Amicus Brief in LaGuer Case Illuminates Dangers of Hiding Exculpatory Evidence

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) filed an amicus brief with the SJC last week in support of Benjamin LaGuer’s bid for a new trial. You can read the entire brief HERE. It and all the recent filings in the case are available at Excerpts follow:

In Criminal prosecutions the Commonwealth is routinely in sole possession of evidence which is critical to the defense. As a result, the defendant must rely upon the prosecution to properly comply with the discovery rules in order to ensure a fair trial. The outcome of this appeal will likely have a significant impact on the manner in which discovery violations are handled, and, as a result, will likely influence the level of care prosecutors dedicate to meeting their discovery obligations.

It is essential to motivate prosecutors to produce exculpatory evidence because the Commonwealth is often in exclusive possession of favorable evidence. If the prosecutor fails to come forward, the defendant will have no access to the exculpatory evidence, and the “truth-finding process of trial” will be corrupted.

It is undisputed that, (1) the state police prepared a fingerprint report two days after the incident, (2) contrary to pretrial assertions by the prosecutor and the trial testimony of the lead detective, the report established that the police lifted four complete fingerprints from the base of the phone, and those prints conclusively do not match the defendant’s fingerprints, (3) the report was under the custody or control of the prosecution, and (4) no part of the report was provided to the defendant until close to seventeen years after trial.

…[A]ccording to the portion of the fingerprint report still available, Detective Carignan had been personally notified long before trial by the Commonwealth’s fingerprint expert that four fingerprints were lifted from the phone, and that these prints were conclusively determined to not match the defendant’s fingerprints. Detective Carignan’s misleading testimony is properly characterized as gross negligence.

The SJC hearing is set for January 4, 2007.

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  1. For those who are interested...

    Jim Braude or NECN's Newsnight was kind enough to invite me on his show last night. Originally I was to appear with Harvey Silverglate and Dave Wedge, but Wedge was called off to other duties at the last minute and Wendy Murphy filled in. You can see the show here:

  2. First Sement

  3. Second Segment

    Thoughts and comments are welcome.

  • MSM Coverage of LaGuer Case Improving

    The tone, tenor and breadth of this article in today's T&G is a big improvement over what we've seen in the past. Also, I've spoken to several people in Worcester recently who tell me that popular opinion is opening up to the idea that something went wrong with this case that deserves looking into.

    Conte Attacks Rapist's Filing LaGuer Team Fires Back At Prosecution By Matthew Bruun TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

    WORCESTER- On the eve of Benjamin LaGuer's case going before the state's highest court, District Attorney John J. Conte called the convicted man's claims of DNA contamination "absurd."

    In a strongly worded filing to the Supreme Judicial Court last week, lawyers for Mr. LaGuer chastised Mr. Conte's office for misstating the facts of the high-profile case and trying to sway the court by recounting horrific details of the brutal 1983 crime that netted a life sentence for their client.

    Mr. LaGuer, 43, is seeking a new trial or dismissal of the indictment against him. The request centers on a potentially exculpatory fingerprint report that was not shared with the defense until 18 years after the trial.

    Despite DNA testing that further implicated him in the rape and beating of his neighbor in a Leominster apartment complex in July 1983, Mr. LaGuer has maintained his innocence, arguing the results were compromised by contamination.

    The latest defense brief, filed last week by Mr. LaGuer's current legal team, argues the DNA analysis - among other items cited by prosecutors in their brief last month - has no standing in the issue before the Supreme Judicial Court, where oral arguments are scheduled for Jan. 4. Issues of the report's reliability and the chain of custody of the material subjected to analysis must also be addressed before the DNA analysis can be considered, the lawyers argue.

    "Indeed, the very fact that the commonwealth has never sought to admit any DNA-related laboratory or analytical reports before any court cautions against this court's consideration of any such alleged evidence now," the defense rebuttal states.

    "In short, the commonwealth's persistent misstatements of fact and irrelevant post-trial allegations are nothing more than attempts to provide misinformation and to distract the court from the issues in this appeal," the defense writes. "Such attempts should not be rewarded."

    In an interview yesterday, Mr. Conte said he would not comment on the issues raised in the defense filing to the SJC.

    "That matter is before the court," he said.

    While the SJC will review the fingerprint issue, Mr. Conte reiterated his stance that the DNA results proved Mr. LaGuer's guilt.

    The outgoing district attorney issued a press release yesterday dismissing the allegations of DNA contamination. The genetic material analyzed several years ago was taken only from the rape kit collected from the victim after the assault on July 13, 1983, Mr. Conte said.

    "Almost 20 years after the defendant's conviction, the emergency room physician met with prosecutors and the defendant's lawyers and identified the rape kit samples that he removed from the victim's body," Mr. Conte said in a prepared statement. That material alone was subjected to DNA analysis, he said.

    The fingerprint report figures prominently in Mr. LaGuer's eighth bid for a new trial. The hands of the 59-year-old victim were bound by a telephone cord in her apartment during the assault. While a police detective testified in 1984 that only a partial fingerprint was found on the telephone, the report unearthed in 2001 found that four complete fingerprints were found not to match Mr. LaGuer.

    "At the time of trial, the only fingerprint evidence that Mr. LaGuer's trial counsel believed existed was falsely described by the prosecution as being a `partial' fingerprint recovered from the telephone that `could not be matched' to Mr. LaGuer," the defense filing states. "Without the benefit of a fingerprint report, Mr. LaGuer's trial counsel understood that the `small partial' fingerprint described by the prosecutor ? was insufficient to match anyone's fingerprints," which they describe as a substantial difference.

    Lower courts have declined to grant Mr. LaGuer a new trial on the basis of the fingerprint report. But the Supreme Judicial Court, which hears only a small fraction of the cases presented to it, agreed to hear Mr. LaGuer's plea.

    "Rather than address this argument head-on, however, the commonwealth spends most of its brief misstating the record, emphasizing the horrific nature of the crime, and relying on post-trial allegations in an effort to persuade the court to ignore the commonwealth's clear violation of Mr. LaGuer's constitutional rights," the response states. "The commonwealth's flagrant attempt to inflame the passions and prejudices of the court should not be tolerated."

    The defense argues that prosecutors misrepresented to Mr. LaGuer's trial counsel the nature and extent of evidence taken from the crime scene.

    "At no point was Mr. LaGuer's trial counsel aware that four fingerprints taken from the telephone in the victim's apartment definitely did not match Mr. LaGuer's," the lawyers stated. "Second, the commonwealth mistakenly argues that the suppressed fingerprint evidence was `cumulative' of that presented at trial. On the contrary, the record makes clear that the evidence known to Mr. LaGuer's trial counsel was quantitatively and qualitatively different than the evidence the commonwealth wrongfully suppressed."

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