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Pennsylvania murder conviction reversed due to witness and prosecutor’s lies

Pennsylvania murder conviction reversed due to witness and prosecutor’s lies

In 1998, Vance Haskell was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole for the shooting of Darrel Cooley. Nearly four years prior, Cooley was gunned down with a semiautomatic weapon at a steakhouse in Erie, Pennsylvania. Haskell matched the profile of a suspect based on the reports of multiple witnesses, but it was the testimony of one witness in particular, Antoinette Blue, that sealed his fate. Unlike the other witnesses, Blue was able to pinpoint Haskell as the gunman.

Two decades have passed since Haskell was found guilty, but a recent federal court ruling increased the chances that the 48-year-old will see the outside of a prison after all. On August 1, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Haskell’s conviction because Blue committed perjury during the 1998 trial.

Three years went by between the day of the shooting and the day Blue recounted what happened to law enforcement. At the time, she was facing criminal charges of her own and locked up at the Erie County Jail. Blue reached out to a detective working on Haskell’s case and later acted as a key witness for the prosecuting attorney, Matthew Hayes. Blue was released from jail, even though more charges had been brought against her during her time there. Hayes also informed the judge in Blue’s case that she was being cooperative. At Haskell’s trial, however, Blue lied about her criminal charges and the fact that she received leniency for her cooperation.

On August 1, a panel of three appellate judges concluded:

Blue lied when she testified — both at Haskell’s preliminary hearing and at his trial — that she expected nothing in return for her testimony. She expected and eventually received favorable treatment at sentencing for her Mercer County charges. The Commonwealth, of course, knew Blue’s testimony was false and failed to correct it. Turning to the final inquiry, we conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Blue’s false testimony could have affected the jury’s judgment.

Erie County District Attorney Jack Danieri intends to appeal the 3rd Circuit’s ruling. It is possible that Haskell will be tried again for Cooley’s murder, and that he could still live out the rest of his life in prison. But the overturned conviction also leaves room for Haskell’s release.

Haskell is far from the only person whose fate in the criminal justice system rested in the hands of a witness swayed by a prosecutor. He is, however, one of the lucky ones. It is rare for a convicted person to prove that there was some form of misconduct during their trial, let alone prove that a witness committed perjury at the request of a prosecutor or received some sort of compensation for testifying.

Publicized cases have, over time, offered a glimpse at how this type of bargaining between prosecutors and witnesses damns people to a lifetime of imprisonment — or worse. The Death Penalty Information Center, an organization that tracks capital sentencing and execution trends nationwide, recorded examples of multiple people sentenced to die in the 1970s and 1980s because of this collaboration. Several witnesses agreed to testify against defendants, in order to receive immunity or leniency for their own involvement in a capital offense.

A number of death row inmates have been exonerated more recently because testifying witnesses received money from investigators or prosecutors and lied about it. In 2015, Montez Spradley was released from an Alabama prison after it was discovered that his girlfriend, a primary witness in his case, was given $10,000 for testifying. The girlfriend had received $5,000 from Deputy District Attorney Mike Anderton by way of a private fund and $5,000 straight from the governor’s office. In February, a federal appeals court overturned the conviction of Andrew Lee Thomas Jr., who was prosecuted by Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich in 2001. A witness had received $750 from the FBI, but later testified that she hadn’t been compensated for her cooperation. Weirich denied having any knowledge of the payment.

In Pennsylvania, Haskell’s fate is still up in the air. But his case demonstrates, once again, that prosecutors will go to great lengths to win.

Marin County teenager tried as adult gets new hearing under Prop. 57

California Supreme Court and 1st District Court of Appeal

Marin County teenager tried as adult gets new hearing under Prop. 57

The office of Marin County District Attorney Ed Berberian is fighting to keep a man locked up in prison even though an appellate court has ordered a new hearing in his case to determine whether he should have been tried as a juvenile.

Max Wade, now 22, was sentenced in 2014 to 21 years to life imprisonment for two separate crimes he committed when he was a teenager: the theft of a Lamborghini owned by celebrity chef Guy Fieri (during which Wade rappelled down from the ceiling of a California dealership and drove it out the front door), and the attempted murder of a romantic rival. Although Wade was 16 and 17 when the crimes occurred, prosecutors elected to try him as an adult, saying that the crimes showed a level of planning and sophistication unusual for a juvenile.

