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Sarah Huckabee Sanders Decides To Keep Obviously Innocent Man In Prison At Least Six More Years On Top Of 30 He's Already Served
Oooh so tough on nonexistent crime. Looks like we got us a badass!
There is new information in the unbelievably tragic case of Charlie Vaughn, an Arkansas man who has spent the last three decades in prison for a crime that another man confessed to committing all by himself. Journalist Radley Balko, who has been covering Vaughn’s case for some time now, shared this week that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has refused to grant clemency.
It’s hardly surprising, given Sanders’s penchant for cruelty, but it’s particularly galling given the overwhelming evidence of Vaughn’s innocence and the fact that he is largely only in prison for reasons of paperwork.
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In 1988, Charlie Vaughn, who suffers from both mental illness and a severe intellectual disability, and three other men were accused of raping and murdering 81-year-old Myrtle Holmes. Two of those men were later released from prison after another confessed to having committed the crime alone. This checked out with a subsequent DNA analysis that found that the man who confessed was the only one whose DNA was found at the scene.
Vaughn was not released, however, because he did not know about those developments in the case and therefore did not file a claim within one year of new evidence being uncovered. According to the state of Arkansas, this means he forfeited the ability to cite any of the evidence that led to his supposed accomplices’ exonerations.
The state of Arkansas would later argue that Vaughn should have been aware of the developments in the other two cases, and because he didn’t file a claim within a year of when the attorneys in those cases uncovered new evidence, he had failed to show due diligence, and therefore is barred from benefiting from that new evidence.
When that evidence was revealed, Vaughn was sitting in an Arkansas prison cell. He had no attorney at the time. Vaughn is also illiterate. During questioning for an evidentiary hearing in one of the other two cases, Vaughn appeared to think the hearing was for him.
The other defendants were also initially barred from using the “newly discovered evidence” because they missed other paperwork deadlines themselves.
But while they eventually prevailed, Vaughn was barred from filing for relief on a federal level because at one point, several years ago, he sent a petition and a letter (written by another prisoner as he cannot read or write) to the federal courthouse in Arkansas saying that he was innocent of the crime, did not understand what he was pleading guilty to and had ineffective assistance. All of these things were true, but the letter was dismissed.
You see, outrage over Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City led to fears that McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols could spend the rest of their lives jamming up the court system with appeals. This led to a former Arkansas governor (sorry) signing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) into law, which restricted prisoners to only one federal review of their case. So the petition that Vaughn sent to the federal courthouse without the assistance of an actual lawyer counted as his “one shot.”
It’s not just the confession that points to Charlie Vaughn’s innocence. He was kept in prison for over a year before he “confessed” himself, after being told that it was the only way he could avoid the death penalty. A judge actually asked for Vaughn to be given a competency hearing, but instead of doing that, the sheriff sent in an informant to talk to him and extract a confession, of which there is literally no record. There is also a ton of evidence that the prosecutors in the case hid or destroyed exculpatory evidence.
It could not be more clear that Charlie Vaughn is innocent. Even Myrtle Holmes’s niece, her only surviving relative, has been campaigning for his release — because she actually does not feel as though it serves justice to just punish “someone, anyone” for her grandmother’s murder.
Vaughn’s attorney Stuart Chanen made a plea to Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders over the summer and met with her chief counsel, Cortney Kennedy. It seemed to have gone well, but he ultimately got this very short and not-so-sweet response.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chanen,
The Governor completed her review of Mr. Vaughn’s file last week. Unfortunately, she has chosen not to grant clemency at this time. He will be able to reapply in 6 years, pursuant to statute.
Six years! Six actual years! The guy is obviously innocent, but he has to wait six years! So surprising that with judgment like this, Sanders is the most unpopular Arkansas governor in 20 years.
Balko suggests that part of the reason that Sanders refuses to grant clemency is because her father Mike Huckabee, while governor of Arkansas, was criticized for granting clemency to several people he thought had changed, who later went on to commit other crimes. This is very different from granting clemency to someone who is actually innocent.
But Sarah Huckabee Sanders is determined to be seen as “tough on crime” and sometimes that means keeping obviously innocent people in prison to show how serious you are about being “tough on crime.” Like sending a toe to the parents of your hostage.
Since taking office at the start of the year, Sanders has staked out a Trumpian line on criminal justice. In April she signed a bill that revoked parole for some crimes, made it more difficult for others, and reduced the amount of time prisoners can have taken off their sentences for good behavior. The bill also green-lights construction of a new 3,000-bed prison.
What has happened to Vaughn is not a bug, it’s a feature. It is about “projecting strength” — which, as far as most of the political Right is concerned, means going balls to the wall without much thought as to whether or not that is actually a good idea. Only wimpy pajama boys care about things like “actual innocence.” (Certainly dead Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia did not.) Only a bleeding heart idiot who never would have made it in the Wild West would think that prosecutors should have to play by the rules when the criminals sure don’t, or that maybe police interrogators should “go easy” on a mentally ill person with a severe intellectual disability who cannot read or write and has been locked up in a prison for a full year.
They actually do believe that if they make an exception for someone who is innocent, then the guilty people will be able to just walk all over them. It does not matter if innocent people are locked up, because locking innocent people up makes them look more badass and makes the criminals think “Boy, if they’re keeping this obviously innocent person in prison for 30 years because of a paperwork fuckup, imagine what they’d do to me!” Or so they believe.
AEDPA was signed into law because it was assumed that states would do a good job of releasing the wrongly convicted on their own without the need for federal interference. Clearly that has not been the case, so perhaps it is time to revisit that.