Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Anatomy of Wrongful Conviction – Day Six

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Day Five, click here

If, as I argued at the beginning of this series, the primary driver of wrongful convictions is the general public’s kneejerk and unreasoned desire for vengeance, then its co-conspirator is its ignorance of the judicial system.  Consider the full weight of the evidence I have laid out for you over the course of the past five days.  I suspect that if asked most of you would assume that this gross injustice would be settled fairly quickly, that there would be some sort of hearing and Jeff would be set free.  I have deliberately not dwelled upon the machinations of the various state courts in this piece, because to do so would have multiplied the length of all of this by at least several times.  But the simple fact is that the legal chicanery engaged in by the government while seeking to deny Jeff relief is easily on par with the reprehensible behavior of the prosecutor.  It is by no means certain that Jeff’s innocence will ever be proven, due to the immense procedural hurdles set in place since the 1980’s on capital litigants.  Despite everything, smart money still comes down on the side of Jeff Prible being executed in a few short years, and Kelly Siegler getting to continue building her brand on television.

I will give you one brief example that illustrates the legal minefield Jeff must cross in order to even have his claims heard in open court.  The case now sits in the U.S. District Court under Keith Ellison.  I was immensely pleased to hear that Jeff landed in Ellison’s courtroom, because he is a smart cookie, capable of systematically picking apart the web of lies spun by Siegler.  Ellison attended college at Harvard, Magdelin College at Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar, no less), and finally Yale.  He was a clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court under Justice Harry Blackmon, one of the most coveted jobs in all of lawyerdom, for a judge who would later famously withdraw his support for capital punishment. Ellison was appointed by Bill Clinton, meaning that he is not a “hanging judge,” so often the case when you are placed in the courtroom of a G.W. Bush appointee.  Still, even with all of those potential advantages, the courts run on precedent, and the overwhelming majority of precedent has tilted so far against defendants that it is nearly always an insurmountable barrier to overcome.  When Ellison received Jeff’s original application for a federal writ, he correctly realized that new facts had come to light since the TCCA had denied him relief.  He therefore stayed the federal proceeding and sent the case back to the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing. (The Attorney General’s office, of course, vigorously, fought this move; they recommended denying all of his claims as irrelevant).  The State Court judge was again our old friend Mark Kent Ellis, Siegler’s former campaign advisor.  Naturally, he killed the hearing, mirroring Greg Abbot’s opinion that Jeff’s claims were immaterial.  When I read the transcripts from this hearing–that–wasn’t, it was very telling to see how the representatives of the HCDA’s office fell all over themselves while objecting to any and every mention of Hermilo Herrero’s case.  Ellis, of course, sustained every objection. Now that the case is back in federal court, Jeff’s only hope will be in arguing for an evidentiary hearing where he might have a chance of deposing Siegler.  It seems so obvious the wrong that has been done in this case, but my faith in the system has failed me and I am no longer able to hold out much hope for any of us here on the Row, even the factually innocent.

It has been necessary for me at times to omit some aspects of the case file in the interests of brevity, though you wouldn’t know it considering the length of this article.  I have many theories and suspicions about this business that I was not able to verify, unfortunately.  For instance, I draw your attention to the case of Jermont Hairston, which I learned about thanks to Harris County’s nifty JIMS system (which indexes cases in multiple dimensions, including by the names of the state’s witnesses).  When Michael Beckcom’s name is inserted it shows him as a witness for the prosecution in Hairston’s rape case.  I actually have no idea if he testified or not, though I suspect not.  I believe Beckcom was attached to this case – which was held in Mark Kent Ellis’s court, no less – so that Siegler could get some face-time with Beckcom in a manner indiscoverable to the defense.  The facts of Hairston’s case are worth noting, too, as he apparently forced his victim to perform oral sex on him at gunpoint.  I can see Kelly Siegler showing up early for a hearing in Ellis’s court and witnessing this allegation and thinking, Hmm, I believe I can use that….

