0

I just read an article in the Austin Chronicle (link) about Fran and Dan Keller, who were convicted of a felony in the Oak Hill satanic ritual abuse trial.

Some quotes from the article:

Their 1992 conviction...has effectively been overturned by a May 2015 Court of Criminal Appeals ruling 'granting relief' to the Kellers...but the ruling was not accompanied by actual exoneration.

...

In the absence of an exoneration from the court, there remains one person who can act upon the complete absence of evidence...District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg.

...

In previous local exonerations, Lehmberg recalled, DNA evidence eventually led away from the person convicted. In this case, the absence of any physical evidence...has had a perverse result: it has thus far prevented Lehmberg from any further action.

While I'm not sure if it's technically correct that there's no evidence of wrongdoing whatsoever, it seems strange to me that in a legal system where the defendant is innocent until proven guilty, an appeals court would not be legally required to exonerate the convict if unable to find any evidence (or the single piece of evidence was retracted, as in this case) with which they could have rendered a guilty verdict in the first place.

Why is it possible for a convict not to get exonerated even if the only evidence against them gets retracted?

1

The presumption of innocence doesn't apply once a case has reached this procedural posture. A defendant is presumed innocent when charged and tried, but once the defendant is convicted, everything flips, and he or she faces extremely adverse legal standards -- especially in a post-conviction proceeding.

It looks like the defendants in this case prevailed on a Brady/Giglio claim (or perhaps a state-law equivalent). As one court has observed, the remedy for those types of violations "will usually be a new trial." United States v. Kohring, 637 F.3d 895, 913 (9th Cir. 2011). Another court explains that "the applicable remedy analysis for a Brady violation is as follows: (1) a Brady violation requires a remedy of a new trial; (2) such new trial may require striking evidence, a special jury instruction, or other additional curative measures tailored to address persistent prejudice; and (3) if the lingering prejudice of a Brady violation has removed all possibility that the defendant could receive a new trial that is fair, the indictment must be dismissed. To be sure, dismissal is appropriate only as a last resort, where no other remedy would cure prejudice against a defendant." United States v. Pasha, 797 F.3d 1122, 1139 (D.C. Cir. 2015).

1

The Court of Criminal Appeals ruling states that the conviction was set aside on grounds of false testimony. It appears based on a concurring opinion that there were other grounds: J. Johnson said that she would grant relief on all the grounds that have been raised. From that we can conclude that there were other grounds that the majority did not agree with: they presumably concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction, but also not enough enough evidence to support a declaration of actual innocence.

Convictions are overturned for numerous reasons, many of which are called "technicalities" – improper jury instructions, procedural flaws (Mirandacizing a suspect), etc. Sometimes, a conviction is overturned even though there is good reason to believe that the suspect actually did it. The problem is that if every overturning of a conviction required the courts to additionally declare the actual innocence of the accused, then (1) the courts would be required to make patently false statements (when actual guilt is clear, but the path to conviction was improper) which would be bad, and (2) the negative consequences of over-applying such a requirement for exoneration would no doubt lead to a serious decrease in the probability of any conviction being overturned on procedural grounds. Since no "automatic exoneration" principle has been tried out on the legal system, we can't tell exactly why by reading cases, but I think automatic exoneration would have serious problems, which is why exoneration is separate from overturnnig a conviction.

  • I see. I was not necessarily suggesting a declaration of innocence for every overturned conviction, just those in which a trial with the new evidence could not possibly render a guilty verdict -- but I realize now that that would be highly speculative at best. Do you think that there would be serious problems if, anytime a conviction is overturned, a retrial were mandatory, and if that trial ended in an innocent verdict, exoneration would be mandatory? – Andy Mar 17 '16 at 19:36
  • This would require the courts to assert actual innocence when it is known that the accused is guilty, but the inculpatory evidence is inadmissible. IMO a rule that requires courts to make a patently false claim is wrong, and would undermine the rule of law. – user6726 Mar 17 '16 at 21:40
  • I see what you're saying for the case where evidence is rendered inadmisslble. However, in this particular trial, the evidence (a statement from a doctor) was not rendered inadmissible, but rather, the doctor later declared that his original statement was incorrect after learning new information. So in this case the court's prior "knowledge" of the defendant's guilt was based upon an incorrect statement, and asserting their innocence (or rather, asserting they are not known to be innocent or guilty, as before the original sentence) would not be a patently false claim. – Andy Mar 18 '16 at 2:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.