Even I was surprised to read reporter Linda Satter's recent enterprise story about another Arkansas injustice. This involved the questionable actions of former Dallas County deputy prosecutor Robin Wynne during a 1992 murder trial. Today, Wynne is a sitting justice on our state's Supreme Court.
I've learned after nearly 50 years as a journalist never to be shocked by all the questionable acts, underhanded tactics and inexplicably missing evidence I have seen in our criminal justice system.
Satter's impressive and lengthy account of all that has transpired since the 1988 rape and murder of 78-year-old Myrtle Holmes of Fordyce detailed what were determined by two federal judges in 2018 to be at least two wrongful convictions.
Other than the revelation that two (I believe three) people were wrongly convicted of Holmes' murder, my concerns revolve around the role Wynne played in this case 28 years ago.
As a young prosecutor, Wynne, now 67, it appears somehow lost potential evidence and exercised "bad faith" in convicting Tina Jimerson and John Brown Jr. in 1992. At least that's what federal judges determined.
And apparently at this late date there's not much the state's system that investigates possible prosecutorial misconduct can do about the shameful case.
The twisted story spanning decades is too complex to recreate in this space, so I asked Satter if she'd summarize her efforts for my valued readers. She explained this way:
In 2018, federal judges in the state's Eastern District ordered the release of Jimerson and Brown who, with a third man, Charlie Vaughn, had spent 26 years of a life sentence for a murder, which judges say the record shows there was no proof two of them committed. Yet Vaughn remains incarcerated.
Judges Billy Roy Wilson and Brian Miller were particularly disturbed by ethical lapses involving "bad faith" in Dallas County's criminal justice system that came to their attention during federal evidentiary hearings.
The most explosive revelation in this case came in 2014 when an investigator for lawyers working to free Jimerson testified that Dallas County Sheriff Donny Ford (in office at the time, and remained so until late last year) admitted to him that Ford had planted a confidential informant, later determined to be Ronnie Prescott, in a cell with Vaughn to elicit a confession to the 78-year-old woman's murder.
At the time, Vaughn was facing capital murder charges along with Jimerson, Brown and Reginald Early. Prescott said he was promised leniency if he could extract a jailhouse confession from Vaughn, described as "mentally challenged."
The sheriff had arrested Prescott on drug charges as he traveled through Arkansas from Texas. Prescott later said he got that charge dropped by threatening Vaughn that he'd face the death penalty if he didn't confess, then secretly recording Vaughn's statement. Vaughn pleaded guilty a week later, implicating Jimerson as well, leading to her being charged as an accomplice. But he later said he only did so because he was afraid he would be executed if he didn't. He also said he was told what to say in his plea hearing.
There is no record of what Vaughn actually said in the cell because the tape afterwards just disappeared. That kind of thing tends to happen in far too many Arkansas criminal cases.
Wynne, the prosecutor, later told defense attorneys he had no such recording and he'd used no informants and was unaware of any exculpatory evidence that existed against anyone. In short, he knew nothing.
Yet years later Sheriff Ford was telling a far different story that contradicted Wynne. Ford told that investigator in 2014 that he and Wynne had in fact discussed Prescott's cell recording although Wynne chose not to use it at trial.
So no one knew until more than two decades later, when attorneys tracked Prescott to a jail in South Carolina, that Prescott had frightened Vaughn into pleading guilty to the murder while incriminating Brown, Jimerson and Early.
Based largely, perhaps solely, on Vaughn's claims, which he had recanted but that were read into the record, a jury in 1992 convicted the three of first-degree murder despite the lack of physical evidence.
However, in 2013, as attorneys were trying to help Early, an investigator told Early that DNA could prove who raped Holmes. That prompted Early to break down and confess that he had been was the rapist and murderer and no one else was involved. He didn't even know Jimerson or Brown, and barely knew Vaughn, Satter wrote.
Early's confession helped open the path for Jimerson and Brown to have their convictions thrown out following several years of complicated legal maneuverings by bulldog attorneys and their investigators.
Judge Wilson presided over Brown's wrongful-conviction case, while Miller oversaw Jimerson's case. Both judges, as well as a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, found the previous convictions were illegal because there was evidence of a conscious effort by the then-deputy prosecutor (Wynne) to conceal evidence. They concluded the evidence was suppressed in "bad faith."
The Eighth Circuit judges didn't cite Wynne by name, choosing instead to refer to him as the prosecutor.
They seemed to be saying, at the very least, that Wynne should explain what was captured on Prescott's recording and why he supposedly got rid of that tape. The panel also noted that those in authority appeared to go to a lot of trouble to hide the Prescott tape and using him as an informant, which to them also indicated "bad faith."
It stretches well beyond my capacity for credibility to believe Wynne and former Sheriff Ford weren't involved in arranging for Prescott's secret cell recording with Vaughn. Prescott and Ford admitted as much.
Judge Miller noted in his 2018 ruling that one trial attorney previously had forwarded pretrial requests for information to Wynne, who replied that he had "no knowledge of any informant who led to or assisted in making the arrest in this matter."
That, even though Ford told the investigator years later that Wynne had determined Prescott's recording had been inadmissible, and Ford believed it had been lost or destroyed.
Lost? Really? Destroyed?
Lacking Prescott's controversial recording, the Eighth Circuit judges said they couldn't tell whether Vaughn had reluctantly confessed and implicated others, or if he "willingly and confidently" did so. "What we can conclude on this record is the failure to make any mention of the fact that Prescott recorded conversations with Vaughn in a handwritten statement ... combined with the failure to disclose the recording is evidence of a conscious effort to suppress evidence. The deliberate omission is indicative of bad faith," Satter wrote.
The judges also cited the "successful efforts of law enforcement and the prosecutor to conceal and destroy the recording."
I'd surely have enjoyed hearing Judge Wynne step down from his exalted elected bench and explain details of the vanishing tape about which he allegedly knew nothing, and the way this murder case was so terribly botched.
But Wynne wasn't responding to Satter's attempts to reach him. He never has commented since this came to light two years ago when Jimerson and Brown were freed.
Because this case happened 28 years ago, it doesn't appear anyone in authority to investigate possible prosecutorial misconduct strong enough to draw harsh admonishments from various federal judges will be inclined or able to pursue the matter. I call it the old reliable, water-under-the-bridge fallback.
Yet considering such questionable circumstances and the involvement of a state Supreme Court justice, it strikes me that the state's gatekeepers of courtroom integrity owe our people that much in the name of justice and a fitting resolution.
The bottom line in this story as I see it is that three people were wrongly convicted, and the parties responsible for their convictions are rightfully looking bad in the eyes of federal judges for their decisions and actions that imprisoned innocent people for a third of their lives. Two of the convicted are free, thanks to two discerning federal district judges.
Vaughn, the third person convicted, remains behind bars. Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. in 2017 denied Vaughn's second petition seeking to have his conviction heard on the new facts that freed Jimerson and Brown.
Federal law makes it nearly impossible for prisoners to bring successful habeas petitions, even when new facts become available. Surely, Judge Marshall, an honorable man, can find a way to allow Vaughn to make the case for overturning his conviction, too.
You just can't make this stuff up. folks.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 05/23/2020
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