Pro Se, Jose! Cameron Reaches Out to Avant Garde Judge Turned Activist for Prisoner Litigation Reform
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017 @ 10:29AM
As we continue to await a decision from the Supreme Court of Virginia on Cameron’s habeas appeal, we have recently become aware that a well renowned and widely cited federal judge from the Seventh Circuit has just retired his post and decided to make a concerted effort to reform the federal judicial system. Finding himself fed up with the way the courts so routinely turn a blind eye to pro se litigation, the Honorable Judge Posner threw off his robes this fall and donned the mantle of activist as he pledged to work towards reshaping the system to make sure it takes pro se filings seriously and disposes of them based on their merit as opposed to whose signature can be found at the end of them. To this effect, Judge Posner has gotten involved in pending cases involving pro se petitioners, including in the Fourth Circuit, and has just released a new book on this whole subject to add to the dozens of other books be has written (View Posner’s book here). Upon learning of Judge Posner’s efforts, Cameron was moved to reach out to him, and so he did by writing him a letter dated October 23, 2017 which requested his assistance in Cameron’s case.
If Cameron is able to successfully forge an alliance with Judge Posner, their tandem would have the potential to really shake things up. Cameron’s struggle is not only representative of precisely the kind of uphill battle Judge Posner is seeking to relieve, but we think that there is no better example of that struggle in the country than Cameron’s. We think it would be impossible to find a pro se petitioner who has fought more valiantly or more intelligently, been more diligent or comprehensive, successfully secured more hard-to-get crucial evidence, or submitted more lawyerlike pleadings than Cameron. And this all goes without mentioning the fact that he is demonstrably innocent and that his constitutional rights were violated at trial. Yet, despite all this hard work and despite how extremely compelling Cameron’s habeas filings have been, his quest for justice has literally been completely ignored by the justice system and by judges who blindly sign final orders drafted for them by the state’s attorneys as soon as they hit their desk. Given these circumstances, we think Judge Posner will see in this case an opportunity for a landmark victory and a turning point in this nascent judicial reform movement.
Because Cameron’s letter has substantial value as a kind of summary of his habeas efforts and for highlighting some of the most powerful evidence in his case, and because we have made transparency a fundamental value at this site, we are posting the full text of Cameron’s letter below.
Dear Judge Posner:
My name is Cameron Crockett, and I have spent nearly the last six years in prison working tirelessly as a pro se litigant to reverse my wrongful conviction and win a new trial. It has recently been brought to my attention that, after years of experience on the bench seeing how incarcerated pro se litigants are treated, you have committed yourself to championing reform efforts aimed at having the courts take our filings more seriously. I have been studying the law zealously for years, working as a clerk in the prison law library most of this time, and have consistently submitted exceptional work to the courts, only to have them ignore me and blindly sign partisan, pre-packaged final orders copied verbatim from the state’s responsive pleadings. Given my frustration and experience with this kind of languid treatment of my filings, I have found myself interested in your work, and presently I feel compelled to seek your assistance in my case. So if you would, please indulge me a bit of your time so that I can describe to you my predicament, which has become the defining struggle of my young life.
As a matter of pertinent background, I was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2012 following a five-day jury trial in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I am currently awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court of Virginia on my habeas appeal from the Virginia Beach Circuit Court. My conviction stems from a fatal single-vehicle accident in 2008 which tragically claimed the life of my best friend, Jack Korte. Jack and I had been drinking heavily at a house party that night when our mutual friend, Jacob Palmer, suggested that we all go get rolling papers from the store so we could smoke a marijuana cigarette together. Because Jacob was the only one of us who was not drunk at the time, I agreed to let him drive the three of us in my car to the store to do just that. On the way back, however, Jacob was speeding on a curvy, poorly-lit residential road and lost control of the car, slamming its front passenger side into a tree. Being that my car was a 2-door coupe (1998 Honda Accord), and I was 6’2″ in height compared to Jack at 6’5″, I thought I had done him a favor before we left the party by letting him ride up front in that very seat as I took the back. The impact of the crash caused me to lose consciousness (and it also caused a bout of amnesia which has, in part, stuck around to this day), but according to the 911 dispatch recordings and the testimony at trial, when neighbors responded to the crash site a couple of minutes later they found me knocked out in the back seat and Jack badly mangled in the wreckage up front. The driver’s side was intact, and the driver’s seat itself was empty, with the seat belt hanging ominously over the backrest as if somebody had unbuckled it and left.
