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Strawhacker v. State

Supreme Court of Arkansas

October 20, 2016



          Jeff Rosenzweig, for appellant.

          Leslie Rutledge, Att'y Gen., by: Brad Newman, Ass't Att'y Gen., for appellee.

          RHONDA K. WOOD, Associate Justice

         Lonnie Strawhacker was convicted of rape in 1990. At his trial, FBI hair-comparison expert Michael Malone testified that hairs recovered from the crime scene were indistinguishable from Strawhacker's hairs. In 1996, after allegations were raised concerning the accuracy of FBI hair examiners' expert testimony, the Department of Justice established a Task Force to review all of their hair-comparison testimony. The Department sent letters to the relevant parties that it had concluded that thirteen examiners' work failed to meet professional standards. In 2014, the Department notified Strawhacker that Malone was one of the thirteen who gave invalid testimony. Strawhacker filed a pro se petition with this court for leave to proceed in the circuit court with a petition for writ of error corum nobis. Strawhacker also requested appointment of counsel, which we granted. Strawhacker v. State, 2015 Ark. 263 (per curiam). We now grant Strawhacker's petition to reinvest jurisdiction with the circuit court to consider whether to grant coram-nobis relief.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         In August 1989, a female victim reported that she had been raped and beaten in a ditch outside a nightclub in Fayetteville. Then, according to the victim, her assailant took her to her home in a trailer park, placed her in her bed, and joined her there. The assailant stayed the night, but when the victim woke up the next morning, he was gone. The victim called the police, but was unable to give a visual description of her assailant because she had been so badly beaten her vision was impaired.

         The police developed Strawhacker as a suspect and obtained a court order to conduct a voice-identification lineup. The victim identified Strawhacker's voice as that of her assailant. In addition to this voice identification, the State presented witnesses at trial who testified that Strawhacker had been at the nightclub near the time of the assault and, later the next morning, was seen leaving the victim's trailer park wearing muddy jeans and with a bloody shirt his hand.

         Additionally, at trial, FBI supervisory special agent Michael Malone was admitted as an expert in the field of hair and fibers. Malone testified that he had worked for the FBI for nineteen years. During that time, Malone received training in hair and fiber analysis; worked on over 3500 cases; examined hair from over 10, 000 people; lectured and trained others in the field of hair comparison; published articles; and testified as an expert over 350 times. In the present case, Malone stated that he examined pubic hairs recovered from Strawhacker's jeans and from the victim's bed sheets. Malone told the jury that the pubic hair found on Strawhacker's jeans was "absolutely indistinguishable" from the victim's public-hair sample. Malone also testified that the pubic hair found on the victim's bed "exhibited exactly the same characteristics" as Strawhacker's hair sample and was "absolutely indistinguishable" and "consistent with coming from Mr. Strawhacker."

         At times, Malone equivocated on the reliability of hair-comparison testimony. For instance, he stated that hair comparison was not as exact as other forms of identification: "Now, I don't want to mislead you. It's not a fingerprint. In other words, nobody can get a hair to the point that they can say 'This hair came from that person and nobody else in the world.'" But Malone also testified that it would be "highly unlikely" that the pubic hair came from anyone other than the victim, and the chances that another person would have the same characteristics was "extremely remote." Malone even stated that the probability of a false identification was one in five thousand. The jury convicted Strawhacker, and he was sentenced to life in prison for rape and 30 years for battery.[1]

         In October 2014, the Department of Justice sent Strawhacker a letter informing him that Michael Malone's testimony "may have failed to meet professional standards." The letter also stated that "the prosecutor in your case(s) has advised the Department of Justice that Michael Malone's work was material to your conviction." In an earlier letter sent in September 2014, the Department informed the prosecuting attorney that Malone's "testimony regarding microscopic hair comparison analysis contain[ed] erroneous statements." The Department further stated that Malone had "overstated the conclusions that may appropriately be drawn from a positive association." According to the Department, Malone overstated the evidence in the following three ways, all of which exceeded the limits of science: (1) testifying that the hair could be associated with a single person to the exclusion of all others; (2) assigning a statistical weight or probability that the hair originated from a particular source; and (3) citing his past experience in the laboratory making positive hair identifications.[2] The Department said it would waive any statute-of-limitations or procedural-default defenses should a claimant file a petition for habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The State has not made similar concessions. As a result of the Department's disclosure, Strawhacker has filed a petition to reinvest jurisdiction with the circuit court to consider a petition for writ of error coram nobis.

         II. Writ of Error Coram Nobis

         The writ of error coram nobis is an extraordinary writ, known more for its denial than its approval. Echols v. State, 360 Ark. 332, 201 S.W.3d 890 (2005). The function of the writ of error coram nobis is to secure relief from a judgment rendered while there existed some fact that would have prevented its rendition if it had been known to the trial court and which, through no negligence or fault of the defendant, was not brought forward before rendition of judgment. Id. The writ is allowed only under compelling circumstances to achieve justice and to address errors of the most fundamental nature. Sanders v. State, 374 Ark. 70, 285 S.W.3d 630 (2008) "In simple terms, this writ is a legal procedure to fill a gap in the legal system-to provide relief that was not available at trial because a fact exists which was not known at that time and relief is not available on appeal because it is not in the record." Penn v. State, 282 Ark. 571, 573-74, 670 S.W.2d 426, 428 (1984).

         We have held that a writ of error coram nobis is available to address certain errors that are found in one of four categories: (1) insanity at the time of trial; (2) a coerced guilty plea; (3) material evidence withheld by the prosecutor [a Brady violation]; or (4) a third-party confession to the crime during the time between conviction and appeal. Howard v. State, 2012 Ark. 177, 403 S.W.3d 38. We will grant permission for a petitioner to proceed in the trial court with a petition for writ of error coram nobis only when it appears that the proposed attack on the judgment is meritorious. Id. In ...

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