I was remiss yesterday in not finding time to mention that the notoriously conservative 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with accused criminals three times in Arkansas cases and jabbed an Arkansas Supreme Court justice in the process
One was the horrifying account, reported by Linda Satter in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, of a criminal who endured a nine-day van ride, sitting up in shackles, to be transferred from Colorado to Mississippi. His lawsuit against Inmate Services Corporation over unconstitutional treatment wound up in Arkansas, where Judge Billy Roy Wilson accepted Magistrate Joe Volpe’s finding that Danzel Stearns essentially hadn’t suffered enough to sue.
A bit of the flavor:
Instead of driving directly east from Colorado to Mississippi, the ISC vehicle traveled west through at least twelve other states, some states more than once,1 where additional detainees2 were picked up and dropped off. Stearns was on the ISC vehicle for eight days until he was dropped off on September 24. The ISC vehicle made no overnight or lengthy stops—it drove essentially continuously. The two drivers took turns sleeping on a mattress in the front of the vehicle. The detainees remained in upright, seated positions, making it difficult to sleep for any period beyond “cat naps.”
Per ISC policy, Stearns and the other detainees were kept in handcuffs and leg irons, connected by a belly chain. The restraints caused Stearns’s ankles and wrists to become raw. ISC policy requires that restraints be removed “from inmates that are on transport more than 48 hours.” There were no bathrooms in the vehicle. The van paused at rest stops and gas stations infrequently. Stearns testified in a deposition that, because of the infrequent bathroom stops, passengers needed to urinate in cups, which then spilled onto the floor. He also testified that a female passenger defecated in her pants after stating multiple times, to no avail, that she needed a bathroom stop. Stearns remained shackled and partially handcuffed during bathroom stops, making hygiene difficult. Stearns described developing “clogs of manure” in his underwear and developed a perianal irritation as a result of being unable to properly clean himself after using the bathroom. The drivers provided Stearns with an over-the-counter medication to treat the irritation.
The ISC vehicle was overcrowded at times, with 15 to 17 people. When passing through Phoenix, Arizona, the air-conditioning unit broke for roughly 6 hours. Stearns was unable to shower or change clothes for the entire trip, causing his clothes to become dirty and darker in color. ISC policy required that he be given new clothes. Upon arriving in Mississippi, he discovered ringworm on his stomach. The record does not make clear whether the ringworm developed purely as a result of the conditions in the vehicle. Additionally, Stearns did not have open access to food and drink. ISC policy provided that prisoners be provided with water and fast food. Stearns testified that he was provided limited amounts of water and fast food two to three times a day.
Stearns will get his day in court.
A lawyer of my acquaintance argues that there was an even more remarkable result in the 8th Circuit’s affirmation of relief granted in two murder cases in Arkansas.
The state was was appealing rulings in favor of Tina Jimerson and John Brown Jr., once serving life sentences for murder and robbery in Fordyce. The 8th Circuit upheld a key portion of lower court findings that they’d been denied multiple protections about disclosure of evidence in the prosecution of the case — the “ ‘conscious shocking’ and bad faith failure of the prosecutor to preserve evidence,” a tape recording that the defendants said could have been used in their defense. In recounting the prosecution’s handling of the case, the 8th Circuit included a footnote about the prosecutor who’d said the missing tape couldn’t be used at trial: “Since his role as prosecutor, he has been a judge on the Arkansas Court of Appeals beginning in 2011 until elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2014.” That is Justice Robin Wynne of Fordyce.
Lower courts had reversed the convictions and ordered them released in 2018. The current prosecutor didn’t oppose the release as the state continued its appeal.
The 8th Circuit reversed a finding that Brown had met the innocence exemption and reversed a finding of one sort of evidentiary violation in the prosecution of Jimerson, but upheld in both cases the “Youngblood” violation for the destruction of exculpatory evidence.
We wrote this in 2018 when the Midwest Innocence Project celebrated John Brown’s release on order of Judge Billy Roy Wilson after 26 years in prison. Jimerson also was released shortly afterward following a decision by Judge Brian Miller. Northwestern’s Center for Wrongful Convictions worked in Jimerson’s behalf. Their victories were noted yesterday on Twitter.
Today the 8th Circuit upheld the reversals of the convictions of MIP client John Brown and @NorthwesternCWC client Tina Jimerson, finding that the state destroyed evidence in bad faith. You can read the opinion here: https://t.co/I5s7xiRJS2
— Midwest Innocence Project (@The_MIP) April 29, 2020