Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Wrong man convicted even though "everybody did their best"

Shortly after he opened a church-based office to help poor people with legal problems, Brooks Harrington took up the case of a woman who faced jail for not paying child support. She was indigent and unemployed and hadn't received the hearing to which the Constitution entitled her.

Harrington challenged the entire process by which his client could be sentenced to jail and persuaded the judge to drop the contempt conviction.

A lawyer and ordained Methodist minister, Harrington applies the same thoroughness and tenacity to representing clients who can't pay that he used while becoming one of the most successful defense lawyers in North Texas.

Now representing battered women and children, he believes he's answered his calling.

But in December came shattering news: A man Harrington helped send to prison for murder in 1982 was being released because DNA testing showed he was the wrong guy.

A Washington, D.C., jury had convicted Donald Eugene Gates of shooting and raping Georgetown University student Catherine Schilling in Rock Creek Park, not far from the Kennedy Center.

As an assistant U.S. attorney, Harrington prosecuted Gates and had been certain a dangerous man was kept from harming other women.

But he was wrong.

That left him sick and sleepless: What red flags had he missed? What would happen to Gates, who had been homeless 28 years ago? Where was the real killer? Were other convictions flawed?

And there was the sobering reality that "You can do your best and the system still fails."

Texas' criminal justice system has taken a beating because of case after case in which DNA testing has revealed wrongful convictions.

In response, state leaders have explored ways to boost accuracy, such as monitoring crime labs better, recording interrogations and improving eyewitness identification procedures.

But it isn't just Texas that needs self-examination. It doesn't take callousness or wrongdoing to cause injustice; even good people doing their jobs in good faith can make mistakes.

Harrington, a former Marine from Fort Worth, spent five years in the U.S. attorney's office, handling some of the toughest cases. He visited neighborhoods where tourists don't go and the only hopeful voices came from African-American churches.

He still sees the scene of a couple's murder-suicide, where a 3-year-old sat crying so hard no sound came out and the dead man's blood dripped through the floor, puddling next to a mattress where two toddlers slept.

He knew the system didn't always work. In 1981, he did the legwork to free a man wrongly charged with rape based on mistaken identity. The charge was dismissed the day of the trial.

In Gates' case, the prosecution relied on several pieces of evidence.

An FBI analyst testified that Gates' hair matched one found on the victim. Harrington said the defense team's analyst didn't dispute the match, just the odds that it was Gates' hair.

A paid informant said Gates had confessed. Harrington said he "pushed the informant hard" to test the validity of his story.

"The more time I spent with him, the less I liked him and the more I believed him," he said.

The jury also heard about Gates attacking another woman in the park not long before Schilling was killed.

Gates maintained he didn't commit the murder but lost his appeals.

Harrington, meanwhile, came back to Fort Worth in 1983. He quit private law practice in 1990, spent five years co-pastoring a church in a low-income neighborhood, then took up medical malpractice defense. In 2006, he started the Methodist Justice Ministry at First United Methodist Church Fort Worth.

He wasn't aware that in 1997, a Justice Department report raised questions about the FBI analyst's testimony in a case involving a federal judge. The credibility of the analyst's work in Gates' case wasn't reviewed by the U.S. attorney's office for years.

A public defender sought more DNA testing for Gates in 2008, and today's sophisticated tests determined he didn't match the specimens found on Schilling.

In a letter the day before Christmas, Harrington told Gates he was sorry, included his phone number and enclosed a money order.

Gates wrote back, "I forgave you long ago and now consider you my friend."

Harrington called that "the greatest gift I've ever received."

Gates is entitled to compensation from the government, but it's not yet clear how much.

He's living in Tennessee, though he recently told Harrington he can't find work and is feeling stressed.

There are many pressures on those within the criminal justice system: to protect the public, get convictions, move the sheer volume of cases. Mistakes are inevitable. But they can't be taken lightly.

"Everybody did their best, and we convicted the wrong guy, and that's terrifying," Harrington said.

"The mindset has to be one of fear and humility: Fear of convicting the wrong guy and humility about your own judgment."


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