Saturday, July 19, 2014

Tunnel Vision & The Falkenberg Articles

If you pay attention to the goings on at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center with any regularity, you are probably already aware of Lisa Falkenberg's two outstanding articles on the Harris County Grand Jury that indicted Alfred Dewayne Brown for the Capital Murders of Houston Police Officer Charles R. Clark and store clerk Alfredia Jones.

Part One of the column ran on Thursday.  Part Two ran Friday.  As of this writing, we are still waiting on Part Three.   NOTE:  If the Chronicle's "premium content" website is blocking your access, the Washington Post did a pretty decent synopsis you can read by clicking here.  My friend, Scott Greenfield, has also weighed in on the columns here.  The attention these articles are garnering is just beginning, in my opinion.

The very condensed version of events are as follows:  Alfred Brown was suspected of being part of a group of males that robbed a check-cashing business and murdered the clerk and a police officer in the process.  Brown stated as his alibi that he was on the phone (landline, not cell) with his girlfriend, Ericka Jean Dockery, at the time of the offense and when Ms. Dockery tried to confirm that to a Grand Jury, they threatened her with financial, legal and even child custody repercussions.  She ultimately changed her story, but Harris County prosecutor Dan Rizzo filed Aggravated Perjury charges on her anyway.

Lisa's column is very much on point about the secrecy of the Grand Jury -- a fact that seems to have given several Pat Lykos/Rachel Palmer supporters new life in their never-ending war against the 185th Grand Jury Investigation of 2012.  Politics really do make strange bedfellows when you've got Lykos supporters rooting for a person accused of killing a police officer.

The bigger issue that Lisa's column covers is the extreme lengths that some people in the Criminal Justice System are willing to go to when they are suffering from Tunnel Vision.

As a former prosecutor, I can attest to the fact that Assistant District Attorneys are inclined to believe the version of events that are initially presented to them by police officers.  There is nothing wrong with that -- the System would come to a screeching halt otherwise.  Can you imagine if all calls from the police went like this:
OFFICER:  I stopped a vehicle for speeding and running a stop sign . . .
PROSECUTOR:  Oh really?  Are you really a police officer?  Was your radar calibrated?  Where was this stop sign?  Did anybody else see this?  Why don't you put this person that you are accusing on the phone and let me ask him what really happened.
 I can't fault prosecutors for believing the initial version of events presented to them by an investigating agency.  Where things become troubling is when they believe those events so strongly solely because they came from the police officer.

I think that if you ask any practicing criminal defense attorney if they know any prosecutors that suffer from Tunnel Vision, you will be in for a very lengthy conversation.  I'm not naming any names of prosecutors, but I was once told by a prosecutor that he was "insulted" that I would tell him I believed a client I was representing was factually innocent.

Insulted.  Not only were they not interested in examining my reasons for believing my client was not guilty, they were insulted that I would even dare approach them with it.

We used to joke about a prosecutor that was so determined to NOT dismiss a case that if you provided her with video footage of your client sitting behind the President during the State of the Union Address at the time of the alleged offense, she would only offer you a better plea offer on a lesser charge.

Of course, the prosecutorial counterpoint to my argument would be, "You have no idea how many B.S. stories we hear on a daily basis."  Yes, I do know.  I did that job for nine years.  I once had to call a very -- shall we say "country" -- gentleman and ask him if he had, in fact, "donated" his pride Dually pick-up truck to the very crack-addicted felon who was charged with stealing it.  My eardrum still twitches at the angry yelling I had to listen to in response.

But I made the call because that's what the defense attorney told me his client was claiming.  Sometimes you have to look down a lot of rabbit trails to avoid Tunnel Vision and unfortunately, that's part of the job of being a prosecutor.  You have to rule out Reasonable Doubt -- even if it doesn't seem that "reasonable" to you.

The prosecutor who believes an investigator's version of events so much that they shut down even the mere possibility of a contradiction becomes the most dangerous person in the courthouse.

Charles Sebesta shut down the possibility that Anthony Graves wasn't involved in the murder of six people in Somerville.  Ken Anderson shut down the possibility that Michael Morton didn't kill his wife.  Now, Dan Rizzo, with the backing of a Grand Jury, is on the hot seat.

To be fair, there are several people within the Harris County District Attorney's Office who have told me that although they agree Alfred Dewayne Brown deserves a new trial, they still believe he is factually guilty.  That was District Attorney Mike Anderson's position when the Office agreed that Brown deserved a new trial.

What is so frightening about Ericka Jean Dockery's case is that Rizzo filed Aggravated Perjury charges against her because he and the Grand Jury didn't believe her.  There wasn't a concrete piece of evidence that contradicted her.  There wasn't a change of story that had come from her own volition (change of stories based on extreme coercion doesn't count).  At the end of the day, the decision to file felony charges (of moral turpitude) against Ms. Dockery flowed from Rizzo and the Grand Jury's opinion that she wasn't being truthful.

Put yourself in the shoes of a person accused of something for a moment.  You have an alibi witness.  That witness is willing to testify and clear you.  However, that witness is told by prosecutors, in no uncertain terms, that not only do they not believe her testimony,  they will file felony charges against her for daring to back you up.

Take a moment and ponder how truly frightening that is.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

all that is true but why dont we name the people that are doing it so they can pay the price and run them out of the das office as the da has done before and let them go practice law, just not as a da

jenesp said...

Frightening indeed!

Anonymous said...

A point of technicality: the call is for after the murder, not during the murder - almost half an hour afterwards. Most of Falkenberg's article and the analysis linked seems to say that it is an alibi for the time of the murder itself.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Good job!

Jefe said...

An outstanding analysis, Murray.

Anonymous said...

Did Rizzo hide the phone records? Did the witness lie to the grand jury or to the jury or is she lying now? It is not unusual for witnesses to recant. Nor is it unusual for prosecutors to believe that a witness is lying to protect someone. Seems a lot of conclusions have been jumped here perhaps in large part because of occurrences in other places and Falkenberg has demonstrated a bias in the past. I don't deny that there have been some real bad apples in this business, but this may not be one of them.