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hris Perri Law is a criminal defense law firm located in Austin, Texas.

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Chris' Blog

The blog of Chris Perri Law, written by Chris Perri and Shannon Perri. Read the latest in exciting cases where justice is served.

Nearly 5,000 Austin Convictions in Limbo due to DNA Lab Errors, But Relief for the Wrongfully Imprisoned Still a Long Ways Off

Chris Perri

Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

Photograph by University of Michigan DNA Lab

The Austin American-Statesman has thoroughly covered the fallout from the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab closure, but if you haven’t been following the news closely, it’s difficult to find one article that provides the overall picture of what’s going on with the DNA issues in Travis County. Below, I’ve summarized the recent Austin DNA Lab scandal, along with providing a legal perspective on how these revelations might affect people who were convicted on the basis of false DNA evidence.

Recalculations vs. Retesting

In the summer of 2015, the FBI announced that errors in its database might have caused nationwide laboratory miscalculations of the probability that DNA found in evidentiary mixtures matched particular defendants’ known DNA profiles. Here is a blog post I wrote on the subject.

The important takeaway is that while the FBI’s database error affected cases nationwide, it only applied to DNA mixtures, which is a type of sample that contains two or more people’s DNA. If DNA mixture evidence contributed to a defendant’s conviction, then the defendant can request a recalculation of the probability that the mixture contained the defendant’s known DNA profile. Such recalculations do NOT involve any re-testing, as the lab simply uses the corrected database protocols to recalculate the probability of a match. The FBI database issues do not implicate the reliability of the actual testing conducted by the various forensic laboratories.

While government agencies argued that the recalculations would not materially affect any pending cases, these assurances became less credible when recalculations in a Galveston murder case drastically reduced the probability that the defendant was the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, the DNA retesting issue rocked the Austin Police Department (APD) last summer, and it could affect up to 5000 past convictions. The chaos began when the Texas Forensic Science Commission conducted an audit of APD’s DNA Laboratory last spring, and the Commission discovered a host of unreliable scientific practices pervading the lab. Among the highlights:

1.     Improper Stochastic Threshold: DNA labs must adopt guidelines to determine whether their interpretation of each DNA sample is scientifically reliable. The stochastic threshold is the point at which a scientist can reliably interpret DNA in a manner that’s not muddled by random effects, such as allele dropout. At APD’s lab, the scientists used a quantitative baseline (as opposed to a qualitative one) as its stochastic threshold, despite the fact that no peer-reviewed journal had ever accepted such a quant-based threshold. Without a valid stochastic threshold, the lab cannot be certain whether its testing results were merely a product of randomness, as opposed to sound scientific process. Because an improper protocol was used at the very beginning stages of all DNA testing, any of the final interpretative results are unreliable. Garbage in, garbage out.

2.     Suspect or Victim-Driven Testing: Sound scientific method requires that scientists select an unknown sample’s comparison loci (the particular segment of DNA material that will later be compared to the known DNA profiles) without knowledge of which comparison loci are clearest on the known DNA profiles. However, APD’s “scientists” were essentially cheating, as they used the known DNA profiles of suspects and victims in order to determine which loci to examine in the unknown samples. This practice created a bias towards finding a match.

3.     Unclear Use of Protocol Deviation: Lab technicians occasionally deviated from clear technical guidelines when it suited the particular needs of a case. Part of the problem stems from APD’s scientists not remaining independent from the investigative team, as the scientists often felt pressure from investigators to return favorable results. This collusion is one of the main reasons why I’ve advocated an independent lab, and the Travis County judges agreed in a proclamation last December.

4.     Contamination: In one egregious example of incompetence, the Forensic Science Commission observed carry-over contamination between the DNA on a victim’s vaginal swab and the DNA on a suspect’s penile swab, despite the fact that this suspect was later determined to be unrelated to the offense. It took re-testing by a different laboratory before this suspect was cleared for an offense he did not commit.

After the Commission’s report, there was also a revelation that a freezer housing hundreds of DNA samples broke down last spring for eight days, leaving officials uncertain whether evidentiary samples had been damaged.

Somehow, despite these systemic problems at APD’s DNA lab, it received annual accreditations for over a decade. A Statesman article revealed that the accrediting body "did not test if a lab’s scientific processes were appropriate for analyses." That seems like a pretty huge oversight in the accreditation process.

The Fallout

Since the revelation of these monumental problems at APD’s DNA Lab, it has closed down and the testing on all pending cases has been sent to independent labs. However, the problem remains of what to do about the convictions from 2005-2016 that were based on faulty DNA testing. Estimates on the number of cases that need to be reviewed range from 3,600 to 5,000.

The Travis County Commissioners and City Council have been considering options for implementing a materiality review to determine which cases need to have the DNA evidence retested, with cost estimates for this review ranging from $6 million to $14 million. However, as of today, the bureaucrats haven’t made a decision, and they appear to be leaning towards the least costly option. I’ve argued that at a minimum, this materiality review must be independent from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which has a conflict of interest by virtue of securing the convictions that are under review.

The critical point right now is that the essential independent materiality review of the thousands of cases hasn’t yet begun, and there’s no telling how long it will take to create an independent commission to conduct the review. Even then, a materiality review will only identify the cases in which DNA evidence was a material contributor to a conviction, and at that point, DNA re-testing will be ordered. Defendants will then have to wait for the DNA re-testing to be completed before they know whether they’re entitled to a new trial. And if they are entitled to a new trial, the defendants will have to wait even more time while an application for writ of habeas corpus circulates through the trial court and the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Given the lack of agreement in political circles about how best to conduct the review and the time lag to implement any proposed solutions, there’s no relief in sight for defendants waiting on Travis County to solve this mess.

How We Can Help

Chris Perri Law has over a decade of experience in reviewing post-conviction cases. If you or a loved one suffered from a conviction involving DNA evidence that was tested by the Austin Police Department, contact our firm to review the case. If your case was not in Austin but involved DNA mixtures, contact our firm about requesting a re-calculation of the probability that the DNA mixture matched the defendant. We advocate for our clients from the beginning stages of the process (DNA materiality review) through the final litigation of the writ of habeas corpus in order to ensure that wrongfully convicted people are set free. 

Breath Test Machines: Less Reliable Than You Think

Chris Perri

Chris Perri, next to his very own breathalyzer.

Chris Perri, next to his very own breathalyzer.

In DWI investigations, breath test results are very common evidence. Although I advise clients to refuse to provide a sample of their breath, the case isn’t over just because the machine says that the sample is over .08 BAC.

At the outset, it’s important to realize that BAC means blood alcohol concentration, not breath alcohol concentration. Breath test science relies on the assumption that it can obtain a reliable breath alcohol concentration that mirrors a particular person’s blood alcohol concentration. This assumption is fraught with difficulties, as I’ll explain below.

Let’s start with a very simplified description of the mechanics of the breath-test machine (also known as an intoxilyzer or breathalyzer). An arrested person blows into the machine, which takes this breath sample and shoots it through a tube that’s then injected with infrared light. Because alcohol particles block infrared light, the machine detects the amount of alcohol in a subject’s breath by determining how much of the infrared light has been blocked. It then takes this number, makes some calculations, and reports a breath alcohol concentration.

