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Solitary Jailhouse Lawyer Argues His Way Out of Prison (wsj.com)
184 points by jkuria on Dec 24, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 62 comments



This really highlights the unreliability of eyewitness testimony (well, and corruption in the DA's office and police department, but that's another story).

Perhaps one upside to the coming ubiquity of cameras is an increased availability in actual evidence for crimes.


Well,

While unbiased eye-witness testimony might be well unreliable, the story mostly shows DA and corruption.

He got out of jail by showing the people who testified against him were quite biased indeed - They were "motivated" to act by police and DA threats and the DA had systematically lied concerning this process...

It's also rather heart-rending to read how he had to engage in fraud to discover the truth and naturally this fraud was then held against his appeal....


[Interestingly] The judge Robert Holdman who shot down his appeal because of this fraud, has a (IMHO) history of being overly harsh.

http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:ZrFEGVE... (search for 'Holdman' on that page)


When I reading the story, that part was just screaming at me. In my limited knowledge of the law, the guy got incredibly lucky in having illegally gain evidence accepted in a court of law (from a defendant).

It's mind blowing to think about being in a situation where the only way to get justice is to break the law. It sounds good in action movie but in real life, it's appalling...


Being a foreigner, it's mind blowing that how evidence is procured matter.

Evidence is evidence. If there were illegal actions while collecting it, then those actions should be prosecuted, but evidence is still evidence and should be used.


In the US, we (as a collective) hold sacrosanct the rights of a person against illegal searches and self-incrimination, as well as the 'innocent until proven guilty' doctrine. The idea is that it's better to let a criminal go than to convict an innocent person.

Disallowing illegally obtained evidence also has the effect of discouraging the police from illegally obtaining evidence in the first place and reducing opportunities for corruption. Of course, in this case it didn't work out so well, but you would see a lot more stories like this if sources of evidence weren't important.


Disallowing illegally obtained evidence also has the effect of discouraging the police from illegally obtaining evidence in the first place

Exactly, and arguably it's the only effective deterrent, because courts will be very lenient towards law enforcement officers doing their job, simply out of pragmatism. Law enforcement officers don't all have a precise understanding of the law, there are gray areas in the law anyway, and on top of that, the law is constantly evolving. Prosecuting police officers for illegal searches would be harmful, impractical, and _extremely_ unpopular, so the use of illegal searches and evidence obtained from them would become routine if that were the only deterrent.


In the US, the courts crafted the "suppression of evidence" doctrine as a remedy to violations of the Fourth Amendment right to be secure against unreasonable searches/seizures. The courts didn't have the power to punish the law-enforcement agents who violated the Fourth Amendment (because there didn't exist an appropriate statute criminalizing the behavior or because the prosecutor was unwilling to bring charges), so instead they refused to allow such illegally gathered evidence to be presented at trial. Note that evidence gathered by a private actor (independently of any gov't investigation) is not suppressible under this doctrine.


I believe (but cannot prove) that it's to prevent the police abusing their powers. If illegally gathered evidence were admissible, then they could argue - with some justification - that the end justifies the means.


I love anti-American criticism. Sure, most of the time, foreigners complain that we don't respect people's rights enough. But some of the time, they complain that we respect people's rights too much.

The US has abnormally strong civil liberties as far as interacting with your local police department goes, paired with a federal government that does everything they think they can get away with when it comes to kidnapping foreigners or feeling you up at the airport. It's a very strange system filled with contradictions.

EDIT: Anti-American was probably too strong a term for it. My point was just that it's interesting how the American government is criticized on both accounts.


I can't see how the GP is anti-American.

Being "mind-blowing" is good thing, at least that's what I remember from Steve Jobs.


Anti-American was a poor way to put it--criticism of the American system of government would perhaps be more precise.


On the other side, this is a actually very good thing.

If cops aren't allowed to use any evidence they gather illegally, it puts a damper on their enthusiasm for such illegality.


As far as I know the legal system, in say, Germany doesn't recognize illegally gained evidence either.


The story is slightly different in each country.

"In Germany, statutory law mandates exclusion of statements obtained from suspects or witnesses by force, deception, hypnosis, or similar illicit methods of interrogation" http://law.jrank.org/pages/899/Criminal-Procedure-Comparativ...

But

"Because deterrence of police misconduct is not the rationale for exclusion of evidence, German courts tend to admit evidence obtained through illegal searches "http://law.jrank.org/pages/899/Criminal-Procedure-Comparativ...


This is a great story of someone fighting against oppressive forces to gain his freedom. I really hope he wins his lawsuit against them, this being one of those cases where he really deserves something for the time lost. As an aside, I can see this being made into a movie already.


Why does 'the system' seem to make this process so painfully slow and seemingly reject requests for information/appeals arbitrarily? It seems much of the 15 years here was spent playing paperwork games with the legal system.


I don't know about the state of NY, but the entire federal court system only takes up about 2.5% of the federal budget - when you think about it, it's the least expensive branch of government by far. The flip side, though, is that there are far more cases to be heard at any given time than there are courts and personnel to hear them, and complex technical rules which have to be complied with. It seems very inefficient and arbitrary, but generally all of those rules were created in response to so some failing in the previous version. Every so often the 'legacy code' becomes unmanageable and a relevant part of the law is redrafted or similarly overhauled.

