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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.

Filtering by Tag: appeals

New Study Exposes How Texas Criminal Justice System Values Finality Over Accuracy

Chris Perri

Photograph by  Stephanie Ezcurra

Photograph by Stephanie Ezcurra

In my post-conviction practice, I often feel like my clients don’t get a fair shake. Evidentiary hearings are rare, and the trial judge always seems to sign off on the State’s proposed findings of fact, which are critical when appealing an adverse ruling.

A recent study of Harris County death-penalty cases by Jim Marcus and the UT Capital Punishment Clinic confirms what I’ve suspected from experience: our criminal justice system values finality over accuracy. Judges are literally executing people without affording them the opportunity to fully present their claims. And the judges are pretty open about their bias, as they “rubber stamped” the State’s version of events in 95% of the cases studied. In fact, 34 out of the 40 judges adopted every proposed finding of fact presented by the State – that’s an astounding figure because it’s impossible for the State to be right 100% of the time.

In my practice, I’ve encountered the same difficulties in getting a hearing for my clients. Judges simply don’t want to re-open old cases, even though wrongful convictions are common. At a writ conference that I attended a few years ago, one judge described the general judicial attitude towards writs: they don’t like them. Why? Because writs open up old matters on their dockets, and judges don’t like seeing those cause numbers from a decade ago popping up. Also, due to the large number of pro se writs being filed by incarcerated inmates, the judges figure that if they start hearing every claim raised on every writ, they won’t be able to devote sufficient time to their trial docket.

For these reasons, it’s vital to have an experienced attorney present the writ in a manner that grabs the judge’s attention and shows the judge that the conviction is a gross injustice in light of the new evidence presented in the writ. However, even with a quality attorney, judges far too often deny evidentiary hearings and resolve the contested issues on the basis of affidavits. This deprives attorneys of the ability to cross-examine adverse witnesses, which is one of the only meaningful ways of uncovering the truth.

The new study is a groundbreaking because it provides the first concrete evidence of the widespread judicial bias against writ applicants in Texas’ criminal justice system, effectively denying them procedural due process. This issue can be litigated on appeal to the federal system when a defendant’s writ application is unfairly denied by Texas courts, and the study can serve as proof supporting a claim that Texas’ writ system violates the constitutional right to due process. 

All this said, awareness is the first step to change. This study brings to light an important injustice that we as a society must face. If our justice system values truth, then it must provide everyone an opportunity for a full and fair hearing. Liberty is too important for shortcuts.

If you do find yourself or a loved one wrongfully convicted, call Chris Perri Law at (512) 917-4378 for a free consultation to learn about your options. If you are my client, I will do everything in my power to zealously fight for your rights amidst a flawed system.

You’ve been found guilty – now what?

Chris Perri

Photograph by  Stefan Kalweit

Photograph by Stefan Kalweit

Being convicted of a crime can have devastating consequences, including incarceration, loss of civil liberties, and difficulty finding a job. Yet the unfortunate truth is that people are wrongfully convicted all the time. That said, a guilty sentence doesn’t mean the fight is over. A major part of my practice focuses on post-conviction remedies, which can be categorized into two types: Appeals and Writs. Here, I’m going to explain the differences between these two procedures.

APPEALS:

Following a judgment of conviction, defendants have 30 days to alert the trial court that they want to appeal, so it’s important to quickly find a post-conviction criminal defense attorney. On appeal, the defense must argue that the trial judge erred in ruling on some issue in the case. For example, many defendants unsuccessfully argue to the trial judge that their vehicle was illegally searched during a traffic stop. If the trial judge rules that the search was legal, defendants can appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals. The appeal proceeds “on the record,” meaning that no additional evidence can be presented in the appellate proceedings (the “record” is the transcript of the proceedings at the trial). A defendant cannot raise an issue for the first time on appeal, as there can be no error by the trial judge if the issue was never brought before that judge for a ruling. In other words, the error must be “preserved” in order for it to be considered on appeal.

