Saturday, September 07, 2019

The Erickson Report, Page 3: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrages]

The Erickson Report, Page 3: Two Weeks of Stupid: Clowns and Outrages [the Outrages]

Now the Outrages, and there are two of them, linked by the way they demonstrate a profound flaw, a profound failing, at the heart of our criminal justice system. And I'm not talking about racism or classism - the advantages the rich have over others - or anything like that, I am talking about the philosophy that undergirds the system itself.

The first involves one Larry Swearingen, who on August 21 was legally murdered by the state of Texas.

Swearingen had been convicted in 2000 of the 1998 rape and murder of 19-year-old Melissa Trotter. The evidence was strictly circumstantial, consisting largely of the fact that he was the last person seen with her before she disappeared and some signs of what could have been a struggle in his home. No physical evidence connected him to the crime; the closest thing to actual hard evidence was that a cell phone tower noted his phone signal that evening, meaning he was in the vicinity of a certain road potentially relevant to the case at the time.

Swearingen never denied knowing Trotter and maintained his innocence literally to his last breath. His attorneys had mounted a major effort through the legal system to defend him, fending off four previous dates for execution over the years, arguing that the prosecution relied on "junk science."

So what's the deal? It's that a number of influential Texas pathologists, together responsible for thousands of death investigations every year, say that the evidence proves that Trotter had not been dead very long when her body was found more than three weeks after she disappeared. In which case, Swearingen could not have killed her, since - the ultimate alibi - he was in prison on an outstanding warrant and had been there since a couple of days after Trotter vanished. Even the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Joye Carter, recanted her trial testimony in 2007, admitting that the ease with which she was able to weigh and dissect Trotter’s organs, which would have been seriously deteriorated had she been killed in the time before Swearingen was arrested, made the state’s timeline impossible.

Larry Swearingen
Here's the crucial point: The courts didn't care. As an example, a nine-day hearing was held in 2012, laying out expert testimony on why Trotter had to have been killed not long before her body was found, thus long after Swearingen was in prison. Even before the final transcripts were filed, Judge Fred Edwards, who presided over the original trial, dismissed the science presented by the defense as "junk."

And so it went: The rulings were issued, the procedures were followed, there was no error in the operation of the machinery of the law, all the i's were dotted and the t's crossed according to formula, and so finally Swearingen was officially killed and the law was satisfied - as a quite likely innocent man lay dead.

Our second Outrage involves Lamar Johnson, who has been in prison in Missouri for 24 years, having been sentenced to life without parole for a murder even prosecutors now say he did not commit.

Johnson was convicted of murdering Marcus Boyd in 1994, in a case that even at the time should have left everyone scratching their heads. Prosecutors claimed that in the space of just five minutes, Johnson left a friend's apartment, traveled 3 miles to Boyd's home, killed Boyd, and then traveled by foot back to his friend's apartment.

But what's brought renewed attention is the fact that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner's Conviction Integrity Unit has filed a 67-page motion seeking a new trial for Johnson, based on having uncovered a staggering amount of misconduct on the part of homicide detectives and prosecutors, including inventing witness statements, paying the single eyewitness, and pressuring that person into making a false identification. Then there was the fact that two other men confessed in 1996 and 2002 that they were the ones who killed Boyd in a botched robbery.

Lamar Johnson
But Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan rejected the motion on August 23, saying in effect it was 24 years too late, citing a provision of Missouri law that, believe it or not, requires a motion for a new trial to be made within 25 days of trial's end. Hogan's decision gives no evidence of there being an exception for evidence discovered after that time.

In fact, in her ruling, Judge Hogan seemed much more concerned with a question of if prosecutors and Johnson’s lawyers had violated some rules of court procedure in pressing for his freedom. She wrote that she was "concerned about the integrity of the legal process in this case" even as she could not spare a word for what one of Johnson's lawyers called "the clear, convincing, and overwhelming evidence" that Johnson is innocent.

She did, however, for some reason find it relevant to include in laying out the background to the case that the same day that Gardner filed her motion, she "also released a copy of its motion and exhibits to the national media," an irrelevant observation which bluntly doesn't say much for Hogan's impartiality.

And so Johnson still sits in prison, hoping against hope for a successful appeal although it's hard to see on what basis if Judge Hogan cited that law about filing for a new trial correctly, since there is then no visible error, even if the aside about releasing the motion to the media could be taken as an indication of personal bias against Gardner or her office.

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