For example, California switched over to a completely new set of jury instructions known as CALCRIM for criminal trials a few years ago, designed to eliminate a lot of unnecessary confusion and legalistic cruft which had accrued to the previous version, known as CALJIC. But even drafting those from scratch takes years. My reference copy of CALCRIM is about 2500 pages over 3 volumes. And that's just criminal - there's a lot more for civil trials. A LOT more.

Think of it like encountering Unix as a complete newbie. You know what computers are for and what they can do, but but actually learning unix at the command line is pretty complicated, no?


Are there too few judges? Is expanding the judiciary an option? Are too many lawyers incompetent?


There is definitely a significant judicial shortage at the federal level, but most crimes don't wind up there.


"The system" slows the process because there is systemic corruption. Just as cops don't want to be photographed, prosecutors don't want their convictions overturned. So they don't play fair, and do everything they can to avoid true justice.


Citation?


In general, I couldn't say. (Also, a citation showing that the people who are ostensibly meant to uphold the law are in fact not playing fair and doing everything they can avoid justice..? What? How would that work)

But a nice example would be this very case - even after the case was basically retro-actively thrown out, the prosecutor's office still maintain everything was kosher. (They still maintain that Collins is guilty - seriously, what the fuck?)


Even if there is corruption you have no data which says that is the primary actor in this phenomenon.


Don't mistake a singular possibility for the general. I gave one possibility; one that's real for me; whether it's the "primary" reason or not remains open to speculation. Many possibilities are possible simultaneously; this all depends on location and individual circumstance, along with the passage of time.

Be part of the problem, or propose part of the solution: that's on you, me, and everyone else who considers the matter. But consider whether you consider, whether you contribute; or whether you merely detract.


What are the typical consequences to the corrupt prosecutor and police department in a case like this?


The risk is low for the police department and virtually zero for a corrupt prosecutor or judge - in most cases they enjoy legal immunity because of the nature of their job. It's an imperfect system, but it's worth bearing in mind that taking away prosecutorial immunity would also lead to calls for defense attorneys to be punished if their clients were found guilty.

The principle that an attorney can and should pursue every possible legal option on behalf of a defendant, no matter how heinous the crime or how seemingly obvious their guilt, is more recent than many people realize. It was not really established before 1840. I was very surprised to find this, an only learned thanks to a book recommendation from HN member (and attorney) grellas.


I just heard Barry Gibbs tell his story on TheMoth's podcast.

> Framed by a corrupt cop, a man spends 19 unjust years in prison. Barry Gibbs was falsely accused of murder, and in 2006, after 19 years in prison, was exonerated with the help of The Innocence Project. New York City recently gave him the largest personal settlement in its history, 9.9 million dollars. The NYPD detective, Louis Eppolito, is now serving life in prison.

http://www.innocenceproject.org/Content/Barry_Gibbs.php


Unless they blatantly broke the law in some provable way, probably nothing. Though as with the guy in this case, he can sue the State/City for wrongful imprisonment and other issues.


So the guilty party suffers nothing, and the taxpayer foots the bill...


> Unless they blatantly broke the law in some provable way, probably nothing.

It seems to me that they should apply the same burden of proof. If a murderer can be convicted on eyewitness evidence, why should the same eyewitness evidence not be sufficient to demonstrate prosecutor corruption?

On the other hand I can understand why they have immunity (although this doesn't affect guilt).


So this guy proving his innocence by exposing corruption does not prove their corruption? There must be some fun technicalities there.


Nobody is watching (or prosecuting) the prosecutors. That's very very sad.


Prosecutors have absolute immunity for their actions in office, and they also decide whether or not to charge the police on the rare chance that a case makes it past the police's own "internal investigation." In the grand scheme of things, the DA is dependent on the police and it's not common for a prosecutor to survive a loss of confidence by them.


Mike Nifong, the prosecutor in the Duke Lacrosse case was eventually disbarred and faces multi-million dollar lawsuits (which he will lose almost certainly). Although I think that is more the exception. Prosecutors face almost no downside to corruption.


But on the other hand, Martha Coakley just narrowly lost a senate election, so while there is some rare downside risk to prosecutorial misconduct, there's the potential upside of being elected to high office for being "tough on crime".


And that's just because there was so much media attention (which was arguably because the accused were rich white guys).


This is one of many reasons I oppose capital punishment. It is odd that conservatives, who claim government is often the problem, not the solution, would entrust the state with the power of life and death.


Not really, as the conservative opinion has little to do with logic or consistency; it's all about maintaining the status quo. They simply dislike change, many seem to wish progress stopped around 1890 or so.


That's a literal definition of "conservative", but there's plenty of instances of "conservatives" (in the US) trying to change things--conservatives were the most enthusiastic proponents of the War on Drugs, which changed the US legal system dramatically, as well as the War on Terrorism, which involved a whole mess of other "innovations". In many cases, conservatives are the ones wanting to change things and civil libertarians (i.e. liberals) were trying to maintain the status quo.


