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Indiana man free after misconduct leads to his murder conviction being thrown out

Indiana man free after misconduct leads to his murder conviction being thrown out

A Madison County man who had his conviction thrown out earlier this year due to misconduct will not be tried a second time.

Trondo Humphrey, 38, got out of jail earlier this month after being locked up for 21 years. Prosecutors originally planned to retry him after his original 60-year prison sentence was thrown out, but changed their mind days before his retrial was scheduled to begin. Humphrey, who was 16 when the crime occurred, is now a free man for the first time in his adult life.

Serious questions arose about the credibility of a key witness in the case, Roosevelt Brooks, who has admitted to lying to police. There was also questions about the competence of Humphrey’s original 1996 trial attorney.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings, who was also the elected prosecutor during the original 1996 trial, said the credibility of Brooks made it impossible to retry Humphrey. But Cummings argued for years that Humphrey’s original trial went fine and also said the victim and his family had a right to a second trial.

Humphrey was convicted of the 1995 murder of Benjamin Laughlin. Laughlin and another man were driving around Anderson, Indiana in a truck looking to buy crack cocaine when they pulled into an alley and saw three men they believed to be drug dealers. One of those men got into the truck and pulled a gun on them. Laughlin attempted to grab the gun and it went off, with the bullet hitting Laughlin in the abdomen and eventually killing him.

Another man, Roosevelt Brooks, told police in an unsworn written statement that Humphrey was the man who got into the truck and ended up shooting Laughlin. But when Brooks was called to testify at trial he said he wasn’t with Humphrey the night of the shooting and only made that statement because of police pressure.

Still, Brooks’ original statement was admitted into evidence during Humphrey’s trial, and Humphrey’s attorney, Patrick Cunningham, did not object.

“After the unsworn statement had been admitted, defense counsel made repeated references to it throughout the remainder of the trial,” wrote Justice Robert Rucker in authoring the majority opinion throwing out the conviction. “ It was defense counsel — not the State — who read aloud in court the portion of Brooks’ unsworn statement that identified Humphrey as the shooter.”

The other man in the truck with Laughlin was unable to identify the man who got into the truck or the other two men in the alley.

Humphrey filed a petition for post-conviction relief, arguing that Cunningham had rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the admission of Brooks’ statement on hearsay grounds.

The Supreme Court agreed that Cunningham should have objected to the statement, and also said Cunningham should have objected to juror instructions where the trial judge told the jury they should consider Brooks’ unsworn written statement as evidence.

“The trial court explicitly asked trial counsel if he had any objection to the proposed, standard instruction and counsel answered in the negative,” Rucker wrote.

And Rucker also said there was reason to believe that the verdict might have been different if Cunningham had done his job effectively.

An editorial in The Herald Bulletin says the State of Indiana failed Humphrey.

“Humphrey’s case isn’t an isolated incident,” the editorial said. “The state owes it to Humphrey and each of its citizens to address the failures of the criminal justice system and do all it can to ensure this never happens again.”

Thanks to Josie Duffy Rice.

Washington DA faces discipline over television appearance

Washington DA faces discipline over television appearance

Pierce County, Washington Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist will likely face a disciplinary hearing for comments he made during a television interview on the Nancy Grace Show. Lindquist could face disbarment, as well as suspension from his elected position.

Lindquist appeared on Grace’s show in February 2016 to discuss the murder trial of Skylar Nemetz, which was ongoing at the time. During that appearance Lindquist said the actions of Nemetz, accused of killing his wife, “add up to murder.”

Lindquist told the Tacoma News Tribune that he went on the show to “communicate with the public about what we do and why.”

Nemetz was eventually convicted of first-degree manslaughter. He maintained the shooting of his wife was accidental.

Nemetz’ defense attorney, Michael Stewart, claimed Lindquist’s actions jeopardized Nemetz’s right to a fair trial and violated the professional codes of conduct.

“It’s unheard of. It’s astounding in the way it violates the rules,” Stewart argued to the judge when asking for a mistrial and sanctions against Lindquist. “It was designed to damage Mr. Nemetz during a trial, and your honor should impose sanctions for such behavior.”

Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin declined to declare a mistrial or sanction Lindquist, ruling that the jury did not hear the interview. But complaints were filed against Lindquist by local defense attorney John Cain with the Washington Bar.

In a highly unusual move, the Washington State Bar Association’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel recommended the hearing on Sept. 8. The Counsel’s rationale for doing so is that Lindquist’s appearance on the show might have violated the rules of professional conduct that govern public statements about a criminal defendant, as well as a rule that prohibits conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice.

