Monday, October 20, 2014

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U.Va. Law Clinics Help Exonerate Man Convicted of Rape, Ending Seven-Year Struggle

After a legal battle spanning almost seven years, the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project and Child Advocacy clinics have helped exonerate a man falsely accused of rape in 2007, when he was 15.

In an order released by the Stafford County Circuit Court on Monday, Judge Jane Marum Roush vacated the conviction of Mineral resident Edgar Coker and said he was no longer required to register as a sex offender. Roush’s opinion also said the original defense attorney’s representation of Coker “was not reasonably competent.”

The order followed an extended effort by Coker’s legal team to clear his name.

“It was very important to many people that we hang in there and keep defending Edgar Coker, no matter the legal hurdles, the odds or the costs,” said Deirdre Enright, director of investigation for the Innocence Project Clinic. “Edgar Coker is and always was innocent, in spite of legal determinations to the contrary. He plead guilty to avoid being sent to an adult detention center, and sadly, he’s not the only child in Virginia – or in this country – who has been forced to face such a draconian choice. Edgar’s case should motivate us to re-evaluate circumstances under which a prosecutor can make such a threat in a case like this.”

Andrew Block, director of the Child Advocacy Clinic, said the judge’s decision was a call for lawyers to take representing juveniles seriously.

“The court made quite clear that failing to prepare or just figuring things out on the day of court are constitutionally deficient legal strategies,” Block said. “While you might think that would be obvious, here in Virginia – where we have the lowest-paid court-appointed lawyers in the country, and no transcripts of juvenile proceedings – this opinion, unfortunately, is a necessary reminder for both lawyers and judges of what is required to effectively represent kids.”

After a prosecutor threatened to try him as an adult and seek a lengthy prison sentence, Coker pleaded guilty in juvenile court to rape and breaking and entering in 2007. Following his conviction, Coker was incarcerated by the Department of Juvenile Justice for 15 months and listed on the sex offender registry for six years.

Shortly after Coker’s conviction, his then-14-year-old accuser recanted her allegation of rape and admitted that she had lied about the nature of the incident with Coker, and said that the encounter had been consensual. (Both Coker and the accuser have IQs in the lowest 5 percent to 10 percent of the population, according to court filings.) Since then, Coker and his family have worked with the two U.Va. clinics, the JustChildren program at the Legal Aid Justice Center and the McGuireWoods law firm to clear his name.

In 2009, Coker’s legal team filed a habeas petition – a filing that seeks relief for unlawful detention – after Coker was released from the juvenile detention facility, but still on parole. After a Stafford County judge dismissed the suit, Coker appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

In January 2012, Matthew Engle, legal director of the Innocence Project Clinic, argued before the court that Coker’s writ of habeas corpus was valid because parole is unquestionably a form of detention. The Supreme Court agreed in a decision released two months later. The ruling cleared the way for Coker to sue the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice in a Stafford County court, the jurisdiction where he was originally convicted.

In remanding the case to Stafford County, the state Supreme Court tapped Roush, a Fairfax County judge, to preside over further proceedings.

“Judge Roush allowed discovery for the first time since the case was filed in 2009,” Engle said. “During this time, we learned for the first time that Edgar’s interview with the lead detective on the date of the alleged offense in 2007 had been recorded, and that his court-appointed defense attorney had never obtained a copy of that recording. Instead, the defense attorney had told Edgar that the detective was prepared to testify that Edgar had confessed to him, and that the only way for Edgar to avoid having his case transferred to circuit court to be tried as an adult was to enter a guilty plea.”

In July, Roush held a two-day evidentiary hearing in Stafford, where she heard from Coker and his parents, the lead detective, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, the complaining witness’ mother and others.

“After listening to the recording of Edgar’s interview with the lead detective in 2007, the judge found that Edgar had not confessed to any criminal conduct, and further found that reasonably competent defense counsel would not have simply accepted the police officer’s word that Edgar had confessed, but would have conducted an investigation that included, at a minimum, obtaining and reviewing the recording before advising her client to plead guilty,” Engle said. “Judge Roush also found that the defense lawyer failed to investigate the ability of the alleged victim to consent to sexual activity, her reputation for truthfulness, Edgar’s cognitive functioning and other exculpatory and mitigating evidence.

“The judge ruled that, had counsel performed these basic duties, Edgar would not have pleaded guilty.”

Over the years, Coker’s conviction had a profound effect on him and his family. They moved several times as a result of the stigma attached to his convictions, which led to threats from neighbors, and Coker has had trouble finding a job. His status as a registered sex offender had other consequences – for example, he was arrested in 2011 while attending a high school football game because he was no longer allowed on school property.

“Monday’s long-awaited court order will lift the stigma and formal barriers to success associated with being on the sex offender registry, but it’s worth remembering that no delete button can erase the hardship and humiliation that Edgar and his family have suffered for almost seven years,” JustChildren Program Legal Director Angela Ciolfi said.

Though the order gives the state 60 days to choose to retry Coker, any prosecution or appeal would face significant obstacles, Engle said. The judge based her decision largely on credibility determinations she made after observing the witnesses’ testimony at the evidentiary hearing, and those determinations are “extremely difficult to disturb on appeal.”

Furthermore, “since 2008, the complaining witness and her family have steadfastly insisted that Edgar did not commit any crime, including the mother’s testimony on behalf of Edgar at the July evidentiary hearing,” he said. “Therefore, this would be a very difficult case for the commonwealth to re-prosecute.”

Aida Fitzgerald, a 2013 U.Va. Law graduate and one of many students who worked on the case over the years, helped write a reply brief to the Virginia Supreme Court as a member of the Innocence Project Clinic.

“As I worked on Edgar's case, I tried to learn as much as I could from the errors that happened at the trial level to hopefully be more prepared and avoid similar mistakes when I started my career as a public defender,” said Fitzgerald, who now works with the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services.

“I’ve heard some attorneys use the phrase ‘trial psychosis’ to describe feeling better and better about a case the more time they spend on it, so that they think the only logical outcome should be in their favor,” she said. “To have this feeling about Edgar’s case become reality brought a huge smile to my face. I am so happy for Edgar and his family that the light at the end of this long tunnel is shining so brightly.”

Enright said it was notable that it took the resources of two legal clinics, the Legal Aid Justice Center and others to exonerate Coker.

“The victim recanted just months after he entered a guilty plea, but court after court refused to acknowledge the merits, citing procedural roadblocks,” Enright said. “There are very few people who could have afforded to litigate this case for six years, which emphasizes the importance of law school clinics and organizations that represent clients for free.”

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