Hours later, while I was being treated at the hospital, an officer from the Fatal Accident Crash Team approached me with a preconceived narrative that assumed my guilt and he proceeded to question me despite being aware of my amnesiac state.
He elicited certain incriminating statements from me, including but not limited to the confused question, “I mean, did I hit someone, or I mean?” This, of course, was taken entirely out of context and exploited ruthlessly by the prosecution at trial as some kind of confession. It ended up being their best evidence against me. Absent any real investigation following this interrogation, police seized on their premature confidence in my guilt and charged me that same night.
When we went to trial, we presented a solid case, but it was not enough. Notwithstanding uncontradicted witness testimony establishing that Jacob Palmer left the party at the same time as me and Jack, and notwithstanding further uncontested testimony to the effect that Jacob returned to the party hours later “acting weird and sketchy,” “breathing heavy as if he’d been running,” and “asking about Cameron and Jack,” the jury still convicted. The jury was also aware of where I was found in the vehicle, among other pieces of significant exculpatory evidence, such as a black jacket found on the scene of the crash that could only have been left there by a third person involved in the accident.
Despite the unfavorable result, the case was balanced on a knife’s edge. As it turns out, there were jurors who, according to their affidavits provided in support of my habeas petition, had a reasonable doubt as to guilt but were pressured into a guilty verdict by other jurors who wanted to bring what was a lengthy case to a close. Yet other jurors stated in their affidavits that they were going to acquit until they heard my statements to police. Little did I know at the time, thanks to my amnesia for much of the events surrounding the accident, that my trial lawyer, Andrew Sacks, had failed to investigate certain pivotal facts which would have led invariably to the suppression of those statements.
Our habeas investigation uncovered those facts. One of my best friends took it upon himself to become certified as a private investigator in Virginia and interviewed the interrogating officer in my case. This interview revealed that I had been handcuffed on the scene of the crash, accompanied in the ambulance by multiple police officers, and kept under constant cuff and guard until the interrogating officer arrived at the hospital to question me. As you might suspect, I was not Mirandized prior to being questioned, so these obviously custodial circumstances would have absolutely merited the suppression of my statements had my lawyer done his job.
We also went out and hired an expert neuropsychologist by the name of Dr. John Matthew Fabian, Psy.D., J.D., to study the voluntariness of my statements given my condition at the time of questioning (which Mr. Sacks neglected to do in spite of my express insistence), and he provided a strong affidavit which I used to formulate a separate but related claim of ineffective assistance of counsel concerning my lawyer’s failure to investigate the circumstances attending to my statements.
But Mr. Sacks’ shortcomings do not stop there. As I alluded to earlier, the driver’s side seat belt was of interest to us from the beginning. This was because we had detected an exculpatory contrast in the evidence: that is, while what we knew (including the police’s own crash report) indicated that the belt was in use during the crash, other objective evidence affirmatively established that I was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the collision. Thus, it was clear that we needed to have an expert come in to scientifically determine whether the driver’s seat belt was, in fact, in use for the crash. Counsel acknowledged this need and signed off on initiating the investigation; however, much like one case you sat on by the name of Brown v. Sternes, 304 F.3d 677 (7th Cir., Ill. 2002), he simply failed to follow up on this strategic decision. Counsel even had an offer from one expert to perform the seat belt inspection for free, but counsel never brought this offer to fruition. Post-conviction investigation has revealed, through the expert report of Dr. David Pape, that the driver’s seat belt was in use and functioned properly at the time of the collision. Doubtless, the pithy but potent contrast between scientific evidence on one hand definitively establishing that the driver was belted and unrefuted evidence on the other hand clearly showing that I was not belted for the crash is immensely exculpatory. From both an objective and a subjective standpoint– as various juror affidavits discussing this new evidence demonstrate– the seat belt evidence would certainly have changed the verdict in my case.