The calculation of this breath alcohol concentration is problematic because there’s a lot less alcohol in the breath than in the blood. For example, in an average person, the number of grams of alcohol in 1 part of the blood is equivalent to the number of grams of alcohol in 2100 parts of breath. This 1:2100 ratio is known as a “partition rate.” So, while a person’s blood alcohol concentration is defined as the number of grams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood, that same person’s breath alcohol concentration is defined as the number of grams of alcohol in 210 liters of breath. (Note: 100 milliliters x 2100 = 210 liters). In other words, if you have .08 grams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of your blood, then it’s assumed that you have .08 grams of alcohol in 210 liters of your breath.

While it’s not hard for police to obtain 100 milliliters of your blood, it’s impossible for them to obtain 210 liters of your breath (think about a 1 liter bottle and imagine filling up 210 of those bottles with your breath). For this reason, the breath test machine must multiply any amount of alcohol that it detects by a very large number. As an example, if you provide the machine with one liter of your breath, then the machine multiplies the amount of alcohol it detects by 210 in order to determine the number of grams of alcohol per 210 liters of your breath. This calculation is then reported as your BAC.

Consequently, any error by the machine in determining the amount of alcohol in a given sample would be exacerbated when it multiplies that incorrect number by two-hundred-fold. Such errors can occur when the machine interprets non-alcoholic particles in the breath as alcohol. For example, the machine cannot distinguish acetone (a common substance in the breath of diabetics) from alcohol. Or, imagine the complication of a stray particle of liquid alcohol entering the machine in the form of spit. Any error in the initial measurement of alcohol will render the entire breath test unreliable.

Photograph courtesy of Oregon Dept. of Transportation

Photograph courtesy of Oregon Dept. of Transportation

For my next point, let’s give the machine the benefit of the doubt and assume that it can accurately measure the quantity of alcohol in a person’s breath. Even then, the machine makes a critical and troublesome assumption: that the subject’s partition rate is 1:2100 (recall from above that this means that the amount of alcohol in one part of blood is equal to the amount of alcohol in 2100 parts of breath). This assumption is not true across the population, as studies show that partition rates of normal people vary from 1:1100 to 1:3000.

As an illustration, let’s take a hypothetical subject arrested for DWI and call her Sue. She has a partition rate of 1:1100, which means that the number of grams of alcohol in 1 part of Sue’s blood is the equivalent of the number of grams of alcohol in 1100 parts of her breath. On this particular evening, Sue has consumed enough alcohol that her BAC is .06 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood. Since her partition rate is 1:1100, there would also be .06 grams of alcohol in 110 liters of her breath (note: 100 milliliters multiplied by 1100 equals 110 liters).However, the breath machine is going to overestimate the BAC by nearly a factor of two. Here’s why:

When Sue takes a breath test, the machine is programmed to incorrectly assume that her partition rate is 1:2100. As a result, it will determine the number of grams of alcohol in 210 liters of her breath. Since Sue’s correct BAC is .06 grams of alcohol per 110 liters of breath (due to her partition rate of 1:1100), she has .11 grams of alcohol per 210 liters of her breath. Due to the machine’s inaccurate assumption that Sue’s partition rate is 1:2100 instead of 1:1100, the breath-test machine will report a BAC of .11, which is nearly twice as high as her actual BAC of .06. This inaccuracy results because the machine is improperly measuring the number of grams of alcohol per 210 liters of Sue’s breath, as opposed to the number of grams of alcohol per 110 liters of her breath. Thus, the machine’s assumption that everyone has a partition rate of 1:2100 creates a critical error by reporting that Sue is intoxicated even though she’s actually below the legal limit of .08 BAC.

Finally, it’s important to remember that it’s only illegal to be intoxicated while driving. It’s not a crime to be intoxicated 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour after operating a motor vehicle. But these chemical tests usually occur over an hour after driving, and the prosecution has the burden of proving how that BAC measurement relates to the time of driving. Unless law enforcement knows a lot of information about a particular person (e.g., number of drinks consumed, when the drinks were consumed, the type of alcohol consumed, amount of food consumed, when food was consumed, etc.), it’s impossible to conduct a reliable retrograde extrapolation, which is the science of determining a past BAC level based on a known BAC level. In other words, if the breath test machine reports that a person has a .11 BAC over an hour after driving, we don’t know whether the person’s BAC at the time of driving was below, above, or the same as the level reported by the machine.

While breath tests are an important tool for law enforcement in that they give a ballpark figure about an arrested person’s intoxication level, it’s a common misconception that a breath test machine provides an exact measurement of a person’s BAC at the time of driving. If you or a loved one have been arrested for DWI and submitted to a breath test that reported a BAC over .08, don’t despair. Call an experienced criminal defense attorney to fight the machine’s potentially inaccurate result.

The Dirtiest Little Secret of Texas: Our Civil Commitment Law for Sex Offenders Raises Double Jeopardy Concerns

Chris Perri

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Recently, I read this article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about Texas’ civil commitment law with respect to sex offenders and was left shocked.

While the article mainly concerns a technical change in the law regarding venue for civil commitment trials, hidden towards the end is the unveiling of Texas’ dirty little secret: Since 1998, more than 350 individuals have been civilly committed to a sex-offender treatment facility in Littlefield, Texas, following their completion of lengthy prison sentences. None have been released upon successful completion of the program, and nearly half were sent back to prison for violations of the treatment program’s rules.

For example, a defendant who is convicted of a sex offense might serve 25 years in prison. As his release date approaches, he discovers that the State of Texas wants him to remain incarcerated after the completion of his long sentence. As a result, a new “civil commitment” trial occurs in which the State seeks to prove that he “has a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.” This seems like a pretty easy burden to prove since the defendant has previously been convicted of a sex offense.

While this procedure might smack of double jeopardy, Tarrant County prosecutor Bill Vassar defends it by arguing: “During his 25 year imprisonment, [the defendant] never had sex offender treatment from a licensed professional. The jury’s verdict ensures that he will get the treatment he needs, and guarantees the citizens of Texas that he will be monitored 24 hours a day.”

This argument exposes two fundamental problems. First, any prosecutor should be ashamed of a criminal justice system that sends a sex offender to a penitentiary that fails to provide any treatment to that individual prior to release. Right there, Mr. Vassar has unwittingly indicted our entire prison system for ineptitude. Second, Mr. Vassar’s argument that the defendant “will get the treatment he needs” from the Littlefield treatment facility is disproved by the evidence that no one has ever been rehabilitated in the program’s 18 years of operation. Leave it to the government to equate success with this zero percent rehabilitation rate.

I sympathize with victims of sex offenses, and I do believe that offenders need to be punished. However, the proper forum for vindicating victims’ rights and punishing offenders is the criminal process. Once an offender has served his/her sentence, our Double Jeopardy Clause forbids further punishment for that offense. In effect, Texas’ civil commitment law allows Texas to circumvent the Constitution by imprisoning a person a second time for the crime. To continually operate such a “treatment” facility for 18 years despite its zero-percent success rate seems to be a brazen misuse of government resources. Moreover, Texans should be offended by the government’s attempt to disguise the civil commitment facility’s true purpose as rehabilitation. This current system serves no one: not the criminal, not the victim, and certainly not the taxpayer. Littlefield is the island where we send the undesirables to never be heard from again.  

Let’s start with some honesty, and then engage in a legitimate debate about whether the Constitution forbids this type of institution as an unconstitutional subsequent punishment.

For more information on this civil commitment trend for sex offenders, check out the Stateman’s recent write-up here.  

Texas Law Fellowships Honors Chris Perri with Public Service Award

Chris Perri

At the Texas Law Fellowships' Excellence in Public Interest Awards ceremony, Chris Perri received The Excellence in Public Interest Award for his service. For the past two years, Chris has volunteered his time supervising law students running an expunction clinic for indigent clients in the community. Chris is considered a statewide expert on expunction law, and he believes anyone who has had their case dismissed should be able to clear it from their arrest record.

