Sunday, June 1, 2014

Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction - Day Four

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Day Three, click here

There are roughly two pathways that I could take when describing the murder trial of Jeff Prible.  The first would be to give the full picture, both what happened in court in conjunction with what we know now. The second is to lay out for you what the jury itself saw, and then go back and fill in the blanks.  I’m going to take the latter approach, because I think it is very instructive to see how Kelly Siegler and the state fabricated their entire case and then used dramatic tactics to overwhelm the jury.  It is also instructive to keep in mind that trials are supposed to be refereed by impartial arbiters.  Despite everything you are about to hear, not one word of caution was heard to spring from the lips of the Republican judge overseeing the process, Mark Kent Ellis of the 351st judicial district court.  I have no idea what the man was judging, but it certainly wasn’t anything going on in his courtroom.

After finally being sent from the medium security prison in Beaumont to the Harris County Jail, Jeff was indicted and denied bond. It was probably inevitable that he would be placed on remand, given the nature of his case, though Siegler guaranteed it when she told the judge that Jeff and Steve Herrera had been robbing crack houses at gunpoint. This was an allegation that had never even been hinted at previously, was never mentioned again, and, needless to say, had no basis in fact. Jeff’s court-appointed attorneys were Terry Gaiser and Kurt Wentz, and they assured him at the hearing that Siegler was blowing smoke and was fishing for a confession.  If he would just calm down, they told him, she would have to drop the charges because there was no evidence against him.  

Two weeks before voir dire began, Siegler played her hole card.  Gaiser came to see Jeff in jail and asked him who Michael Beckcom was.  Jeff didn’t know. Gaiser informed him that Beckcom was an inmate at FCI Beaumont medium, and he was going to testify that Jeff had confessed to the killings.  Until told the inmate went by “Rocko” or “Rocks” in prison, Jeff did not know whom he was talking about.

Perhaps because Siegler knew that all she had in her quiver were dull arrows, she came out blasting.  She yelled, she cussed, she got so close to Jeff at multiple points during her tirades that she spat on him.  Given the sexual relationship Jeff had freely admitted to having with Nilda, the state produced supposed DNA expert William Joseph Watson.  Under oath, he claimed that since he was able to detect semen in Nilda’s mouth that corresponded to Jeff’s DNA, this semen must have been deposited very close to or almost simultaneously with the time of her death.  I don’t actually have too many terrible things to say about Gaiser and Wentz; compared to some of the attorneys I have had, they weren’t awful.  On only a few points do I find massive fault in their trial strategy, and this business of Watson’s testimony is one of them.  Here, they royally screwed up.  I can only attempt to guess at what they were thinking.   Maybe they simply made assumptions that Watson was going to come into court and give testimony that adhered to known scientific benchmarks.  Maybe they had reached a prior agreement with the state regarding the limits of his testimony; I have no information supporting this, save that such agreements are common in that they save the state money by preventing the defense from needing their own experts.  Regardless, when Watson took the stand and made his claim about the short duration of DNA survival in semen, Gaiser was flabbergasted and had no expert of his own ready to blow this obvious falsehood out of the water.  The simple fact is that such DNA can be reliably recovered for at least 96 hours after placement, and in many occasions far longer.  Where would the countless CSI-style shows be if Watson’s testimony were true?  (Not to mention Siegler’s own show, which constantly uses decades-old DNA to solve crimes.) Sans an expert of his own, Jeff now appeared to have been at the scene pretty much as the murders were taking place.  True, the defense did produce Christina Gurrusquita, the teenaged neighbor who witnessed Jeff arriving home on the morning of the murders – the witness the state was still claiming it could not identify.   Her testimony directly contradicted Watson’s, but he was the “scientific expert” and science doesn’t lie, right?

