Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Particularly Unsettling Exoneration

by Laura James

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.


Leah said...

I have heard it more times than I can count....a prosecutor denies they are responsible for putting an innocent person in prison because the jury is the one that convicted him. This will never change as long as judges and prosecutors aren't held accountable for their actions. That is what malpractice insurance is for.

Cheryl said...

Its a horrible reality and very rarely will a prosecutor admit fault. They SHOULD be held accountable.....this could happen to any of us and it scares the hell out of me.

Rebecca Sherman said...

Good God. We put another innocent black man in prison for most of life. I am ashamed and furious.

FleaStiff said...

I'm not all that upset about this.
It appears the husband's semen tests were not part of the record so the higher court's ruling would have been correct since the presence of someone else's semen does not exclude the defendant from having raped her.

Two rather than several? You only need ONE.

With a white woman raped by a black man, the case had to be solved. Thats only proper.

Laura James said...

I can't agree with that. The Court of Appeals judges who affirmed this conviction in the face of the DNA evidence do not deserve any deference at all.

They knew the record before them was incomplete. They knew additional testing was contemplated. They did not insist on seeing it. They easily could have remanded this case for a full development of a record on this, and they chose the intellectually lazy route. Instead of asking for more briefs or remanding, they chose to speculate. They speculated that any testing would be unfavorable to the defendant. They assumed that the testing would result in a match to the husband. It's infuriating because judges tell jurors every single day that they can't speculate. Here, they chose to speculate, and they were Wrong to boot, and if this man had been privileged (read: white) they might have done their jobs, you know the ones they are elected and paid very well to do. They screwed this one up and don't deserve reelection.