February 15, 2006
Truth Takes a Holiday
It now appears that defense attorneys for Michael Morales, who is
scheduled to be executed on Feb. 21 for the 1981 rape and murder
of 17-year-old Terri Winchell, submitted phony affidavits in their
attempt to win clemency or otherwise prevent the execution.
One of those attorneys
is Ken Starr, who worked so hard investigating allegations that
President Clinton committed perjury. Now, Starr has fallen so
low as to present documents that, according to California Attorney
General Bill Lockyer's office, were "false and forged."
be any consequences? There should be. Last week, as The San
Francisco Chronicle reported, Starr and longtime Morales
attorney David Senior released a document in which Patricia Felix,
a witness against Morales, said that prosecutors had coerced her
into giving false testimony against Morales during his trial.
San Joaquin County
Deputy District Attorney Charles Schultz called the document "an
outright forgery," and released an affidavit that, he said,
really was signed by Felix. In it, Felix said her court testimony
was truthful. She also said she never met Kathleen Culhane, the
Morales investigator who claimed to have interviewed her in January
-- at an address where Felix hasn't lived in since July 2005.
Senior quickly dismissed
the prosecutors' charges. He told The Associated Press, "When
the D.A. and A.G. show up with badges and guns and say whatever,
they can intimidate a lot of people, and that's their game."
Morales attorney Ben Weston sent out a statement that dismissed
the Felix counter-document as "the latest step in the 25-year
pattern of fraud, interference and intimidation by the San Joaquin
County District Attorney's office."
Weston also released
statements from six jurors from the trial who, Weston said, "asked
the governor to sentence Morales to life without parole rather
Over the weekend,
however, Morales' attorneys had to backtrack. Senior informed
the governor's office that he was withdrawing declarations presented
by a certain investigator as he had found "substantial issues"
that his office is investigating.
A generous person
might say that lawyers can make mistakes and that they might unknowingly
file bad declarations. Even I, cynic that I am, figured that was
the story behind the first Felix declaration.
Except that in releasing
the Felix document, Senior and Starr were impugning the integrity
of the prosecutors and police, whom they essentially accused of
suborning perjury. "The made me lie about many things,"
claimed Felix in the phony document. When lawyers present a serious
charge like that, they have an obligation to vet it.
Certainly after prosecutors
refuted the Felix document, Senior and Starr had an obligation
to check any new affidavits from the same investigator. As Nathan
Barankin of the state attorney general's office noted, "They
were on notice once the Felix counter-declaration came in."
Yet the juror declarations
apparently were bogus, too. Five jurors, who allegedly presented
affidavits through Culhane, later signed affidavits, with their
names blocked out, that say they never talked to Culhane. Some
jurors said the declarations got their names or facts wrong. All
five stipulated that, in fact, they do not support clemency --
and were furious that their names had been used to discredit a
sentence in which they still believe.
One juror, named
Anita, was a guest opposite Weston on the "John & Ken
Show" on KFI radio to counter the juror recantations. She
later learned that her name was on one of the revoked declarations.
Senior and Starr
did not return my phone calls. In the afternoon, the ACLU issued
a press release that reported that the attorneys will continue
to push for clemency or a successful appeal, but that the attorneys
were not available for comment.
But after the defense lawyers have been so cavalier in accusing
others of fraud -- when they themselves passed on dicey documents
-- their credibility is finished. It's clear they would say anything
without bothering to find out if it was true or false.
"Those who should
be most upset by all this are those who oppose the death penalty
because it undermines future claims," Barankin noted.
There should be hearings
that get to the bottom of who knew what when. If the lawyers knew,
or should have known, the documents were bad, they should be punished.
Otherwise, in the
future, why should anyone believe death-row defense attorneys?
If they can make accusations that, if proven false, will not result
in punishment, then they can lie about anything.
2006 Creators Syndicate