It took more than a dozen years, but finally the murder conviction of a former state trooper has been overturned after a county circuit judge found that prosecutors withheld key evidence from defense attorneys when the trial was first held back in 2000.
Our Alabama criminal appeals attorneys understand that this egregious violations was deemed sufficient grounds upon which to grant the defendant a new trial, even over the strong objections of the state attorney general’s office.
The judge determined that had the defense been privy to all the evidence in the case, it’s possible that a jury, when considering it collectively, might have reasonably reached a not guilty verdict. Still, the attorney general’s office has vowed to take the case to the Court of Criminal Appeals in order to have the new trial order reversed.
The former trooper, now 55, had been working in Mobile back in 1995 the night his wife’s body was discovered inside her Ford Escort at the side of the road. She had been burned to death.
Initially, local authorities reviewed the evidence and decided not to prosecute. In turn, the state attorney general’s office assumed control of the case, and went on to secure an indictment and later, following a jury trial in the spring of 2000, a conviction. A jury sentenced him to death.
His appeal was automatic, but the court affirmed the jury’s decision and recommendation. That meant that the trooper had just one last chance at a new trial: a post-appeal challenge that would only allow him to either show new evidence or attack the performance of his defense attorneys.
Upon his review, the county circuit court judge found that while the trooper’s defense attorneys were given some 2,300 pages worth of evidence, the Mobile police in fact had possession of some 14,000 pages of evidence. In other words, his lawyers in this capital case were given access to just 15 percent of the total available evidence. Some of the evidence withheld, the judge determined, was key.
For example, one of the prosecution’s most important witnesses may have in fact been a strong defense witness, had prosecutors handed over all the evidence. In the largely circumstantial case, the man testified that he had seen a black man in a trooper’s uniform in a patrol car near the area where the victim was soon found. Among the items withheld by prosecutors is a handwritten account by that witness which describes the man in that patrol car as being “large,” “big” and “filling up the car.”
The reason that’s important is that the defendant, who is black, is only 5 feet, 6 inches tall. But those details never made it into the typed reports that were later given to defense lawyers. Police later characterized the handwritten note as a “work product” to which defense lawyers were not entitled. They added that disclosure of this evidence would “allow the defendant to tailor his testimony to fit the evidence.” However, that should not have been the police department’s concern. Defense lawyers are entitled to review all relevant evidence. This was, without question, relevant, particularly given that there were more than a dozen black troopers assigned to that area of patrol during the time in question.
What’s more, that same witness, when shown an array of photographs and asked to identify the trooper he saw, pointed to another trooper aside from the defendant. Defense lawyers were never given this evidence either.
Other evidence that was not disclosed includes internal law enforcement memos, some pointing to a number of other potential suspects and theories. For one thing, the victim was reportedly “spending time” with two different white male troopers around the time of her death. What’s more, she was reportedly known to carry a gas can around in the trunk of her car, something that could have been a cause of the fatal fire. Proof of both of these facts, though, was withheld by prosecutors from defense lawyers.
Appeals offer a chance to right potential wrongs and oversights of prior court findings. It clearly appears this case, with a man’s life on the line, should be afforded that opportunity.