Remember, in the court of law, we are all presumed innocent until proven otherwise. An arrest is not proof of guilt, yet its presence on a background check can still create employment and educational obstacles. 

Chris was honored to be recognized along with these other outstanding members of the legal community: Claire Marie Bow, Paul Quinzi, Chris Roberts, and Bryan Zubay. 

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Finality Over Accuracy: America's Flawed Jury System Exposed in "Making a Murderer"

Chris Perri

Spoiler Alert: You do not need any knowledge of the Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, in order to read the following blog post, which contains details about the 2007 Steven Avery murder trial. However, if you’d like to watch the documentary without any knowledge of the events that unfold, then you should wait to read this post.

After watching Making a Murderer, Netflix’ ten-part documentary series about Steven Avery’s 2007 trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach, many viewers were understandably perplexed by the jury’s guilty verdict. Avery had previously been exonerated from a wrongful conviction for a 1985 sexual assault, and due to a pending multi-million dollar lawsuit against the county sheriff for its role in his wrongful imprisonment, the sheriff appeared to have a motive to frame Avery for the Halbach murder. Armed with evidence that strongly suggested such a framing, along with the apparent weakness of the State’s circumstantial case, Avery’s excellent defense attorneys cast considerable doubt on whether Avery murdered Halbach. At the very least, there appeared to be reasonable doubt. Yet, twelve people decided that Avery was guilty, and under our law, that verdict means that Avery was the killer.

To me, that’s the most difficult part of the law to grasp. Life is shrouded by nuance and uncertainty; in a close case, it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But as a society, we have decided that justice must prevail, so we assign the task of judgment to a jury of twelve random people. We tell ourselves that as long as each juror believes beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant committed a crime, wrongful convictions won’t happen.

But they do happen. I’m not arguing in this blog post that Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted of murder. I don’t think that’s appropriate when my knowledge of the case is limited to a ten-hour series created by people with an obvious agenda to entertain by casting doubt on the Avery conviction (click here to view an article about the inculpatory evidence that the producers of Making a Murderer left out of their documentary). Instead, I’m using this case as a backdrop for questioning the fundamental tenets of our justice system.

As a society, we are comfortable locking people away because we tell ourselves that they were convicted of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. This premise is upended if reasonable doubt is merely theoretical, a grouping of words that functionally is no different than a jury awarding money damages to a plaintiff under the civil standard of “preponderance of the evidence” (i.e., more likely than not). Disturbingly, the prosecutor in the Avery case stated to the jurors in closing argument: “Reasonable doubt is for innocent people.” Despite this statement’s obvious impropriety, it’s instructive because that’s how most jurors treat the reasonable-doubt standard. It’s mere fantasy to assume that jurors objectively consider all of the evidence through the lens of reasonable doubt. Instead, they usually vote with their gut, meaning that we cannot be certain whether juries convict the correct person.

The most haunting aspect of the criminal justice system is that twelve jurors, who deliberate in secret with no accountability regarding whether they actually follow the trial judge’s instructions, create the ultimate “fact.” Before the case goes to the jury, a defendant is presumed innocent. However, when the jury unanimously votes for guilt, the defendant is now a criminal, and our history books record as “fact” that this defendant committed the alleged crime. I recall stirring video footage of the 1995 Chyann Bratcher murder trial in federal court in the Texas Panhandle. It was a close case, built on the strength of a co-defendant’s dubious testimony. After the jury returned its guilty verdict, Ms. Bratcher screamed out that she was innocent. The federal judge immediately silenced her, stating something to the effect of: “Ma’am, that jury of twelve just said you were guilty, and that means you did it. You are not innocent.” But what if a different jury had found her not guilty? Would that change the facts? Of course, it wouldn’t change what actually occurred in the past, but it would alter how we perceive and judge the past from our vantage point in the present.      

How does this blind veneration of jury verdicts mesh with another fact – that humans are fallible? A by-product of our innate fallibility is that twelve people can, and sometimes do, get it wrong. Think about it. These juries usually consist of twelve very different people with a range of IQ’s, along with varying degrees of self-confidence in the serious task of judging another person’s fate. It’s easy for the more uncertain jurors to defer to the more vocal jurors who seem to grasp the intricacies of the case. Psychological group dynamics can create a demand to choose sides. Moreover, most jurors aren’t able to synthesize the mounds of information that are piled on them during a long trial, so they often make decisions on the basis of emotion rather than cognition. (Click here for an article teaching lawyers to use these jury traits to their advantage). 

The Avery trial provides a great example of how a jury might reach the wrong decision. The case was highly publicized, with Avery being vilified in the media due to the State’s frequent press conferences during the investigation of the case. Many of these jurors might have had problems going home to their families and explaining that they let a murderer off the hook. Equally compelling is the fact that when the jurors took their initial straw poll at the opening of deliberations, seven voted for not-guilty, two were undecided, and three were staunchly convinced of Avery’s guilt. These three guilty jurors ultimately convinced the rest of the group to convict Avery of murder. Considering that there was a seemingly inconsistent verdict of “not guilty” on the charge of Mutilation of a Corpse, it’s not far-fetched to speculate that some type of compromise or deal occurred in the jury room (such trading of votes is a flagrant violation of the law).

In the last few years, there has been a movement in the United States to hold public servants accountable by increasing the transparency of their duties. Civil rights groups have called for all police officers to wear body cameras that are automatically activated upon interaction with a subject. But aren’t jurors practicing the ultimate public service when they pronounce judgment on another human being? Why, then, are their deliberations secret, with zero accountability if they refuse to follow the judge’s instructions to consider only the evidence in resolving whether a defendant committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt? Cameras in the jury room could potentially resolve questions about whether jurors engaged in misconduct, and they might prevent the type of bullying that often occurs during deliberations. I want my jurors to be on their best behavior, and the only way to ensure that they are fairly considering the evidence is to increase the transparency of their decisional process.

The takeaway from Making a Murderer is not that one individual might have been wrongly convicted. Rather, the import is that the jury system is flawed. Such a flaw might be less worrisome if we had an appellate system that could catch these human errors. However, our appellate system is a joke when it comes to considering a claim that the jury messed up. This type of claim is called “evidentiary insufficiency,” but it’s an impossible claim to win because the appellate standard of review requires judges to resolve all factual disputes in favor of the jury’s verdict – in other words, they review the case with a bias against the defendant. Thus, in the case of Steven Avery, he doesn’t get the benefit of any judge neutrally evaluating the strength of the evidence.

This appellate process perpetuates the criminal justice system’s goal of finality over accuracy. An inherent tension exists between the goal of justice and the goal of avoiding wrongful convictions. If it’s too hard to convict a defendant, then criminals will never be brought to justice. On the other hand, if a conviction is too easy to obtain, then our prisons will be populated by numerous innocent people. Either choice should be intolerable. But by instituting a criminal justice system that sends millions of people to prison, we have made a choice, and inherent within that choice is a margin of error because the juries who administer this justice consist of fallible humans who are prone to mistakes. No matter how hard we strive to reduce this margin of error to as low a level as possible, human fallibility remains. Instead of responsibly acknowledging this fallibility through an appellate process that operates as a check-and-balance on the jury process, we indulge in an irresponsible fantasy of certitude in order to sleep at night: the jury of twelve must have gotten it right, thereby delivering justice to the victim and convicting the correct person.  

