Category: prosecutorial misconduct

Willingham review is put on hold

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his daughters

A three-judge pane representing the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin has ordered Judge Charlie Baird to put an immediate stop to a hearing into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. 

Here’s the good news: Judge Baird’s hearing concluded just before the order arrived.

Now the bad news: Judge Baird will not be able to hand down a formal ruling until the stay is lifted. (more…)

Supreme Court agrees to hear Skinner case

Hank Skinner

As this excellent article from the Texas Tribune makes clear, the Hank Skinner case is a head-on collision between two interest groups: inmates looking to have DNA evidence tested, and overworked state officials who fear they will be buried in frivolous requests for DNA testing.

As this summary shows, the state’s case against Hank Skinner looks pretty damning: (more…)

Blackburn: Stop using ‘junk science’ in the courtroom

Jeff Blackburn


This opinion piece was published in the Houston Chronicle under the names of several authors, but the Amarillo Globe-News version simply mentions Jeff Blackburn, so I am assuming he is the author.   “Stop presenting ‘junk science’ in capital trials” Blackburn says.  You can find the heart of his argument pasted at the end of my remarks. 

The focus here is on Texas, but the problem is nationwide.  In the most recent Curtis Flowers trial, one ballistics expert testified that he could say with 100% certainty that the gun stolen from Doyle Simpson’s car was the murder weapon.  A second expert restricted himself to the obvious: the evidence didn’t lend itself to 100% certainty about anything.  All any competent ballistics expert could say for sure was that the evidence found at the crime scene was consistent with the .380 pistol allegedly stolen from Mr. Simpson’s car, but the shell casings could also have come from a similar weapon. 

Blackburn concentrates on expert witnesses who don’t know what they are talking about; but a lot of expert testimony is biased in favor of the prosecution because that’s where the money is.  Indigent defendants rarely have the money to hire their own experts and most capital defendants are indigent.  

In Blackburn’s opinion, the Cameron Todd Willingham case isn’t primarily about the execution of an innocent man; it’s about junk science. 

Do we really have to choose here? (more…)

Balko on prosecutorial misconduct

Radley Balko

In his most recent column, Radley Balko discusses prosecutorial misconduct in the federal criminal justice system.  Abuse is rampant, he says, and prosecutors who break the rules rarely face consequences.  You can find the first two paragraphs below:

Misbehaving Federal Prosecutors

A USA Today investigation finds egregious misconduct at the Department of Justice, with few consequences.

Radley Balko, September 27, 2010

Last week, USA Today published the results of a six-month investigation into misconduct by America’s federal prosecutors. The investigation turned up what Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman called a pattern of “serious, glaring misconduct.” Reporters Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy documented 201 cases in which federal prosecutors were chastised by federal judges for serious ethical breaches, ranging from withholding important exculpatory evidence to lying in court to making incriminating but improper remarks in front of juries.

The list is by no means comprehensive, and doesn’t claim to be. I checked the paper’s website for examples of egregious misconduct reported here at Reason: U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan’s politically-charged prosecution of Pennsylvania doctor Bernard Rottschaefer; Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson’s outrageous persecution of the Colomb family in Louisiana; and the bogus Mann Act charges brought against Mississippi heart surgeon, Dr. Roger Wiener. None are among the cases in USA Today’s database. The paper should be lauded for its groundbreaking investigation, but as the reporters themselves acknowledge, they’ve really only scratched the surface. (The investigation also only looked at federal cases, which comprise just a tiny portion of the country’s total criminal prosecutions.)  You can find the rest of Balko’s column here.