But nearly three years after Wade was sentenced, California passed Proposition 57, which was designed to reduce the state’s prison population by putting a greater focus on rehabilitation. One of the key aspects of the ballot initiative is that it took the power to try juveniles as adults away from prosecutors and gave the final authority to judges.

Proposition 57’s passage was a major victory for criminal justice reformers who long argued that California prosecutors abused their unchecked power by trying too many juveniles as adults.

The 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco ruled last month that Proposition 57 should be applied retroactively to Wade’s case. Notably, other appellate courts have come out differently on Proposition 57’s retroactivity, and that issue is now pending before the California Supreme Court.

If Wade ends up being prosecuted in juvenile court, he would have to be released by the time he turns 25, attorney Charles Dresow, who represents Wade, told the Marin Independent Journal.

Under his current sentence, the earliest Wade can apply for parole is 2040.

But Berberian’s office has vowed to keep Wade in adult court and the top elected prosecutor has criticized Proposition 57 as “poorly written and deceptive.”

“Max Wade was appropriately handled and sentenced in the manner that reflected his violent conduct,” Berberian said. “We will pursue all appropriate and available legal procedures to see his imposed sentence is reinstated.”

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Treatment-first approach to the opioid epidemic? Not for local prosecutors

Treatment-first approach to the opioid epidemic? Not for local prosecutors

On Thursday, President Trump announced that his administration will soon declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, following the interim recommendation of his Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis,” said Trump. “We are going to draw it up, and we are going to make it a national emergency.”

It was an about-face from just two days earlier, when Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told reporters that the administration already had the necessary resources to address the crisis without declaring it an emergency. It’s unclear why the president changed his mind and decided to heed the proposal from his own committee.

Regardless, the committee’s report has drawn praise for its treatment-first recommendations to stem the opioid overdose crisis, which the report says is killing an average of 142 Americans every day. A far cry from the familiar war on drugs rhetoric of the 1980s and ’90s that contributed to the sentencing policies that continue to fill U.S. prisons, members of Trump’s commission advocate for a public health, rather than law enforcement approach to opioid addiction.

Meanwhile, many local politicians — prosecutors — apparently haven’t gotten the memo. Elected district attorneys across the country are cracking down on opioid use by resurrecting long dormant “drug-induced homicide” laws, triggering lengthy sentences for those who sell or share opioids to individuals who overdose.

“The rhetoric right now is one of compassion, and is one that is focused on health and harm reduction, but the reality is that we’re seeing the criminalization of overdoses,” says Lindsay LaSalle, a staff attorney with Drug Policy Alliance.

While targeting people who sell drugs might seem like a logical way to address the vast number of overdoses or discourage drug use, it’s just not that simple.

“People who are engaged in the behavior of selling or sharing [opioids] often also have an addiction,” says Dr. Yngvild Olsen, board member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

“It’s a tempting and perhaps easier response to say well, these are bad people we need to prosecute to the maximum extent of the law,” Yngvild continued, “but in my experience, eight or nine times out of ten, [selling] is how people are managing their disease.”

Beyond the complex reality of who is and isn’t grappling with opioid addiction in tragic overdose scenarios, research illustrates that long prison sentences in the absence of drug treatment don’t deter crime or drive down drug sales or use. District attorneys seeking to impose these sentences may intend to target drug kingpins or high-level dealers, but that’s generally not who is bearing the brunt of the punishment.

In Wisconsin, where 10,000 people have died from drug overdoses since 2000, Fox6 news reporters investigated more than 500 drug-related homicide cases to find out who was getting sent to prison. Their study, released in February, found that of the 100 most recent drug-related homicide cases in southeastern Wisconsin, only 11 defendants were “at least one step removed from the direct sale or delivery of drugs” to the overdose victim. The others charged with homicide were friends or relatives of the victims, or low-level dealers.

“Prosecutors talk about getting the bigger fish or kingpins, but those cases never come to fruition because as a legal matter it’s incredibly difficult to prove murder for someone ten steps removed,” says LaSalle. “But it’s very easy for the person who literally handed the person the drugs.”

To Yngvild, the homicide-charge approach to overdose deaths is misguided, but she understands why prosecutors are taking it. “Communities are being devastated, and people in law enforcement are seeing people lose their lives day in and day out,” she says. “This is something they actually feel like they can do.”

But for those struggling with addiction who are now in prison, many of whom don’t have access to treatment programs, little help is given and few lessons are learned. While the opioid crisis is a relatively new phenomenon, tackling drug use and abuse with the criminal justice system is not. Now it’s up to local prosecutors to take a look at their well-trod history.

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