Once the jury returns its verdict, the justice system doesn’t like the case to linger, as such would frustrate the goals of “justice” and finality for society. In service of these goals, the appellate system sets up such a gauntlet of procedural and substantive pitfalls that even meritorious claims often fail due to the alleged trial error being declared “harmless.” For example, if the appellate court found that the trial court erred in admitting certain evidence at a defendant’s trial, then the defendant doesn’t automatically obtain a new trial (such would frustrate the system’s ultimate goal of finality). Instead, the appellate judges reweigh the evidence, supposedly putting themselves in the shoes of jurors in order to determine whether a reasonable jury would have still found that person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Far too often, courts affirm convictions under this “harmless” error rule.

Turning back to the claim of insufficiency of the evidence (i.e., “How the heck did that jury convict that guy?”), appellate judges should ask whether a reasonable person could find that the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, just as they do when reweighing the evidence to decide whether an evidentiary error was “harmful” enough to merit a new trial. Instead, the prevailing standard directs the appellate judges to indulge all factual disputes in favor of the State before determining whether any reasonable person could have found that the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

This standard precluded Avery from receiving any kind of “fair” evaluation of his trial: if you resolve all factual disputes against him, then it logically follows that the State sufficiently proved its case. The primary controversy with respect to his trial is whether a reasonable juror could have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Besides the State’s overall case being fuzzy and circumstantial, there were substantial questions surrounding the acquisition (planting?) of key items connecting Avery to the murder. However, after resolving all the factual disputes in favor of the State, along with indulging all logical inferences in the prosecution’s favor, the evidence becomes sufficient. In a way, the appellate court’s standard of review creates this “sufficiency” as a result of the appellate mandate to review the evidence through a distorted lens.

Certain cogs in the criminal justice machine might respond that it’s inefficient and cumbersome for appellate judges to reweigh the evidence from a neutral perspective, as such a procedure invades the province of the jury. “We don’t want to sit as the 13th juror,” an appellate judge once told me in oral argument. This logic fails because, as explained above, judges already sit as the 13th juror when they reach to affirm convictions under the “harmless error” standard. Furthermore, given the tremendous importance of jury deliberations and their lack of transparency, a fair justice system has a duty to institute an appellate process that reweighs the evidence in order to determine whether the jury reached a just result. The situation might be different if jury deliberations were recorded, as a court could simply watch these recordings to determine whether any misconduct occurred. Until that happens, the only way to improve the accuracy of our criminal justice system is to audit the jury’s verdict through a revamped appellate process.

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You may not go to jail for pot possession in Austin, but you can’t ignore the ticket

Chris Perri

It’s a beautiful December day in Austin, and Sue, a student at the University of Texas, wants to celebrate the end of the semester with friends at the Greenbelt. While relaxing in the 70-degree weather near a swimming hole, one of Sue’s friends lights up a joint. Sue doesn’t usually smoke pot, but she’s cutting loose today, so she closes her eyes as she takes a long drag off of the joint, the stresses of the semester exhaling out of her with the sweet smoke of her friend’s kindbud. She then opens her eyes, and her momentary relaxation gives way to full-fledged panic as she spots a uniformed police officer on a bicycle stopped on a nearby trail. The officer calls out for her to bring him the joint. Sue’s mind and heart race, as she remembers what happened to her older brother in their small town where he was arrested for marijuana possession and spent the night in jail.

The cop sternly warns Sue about the illegality of smoking marijuana: “This isn’t Colorado, young lady.” However, to her delight, he bikes off after handing her a citation that looks almost exactly like a speeding ticket. Sue can’t believe her luck in not getting arrested! Maybe she won’t even have to tell her parents. There’s a date listed on the ticket to report to “Justice of the Peace – Precinct 5” on December 22. Sue’s going to be back home for the holidays by then, so she later tosses the ticket on a stack of old books in her apartment, figuring that she can just deal with it when she returns to school in January for the spring semester.

 

Given that the ticket doesn’t look a whole different than a traffic citation, it’s understandable that Sue might think it’s no big deal. In reality, Sue’s offense is a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 180 days in the county jail and a $2,000 fine. Unlike most counties in Texas, where you’ll be cuffed and carted off to jail for anything worse than a class C misdemeanor traffic offense, Travis County is different. Here, the police are authorized to issue tickets for misdemeanor marijuana possession (four ounces or less), along with a few other class B misdemeanors (driving with license invalid, theft, graffiti, criminal mischief). These tickets are called “field-release citations” because the police release the defendants without booking them into jail. The rationale behind this policy is that arresting people takes several hours, resulting in fewer police officers patrolling the streets.

However, just because Sue received a citation doesn’t mean that she’s avoiding an arrest record. Instead, the arrest occurs during what is called a “jail walkthrough” when Sue reports to the Justice of the Peace at the time designated on her ticket. Below, I’ve outlined the steps of the process:

1.     Report to Justice of the Peace – Precinct 5 (located at 1000 Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin) to receive paperwork and instructions about the walkthrough process.

2.     Report to Pretrial Services in order to apply for a personal bond.

3.     Return to the Justice of the Peace, who will magistrate the defendant, meaning that the defendant is informed about constitutional rights and the penalty range of the offense.

4.     Obtain approval of the personal bond from the Justice of the Peace.

5.     Report to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office at their bonding desk in the courthouse.

Upon reporting to the sheriff, Sue is officially arrested. The sheriff’s deputy would take her fingerprints and a mugshot. Sue would then be released from custody without ever being handcuffed. She would also receive a copy of her personal bond with a court date.

Following this “arrest,” Sue’s case would be assigned to one of the county courts-at-law, and her lawyer could then begin resolving your case by requesting discovery materials (offense reports, video/audio of the incident, etc.) and negotiating with the prosecutor.

Like many people issued similar citations, Sue doesn’t immediately realize the importance of reporting to the Justice of the Peace on the date and time designated on the ticket. This is a very bad idea because failure to appear results in an arrest warrant. There is no “jail walkthrough” for Sue if she is later arrested on a warrant, and the process of getting booked in and out of jail would take 12-24 hours. Her initial fear of spending a night in jail would become a reality.

Here’s what Sue should do immediately upon receiving the citation: contact an experienced attorney, such as Chris Perri Law, to assist her with the jail walkthrough process. An attorney can waive the third step of the process (magistration by the judge) in order to ensure that Sue is one of the first people to report to the sheriff’s office for the booking procedures. Often, Chris Perri Law can get somebody through the entire process in less than an hour. Without an attorney, the process can take up to four hours because there’s often a long line of people with similar tickets, and the sheriff’s office only has two deputies (at most) working on the walkthrough process at any given time.

Chris Perri Law also would assist Sue in resolving her case in a manner that leads to an eventual expunction of her arrest record. Even though Sue might feel like she was never arrested because the jail booking procedure was so quick, information about the offense is automatically forwarded to the Department of Public Safety (DPS), who enters it into their crime records database. Background checks will reveal the incident unless Sue successfully expunges the records of the arrest. Given that she’ll be graduating from UT and on the job market in a few years, it’s very important that Sue hires an experienced attorney who knows how to ensure that her arrest record from this incident is ultimately wiped clean.


***Sue is not a real person.

An update on the recent DNA testing errors

Chris Perri

Update from previous post:

Last week, the Travis County District Attorney’s Office announced that it has formed a Conviction Integrity Unit in order to facilitate the comprehensive review of all cases that might have been affected by the miscalculations of probabilities related to DNA mixtures from 1999-2015. This is definitely a step in the right direction, as many experienced criminal justice practitioners are concerned that the miscalculations could have affected thousands of cases.

