Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood defends discredited forensic experts, harasses defense attorneys instead
Radley Balko describes a very bad situation in Mississippi:
Yesterday, I posted about a crazy deposition from last April in which longtime Mississippi forensic expert Michael West went wildly off the rails. West was profane, belligerent, and openly contemptuous of the fact that anyone would dare question his expertise. The remarkable thing is that this was a deposition for a post-conviction hearing in a death penalty case. And in that case, West is the star witness. His testimony was the only physical evidence putting defendant Eddie Lee Howard at the crime scene.
Once in post-conviction, these cases are handled by the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. You might think that the Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood would be embarrassed by West’s antics. The actions from his office after the deposition indicate that that you’d be wrong.
The deposition occurred on April 16. On April 25th, in anticipation of the evidentiary hearing that followed in May (that hearing went down about the same way as the deposition — the judge has yet to rule on the matter), Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project sent a letter to assistant attorney general Jason Davis. In it, Carrington again pointed out that since Howard’s trials West has been widely discredited. He pointed out that in the deposition itself, West contradicted his testimony at trial. And he pointed out West’s wholesale failure to take any of this seriously — he failed to prepare for the deposition, his failed to produce the appropriate documents and records, and he of course showed an appalling lack of professionalism and reverence, particularly given that a man’s life is at stake. Carrington again requested that the AG’s office drop the charges.
The next day, Davis and Hood filed a motion requesting a hearing to assess the competency of Howard’s legal team. It’s an astonishingly brazen reaction. Faced with an embarrassing performance in which the state’s already-discredited primary witness in a death penalty case came completely unhinged, Hood chose instead to attack the credibility of Eddie Lee Howard’s lawyers.
My sources in Mississippi tell me that Hood’s office has using this tactic for a while now. The motion was based on Rule 22 of the Mississippi’s Rules of Appellate Procedure. The intent behind that rule is sound: It gives the state’s courts a mechanism to ensure that defendants in capital cases are getting adequate legal representation in their appeals. These are complicated and consequential cases. You don’t want death penalty appeals and post-conviction petitions handled by fresh law school grads or washed up schlubs.
The problem is that the rule as originally written was vague and sloppily drafted. For example, it required anyone handling a death penalty appeal to have taken a new felony case within the last three years. That may sound reasonable, but many attorneys work solely on post-conviction cases, which can draw on for years. They can handle multiple cases for years on end without ever taking on a new client. These of course are some of the most qualified attorneys to handle capital cases. Yet under the rule, they could potentially be disqualified.
Sources in Mississippi say that Hood’s office has been using the rule as a weapon. While Hood and his subordinates will claim in briefs that they’re merely fulfilling their obligation to protect the rights of criminal defendants, they aren’t filing these motions as a matter of course in every capital case. The sense in Mississippi is that they haven’t been using the rule to hassle out-of-state law firms and nonprofit legal aid groups taking Mississippi capital cases on a pro-bono basis. The attorneys at these firms and aid groups have extensive experience in capital cases. In other words, Hood’s office has been using the rule to attack the most qualified capital defense attorneys, not the least. In one recent example, Hood’s office tried to disqualify a well-respected Virginia attorney with significant death penalty experience because he hadn’t paid the $350 fee necessary to be barred by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — one of the requirements under the rule as it was previously written.
In an affidavit filed last November, Emily Olsen-Gault, the director and chief counsel for the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project, voiced the ABA’s concerns about what Hood was doing: . . .