At the risk of sounding like a bleedin’ heart lib’rul, I cannot help but notice a rash of news from Texas that does not reflect well on prosecutors.
First, another two Dallas County men have been cleared of previous convictions thanks to advances in DNA evidence. That brings to 32 the number of men so cleared of past Dallas County convictions.
Now it is a good thing DNA science has advanced to make more clear the guilt or innocence of many. And the current Dallas Co. District Attorney Craig Watkins is to be commended for being proactive in reversing past wrongful convictions which did not happen under his watch. May his tribe increase. And it is good that under Texas law, if you have a conviction reversed and receive a declaration of “actual innocence,” you are entitled to $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.
BUT if so many men in one county have had convictions reversed, it makes one wonder just how many innocent people are rotting in prison.
Just Northeast of Dallas, in Denton County, one judge was so enraged by two prosecutors withholding evidence from the defense, he has banned the two from his court, adding that they lack “the innate intellect of a fifth-grader”. Read more to get an idea of the displeasure of Judge Burgess and the cause thereof.
Down in South Texas in Nueces County last week was the sensational hearing on the infamous 2007 capital murder conviction of Hannah Overton for allegedly poisoning her foster child . . . with salt.
Yes, the conviction was absurd and aided by questionable and confusing instructions to the jury by Judge Longoria. Some jurors polled afterward indicated they voted to convict because of supposed slowness of Overton to get medical attention (But she wasn’t slow, and testimony last week indicated greater speed probably would not have saved the boy anyway.), not because they thought she intentionally and with malice and aforethought killed him. But by definition you have to have that intent to convict for capital murder.
With evidence of prosecutorial misconduct arising since, an appeals court ordered a hearing in Longoria’s court. In it, the 2007 prosecutor Sandra Eastwood (since fired, thank God) did not come off well. Testifying reluctantly under a subpoena, many of her answers were of an “I don’t remember” variety. And a member of her 2007 prosecution team, Anna Jimenez, frankly testified that she was so troubled by Eastwood’s ethics that she complained to the District Attorney. Then there was this:
According to Jimenez, Eastwood told her, “I will do anything to win this case.” Jimenez also recalled Eastwood sending someone to spy on Hannah’s fellow church members in order to determine what sort of defense strategy would likely be pursued at trial. (Eastwood denied Jimenez’s allegations.)
“Her behavior during the entire course of this trial was so—” Jimenez said, taking a few moments to search for the right words, “—far out.”
I think that cuts to the core of the problem with Sandra Eastwood and with too many prosecutors. They will “do anything to win” regardless of ethics, the evidence or lack thereof, and justice. Given the choice of laying a case aside when the evidence for guilt is lacking or going for a scalp, they will go for a scalp. And if innocent people are sent to prison . . . well defending them is neither their job nor their concern.
I wish I could say the current Nueces County D. A. is not of this ilk. But Mark Skurka’s office is fighting the effort to overturn Overton’s conviction.
Pamela Colloff’s reporting on this case has been stellar. Recent posts from her may be found here. And be sure to read her excellent Texas Monthly article on Hannah Overton.
I continue to pray for real justice for Hannah Overton and all who are wrongfully imprisoned.
MORE: I forgot to mention that the similarities between the Hannah Overton case and another wrongful conviction for alleged salt poisoning are remarkable and relevant.