"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Alabama: The outrageous conviction of Montez Spradley

Anna Arceneaux, Montez Spradley
Anna Arceneaux, Montez Spradley
Last week, an Oklahoma appeals court granted death row inmate Richard Glossip a stay of execution about an hour before he was scheduled to die. There's plenty of evidence casting doubt on Glossip's guilt, including new evidence his legal team unveiled just last week. (Much of it came from witnesses who came forward after seeing the publicity surrounding Glossip's nearing execution.) Whenever a death row inmate claims innocence in the waning hours of his life, there's inevitably a chorus of death penalty supporters who point out that the condemned was convicted by a jury, by the work of police and prosecutors, that the verdict would need to have been upheld by a judge, and then by multiple appeals courts.

But consider the case of Montez Spradley. As Glossip neared his execution, Spradley was enjoying his second week of freedom after nearly a decade in prison. For most of that time, he was on death row. He had been convicted of robbing and killing a woman, Marlene Jason, in 2004.

At 1st glance, the case against Spradley seemed strong. The police claimed to have records of the victim's credit card being used at the gas station and seafood store, and surveillance photos of Spradley at those businesses at the time the card was used. Spradley's ex-girlfriend, and the mother of his 3 children, testified that he had confessed to her, then beat her and threatened her if she tried to testify against him. A jailhouse informant also claimed that Spradley had confessed to him, and even claimed to have corroborating evidence to back up the allegation.

Spradley was convicted in 2008, both for the murder and for threatening his ex-girlfriend to dissuade her from testifying. But there were problems with the state's case. Most notably, there was no physical evidence linking Spradley to the crime. Perhaps that's why, during the sentencing phase, the jury voted 10-2 to spare Spradley the death penalty.

Unfortunately for Spradley, Alabama is one of three states in which a judge can override the jury's verdict in a capital case. Judge Gloria Bahakel disregarded the jury's recommendation and sentenced Spradley to death. (Incidentally, judges and these 3 states can also go the other way - they could override a jury's death recommendation to impose a life sentence. But since 1976, they're 11 times more likely to override life for death than the other way around.)

Over the next few years, the state's case against Spradley began to fall apart. In 2011, the Alabama Court of Appeals ordered a new trial on several grounds. Most notably, the court found that the state never established that the security camera photos allegedly showing Spradley at the gas station and seafood store were actually taken at the time the victim's credit card was used. In fact, the state never produced any documents from a bank showing that the card was used at those businesses. Instead, the state relied on the testimony of the police detective who investigated the case, Jefferson County Sheriff's Office Det. Don Edge. As the court pointed out, this was the only evidence linking Spradley to the victim. The state moved ahead with plans to prosecute Spradley again, led by the man who prosecuted him the first time, deputy district attorney Mike Anderton. But before the 2nd trial started, new information further crippled the state's case.

The most damning piece of evidence against Spradley was the testimony of his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his children, Alisha Booker, who claimed that Spradley had confessed to her. There were already problems with Booker's story. She claimed in a recorded interview that Spradley told her he committed the crime with a man named Antonio Atkins. The police already knew about Atkins because witnesses claimed someone in a car matching the one he owned tried to sell them gas purchased with Jason's credit card. But the police also knew that Atkins had an alibi - he had been working the night of the murder. His attorneys have suggested that Atkins's brother Sedrick was Jason's killer. Unfortunately, Sedrick Atkins was shot and killed in 2011. At trial, Det. Edge testified that he couldn't recall if Booker told him Spradley was with someone on the night of the murder, a convenient memory lapse that saved the jury from hearing a critical detail that cast serious doubt on Booker's testimony.

After his death sentence, Spradley was represented by Birmingham defense attorney Richard Jaffe and Anna Arceneaux, a staff attorney with the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project.

In a phone interview, Arceneaux says they had learned of a fund run by the Alabama governor's office that provides reward money to citizens who help solve serious crimes. On a whim, Spradley's attorneys asked the governor's office for any information related to payments to witnesses in the Spradley case. They discovered that Alisha Booker had been paid $5,000 for her testimony. They later discovered that she had been paid an additional $5,000 through a private fund. None of this had been disclosed to Spradley's defense team, as is required by law.