If you or a loved one suffered a conviction in a case involving DNA evidence, it’s important to retain an experienced criminal defense attorney to review your case. Chris Perri Law can determine whether your case was potentially affected by the DNA miscalculations and then assist you in obtaining a recalculation of the DNA evidence. Depending on the results, Chris Perri Law can then file a post-conviction writ of habeas corpus seeking to overturn your conviction. Chris Perri Law offers these post-conviction services on both state and federal cases throughout Texas.

Check out Chris Perri’s video interview with Austin’s Fox 7 News for more information about these mind-blowing DNA developments.

Wrongful convictions may have have resulted from crime labs' exaggeration of DNA results

Chris Perri

 

Austin news station, KXAN, interviews Chris Perri about the issue. 

Over the summer, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which reviews the current standards for physical evidence in Texas criminal courts, discovered that state crime labs were using outdated protocols for analyzing DNA evidence. In particular, the problems occurred in “mixed DNA” test results, where the labs were exaggerating the likelihood that a particular sample matched a defendant’s DNA.

There are two types of DNA profiles that can come from any given DNA sample: “mixed DNA” (also called “mixtures”) and single-source DNA. Mixtures are the most common type of DNA profiles. A mixture occurs when a DNA sample contains DNA from more than one person. For example, if two or more people touched the handle of a firearm, a DNA sample from this handle would likely be a mixture of multiple people’s DNA. In contrast, a “single source” DNA profile exists when only one person contributed the DNA to a sample. In the case of single-source DNA profiles, matching a given person to the sample is similar to matching a person to a fingerprint left at a crime scene. However, because there are numerous types of DNA profiles that could combine to create a mixture, the probability that a random person besides the defendant could have contributed to this mixture is higher than in the case of single-source DNA profiles.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently revealed that state labs have been reporting inaccurately high probabilities of matches between defendants and mixed DNA samples since 1999.

An example of a recent Galveston murder case illustrates the problem. The crime lab reported that the defendant contributed DNA to a mixture from the crime scene, with a certainty of more than a million to one. However, it turns out that the lab was using outdated protocols, and the certainty is actually just forty to one. This means that if you selected 1,000 random people, 25 of them would match the DNA found at the crime scene. That’s hardly enough evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt.

Everyone knows that eyewitness testimony can be fallible, so prosecutors have placed great weight on scientific DNA evidence when prosecuting cases since the advent of DNA testing in the mid-1990s. Due to jurors learning about the infallibility of DNA science from television crime shows (the CSI effect), jurors often convict defendants on the basis of DNA evidence alone. Now that we know that scientists were inaccurately reporting the probability that crime scene DNA matched particular defendants, many convictions over the last fifteen years may have been based on false evidence, and innocent people could be behind bars.

Police labs and prosecutors’ offices have downplayed the severity of the problem. For example, according to a memorandum from Art Acevedo, the chief of the Austin Police Department, the inaccurate reporting is “unlikely to materially affect any assessment of evidential value.” Court orders will be required in order for the labs to re-test samples to determine accurate statistical probabilities of a match between crime scene samples and defendants’ DNA.

I’m concerned that prosecutors and police forces are sweeping this issue under the rug. Rather than re-assure the public with rhetoric, they should create task forces to revisit every case where DNA played a role in obtaining a conviction, and the labs should recalculate statistical probabilities in all of those cases. After all, it was the State that put false evidence before juries, so the burden should be on the State to correct the problem and regain the public’s confidence that innocent people aren’t behind bars.

If you or a loved one suffered a criminal conviction as a result of mixed DNA test results, you should contact Chris Perri Law to determine whether your case could have been affected by inaccurate scientific testimony. Check out the articles below for more information on this unique and unsettling issue:

http://www.everythinglubbock.com/news/state-regional/new-dna-standards-could-lead-to-thousands-of-retrials-in-texas

http://www.npr.org/2015/10/09/447202433/-great-pause-among-forensic-scientists-as-dna-proves-fallible?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=202509

Suppression Victories Preserve Our Constitutional Rights

Chris Perri

Chris Perri Law is proud to share that we’ve won three suppression hearings so far this year.

For those who may not know, a suppression hearing is held when a defendant believes that evidence was obtained in violation of a constitutional right. If the court agrees with the defendant, then the evidence is “suppressed,” which bars the prosecution from using this evidence at trial.

For example, in our recent blog post, we discussed a Supreme Court case where officers seized drugs from a vehicle following a positive canine alert during a traffic stop. This issue was litigated at a suppression hearing, where the defendant won the argument that the police officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

In many cases, winning a suppression hearing directly leads to the prosecutor dismissing the case due to insufficient evidence. As a result, the public often misunderstands suppression as a legal loophole that allows criminals to avoid accountability for their actions. Chris Perri doesn’t see it that simply.

 “Suppression hearings are my favorite part of practicing law,” Perri says. “The fact that my clients were caught with incriminating evidence isn’t the whole issue. Instead, we’re focusing on whether the police followed the rules. And these aren’t just any rules – these are the foundational principles that glue our country together. If judges allowed evidence to be introduced at trials despite being illegally obtained, then what’s the point of the Constitution? It’s the real possibility of suppression that keeps the police in line when they investigate illegal activity. It’s a part of our system’s checks and balances of power.“

Chris Perri Law Suppression Win #1

Earlier this year a client faced felony cocaine distribution charges after a police officer entered his house without a warrant. According to the cop, who was at the defendant’s front door in order to investigate an anonymous tip, he witnessed our client flushing the cocaine down the toilet, and he entered in order to prevent the imminent destruction of evidence (an exception to the general requirement that a warrant be obtained prior to entering someone’s home). However, the blinds covering the windows were drawn, and the cop had to awkwardly peer up through a crack in them in order to observe the inside of the home. Chris Perri Law successfully argued that while Supreme Court precedent recognizes an implicit license for anyone to come to the front door to knock and briefly wait for an answer (example: Girl Scouts selling cookies), no one—not even a police officer—is invited to violate the homeowner’s right to privacy by bending down to peep through a crack in drawn blinds. In fact, if you saw someone on their knees under someone’s window, trying to peer in through the blinds, you’d probably call the cops. The reasonable Travis County district judge ordered that the evidence be suppressed.

Chris Perri Law Suppression Win #2

At our next suppression hearing, a client faced a DWI charge and sought to suppress the blood evidence that was obtained with a search warrant following his arrest. Because the blood analyst reported a BAC of nearly twice the legal limit, combating this evidence was critical to our case. Our goal was to demonstrate that the officer lacked probable cause to arrest our client (a Fourth Amendment violation), so any evidence derived from an unlawful arrest is subject to suppression. By cross-examining the officer with the video of the stop and presenting evidence that undermined the officer’s credibility, Chris Perri Law convinced the court to suppress the blood results. Subsequently, the prosecution dismissed the charge due to insufficient evidence.

Chris Perri Law Suppression Win #3

Finally, in a pending felony case, Chris Perri Law suppressed key evidence a police officer obtained before reading the client his Miranda rights. Details will have to wait for a future blog post so that we do not compromise the resolution of this case.

Chris Perri Law is proud to practice criminal defense in Travis County, where constitutional principles reign supreme. If you or someone you know has a potential suppression issue, along with any other criminal defense matter, contact us today at (512)917-4378.

