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20,000 wrongful convictions in the U.S.

 

Mullins v. Cookeville history

 

Are there enough judges to correct what years of unethical government have created?

 

By Geoff Davidian

Special to the Putnam Pit

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (August 29, 2021) Phillip Mullins, a black, one-time crack dealer who was convicted of raping a white woman in the 1970s, is now serving life without the possibility of parole in the 1999 murder of Vernell Dixon, an 87-year-old widow whose bruised, partially-clad body was found on the floor of her home near her bloody bed. Judge Gary McKenzie may let Mr. Mullins finally see the evidence. Except the judge used to work for the prosecutor who put Mr. Mullins in prison.

Mr. Mullins was almost immediately a suspect after someone told police he was seen nearby. Investigators took Mr. Mullins’ sperm, pubic hair, blood, and other biological specimens to compare to what they found at the crime scene. Former Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney General William E. Gibson never claimed the DNA matched Mr. Mullins’ sample, nor did he share the DNA testing results so that Mr. Mullins could see whose DNA was at the scene. Instead, the prosecution produced a smudge left by what they say was the shoulder of the killer when the door was forced open. According to an expert, the shoulder smudge was left by someone about Mr. Mullins’ height.

While he was in jail, Detective David Gragg removed Mr. Mullins’ clothing from the property room without a warrant and took it to the crime scene before forwarding it to the state forensics laboratory. On December 29, 1999, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that fibers found on Mr. Mullins’ clothing that had been transported to the crime scene were “consistent” with “a carpet standard from the victim’s bedroom.”

The state lab also found that one of Mr. Mullins’ shoes, taken by Detective Gragg to Mrs. Dixon’s home, was consistent with a print found at the scene, but other prints were either not matches or inconclusive.

Rather than mount a spirited defense for his client, former Public Defender David Brady tried to convince Mr. Mullins to take a  deal that would have him plead to 2nd degree murder and not serve more than 25 years in prison.

The following week, Mr. Mullins wrote to Judge Leon Burns, asking that Mr. Brady be dismissed. He said that Mr. Brady was overburdened by other cases and was not dealing with matters that were ripe for action. Mr. Mullins said that Mr. Brady told him the state was going to convict hm “and that he does not care.”

“Your Honor, my life is hanging on the line. I do not feel anyone in this court room would want a counsel to tell them that he does not care.”

In response, Judge Burns appointed another local lawyer, John Edward Appman, to defend him. According to Mr. Appman’s testimony at a 2008 post-conviction relief hearing, his strategy was to not ask for DNA samples that could prove someone other than Mr. Mullins had been at the scene. And Mr. Appman did not object when police refused to let him interview a woman who says police coerced her confession that she was at the scene with Mr. Mullins. Terri Dawson said police threatened to charge her with the murder unless she said Mr. Mullins was the killer.

Like tens of thousands of other prisoners in the United States who may be wrongfully convicted, Mr. Mullins has sent letter after motion after petition to the courts, asking for reconsideration on grounds that the prosecution was corrupt, the defense attorney was ineffective, exculpatory evidence was withheld, witnesses were encouraged to lie – or worse, threated with punishment unless they did.

According to one study, as many as 20,000 prisoners are wrongfully convicted, and more than half of them are due to misconduct by government officials. And for every wrongful murder conviction, the real killer is still at large.

In the case of Mr. Mullins, his memory is refreshed by thousands of pages of raggedy, dog-eared, stained and incomplete records. Words are underlined and margins filled with scrawled comments like “railroaded!” and “due process.”

What makes Mr. Mullins’ yowls different from the cacophony of other such complaints is that his claims are believable; not because he is a sweet talker or artful rhetorician. And not because his niece, Jasmine Woodson, is working day and night to get him justice, although that does count for something.

What makes Mr. Mullins’ claims worthy of a closer look is that they are about government misconduct in Putnam County, Tenn., where, among other things, William E. Gibson was the first sitting district attorney general to be disbarred for violations of ethical standards while in office; Reno Martin, a police officer, was convicted of distributing cocaine and money laundering; the former clerk of courts, Lewis Coomer, added bogus counts to indictments after they were signed by the prosecutor and added fees to judgments that he collected but for which he did not account; the former police chief, Bob Terry, sent pornographic email to General Gibson, and used his official pager for alpha-numeric sex chat. The drug task force sold confiscated property to pay their overtime.

Mr. Mullins feels the DNA results would have made a difference at trial, but after 20 years he still does not have them. And he wonders who is being protected. On the other hand, Charles Harlan, the medical examiner, is not any more credible than Mr. Gibson. Mr. Harlan lost his medical license and died in disgrace. In one incident, his dog ate part of a body he was examining.

In the long run, things have worked out better for Mr. Gibson than for Mr. Mullins.

In 2016, the state licensing board reinstated Mr. Gibson’s law license.

Although the players have changed, things have not improved for Mr. Mullins. Judge McKenzie has already picked up where Judge Burns left off, refusing to allow the defendant access to records that might show he is innocent.

Craig Fickling, the public defender appointed to the case, said, “we both know what Gibson is like,” but added that the DNA hearing limited the paths open to seek freedom. He said things have changed since Mr. Gibson was the prosecutor, but he said he has 5,000 cases a year to deal with and resources are tight.

Beyond that, Mr. Mullins was convicted by an all-white jury in a county that is 97 percent white. After slaves were freed, his great grandfather walked from Murfreesboro to Putnam County in the 1870s seeking greener pastures. It does not look like he found them.

