Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Today's Hearing in Federal Court: A Summary

This morning in Courtroom 1035 of the US District Court, Southern District of New York, I witnessed a profound scene as I entered the courtroom at 9:20 AM. Seated at the defense table was our attorney Robert Boyle, attorney Glenn Garber, Director of The Exoneration Initiative, attorney Rebecca Freedman, Assistant Director of The Exoneration Initiative, and Shane Watson, seated between Robert and Rebecca. This was the first time I’ve seen Shane seated at the defense table dressed in street clothes; a shirt and tie. The last time I saw Shane in court was in the state appellate court in 2014, before sleepy Judge Richard Price. In those hearings Shane was outfitted in prison garb, and led into the courtroom in chains. The atmosphere this morning in Federal Court was markedly different. Today Shane sat as a (almost) free citizen, and was just a short distance away from the witness stand, where Miss Christine Holloway testified for over two hours. Miss Holloway, who resides in Georgia, was brought to New York at the request of Judge Paul Engelmayer, the presiding judge in this hearing, in order to essentially measure her credibility as a witness who has recanted her testimony. 

On Wednesday October 9,  1991, Christine Holloway, a former Corrections Officer for the City of New York with over 5 years of experience, was parking her car late at night off of Schieffelin Avenue in the Bronx, when she saw a person walk past the front of her car, dressed in dark clothing, wearing a hoodie tightly drawn over her/his head. Miss Holloway was thinking about her brother during those moments. She had just returned from signing a “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) release, as her brother was suffering from AIDS and terminally ill. While seated in her car attempting to park, Miss Holloway heard gunshots, and saw a person running after another person on the street, some 60-70 feet away. A homicide had been committed, and Miss Holloway was questioned by  NYC Detective Sevile Jones as to what she had seen. This questioning went into the early hours of the next morning. In essence, Detective Jones’ questioning was designed to coerce Miss Holloway into identifying Shane Watson as the shooter. A photo of Shane Watson was shown to Miss Holloway, who was told “This is the guy” and “We have other witnesses who have ID’d him.” Jones was playing on the fact that Holloway, a corrections officer, would consider the police to be “comrades” (her term). After relentless questioning and coercion, Holloway changed her position from declaring that she had not seen the face of the person wearing the dark clothes and hoodie (the truth), and complying with Detective Jones’ insistence that Shane Watson “was the bad guy”.  The inherent flaws in Detective Jones’ questioning is described here by our investigator Doug Walters:

In 2011 we located Christine Holloway in Georgia. Another investigator employed by our attorney Robert Boyle succeeded in speaking with her and she stated that her conscience had troubled her for many years and that she was willing to execute an affidavit with Mr. Boyle, which she did. In the affidavit she confirmed that she never saw the shooter well enough to identify him, and that she did identify Shane Watson only because the police and District Attorney told her “he was the shooter” and “a bad man” and they needed her to help them. She further stated that the police showed her a photo of Shane Watson BEFORE showing her the photo array and instructed her that he was the killer. This alone would have resulted in dismissal of the charges had the court known of it. Ms. Holloway also stated in her affidavit that many of the details of her testimony at the trial were total fabrications suggested to her by the prosecution in an attempt to make her story seem plausible. 

Twenty-seven years later, Christine Holloway sat on the witness stand this morning, holding firm to her initial statements to the police and Detective Jones that she did notsee the face of the shooter, in factcould nothave seen this person’s face given the brief time span (3-5 seconds according to her statements) during which this person crossed in front of her car in the dark of night. This morning in court Miss Holloway seemed weary at times, but was adamant about two things: 1) she never saw the face of the shooter, and 2) she lied at Shane’s 1993 trial about being able to identify him BECAUSE she thought that Detective Jones (and the police) “told me they had the right guy”. She went on to explain that she was afraid of “getting into trouble” or “going to jail” if she changed her story. These fears stayed with her even in 2013, when the Bronx District Attorney’s Office brought her to New York for questioning. During this meeting (interrogation), the Assistant DA and his colleagues intimidated Holloway enough to make her stand by her false trial testimony. 
Where does the case now stand? The facts are this: Christine Holloway recanted her false trial testimony to our defense team in 2011. In court this morning she withstood intense cross examination by the prosecutors and held firm to her conviction that she never could identify Shane Watson, or anyone, on the basis of what she saw on October 9, 1991, and was told repeatedly by Detective Jones that “(Shane) was the bad guy”. 

Judge Paul Engelmayer was actively engaged in this morning’s hearings. Several times, during the prosecutor’s questioning of Holloway, the judge interrupted the questioning and calmly asked Holloway direct questions himself, respectfully and patiently. Glenn Garber led the questioning for the defense, purposely refocusing the questions toward what was most important: the truth, and the fact that Christine Holloway was here to admit (again) that her 1993 trial testimony was false.

 Listening to Christine Holloway became frustrating at times, in part because of the prosecutors aggressive and pointed attempts to unnerve her. Despite this, Miss Holloway spoke with obvious passion, credibility and remorse each time she proclaimed to the prosecutor “I lied!” (at trial). 

Judge Engelmayer concluded the hearing with a directive to the defense team and the prosecution. The judge requested that each side provide a letter, 10 pages maximum, in which the respective sides would express their arguments regarding the credibility of Christine Holloway’s recantation.This issue alone, in fact, is what Judge Engelmayer’s ultimate decision will be based upon, under the parameters of the law. Letters are due by January 4, 2019.

Following the formal hearing, the judge asked Shane (through Robert Boyle) what his life was like now. Mr. Boyle informed the judge that Shane is back with his family and working full time, an admirable achievement, since Shane was released on parole only nine weeks ago. The judge congratulated Shane and concluded today’s hearing. Following this, we gathered in the hallway outside the courtroom: Shane, Paula, Shane’s mother Joan and brother Clayton, Glenn, Rebecca, Robert and me. Glenn remarked that “you have to be in it to win it”, and “although it will be very difficult to prove the legal standard required for Judge Engelmayer to rule in Shane’s favor, today went about as well as it could have.” 

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