that a defendant gets two bites of the apple on appeal based on State misconduct. Glendale More is the exception to the rule. On two separate occasions, he was able to prove that errors were committed in connection with his murder trial. And yet, in both cases, it wasn't enough to award him a new trial.

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June 13, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Judge in Freddie Gray Case Finds Brady Violation, Says Baltimore's #2 Prosecutor Doesn't Understand Discovery Rules

Earlier today, Judge Barry Williams found that the prosecution in the Caesar Goodson case violated Brady v. Maryland by failing "to disclose to the defense that they had engaged in a lengthy interview with one Donta Allen." Goodson was the van driver in the Freddie Gray case; he's been charged with murder, manslaughter, second-degree assault, misconduct in office and reckless endangerment in connection with Gray's death. Allen was another criminal suspect in the van.

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June 9, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

SJC of Massachusetts Finds Ineffective Assistance Based on Failure to Challenge Shaken Baby Syndrome Diagnosis

On Friday, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts granted a new trial to Oswelt Millien, finding in Commonwealth v. Millien, 2015 WL 10944994  (Mass. 2016), that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel. 

On the evening of October 20, 2009, the defendant's six month old daughter, Jahanna, was rushed to the emergency room, unconscious and unresponsive. She was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, and scans of her brain showed retinal hemorrhages, subdural hematoma, and brain swelling, the three symptoms known as “the triad” associated with shaken baby syndrome. The defendant, who was the baby's sole caretaker when she became unconscious, claimed that Jahanna accidentally fell backwards from the couch where she was sitting and landed on the wooden floor. After Jahanna's physicians concluded that her brain injuries could not have been caused by an accidental fall from the couch but were instead caused by a violent shaking, the defendant was charged and later convicted by a jury of assault and battery on a child causing substantial bodily injury (head injuries)...and assault and battery on a child causing bodily injury (fractured vertebrae).

So, what was the basis for the ineffective assistance of counsel claim? According to the court,

There is a heated debate in the medical community as to whether a violent shaking of a baby alone can generate enough force to cause the triad of symptoms of traumatic brain injury, and as to whether these symptoms can sometimes be caused by a short accidental fall. At trial, the jury heard only one side of this debate, because the defense attorney did not retain a medical expert to offer opinion testimony or to assist him in cross-examining the Commonwealth's medical experts. We conclude that, in these circumstances, where the prosecution's case rested almost entirely on medical expert testimony, the defendant was denied his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel because, by not providing the jury with the other side of this debate, his attorney's poor performance “likely deprived the defendant of an otherwise available, substantial ground of defence.”

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June 8, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

5th Circuit: "[A]t a minimum, counsel has the duty to interview potential witnesses and to make an independent investigation"

Nealy v. Cabana, 764 F.2d 1173 (5th Cir. 1985), is another in a long line of cases establishing a near per se duty for defense counsel to interview alibi witnesses brought to their attention by defendants. According to the Fifth Circuit,

Although the scope of the required investigation is a function of the “number of issues in the case, the relative complexity of those issues, the strength of the government's case and the overall strategy of trial counsel,” this circuit has recognized that, at a minimum, counsel has the duty to interview potential witnesses and to make an independent investigation of the facts and circumstances of the case. This duty is reflected in the American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice, a proper guide for determining what is reasonable under the circumstances. These specific obligations inherent in counsel's duty to investigate must temper the amount of deference we give Burdine's on-the-spot actions in evaluating his performance.

So, what were the facts in Nealy?

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June 7, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (16)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Investigation Discovery Documentary on Adnan & the Leading Cause of Death for Serial Killer Victims

A couple of days ago, several sites reported the news that Investigation Discovery will premiere a documentary about the Adnan Syed case on June 14th. The preview accompanying one of the stories features commentary by an attorney at a civil litigation firm in Texas who used to "assist[] prosecutors with complex civil procedure issues." This attorney previously took part in an article by The Marshall Project in which attorneys expressed their views on Adnan's innocence or guilt. With regard to Hae Min Lee, the attorney told his interviewer to

look at the WAY she was killed. She was strangled. Very personal. There was a relationship there. That’s why I don’t buy the whole “maybe a serial killer did it” angle.

So, what does strangulation tell us about the "maybe a serial killed did it" angle? 

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June 2, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (27)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Reversed California Murder Conviction Resulted From Faulty Bite Mark & Lividity Arguments

You might have seen the recent Intercept article about the Supreme Court of California tossing Bill Richards' conviction for murdering his wife, Pamela. Richards' conviction was reversed based upon faulty bite mark testimony presented by the prosecution. 