The Tacoma News Tribune obtained the disciplinary counsel letter recommending a hearing. According to that letter, the two assistant prosecutors trying Nemetz and Lindquist’s spokeswoman all recommended that he decline the invitation to appear on Grace’s show.

Lindquist’s Attorney, Steven Fogg, claims the complaint is politically motivated and that there is no chance Lindquist will be suspended for his actions.

This is not the first time Lindquist has courted controversy during his seven year tenure in office. He has incurred almost $2 million in legal fees, at the taxpayers’ expense, including almost $600,000 spent in a dispute over whether the district attorney’s text messages are public records or private communications.

The Washington Supreme court unanimously ruled against Lindquist in that case, stating that he couldn’t claim all of his text messages were private because he was communicating from a private phone. The ruling asserted that Lindquist’s texts are public if public business is discussed.

Lindquist continues to argue that his texts are private, even though some involve communication with other county employees. His stance cost the county $118,000 in fees and fines when a judge ruled that Lindquist had to turn over text messages requested by a critic. That case also cost the county about $325,000 in legal fees, which was part of the $2 million figure..

There is also currently a whistleblower lawsuit pending against Lindquist. The lawsuit argues that he has been vindictive and has created a hostile work environment. The Pierce County Human Resources Department issued a 67-page report finding that Lindquist ordered his prosecutors not to strike plea deals with a group of defense attorneys who had angered him, bragged that he would get $100,000 in free publicity from the shooting of four police officers for his re-election campaign, and maintained that he had advanced the careers of some of his favorite employees in the hopes of making them judges.

“I elect judges, the people don’t,” Lindquist is quoted as saying in the report.

Lindquist’s office also has the highest rate of reversed convictions in the state.

The Seattle Times called for Lindquist to resign in a December 2015 editorial, writing that he “has managed to squander a once-promising career in public service. His unwillingness to accept responsibility for a dysfunctional office telegraphs his leadership style — and his values.”

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Harris County D.A. will no longer prosecute “trace cases”

Harris County D.A. will no longer prosecute “trace cases”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg made good on a central campaign promise this week, announcing that her office will no longer prosecute “trace cases” that involve trivially small amounts of drugs, or drug residue. In an interview with the Houston Press, Ogg said that although there is still no formal policy prohibiting these prosecutions, her office stopped pursuing such cases in late July.

“It’s been a point of contention with most Houstonians who don’t appear to agree that it’s a wise use of taxpayer dollars to prosecute people in possession of empty crack pipes that contain drug residue,” Ogg told the Press. “And while not all the cases follow that example, many, many do.”

Trace cases have a politically volatile history in Harris County. Heeding the broader shift toward criminal justice reform as Texas struggled with its bloated prisons, former District Attorney and Republican Pat Lykos changed the office’s policy when she took office in 2010, instructing her deputies to prosecute cases involving 1/100th of a gram of drugs as misdemeanors, rather than felonies as the office had in the past. The move saved the county money and greatly reduced its crowded jail population.

But it also drew the ire of local law enforcement, who argued that their ability to file felony charges in residue cases was instrumental to efforts to lock up people guilty of robberies and burglary. By the end of 2011, a coalition of six Harris County police groups had announced a vote of “no-confidence” in Lykos.

When Lykos lost her seat to Mike Anderson in late 2012, the new district attorney made reversing her policy on trace cases one of his first priorities. After Anderson passed away in 2013 and his wife Devon Anderson took his place, she maintained his policy, and the office continued to charge drug residue cases as felonies. The prosecutions of trace cases became a prominent point of contention between Anderson and Ogg on the campaign trail.

Unlike Lykos, Ogg is moving forward with the support of the Houston Police Officer’s Union, though it is tempered. The union’s president, Ray Hunt, told the Houston Press that “we’re not going to make a big deal about this as long as these people who break into cars, which we believe are the big crack users, that when we catch them, they’re hammered and they’re not given slaps on the hand.”

As shown in other jurisdictions, assurances from district attorneys that they will step back from prosecuting certain crimes don’t always have meaningful results. In Brooklyn, for example, former district attorney Ken Thompson made waves in 2014 when he announced his office would no longer prosecute most low-level marijuana cases. After Thompson passed away, current district attorney Eric Gonzalez took his place, vowing to maintain Thompson’s policies.

But a recent investigation from WNYC found the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office only throws out roughly one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests. (Gonzalez said he believed most of these charges were for smoking marijuana, which is classified as the same misdemeanor as low-level possession, and contends his office is still working to reduce possession prosecutions.)

Now, Houstonians will wait to find out if Ogg’s word — which again, is not yet a written policy — will make a meaningful dent in the number of trace case prosecutions in the county. With voters and local law enforcement behind her, there is little reason for her to stray from her stance.

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