Siegler didn’t stop there.  She inferred from this testimony that Jeff had forced Nilda to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint, killing her at the moment of climax.  In response to the defense’s expertless assertions that Jeff’s sperm could have been deposited at an earlier time – in line with his police statements – the prosecution began insulting Jeff’s physical appearance.  “He’s so good looking, sexy,” quipped assistant DA Vic Wisner.  Siegler followed, laughing sardonically at his “magic sperm that last longer” and saying “You’ve got to believe his semen is so tasty she wants to keep it in her mouth.” Keep in mind, these are seasoned prosecutors, the Top Guns of the most active death penalty prosecution county in the Western world. (To my knowledge, Harris County has sent nearly 300 men to death row).  Siegler and Wisner had heard countless hours of forensic science testimony over the course of their careers, so of course they knew that they were hearing junk science.  Despite this, they chose to openly propagate a falsehood in court.  It would come to light shortly that Siegler’s “expert” was her go-to guy on matters of DNA, since he could always be relied upon to give the government the narrative it required to convict, to the tune of almost $3,000 per day.  (Watson was finally caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and was moved from the Dallas laboratory of Orchid Cellmark to a clerical position elsewhere in the company.  The affidavit which finally sunk him can be read here.  Pay special attention to point number 8.  The hair which Watson tried to claim was Skinner’s is one of the central points the state is using while attempting to execute him.)

Still, this fraudulent “evidence” wasn’t quite enough to convict Jeff.  Thus Beckcom.  For reasons that will become apparent shortly, Beckcom came off as a very smooth operator on the stand.  He looked jurors and the prosecutor in the eye, and his responses were crisp and well thought out.  Even his prison uniform looked like it had been pressed.  In his testimony he claimed that he and Jeff had bonded quickly, even going so far as to claim that he was considering investing money in Jeff’s asphalt paving business.  One day on the rec yard, he claimed that Jeff broke down in a fit of teary camaraderie, expressed his love for both Beckcom and Beckcom’s cellmate, Nathan Foreman, also present, and confessed to the killings.  The date this supposed confession took place was 24 November 2001, as it was “getting dark.” Beckcom claimed that Jeff said they were his “bros” and the only ones that could sink him.  He did this in spite of the fact that Jeff had only known these characters for a matter of a few months.  Foreman, interestingly, would not be called to testify as a witness to this event, for reasons that will also become apparent shortly.  In his testimony, Beckcom claimed that Jeff killed Steve Herrera because his former partner in crime had “screwed him out of $250,000.”  Jeff’s biggest fear, he said, was that the prosecution would come across his Service Record Book from the Marines, which would show that he had elite “Black Ops” training and had “maimed and mutilated” people for his country.  When asked how Jeff had pulled off the murders, he supposedly told Beckcom that “anybody that can go into a house, take out a whole family and get out clean is a bad mother-fucker. I’m that kind of mother-fucker.”  Beckcom followed this colorful statement by saying that “his mom’s house was a couple of miles from there, and that’s what he was trained for…high speed, low drag, in and out. He said, ‘I’m a ghost’.”  To buttress this testimony, the State produced a photograph
which Beckcom had arranged to be taken in the visitation room of the federal prison on Thanksgiving Day.  This was “proof,” the state claimed, that Beckcom was very close to Jeff.  By extension, Siegler went on to claim, Beckcom’s testimony was therefore veridical.

The final coup-de-grace was delivered during closing arguments.  Although Jeff’s indictment strictly pertained to the deaths of Steve and Nilda, Siegler produced photographs of several organs belonging to the three children who perished in the fire.  Blowing these up on the courtroom’s projector, she instructed the judges that they could find Jeff liable for their deaths.  That, as they say, was the end of that.  Jeff Prible was convicted and sent to death row, based entirely on bad DNA science, the testimony of an inmate snitch, and photographs of a tiny human heart.

Jeff arrived on death row on 4 November 2002.  He did so with his former attorney’s closing arguments still echoing in his head about how the prosecution had tried him under the assumption of guilt rather than innocence.  He knew that something terribly underhanded had taken place in regards to Michael Beckom, but he had no idea how to prove it.  I hesitate to use the word “miracle” these days due to the supernatural connotations some portions of our society so often attaches to it.  Still, even I have to admit that the confluence of events which would begin to circle around Jeff’s life border very near to the miraculous.  