Normally, an appeal is only available if the defendant lost at a trial or evidentiary hearing. When a defendant pleads guilty and the judge sentences that defendant according to a negotiated plea bargain, there’s nothing to appeal, even if the defendant is unhappy about the result of the case. In such a situation, a defendant should consider filing a writ, which is discussed below.

WRITS:

Sometimes, new evidence arises after a conviction becomes final. In order to present this evidence to the court, a defendant must file an application for writ of habeas corpus. In Latin, “habeas corpus” means “produce the person,”, and if the court issues the writ, it is directing the prison warden to release the defendant, usually for a new trial.

Writs are different from appeals because new evidence can be presented to prove the claim the defendant is making. For example, if the defendant believes there is new scientific evidence that proves their innocence, this evidence can be introduced through a writ. The most common claim on writs is “ineffective assistance of counsel,” meaning that the trial attorney committed some type of error or omission that deprived the defendant of their constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel and a fair trial.

The defendant carries the burden of proving any writ claim. “Innocent until proven guilty” no longer applies once a defendant is convicted, so the attorney handling the writ must use investigative tools to develop the claim. Writs are commonly used when a defendant pleads guilty based on bad advice from their lawyer, such as incorrect advice about the immigration consequences of a conviction. As explained above, an appeal is not available in those situations because the trial court never ruled adversely on an issue; however, a writ allows the defendant to develop a record regarding the trial counsel’s alleged ineffective assistance.

One of the most famous writs in Texas criminal law history involved Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife in Williamson County and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Morton’s writ lawyers proved that the prosecutor hid evidence that a third party committed the murder, and Morton was ultimately set free.

If you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted of a crime, contact an experienced post-conviction attorney for a consultation. Chris Perri Law has experience successfully overturning wrongful convictions and helping people get back their lives and liberties. Call Chris at (512)917-4378.

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.  

Chris Perri convinces Appeal Courts to consider New Trial for Pitonyak

Chris Perri

The News of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ Grant of Certificate of Appealability

About a week ago, I heard an exuberant scream coming from our home office late in the evening. As the wife of a passionate, half-Italian criminal defense attorney, I’ve heard this sound before. However, when I entered the room to inquire further, I quickly surmised from his face that the news he received was far greater and more meaningful than I first assumed.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted Colton Pitonyak and his attorneys the opportunity to appeal the issue of a Brady Violation. Chris read to me the words from the Court that stated “the impact of the Brady Violation is perplexing and the claim deserves further review.”

After years of Chris working vigorously to get the Courts to recognize the need to explore the details of the Pitonyak case further, I knew how much this meant to him. To Chris, his legal assignments are not just a way to pay the bills, but a way to be a part of how we as humans decide to navigate the muddy trenches between right and wrong. And when Chris smells the possibility of infringement on freedom and justice, especially when it leads to someone spending a 55-year prison sentence behind bars for murder, potentially wrongfully so, like with Colton Pitonyak, he will not stop fighting for what he believes in.

What Does This Mean?

Brady Violation

After getting past the emotional impact this had for Chris and Joe Turner, the other attorney involved in the Pitonyak writ, I wanted to further understand what the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ grant really means. As a social worker by training, I take a lot of interest in the human stories told throughout the criminal justice system, as this system is partly a reflection of our society’s values.

I learned that firstly, one must understand that a Brady Violation occurs when the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence to the defense deprives the defendant of a fair trial.

Overturn of Prior Federal Denial

I also learned that prior to applying for the right to be heard at the 5th Circuit Federal level, Chris first had to exhaust all claims at the state court level. The state courts denied Chris’ request and stated that “the admission [of Hall’s 2005 confession] would have no reasonable impact on the trial”. Chris then filed his writ in the federal district court, but they denied him as well. That didn’t stop Chris from persevering forward to the 5th Circuit Federal level, where Chris argued that the “federal court was woefully misguided” about the law. The federal district court had denied Pitonyak the right to appeal the case to the 5th Circuit, so Chris first had to get the 5th Circuit’s permission to hear the appeal. After hearing Chris’ motion, the 5th Circuit agreed that reasonable jurists could debate whether Pitonyak had demonstrated a Brady violation, which means that Chris overturned the federal court’s initial denial of his right to appeal the case.

