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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Christopher Zoukis

Eighth Circuit Rules Officer’s Inability to Read Temporary Vehicle Tag Does Not Justify Traffic Stop, Evidence Obtained Must be Suppressed

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that evidence obtained during a traffic stop that was not supported by reasonable suspicion must be suppressed. In its April 13, 2018, opinion, the Court said in this case, a police officer’s inability to read a temporary registration card in the back window of a vehicle was not “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped of breaking the law.”

On July 1, 2016, Waterloo, Iowa, police officer Diane Del Valle followed a BMW driven by a gang member believed to have been involved in a recent shooting. Del Valle wanted to stop the vehicle to investigate the shooting but needed a reason to do so. She saw the BMW had a temporary dealer card taped in the back window and radioed to a fellow officer that “you can see a plate, but you can’t read what’s on it.” The other officer, Jamie Sullivan, replied, “there you go.” Del Valle initiated an “equipment stop,” during which she smelled marijuana and another officer found a gun.

The driver and passenger, Joshua Rode and Daytoviane McLemore, were ...

New Jersey AG Intervenes in Possible Wrongful Conviction Case, Considers Reforms

by Christopher Zoukis

Newly appointed New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has directed his prosecutors to take over an investigation into the 1993 murder conviction of two men who might be innocent.

He also formed a panel to consider whether New Jersey should establish a “conviction review unit” to look at claims of possible wrongful conviction.

Eric Kelley and Ralph Lee were originally convicted of the 1993 murder of a Patterson, New Jersey, video store clerk. Prosecutors alleged that the men beat and stabbed 22-year-old Tito Merino to death during a robbery of the video store. Kelley and Lee confessed to the crime but recanted shortly thereafter.

According to a report from NJ Advance Media, a key piece of evidence was a baseball cap found at the scene. Investigators initially believed that it belonged to the killer. DNA evidence tested in 2014 ruled out Kelley and Lee as the hat’s owner, and the DNA instead pointed to a local man who had just finished a prison sentence for knifepoint robbery that took place a few weeks before Merino’s murder.

The Innocence Project and Centurion Ministries raised questions about the case, and a judge ultimately tossed the convictions. But the Passaic ...

Sixth Circuit Reverses Relevant Conduct Firearm Enhancement Because No Connection Between Possession Charges Based on Two Separate Shootouts

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed a lower court’s ruling that two unrelated instances of gun possession were part of the same course of conduct. The March 27, 2018, opinion ruled that for two, non-contemporaneous illegal firearm possessions to be part of the same course of conduct, “they must, among other factors, be connected by strong evidence of similarity.”

Defendant Karl Amerson was allegedly involved in two different shootouts in Battle Creek, Michigan. On May 6, 2016, police recovered a .40 caliber handgun that tested positive for Amerson’s DNA from the scene of one incident. Following another shootout in August 2016, police recovered a loaded .22 caliber semi-automatic rifle, a loaded .380 semi-automatic pistol, and several boxes of ammunition from the apartment of Amerson’s girlfriend. After Amerson admitted owning the pistol and rifle, he was arrested.

Amerson was not charged with any crime related to the shootouts, but he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm. He agreed to plead guilty to possession of the weapons found in the apartment, and the Government agreed not to prosecute him for the .40 caliber recovered during the May 2016 ...

Third Circuit Grants Habeas Relief to Prisoner Convicted of First-Degree Murder Without Evidence of Specific Intent to Kill

by Christopher Zoukis

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit granted a Pennsylvania state prisoner conditional habeas corpus relief because the jury instructions used to convict him of first-degree murder did not require a finding that he had the specific intent to kill. The March 26, 2018, opinion rejected a lower federal court’s ruling and sent the case back to the state court for further proceedings.

Tony L. Bennett was the wheel man in the organized robbery of a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, jewelry store in 1990. During the robbery, fellow conspirator Michael Mayo used Bennett’s handgun to shoot and kill salesperson Ju Yang Lee. Bennett was arrested and charged with murder, criminal conspiracy, robbery, and possession of an instrument of crime. He was charged capitally, and the trial judge gave jury instructions on first-, second-, and third-degree murder. Bennett was found guilty of all charges, including first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life without parole on the murder charge.

In 1995, Bennett initiated the post-conviction relief proceedings that ultimately landed in federal court 23 years later. He argued that the trial court violated his due process right by improperly instructing the jury that he could be convicted of ...

Maryland’s Top Court Rules Actual Notice by Trial Judge Unnecessary to Trigger Hearing Requirement On Defendant’s Request to Replace Defense Counsel

by Christopher Zoukis

Maryland’s top court, the Court of Appeals, reversed the conviction of a defendant because the trial court failed to entertain and rule on the defendant’s multiple written requests to fire his attorney.

The February 21, 2018 opinion upheld an intermediate court of appeal order that reversed his convictions and remanded for further proceedings.

Robert Weddington was arrested on multiple charges relating to the sexual abuse of two minors.

On October 28, 2015, Weddington mailed a letter to the judge seeking permission to terminate his public defender. On November 9, 2015, pursuant to Md. Rule 4-215(e), a hearing was held, and Weddington’s request was denied. Trial was set for February 2, 2016.

Thereafter, Weddington sent two additional letters making similar requests, one received by the circuit court clerk’s office on November 24, 2015, and the other received on January 20, 2016.

Although the letters were received by the clerk’s office, the trial judge did not did not actually become aware of the letters until after Weddington’s trial. Both letters unequivocally requested that his attorney be relieved of her duties. Weddington was convinced that his public defender believed that he was guilty and was not using her best ...

California Property Owners Billed for Their Own Prosecution

by Christopher Zoukis

An investigation by the Desert Sun has uncovered an unusual phenomena in two California communities: The cities are taking property owners accused of public nuisance infractions to criminal court with the help of private prosecutors. The law firm providing those services is then billing the property owners thousands of dollars—for their own prosecution.

The cities, Indio and Coachella, have partnered with the law firm of Silver & Wright.

According to the Desert Sun, the firm is a state leader in “nuisance crime legal work.” This is a highly specialized area, as private property nuisances are generally pursued by city attorneys in civil court.

Silver & Wright’s method is different. In the case of Indio and Coachella, the firm contracts with the cities to handle the legal end of nuisance claims. When a nuisance is uncovered, the firm prosecutes the case in criminal court and then bills the defendant for its fees. The Desert Sun investigation determined that there is a “staggering” disparity between the fines paid by nuisance defendants and the fees charged by Silver & Wright.

Take the case of Cesar Garcia, for instance. Garcia was taken to criminal court by Silver & Wright for ...

South Dakota Supreme Court Rules that Trial Court Cannot Reject a Plea Agreement It Already Implicitly Accepted

by Christopher Zoukis

The Supreme Court of the State of South Dakota reversed a trial court’s decision to reject a binding plea agreement because it had already implicitly accepted the agreement at the change-of-plea hearing. The January 24, 2018, ruling remanded the case back to the lower court for sentencing in accordance with the plea agreement in question.

Landon Lyndale Hale and two co-defendants were indicted on 19 counts related to the kidnapping and robbery of Caden Jackson in July 2016. The State offered Hale a great deal: Plead guilty to one count of aggravated assault and cooperate against the other defendants, and he would be guaranteed a sentence with a cap of suspended prison time. Hale agreed.

At the change-of-plea hearing, the trial judge explained the plea deal and possible sentence to Hale, specifically noting that “[t]he plea agreement here does not let me use any of the penitentiary time immediately” and “[a]s long as you comply with the terms of my probation, you can keep yourself out of the pen.” Hale agreed with all of that, and the court had him formally plead guilty to the aggravated assault charge.

Hale then kept his ...

Secondary DNA Transfer: The Rarely Discussed Phenomenon That Can Place the Innocent (and the Dead) at a Crime Scene They’ve Never Been To

by Christopher Zoukis

In 1930, the French scientist Edmond Locard published a journal article in which he laid the groundwork for what would become the field of forensic science. Locard said a criminal actor will always leave traces of his or her presence at a crime scene and will always leave with traces of the scene on his or her person. Locard’s Exchange Principle revolutionized police investigative techniques.

The discovery of DNA further transformed the field of forensics. DNA exists in every person at the molecular level and is highly particularized to an individual. As such, DNA evidence has become the gold standard for forensic identification in criminal cases. When a suspect’s DNA is found at a crime scene, investigators have strong, virtually unassailable proof that the suspect was there.

Or do they?

Recent developments in the field of DNA analysis are allowing investigators to identify individuals using smaller and smaller samples of material. No longer are forensic scientists limited to large drops of blood or semen stains found at crime scenes. Modern DNA testing can yield an individualized profile using as few as three or four cells.

These advances have undoubtedly allowed investigators to solve crimes that they ...

$330,000 Awarded to Brooklyn Woman and Minor Nephew over False Arrest and Two Years of Malicious Prosecution

by Christopher Zoukis

A Brooklyn woman and her 16-year-old nephew, who were charged with harassing a police officer and obstruction, then compelled to attend around 20 court appearances over two years before the charges were finally dropped, were awarded $330,000 in damages by a New York jury.

     On ...

Federal Jury Awards Michigan Woman $1,048,000 over Retaliatory Arrests

A Michigan woman who police arrested twice on charges of filing a false police report of rape was awarded just over $1 million after a federal jury found that the arrests were in retaliation for her criticism of the detective who investigated her rape complaint.

     Linda Sonte Everson, a ...


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