Just based on his dubious record of courtroom failures, Erle Stanley Gardner's literary fictional prosecutor, Hamilton Burger, the tenacious but inept antagonist of the brilliant defense attorney Perry Mason, wouldn't seem to have been seen as an icon of jurisprudence. Yet, despite all his embarrassing setbacks as a Los Angeles district attorney, the author still respected Burger enough to label him as being a "stubborn, but honest" public servant in the pursuit of justice.
However, it was Burger's errors in judgment that came to mind as the Tennessee Supreme Court again ruled in favor of a retrial for a convicted Shelby County inmate sentenced to the state's death row.
In 2009, I reported on the gruesome double murder trial in the deaths of an elderly Bartlett couple, Clarence and Lillian James, at the hands of sadistic drifter, Henry Lee Jones. The evidence against Jones was overwhelming. He befriended the unsuspecting duo before tying them up, strangling both, and then slashing their throats. It took a jury only three hours to come back with two first-degree murder verdicts.
In overturning the verdicts, the Tennessee justices noted a trial error by former Shelby County Criminal Court Judge John Colton in allowing prosecutors Tom Henderson and John Campbell to tell jurors of Jones' alleged killing of a 19-year-old man in Florida, just days before the Bartlett murders. They tried to link the cases together in an effort to show the details of the Bartlett deaths indicated the style of "signature crime" Jones committed in Florida. The justices didn't agree with the comparison, declaring it was too prejudicial to have been introduced at trial.
The Jones case becomes one of four murder convictions now requiring retrials that were judicially kicked back into the lap of the Shelby County District Attorney General's office within the space of less than a year.
In December 2013, the state justices reprimanded Henderson, a 38-year veteran Shelby County prosecutor, for withholding evidence in the 1998 trial of convicted murderer Michael Rimmer. Rimmer was accused of killing his ex-girlfriend, Ricci Ellsworth, in a case in which her body was never found after disappearing from her work as a motel clerk. Henderson, as the lead prosecutor, was cited for not divulging to the defense that another witness had seen a different man at the crime scene where Ellsworth was last seen. A lead detective was also accused of providing false testimony. However, despite the high court's ruling, Henderson was not reprimanded or censured by his boss, Attorney General Amy Weirich.
In 1999, Robert Faulkner was convicted and sent to death row after bludgeoning his wife with a skillet during a domestic dispute. At the time of the trial Faulkner showed no remorse, earning the nickname "Skillet" after telling homicide investigators his spouse got what she deserved. Only, this year, it was discovered that the foreman of the jury that convicted Faulkner had intentionally withheld the fact she herself had been a victim of domestic abuse. With a tainted jury, the justices had no recourse but to overturn the conviction and order a new trial.
Also expected to be retried is Noura Jackson, convicted of stabbing her mother Jennifer Jackson 50 times at their home in 2009. But, the justices decided that conviction was tainted by several legal irregularities, including another withholding of evidence charge, this time leveled against Weirich, who was the lead prosecutor at the Jackson trial.
I'm not naïve enough to think that in a county where prosecutors have sent three times as many people to death row as any other county in Tennessee, the majority of the convicted don't deserve to be where they are. But, I have heard from more than one defense attorney in Memphis that the current atmosphere in this district attorney's office is "win at all costs."
The mistakes made in the cases of Henry Lee Jones and Robert Faulkner might be ruled "technicalities," but the flagrant withholding of evidence is not only disturbing, it's at best, unethical, at worst, criminal. The district attorneys are supposed to be beacons of the law. Their misbehavior means putting families of the victims through the agony of reliving the gory details of the heinous deaths of their loved ones. And that's not to mention the many thousands of dollars it costs taxpayers to retry these cases.
I respect stubbornness, but we should never pursue convictions at the expense of surrendering justice for all. Even a perennial loser like Hamilton Burger understood that.