Innocence, After The Fact

You have to give Kristen Etter credit, as she did two things of significance. The second was that she pulled it off, she went back to a conviction that happened decades before and found the smoking gun that changed everything. The first was that she sat down with Troy Mansfield and, despite there being nothing much to discuss beyond his horribly sad, but entirely credible, assertion of innocence, decided to try to help.

Troy Mansfield had barely sat down in his new lawyer’s office before his voice started cracking with emotion.

The married father of two grown sons choked back tears as he told Austin attorney Kristin Etter how he had spent two decades living with a scarlet letter for a sin he didn’t commit. He’d been cast out of homes, thrown out of his boys’ basketball games and even rejected at churches.

How did this guy’s life end up like this? It wasn’t just that he was wrongfully convicted, or so he said, but that the crime for which he was wrongfully convicted was a horrible crime.

In 1993, he explained, he had been convicted in Williamson County of molesting a 4-year-old girl, forced to register on the state’s list of rapists and pedophiles. He pleaded guilty to a crime he said he could never imagine committing because police and prosecutors relentlessly badgered him and threatened to destroy his family.

Mansfield came to Etter because he heard that there was a new law that might help him out from under this conviction. It didn’t. But she nonetheless listened to him and not only found him credible, but considered that he was convicted during “a dark period” in Williamson County.

Ken Anderson, the former district attorney and judge, since disgraced and disbarred for concealing evidence that led to the wrongful murder conviction of Michael Morton, had overseen Mansfield’s case.

Etter couldn’t help wondering if the tearful man sitting on the other side of her desk was another victim of an agency corrupted by a lock-them-up culture that prized winning over justice.

Etter wondered whether anyone had ever taken a deep dive into the prosecution’s file. She spent six months pushing for access, and finally was “invited” to see for herself. And she did.

There, she opened a shockingly thin brown folder and saw pages of handwritten prosecutor notes from interviews with the little girl who accused Mansfield of touching her.

Scrawled in the prosecutor’s handwriting across the pages was exactly what she expected.

“She told me she doesn’t remember what happened! At one point, told me nothing happened.”

Two decades after Mansfield was convicted, there it was, the evidence that undermined his guilt and was concealed from his attorney before he pleaded guilty. Everything about this was a disaster, but at least the story, now told, was one of exoneration and vindication. Hell of a job by Etter, both for taking it on and prevailing.

And this is where this terrible, yet somehow heartwarming, story of righting a wrong creates a problem. In the course of an ordinary week, at least a dozen letters, emails and phone calls come in from people seeking to fight their conviction. They’ve been convicted, whether by plea or trial. They’ve appealed and had their conviction affirmed. They want to fight, and want someone to take up their cause because, they say, they are the victims of a grave injustice.

The story about Etters saving Mansfield doesn’t say so, but it seems overwhelmingly likely that she took on the case pro bono. Almost all seek the same, a fighter for justice, their justice, who will do so for its own sake, as there’s no money to be had. No one is more demanding than a person who seeks “justice” without paying for a lawyer’s time.

It was no doubt enormously satisfying for Kristin Etters to find that smoking gun in the prosecution’s file after two decades, and to have the wedge to help Mansfield out from under this wrongful conviction. But then, she could also have spent years searching and come up empty. It might not be because Mansfield wasn’t innocent, as he explained, but because without that smoking gun, there would be essentially nothing to be done to help him.

Contrary to popular belief, largely engendered by the craze to revisit old cases, reargue them on podcasts or in deep-dive articles, emphasize trivial distinctions that were either raised at trial and didn’t work, or create an argument of questionable materiality and pound at it when there is no one around to explain why it’s just not a big deal or, even worse, just plain wrong, there is no way out from under a conviction.

The problem isn’t that the lawyers don’t believe, but that believing is irrelevant. It’s not that we reject your claim of innocence, but that there is no hook, no evidence, no smoking gun, that can be used to crack the case open again. The cry of injustice in your voice isn’t enough, whether we buy it or not.

Most of the time, the letters come with packages of documents from their case. The unsolicited emails from unknown accounts have attachments to download. The letters and emails themselves are often long, poorly written, replete with hyperbole if not bizarre conspiracy theories and far longer on passion than substance. They refer to the additional documents, which would take only an hour or two to review. If you get a dozen of these a week, do the math.

When a story like Mansfield’s comes out, it’s hard not to look at Kristin Etters and think how wonderful it was that she decided to take on the cause of trying to save this man’s life. It’s hard not to feel regret for throwing out the letters, deleting the emails, saying “sorry” on the telephone to the spouse or child of the wrongfully convicted, only to have them scream at you in outrage for not being their pro bono savior.

We’ve all taken on a pro bono post-conviction “cause” from time to time, even if we can’t quite explain why one case caught our interest when others didn’t. The hardest part is telling them, after they’ve gotten their hopes up that they, like Mansfield, will find vindication, that there’s no smoking gun, there is nothing more you can do. And then they blame you for failing them too.

4 thoughts on “Innocence, After The Fact

  1. B. McLeod

    It takes a special kind of lawyer to take on the grief of these post-conviction efforts, especially where there is no hope getting the job done via some kind of conclusive evidence, like advanced DNA test results.

    In more than a few jurisdictions, the “smoking gun” found by Etter would not be enough to reopen a conviction based on a confession, and the prosecutors’ conduct of withholding the exculpatory evidence would not even violate the rules for plea-bargaining. These are typically very difficult cases, as the task is not merely finding something material that was missed, but finding something so ponderously material that the criminal justice system allows it to be considered for purposes of attacking the conviction. Even if the defendant seems credible, the errors that are discoverable by re-investigation are likely to fall short of what is needed, leaving the case in a “can’t get there from here” posture.

    Between the not knowing which convicts to believe, and the knowing that most will fail, and the not getting paid for the attempt, is is really a matter of some wonder that there are lawyers willing to go after any of these cases.

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