Another Judge Grants a New Trial in Mobile, Alabama- A Reaction to the Lagniappe Article on William Zieglar
November 20, 2012
The State Did Nothing Wrong, Or So It Says
I wrote a blog about a year ago following Judge Charles Graddick’s granting of Toby Priest a new trial (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2011/11/16/reaction-to-article-in-lagniappe-about-the-toby-priest-case/). The reaction from the Mobile District Attorney’s Office was typical- we did nothing wrong. On November 15, 2012, last week, Lagniappe Mobile shared another case where Judge Sarah Stewart granted William Zieglar a new trial. If you read the Lagniappe piece (http://classic.lagniappemobile.com/article.asp?articleID=5961&sid=1 ), you would be very saddened, it reads like a true travesty of justice. I want to read the 200 page order Judge Stewart issued. In typical fashion Assistant District Attorney Deborah Tillman said- we did nothing wrong. You’ve gotta read the Lagniappe piece. If Rodney K. Stanberry didn’t have the same judge for his Rule 32 hearing (where both Priest and Zieglar were granted new trials) as he did for his trial, perhaps he, too, would have had a judge express grave concern that the Mobile District Attorney’s Office suppressed a confession for no reason but that it did not fit its theory, that an Assistant District Attorney can be on the witness stand during said Rule 32 hearing and say he was on vacation when he travelled from Mobile to Rikers Island Prison in New York to visit the person he says was the shooter, that evidence went missing before trial, that a “photo line-up” in a hospital took place as the victim was recovering from a coma that resulted in the victim pointing to someone she knew, as she was asked to do, and so on. Even so, the Mobile District Attorney’s Office would say- the State did nothing wrong.
But I am thinking that this is more than about the State not admitting that it was wrong, rather, it may be about the head of the state, in this case, the head of the Mobile District Attorney’s Office, not wanting to say that her co-workers and friends actually engaged in prosecutorial misconduct- intentional or unintentional. ADA Jennifer Wright prosecuted the Toby Priest case. According to what I read in the Mobile Bay Times, she is a protégé of Ashley Rich’s. And, as someone who closely followed Rich’s campaign to replace former DA John Tyson, Jr., I can say that Wright was heavily involved with her campaign. ADA Deborah Tillman states in the Lagniappe article that she has been doing her job for 20 years. Specifically she said “I respect her (Judge Stewart) right as a judge to issue the ruling, but I and this office strongly disagree with it,… I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years and I know that I did not do anything wrong in terms of prosecutorial misconduct.” Assistant District Attorney Martha Tierney has also been in the Mobile District Attorney’s Office for years. During Rodney’s Rule 32 hearing, she essentially told Terell Moore, the person whose confession was suppressed and who pled the 5th on the witness stand during Rodney’s trial, that he could get life if he said what she thinks he will say when he appeared at Rodney’s Rule 32 hearing to testify. In other words, we gave you a “get out of jail free card, don’t say anything.” (http://freerodneystanberry.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/marthtierney.115133154.pdf ) She also listened to Buzz Jordan, who prosecuted Rodney’s case for the Mobile District Attorney’s Office, make the comment about visiting a prisoner while on vacation, so he didn’t take notes. She was promoted under DA Rich to head the White Collar Unit. And then there is JoBeth Murphee who was on John Tyson, Jr.’s “Murder Team,” a team that credited Rodney’s case as a victory and that claimed that the person they claimed was the shooter, Rene Whitecloud, had been brought to Mobile to stand trial (http://freerodneystanberry.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/mobileregister.256104348.pdf . The Mobile Press Register article is dated April 22nd, 1995, shortly after Rodney K. Stanberry was convicted.) Certainly members of the Murder Team knew this not to be true, Murphy currently heads the Murder Team unit in the Mobile District Attorney’s Office. District Attorney Ashley Rich was sworn in to be the DA in 2010, but she worked in the Mobile District Attorney’s Office as Assistant District Attorney for 14 years prior, meaning that reopening Rodney’s case would further expose what Graddick stated in the Priest case and Stewart in the Zieglar case, and that simply is not going to happen. It refers back to the “us v. them” mentality. Truth and justice matters less than covering up and denying misbehavior among prosecutors.
Prosecutors Are Necessary and Are Very Valuable, But Accountability is Necessary
I am not saying that any of the individuals are bad prosecutors or that they do not go out of their way to protect the community from the really bad people that are out there, I am saying that in the cases when they are wrong and misconduct did occur, the fallback response should not be that the jury made its decision, we did nothing wrong, end of story. This is precisely why a Conviction Integrity Unit is needed, where there is an independent voice working in the Mobile District Attorney’s Office. Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Craig Watkins leads District Attorneys around the nation in freeing the innocent. And guess what, he was reelected! The Mobile DA’s office is in a dispute with the Mobile County Commission about funding. I’ve asked members of the Commission to not increase funding without an integrity unit attached- http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/2011/07/26/mobile-da-mobile-county-commission-rodney-stanberry-make-the-call/). Merceria Ludgood, who is now President of the County Commission, is also in leadership role with the Mobile Bar Association (ASB Commissioner at Large – Merceria L. Ludgood)– She can show leadership on this. How much does it cost to keep prosecute and incarcerate an innocent person? If justice isn’t the concern, if humanity isn’t concern, perhaps monetary matters will be.
