The Wrongfully Convicted Suffer Under CT's Habeas Process
It’s hard to free the innocent when so many of the guilty are trying to get free, too
Gregory B. Hladky
May 18, 2010
In 1994, Jose Crespo confessed to strangling his girlfriend and was sentenced to 60 years in prison. Even though there’s absolutely no doubt he did it, he’s spent the past 16 years filing court motions seeking a new trial. Prosecutors and the victim’s family insist those motions are frivolous, repetitive and do nothing but waste time and money, and cause more pain.
George Gould and Ron Taylor were convicted of killing a grocery store owner. They spent 16 years behind bars filing petitions seeking a new trial for a crime they insist they didn’t commit. They were finally freed in 2010 after key witnesses reverse their testimony.
These are the two poles of an ongoing debate over when and how often convicted prisoners should be allowed to exercise the constitutionally guaranteed right of habeas corpus.
The U.S. Supreme court has called the right of prisoners to demand a review of their convictions a “fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action.” Civil liberty activists argue restrictions on that right endanger all our freedoms.
But state officials estimate Connecticut is spending more than $6 million a year on prosecutors, public defense lawyers and court costs to review and litigate the 600 habeas petitions being filed annually.
Crime victims and their families tell stomach-turning stories of being repeatedly called to testify in habeas hearings years after convictions, of never knowing when the horror of a rape or murder will finally be put to rest.
“We were victimized by the perpetrator and now, for the past 16 years, we’re being victimized by the criminal justice system,” says Samuel Rieger, whose daughter Melanie was killed by Crespo in her Waterbury home.
“In our case, there’s absolutely no new information,” Rieger argues. “He’s admitted he’s guilty. There’s enough evidence to put him away for a hundred years.” Prosecutors say Crespo isn’t an isolated case. They estimate 20 percent of all habeas petitions involve repeat filings.
Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane says the backlog of more than 1,000 habeas cases now pending in Connecticut’s system is not only unnecessarily costly and often painful for victims and their families, but that it is also delaying justice for the wrongly convicted.
He told the 2010 General Assembly only 14 of the thousands of habeas petitions filed in the past 18 years have resulted in new trials.
Kane says serious cases of wrongful conviction are being held up “largely because our habeas courts are just inundated. ... Just look at the Gould and Taylor case.”
Gould and Taylor were arrested in 1993 and convicted of murdering a New Haven store owner named Eugenio DeLeon Vega. This year, at habeas hearings in Rockville Superior Court, key witnesses recanted their original testimony, claiming they’d been pressured by New Haven cops into lies that helped convict Taylor and Gould.
Deputy Chief State’s Attorney John J. Russotto says the Criminal Justice Division spends approximately $4.4 million annually on habeas cases, assigning 17 full-time prosecutors to the task, plus other staff. Brian Carlow, Connecticut’s deputy chief public defender, said his office expects to spend more than $1.6 million in this fiscal year hiring private lawyers to work on habeas cases.
Those numbers don’t include the costs to the courts. Nor do they take into consideration other habeas-related state expenses, like the $5 million awarded to James Calvin Tillman, who was released in 2007 after spending 18 years in prison for a rape that DNA tests showed he never committed.
This year, Kane proposed reform of Connecticut’s habeas process. The bill quickly died in the face of withering opposition from skeptical lawmakers on the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
The plan would have set a statute of limitations, requiring habeas petitions to be filed within three years of sentencing or within one year after an appeal is final. Rieger says 30 other states have similar laws.
Kane said the legislation included exceptions to those limits, including claims of newly discovered evidence proving innocence, which he says would have eliminated any limits on Gould’s and Taylor’s petitions; delays caused by mental illness or disability; or proof the state concealed evidence that could have proven innocence.
Current state law already allows judges to dismiss habeas petitions that clearly have no basis in fact, says Kane, adding that most judges are reluctant to throw out such claims without a thorough review.
Carlow and other civil rights advocates also hold up Taylor and Gould as prime examples of why the state needs to be damned careful about restricting the right of habeas corpus. “We don’t want any possibility that a claim ... of that nature doesn’t get its day in court,” he says.
In Carlow’s view, the prosecutors’ proposal could have kept Gould and Taylor from getting their case reviewed because it left the decision about exceptions to the time limit to a judge’s discretion. He argues their case was delayed not by any backlog but because of an intense and difficult investigation by the defense team.
Carlow also insists there isn’t hard evidence that the courts are choking on gobs of repeat petitions.
But he does agree some reform of Connecticut’s habeas system may be needed to prevent victims like Melanie Rieger’s family from being unnecessarily dragged into court time after time.
State Superior Court Judge Elliot N. Solomon is the administrative judge for the Rockville court that handles nearly all of Connecticut habeas petitions. Solomon says a determined effort to move petitions along quickly has cut the backlog by nearly 400 cases in the past couple of years.
“I guess we’ll never know if there are meritorious cases being delayed because of the number of cases we have,” Solomon says. He insists a prisoner’s lawyer can now get an early hearing if they want it.
Solomon believes there ought to be a way to get prosecutors and defense attorneys to agree on a way to prevent a relatively small number of prisoners from clogging up the system.
“There’s got to be some common ground here,” says the co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor. “There’s got to be a way we can come up with a compromise ... but it’s really hard to figure out how.”
Samuel Rieger is getting tired of waiting, of trying to convince the politicians to act. “You just get the feeling you’re banging your head against a brick wall,” he says.
Sort of the same sensation an innocent person in prison must have.