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A Night To Remember

Eighth Circuit Affirms Habeas Relief Decades After Conviction Because Prosecutor Destroyed Evidence Prior to Trial

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed habeas relief to two codefendants on April 29, 2020, after an Arkansas state prosecutor (now a state supreme court justice) intentionally destroyed evidence about favorable treatment for a jailhouse informant that influenced the jury’s verdict.

Over 30 years ago, Myrtle Holmes was found dead in the trunk of her car in Fordyce, Arkansas, after a robbery at her house. Charlie Vaughn, John Brown, and Reginald Early were charged with capital murder in her death, and Vaughn took a plea. As part of that deal, he implicated not only Brown and Early in the murder but also Tina Jimerson who allegedly drove them to the house. Vaughn’s factual basis for his guilty plea was read to the jury at the consolidated trial of the other three, and all three were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Their convictions became final after their appeals were exhausted in 1994.

The Jailhouse Snitch

Vaughn’s guilty plea was driven by his taped confession by a jailhouse informant. In March of 1991, an arrestee named Ronnie Prescott asked the police how he could get out of his pending drug charges. He was told he could help by getting information out of Vaughn on a recording. He was put in a jail cell with Vaughn and wired with a tape recorder. After Prescott obtained Vaughn’s confession on tape, he was released that night.

Vaughn, tricked into confessing to Prescott on tape, pleaded guilty, and then he pointed the finger at the other three at their trial. But nobody knew about the recording of Vaughn because the prosecutor destroyed it before that trial.

The Post-conviction Investigation

In January 2014, Jimerson’s counsel employed a private investigator, Greg Stimis, who discovered Prescott’s cooperation with the prosecutor to convict Vaughn. Stimis found that Prescott was incentivized by the sheriff, who told him his drug case “would be gone” if he helped. And he also found that the tape had been destroyed by the prosecutor. Prescott, for his part, signed an affidavit for Stimis that he was promised favorable treatment for his help.

Upon discovery of this evidence, which took the investigator several months to uncover, Jimerson filed for postconviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas held an evidentiary hearing and found that the prosecutor’s actions were “misleading” and “untruthful.” In light of these findings, Brown then filed his own habeas petition in federal court, making the same claims — that their constitutional rights were violated when the prosecution destroyed favorable evidence in “bad faith.”

The district court granted both petitions, and they have since been released (Early, however, confessed to his part in the crime and did not challenge his conviction). The State appealed the grant of relief to the Eighth Circuit.

Procedural Default Defenses

The State argued two procedural default defenses: (1) that their petitions were time-barred and (2) that the petitions were “procedurally defaulted” because they had not exhausted their administrative remedies in state court before going to federal court. The Eighth Circuit found both of the State’s defenses without merit.

  • Timeliness: Typically, a federal habeas petition under § 2254 must be filed within one year of a conviction becoming final. 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1)(A). In this case, the convictions became final in 1994. However, under § 2244(d)(1)(D), that one-year clock starts over on “the date on which the factual predicate of the claim or claims presented could have been discovered through the exercise of due diligence.”

Jimerson wasn’t given access to the file with Prescott’s statement to law enforcement until January 7, 2015. She filed her petition on June 30, 2015, and was therefore timely based on that provision. And because Brown only discovered the facts about Prescott at Jimerson’s evidentiary hearing, his petition filed December 21, 2016, also was timely.

  • Exhaustion: In its response to Jimerson’s petition, the State made the following admission: “Appellant [the State] also admits that Jimerson has no unexhausted, non-futile state remedies available to her.” It made the same admission for Brown’s petition. Under Wood v. Milyard, 566 U.S. 463 (2012), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a court may not raise a defense that is waived by the government. Here, the State expressly waived any exhaustion defense it had, and its attempts to raise it on appeal were rejected by the Eighth Circuit (nevertheless, the Court continued its analysis and found both had showed “Cause and prejudice” to excuse any procedural default, even if the State hadn’t waived the defenses).

The Youngblood Error

Under Arizona v. Youngblood, 488 U.S. 51 (1988), the prosecutor has a duty to preserve potentially useful evidence for trial. If the prosecutor destroys that evidence in bad faith prior to trial, this violates a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights. When trial counsel for Jimerson made a broad discovery request, the prosecutor disclosed an informant, but not Prescott, and the file made no mention of the recording of Vaughn by Prescott.

The State argued that the tape was destroyed not in bad faith but because it was “inculpatory, not exculpatory.” In other words, it asserted the tape would have hurt Jimerson and Brown instead of helping them. The Court found this baseless. “What the recording contained appears to be significant enough that law enforcement and the prosecution worked together to mutually conceal its existence from the defense,” it said. The prosecutor’s response to the discovery request by destroying the evidence was “more accurately classified as untruthful,” the Court said.

“Without the recording, Brown and Jimerson lost the ability to argue to the jury that Vaughn’s confession was influenced or perhaps even enticed by an informant who stood to gain complete dismissal of his pending felony drug charge,” the Court explained. This had a “substantial and injurious effect or influence on the jury’s verdict.”

Related legal case

Jimerson v. Payne

 

 

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