Those are examples of them trying to change things back to how they think it used to be. In both cases, they see it them defending themselves and their values against those who disrupt their world.

That's not trying to change things, that's trying to stop change, in the former case, stopping the invasion of the growing drug culture and in the latter the repulsion of those who want to destroy their freedom. Unfortunately, in these cases, they don't mind giving up other peoples rights in the name of safety, because their entire world view is dominated by fear. So yea, liberals tried to maintain the status quo of things like civil liberties, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

So it isn't just the literal definition of conservative, it's the prevailing attitude of nearly every one that I've met. They aren't just coincidentally called conservatives, nor are progressives coincidentally called such either. Both are fairly accurate descriptions of the general attitude of both groups; not everyone fits both groups, but most do, whether they admit to the label or not.


Everyone sentenced to death is tried and convicted before a jury. I see no contradiction between trusting juries and distrusting unelected federal bureaucrats.


I think the article shows strong a connection between untrustworthy officials and unreliable jury trials.

In the case, officials effectively coerced at least three different people into testifying against the defendant and then lied about their behavior.

Jurors aren't psychic. They have to assume that prosecutors aren't lying and coercing witnesses. So unreliable officials will give you unreliable jury trials.

And making an irrevocable decision based on such an unreliable trial system clearly has some problems even every single juror is the most honest, upstanding citizen you can find.


I don't think the death penalty is a good idea, but I also don't think opposing the death penalty is a necessary consequence of opposing, for instance, health care reform, since they involve completely different types of government systems.

I also think it's pretty well understood that conservatives tend to trust policemen, prosecutors, and juries even though they tend to distrust federal regulators. Policemen and prosecutors are generally employed and even elected on local levels and perform a well-defined job that has to be done, and juries are (ideally, if not in practice) a random sample of the people, while federal regulators are, in the conservative view, trying to do a job that the market would do much more effectively--as well as appointed at the federal level, which is a lot farther from your local DA in terms of accountability to the public.


Right -- the prosecutor and DA are really the first line of defense in wrongful prosecutions, in that their highest goal is supposed to be justice, and good ones will not pursue a case if it is inappropriate, or even if it unlikely to result in a conviction. They also are involved in deciding if they should go for capital murder charges vs. life or lesser offenses. If you don't trust the prosecutors to be reasonable (as elected officials in many jurisdictions), that's a major point against capital punishment as an option.


I hope he does become an attorney.


Me too.

So many attorneys, so few good ones.


Warms my cold leftist heart.


This is an inspiring story and every time I hear about something like this I wonder how much money each year of my life would be worth behind bars. Years of not knowing when/if I'd ever be released.

This man is suing for 60 million and will probably get a settlement for less but still large sum. If he were to get $10 million, would that be enough for 10 years behind bars?


This man is suing for 60 million and will probably get a settlement for less but still large sum. If he were to get $10 million, would that be enough for 10 years behind bars?

No. At least, not if it were me.

But then again, if it were me, no amount of money would make me feel that justice was done. I'd want to see the prosecutor and anyone else involved in the frauds that got me convicted do some time themselves.


I don't know what the price of time is, but from my own experience I can say that it's quite high.

This comment reminded me of the Chekhov short story The Bet - http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Bet.shtml

If you reversed the statement, would you take $10m for 10 years of imprisonment? I definitely wouldn't. Life's for living.


The DA and cops are in it for convictions not justice.

Anyone in the police or DA's office who had a hand in railroading him should get 10 years in jail.


This would make for a wonderful plot for a book/movie. I'd watch/read a much longer version of this article.


The headline is disappointing given the contents of the article


from this story and others i read on HN: there is something really wrong with the justice system in america.


movie please.


I feel anyone who abstruct justice by withholding evidence should automatically go to jail. This guy was railroaded on so many levels, the DA should go sit in jail for same amount of time this innocent person did.


Hey HN, I mean no disrespect to any of the parties in this story -- but hey isn't this forum about HACKER NEWS ?

The only inspirational stores I wanna read about HERE are about fellow hackers' finding Seed/ VC funding and their successful exits. Or about cool programs and code. Items pertaining to Technology , Free Markets and Capitalism.

For all other life-affirming and inspirational stuff , I could always go to reddit.


Get used to it. Law has a good deal in common with programming, many hackers have a strong interest in and commitment to civil liberties, and this is a story about a man who overcame obstacles most entrepreneurs can barely imagine - by teaching himself how to hack the legal system. It's not just inspiring, but instructive.


Yep, beside the obvious triumph of justice against near-insurmountable odds, it made me realize some of the setbacks I've faced as an entrepreneur are complete child's play compared to what this guy went through! I got off my ass, hit the treadmill for half an hour, cleaned up my space and have been working since!


From the HN guidelines at http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html:

On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

I had no idea that you could lawyer your own way out of prison like that, and upon reading the title I was most assuredly curious.


The notion that you ought to be willing to become an expert in any field if your need is great enough is entirely in line with the ethos of Hacker News.




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