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UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri

Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch

UPDATE: Marcellus Williams execution stayed in Missouri


UPDATED Aug. 22, 2017, 3:00 p.m.

On Tuesday afternoon just hours before Marcellus Williams was scheduled to be executed in Missouri, Governor Eric Greitens issued a stay pending an investigation into new DNA evidence presented by Williams’ attorneys. Greitens announced that he would appoint a board of inquiry to review Williams’ case and issue a report.

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” said Greitens in a statement. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

No forensic evidence or eye witness testimony links Williams to the 1998 murder of reporter Felicia Gayle. Yet without Greitens’ intervention, Williams would have been executed for Gayle’s murder, which he was convicted of in 2001. Williams has always maintained his innocence, and new evidence shows that male DNA found on the murder weapon belongs not to him, but to an unidentified person. But the Missouri Supreme Court refused to examine this evidence, which was not available during the trial that led to his conviction.

While all of this might sound outrageous — the execution of a possibly-innocent man — in the U.S. criminal justice system, it is disturbingly common. In particular, Williams’ story is a microcosm of the larger systemic injustices that infect the capital sentencing process, and of the racial bias that plays out in St. Louis County.

Williams, who is black, was convicted of killing Gayle, a white woman, by a jury comprised of 11 white jurors and one black juror. His conviction hinged exclusively on the testimony of Williams’ ex-girlfriend Laura Asaro and Henry Cole, a man he shared a jail cell with. Cole claimed that while locked up together, Williams confessed to murdering Gayle. Asaro told the court that she saw scratches on Williams’ neck at the time of the murder, which she said were made by Gayle. (No DNA evidence tying Williams to Gayle was found under her fingernails.) Williams’ lawyers argue that both witnesses were influenced by Gayle’s family, which offered a $10,000 reward.

Six of the seven black potential jurors in Williams’ trial were dismissed by the trial prosecutors. The ease with which prosecutors exclude black jurors in capital trials isn’t limited to Missouri, but the problem is particularly acute in St. Louis County. In the case of Andre Cole, who was executed in 2015 after being convicted of killing his ex-wife’s boyfriend, a black prospective juror was dismissed by a prosecutor for being divorced. The prosecutor argued that experience could unduly influence the potential juror’s impression of Cole’s case, which involved his ex-wife. Yet a divorced white juror was allowed to remain on the case.

The racial dynamics in Gayle’s murder also stacked the deck against Williams. In cases that involve white female victims, “execution is 14 times more likelycompared with when the victim is a black male,” Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty director Staci Pratt told Al Jazeera.

Williams was prosecuted by St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Bob McCulloch’s office. If McCulloch’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same prosecutor who failed to secure an indictment of police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. On Monday night, McCulloch defended the conviction of Williams, and told Fox2 News that the new DNA doesn’t rule him out as the murderer.

“Based on the other, non-DNA evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward,” said McCulloch.

Hope for mercy for Williams now rests with the board of inquiry appointed by Greitens.

Stacy Parks Miller faces discipline

Centre County Courthouse

Stacy Parks Miller faces discipline


While prosecutorial misconduct generally slides under the radar, every once in a while, there’s a prosecutor whose acts are so egregious that they inspire bar complaints. So it is with Stacy Parks Miller, the chief prosecutor for Centre County, Pennsylvania, whom I previously covered for Slate in May, just before she lost her reelection bid.

If you’ve heard of Parks Miller, it’s because you’ve been watching the news about the Penn State hazing trial. Tim Piazza tragically died in the course of a fraternity hazing event. Parks Miller is in the process of prosecuting the fraternity and 18 individual members for Piazza’s death.

The complaint filed with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board is unrelated to the fraternity case. Instead, it relates to various incidents of alleged misconduct, most of which I covered in my earlier story. The complaint alleges that Parks Miller communicated with judges improperly at least twice and that she created a fake Facebook account to snoop on potential defendants.

