Justice often blindsided
Have recent cases brought into question the price of justice in America?
The Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” has been a popular social media topic recently. The 10-episode production follows the murder case and conviction in Wisconsin of Steven Avery and focuses upon elements of policing and prosecution that call into question the objectivity and honesty of those sworn first to provide justice.
More recently in the news is the release in Texas of Death Row inmate Alfred Dewayne Brown, whose conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Following that decision, the Harris County, Texas, prosecutors decided there was insufficient evidence to retry Brown. Brown has been released from prison.
In the Brown case, a Texas policeman and store clerk were killed in a robbery by three men in 2003. The police investigation turned to Brown and two other men, both still in prison for the crime.
The case against Brown was based upon three factors; a co-defendant’s statement that Brown took part in the robbery; the lack of an alibi for Brown at the time of the robbery and the testimony of Brown’s girlfriend that Brown confessed the crime to her.
Those three elements of the prosecution would seem enough to convict Dewayne Brown, and they were. However, each of the charges was more complicated than straightforward.
The co-defendant received a reduced sentence for implicating Brown. The Brown defense requested another man’s DNA be tested for participation at the robbery, but the prosecution chose not to do so.
Brown’s alibi was at the time of the crime he was alone at his girlfriend’s house. He argued that he made a telephone call from her landline that would prove he was there at the time of the robbery. But proof of that call could never be found during the trial.
In 2014 that phone record was found in the garage of a police detective and that document became the basis for the Texas Appeals Court ruling that material evidence was withheld from the defense. How a crucial document that would have helped the defense ended up somehow in the personal possession of a police officer has never been explained.
The third convicting argument was Brown’s girlfriend’s testimony of his confession to her. But Erica Dockery did not initially claim Brown confessed. Dockery’s original testimony was that Brown was alone at her house and did call her at work at the time of the robbery. In fact, Dockery, a mother of three, was jailed for 120 days, until she admitted Brown confessed to her and changed her testimony. After that Dockery was still charged with perjury by the prosecutor.
When Dockery was released from jail, she had to adhere to a 10 pm curfew, wear an ankle bracelet, and submit to a drug test twice a month. But that was still not enough for the prosecutor, Dockery was required to call a homicide detective once a week to insure her testimony would remain the same.
Each of the compelling arguments against Brown were fraught with flaws that made his conviction more speculation of fact than fact. Perhaps a well-funded defense could have fought those charges successfully.
But the common thread of the fight for justice is often that poor people have less access to justice than those with better resources. Across the nation public defenders offices are underfunded and overstretched. The results have come to be known in the legal defense business as “greet ‘em and plead ‘em” a recognition the 90 to 95 percent of public defender cases are pleaded out rather than tried in court.
Justice seems costlier than some can afford. Mr. Brown is fortunate. Mr. Avery, not so much.
Jim Crawford is a retired educator and political enthusiast living here in the Tri-State.