Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Shocking case: Man spent ten years in prison after his trial judge refused to allow him to present evidence that his accuser had made other false claims against him

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sitting in San Francisco overturned the sexual assault conviction of a Las Vegas man named Calvin O. Jackson who has spent more than ten years in prison for a crime he may not have committed. The court held that Mr. Jackson was wrongfully prevented from presenting evidence at his trial that the woman who accused him, Annette Heathmon, had made other false claims of prior sexual assault against him. The court explained: "Jackson's defense was that the assault never took place and that he and Heathmon engaged in consensual sex. He contended that Heathmon used the police as a means of exercising control over  him whenever they argued, and that her allegations against him were fabricated in this instance, just as they had been in prior instances when the police were called to respond to her claims." We offer no commentary,and we provide the following excerpt from the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Jackson v. Nevada, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 16292 (9th Cir. filed August 6, 2012).
Opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt: In January 1999, Calvin Jackson was charged with six counts related to the sexual assault of his on-again, off-again girlfriend of ten years, Annette Heathmon. He was found guilty of forcing his way into her apartment, threatening her with a screwdriver, and forcing her to perform oral sex and have vaginal sexual intercourse. Jackson denied that an assault occurred and claimed that he and Heathmon had consensual sex. At trial, the court prevented Jackson from presenting testimony from police witnesses to support his defense that Heathmon made false claims against him in the past alleging physical or sexual assault, and that this was another instance of her false accusations.
. . . .
Although Heathmon submitted a letter recanting her accusations against Jackson, she ultimately recanted that recantation and testified to the assault at trial. In her testimony, Heathmon discussed other instances in which Jackson had allegedly physically or sexually assaulted her but had not been charged with any crime. In response, Jackson sought to introduce testimony from officers who had responded to or investigated Heathmon's previous claims of assault and found that her claims were not substantiated by the physical evidence at the scene or expressed disbelief as to her version of the events. The district court precluded this testimony, as well as counsel's attempt to cross-examine Heathmon regarding any prior acts of prostitution. Jackson was convicted of burglary, battery with the intent to commit a crime, first degree kidnapping with the use of a deadly weapon, and two counts of sexual assault with the use of a deadly weapon.
. . . .
Jackson's defense was that the assault never took place and that he and Heathmon engaged in consensual sex. He contended that Heathmon used the police as a means of exercising control over  him whenever they argued, and that her allegations against him were fabricated in this instance, just as they had been in prior instances when the police were called to respond to her claims. The evidence that he sought to introduce in furtherance of this defense was testimony from officers who responded to Heathmon's prior allegations of abuse. Prior to trial, Jackson submitted copies of police reports from these prior instances along with his motion to reconsider his earlier motion to dismiss. Included in the report were statements by the responding or investigating officers, in which they expressed doubt about Heathmon's claims or noted inconsistencies between her statements and the physical evidence they observed. Such testimony was clearly relevant to Jackson's defense that Heathmon lied regarding her prior complaints and made false statements to the police alleging that he had abused her.4
4 In addition to undermining Heathmon's credibility and supporting his theory that she had an improper motive for her allegations, Jackson also sought to use this evidence to present an alternative explanation for Heathmon's initial refusal to testify: while the prosecution elicited testimony that she was discouraged out of fear, Jackson attempted to show that she never intended her false claims to be pursued to this extent and was disinclined to testify because of the falsity of her claims. This defense was supported by Heathmon's admission in her cross-examination that the case had gone on further than she really wanted it to.
One incident included within these reports occurred in March, 1995, when Officer Stiles responded to an alleged battery, and encountered Heathmon, who asserted that "for unexplained reasons [Jackson] reportedly became enraged at [Heathmon] and began to beat her up by striking her with his fists and when she fell down, he reportedly kicked her and stomped on her chest." Stiles, however, reported that he observed no physical injuries to Heathmon, nor did he "observe her to be dirty from rolling on the floor nor were her clothing in a disar[r]ay, as you might expect in a situation such as this." The officer declined to arrest Jackson.
Another incident documented in the police reports presented by the defense occurred on May 7, 1995. This incident was discussed extensively by Heathmon in her trial testimony. According to Heathmon, she was riding in a car driven by a friend when the car stopped in front of Jackson's home. She testified that he pulled her out of the car, dragged her across the lawn, where a number of his friends were gathered, and into the house where he beat and raped her. Officer Marscheck responded to the scene and reported that he "could find no signs of a sexual assault," and that the witness, Jackson's grandmother who was living in the house at the time, related that she heard Jackson and Heathmon arguing but did not see Jackson physically or sexually assault Heathmon. Marscheck's report additionally noted that "[d]uring [his] investigation with [Heathmon] [he] noted no sense of fear, injury or anything other than anger to get Jackson in jail." The investigating officer assigned to the case, Officer Risenhoover, ultimately closed the case, and, after several failed attempts to contact Heathmon, concluded that "upon reviewing the case, [he] found it questionable the event occurred as reported."
Evidence that Heathmon had, on prior occasions, made claims of assault that were contradicted or uncorroborated by the evidence observed by the responding or investigating officers would be relevant to Jackson's defense that the allegations by Heathmon were false in this instance as well. When presented with a trial court's exclusion of evidence similar to the excluded evidence in Jackson's case, we have recognized that such testimony was highly relevant to the defense and that its total exclusion was disproportionate to whatever underlying interests the exclusion was intended to serve.
. . . .
Heathmon's credibility was crucial to Jackson's prosecution, because there was minimal physical evidence suggesting that she had been physically or sexually assaulted, and the weapon, a screwdriver, was never found, nor was it observed by the witness that saw Jackson and Heathmon together immediately following the assault. The jury therefore had to rely on Heathmon's recitation of the facts — as presented in her own testimony at trial and as related through the testimony of other witnesses based on statements she made around the time of the assault — to conclude that Jackson had indeed assaulted her, and that he was wielding a weapon at the time. Evidence that would have undermined her credibility was central to Jackson's theory that this was just  another instance in which Heathmon made false or exaggerated claims against him to the police. It is reasonable to conclude that witness testimony that Heathmon made uncorroborated claims against Jackson in the past, claims that were believed by impartial officers to be inaccurate and inconsistent with the physical evidence, would have influenced the jury's assessment of Heathmon's credibility.
. . . .
The district court erred in concluding that the state court determination that the exclusion of the police witness testimony did not constitute a violation of Jackson's well established right to present a complete defense. The excluded evidence was relevant and vital to his defense, and the total exclusion of this testimony was arbitrary and disproportionate to the purposes the evidentiary rules were intended to serve. The Nevada Supreme Court decision holding otherwise was an unreasonable application of clearly established United States Supreme Court precedent. We therefore reverse the district court's judgment and remand with directions to issue a conditional writ of habeas corpus, releasing Jackson from detention unless the state retries him within a reasonable period of time.