In 2010, James (Jim) G. Clark finished up his 27 year prosecutorial career as a Senior Assistant to the State’s Attorney at the New Haven States Attorney’s Office to take on the commendable task of improving the Army’s response to allegations of sexual assault. Clark moved to Charlottesville, Va., to take on the role of Professor of Criminal Law at the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School.
By the time of his leaving, Clark was well-known for his prosecution of high-profile crimes in New Haven, often involving career criminals. He demonstrated a sincere interest in seeking justice for people on both sides of the courtroom, working with the head of the Connecticut Innocence Project to oversee an 18-month project that reviewed the cases of more than 700 inmates convicted of murder or sexual assault to see if there was any possibility that DNA could exonerate them; and more recently worked to create the Victim Rights Center of Connecticut (VRCC), which will begin providing legal services to victims of violent crime in September of this year.
However, a series of overturned convictions have revealed that Jim Clark also engaged in questionable practices while prosecuting Connecticut defendants.
The Courant discusses two cases where convictions were later overturned on appeal due to the false testimony of Clark’s key witnesses. The first was the case of Murray Colton who was convicted of the 1987 murder of a police informant named Patty Konesky. The state Supreme Court overturned Colton’s conviction on the basis that the defense was unable to properly challenge the credibility and motives of the state’s key witness. In the fallout from the overturned conviction, Clark was subjected to a series of hearings to determine whether he had committed prosecutorial misconduct by ignoring evidence that his key witness was lying. He reportedly spent 35 hours on the witness stand defending his trial preparation and the credibility of his key witness – an unprecedented occurrence in Connecticut history. The judge eventually ruled in Clark’s favor.
In the second case, Ronald Taylor and George Gould had served 16 years for murder when a judge overturned their convictions. New DNA evidence and the recantation of testimony by Clark’s star witness pointed to the men’s innocence. In his ruling in the case, Judge Stanley Fuger called the convictions a “manifest injustice.”
The trend continued last month when four convictions were vacated by the Connecticut Supreme Court on appeal in what one newspaper has termed “one of the most dramatic developments in Connecticut criminal justice.” The case involved the murder and attempted murder of three young men at a housing complex in New Haven in 1996. Four men were charged and convicted in the crime: Sean Adams, Darcus Henry, Carlos Ashe and Johnny Johnson. Again, it appears that a key state witness put on the stand by Clark gave false testimony against the defendants. Reminiscent of the Queens DA’s offices “Chinese Wall” system, though Clark knew that his star witness had charges pending against him, Clark agreed not to exchange any information with the prosecutor handling the charges in the lead up to Adams’s trial.At the habeas trial, the prosecutor testified that he was aware that Andre had pending charges at the time of the petitioner’s trial and that he also knew that Dobris was handling Andre’s cases. The prosecutor and Dobris had agreed not to share any details with each other about Andre’s pending cases and the petitioner’s trial, effectively setting up a ‘‘firewall’’ between them.
Sean Adams’s case was overturned by the Appellate Court (Adams v. Commissioner of Correction, 128 Conn. App. 389, 399, 17A.3d479) in 2011 and the Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision on July 23, 2013 (Adams v. Commissioner of Correction, SC 18810).
In the introduction to its 19 page ruling, the Supreme Court noted the state’s concession that it had failed to correct its star witnesses’s statements to the jury. The witness received a reduced sentence of 4 years instead of 35 years in exchange for his cooperation in Adams’s case, and yet told Adams’s jury that he had received nothing in exchange for his testimony:Because the respondent has conceded that the state was required but failed to correct false and misleading testimony, the only remaining question concerns materiality: Is there any reasonable likelihood that the testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury? We agree with the Appellate Court that the testimony was material and, consequently, that the petitioner is entitled to a new trial.
The Court explained that the failure of Clark to correct his key witness’s false testimony was particularly problematic since it undermined his function as a truth-seeker:When, however, a prosecutor obtains a conviction with evidence that he or she knows or should know to be false, the materiality standard is significantly more favorable to the defendant. ‘‘[A] conviction obtained by the knowinguse of perjured testimonyis fundamentally unfair, and must be set aside if there is any reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury.’’16 United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97, 103, 96 S. Ct. 2392, 49 L. Ed. 2d 342 (1976); accord State v. Ouellette, 295 Conn. 173, 186, 989 A.2d 1048 (2010)… This ‘‘strict standard of materiality’’ is appropriate in such cases ‘‘not just because they involve prosecutorial misconduct, but more importantly because they involve a corruption of the truth-seeking function of the trial process.’’ United States v. Agurs, supra, 104; see also Shih Wei Su v. Filion, 335 F.3d 119, 126 (2d Cir. 2003)
Accordingly, the Court found the witness’s testimony significant and the failure to correct the false testimony material:…[I]t is highly probable that Andre’s credibility would have been further undermined, and most likely seriously so, if the jury knew, first, that he had been promised leniency on his pending charges in return for his cooperation and, second, that he was lying when he denied that he had been promised consideration for such cooperation. Because a witness’ motivation to avoid prison time is invariably a strong one, the fact that Andre’s credibility otherwise had been called into question was not a substitute for cross-examination about the relationship that in fact existed between the leniency that he had been promised and his testimony on behalf of the state… This is especially true in the present case, because Andre did not identify the petitioner as one of the shooters until more than two years after the incident… To the extent that the prosecutor’s remarks con- veyed the state’s view that Andre’s testimony was accurate and truthful in all important respects, those comments no doubt exacerbated the prejudice and unfairness to the petitioner.
You can read the Court’s opinion in full here.
Since the same false testimony may have contributed to the convictions of the other three defendants in the case, the decision applied to those convictions as well and all four men were released from prison.
These overturned convictions do not negate Clark’s achievements over the course of his 27 year career. But they do exemplify the casualties of a system that incentivizes victory over due process. Seven men received 575 years of cumulative jail time because Clark put unreliable witnesses on the stand. Victims’ families lost the finality they deserve because Clark’s convictions could not stand the test of time.
The observation repeatedly made by commentators about prosecutorial misconduct again seems relevant here: because the system rewards winning, even the most well-intentioned prosecutors buckle under pressure to secure convictions. In the process, they undermine their core function in the criminal justice system – to seek the truth.