Missouri AG’s Office contends it had No Obligation to Seek Truth or Disclose Exculpatory Evidence

An assistant Attorney General for the state of Missouri has told a circuit court judge that he did not disclose exculpatory evidence to the defendant in a murder case because his office is not obligated to seek the truth.

Reginald Griffin was convicted of the 1983 murder of a Missouri inmate at Moberly Correctional Center. A number of inmates were implicated in the crime, but Griffin was the only one sentenced to death.

Five years after his trial, the Missouri Supreme Court withdrew Griffin’s death sentence because of an error in his sentencing proceedings at trial. The Court affirmed Griffin’s conviction and gave him a new sentence of 50 years life-without-parole.

On appeal, newly discovered evidence revealed that the state had failed to disclose exculpatory evidence to Griffin’s attorney, and the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Griffin’s conviction in 2011. The Court found that the Missouri Attorney General’s office withheld information that prison guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, as Smith attempted to leave the area where the victim was stabbed on the day of the murder. The Missouri Supreme Court deemed this evidence exculpatory because it would have significantly bolstered Griffin’s alternate perpetrator theory at trial.

And this is not the only exculpatory evidence that the state has kept to themselves.

In 2005, when Griffin’s attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus that would later be granted by the Supreme Court, they alleged that one of the state’s two key witnesses in the case had recanted his trial testimony. The witness, Paul Curtis, told Griffin’s jury that he saw Griffin stab the victim with a long curved knife. Upon receiving Curtis’s affidavit recanting that testimony, an investigator from the Attorney General’s Office met with Curtis to question him about it.

In a recorded interview in 2006, Curtis told the AG’s investigator that a prison investigator named Raymond Newberry had coached his testimony (going as far as to tell Curtis the identities of people in photographs so he could point them out in court, and providing information about the murder weapon so he would know how to describe it) in exchange for benefits such as a prison transfer, money, and a TV.

The state’s failure to disclose this information about Curtis being coached, coerced and put in a position where he could falsely testify against Griffin is clearly Brady material – the kind of information that the US Supreme Court has stated must be turned over to defense counsel in a criminal case.

Yet the Missouri Attorney General’s office never turned the memorandum regarding the interview over to Griffin’s attorneys.  Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke argued that his office was not obligated to turn over the evidence because it was elicited in the course of a civil proceeding (habeas corpus). Though this may be true procedurally, ethically it does not relieve the Attorney General’s office of its duty to disclose evidence that tends to negate the guilt of the accused, and to seek justice.  Further, despite his knowledge of the truthfulness of Curtis’s recantation, Hawke not only hid the evidence that would conclusively establish the truthfulness of the recantation but he then specifically argued that Curtis’ recantation was coerced and false in a calculated effort to continue Griffin’s wrongful incarceration. This effort was initially accepted during the early stages of Griffin’s Habeas proceeding as the Delkab County Court rejected Griffin’s request.  Hawke’s argument violates Missouri Supreme Court Rule 4-3.3, Candor Toward the Tribunal. This rule states:

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly:

(1) make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law previously made to the tribunal by the lawyer;

(3) offer evidence that the lawyer knows to be false. If a lawyer, the lawyer’s client, or a witness called by the lawyer has offered material evidence and the lawyer comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall take reasonable remedial measures, including, if necessary, disclosure to the tribunal. A lawyer may refuse to offer evidence, other than the testimony of a defendant in a criminal matter, that the lawyer reasonably believes is false.

Circuit Court Judge Russell Steele brought this ethical consideration to Hawke during a hearing in late 2012. He questioned Hawke about why he intentionally withheld exculpatory information, and this colloquy ensued:

The Court: “… [A]ren’t you trying to get to the truth, Mr. Hawke? Don’t you want that out there?

Mr. Hawke: “It is a civil suit. Both sides are seeking—“

The Court: “I think I’m hearing you say that if you have something that would have helped the defendant you weren’t obligated to disclose that to him in a habeas proceeding. Is that what you are telling me?”

Mr. Hawke: “There was no rule that required the disclosure of that content. Yes.”

The Court: “I understand that, but the state is someone who wants to be the purveyor of truth. Isn’t it the proper thing for the state to do to disclose that, even if they are under no civil procedural obligation to do so?”

Mr. Hawke: “That information was an interview.”

The Court: “Hang on a second. Are you not going to answer? I would like to hear an answer to that question.”

Mr. Hawke: “The State is under no obligation to disclose.”

The Court: “That wasn’t my question. I knew that. Doesn’t the state feel an obligation to get to the truth, even in a civil habeas corpus proceeding by disclosing things that would have been helpful to the defendant?

Mr. Hawke: “The state has faith in the rules of civil procedure and the varying—“

The Court: “So your answer is, “no”?

Mr. Hawke: “That is correct.”

Hawke clearly fails to understand his office’s obligation as a prosecuting authority on behalf of the state. Rule 4-3.8 of the Missouri Supreme Court Rules designate the special responsibilities of a prosecutor, and explicitly note the following:

The prosecutor in a criminal case shall:

(d) make timely disclosure to the defense of all evidence or information known to the prosecutor that tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense and, in connection with sentencing, disclose to the defense and to the tribunal all unprivileged mitigating information known to the prosecutor, except when the prosecutor is relieved of this responsibility by a protective order of the tribunal;

And

Comment

[1] A prosecutor has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate. This responsibility carries with it specific obligations to see that the defendant is accorded procedural justice and that guilt is decided upon the basis of sufficient evidence…

Hawke’s assertion that he did not need to disclose this exculpatory statement – a statement that undermined the credibility of the key witness in a case where no physical evidence linked the defendant to the crime – is extraordinary. Essentially, Hawke claimed that in post-conviction proceedings, prosecutors are not obligated to bring to light information that suggests they have won a conviction against an innocent person.

Given the Missouri AG office’s record of prosecutorial misconduct in this case, Griffin’s attorneys sought to have the AG’s office barred from handling Griffin’s retrial. That request  has been taken under advisement, and the case is expected to go to trial in the coming months.


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