Recent Supreme Court Decision Protects 4th Amendment Rights During Traffic Stops

Chris Perri

Last week, in Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court clarified that police officers may not prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff on a vehicle, unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the occupants are engaged in criminal activity.

In this case, the defendant was pulled over in Nebraska for illegally driving on the shoulder of the highway. About 20 minutes later, the police officer issued a warning ticket for the traffic infraction. However, the defendant was not yet “free to leave.” The police officer instructed the defendant to exit his vehicle and stand in front of the patrol car while they waited for another police unit to arrive. About seven more minutes elapsed before the arrival of the backup unit. At this point, the officer led a drug-detecting dog around the defendant’s vehicle. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs, and a subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle revealed a large quantity of methamphetamine. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

On appeal, the Government argued that waiting a mere seven minutes for the drug dog to sniff the outside of defendant’s vehicle constituted a de minimus (minimal) intrusion on the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, meaning that the intrusion was so minor that it was constitutionally permissible. Fortunately, our Supreme Court rejected this argument. The Court noted that certain intrusions, such as asking a person to step outside the vehicle during a lawful traffic stop, are “negligibly burdensome precautions” that allow an officer to complete the traffic stop “mission” safely. “On-scene investigation into other crimes, however, detours from that mission,” wrote Justice Ginsburg, who authored the majority opinion.

An officer may not prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff unless facts are developed during the traffic stop that support reasonable suspicion of drug activity. For example, if an officer smells drugs during the stop or notes a contradiction between the driver’s and passenger’s statements regarding their travel itinerary, the officer might have reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop in order to investigate drug activity. However, an officer can’t conduct a dog sniff on a car based on a mere hunch that’s not supported by actual observations of suspicious activity.

Even if the officer had conducted the dog sniff prior to issuing the warning ticket, the result would be the same: “The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’ – i.e., adds time to – ‘the stop.’”

This recent case enhances Chris Perri Law’s arsenal for attacking unlawful searches at suppression hearings. We’ve begun 2015 with three victories on suppression issues, and we’ll continue to fight to protect our clients’ constitutional rights.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Gives Cops Even More Leeway, But Chris Perri Law Will Strike Back

Chris Perri

Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a surprising opinion that’s created waves of concern in the criminal defense circle. In Heien v. North Carolina, a North Carolina police officer noticed that one of the brake lights on the defendant’s vehicle was not working, so the officer pulled the defendant over believing that having a broken brake light was a violation of North Carolina law. A subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle revealed cocaine, resulting in his arrest. The defendant attempted to suppress the evidence on the basis that he didn’t commit a traffic violation. The North Carolina courts reviewed the relevant traffic statute, and they determined that as long as one brake light is working, no crime has occurred.

Since the defendant didn’t commit a traffic violation, the stop was illegal, and the evidence of the cocaine should be suppressed. Seems simple, right? According to an 8-1 majority of the Supreme Court, that doesn’t end the inquiry, as courts must examine whether the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable. Here, the North Carolina law was somewhat ambiguous because another statute mandated that all “rear lamps” be functioning, and it’s not unreasonable to interpret a brake light as a type of rear lamp. Thus, even though the officer’s interpretation of the law was incorrect, this interpretation was reasonable at the time of the stop.

The Supreme Court’s analysis is problematic. Aren’t police officers supposed to know the law? And if they don’t know the law, how can anyone deem this lack of knowledge reasonable when the officers are trained experts on what’s illegal? If a medical doctor performing an appendectomy mistakenly removes your spleen instead of your appendix, we call that malpractice, and there’s no wiggle room for the doctor to argue that the mistake was reasonable. Apparently, cops get much more leeway.

Many defense attorneys are concerned that Heien might be a slippery slope. Will prosecutors now defend all unlawful stops on the basis that the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable at the time of the stop?

I say bring it on. I plan to argue that Heien applies to only a tiny set of scenarios: those in which the law is ambiguous and there’s no case precedent that clarifies this ambiguity. In Texas, most of the traffic laws are pretty clear cut. For example, it’s not a crime to swerve within your own lane as long as your car doesn’t cross into another lane. If an officer stops someone for swerving but the defense proves that the car never crossed into another lane, the prosecution won’t be able to argue that the officer reasonably believed that swerving within one’s own lane is against the law. That’s because, unlike the North Carolina law at issue in Heien, there’s no ambiguity in the law in my hypothetical example.

Still, I anticipate that prosecutors will attempt to use Heien as a tool to validate otherwise unlawful stops. As a result, it’s important to retain an experienced, knowledgeable defense attorney to persuade the courts that Heien doesn’t apply.

The 5th Circuit Invites Chris Perri Law to Present Oral Arguments Once Again

Chris Perri

It looks like I’ll be heading to New Orleans early next year! I just received word that the 5th United States Circuit Court of Appeals has granted me the opportunity to present Oral Arguments on a federal felony appellate case.

This will be my second time to argue in front of the Fifth Circuit. To read more about my previous 5th Circuit Oral Arguments, click here.

I’m looking forward to the chance to fight in court, and I’m grateful to the 5th Circuit for finding the appeal worthy of their time. 



Court of Appeals Grants Chris Perri Law Oral Argument on Felony Case

Chris Perri

The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals has granted me the opportunity to present formal Oral Arguments on a felony DWI case in which my client was convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. At trial, during which I was not yet his lawyer, the main evidence of my client’s intoxication came from a warrantless blood draw, revealing that his BAC was over the legal limit. Just a few months after my client’s trial, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for an individual’s blood to be drawn during a DWI arrest without a warrant—even if it was the individual’s third DWI. At the time of my client’s arrest, however, Texas law allowed the police to draw a person’s blood without a warrant if that person had two or more prior DWI convictions. However, due to the fact that the Supreme Court’s ruling occurred while my client’s case was pending appeal, I’m arguing that this ruling should apply to his case so that his conviction is overturned and he can be retried without the tainted evidence. The interesting issue on appeal is that because the trial attorneys did not object to the admission of the blood evidence, no error was preserved. Usually, objections are necessary to present an appellate issue because appellate courts require that the trial judge had an opportunity to make a ruling. I plan to fiercely argue that even though the error was not preserved, it represents such a fundamental miscarriage of justice that the appellate court should still reverse the conviction. 

Chris Perri Gives His Take on Life Imprisonment for Habitual DWI Offender

Chris Perri

A recent ruling by the Third Court of Appeals of Texas states that a life sentence can be a reasonable punishment for a third DWI felony conviction. 

In 2012 a woman in San Marcos was arrested and convicted for her third felony DWI—her sixth DWI conviction total. The case was tried in front of Hays County Judge Jack Robison, who found her guilty with a punishment of life in prison. The woman’s attorneys attempted to appeal this sentence, arguing that life in prison for a DWI violates the Eight Amendment—a cruel and unusual punishment. However, a three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals upheld Judge Robison’s sentence, holding that she had a dangerous pattern of behavior and was a habitual offender. (For more about the case, click here.)

“Though saddening that this woman got to this point, I don’t necessarily believe the sentence was a violation of the Eighth Amendment,” Chris Perri says. “I do, however, feel this highlights the importance of connecting first- and second-time DWI offenders to the appropriate resources and working with the prosecution to incentivize defendants to seek rehabilitation. I don’t know the details or history of this case, but I can’t help but wonder if in some way the system failed her.”