I could probably have written an entire article on the relationship between Jeff’s case and that of Anthony Graves, who was released from death row in 2010 after eighteen years in prison.  After Siegler lost the election in 2008 she was no longer welcome in Pat Lyco’s office. She went into private practice, apparently suing in civil court defendants who were acquitted in criminal court. In addition, she also took contract work as a special prosecutor for counties with smaller, less experienced prosecutors needing to pursue a capital case.  It was for this purpose she was hired by Burleson County’s prosecutor, Charles Sebasta, to send Graves back to Death Row.  Her road to Damascus moment when she realized that Graves was innocent is well documented.  She has certainly been given many plaudits for freeing Graves.  What is completely unknown to virtually everyone involved is that Siegler’s volte-face occurred near simultaneously with Jeff’s submission in federal court of his first application for a writ in late 2009. His application showed to anyone flagging the case that the cat was out of the bag on the snitch network, and you can bet that she went into panic mode.  Graves wasn’t freed shortly thereafter because Siegler discovered he was innocent; everyone knew that he was and, in any case, she clearly has no scruples about sending the innocent to the hangman.  Graves was freed because Siegler needed to very quickly build a bulwark against the allegations coming from Jeff’s filings that she was a rogue prosecutor.  Anthony Graves probably owes Jeff Prible his life, and I doubt that he even knows it.

Either due to arrogance, stupidity, or a deeply ingrained sense of duty to irony, Siegler then proceeded to toss Sebesta under the bus using the very same “rogue prosecutor” charge she was attempting to evade.  She mounted her white horse, and in typical Kelly Siegler fashion, went on the offensive. For instance, I direct your attention to a <round table discussion> held by Both Siegler and Graves participated in this toothless charade of a “search for solutions,” along with several other notables from Texas’ criminal justice system.  When you read Siegler’s comments you can see the image she is attempting to craft.  From her very first comment, she attempts to set the tenor and thematic frame of the entire discussion: “I think that the point of the conversation tonight should be that most prosecutors do a wonderful job…” She then goes on to claim that prosecutors do not understand and are not trained in how to deal with Brady issues, le, the suppression of potentially exculpatory evidence: “You’re thinking that Brady is this black-and-white, clear-cut thing.  That’s not what Brady is in the world of prosecutors.” Uh, hello?  Stop treating the process like it’s a damned game and just give the defense your entire file like you are supposed to.  Problem solved.

Her response?  “'Exculpatory'” is an easy word to use, but we’re talking about inconsistent evidence, mitigating evidence – that too.  And I guarantee you every single one of the cops that work for you don’t put in their offense reports every single little inconsistent thing they know.”  First off, as you have all seen, the problem is not “inconsistent” details, it’s government agents hiding and fabricating evidence in order to close cases.  We are talking about human beings here, not principles or some sort of ego contest.  If you don’t have the clear evidence you need to convict, then don’t convict.  This isn’t hard.

Siegler’s most telling comment comes later in the discussion when talking about the issue of prosecutorial immunity.  “I think that all prosecutors would agree that we have to have our immunity.  You have to be able to do your job without worrying about being sued civilly by Joe Blow out there that you charged with a crime.  But I don’t think there’s any prosecutor in this state who would argue that if you commit a crime – like tampering with evidence, tampering with a witness in the course of prosecuting somebody like Anthony – then you don’t belong in prison.”

Be careful what you wish for, Kelly dear.

Behind this entire smoking ruin of a story is a man.  I’ve known Jeff since 2009 when we lived together on A-Pod.  He is one of a handful of Christians on the Row that are not complete and obvious hypocrites, though I’m not even sure that many Southerners would consider him a co-religionist given his take on matters of doctrine.  For instance, he denies the exclusivist claims made in the gospels, believing that God is larger than dogma and that all religions are pathways to the same higher power.  His tolerance for other belief systems makes him one of the few religious people I can hang out with because he’s neither attempting to convert me or burn me at the stake.  We run in very different circles, but he includes me when I feel like being included.  It is probably a stretch to call us good friends, but I like Jeff very much.  I should probably be honest about that.  Know this, though:  even if I hated his guts, I still would have been compelled to write this article.  If Jeff’s claims had not stood the test of scrutiny, you wouldn’t be reading this now, regardless of my feelings for the man.  As I said in the beginning, now that stories like his are lodged in my brain, I can’ seem to get them out again.

