Monday, October 7, 2019
An Introduction to the Jonathan Irons Case & His Brady Claim Based on an Undisclosed Fingerprints Report
On June 30th, I read a New York Times article about WNBA player Maya Moore taking a one year leave of absence to work on the case of Jonathan Irons, who she believes was wrongfully convicted. I reached out to see if I could help, and I've been working on the case ever since for a future series on Undisclosed. That series will premiere next year, but this Wednesday, October 10th, Jonathan has a hearing on his petition for writ of habeas corpus that could decide whether his case moves forward. In this post, I will do a brief introduction to his case and highlight one of the issues he raises in his petition: an alleged Brady violation.
Very Brief Case Summary
On January 14, 1997, Stanley Stotler returned to his O’Fallon, Missouri home. after work After entering his bedroom, Stotler heard someone in his closet. The person in the closet ended up being a burglar who shot Stotler twice. O'Fallon police officers later determined that the burglar entered Stotler's residence through a basement window that the burglar broke and exited through the front door. Three latent fingerprints were lifted from the interior of the front storm door on Stotler's residence. Sixteen year-old Jonathan Irons was later arrested, prosecuted, and convicted of first degree assault, armed criminal action, and first degree burglary and given a sentence of fifty years.
Before trial, the State disclosed to the defense a fingerprint report. In pertinent part, it reads as follows:
At trial, Deputy Sheriff Ricky Luetkenhaus, who processed the crime scene, was the only witness who testified about the latent fingerprints. He testified as follows:
The Second Fingerprint Report
A decade after the crime, in 2007, a team of advocates working for Irons inspected police reports from the O'Fallon Police Department and uncovered a second, previously undisclosed fingerprint report. In pertinent part, it reads as follows:
In other words, the second fingerprint report reveals that (1) Stotler, the victim, was determined to be the source of one of the latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door; and (2) both Stotler and Irons were excluded as the source of the other two latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door.
The Brady Claim
The Supreme Court's opinion in Brady v. Maryland indicates that the State has an affirmative obligation under the Due Process Clause to timely disclose material exculpatory evidence to the defense. Evidence is "material" under this test when it undermines our confidence in the jury's verdict. Irons's Brady claim is fairly straightforward: The evidence against him was weak,* and this undisclosed fingerprint report was thus materially exculpatory.
Namely, without the report, the defense thought that Stotler was determined to be the source of all of the latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door. On the other hand, if the State had disclosed the second fingerprint report at/before trial, the defense would have realized that Stotler was excluded as the source of two of the three latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door. With this second report, the defense thus could have argued that (1) it is highly likely the burglar was the source of the other two latent fingerprints; and (2) Irons was not the source of those two latent fingerprints (as revealed by both reports); and (3) Irons was therefore not the burglar.
The State's Response
So, how has the State responded to this argument? In two ways. First, it has claimed that
A detective testified that the only prints which could be identified upon examination were identified as belonging to the victim....This is the same information that was provided in the allegedly undisclosed report. Therefore, based on the detective’s testimony, Irons should have been aware of his claim that there was an undisclosed fingerprint report at the time of trial, and he cannot show cause now.
Initially, it is unclear whether this is true. Unfortunately, on many occasions forensic work is performed without a report. Therefore, the fact that the detective gave this testimony does not necessarily mean that a second report was prepared. Moreover, and more importantly, the question is not whether the detective's testimony gave notice to the defense of a undisclosed report; the question is whether that testimony gave the defense notice of an undisclosed AND MATERIALLY EXCULPATORY fingerprints report.
And the answer is that it did not. The first fingerprint report excluded Irons as the source of the three latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door. Deputy Luetkenhaus's testimony made it look like Stotler was determined to be the source of all of the latent fingerprints lifted from the interior of the front storm door and that there were no "other usable prints." Even if this testimony alluded to a second fingerprints report, it did NOT allude to that report being materially exculpatory. Instead, this testimony made it look like Stotler was the source of all of the fingerprints and that the burglar, whether that be Irons or someone else, did not leave behind any fingerprints.
The reason the second report is material and exculpatory is because it shows that Deputy Luetkenhaus was wrong. He was able to get two usable prints from the interior of the front storm door that were not identified as Stotler's prints. And, if those prints were left by the burglar, as seems likely, then Jonathan Irons is innocent.
The State's second claim is that
Irons could not have been disadvantaged during trial if he did not possess the report because the allegedly undisclosed report stated that the victim’s fingerprint was identified at the crime scene....This information would not have supported an alternate perpetrator defense.
This argument entirely misses the point. The point is not that Stotler was determined to be the source of one latent fingerprint lifted from the interior of the front storm door. The point is that Stotler was determined to be the source of ONLY one latent fingerprint lifted from the interior of the front storm door, meaning that neither he nor Irons was the source of the other two latent fingerprints. Therefore, Stotler being the source of ONLY one latent fingerprint does support an alternate perpetrator defense because it means that the other two fingerprints could have come from an alternate perpetrator
*I'll go into more detail on the evidence against Irons on Undisclosed and/or future blog posts.