The first such event occurred shortly after Jeff’s arrival on death row.  When a person recreates indoors at the Polunsky Unit, they do so alone in a metal recreation cage which sits adjacent to fourteen cells.  

Placed inside one of these cages, one can have a shouted conversation with the men in each section.  On this particular day, an inmate named Jaime Elizalde (executed by Texas on 31 January 2006) asked Jeff if he had ever been in federal prison before.  Jeff replied that he had spent several years in the complex in Beaumont.  Jaime told him that he had a good friend in federal prison and that this friend’s wife recognized Jeff and his parents when she came to see Jaime.  He told Jeff that he was responsible for the murder of Albert Guajardo, a crime the state had erroneously pinned on his friend, Hermilo Herrero.  He shot a fishing line to the dayroom and showed Jeff an article from the Houston Chronicle detailing the Herrero case, complete with photographs of the principle players.  When Jeff read the article and looked at the photographs, he had to sit down because the world began to spin on him.  Kelly Siegler had prosecuted Herrero: his was one of her “waiting on God” cases, exactly as Jeff’s had been.  The homicide detective handling the investigation was Curtis Brown.  Herrero had been convicted based on jailhouse snitch testimony involving two inmates at the FCI Beaumont Medium facility named Jessie Moreno and Rafael Dominguez.  Jeff knew these men.  They were both friends of Nathan Foreman and Michael Beckcom.  

More surprisingly, perhaps, was the fact that Jeff recognized Herrero.  When the State transferred him from federal prison to the Harris County Jail, Herrero was in the van being returned so that he could go to trial.  Neither knew that the same prosecutor was handling their capital trials, and neither knew that the same ring of snitches was the primary driver behind their indictments.  They merely said a group prayer together and parted ways.  Occasionally they would see each other in the visitation room, and their sons often played there together, being of the same age.  Now that Jeff’s identity had been confirmed by Jaime, a short time later he passed Jeff a letter sent to him from Herrero.  In this missive, Herrero explained that Siegler had requested that the Harris County jail hold him for six months after he was convicted, rather than returning him instantly to the fed where he still had to complete his sentence before even beginning his state time.  She did this, Herrero claimed, to prevent him from working out the details of a snitch network far more systematically organized by the state than even Jeff suspected.  When Herrero did finally make it back to FCI Beaumont, an African-American man he knew as “Walker” approached him and confessed to being a member of the network, and that he was supposed to have testified against Jeff along with Beckcom.  Instead, he had converted to Buddhism and began to worry about the karmic hit of sending an innocent man to Death Row.  In the letter, Herrero told Jeff that his wife had tried to contact Jeff’s trial counsel to tell them the whole story.  I have no idea what happened to those letters.  Maybe the federal system intercepted them, or maybe Gaiser simply never acted upon them.  I’m not at all certain that counsel could have brought to light what we now know, but the fact that he might have had the opportunity to meet a member of the FCI Beaumont snitch ring and didn’t take advantage of it is troubling, to say the least.

I think the case of Jeff Prible would be horrifying enough if the ring of snitches had simply been an organic growth, a disease spawned in the putrid petri dish that is prison life.  Unfortunately, the truth is far worse: this disease was transplanted, cultivated, and weaponized by the government.  This is what we know. (Keep in mind, also, that unless I mention that I am speculating, every last scrap of information I detail in this account can be backed up with evidence.  I will be linking all of this data at the conclusion of the series for your perusal.)  Back in 1999, Kelly Siegler had used Jessie Moreno to secure a conviction against Jason Morales in a cold case murder; for his trouble, Moreno was rewarded with a Rule 35 sentence reduction, a curious protocol in the federal system which allows time cuts for assisting law enforcement officials.  In April of 2001, Moreno went to the well again, and arranged a quid pro quo with Siegler to testify against Herrero in the murder of Guajardo, the murder that Jaime Elizalde freely admitted to committing himself.  The scenario and motives under which Herrero supposedly confessed to Moreno bear striking similarities to Jeff’s alleged confession, especially the fact that Herrero confessed to both Moreno and Nathan Foreman.

