After years of fighting for a new trial, Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Mozee were finally vindicated by Texas’s highest criminal court last week. For the final years of that journey, they had an unlikely companion helping them seek relief: the Dallas County District Attorney’s office. Despite the State’s support of their claims that the prosecutor violated their due process rights, the judiciary at times resisted granting relief, but eventually gave way. The case looks like another successful venture by the DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a high-profile unit that former DA Craig Watkins instated over ten years ago to help uncover cases of innocence. While we at the Open File have expressed mixed feelings about these units in general, the Dallas unit appears to be a functioning and legitimate example of what prosecutors can do to help advance justice for those subjected to unfair prosecutions. (Importantly, Mr. Allen and Mr. Mozee did not win on their innocence claim, but instead won relief because the State violated their rights.) Among other things, this case also reveals that the prosecutor responsible for these convictions—who no longer works at the Dallas DA’s office—was willing to lie or mislead the court over and over again.
Both Mozee and Allen were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 2000 for a robbery-murder that took place in April of 1999; both have consistently maintained that they are actually innocent. In October of 2014, they were released from custody because the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence. The saga (which we briefly covered in 2014), however, did not end there. On February 4, 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case to give the trial prosecutor a chance to respond to the allegations against him: “The trial court and the State agree that Applicant is entitled to relief under Brady. In these circumstances, additional facts are needed.” That remand led to another three years of legal process, which has finally vindicated the initial decision to release the men.
On remand, the trial court held an evidentiary hearing in which the trial prosecutor, former ADA Rick Jackson, testified. Remarkably, the judge denied the defendants’ well-supported claims after the hearing. She issued her ruling before a transcript of the hearing was complete, and both the defense and prosecution objected that the court declined to consider evidence that the DA had uncovered more exculpatory information in its files in December of 2015—after the hearing. Again, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case in September of 2016, this time so the lower court could resolve the unanswered questions about additional prosecutorial misconduct that had come to light.
On this remand, the prosecution sought to recuse the judge who earlier denied relief, and she decided to remove herself from the matter. A new judge stepped in, and in March of 2017, issued a detailed 68-page opinion granting the defendants relief on multiple Brady/Giglio and Napue claims. The decision documented an astounding amount of State misconduct, and identified three grounds for relief: (1) the prosecutor knowingly presented false testimony or failed to correct it; (2) the prosecutor failed to disclose inducements provided to four informants; and (3) the prosecutor failed to disclose favorable eyewitness evidence.
The misconduct was extensive, to say the least. Here is a brief summary of what you will find in the trial court’s opinion:
- False testimony (Napue) – a jailhouse informant named Lonel Hardeman testified against Mr. Allen. Hardeman claimed at trial that he never sought assistance or expected the prosecutor to confer any benefit in exchange for his testimony. (Meanwhile, he was facing 25 years to life on two robbery charges.) ADA Jackson did not correct this testimony. But, Jackson was in possession of numerous letters in which Hardeman asked for leniency on his own criminal charges. The court found that Hardeman’s testimony was “directly and entirely contradicted” by the files the prosecution failed to share.
- False testimony (Napue) – oddly, ADA Jackson was able to introduce “eyewitness” testimony at Mr. Mozee’s trial without actually putting the purported eyewitness on the stand. Instead, the lead detective testified that a clerk at a convenience store successfully picked out Mr. Allen as someone who used the victim’s stolen credit card shortly after the murder. The court found this testimony misleading, at best. While he may have once identified Allen earlier in the investigation, the clerk actually came in for Mozee’s trial and met with someone from the prosecutor’s office. He picked two photos from arrays, but did not pick out either of the defendants, and the State sent him home, telling him they did not need him anymore.
- Failure to disclose information negatively affecting credibility of State witnesses (Brady/Giglio) – across the trials of Mr. Allen and Mr. Mozee, the State introduced testimony from four separate informant witnesses. Each of these witnesses anticipated that the State was going to help them either by recommending favorable sentences on criminal charges they faced or bailing them out for probation violations. Yet, the State never disclosed the witnesses’ well-founded expectations or the proactive role ADA Jackson and the lead detective took in making sure these informants got the benefits for which they had bargained.
- Failure to disclose exculpatory evidence (Brady) – across the two trials, the prosecution failed to disclose that all four of the supposed “eyewitnesses” at various points had failed to reliably identify the defendants.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals recently determined that the trial court’s findings were supported by the record.
The trial court’s opinion powerfully demonstrates that ADA Jackson lied repeatedly. In 2000, he misled the court, the jurors, and the defense team at trial. Without any correction, he elicited false testimony that cooperating witnesses had no expectation of support from the prosecution, and he emphasized the credibility of these witnesses in his closing arguments. At the evidentiary hearing in 2015, he lied again. For example, Mr. Jackson claimed that as a matter of practice or policy he “never” personally intervened on behalf of informants; instead, he would just pass information about their cooperation on to other prosecutors who worked on the snitches’ cases. But, evidence at the hearing revealed that Jackson personally intervened on behalf of two informants in these cases. Mr. Hardeman—who was facing decades in prison for two robbery charges—ended up being sentenced to three years on each charge after Jackson got involved on his behalf. For another informant, Zane Smith, the court wrote that “Jackson proceeded to go to extraordinary and improper lengths to carry out the State’s end of the bargain.” ADA Jackson’s actions included helping file an out-of-time motion for new trial to get Smith a sentence reduction in a court that likely lacked proper jurisdiction. The opinion granting Mr. Mozee and Mr. Allen relief explains, “as with Hardeman, the present record establishes that Jackson in fact engaged in actions with respect to this informant that he testified at the hearing he would ‘never’ take (before being confronted with the record).”
It appears unlikely that Mr. Jackson will ruin any other defendants’ lives through his misconduct. When Craig Watkins took office, he let Mr. Jackson go. (Mr. Jackson then filed a lawsuit against the DA, alleging that he was wrongfully fired because he was white. The court dismissed his case at the summary judgment stage.) Today, Mr. Jackson reportedly no longer practices law.
Nevertheless, Mr. Jackson’s testimony at the evidentiary hearing raises deep questions about all of the cases he prosecuted. He claimed, falsely, that he disclosed everything exculpatory to the defense teams. He claimed, falsely, that he never individually intervened to help jailhouse informants in exchange for their cooperation. He also claimed that he never struck “deals” with snitches up-front before a trial; even if that is technically true, if he failed to disclose that he gave them a wink-and-a-nod or that those informants sought assistance or anticipated it (like he did in this matter), his practice likely led to Giglio issues in every single case which went to trial. When Watkins took over the DA’s office, Mr. Jackson had spent years as the “chief prosecutor” in the felony court and later became the division chief of the Organized Crimes Division. Given the troubling testimony he gave in the evidentiary hearing, the Dallas County Conviction Integrity Unit may need to look carefully at each and every case he led. The questions raised by his testimony should be answered.