Late yesterday afternoon, 4 men walked out of the New Haven, CT criminal courthouse, free men for the first time in 17 years. Earlier in the day, they got to stand in court and hear the judge say that all charges against them were dismissed.
17 years ago, Sean Adams, Darcus Henry, Carlos Ashe and Johnny Johnson were charged with, tried and convicted of the murder of one Jason Smith and the shooting of Andre Clark. They all were sentenced to prison terms of over 75 years.
The main evidence against them at trial was the testimony of Andre Clark. Andre Clark, however, was himself the defendant in several other criminal charges. Prior to the Adams’ trial (I’m going to use Adams as shorthand for all the rest), Clark had pled guilty in that same New Haven courthouse and instead of facing 35-38 years in jail, had entered into an agreement that would cap his sentence at 4 years, with a right to argue for less in exchange for his testimony against Adams.
Clark testified against Adams. Under intense cross-examination, Clark denied that he had pled guilty, or had any deal with the prosecutor or had any expectation of leniency in exchange for testifying. In other words, he flat out lied. No prosecutor uttered a word to correct him.
It’s not like even with Clark, the State’s case was strong. From the Supreme Court opinion reversing their convictions [PDF]:
Finally, the fact that the evidence against the petitioner was hardly overwhelming is borne out by the apparent difficulty that the jury had in deciding the case. The jury deliberated for ten days before reaching a verdict on the petitioner’s charges. Moreover, the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on any of the charges against two of the petitioner’s three codefendants, resulting in a mistrial as to them, and before reaching its guilty verdicts as to the petitioner and Henry, the jury requested that the testimony of Ogman, Andre, and Charles Clark be read back. Although not necessarily dispositive of the issue of the strength of the state’s evidence, the foregoing considerations support the conclusion that the jury viewed the case as a relatively close one.
Prosecutors have an independent an affirmative duty under Brady v. Maryland to disclose biases that witnesses might have if it could lead to their impeachment on the witness stand. A plea agreement for a significantly favorable sentence in exchange for testimony in another trial certainly qualifies as such. If there was any doubt that he received favorable treatment, it was dispelled at his own sentencing:
Although the court originally set sentencing for February 19, 1999, Andre was not sentenced until September 14, 2001, after he had testified in all three trials stemming from the December 14, 1996 shooting, including the petitioner’s trial.At Andre’s sentencing hearing, [the prosecutor] recommended that the court vacate Andre’s pleas on two of the charges and impose an unconditional discharge on the third charge. In support of this request, [he] observed that Andre ‘‘ha[d] testified [in] three trials that I know of in which he was a gunshot victim and also an eyewitness. He’s being shown consideration for his truthful cooperation and testimony. . . . He’s been enormously cooperative.’’
But here, there were two prosecutors: one prosecuting Adams and one prosecuting Clark. They set up a sort of “firewall” between themselves, agreeing not to talk to each other about the other’s case. So when Clark testified at Adams’ trial that he had no agreement, that prosecutor didn’t actually know if that was untrue.
But that’s not good enough, said the Supreme Court – and the State agreed on appeal:
Of course, as the respondent now concedes, the state certainly did have a duty to disclose Andre’s plea agreement, no less than it had a duty to correct Andre’s false testimony denying its existence, because the prospect of a lenient sentence gave Andre an incentive to curry favor with the state and the sentencing judge, an incentive that the petitioner and his codefendants were entitled to explore on cross-examination. See, e.g., State v. Ouellette, 295 Conn. 173, 190, 989 A.2d 1048 (2010) (‘‘[i]t is difficult to imagine a greater motivation to lie than the inducement of a reduced sentence’’ [internal quotation marks omitted]); see also DuBose v. Lefevre, 619 F.2d 973, 979 (2d Cir. 1980) (‘‘[u]nquestionably, agreements . . . to reward testimony by consideration create an incentive on the witness’ part to testify favorably to the [s]tate and the existence of such an understanding is important for purposes of impeachment’’)
Having found that there was a Constitutional violation and that the evidence was material to the trial, the Supreme Court had no choice but to vacate the convictions and return the matters to the trial court.
And that’s where we started, as did Adams and his co-defendants. And now they’re back. To start a new life; maybe a different life.
“I’m overcome with joy,” said Johnson’s mom, Gloria, after hugging her son.
“Justice finally prevailed,” declared Adams. “I don’t have time to feel bitter or hate. I’m just glad it’s over and done with.” He held onto his daughter as he moved through the crowd. “Finally, I get to be with her,” he said. “She was born while I was in jail.”
Darcus Henry has two 14-year-old sons, both of whose lives he’s missed out on. “I feel like justice is served,” said Henry as he hugged Darcus, Jr.