As it happens, the apparently ubiquitous Foreman knew Kelly Siegler quite well.  Not only had she relied on him to supply informants in several other cases, she had used both Nathan Foreman and Bobby Ray Foreman (both relatives of the famous Boxer, George Foreman) as witnesses in the case against Carl Henry Evans in 1993-1994.  Bobby Ray Foreman was also an informant in the murder case of Porter Lee Bush, handled by – wait for it – Kelly Siegler.  In Nathan Formen, Siegler had what amounted to a concierge of agents provocateurs, capable of providing desperate, clever, and unscrupulous federal inmates willing to say anything to get a time cut.  Seriously, this woman makes the Okhrana look like a pack of slack-jawed yokels.

On 3 July 2001, Moreno was transferred to the Polk County Courthouse, where he met with Siegler and informed her that he, Foreman, Eddie Gomez and Rafael Dominguez were willing to testify against Herrero.  The state only ended up using Moreno and Dominguez on this occasion, perhaps because Siegler’s connections to Foreman were becoming rather obvious.  We actually have some of this conversation on tape, and it clearly shows that Moreno had fabricated Herrero’s confession.  This inconvenient truth didn’t stop Siegler from using Moreno in court to secure a life sentence for Herrero, and it didn’t stop her from writing personal letters to Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracey Batson seeking Rule 35 reductions for Moreno, Foreman, Gomez, and Dominguez.  What we do not have on tape at present is whether or not Jeff’s name came up during this meeting.  I tend to think not.  I suspect what happened was that when Foreman’s name came up in the conversation over Herrero’s confession, the machinery in Siegler’s head started grinding away and she knew now that she had a snitch she could run at Jeff, who, after all, had basically just told her to bugger off when she went to see him the week before.

The timeline here is vital.  Two days after Siegler’s meeting with Moreno, Jeff was charged with capital murder based off of the phony ballistics report mentioned previously.  Jeff was immediately placed in solitary confinement for roughly three weeks and was transferred to population at FCI Beaumont on 25 July 2001.  That exact same day, Foreman was mysteriously released from solitary and placed in the same wing as Jeff; his cellmate was Michael Beckcom.  On 3 August – the very next week – Foreman was released on a federal writ from FCI Beaumont and taken to a transit facility in Houston.  We know that Foreman was not involved as a defendant or a witness in any federal case pending.  Therefore the use of a federal writ to transfer him is exceedingly peculiar.  In fact, it was an incredibly underhanded move on the part of Siegler:  by using a federal process, she completely obscured the existence of Foreman from Jeff and Herrero’s trial attorneys, whose discovery motions only applied to state district court matters.

At the exact moment Foreman was transferred on this bogus writ, the Grand Jury 177th District Court was in session.  On 29 August, the Grand Jury returned indictments on both Jeff and Herrero.  While those records are sealed and therefore unavailable to us, we do know that it was Siegler, operating under her maiden name Kelly Rene Jalufka, who presented these cases to the Grand Jury.  She used her maiden name, it must be noted, despite the fact that she had been married at that point for many years.  I honestly don’t know if she felt she was throwing scent on the trail with this tactic, but if so, it didn’t work very well.  Two days after indictments were returned, Foreman was mysteriously returned to FCI Beaumont, where he promptly recruited Beckcom to act as the primary snitch against Jeff. (Late note:  Jeff was recently granted discovery and these grand jury transcripts were ordered to be released to Jeff’s counsel.  Remarkably, the state is now claiming that the records were destroyed, despite the fact that this breaks clearly established state laws.  This whole business just keeps getting dirtier and dirtier…)

From the time Jeff was released into the FCI Beaumont population to the time Foreman left to testify to the Grand Jury, nine days had passed.  Somehow during this brief period we are to believe that Foreman befriended Jeff to the point that he confessed to a quintuple murder.  We are to believe this despite the fact that under oath Beckcom would later claim Jeff confessed to him during the week of Thanksgiving – four months later.  Siegler knew perfectly well at that point that Foreman’s testimony was fabricated, yet she used it anyway.  Worse:  there is only one way that Foreman could have known the specific facts of the case – who was murdered, how, Jeff’s backstory, etc. – necessary to cause the Grand Jury to indict Jeff.  Quite simply, Siegler had to have provided the information.