[I]t took the state four attempts to convict Richards — two full trials ended in a hung jury and a third ended in a mistrial during jury selection — and prosecutors were successful only after putting on the stand a legendary forensic dentist who testified that Richards’s highly unique lower dentition was a match for a bite mark found on Pamela’s hand. The dentist, Norman “Skip” Sperber, told the jury that based on his 40-plus years in the field, he could say that out of 100 people, only “one or two or less” would have the same “unique feature” in their lower teeth.

In fact, however, Sperber was wrong. In 2008 he recanted his testimony, saying that he had cited statistics that lacked scientific support and never should have done so, “because it’s inappropriate to cite percentages or things resembling percentages unless there has been some prior scientific study” to back up the assertion. Based on Sperber’s recantation (and that of another dentist, Greg Golden, who testified for the defense, along with additional testimony about new DNA evidence that matched an unknown male), a district judge in 2009 said that the evidence now before the court pointed “unerringly” to Richards’s innocence.

Richards' conviction, however, was also based upon the prosecution's misleading lividity arguments. 

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June 1, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Bill Modernizing Ohio Domestic Violence Laws to Cover Dating Violence Passes House

According to an article on wkyc.com, last week, the

Ohio House of Representatives... passed HB 392, legislation to modernize Ohio’s domestic violence laws, according to a press release from State Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes. House Bill 392 passed the House with bipartisan support with a vote of 89-0. The bill now goes to the Senate for further consideration.

The bill would allow "victims of domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner to obtain civil protective orders against their attacker." Currently, a domestic violence victim in a dating relationship cannot obtain such a protective order under Ohio law.

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May 31, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 30, 2016

Seventh Circuit Finds Defense Counsel Unreasonably Failed to Contact Additional Alibi Witness in Murder Case

My initial prediction was that Judge Welch would issue his opinion in the Adnan Syed case between June and August. With two days left in May, that would mean we are about to enter the three month period when I would expect his ruling. I've already written about the nine cases used by the defense to establish that Cristina Gutierrez was ineffective in failing to contact prospective alibi witness Asia McClain. Just last week, though, the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion that Judge Welch might also find useful. That opinion is Blackmon v. Williams, 2016 WL 3007212 (7th Cir. 2016).*

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May 30, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Florida Court Grants Qualified Immunity to Officers Who Tackled Suspect Holding Knives "Kind of Like Wolverine"

Today marks the release of "X-Men: Apocalypse." If you were to expect one X-Man to show up in a judicial opinion, which one would it be? If your answer was this guy


you'd be correct, at least in Prevatt v. City of Gainesville, Florida, 2016 WL 154107 (N.D.Fla. 2016).

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May 27, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Supreme Court of Washington Find Prosecutor Improperly Used Music on Defendant's Phone to Prove Gang Affiliation

In State v. DeLeon,

Ignacio Cardenas was outside his home in Sunnyside with his cousin and a friend around 11:00 p.m. waiting for another friend, Jose Barajas. They saw a silver Ford Taurus drove by. Thinking that the car belonged to a friend, Cardenas's cousin flashed a sign associated with their gang at the car. The car did not belong to a friend, and after driving by, it made a U-turn and drove by the house again. Several shots were then fired from the car, hitting Cardenas. He survived, but lost one of his kidneys.

Anthony DeLeon, his brother Ricardo DeLeon, and their friend Octavio Robledo were eventually charged in connection with the shooting, with the State's theory of the case being that the shooting was gang related. One of the pieces of evidence that the prosecution used to prove gang involvement was the music stored on Anthony's phone. And that's part of the reason why the three men will be getting a new trial. 

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May 26, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

10th Circuit Reverses Child Sexual Abuse Conviction Based on Brady Violation

Pursuant to the Supreme Court's opinion in Brady v. Maryland, the prosecution violates the Due Process Clause by failing to timely disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense. But what happens if a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) misrepresents her credentials at trial, with correction by the unknowing prosecutor? Is that SANE nurse part of the prosecution team, meaning that there is a Brady violation. According to the recent opinion of the Tenth Circuit in McCormick v. Parker, 2016 WL 1743388 (10th Cir. 2016), the answer is "yes." 