As the complaint details, Parks Miller emailed and texted sitting judges about ongoing cases, urging them to make decisions in her favor and scolding them for ruling against her, an unethical practice called “ex parte communications” (meaning that the other side—in this instances, the defendant — does not know about the conversation and cannot weigh in). In 2011, Parks Miller also authorized the creation of the Britney Bella Facebook account — a fake Facebook account which at the time depicted a buxom blonde college student. At least two defendants “friended” Britney Bella. Parks Miller has previously said that the account was to “collect headshot photos” for the purposes of investigating cases. But, as the complaint explains, it appears that she was unethically asking for people charged with crimes to incriminate themselves.

Parks Miller has defended herself rather vigorously in the press, claiming that she is the “victim” of the ex parte communications and that the Britney Bella Facebook page was “legally ethical and necessary for law enforcement.”

While Parks Miller will no longer be on the Penn State prosecution once her successor takes over, most lawyers in the area think there will be little difference in the prosecution’s plan for the case. Although the approach may differ: Parks Miller has engaged in some trademark histrionicsyelling at defense lawyers during the course of the most recent hearings in early August.

The other prosecutor on the Penn State case, Bruce Castor, has his own claim to fame as the man who declined to prosecute Bill Cosby in 2005 for the alleged rape of Andrea Constand. A true political machine, Castor was a prosecutor in Montgomery County, PA, and became the district attorney there from 2000 to 2008. He then took an elected seat on the Montgomery Board of Commissioners. But then he managed to both lose that seat and lose an election for district attorney in 2015. He became a “special assistant” in Centre County and spent a few months as an interim Attorney General for the state when Kathleen Kane was removed and indicted. The governor replaced him in January 2017 with Bruce Beemer.

Yet Castor’s handling of the Cosby case was his undoing. He had made a secret agreement in 2005 with Cosby not to prosecute, which became an issue in the 2016 prosecution when Cosby claimed that Castor had verbally agreed to a non-prosecution agreement.

Parks Miller’s hearing for her misconduct case is set for November 29. She told a local news outlet that she was “confident” in the outcome.

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Texas district attorney to police: Do better.

Texas district attorney to police: Do better.


Last Wednesday, County District Attorney Kristen Barnebey of Aransas County, Texas announced that her office will not accept cases presented by a local police department until its officers are better educated and trained. A press release issued by her office on Tuesday states that the Rockport Police Department has withheld evidence in violation of the law — “a disservice to defendants, victims, the criminal justice system” and the “entire community.”

In late July, the Barnebey’s office first decided to decline cases in which one Rockport Police officer, Chad Brooks, acted as a responding or arresting officer or was named as an incident witness. Brooks was discovered to have profiled defendants and misrepresented facts in his case reports. Then, when prosecutors eventually held a meeting to confront Brooks about his behavior, the officer secretly recorded the conversation. Once he was discovered to have done this, Brooks refused to turn over the recording — a move that Barnebey’s office considered a “deliberate decision to withhold evidence.”

Barnebey decided not to accept any cases from the Rockport police when the police chief also refused to hand over the recording.

“Each prosecutor swears an oath under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Art. 2.01, ‘not to convict but to see that justice is done.’ What you rarely hear quoted is the next sentence: ‘They shall not suppress evidence or secrete witnesses capable of establishing the innocent of the accused,’” Barnebey’s office wrote. “When law enforcement will not uphold the law, prosecutors must step forward and ensure the law is being followed and unethical officers are not being put before the judge and jury as credible witnesses.”

As reported by KRISTV in Corpus ChristiBarnebey’s office has dismissed at least 17 cases, including nine involving felonies, from the Rockport Police Department.

According to prosecutors, the Rockport officers needs to demonstrate a commitment to truthful reporting and to correcting problematic officer behavior.

“The Rockport Police Department needs to make significant changes in the education and training of its officers and our office cannot stand by status quo, prosecuting cases that may or may not be good cases,” Barnebey’s office added. “We believe in the law and we are sworn to uphold it.”

