The American legal system is famously adversarial, which makes it all the more remarkable when the prosecution and defense agree on something. In Philadelphia, they agree that Donte Rollins deserves a new trial.
In a rare move, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in April had agreed with the defense that a man convicted of attempted murder in a 2006 shooting that left a 6-year-old boy paralyzed should get a new trial.
Rollins was convicted upon the identification of one witness, despite video of his being elsewhere. For reasons that only make sense to jurors, the video was ignored, the testimony accepted and the conviction returned. Great system we have here. Thankfully, the burden is beyond a reasonable doubt.
But post-conviction investigation revealed tons more proof of Rollins’ alibi.
During Post Conviction Relief Act hearings earlier this year, Rollins’ new attorneys presented further evidence that bolsters Rollins’ alibi: two friends who gave signed statements and testified that they were out shopping with Rollins that day; a signed statement by Rollins’ mother, Ava, saying a third friend, who has since died, was also with her son; store receipts; and further video footage allegedly showing Rollins leaving the Net store on South Street at 8:01 p.m. while speaking on a cellphone; and cellphone records showing he received a call at that time.
Short of having tea with the Pope on stage at Carnegie Hall, this is about as good as it gets for an alibi. And so, to their credit, the prosecution agreed. But somebody didn’t join the party.
But Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Rayford Means on Nov. 14 denied Donte Rollins, 29, a new trial. He did not give his reasons why.
The defense makes an overwhelming case. The prosecution agrees. The judge says . . .
Means said the defense had 30 days to appeal his decision to the state Superior Court. “At that time, once I receive an appeal, I will file my opinion to the Superior Court,” he said in court.
“That concludes this matter,” Means then said, refusing to outline his reasons for his decision as one of Rollins’ defense attorneys, Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, asked for an explanation. “Facts, conclusions of law?” she asked.
Instead, Means walked out of the courtroom.
The reason for this behavior by a judge is inexplicable. But since Means said he would file his opinion once he received an appeal, the defense appealed. Because why wouldn’t they appeal?
That same day, Rollins’ defense team — attorney Michael Wiseman and lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — appealed the judge’s decision to the state Superior Court.
A month has passed. Means has yet to file his opinion on the matter. He did not return a request on Tuesday or early Wednesday for an interview on his decision.
In the scheme of how the system works, this doesn’t happen. Like most systems, it presumes that the players aren’t totally off-the-wall, but reasonably sane. Foremost in the presumption of relative sanity is the judge. Not that the judge is invariably right, which is why we have appellate courts, but at least minimally sane. And then there’s Judge Rayford Means.
Last month, after Rollins’ new defense team appealed to the state Superior Court, Hugh Burns Jr., chief of the Appeals Unit in the DA’s Office, filed a letter with the court saying the “Commonwealth agrees to the relief requested” by the defense. That is, prosecutors agree Rollins deserves a new trial and should be placed on house arrest pending the new trial.
The prosecution doubled down, in a good way, standing behind its conclusion that Rollins’ conviction sucked. And still nothing, as Rollins remained in prison, which would be no big deal except for the probability that he’s innocent.
As the days have rolled by and the defense still has not heard anything from Means or the state Superior Court, Rollins’ defense on Dec. 5 filed a King’s Bench petition before the state Supreme Court.
“King’s Bench power” allows the state’s top court to consider a case when there is a need to address an issue of “immediate public importance.” This power, based on English common law, is used only on rare occasions.
While the system may not be adept at handling its own failures, there is usually a relief valve for when things go really awry. For most, it’s habeas corpus, the Great Writ. Pennsylvania has the King’s Bench Power, which provides a direct means to the state Supreme Court when the lower courts fail miserably and flagrantly.
The next day, Burns, of the DA’s Appeals Unit, again wrote a letter, this time to the state Supreme Court, agreeing with Rollins’ defense team that Rollins deserves a new trial.
Triple down. How much clearer can the prosecution make it? And yet, Means remains hidden under his desk, and the Superior Court isn’t doing much to help either.
Bluestine on Wednesday said in an email: “In over 20 years of practicing law, I have never seen such a gross abuse of discretion by a judge.”
Wow. Over 20 years. Would this be a less gross abuse of discretion if she had only ten years’ experience? But I digress.
“The judge’s intransigence has resulted in the continued incarceration of a man who should have been released … This is a travesty for Donte and his family as well as the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who must pay for his wrongful incarceration day by day.”
Putting aside the inexplicable refusal of the trial judge to not merely approve the relief that both sides in an adversarial system agree upon or to render an opinion as to what the hell is happening in his head that gives rise to his intransigence, there remains a person who is almost certainly innocent in prison while the courts are dicking around. That the commonwealth has to pay for his hotel room is the sort of argument meant to appeal to those who don’t think incarcerating an innocent person is a big deal, which tends to change when they or someone they care about is the poor shmuck wrongfully imprisoned.
But Donte Rollins is sitting in prison when the prosecution and defense agree that he shouldn’t be. And Rayford Means isn’t sitting in an asylum as someone figures out what manner of insanity plagues his judgment and actions. This is nuts.
Update: Donte Rollins will be released on December 21st, after the Superior Court summarily reversed his conviction with rather unflattering commentary on Judge Means.
H/T Max Kennerly