To compound the unfairness of my trial, the prosecution also concealed a number of items of exculpatory evidence from the defense at trial. We actually happened upon much of this suppressed evidence via subpoena duces tecum when the lead investigating officer in my case, MPO Thomas Kellogg, made the blunderous decision to sue my mother for defamation after she filed a complaint against him with Internal Affairs for not properly investigating the accident. Anyway, for the sake of brevity, I will summarize the suppressed evidence by saying that it could have been used to impeach two key Commonwealth witnesses (and even rather credibly suggest that their testimony was deliberately coached and embellished), directly support the defense’s theory of the case, and impugn the thoroughness and good faith of the police investigation. Moreover, while we know that the prosecution pulled the driver’s side airbag from the car, presumably to test the blood left on its surface, they have never disclosed what kind of testing they performed on the airbag, let alone what the results of such tests were.
Not surprisingly, my habeas motion for discovery on this issue was completely ignored and the judge didn’t even bother to rule on it before he dismissed the petition. And this came in the face of an affidavit from longtime CSI expert and fatal crash investigator, Robert F. Bagnell, which established unequivocally that the prosecution had misled the defense about the status of the airbag.
I rounded out my habeas petition with a freestanding claim of actual innocence, whose cognizability on habeas is, as you know, debatable. But in any event, I supported this claim with a robust repertoire of evidence. Apart from reiterating the exculpatory evidence implicating Jacob Palmer at trial, I emphasized two groups of evidence in particular that were not presented to the jury: the newly-discovered seat belt report, and evidence of a confession as well as a host of other incriminating and inconsistent statements made by Jacob Palmer. Crucially, in connection with the seat belt evidence, I presented the affidavit of 45+ year accident reconstruction expert Ron Kirk from Raleigh, NC, which stated that he was certain to a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that I could not have been the belted driver based on where I was found unconscious in the back seat by the first neighbor to respond to the accident. All of this new evidence, I’m afraid, has been ignored by the courts as well.
While this all provides a good overview of the nature of my case, there are far too many moving parts, critical little gems of information, and unique happenings involved here for me to be able to explain them all to you in this, my introductory, letter. That being said, I am enclosing along with this letter several important documents which I believe will elucidate some of these other salient facts and offer you an opportunity to gain a much fuller understanding of my case. These are:
(1) Va. Beach Circuit Court Habeas Petition
(2) Supreme Court of Virginia Habeas Appeal
(3) 3A:24 Motion to Vacate
(4) David Pape Report
(5) Ron Kirk Affidavit
(6) Juror Affidavits
(7) Robert F. Bagnell Affidavit
(8) John M. Fabian Affidavit
(9) Officer Wallace’s Affidavit & Audio Recording
10) Audio Recording of My Statements to Police
(11) 911 Call
(12) Tori Miranda Affidavit & Partial Audio Recording
I know this all seems like a lot to digest at once, but I provide you with all of this because each of these items is referenced at some point in my letter. I believe you will find #3, the “3A:24 Motion to Vacate”, especially intriguing, as it involves a matter of first impression in Virginia and it also just so happens to be right up your alley in that it deals squarely with courts giving pro se petitioners second-rate treatment. I would encourage you, though, to have a glance at all of these items, for they are each very compelling in their own right.
In closing, I will say that I hope my case captures your attention. Truth be told, though, at this point I am not even sure how exactly you might be able to help or how I might like for you to help. I am a very capable self-advocate who has historically been very skeptical of any outside assistance at all, as I imagine my experience with my trial lawyer and the prosecution in my case might do to anyone. But I have a different feeling about this. I have a different feeling about you and your campaign.
Up to this point in my struggle, I have felt like courts literally don’t even read my submissions; they just see “pro se” and throw it in the dump. This, in turn, has led me to feel like it doesn’t even matter to the powers that be if I’m innocent or if my constitutional rights have been violated, much less whether my legal arguments are sound or if my facts are well-evidenced. The truth is that I am up against a soulless system that routinely discards, discounts, and discriminates against pro se filings. You, however, could be the force that brings this shameful practice to an end, for me and for many others after me. We the disenfranchised and forgotten have been waiting for someone like you to emerge and lead this movement.
This is a proud, solo stalwart’s call for aid. Your reinforcement could break this siege and send the dominoes tumbling on reform. When you have the time, please let me know what your thoughts are on how you might be able to help. I thank you for your time, and I look forward to your correspondence.
Cameron P. Crockett
“When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
We will bring you more news as things develop. It is only a matter of time. We remain confident in an eventual victory, however long overdue it may be. Thank you guys for all of your support!