Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Unpacking the Misconduct in the Chad Heins Case: Improperly Influencing Witnesses Edition

Today, the Florida Times Union published an article that begins to unlock the prosecutorial misconduct that took place in the case of Chad Heins, Florida's 9th and most recent DNA exoneration:

Only weeks before Chad Heins' murder trial in 1996, a Jacksonville prosecutor sent a memo asking a state crime lab supervisor to downplay findings that stray hairs found on the victim's body came from an unknown person. "I need to structure your testimony carefully so as to convince the jury that the unknown hairs are insignificant," Assistant State Attorney Stephen Bledsoe wrote in a letter recently obtained by the Times-Union.

In December 1996, a jury convicted Heins of the first-degree murder of his sister-in-law in her Mayport apartment. He was sentenced to life in prison until new DNA tests led to his release last month.
Some prosecutors will argue that this is simply just a case of Mr. Bledsoe alerting his witness of the intent to perpetuate testimony that will raise possible reasons why unknown hairs were found at the scene of this murder. In fact, that is exactly what Mr. Bledsoe's boss stated:
But State Attorney Harry Shorstein called Bledsoe, who he's known for 35 years, one of the most ethical prosecutors in his office. Bledsoe probably wanted to ensure that the crime lab witness testified about possible explanations for the unknown hairs, Shorstein said.

"I don't like the wording of the letter because I think it does lead to conjecture or suspicion of wrongdoing," he said. "But the important thing is he disclosed that evidence. Steve Bledsoe is about a straight an arrow as any lawyer I've ever worked with."
But this letter from Mr. Bledsoe is far more nefarious, despite his current boss' protests to the contrary, arguing about the inartful wording of this letter and Bledsoe's supposedly high ethical status. In the face of evidence that casts serious doubt on Chad Hein's guilt (nevermind the recent DNA testing of these hairs, fingernail scrapings from the victim, and semen found on her bed sheet that all pointed to the same unknown male perpetrator), Bledsoe is trying to improperly influence his witness, a State of Florida employee, to conceal the truth about this hair evidence; to convince the jury that it really isn't what it truly is.

What's more, before Chad's exoneration, current prosecutors, led by Harry Shorstein, sought to prevent introduction of this letter into evidence at a new trial, clearly understanding the import of the letter and what it would say to the jury about the probative value of this hair evidence.

Chad's attorneys used phrases like "cavalier disregard for the actual evidence." Another attorney made the point that if the roles were reversed, the prosecution would be trumpeting this letter as the defense's attempt to improperly influence a witness.

Regardless of how you characterize these actions, it's a sad commentary on the tunnel vision of the Florida prosecutor bar writ large, where we have become more interested in convictions at all costs than finding the truth.

Kudos to Paul Pinkham for beginning the public dissemination of misconduct in this case. To read more about this the Chad Heins case out of Jacksonville, Florida (Duval County),go here.

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