Jeff can’t seem to get his story out of his brain either.  To my way of thinking, one of the habits which differentiates between the truly, factually innocent and the faux-innocent is a compulsion to tell anyone – everyone – about what has been to them.  It’s like they are trying to excise a poison. One of the first conversations I ever had with Jeff was about Michael Beckcom, and I instantly saw what an easy mark Jeff would have been for him.  Some people, they just have good souls. They simply don’t comprehend the grasping, twilight, eat-or-be-eaten jungle that the rest of us have to live in.  This lack of understanding makes it difficult for them to see the subterranean dangers lurking all about them.  Even now, even after experiencing countless betrayals, Jeff still talks about his case to nearly anyone who will listen.  I’ve tried to warn him about this, but it’s like he feels that if he keeps taking the last fifteen years apart, he will one day find a way to reassemble the pieces that gives him some peace.

This strategy hasn’t worked out too well for him, all things considered. I’ve watched his mental state deteriorate over the years to the point where he is now flirting with real, discernible mental disease.  This is one of the worst aspects about living in administrative segregation, that you are able to witness people falling to pieces and are impotent to help them in any way.  All the little remedies are denied you: simple presence sealed off by concrete and steel and miles upon miles of razor wire, empathy and altruism both punishable by a 90 day trip to level 3.  I’ve seen Jeff drink heavily, not to enjoy himself on those rare occasions when prison hooch becomes available, but rather to obliterate all consciousness for the matter of a few hours.  In those moments, it’s hard to miss that he is really begging the universe to kill him.  About a year ago, this death instinct compelled him to write a letter to Judge Ellison asking for swift relief or a swift denial.  We all begged him not to send the letter, because none of us have ever seen the happy side of that choice.  He merely shook his head and murmured that he was going home, either way.

When we lived near each other on B-Pod in 2012, I noticed one morning when I went to recreate that he had a large bruise and cut on his forehead.  It was easy to see, even through the steel mesh on the doors, because incarceration has caused Jeff to lose all of his hair. When I asked him what had happened, he looked down at his feet for a moment, and I actually though he was about to start crying.  When he looked back up, he told me that he had been slamming his head against the wall for a few months and that he didn’t know why.  Well, I think we both knew why, but what he meant was that he didn’t understand why he was trying to draw something from the world of the figurative into the literal.  I was horrified, because I had been hearing this low, thumping noise for some time and couldn’t place it.  That is how I see him in my mind’s eye these days, alone, on his hand and knees, the wall splotched crimson, a dull knocking sound echoing down the run.  And no one, no one, is listening.

To read Jeff’s application for writ of habeas corpus, click here 

Exhibit A – Supplemental Briefing to Prible’s application for writ of habeas corpus 

Exhibit B – Second Supplemental Briefing to Prible’s application for writ of habeas corpus 

Regarding Mr. Prible's first Texas State Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus, Texas District Judge Mark Kent Ellis signed the State's Proposed Finds of Facts and Conclusions of Law without any modification. 

To read Day seven, 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 


Emily O'Halloran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D Ruelas said...

Dear Jeff:
Thank you for sharing your story through Thomas. It is so sad to see how innocent people have to go through such horror. The State of Texas needs to be more careful. One innocent person on Texas Death Row is too innocent person executed is too many! I wish you the best and hope your innocence can be shown and proved.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand..What is going on in Texas? Not all, but from what I read at least half the men on Texas Death Row are innocent! There just down there killing innocent men. Someone needs to look into that. Lori

Hermilo Herrero said...

Good writing. Hermilo Herrero

Joey K said...

This piece is a couple of years old now and the latest media article I could find was dated October 18, 2015. The Houston Chronicle printed a story that listed, in part, the allegations against Kelly Siegler that were made in these posts. Since I can't see any news reporting his execution, I assume that Jeff is still awaiting execution. I truly hope that the truth is somehow revealed in this case. If there is even a shred of doubt in our system, if it is plausible that we have executed an innocent person, then the entire process of capital punishment should be abandoned. I am an avid believer in right-to-die but I can't get behind pseudo-justified murder.

A Friend said...

Joey K - here is a recent update: