Saturday, December 15, 2012

Snitch-based convictions overturned in Washington

A four-year campaign by the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic and the parents of three young men has resulted in the reversal of three snitch-based convictions. Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman, and Paul Statler were freed on Friday after a judge vacated their robbery convictions. The three young men were facing sentences, respectively, of 20, 26, and 42 years. Here's the story: Judge vacates convictions in disputed robbery. Previous posts here: More on the Spokane convictions.

Their convictions were based on the perjured testimony of criminal informant Matthew Dunham, a convicted robber who received a 17-month sentence in exchange for his testimony. Another co-defendant later admitted that he and Dunham had fabricated their testimony against Larson, Gassman and Statler.

This is an important case for a number of reasons. First, it is extraordinarily difficult to challenge convictions after the fact, even where new evidence demonstrates innocence. A judge had previously denied the defendants' motion for a new trial after it was discovered that Dunham had lied, so the fact that the parties persevered and a court ruled in their favor makes this case uncommon.

Second, the case highlights how the lack of financial support for public defense in this country leads to miscarriages of justice. The attorneys representing the Spokane defendants were paid the paltry sum of $1,400 per case for cases that required hundreds of hours of investigation and preparation. Low attorney fees for complex cases are pervasive in many states, and they mean that even skilled well-meaning attorneys do not have the resources to defend such cases properly. For an indepth report on the phenomenon, see this U.S. Department of Justice Report: Contracting for Indigent Defense Services: A Special Report (April 2000).

Finally, it took years of work on the part of the Innocence Project and the families to bring about this reversal. The Statler family's efforts were extraordinary: as a result of their persistence, a Washington state legislator introduced a bill that would reduce the risks of informant use and future wrongful convictions. Such efforts were necessary because the criminal system does not have good internal mechanisms to protect defendants from lying informants--wrongful convictions are difficult to unearth and even harder to fix. As happens all too often, the legal system finally came to the right result in this case only because the families refused to give up.