Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Jailhouse Informant

I thought, given my comment at the end of the previous post, that I would write a bit about the jailhouse informant - separately from all the other posts - and explain why it is I find his testimony so suspicious.

On 9 September, Detective Thomas Ross located Michael Morris at his job at a gas station. Morris ran. The following day, he was able to speak with Morris and, telling him that he was not a suspect, got Morris to agree to go to the Safety Building for "investigative purposes."

At trial, Ross said that he told Morris he was focusing on him "due to the fact that since the time of the homicide, he had not been at the YMCA, and that . . . he ran on me, and I felt there was probably involvement on his part. . ."

On the basis of Morris' statement implicating him, Michael Ustaszewski was arrested the following day, 11 September 1977. As he has every day since, Michael denied involvement in the crime.

The only evidence against Michael was the statement provided by the man who would become his co-defendant, Michael Morris. This was problematic for the prosecution. While it's not impossible to convict someone solely on the basis of a co-defendant's testimony, it's not the tightest case to make. No physical evidence, no eyewitnesses, no confession, just the statement of Morris. We're all in big trouble if that's all it takes to get convicted, but that's an issue for another post.

On Wednesday, 23 November, Michael appeared in court on a motion to suppress. At issue was the following exchange between Ross and Michael on 11 September. They are discussing Michael's claims regarding the man he claims to have been with on the night of the murder. Ross asks, "Between you and I, will you tell me what you did? Michael asks, "Is this going on tape now?" Ross replies, "Yes, it's going on tape, but it's a departmental tape. It's completely confidential." Michael responds, "All right. We was making love." Michael did not want to discuss, within earshot of other officers, what he was doing to keep money in his pocket.

Everything on the tape after the statement, "It's completely confidential" was ruled excluded. Note: This entire exchange between Ross and Michael is fascinating, but it's too lengthy to reproduce here.

The following day, Thanksgiving, 24 November, Ross again interviewed Morris. When asked, at Morris' trial, the purpose of that interview, Ross stated, "The purpose of that was to determine whether he was to testify against Michael Ustaszewski." Note: Again, the details are interesting, but too lengthy to reproduce in this post.

On Monday, 28 November, Michael Ustaszewski appeared in court. The state had requested a continuance. Michael's trial was rescheduled for 19 December. Michael was ordered released on his own recognizance (ROR'd). He was taken back to his cell at the county jail so that he could collect his belongings.

The man in one of the adjoining cells was Carl Edward G-, Jr.

G- had been arrested on 2 October and charged with aggravated robbery. Using a pipe as a weapon, he had robbed a store of $180. At Michael's trial, G- testified that he had first come into contact with Michael "about a month after [he] was there." That would mean early November.

Kuhnle [defense attorney]: Had you ever had any conversations with Mike prior to this time [the 28th] about his case?
G: No.
K: You had never discussed it, what he was in there for or anything like that?
G: No.

Several minutes later, Kuhnle asks, "During the period of time that you were in there with Mike, had he ever professed his innocence to you at all, said he didn't do it, said they have nothing on me?"

G: Yeah.
K: Then you did discuss this with Mike previously?
G: Well, that's about as far as it went.

Moments later,
K: He had never said anything previous to this time other than the fact that I didn't do it, they haven't got anything on me?
G: [nodded affirmatively]

Prior to the 28th when Michael came back to gather his belongings, he either had discussed the case with G-, or he had not. Within a matter of minutes, G- makes both claims, ultimately agreeing that Michael had professed his innocence.

Other details about this encounter include the fact that Michael allegedly entered his cell, number four, reached through the bars to G- in cell number five, pulled the covers off his head and said words to the effect of "Just don't tell anybody that I did it." I say "words to the effect" because G- was not at all clear in his testimony saying, ". . . and he told me it was OR bond, and he said, you know, he did it, that he got out of the case and stuff, you know" and so on.

Just to be clear, here's the picture: G-, after being pushed on this point, says that they had discussed the case and that Michael had said he was innocent. Then, being ROR'd, Michael reaches through the bars to G-'s cell - an inmate that he had known for fewer than four weeks - pulls the covers off his head, wakes him up, and tells him the he had, in fact, committed the crime. You be the judge.

Let's recap the timeline...
10 September - Michael Morris is arrested. Attorney: Paul Geller.
11 September - Michael Ustaszewski is arrested. Attorney: Carl Kuhnle.
2 October - Carl G- is arrested and charged with aggravated robbery, a first degree felony. His attorney? Paul Geller.
Early November - G- encounters Michael Ustaszewski for the first time.
While incarcerated near each other during those 3 to almost 4 weeks, Michael tells G- that he is innocent.
14 November - G- pleads not guilty to aggravated robbery.
24 November [Thanksgiving Day] - Detective Ross again interviews Morris.
28 November [Monday after Thanksgiving] - The state requests a continuance, releases Michael Ustaszewski on his own recognizance. Michael allegedly then tells G- he is guilty.

And, now - for the punchline.
7 December - G- goes to trial and pleads guilty to grand theft, a fourth degree felony. Upon the request of the detective [Poiry] to whom he allegedly volunteered the information about Michael, G- is released on his own recognizance, pending sentencing.

When asked, at Michael's trial, "And how did it come that we found out your name, how did it come that we found out about you?" the following testimony was recorded:

G: Well, I was talking to Detective Poiry. Is that how you pronounce it?
Harris [prosecutor]: When did you talk to Detective Poiry?
G: About a week before I got out.
H: That would be in early December?
G: Yeah.

On cross-examination, Kuhnle asks, "When did you talk to Detective Poiry in regard to any involvement with Michael Ustaszewski?"
G: About two weeks before I got out.
K: This would have been - - you were released on December 7th?
G: Yeah.
K: And you talked to Poiry approximately two weeks before then?
G: A week or two weeks. It's really not straight with me.
K: Was it after this alleged statement by Mr. Ustaszewski?
G: Yeah.
K: And when did you hear this statement from Mr. Ustaszewski?
G: It was a Monday, the 28th, I think. I'm not sure though.
K: You're not sure of the date?
G: No.
K: Could you tell me what kind of conversation you had with Detective Poiry?
G: Well, he just asked me how I was doing, everything, and we discussed my case, and I told him what Mike said.
K: You just volunteered the information to him?
G: Yeah.
Testimony then gets to the details, above, of what Michael allegedly told him.

Am I the only one wondering why - around 28 November - just as Michael is ROR'd - Detective Poiry goes to chat up an inmate who, two weeks to the date earlier, had already been in court, pleaded not guilty, and was awaiting trial?

While some of the police testimony was damaging with regard to character, Michael was really convicted on the basis of two pieces of evidence: 1) The statement of the co-defendant Michael Morris, and 2) The statement of the last minute - and only after the state requested a continuance - jailhouse informant, Carl G-. G-'s testimony was critical.

A footnote: I am fairly confident that, when giving his statement, Morris was unaware of the felony-murder rule and/or the statute regarding aggravated murder. That is, it is not a leap to imagine that he might have thought it better to confess to having been present, but blame someone else for the stabbing. This way, in his mind, he might have imagined that he would only be charged with robbery, leaving culpability for the murder to someone else. Just a thought...

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