The Court of Appeals said the evidence was "overwhelming." Nathaniel Maurice Hatchett confessed to carjacking and raping a woman. The victim identified him as her attacker. He was caught driving her car three days after the crime.
Yet Hatchett walked out of a Michigan prison after serving 12 years, because the semen found on the victim did not match him. The current prosecutor remarked: "We went back in and did a full investigation. We could have fought for a new trial, but our job is to seek justice. It was served today."
Now for the unsettling part: the prosecutor, trial judge, and Court of Appeals knew at the time of his trial that the DNA from the semen did not match the defendant, but the 17-year-old was convicted anyway. It now appears that the only "overwhelming" evidence in State v. Hatchett was of prosecutorial abuse and judicial incompetence.
They also knew that when Hatchett was caught with her car, the ignition had been popped out. Curious. The carjacker left the victim on the side of the road and took off - with the keys in the ignition. Why would he break the steering column if he had the keys? They also knew some details from the confession did not match the victim's account. For example, the defendant denied robbing her. The most burning question concerned the DNA result. When weighed against a victim's cross-racial identification, even against a confession elicited after several hours of interrogation of a teenager, isn't DNA evidence from semen, in a rape case, a trump card?
Apparently not. Said the trial judge: "[The DNA can] hardly be found to represent a reasonable doubt considering all of the evidence in the case. The court does not find that the laboratory analysis is a fact which would lead to a verdict of acquittal."
DNA - not exculpatory? I find that logic quite strange. By the way, that trial judge is now a federal judge - appointed by President William J. Clinton.
But surely there are smarter judges at the Court of Appeals level, right?
The appellate decision is available online. The bizarre logic applied by the unanimous, three-judge panel that affirmed Hatchett's conviction makes for hair-raising reading. Said the Court of Appeals: "We agree ... that while the DNA test results introduce a slight doubt ... there are several plausible explanations for these results." The Court of Appeals goes on to give two "plausible explanations." Not "several." Two.
One: "The victim told the treating nurse that defendant ejaculated 'on' her, and she told the treating physician that she was only 'fairly certain' that defendant ejaculated at all; therefore, it is altogether possible that defendant's semen would not be found in the victim's vagina or in her underpants."
This is quite curious reasoning. Someone's semen was found on the rape victim. Do these three judges have their heads in the sand? How can the judges choose to question the victim's veracity when she described her attacker's ejaculation while simultaneously refusing to harbor any doubt about her identification of Mr. Hatchett as the rapist? They said her evidence was "overwhelming" - and I guess it was, except for the details.
Two: "The donor might have been the victim's spouse." That is a plausible explanation. So why didn't they obtain a racial profile from the DNA? Or better yet, test the husband? When 25 to 40 years of a man's life are on the line, why was that question posed but not answered?
As it turns out, the husband was in fact tested. He did not match the DNA from the semen. The prosecutor never brought that fact to the attention of the defense attorney, the trial judge, or the Court of Appeals. He is still a prosecutor today - and he actually denies knowingly putting an innocent kid in prison, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, nothing will come of it. The prosecutor won't be affected. The trial judge now has a lifetime appointment. None of the appeals court judges will even see their names in the paper, let alone be made to feel like court jesters, as they should. Judges William B. Murphy and Donald S. Owens are still sitting on the Court of Appeals.
Mr. Hatchett is the 216th person freed by DNA, his exoneration coming at the behest of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Innocence Project. What a shame for Nathaniel Hatchett that 12 years had to pass before the DNA evidence that was there all along was brought to the attention of fair-minded men.