Professional drug and alcohol treatment is not a 100% guarantee for relapse prevention, but it definitely can help shift the odds in one’s favor. That’s why Chris Perri Law tries to find the best legal outcomes for its clients that lead to life successes and reductions of repeat-offenses. When appropriate, part of his services include linking clients to community resources or advocating for clients to be referred to the Mental Health Court.

“If we don’t look at the whole person—his or her story—nothing’s going to change,” Chris Perri says.

This sad case proves that having a strong legal advocate who cares about your future and wellbeing is crucial. If you or someone you know is in need, call Chris Perri Law at (512)917-4378 today. 

How to Avoid (or Deal With) Summertime Public Intoxication Charges

Chris Perri

Photograph by Frank Alcazar used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

Photograph by Frank Alcazar used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.

In the summer months of Austin, Texas, time seems to stop. Everyone knows the days are long and ridiculously hot. The sun is oppressive, and we are all constantly dripping with sweat. Half of the city is on school break or traveling. Thus, it’s understandable that workdays need Barton Springs swim breaks and margarita-filled happy hours. In this heat-induced and alcohol-infused blur, it’s no surprise that summer is the most common time for people to rack up Public Intoxication (PI) arrests.

Many of us will be intoxicated in public at one point or another, and as long as you aren’t driving or acting in a way that’s unsafe, that’s perfectly legal. However, it is at the discretion of police officers to determine what behavior is deemed dangerous. The Texas Penal Code defines Public Intoxication (PI) as when: “a person commits an offense if the person appears in a public place while intoxicated to the degree that the person may endanger the person or another.”

Below, Chris Perri has outlined a few general tips on how to avoid a PI and what to do if you find yourself in the back of a police car.

How to Avoid Getting a PI

  • Don’t overdrink alcohol in public places. As obvious as it may sound, it’s the truth. If you want to keep the party going, move it to your house to minimize the risk of arrest.
  • Avoid aggressive behavior. Police officers most commonly make PI arrests when they see people fighting or on the brink of a physical altercation.
  • Adhere to pedestrian walking laws. If you are walking in the street or not following basic pedestrian laws, a police officer may interpret this as dangerous behavior. If they believe your erratic behavior is the result of drinking alcohol, then you’ll likely be in handcuffs before too long.
  • Walk straight and don’t slur your words. Again, easier said than done, but if you feel yourself getting to this point, it’s a good time to flag down a taxi or call a friend to take you home.
  • Avoid urinating in inappropriate places, AKA non-bathrooms. Believe it or not, this behavior happens frequently and draws attention to law enforcement.

What to Do Once You Are Arrested

If an officer has approached you and seems likely to arrest you for a PI, the best thing you can do is cooperate. Though getting arrested can be scary, remember, a PI is only a Class C Misdemeanor charge that carries no jail time. Likely, they’ll take you to the jail for one night to “sleep it off,” and you’ll be released the next day. However, if you see a judge while in custody, make sure you don’t plead “guilty” or “no contest” without consulting with an attorney. In most cases, skilled attorneys can help you get the charge dismissed and eventually expunged if you are willing to take an educational class and perform community service. However, if you plead guilty, this will lead to a conviction, which will make the crime ineligible for expunction.

The worst thing you can do when getting arrested for a PI is to resist or act aggressively. If you try to resist, you will likely be charged with Resisting Arrest, which is a Class A Misdemeanor that carries jail time and is harder to dismiss. Worst-case scenario: your resisting escalates to an Assault on a Public Servant, which is a felony, and then you’ll still be dealing with the charge when summer is long gone.

If you or a loved one has recently been arrested for a PI or a related charge, call Chris Perri at (512) 917-4378 for advice on how to best navigate the specifics of your case.

Chris Perri Plans to Use New Law to Overturn Wrongful Convictions

Chris Perri

capitol.jpg

Recently, in two separate cases in the Central Texas area, several wrongfully convicted people have been released from prison on the basis of evidence that their convictions were founded upon false scientific testimony. Both cases involved the sensitive matter of child sexual abuse. To read about the “San Antonio Four,” click here. To read about the Keller case in Austin, click here.

This past legislative session, Texas adopted a new law (codified as Article 11.073 in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure) that makes it easier for falsely convicted people to overturn their convictions on the basis of false scientific evidence. Prior to the passage of the new law, defendants had the burden of proving that newly-discovered evidence establishes their actual innocence. But now, defendants only need to show by a preponderance of the evidence that if the new scientific evidence had been presented at their original trial, they would not have been convicted. Essentially, this means that if defendants show that it’s “more likely than not” that they wouldn’t have been convicted, the court must overturn the conviction.

As an example, consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murdering his three young daughters by burning down the house while they slept. At trial, an arson investigator testified that the burn patterns demonstrated that the fire was intentionally started with an ignitable fluid, such as gasoline or paint thinner. This scientific testimony definitively countered the defense’s theory that Willingham was asleep when the fire began, perhaps caused by faulty electrical wiring in the house. Over a decade later, scientific advances in the field of arson investigation revealed that the expert’s “burn pattern analysis” was based on an unreliable scientific theory. Thus, Willingham was convicted on the basis of false science. Even so, he was executed before the Texas Innocence Project could convince a court to overturn his conviction. The new law would prevent such a wrongful execution.

Chris Perri Law has extensive experience with criminal appellate litigation, and we’re prepared to use this new law to benefit our clients. If you or a loved one was convicted on the basis of questionable scientific evidence, there’s a chance that current scientific developments will undermine this conviction. Contact us at (512)917-4378 to take a look at your case.

Chris Perri Convinces Prosecutor to Dismiss Assault – Family Violence Charge

Chris Perri

A few weeks ago, the Travis County Attorney dismissed an Assault – Family Violence case that had been filed against one of Chris Perri Law’s clients.  The case had been set for jury trial, but Chris convinced the reasonable prosecutor to dismiss the charge. 

The incident began when the client’s girlfriend accused him of cheating, and a struggle ensued over the client’s laptop computer.  The girlfriend’s brother happened to enter the apartment, and the client was soon double-teamed by the angry sibling duo.  Significantly, Chris’ client called 911 as soon as he was able to escape their violent assault, but the girlfriend immediately called 911, too, in order to concoct a story that incriminated the client.  When Chris saw the client in jail, he was banged up with welts on his face and arms, as well as bruises and cuts.  Chris also talked to the girlfriend, who stated that she would say anything to make the client stay in jail because she was angry that he had called the cops on her.

Chris emphasized that the 911 tape showed that his client had called the police first because he was in fear for his life.  Chris Perri Law also learned that the girlfriend returned to my client’s apartment months later and threatened to lie in court if my client did not reconcile with her.  This incident was documented in a separate police report, and Chris Perri Law requested that exculpatory evidence pursuant to the prosecutor’s obligations under Brady v. Maryland.  Most importantly, Chris Perri Law set the case for a jury trial to show that he and his client were ready to fight the case in court, if necessary.  The reasonable prosecutor then did the right thing by dismissing the case.

 

Chris Perri Argues to the 5th Circuit why Colton Pitonyak Deserves a New Trial

Chris Perri

Last Tuesday, August 27th 2013, Chris Perri argued to a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on why his client Colton Pitonyak deserves a new trial. This notorious case has received expansive media attention, and for good reason.

For the past four years, Chris Perri fought for the case to be reexamined due to an alleged Brady violation. For further background on the case, please view one of our older, informative blog posts here.

Intrigue and mystery have laced this case from the inception. Many have speculated who actually murdered and mutilated Jennifer Cave’s body. Though Colton Pitonyak was convicted of her murder, evidence withheld by the prosecution team points to Laura Hall as the actual killer.

