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Supremes spread hope



The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling last week that could have a profound effect on the case of Vidale McDowell, who is serving a life sentence for a murder the 20-year-old Detroit man says he did not commit.

In a decision that is expected to have far-reaching implications, the court issued a 9-0 opinion reinforcing the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment, which grants defendants the right to confront their accusers. That protection has been slipping, say legal experts, who note that many courts have been granting exception to the rule in cases where witness statements deemed credible have been allowed to be used in trials.

“Dispensing with confrontation because testimony is obviously reliable is akin to dispensing with jury trial because a defendant is obviously guilty,” declared Justice Antonin Scalia in the court’s written opinion.

The case before the court involves Michael Crawford, a Washington state man convicted of stabbing someone he thought had raped his wife. Crawford’s wife refused to testify against her husband, who insisted he was acting in self-defense, but the jury was allowed to hear incriminating statements she made to police.

According to Steve Drizen, an associate professor at the Northwestern University School of Law and an expert on false confessions, McDowell has an even stronger case than Crawford.

McDowell, whose plight was the subject of an MT cover story (“Confessions and recantations,” Jan. 21), was convicted of murdering Janice Williams, who was killed during January of 2002. The case against McDowell depended almost exclusively on confessions extracted from Antoine Morris, McDowell’s friend and the victim’s son. Morris, who was 13 at the time, was accused of participating in the killing. He provided three different statements to police, one of which was used to convict McDowell. But Morris almost immediately recanted the confession implicating McDowell, saying it was both untrue and coerced. The jury never heard that because Morris never took the stand, but one of his confessional statements was read to them. McDowell’s lawyer, Robert Morgan, has appealed his conviction, arguing that because he was prohibited from cross-examining Morris, his client was deprived of a fundamental constitutional right.

In light of the Crawford opinion, there is no doubt that McDowell’s conviction should be reversed, says Drizen, who has been following the case closely and intends to file a brief on McDowell’s behalf.

Drizen contends the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office should admit that Morris’s confession was allowed in error and agree to send the case back to trial. Absent that, there is still a good chance the appellate court will order a new trial straightaway without forcing McDowell to endure the usually lengthy appeals process.

Either way, says Morgan, “There’s a significant likelihood that, given the Supreme Court’s ruling, Mr. McDowell’s appeal could be disposed of much sooner than it would otherwise take.”

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office wouldn’t comment on McDowell’s case. Jeff Caminsky, principal attorney in the agency’s appellate department, says that the ruling provides a “hurdle” prosecutors will have to overcome.

McDowell’s is just one of an untold number of cases that could be affected by the Crawford ruling.

“This is the kind of decision that is going to rock the criminal justice system,” says Drizen.

That could be especially true in Michigan, where the state appellate and supreme courts have granted wide leeway in allowing statements like ones used in the Crawford and McDowell cases. But Caminsky says it is a decision that, although making their job more difficult, prosecutors can abide by. For one thing, he says, the Supreme Court’s ruling could be interpreted to have a narrow scope, applying only to statements given to authorities and not affecting other so-called hearsay evidence. Beyond that, says Caminsky, “This may make our work harder, but we are all about doing justice as well.”

If that’s truly the case, contend advocates for McDowell, prosecutors will serve justice and concede that he deserves a new trial.

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