Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

Editorial: The death penalty just isn't worth the risks

 Steven Crutcher
We've advocated against the death penalty multiple times just in the past year. Besides the moral implications of possibly putting an innocent man to death, or even a guilty man, government error could also affect outcomes.

Even worse than malfeasance, though, would be actual bad faith. Prosecutorial misconduct, or bad faith from a state agency, compounds the difficulty in condemning a defendant to death.

And that's just what may have happened recently in Sanpete County. Stephen Douglas Crutcher pled guilty last May to killing a cellmate at the Gunnison prison in 2013. A jury trial was scheduled to determine whether to impose the death penalty or not.

On Wednesday, instead, a court sentenced Crutcher to life in prison.

The court imposed the life sentence after Sanpete County prosecutors withdrew their intent to seek the death penalty after Crutcher's attorney - not the prosecution, but the defense - uncovered the unfortunate fact that despite a judge's order last October to turn over Crutcher's entire medical file to the defense, the Department of Corrections withheld 1,600 pages worth of relevant documents, apparently for privacy concerns.

In other words, the state didn't give Crutcher access to his own medical records in order to protect his own privacy. It makes no sense.

Edward Brass, Crutcher's defense attorney, told the judge that it was crucial for the defense to have a full record of the medications Crutcher had been taking at the time.

Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee was not happy.

He told the parties, "I'm about as angry about this as I have been about anything in my career. I am beyond angry about this. I am angry with the Department of Corrections. This was totally wrong and makes me doubt the credibility of everything I hear about the Department of Corrections."

The judge should do more than write a letter to the governor to suggest an internal review of Utah's Department of Corrections. Lee called the department "sneaky" and "deceitful," which is strong criticism from a state judge. If Lee really suspects foul play on the part of the Corrections Department, he should hold the prosecution accountable with appropriate sanctions.

It is the prosecutor's job to ensure that all relevant documents are produced, especially when a judge has ordered production of those documents. If the prosecution suffers no penalty, then it has no reason to ensure compliance from cooperative or uncooperative state departments in the future.

The county attorney was right to withdraw its request for the death penalty. But this is a reminder that there are too many things that can go wrong in the pleading, prosecution and sentencing phases of death penalty cases.

It just isn't worth it.

Source: Editorial, Salt Lake Tribune, March 29, 2018

Could there be more cases where Utah Department of Corrections withheld medical records despite court orders?

Department will "review additional cases" to see if requests were handled appropriately.

After a Utah judge ripped prison officials' handling of medical records in a death penalty case, the Utah Department of Corrections says it is reviewing other cases to ensure it has responded appropriately to court orders.

It was revealed during a court hearing earlier this week that the department had withheld more than 1,600 pages of medical documents in a death penalty case, which, in part, led to prosecutors withdrawing their intent to execute the man - and he was sentenced Wednesday instead to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Sixth District Judge Wallace Lee said he was "beyond angry" with prison officials, and worried that there may be other cases in which the department had not provided all documents in response to a judge's order.

Calling the department's actions "sneaky" and "deceitful," Lee went so far as to say he would write a letter to the governor asking for an investigation of the Department of Corrections.

Prison spokeswoman Maria Peterson said Thursday that the department has started reviewing additional cases to make sure similar requests and court orders have been handled appropriately.

And while a lawyer representing the Corrections told the judge that disciplinary action could possibly be taken against the officials involved, Peterson said Thursday that it was too early to say whether personnel actions would be warranted.

"We're still reviewing the issue," she said.

The case

Steven Douglas Crutcher, 36, admitted last year that he killed 62-year-old Roland Cardona-Gueton inside their shared cell at the Gunnison prison in 2013.

Crutcher was weeks away from a trial in which jurors would have decided whether he should be executed for the crime before prosecutors this week announced they would not seek the death penalty.

Crutcher's medical records from the prison "went to the heart" of his client's case at trial, defense attorney Edward Brass told the judge Wednesday, saying it was important to know what kind of medical treatment and medications the inmate was receiving around the time of his cellmate's death.

But, Brass said, Corrections failed to provide all of the documents - even after the judge ordered Crutcher's "entire file" be turned over last October. Medical doctors at the prison were also difficult to work with, Brass said, adding that one doctor would not even disclose which medical school he went to during an interview with a defense lawyer.

Prison officials said in a statement earlier this week that workers did not intend to deceive the court or intend to withhold records, and that the missing records were due to a "misinterpretation" of the judge's order.

Peterson said Thursday that the 3-member clinical services records staff has been retrained 1 on 1 on the protocol for court orders. All new prison employees are given training on open records laws, she said, and a group training is planned for the rest of the correctional records staff.

'A slow process'

It's not yet known whether records issues similar to those in Crutcher's case are happening in elsewhere in the state. But some defense attorneys said that while they haven't experienced anything similar, it is often difficult to get their clients' medical records from the Department of Corrections.

Stewart Gollan, executive director of the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he has encountered this problem as he has litigated civil rights cases. Despite having a signed release from his client allowing the release of his own medical records, Gollan said he often has to fight in court for a judge's order authorizing the release.

"It's not normal," he said.

At the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association - which provides lawyers to those who can't afford one in Salt Lake County - Executive Director Richard Mauro said there are often disputes getting records from the prison. Either the department opposes releasing the records, Mauro said, or it takes a long time to hand them over.

"Sometimes it's a slow process for us to get those records," he said. "... We tend to have more hearings about the production of Department of Corrections records."

And while Mauro said he hasn't heard of any cases of missing records in his office, he anticipates his staff will likely examine their cases in light of Crutcher's experience.

"I expect," Mauro said, "people here will take a closer look here into whether or not they're getting all the records they're requesting from the Department of Corrections."

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, Jessica Miller, March 30, 2018

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

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