Campaign Talk, Prosecutor Inaction
During the campaign to replace John Tyson, Jr. as the District Attorney for Mobile County, candidates Ashley Rich and Mark Erwin, her primary opponent, was asked if they would be willing to work with innocence projects when presented with cases where there was evidence of innocence. Mark Erwin said he would be willing to and said that while he doesn’t believe there are many innocent people in prison, that he is willing to work with outside groups to free the innocent. Candidate Ashley Rich said during her campaign when asked on a radio show that the DA’s office already looks at cases and feel no need to work with outside groups. She talked about the integrity of the conviction and that she would reopen a case if she discovers that exculpatory evidence was withheld: (http://freerodneystanberry.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/u7am0916AshleyRich.mp3)
I had an email exchange with Mark Erwin that demonstrated to me that he would have been the one to pursue justice as it relates to wrongful convictions. I would love to share his response, but I like to respect the privacy of people, particularly if they aren’t public officials, although our email exchange came about when he was running for office. Here is my portion of the exchange:
March 22, 2010
Dear Mr. Erwin:
I hope you are doing well. In October of last year you on a local radio show(the Uncle Henry Show). You were asked about your thoughts on those who have serious claims of innocence and whether you would work with Innocence Projects. You expressed the importance of ensuring that the right/guilty person is convicted and that it doesn’t serve society to keep an innocence person in prison. You also stated that you’d be open to working with innocence projects. Your opponent was also on the show but because of the new format, few calls were taken, thus she wasn’t asked the question. However, I did ask the question via email. She said that her office investigate claims of innocence, but didn’t say whether she’d work with innocence groups. I think every candidate for DA should establish a wrongful convictions/convictions integrity unit as DA’s in some areas are starting to do. I ask this question because of a family member who is serving time in prison for crimes he did not commit. I am posting information about him here and will send a hard copy of information to you and others within the next couple of weeks. I hope you at least read and think about these cases. Rodney will begin his 14th year of incarceration on March 24th, his father is 76. He was denied parole this summer even as he had everything a parole board asks for, including letters of support from potential employees, a former member of Congress, the arresting officer, and so on. He will not admit to guilt for crimes he did not commit, and for that, he remains in prison. It is a travesty of justice. You are on facebook- there is a Free Rodney K. Stanberry facebook page.”
March 27, 2010
You did not respond to my email below. I restrained myself from calling while you were on the Uncle Henry show to ask about wrongful convictions again. You sound sincere in wanting to change the direction of the office; changing the direction of the office also means recognizing that there have been people who were wrongfully convicted and choosing to do something about it, as opposed to allowing someone to languish in prison for political reasons. ADA Rich says that the DA’s office needs a prosecutor, not a politician, indicating that you were the latter. It is easy to play politics on the issue of wrongful convictions because it plays well to the public to say let’s lock them up, keep them locked up and throw away the key, but it takes integrity to recognize when a wrong was done and then to correct, no matter the consequence. It costs on average, I read, $13,000 to keep someone incarcerated in Alabama. At 13 full years as an innocent man incarcerated, Rodney has already cost the taxpayers $169,000. I will send you (and others) a hard copy of the information I posted below making the case that whomever enters the DA’s office should seek to establish a wrongful convictions unit AND that John Tyson, Jr. should not leave office without reopening Rodney K. Stanberry’s case.
PS I am really sincere when I say that you sound like an honest man who is concerned with the DA’s office fighting on behalf of its citizens. I was impressed by both of your appearances on the Uncle Henry Show and will continue to monitor the race.
I really want to share you Mark Erwin’s response to my email above. It was an excellent response. I don’t know Mr. Erwin, but he seems like the person who would have been more willing to address wrongful convictions. A new face possibly would have changed the culture of the office. Just as I mentioned that if Rodney’s trial judge (Judge Ferrill McRae) wasn’t also his Rule 32 judge, perhaps he would have gotten a new trial; by the same token, if someone who was not immersed in the culture of the Mobile District Attorney’s Office to deny that wrongful convictions exist, that perhaps Rodney and others would have found relief from a wrongful conviction. This isn’t to say that Erwin or anyone else would not have been extremely law and order, it is to say that an outsider would have less incentive to ignore the actions of their prosecutors when said actions lead to innocent people being convicted.
The Toby Priest and William Zieglar rulings made by judges who reviewed the cases and the responses of the two assistant district attorneys provide insight into why candidate Rich responded the way she did, about reviewing cases in-house. If you have your current prosecutors to review cases, the response is going to be, Jordan, for example, did no wrong. It would be bad for morality to say otherwise. Law Professor and author Angela J. Davis responded to a New York Times question “Do Prosecutors Have too Much Power.” She wrote:
“We live in a democracy in which we hold accountable those to whom we grant power, but we have fallen short when it comes to prosecutors. State and local prosecutors are presumably held accountable through the electoral process, but few voters know enough about the prosecution function to make a meaningful decision at the ballot box. When prosecutors run for office, they don’t talk about their charging and plea bargaining policies (if such policies even exist). With a few notable exceptions, most prosecutors run on a “tough on crime” message, providing little, if any, information about anything else. There is even less accountability on the federal level where U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president.
….Unchecked power in the hands of prosecutors is as much a threat to our democracy as it is with any other government official, if not more. Prosecutorial decisions often result in a loss of liberty and even life. We must do a better job of holding prosecutors accountable — at the ballot box and through bar counsel prosecutions, when appropriate.”
This is very powerful. DA Deborah Tillman is quoted in the Lagniappe piece that Zieglar should have taken a plea bargain like the others. If the man knew he was innocent, why would he take a plea? If the DA’s Office knew he was innocent, did they simply offer a plea to mark it down as a conviction? Reforms are needed, accountability is needed, District Attorney Ashley Rich must be willing to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit, the culture doesn’t allow for change to come from within.