Cameron’s Habeas Appeal Filed in the Supreme Court of Virginia
Sunday, November 20th, 2016 @ 1:14AM
On Monday, November 7th, 2016, Cameron appealed the Virginia Beach Circuit Court’s denial of his habeas petition to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The petition was denied in the lower court on August 23rd, 2016.
The appeal makes out twelve assignments of error. These assignments of error stem mostly from five core claims that comprise the thrust of the appeal.
First, Cameron continues to push several claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. His contentions are that his trial lawyer, Andrew Sacks, failed to suppress his statements to police and that he failed to investigate crucial exculpatory evidence regarding the engagement of the driver’s seat belt at the time of the accident.
As to the first issue, Cameron alleges that, had counsel adequately investigated the case, he would have discovered that Cameron was in police custody when he was questioned in the hospital, meaning that the police’s failure to Mirandize him rendered his statements inadmissible. He also says that a reasonable investigation would have led to the suppression of the statements on the grounds that they were involuntary due to Cameron’s amnesia following a traumatic brain injury suffered during the crash. Though the interrogating officer never asked Cameron if he was driving, and though Cameron never said that he was, the statements were still incriminating and formed a big part of the prosecution’s case. Thus, Cameron argues, their exclusion from trial would have likely led to an acquittal.
Also, had counsel obtained an expert to examine the driver’s side seat belt, the defense would have discovered that it was definitely in use during the collision. This is absolutely crucial, as the evidence in the case was clear, convincing, and undisputed that Cameron was NOT belted during the crash. Consequently, had the jury heard scientific evidence that the driver was belted for the accident, they would have been compelled to acquit.
Moreover, Cameron maintains that the prosecution nefariously suppressed a variety of exculpatory evidence. This evidence would have impeached the prosecution’s two most important witnesses, impugned the thoroughness and good faith of the police investigation, and supported the defense that the real driver was able to flee the scene before neighbors could respond to the crash. Taken together, it is Cameron’s position that this evidence would probably have affected the verdict had it been properly disclosed.
Cameron’s freestanding claim of actual innocence is also key to this appeal. In the Commonwealth of Virginia at present, standalone claims of actual innocence are not cognizable on habeas corpus. That is, the courts do not grant habeas petitions based on innocence per se. In what would seem a very counterintuitive rule of law, Virginia does not consider it a constitutional violation to be convicted as innocent man. Rather, more “traditional” constitutional violations must be present, such as a violation of the right to the effective assistance of counsel. Cameron is asking the Supreme Court of Virginia in this appeal to change that rule and expressly recognize his substantive claim of actual innocence. In support of this argument, Cameron has mustered an overwhelming farrago of evidence demonstrating his innocence, some of which was presented at trial, but most of which has only since been discovered. The chances of the Supreme Court changing course on this issue now are slim; but if ever there were a shot, it belongs to Cameron.
We find it worth stressing here what this evidence of innocence is comprised of. Uncontested testimony from multiple witnesses shows that Cameron, Jack, and Jacob Palmer were all at a house party together just before the accident. The host of the party testified under oath that all three men left the party at the exact same time, and only after Jacob Palmer walked over to him from where Cameron and Jack were standing to ask him what he wanted from the store (the undisputed evidence at trial was that they were all going to the store to buy blunt wraps). Jacob Palmer’s phone records confirm that he left the party at the same time that Cameron and Jack did and that he was gone for hours. At the scene of the crash, Cameron was found unconscious in the back seat of the car with no seat belt on or around him. A jacket was found on the scene near the vehicle that could only be explained by the presence of a third person and true driver (and indeed, the prosecution has never offered any explanation for the jacket). Also at trial, Cameron took the stand and vehemently denied the charges against him. He explained that he let Jacob drive because he and Jack were too drunk to drive, while Jacob had only had a couple of drinks.
This was all in front of the jury at trial. Since then, Cameron’s team has produced its strongest evidence yet. The seat belt evidence speaks for itself and is abundantly clear: the driver was belted, and Cameron was not; so Cameron was not the driver. But if this were not self-evident enough, 45-year accident reconstruction expert Ron Kirk has affirmed under oath that he is certain Cameron could not have been the belted driver based on where he was first found in the vehicle. Furthermore, two witnesses have testified that Jacob Palmer confessed to his crime, saying that he “got free” when Cameron was convicted and that he planned on living his life as if he had done nothing. Lastly, Palmer has offered four different, entirely inconsistent and demonstrably false stories to investigators and other witnesses as to his activities on the night of the accident.
As Cameron summarized in his appeal: “Viewed objectively, [the evidence] creates a constitutionally intolerable probability that a young man has been and will remain locked up for years for killing his best friend when he is actually innocent of that crime.”
Lastly, the appeal alleges that the lower court should have provided Cameron the funding that he requested to investigate serious claims of police, prosecutorial, and judicial misconduct. Cameron laid out a prima facie case in the circuit court that (1) Virginia Beach Police Sergeant Anthony Palmer (Jacob Palmer’s father) intimidated another witness to whom Jacob had confessed; (2) prosecutor Kari Kopnicky was actually friends with Sergeant Palmer and Jacob Palmer, creating an impermissible conflict of interest; and (3) trial judge Frederick B. Lowe held personal ties with Jack’s highly-connected political family, the Kortes, creating cause for recusal.
Needless to say, it should be very interesting to see how the Supreme Court of Virginia deals with these issues. As we have stated many times before, we do not expect the state courts to budge. Chances are they will keep pretending as if Cameron’s case has no merit and pass the buck to the federal system, whereupon they would pray the feds join them. But you never know, someone in Richmond might actually read the stuff and do something with it. We shudder to think it, but they might even act in accordance with what the law so clearly demands on the facts of this tragic case. We’ll just have to see.
When we talked to Cameron about this update, he was his usual cautiously optimistic self. He did have a bit of political humor for us, though, and said: “Hell, if Trump pulls off a win in this election like it’s looking right now, then anything is possible. In a Trump world, you just gotta grab the fat lady and make her sing!”
We expect a decision within 4-8 months. Let’s hope Cameron can shake things up and make something happen! As ever, stay tuned for updates in the meantime. Until victory always!