Thursday, June 06, 2019 1:00 am
What we don't know
Tinsley case highlights plea deals' weaknesses
A May 5 Journal Gazette article addressed a now-major component of the criminal justice system – the guilty plea agreement. This arrangement, not the often-idealized courtroom drama involving the examination of competing versions of the truth, holds center stage in the majority of criminal cases.
This is true locally and nationally. Locally, as the article stressed, it is highlighted by the guilty plea agreement of John D. Miller in the murder of April Tinsley.
If we are to understand this practice and its importance, we need to work past its use within the system to the immense scarcity of substance it produces.
Deals may be fiscally necessary but are judicially insufficient. The lack of substance, the forensic facts and unanswered questions not available to the public lurk behind the minutia contained in publicly accessible documents.
Although the goal of the system is justice and fairness, not transparency, a parting of the curtain could help in validating these often-questionable agreements and assist the public in understanding this practice; hence the following concerning the Miller arrangement.
This plea deal relies almost exclusively on DNA evidence and analysis. DNA analysis is not perfect; it is merely another of many investigative tools available. While the trash search at Miller's residence may have been entirely proper, there is no indication police saw who put what evidence in the trash. Did police obtain a post-arrest DNA sample from Miller and have it analyzed? If so, by whom and what were the results? Without this there is no direct link to the evidence, merely a consistent (family) connection.
Did police obtain a post-arrest handwriting sample from Miller? If so, who analyzed it and how did it compare to the taunting notes obtained earlier in the investigation? This should have been done. After all, the FBI profile of the possible killer indicated the likelihood of more than a single suspect. Did Miller act alone?
A search of Miller's residence occurred after his arrest. There is no indication in the court documents this was done with search warrant authority. If there was no warrant, was the authority provided by Miller's permission? Was this permission free and voluntary? Was defense counsel present? What evidence, if any, was obtained from the search?
Several times, police investigators publicly stated the residence searched was the scene of the killing. However, Miller's mobile home, the home searched, was not his residence on the date of the crime. The residence searched replaced the old one sometime in 2000. Same address, different home. Now, the former residence could be at a FEMA site or in some park in Mississippi – there's a reason it's called a “mobile home.”
Although all officers of the court are bound by ethical standards, we really cannot expect the prosecutor's office to seek justice when they spell it conviction. However, we should expect the public defenders to do their job.
How many of the more than 100 witnesses in this case did they interview before agreeing to a deal? When Miller was first questioned by police to tell them his involvement, he stated, “I can't.” How then did we get to a confession? Given Miller's questionable mental state, something the judge even asked at sentencing, was he inappropriately pushed into a deal by all parties for their pound of flesh? Did defense counsel provide a competent, effective and energetic defense?
Were all parties plagued by confirmation bias, seeing only what they wanted to see?
We don't know.
You may ask whether a check exists by the court (judge) to ensure it is aware of the substance of a case before accepting a plea deal. No.
The court does not know whether police were competent in dotting I's and crossing T's, or whether witnesses lied or contradicted one another, or whether evidence was valid. A trial in open court does that.
No, the court relies on the reputation of the involved attorneys. Isn't that a hoot? This lack of transparency and substance leads to suspicion, doubt and mistrust – qualities we can ill afford to have. We deserve better.
Stan Jones, an Allen County resident, is retired from police service.