The choice of Beckcom as a star witness is an interesting one, and goes to show just how comfortable prosecutors have gotten in the battle between defendants and the states.  If one were in her stilletos, one would presume that Siegler would require that her snitches have a record of dependability. Beckcom hardly fits this description. When Beckcom first introduced himself to Jeff, he told him that he had once been indicted for capital murder himself; this was probably the only true statement he ever made to him.  There is something of a hierarchy in prison, with different crimes giving people a certain status right from the moment they first hit the yard.  Murder is the crime most likely to confer respect, and among murderers, those locked up for “interstate murder for hire” are the most feared.  So when someone like Michael Beckcom shows up at your cell door with that sort of reputation, most cons will accept him as one of the tough guys, one of the genuine gangsters.  His rap sheet was extensive and included a “receiving stolen goods” charge as well as one for dealing in cocaine.  By 1993 he was a manager of a gym and a user of steroids.  Beckcom truly made it big when he hooked up with Mark Crawford, the owner of a very successful construction company.  Those of you living in or near Corpus Christi, Texas, may remember Crawford.  He ran for and won the mayor’s office in a nearby town, thanks in no small measure to the Bible he kept comfortably tucked under the crook of his elbow while on the campaign trail.  He made a second fortune after leaving office in the field of employee leasing companies.  Beckcom soon became Crawford’s right-hand man and bodyguard, the guy who “fixed” his problems.  By 1996, he had a multitude of these, most notably with the IRS.  This idyllic existence ended when Crawford learned that his business partner, Nick Brueggen, was in the process of becoming a federal informant.  His body was soon discovered in a shallow grave. 

Crawford was eventually hunted down while hiding in a mobile home in Mississippi.  A man named Kirk Johnson came forward to confess his role in the murder of Brueggen, claiming that Michael Beckcom had paid him $2,500 to assist him in the “hit.”  A few days before the capital murder trials of Beckcom and Crawford, the former managed to sign a plea agreement with state authorities to testify against his former boss.  The trial was apparently held in a high school auditorium because the AC was out in the courthouse and because we loves us some justice down here, so why not make room for the crowd?  During the proceedings, both Beckcom and Johnson testified that they forced Brueggen at gunpoint into a large chest. The two left to purchase a “hose and pistachios”, and then used the hose to pump carbon monoxide from Beckcom’s Ford Explorer into the chest, killing Brueggen.  During Beckcom’s testimony, he treated the large crowd to colorful mob euphemisms: guns were “artillery,” the feds “Hoovers.” It is easy to see that even back then he had a flair for the dramatic.  When Beckcom was first arrested for Brueggen’s murder, for instance, he actually had a book in his trunk on how to talk and act like a mafia enforcer.  Credibility, thy name is Michael Beckcom.  For all of his imagination, however, it soon became apparent that Beckcom’s testimony was less than honest and complete.  At first, he mostly minimized his involvement in the Brueggen murder, placing the lion’s share of the blame on Johnson (who, naturally, returned the favor when it was his turn to take the stand.)  When pressed by the defense, Beckcom was forced on multiple occasions to revise his testimony, resulting in one instance in the comedic assertion that, yes, okay, maybe he did have a gun in his possession during the Brueggen kidnapping and murder, but only because he was “returning” it to Crawford.  After hearing this obvious trail of falsehoods, the jury deadlocked.  When the case was retried, Crawford was acquitted.

The feds then picked up the case.  Reassessing the government witnesses, the federal prosecutor decided that Beckcom was the more attractive of the two, the most polished and agile on the stand.  Johnson was relegated to the sidelines.  This was Beckcom’s third round of testimony and his act was far more streamlined now, thanks to the coaching provided by the DOJ.  Crawford was convicted of the murder along with a string of other fraud charges.  Johnson got ten years probation. During Beckcom’s sentencing hearing, US District Judge Oliver Wanger told Beckcom that it was certain that at least portions of his testimony had been false.  Nevertheless, Beckcom was given ten years fed time as a reward for his snitchery.  Ten years, recall, for a crime that could have put him on Death Row.  He was allowed to serve his sentence near home, at FCI Beaumont.  There he stewed until his friend Nathan Foreman gave him the ticket to an early release: Jeff Prible.