This is an extraordinary move by a prosecutor’s office. It is common for officers to go undisciplined by their superiors, and it is rare for prosecutors to hold law enforcement accountable for unethical or illegal behavior. One reason for the lack of accountability is that offices like Barnebey’s rely on law enforcement to conduct investigations and make arrests, and the two entities work together to build cases and seek convictions. Rockport is the county seat, and the largest city in Aransas County. Barnebey’s assertion that the Rockport police department isn’t trustworthy or qualified to participate in this key partnership would appear to have significant implications for the local justice system.

A district attorney’s office’s decision to not accept cases from a law enforcement agency wholesale is almost unheard of, although a similar action was taken in North Carolina in 2009. The late Ed Grannis, who served as the district attorney in Cumberland County for more than three decades, refused to let the Spring Lake Police Department conduct criminal investigations. At the time, Grannis argued that officers were falsifying reports and that the “presumed integrity of the work product” was questionable. He empowered the county sheriff’s department to take over the cases instead, and requested that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation probe the Spring Lake department.

Despite the underlying principle that prosecutors must prioritize justice over convictions, there is much evidence to suggest that does not regularly occur. Reports abound of prosecutors who hide exculpatory evidencecover up misconduct within their own offices, and bend the law to fit a narrative they want to put forth in court. Meanwhile, as noted criminal justice expert John Pfaff has remarked, prosecutors “remain the only actor [in the justice system] who is subject to almost no regulation at all.” The New York Times editorial board put it more bluntly: prosecutors “are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions.”

Barnebey’s staff hasn’t shown any signs of budging. “Sadly, this flagrant disregard for the law and lack of of willingness to correct the actions of Patrolman Chad Brooks and the Rockport Police Department leaves the Aransas County District Attorney’s Office with no other choice,” the office said.

“The Rockport Police Department needs to make significant changes in the education and training of its officers and our office cannot stand by status quo, prosecuting cases that may or may not be good cases,” Barnebey’s office added. “We believe in the law and we are sworn to uphold it.”

This is an extraordinary move by a prosecutor’s office. It is common for officers to go undisciplined by their superiors, and it is rare for prosecutors to hold law enforcement accountable for unethical or illegal behavior. One reason for the lack of accountability is that offices like Barnebey’s rely on law enforcement to conduct investigations and make arrests, and the two entities work together to build cases and seek convictions. Rockport is the county seat, and the largest city in Aransas County. Barnebey’s assertion that the Rockport police department isn’t trustworthy or qualified to participate in this key partnership would appear to have significant implications for the local justice system.

A district attorney’s office’s decision to not accept cases from a law enforcement agency wholesale is almost unheard of, although a similar action was taken in North Carolina in 2009. The late Ed Grannis, who served as the district attorney in Cumberland County for more than three decades, refused to let the Spring Lake Police Department conduct criminal investigations. At the time, Grannis argued that officers were falsifying reports and that the “presumed integrity of the work product” was questionable. He empowered the county sheriff’s department to take over the cases instead, and requested that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation probe the Spring Lake department.

Despite the underlying principle that prosecutors must prioritize justice over convictions, there is much evidence to suggest that does not regularly occur. Reports abound of prosecutors who hide exculpatory evidencecover up misconduct within their own offices, and bend the law to fit a narrative they want to put forth in court. Meanwhile, as noted criminal justice expert John Pfaff has remarked, prosecutors “remain the only actor [in the justice system] who is subject to almost no regulation at all.” The New York Times editorial board put it more bluntly: prosecutors “are almost never held accountable for misconduct, even when it results in wrongful convictions.”

Barnebey’s staff hasn’t shown any signs of budging. “Sadly, this flagrant disregard for the law and lack of of willingness to correct the actions of Patrolman Chad Brooks and the Rockport Police Department leaves the Aransas County District Attorney’s Office with no other choice,” the office said.

Correction: This story has been corrected to refer to the Rockport Police Department rather than the Rockville Police Department. 

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