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More on Gibson | More on Coomer | More on Bob Terry | More on Gibson and Burns

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Texas voters kick under-performing incumbent in the teeth

Chantal Eldridge beats scurrilous Texas judge

AUSTN, Texas (March 7, 2018) -- Chantal M. Eldridge, whose sister Darlene was murdered in an unprosecuted Cookeville arson fire 25 years ago, defeated incumbent David Crain by a better than 2-1 margin Tuesday and will succeed him on Texas' 331st criminal court bench.

Crain's shelf-life had passed the use-by date, Eldridge said in her campaign. Chantal M. EldridgeAfter three decades on the bench, defendants with cases before Crain languished in jail more than four months awaiting trial, the longest of any of the felony courts in the county.

According to unofficial returns, Eldridge beat Crain 69-31 percent, receiving more than double the votes for the incumbent, 68,105 to 30,225.

Eldridge's experience with the justice system in Tennessee has given her a perspective few other candidates can match: her sister was murdered, dying 11 days after a November 11, 1992, arson fire. The investigation was botched, records were concealed and Eldridge's brother, Fabien, was prosecuted for beating up a suspect in the murder by a pair of local attorneys who stood to profit in a civil case if Fabien were convicted. Former District Attorney General William E. Gibson was disbarred in 2009 for an unethical relationship with a prisoner his office prosecuted, but was reinstated in 2016. Gibson, who had a disgraceful history as state prosecutor, has repeatedly denied he used cocaine with Darlene Eldridge or her former boyfriend, who was a suspect in the arson/murder.

Meanwhile, according to Austin newspaper reports, Eldridge faced questions of her own concerning a 2006 Austin police investigation into allegations she had sex with a 16-year-old exchange student from Brazil who was living at her home. Police did not find facts sufficient to bring charges against Eldridge, who denied wrongdoing and accused Crain’s backers of “dirty politics” for leaking information about the investigation. While the age of consent in Brazil is 14, that would not make her immune from prosecution if the unsubstantiated allegations were proved.

Byron (Low Tax) Looper dies in prison after guards forcibly remove him from cell

June 26, 2013:"Tennessee Department of Corrections Commissioner Derrick Schofield asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to lead a probe into the circumstances of Looper’s death, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Russell Johnson, district attorney general for the 9th Judicial District, which includes Morgan County, approved the request.

Details remained sketchy Wednesday afternoon, but the district attorney general said he was told corrections officers “had to restrain and remove Looper as a result of an incident possibly involving other inmates” about 9 a.m. Wednesday, and Looper was taken for medical treatment before being placed in a medical isolation cell.

Looper was found dead an hour later, Johnson said he was told. More from Knoxville News Sentinel

More on Byron (Low Tax) Looper:

Latest story showing dog-killer Eric Hall's and Trooper Bush's cowardice

Appeals court affirms ruling for family

whose dog was shot by Cookeville officer

"The troopers put the Smoaks into separate patrol cars, after which Bush and Hall can be seen on the videotape grinning and laughing."

-- Court of Appeals opinion

Read the Court's opinion (Sept. 3, 2009)

"As the Smoaks knelt on the pavement and troopers applied the handcuffs, the two Cookeville officers — one wielding an assault rifle and the other a shotgun — prowled a few feet away, their raised guns tight against their shoulders and trained on the Smoaks. Although this gesture was superficially menacing and surely intended as an intimidating show of force, the way these two officers paced and shuffled behind the troopers, wavering guns gripped white-knuckled in their hands, exhibits such nervousness and fear that, even on video, the tension is palpable and the ensuing events are almost predictable.

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Allen Fredrickson photo

Police families who came out to support Police Officer Eric Hall must feel pretty stupid today when the national press is reporting on the Court of Appeals opinion, which paints Hall and Trooper David Bush as cowardly thugs.

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"It is also worth noting that, prior to trial, the troopers testified that pointing a gun at a suspect, absent the justification for deadly force, is a significant departure from customary professional police practices, and that the correct position of an officer’s gun is in the “down ready” position until deadly force is warranted. Nothing in this record provides a justification for deadly force, and this was not the 'down ready' position.

"Meanwhile, handcuffed on the side of the highway and still wholly uninformed about why they had been stopped, the Smoaks asked the troopers several times to “please shut the door[s]” of the station wagon so that their dogs would not escape from the car onto the highway. The troopers ignored these requests. When Mrs. Smoak’s son, Brandon, asked Trooper Phann if he could close the passenger-side door, Phann ordered him not to move. Lieutenant Andrews approached the driver’s side of the car, determined that there were no other passengers, and closed the driver-side door. At this point, Mrs. Smoak can be heard clearly, saying: “My dog is not mean, he will not hurt you.”

"While Phann was handcuffing Brandon, the Smoak’s one-year-old bulldog/bull terrier mix, General Patton, jumped from the still-open passenger-side door and — with ears up and tail wagging — bounded through the tall grass alongside the highway. According to the Smoaks, the dog was headed toward James Smoak, but Eric Hall, the Cookeville police officer with the shotgun, moved to intercept; according to Hall, however, the dog was pursuing him and he was retreating in fear.

"Either way, Hall back-peddled in a slight semi-circle, toward the handcuffed, prone, and now shouting Smoaks, with the excited dog following (tail wagging vigorously). Then, directly in front of the camera, when the dog had almost reached Hall, Hall stopped, leaned down with the shotgun and — with the gun’s muzzle almost touching the dog’s face — fired. The dog’s head exploded in a mist of blood, bone, and brain, and its lifeless body dropped from the camera’s view."

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