Thursday, December 10, 2009

Murder Conviction Remanded Because of Accomplice Perjury

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has long held that the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment is violated where the State knowingly uses perjured testimony to obtain a conviction. In Ex parte Chabot the Court was faced with whether to extend this holding to cases wherein the State unknowingly presents perjured testimony.

Appellant was convicted of murder and sentenced to life. The State predicated its trial theory on the testimony of an accomplice who was present at the time of the murder. Post-conviction DNA testing later revealed that the accomplice lied during trial when he denied any involvement in the sexual abuse of the victim.

On a subsequent application for writ of habeas corpus, the CCA considered: WHETHER DUE PROCESS IS VIOLATED WHEN THE STATE HAS UNKNOWINGLY PRESENTED PERJURED TESTIMONY?

In Ex parte Fierro, 934 S.W.2d 370 (Tex. Cr. App. 1996), the Court held that the knowing use of perjured testimony is a trial error that is subject to a harmless error analysis, wherein the applicant has the burden to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the error contributed to his conviction or punishment. The Court now extends its application of this harmless error analysis to cases involving unknowing use of perjured testimony as well.

The court considered this question in a slight different setting in Ex parte Carmona, 185 S.W.3d 492 (Tex. Cr. App 2006)(plurality opinion), when a plurality held that community-supervision revocation based solely on perjured testimony, unknown to the State at the time of revocation, violated the applicant's due process rights. So really, this decision is only a small step from prior Court precedent.

In this case, the State acknowledged the critical importance of the accomplice testimony and conceded that the perjured testimony contributed to the verdict. Noting that it is the "ultimate factfinder," the CCA adopted the findings of fact of the lower court (5th District) and held that "the circumstances of the present case merit a finding that the applicant's due-process rights were violated, notwithstanding the absence of the State's knowledge of the perjured testimony at the time of trial." Remanded.