Capturing the attention of the 5th Circuit, Chris stated that while in the Travis County Jail, Laura Hall confessed to two other inmates that she committed the murder. These inmates then told a counselor, who recorded the information in Hall’s electronic jail file. Chris argued that had this information been made available to the defense, Pitonyak’s trial strategy would have been entirely different and most likely led to a not guilty verdict.

The learned judges grilled Chris about whether any prior Supreme Court case had established a duty on the part of a mental-health counselor to disclose such exculpatory evidence to the prosecution team (and, thus, ultimately the defense attorneys).  While conceding that there was no such case, Chris persuasively argued that based on the Supreme Court’s Kyles v. Whitley case, the actual prosecutors had a duty to search Hall’s jail file due to the reasonable foreseeability of exculpatory evidence within that file.  After all, the prosecutors knew that Hall was talking to other inmates, including a cell mate who ended up being the prosecution’s star witness at Hall’s trial on Tampering with Evidence.  By turning a blind eye to the contents of Hall’s jail file, the prosecutors committed a Brady violation. 

Furthermore, even if the prosecutors had been blocked from accessing medical information within Hall’s jail file, they had a duty to obtain a court order or subpoena because the right to a fair trial trumps medical privacy laws. The State’s attorney countered that a subpoena for this information had been quashed, but Chris pointed out that this argument was disingenuous because it was Pitonyak who filed the subpoena while investigating the Brady claim in 2009.  The State, with the prosecutors’ blessing, actually quashed the subpoena in order to hinder Pitonyak’s ability to develop the claim.

The 5th Circuit should issue a ruling in the next month or two, though they have no official deadline.

See below to read a few noteworthy news articles and videos with Chris Perri featured:

Articles: 

Austin Chronicle article

Statesman article

The Daily Texan article

Videos: 

KXAN video 

My Fox Austin video

Keye TV video (1)

Keye TV video (2) 



 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Perri Defends The Travis County Personal Bond System

Chris Perri

bail bonds.jpg

Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has recently put the Travis County personal bond system under harsh spotlight with claims that the system is too lenient and endangering Austin’s community. Plohetski’s articles have resulted in an uproar from criminal defense attorneys who believe that Plohetski is not seeing the full picture and misrepresenting the Travis County system.

To fully understand the debate, allow me to provide some basic background information on bonds. Firstly, when individuals are arrested and put in jail, a bond amount is set for their release. If these individuals don’t adhere to the agreements of the bond or fail to show up for their court dates, then the courts will sue them for the full bond amount as well as put them back in jail, taking away bond privileges. Rarely do people get second chances at bond.

There are two major types of bonds: personal and cash. Personal bonds mean that once arrested, you can be released for no cost but a hefty promise.  Of course, you would still have a bond amount set. Let’s say the bond is set at $20,000. You can get out for no cost while your court case is proceeding, but if you fail to show up to court or adhere to the agreed upon conditions, than you will be responsible for paying $20,000.

Cash bonds differ in that you have to actually put up the full bond amount with the understanding that you will get it back as long as you stick to the rules, etc. You can either do this with your own cash, or hire a bondsman who will put the money up but charge you a nonrefundable 10-20% fee (also known as a “surety bond”).  This fee only benefits bondsmen and in no way goes back to the court system. It means that the arrested individuals already have to pay big bucks when they haven’t yet been proven guilty. Remember, we are supposed to live in a country built on the decree: innocent until proven guilty.

The Travis County bond system is known for granting more personal bonds than any other county in Texas. Reporter Plohetski believes that this endangers Austin by allowing more defendants to be out of jail, thus making them more likely to commit crimes or fail to make court appearances. Plohetski feels our current system is too lenient, and he advocates for more involvement by the District Attorney’s office in the personal bond decision process. He feels that individuals either need to wait it out in jail or cough up cash for a surety bond.

However, Chris Perri disagrees, along with most other fellow criminal defense attorneys (click here for opinion of attorney Bradley Hargis), and feels that the Travis County bond system is one of the most progressive programs in the state. Chris believes that when counties fail to offer personal bonds, they create a class system divide. Those who cannot afford to hire bondsmen have to wait in jail, despite not yet being proven guilty. Many individuals spend months in jail. It creates an incentive structure for those stuck in jail to plea out their case just to get out of jail, leading to potentially unjust legal outcomes.

It also hurts both the criminal defense attorneys as well as the county. If defendants are forced to spend their financial resources on bondsmen, then they are less likely to be able to afford a criminal defense attorney and more likely to apply for a county-funded court-appointed lawyer. Also, keeping people behind bars costs tax dollars.

Many criminal defense attorneys are concerned about Plohetski’s misleading claims. In response to the article, judges have made it more difficult for defendants to obtain personal bonds.  And in response to Plohetski calling for more District Attorney involvement, the DA is trying to become more involved. Yet, this is redundant in that the county already pays for a program called Pretrial Services, which assesses whether a personal bond should be granted by investigating an individual’s criminal history and ties to the community, as well as the safety of any victims if the defendant is released.  DA involvement would merely duplicate Pretrial Services’ role, leading to a slower, less efficient process.

Further, Plohetski claims that it is inappropriate for defense attorneys to talk to judges ex parte (without the opposing side present). Chris Perri disagrees, and states that in Travis County, prosecutors talk to judges without the defense attorney present in order to raise bond amounts or add burdensome conditions (such as an electronic monitor).   Also, every judge requires extensive information on each case and reviews the recommendations of Pretrial Services. However, judges can overrule Pretrial Services' recommendations if they see fit.

Chris also says, in his experience, the type of bond doesn't matter as to whether or not a defendant will show up for court. It is uncommon for people to commit crimes while on bond, as people understand the severity of the ramifications. Yet, there will always be people who don’t adhere to the rules, regardless of their type of bond.

The progressive Travis County bond system isn’t broken—it just needs to be better understood.

Do you really have the right to remain silent?

Chris Perri

fifth.gif

In the wake of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Salinas vs. Texas, Chris Perri Law fears that the high court has whittled away the right to remain silent.

In Salinas, the Court ruled that the prosecution can use your pre-arrest silence against you at trial, thus watering down the essence of the Fifth Amendment’s protections against self-incrimination. In Salinas’ case, prior to being arrested, he voluntarily provided the police with information regarding a murder. However, when authorities asked if Salinas’ gun would match the murder weapon, Salinas refused to answer, under the assumption that he was exercising his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. However, at his trial, the prosecution used his choice to remain silent as damning evidence of his guilt.

The Supreme Court reviewed this ruling, and although it was a close call, the Court ruled that the conviction should be upheld, stating that if individuals want to invoke the Fifth Amendment’s protection, they “must claim it”.  Although the Fifth Amendment clearly states that no one can be forced to be a witness against him or herself in a criminal matter, the Court’s ruling means that the prosecution is free to use the defendant’s pre-arrest silence as evidence of guilt.

Chris Perri Law fears that in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination has been vastly diluted.  Basically, to claim the rights of this fundamental law, individuals must explicitly inform the authorities that they are invoking their Fifth Amendment right to silence upon being questioned by law enforcement. Chris Perri worries that this requirement especially hurts less educated individuals, who may not be aware of this new ruling. “It creates a further class divide in our system,” Chris Perri says.

In order to maintain your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Chris Perri Law advises you to explicitly state that you’re invoking your Fifth Amendment right when the situation calls for it.  Otherwise, your silence could come back to bite you.