Mike has been granted an evidentary hearing on claim II, but rejected on claims I and III. At this point he has not been given a date for his evidentary hearing.
Feb 12th 2001 - New appeal filed.
After many months of development, on January 10, 2001 attorneys representing Michael formally filed a comprehensive "amended" motion to vacate judgements and sentences of death pursuant to Judge Corbin's October 25, 2000 order.
This appeal has been filed before Judge Corbin in Ft. Myers, Florida and consolidates numerous claims based upon newly discovered evidence. The ability to consolidate all of these claims into a single comprehensive appeal will work to Michael's advantage as it will compel the Courts to consider three plea claims together. Arguably, if these claims were reviewed separately each standing alone might have been picked apart by the State and found to have been inadequate to vacate the convictions. However, collectively these claims illustrate a total deprivation of a fair trial and allow the Court to directly address the validity of the State's theory of premeditated murder in context to the substantial wealth of evidence never heard by the jury that when considered in its totally establishes that the State's theory of premeditated murder stands contrary to the objective evidence.
The claims presented within this newly submitted appeal are divided into three sections. The first claim is based on newly discovered evidence that the judge that presided over the trial harbored substantial bias against Capital defendents. Under applicable law, lawyers are prohibited from investigating a judge as means of establishing alleged prejudice because allowing such investigations would open the door to administrative chaos as criminal defendents would embark on "fishing expeditions" when a judge is perceived to be a pro-state and the defenent would like to have the case reassigned. However, these rules also require a judge to fully disclose any pre-existing bias he might harbor against a criminal defendent and if a judge believed any bias might exist the Judge is required to disqualify himself from the case.
In Michael's case an original jury trial ended in a "hung jury" after the original jury deliberated over eleven continuous hours without being able to agree on any verdict. A subsequent retrial was ordered and during the two months between the first trial and the second trial, the State attempted to coerce Michael to plea guilty in exchange for a significantly reduced charge of second degree murder. Under then applicable sentencing guidelines, had Michael accepted the plea agreement, the maximum sentence imposed would have been 17-22 years, with credit for "gaintime" awarded to all prisoners as an incentive for good behavior, Michael would have been released no later then 1997.
When Michael refused to accept the plea agreement, actions attributable to the State resulted in having the original Judge (Adams) suddenly released just before the re-trail and replaced with Judge Richard Stanley. At the time it was already known that prior to becoming a Judge Richard Stanley spent his career exclusively as a State Prosecutor and that since becoming a judge he had presided over 2 previous Capital cases. In both cases, the jury recommended imposition of "life " sentences, but contrary to applicable law, Judge Stanley overrode the recommendation of "life" and imposed sentences of death. In both cases the State Supreme Court subsequently vacated the death sentences as being improperly impaired. However, a judge cannot be disqualified solely upon prior rulings and thus this was not sufficient to warrant disqualification at the time of Michael's trial.
Judge Stanley's bias against capital defendants manifested itself throughout Michael's second trial, beginning with the selection of the jury. Judge Stanley refused to dismiss jurors who were directly related to members of the small local sheriff's department, including the step-father of a local deputy who at the time was under an FBI criminal investigation for physically assaulting Michael at the County jail in an attempt to coerce a confession. When the trial got underway, Judge Stanley refused to allow the State's sole witness to be cross-examined on numerous stories she told the police prior to finally coming up with the account she testified to at the trial. Also, the jury were not allowed to know that this key witness actually told at least three other stories that directly conflicted with her trial testimony. Finally, Judge Stanley refused to take appropriate action to allow Michael the opportunity to testify and tell his side of the story. Thus the jury was not allowed to hear Michael's side of what really took place.
But again, because of legal technicalities a criminal defendant cannot challenge a Judge's qualifications and objectivity based on judicial rulings adversally to the defendant. Therefore, for years there was no legal foundation upon which to challenge these prejudical rulings that effectively deprived Michael of a fair trial by depriving Michael of the ability to expose the State's fabricated hypothesis of premediated murder for the wholly unsupported fastasy it was.
At least that was true until shortly after Judge Stanley retired from the bench and began publicly expressing his extreme bias against Capital defendants. Within just the past few years, Judge Richard Stanley has told numerous newspaper reporters of how he carried a "sawed off machine gun" in court at all times and that if it was up to him, he would have gladly pulled his gun and "shot the defendants dead right between the eyes." Based on these statements, along with others, this established that Judge Stanley was personally aware of his bias against Captial defendants at the time of Michael's trial, and was legally required to disclose this bias to Michael's trial counsel. Legally this recent revelation of extreme bias existing at the time of trial constitutes "new evidence" as a criminal defendant is constitutionally entitled to a trial before a "fair and impartial" judge. To further support this claim, in the only other case involving a defendant sentenced to death by Judge Stanley in 1998, the Florida Supreme Court explictly recognized that Judge Stanley's bias against Capital defendants was so pervasive and extreme that he was not qualified to preside and should have disqualified himself. Michael's pending appeal is based on the same evidence in the case and it would stand to reason that the result must ultimately be the same-recognition that Judge Stanley's bias against Capital defendants effectively deprived Michael of a fair trial, requiring retrial.