Possibility of New Trial

What this all comes down to is that Chris’ request convinced judges at the 5th Circuit Court level to allow Chris to argue on Pitonyak’s behalf for a new trial that would include the previously withheld evidence of Laura Hall’s confession. The Evidence Withheld from Pitonyak Background Mystery and sensation surround this case, which has amounted to several TV documentaries and national interviews trying to tease apart an understanding of what really happened.

What we do know for sure is that in August of 2005, Jennifer Cave was found shot to death and chopped up into pieces, and left in the bathroom and in trash bags of Pitonyak’s apartment. After the incident, Pitonyak and Laura Hall fled to Mexico, where they were arrested by Los Federales and returned to U.S. Custody.

Although Pitonyak received a conviction for murder and Hall received only a ten year sentence and conviction for tampering with evidence and hindering apprehension, there has always been a major question of who really murdered Jennifer Cave. Pitonyak reports that on this night he was under the influence of xanax and alcohol to such an extent that he formed no memory of what happened. In Texas, voluntary intoxication is not a defense to a crime, but it can leave a lot unknown. The prosecution struggled to come up with a motive for why Pitonyak would want Cave dead, but what is known is that Pitonyak had a romantic relationship with both Cave and Hall.

The New Evidence In 2009, when Joe and Chris began working on Pitonyak’s appeal, they came across a record from Hall’s jail stay that indicated two other inmates informed a counselor that Hall was “acting crazy” and had confessed to killing Cave. Since then, these two women have provided sworn statements that this was in fact true. Others have come forward as well to say that Hall confessed to being the killer.

What Chris and Joe are trying to argue is that if this information had not been withheld from the defense team, then it could have been used at trial, giving the jury a lot more to chew on when deciding Pitonyak’s innocence or guilt.

Why This Matters

Whenever I hear this story, my heart goes out to the deceased victim and her family. I cannot imagine what this process has been like for the victim’s family, and how for them more than anyone, getting to the bottom of this matters most for closure and their grief process. The fact that Jennifer Cave died so gruesomely and prematurely will never be okay.

This also has an impact on all of us. We live in a country that says we each have the right to a fair trial and to be seen as innocent until proven guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt. If evidence this substantial was withheld from the criminal defense team, then there is an issue of personal liberty at hand. Pitonyak was not allowed the fair fight we have all been guaranteed.

Hearing this story and this new evidence doesn’t answer all the questions for me about the truth of Jennifer Cave’s devastating death. It doesn’t mean Pitonyak is innocent. Yet, it does mean we should all want to know more and take a closer look. Not just to find the truth in this case, but also to uphold the highest standard of fairness in our criminal justice system.

My hope, and I believe the goal of the system, is that if both sides – prosecution and defense – fight fairly but zealously, then the truth will ultimately be unveiled. That didn’t happen in this case, so we are left in the dark about why a young man is serving a 55-year sentence for a crime we can’t honestly say he committed.

I’m thankful that there are attorneys like Chris and Joe Turner willing to turn over every stone to make sure their clients’ rights are protected and the prosecution is held accountable. In the end, we all want justice to be served, but not at the price of the truth.

What’s Next

Chris and Joe have now been given permission to file a comprehensive brief to be turned in next month. If the 5th Circuit finds that the Brady evidence undermines confidence in the jury’s verdict, then a new trial in Austin will be ordered for Pitonyak.

Appeals court upholds suppression of evidence

Chris Perri

Last year, I successfully moved for the trial court to suppress the State's expert testimony regarding my client's blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) at the time of an alleged incident of Boating While Intoxicated. I wrote about this in my blog at the time. The State was unhappy with the judge's ruling, so it appealed. Today, a three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's ruling that the State could not introduce expert testimony on my client's BAC. The opinion can be read here. This is a great victory for my client, and I anticipate that the State will dismiss the pending charges due to the fact that it would not be allowed to present evidence of my client's alleged intoxication if the case proceeded to trial.