We learned from the testimony of Carl Walker that Foreman’s snitch ring knew unpublicized details about Steve and Nilda’s murders before Jeff ever arrived at the Medium facility;  they also knew ahead of time that he was being transferred from the Low.  This is an extremely important fact, as transfer schedules are highly classified matters not available to inmates.  The reasons are obvious:  if, say, a major gang leader knew he was going to be in a transport van on a certain date, he could easily arrange to have a few cars’ worth of shooters waiting along the route.  Even in state prison, inmates are not told of transfers until the late evening hours of the day preceding the move.  Once they are properly packed, most inmates then spend the rest of the night in a holding cell to prevent them from communicating with anyone.  It is fair to say that transfer schedules in any prison are amongst its most closely guarded secrets.  In order to explain how an entire group of prisoners became aware of such a transfer, it is necessary that one of a handful of individuals privy to such information passed it along.  It is extremely unlikely that anyone in the BOP should have done this, as this would have meant potentially risking the lives of their fellow officers.  Only one of the names on that list worked outside of the prison complex:  The prosecutor who set up the transfer in the first place.  Rather than bringing Jeff back to the Harris County Jail to wait for trial, Siegler manipulated her contacts in the federal system to have him placed in the very same cellblock as all of her informants. Considering her long and chummy relationship with federal prosecutors, this would have been a simple matter to accomplish.

This transfer of evidentiary information is not a theoretical one.  In addition to Carl Walker asserting detailed facts pertaining to it, he also knew that every single member of Foreman’s snitch network had Kelly Siegler as a contact on their BOP approved phone number list.  Siegler’s name and number was found in Walker’s address book, and another FCI Beaumont inmate named Thomas Delgado confirmed to Jeff’s investigator that Foreman and Beckcom gave him Siegler’s number to arrange for his testimony against Jeff.  These contacts were wholly unavailable to Jeff’s trial attorneys, and did not come out until he arrived in federal court.  Still, years before, they were alluded to and minimized by Beckcom on the stand.  According to his sworn testimony, after Foreman told Beckcom about Jeff’s case (i.e. after he perjured himself in front of the Grand Jury), Beckcom had his “unit manager” call Siegler.  He claimed to have spoken to her a total of only two or three times.  The Trufone system used by BOP facilities did not exist in 2001 when these calls were made, but even if it had, these initial calls from the unit manager’s office would not have shown up in a search anyway because Beckcom’s ID code was not used to place them.  We do know that Beckcom called Siegler at least nine times directly after the Trufone system was installed in 2002, meaning he not only lied about the extent with which he was communicating with her, but that she accepted this testimony at trial even though she knew it to be false.  Even if the 11-12 calls made between the two is the maximum limit, this seems to be a rather obscene amount of contact between two people simply “hammering out the details” of a Rule 35 time cut.  Keep in mind, this number doesn’t even include calls made by the other snitches.  Walker, for instance, claims that he was present during several conversations between Foreman and Siegler.  Whatever the final total, it is at least an order of magnitude greater than the claims made by Beckcom on the stand.

Of course, Jeff knew none of this during trial or during his early years on the Row.  All he had to go on was the name “Walker” supplied to him by Herrero via Jaime Elizalde, a letter that violated several penal doctrines involving inmate-to-inmate correspondence.  Pause for a moment and think about the degree to which our system of justice forces the convicted to resort to nearly superhuman efforts in order to seek relief from a wrongful conviction.  If the post-conviction system of representation here in Texas was anything other than a cruel joke, the hypothetical existence of Walker might have been enough to pique the curiosity of a seasoned attorney.  Unfortunately, Jeff’s horrible appellate team filed anemic briefs and made hardly any efforts to investigate Jeff’s claims.  It would take a mountain of personal effort on Jeff’s part plus another miracle to crack this case open.

To read Day Five, click here

Ronald Jeffrey Prible 999433 
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

No comments: