The California First District Court of Appeal has overturned a recent murder conviction out of Oakland in the case of DeShawn Reed, finding that prosecutors committed a host of misconduct in the case including arguing facts not in evidence and failing to correct the false testimony of witnesses. Indeed, the state’s numerous and egregious sleights of hand at a trial that took place as recently as 2014 serves as a reminder that a win-at-all-costs mentality continues to distort the prosecutorial function in our system.
Reed was found guilty on one count of first-degree murder and one count of second-degree murder by an Alameda County jury in May of 2014. He received a life-without-parole sentence. The prosecutor named in the case by the East Bay Express is Deputy District Attorney Autrey James, who has worked in the Alameda District Attorney’s office for more than ten years.
In granting the writ of habeas corpus and vacating Reed’s conviction, the appeals court specifically singled out those claims relating to prosecutorial misconduct:
“We agree with petitioner’s contentions in his habeas petition that counsel’s failure to investigate and present relevant evidence and failure to object to prosecutorial misconduct deprived petitioner of effective assistance of counsel. We also find that the prosecutor presented material false evidence at trial, and that all of these errors combined to deprive petitioner of a fair trial.”
Specifically, the court found that James and his team at trial engaged in the following unethical behaviors:
a. Introduction of facts not in evidence:
During closing argument, the prosecution disputed testimony given by a police officer as to a measurement of distance that might have supported the defendant’s theory of the case. In refuting the testimony, the prosecutor gave his own assessment of the distance based on the length of a typical city block – thereby telling the jury facts not in evidence: “He was off by my calculation roughly by 50 percent.” In making repeated references to this unsupported assertion, the prosecutor implied that the alternative suspect in the case was simply too far away to have been the shooter.
Two other comments by the prosecutor about the shooter’s height and the defendant’s clothing during closing were also problematic. The appeals court noted, “it has been recognized that such testimony, ‘although worthless as a matter of law, can be “dynamite” to the jury because of the special regard the jury has for the prosecutor…’” and as such, circumvents the rules of evidence.
The court concluded that the prosecution’s argument constituted prosecutorial misconduct.
b. Presentation of and failure to correct false evidence:
According to the appeals court, the prosecution failed to correct a bevy of false evidence at trial. This included:
- False testimony that no fingerprints were found in the car that could connect anyone to the crime, when the palm print of an alternative suspect had been found on the rearview mirror.
- Testimony that gave the false impression that this alternative suspect had been ruled out after a thorough investigation by police.
- False testimony from a key eyewitness that she had identified the defendant at a police “show-up” shortly after the crime, when in fact she had not.
The court characterized the “majority” of the evidence of Reed’s guilt as either “defective in some way or readily explainable, or both. Calling it a close case, the court reiterated that it was the presentation of false evidence by prosecution witnesses and the defense’s failure to investigate and present or challenge much of the evidence that meant the jury “never learned of the flaws in the prosecution’s case.”
People v. Reed represents a prototype of the ways in which prosecutors can use their uniquely powerful position to skew a set of complex and murky facts in order to present a straightforward case for guilt to a jury. That the California First District Court of Appeal stepped in to call it out when Reed’s lawyers failed to do so is the only bright spot in this dark and all-too-frequent scenario.
You can read the court’s full opinion here.