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May 25, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My New Podster Article, "The Debbie Dilemma"

Today, Podster Magazine released its May 2016 issue. My article, "The Debbie Dilemma," appears on pages 46-47 (or 49/57). It deals with the police statements and testimony of Debbie Warren at Adnan's two trials.


May 24, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (24)

Monday, May 23, 2016

What Types of Attorney Behavior are Per Se Ineffective Assistance of Counsel?

Pursuant to the Supreme Court's opinion in Strickland v. Washington, a defendant establishes a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel by proving (1) that counsel’s performance "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness" as measured by "prevailing professional norms;" and (2) prejudice,i.e., "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." I've gotten a lot of questions about whether there are types of attorney conduct that per se constitute unreasonable performance under Strickland's first prong. The answer is a definite "yes."

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May 23, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (29)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Will Missouri Adopt the Daubert Test for Expert Evidence?

Missouri is currently one of a minority of states that still applies the Frye test for determining the admissibility of expert evidence. This Frye test uses a single criterion: Does the technique or technology used by the expert have general acceptance in the relevant expert community? By way of contrast, a majority of states have adopted the Daubert test used in federal court. Under Daubert, judges serve as gatekeepers and determine the reliability/admissibility of expert evidence by looking at factors such as

(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; (2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) its known or potential error rate; (4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and (5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Will Missouri soon join the ranks of the states applying the Daubert test?

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May 20, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

WVU Law Professor Valena Beety Secures New Trial For Stepfather Convicted in Shaken Baby Syndrome Case

According to an article in the Charleston Gazette-Mail

After serving 11 years of the 40-year prison sentence he was handed in 2005, a Hampshire County judge threw out [Jeremiah] Mongold’s conviction in connection with the death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter

This ruling came after Hampshire Circuit Judge Charles Parsons

found that Mongold’s trial counsel, Romney attorney Larry Sherman, was “extremely lax in his investigation” and committed “grievous error” on matters related to the pertinent evidence in the case. 

Parsons ruled that “by any objective standard of reasonableness trial counsel performance was substantially deficient” and “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different.”

As with Cristina Gutierrez in the Adnan Syed case, this deficient performance was not limited to one case. Instead,  

Sherman has had 45 complaints filed against him with the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which oversees lawyers in the state, and...11 of those complaints were filed during the time he was representing Mongold

The West Virginia College of Law Innocence Project attorneys for Mongold are law professor Valena Beety, adjunct faculty member Melissa Giggenbach, and 2016 West Virginia  graduates Jenny Thoma and Lia Deane. Long-time readers might recall that I did a review of Beety's terrific essay, The Case of Trayvon Martin and the Need for Eyewitness Identification Reform, in a post back in 2012.

Mongold's case, however, does not involve eyewitness identification. Instead, it involves shaken baby syndrome, a diagnosis that is increasingly being called into question.

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May 18, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Wrongfully Imprisoned Man Released After 18 Years Based on Innocence Project/Conviction Integrity Unity Collaboration

According to an article in the Dallas Morning News,

A man who spent the last 18 years in a Texas prison will walk away a free man today, after a Tarrant County judge acknowledged this morning that he shouldn’t have been convicted of killing a Bedford woman.

“I feel blessed; thank you,” John Nolley, now 42, told reporters waiting outside Judge Louis Sturns’ courtroom before hugging his mother for the first time since he was convicted of murder in May 1998.

This result was a result of a collaboration among the Tarrant County's Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn.

The collaboration netted new evidence using new forensic technology revealing that Nolley was not the source of a bloody palm print found on a piece of paper recovered on the victim’s body. The CIU also discovered and turned over numerous pieces of previously undisclosed evidence significantly discrediting the testimony of two informants (both of whom were facing criminal charges during the original murder investigation) who had claimed to have critical evidence supporting the state’s case at trial.  The case is the first conviction that the newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit has recommended be reversed.

Importantly, it appears as if this case will also lead to systematic changes regarding how Tarrant County handles jailhouse informants.

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May 17, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

PA Court Finds IAC in Murder Case Based on Defense Counsel Failing to Contact Alibi Witness He Didn't Trust

A few days ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published the story, "Free after 10 years in prison, former lifer still feels trapped." The article is about the release of Edward Stewart after he served 10 years for a murder he did not commit. Why was he wrongfully convicted? His trial counsel decided that Stewart's fiancee was not credible and would have hurt his alibi. Importantly, he reached these conclusions without ever interviewing the fiancee as a potential alibi witness. And that's why his conviction was thrown out.

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May 15, 2016 | Permalink | Comments (19)