But it gets worse. They also discovered that the money from the governor's fund was paid to Booker after Spradley's conviction but before his sentencing. What's more, Judge Gloria Bahakel had signed off on the payment. She too never disclosed the payment to Spradley's defense team.

"That means not only did she know that the state had paid Booker and did nothing about it, she also had knowledge of the payment when she overrode the jury and imposed the death penalty," Arceneaux says.

Anderton has publicly said that he wasn't personally aware of the payments to Booker, but Arceneaux points out that the documents came from the office of Anderton's boss at the time, Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber. If Anderton didn't know about the payments, then someone in his office was making deals with a witness without his knowledge. "Either scenario is disturbing," Arceneaux says.

Both Arceneaux and Jaffe say they also believe that Booker received yet more money later, possibly from a Crime Stoppers program. They also learned that shortly before trial, Booker attempted to recant her testimony. According to them, police officials in the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office threatened to prosecute her for perjury and take away her children if she didn't implicate Spradley. Incidentally, the way these reward programs work, Booker would have been paid only if Spradley was convicted.

"You can see how the incentives work," says Jaffe. "If you want to get paid, you not only testify, but you'd be wise to make sure your testimony is as helpful as you can make it." For Booker, the incentives were even stronger: Give the testimony that sends Spradley to death row, and she gets paid $10,000. Refuse to testify, and she may lose her kids, and possibly end up in jail herself. Jaffe says these tactics are common in Jefferson County.

And if Spradley's new legal team hadn't thought to request information from the governor's office, it may never have come to light. On Booker's testimony alone, Spradley could well have been convicted again. "We had heard rumors that Booker had been paid," Arceneaux says. "But when we contacted the county clerk, there was no record of any payments in the case file."

And then there's Matthew Bryant, the informant who testified against Spradley. Bryant was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he hired two men to kill his father. Spradley had been arrested after Booker claimed he threatened her, although at that point he had not yet been charged with Jason's murder. Bryant then approached police claiming that Spradley had been implicating himself for Jason's murder and offered to testify in exchange for favorable treatment in his own case. But when Bryant attempted to secretly record Spradley confessing, he came up empty. Nevertheless, he still testified against Spradley at trial. By that time he had been convicted in his own case. He received a split sentence that required him to spend just 5 years in prison, followed by probation.

"That's an extraordinarily light sentence for a crime that serious," Jaffe says. Anderton has publicly said that there was no deal cut with Bryant. But for some perspective on his sentence, Richard Glossip was essentially convicted of the same crime. Bryant got 5 years. Glossip was sentenced to death.

Once all of this came out, the state offered Spradley an Alford plea, an agreement in which a defendant maintains his innocence but concedes that the state has enough evidence to prove his guilt. Spradley took the offer and was released this month. It's far from an exoneration, but it spared him death and got him out of prison. "Montez is innocent," Jaffe says. "But you don't mess around with the death penalty. If my client has the chance to save his own life, I always advise him to take it."

If you don't closely follow the criminal justice system, the details of Spradley's conviction seem pretty shocking. But they aren't uncommon. The use of testimony from jailhouse informants, for example, is extremely common, despite the obvious incentive problems and that such testimony relies on the assumption that defendants frequently confess their crimes to cellmates they barely know. Anderton's denials aside, it's not unreasonable to wonder if Bryant's suspiciously light sentence was the result of favorable treatment of his testimony. But even if no one ever explicitly offered him a deal, it isn't difficult to see how he might come forward in anticipation of one. (Indeed, Arceneaux says transcripts show that he made such a request.)

Then there's the money paid to Booker. Timothy O'Toole, an attorney in Washington considered an expert in discovery issues and a board member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says the practice of police and prosecutors offering reward money to non-expert witnesses for their testimony is standard practice. (The NACDL doesn't comment on specific cases, so O'Toole's opinions are his own.) "It just has to be disclosed," O'Toole says. "But the rules are pretty loose."

You might think that sounds like bribery. O'Toole points out that in 1998, a panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit agreed, explaining that, "If justice is perverted when a criminal defendant seeks to buy testimony from a witness, it is no less perverted when the government does so. The judicial process is tainted and justice is cheapened when factual testimony is purchased, whether with leniency or money."

Source: Washington Post, Radley Balko, Sept. 21, 2015

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