The second claim incorporated into the comprehensive appeal is based on a recent sudden statement provided by State witness Debra Hanzel. At the trial, the State had virtually no evidence of actual premediated intent to kill either victim. Without evidence of a pre-existing plan and intent to actually kill, the State could not get a first degree murder conviction or subsequent death penalty. The State's primary "key witness" Frances Smith was not aware of any pre-existing plan. In fact, Frances Smith insisted at all times that there was no sign of animosity between Michael and the victims, and immediately prior to going outside, Michael and the victims were all "laughing, teasing, and playing around".
For a month following the alleged murders the State investigators relentlessly terrorized members of Michael's family - even to the point of causing Michael's sister Mary so much grief from repeat raids on her house and threats that Mary suffered a miscarriage and death of her daughter Michelle. All known friends and acquaintances of Michael were similiarly pursued in an attempt to coerce any person to provide evidence of premediated intent. Finally, almost a month later, a friend Debra Hanzel was compelled to swear Michael had made a verbal statement to her indirectly of a pre-existing intent to kill. At the time, Debra Hanzel was the live-in girl friend of Preston Branch, a cousin of the State's key witness Frances Smith. At trial, the State compelled Debra Hanzel to testify that shortly after the alleged murder, she spoke to Michael by telephone and that she specifically asked Michael if he had killed "those people" to which Hanzel testified that Michael responded by admitting both to killing the two victims and that this was motivated by an intent to steal the victim's car. Based on this testimonial evidence the State convinced the jury that a premeditated intent to kill the victims as a means of stealing their car existed. This evidence alone established both motive and premediation. Recently Debra Hanzel was located for the purpose of resolving a typographical error in the trial transcript and to the surprise of all involved, candidly admitted that Michael never actually made any such statement and that at the time, she felt threatened by the State and coerced by the threat of prosecution to fabricate this testimony.
The recantation of testimonial evidence is further supported by a sworn statement obtained from Frances Smith's own cousin Preston Branch, corroborating Hanzel's claim that in fact Michael never admitted to killing the victims and never claimed to be motivatied by a desire to steal the victim's car. (Frances Smith herself denied any intent to steal the car and conceded it was deliberately abandoned at a highway intersection).
The third claim in the appeal is new evidence supporting a constitutional claim of ineffective (incompetent) trial counsel. It has always been know that Michael's previous trial counsel Engualson had no virtually no experience holding any criminal trial. He had recently graduated law school and Michael's case was the first major felony case and first jury trial. One of the issues that has kept coming up in Michael's case was the cause of death of the victims. The State has claimed the female victim died as a result of strangulation, even though there was virtually no physical evidence of strangulation. Specifically, to render death by stangulation a person must be physically choked for at least 3-5 continous minutes. The pressure necessary to produce death leaves distinct marks (hemorraging) on the neck and almost always results in damage to the soft cartlidge of the neck (lysid, larynx, windpipe, etc.) None was found on the alleged victim. Additionally, a presumably healthy 19 year old woman weighing 185 lbs. is not about to simply stand by and be choked to death without struggling and fighting for her life and there was no evidence she was physically restrained. Yet there was no sign of a physical struggle. At Michael's trial, his appointed counsel made no attempt to obtain an independent medical examiner to establish that the State's claim that his victim died of strangulation was not supported by the evidence. Recently a highly qualified pathologist has reviewed all the evidence and autopsy reports and concluded unequivocally that no evidence of strangulation exists. Had Michael's trial counsel presented this objective evedence at the trial, the jury would have been legally precluded from finding Michael guilty.
Collectively these claims establish that contrary to the State's verbally unsupported hypothesis of premediated murder, Michael is actually innocent and that the scenerio of events, as supported by the evidence, show that Michael acted in legal self defense when attempting to come to the aid of Aleisha Bryant.
Nov 10th 2000
Despite persistent efforts from the State to deny Mike's latest appeal, Judge Corbin has ruled in Mike's favour, so that his amended appeal can be heard in February. He requests that supporters postpone writing to the judge until then. Those interested in supporting Mike please contact me on the e-mail address provided in order to coordinate a campaign and form an egroup.
Karen at email@example.com
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For more information on Mike's case as well as samples of his essays, please visit his sister Mary's moving webpage and tribute.