Case Study: Christopher Taylor

Taylor's lawyer was suspended from practicing during the robbery trial.

Taylor did, in fact, have a regular source of income: He received $626 a month in SSI payments because of diagnosed psychological problems. Though his lawyer, Robert E. Mitchell -- who has since been disbarred for five acts of moral turpitude and 29 acts of misconduct -- could easily have produced a canceled check to prove it, he didn't. The prosecutor used this lack of corroboration to discredit Taylor's testimony. (Mitchell could not be reached for comment.)

According to the Innocence Project Network, poor defense lawyering, a common cause of wrongful conviction, can be countered with more resources and better articulation of standards for defense attorneys -- tough, expensive reforms, but ones that have been pursued in other states.

An ineffective advocate for Taylor, Mitchell also failed to scrutinize the eyewitness testimony that ultimately convinced the jury. Two identifications, in particular, were problematic. These witnesses -- a bank teller and a customer -- were not asked to view a live or photo lineup before the trial, and yet when they took the witness stand they were each asked to identify the robber. Both pointed to Taylor.

If in-court identifications are not combined with a traditional lineup beforehand, they can easily lead to eyewitness error. "It's especially problematic for a witness to take the stand who has never been subjected to a lineup, which is the only fair test," says Iowa State University's Gary Wells, an expert on eyewitness identification. "The problem with the in-court ID is that it's obvious to everyone who the defendant is: Sometimes it's the only black guy at the defense table." Mitchell should have done a better job of raising questions about the in-court identifications.

The lawyer built an alibi defense that consisted of Taylor, his family members, and his friend Gilbert Benavides, who all testified that Taylor was at his grandparents' home at about the time of the robbery. (Benavides also testified that Taylor had a gun at his grandparents' house.) It is likely that the jury didn't believe Taylor's alibi; research by Gary Wells shows that alibis involving friends and family carry little weight in court.

The jury members spent five of their seven hours of deliberation rereading the testimony of the eyewitnesses. When they returned from the jury room, they found Taylor guilty on all counts.

Mary Lou Hillberg has been Christopher Taylor's most diligent attorney, and she continues to search for an overlooked detail that could help her client win his freedom. During her reinvestigation of the case, she has obtained FBI records showing that six eyewitnesses to the crime thought the robber was 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 9 inches tall (Taylor is 5 feet 11 inches). She petitioned to have the fingerprints lifted from the teller drawers run through a criminal database to see if another perpetrator could be identified, but criminologists weren't able to match the partial prints. A cooperative district attorney helped Hillberg acquire clearance to look at all the police files on the case -- including the original security video footage. She plans to review the files and use computer technology to get clearer pictures of the robber from the video.

Though the Santa Clara District Attorney's Office has aided Hillberg in her investigation, it believes a "mountain of evidence" points to Taylor. "Justice dictates that we do our best to ensure that only the guilty are convicted, so groups like the Innocence Project are necessary," says Dan Okonkwo, the deputy district attorney who tried the case. "But that doesn't mean that every case they have an interest in, that that person is, in fact, innocent." Hillberg's current hope is that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will agree to look at Taylor's case, and allow a hearing where she can present the evidence never introduced during his trial. But if the 9th Circuit declines, she will have to file a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, almost certainly a losing proposition. "The chance of [the U.S. Supreme Court] taking the case is less than a snowball's chance in hell," she says. Hillberg is deeply frustrated by this case: Taylor is one of the few clients she's seen in her 24-year career who she feels is "honest-to-God factually innocent."

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