Wednesday, April 30, 2003
OFFICER DESERVES ANOTHER TRIAL
Lauren Ritchie, Sentinel Columnist
Lauren Ritchie can be reached at email@example.com or 352-742-5918.
The evidence was hardly overwhelming when James Duckett was
of first-degree murder in 1988 and sentenced to death.
Today, some of the testimony in the case has crumbled and pieces of
evidence are in disarray as the former Mascotte police officer is
preparing for new DNA testing he hopes will clear him.
Is Duckett guilty of
raping and killing 11-year-old Teresa McAbee and
dumping her body near Knight Lake
while he was on duty on a fine May
I do not know. A
decade after the crime, I wrote a column urging a
second look at the case. Six years later, I feel even
this. More information has come to light showing how badly the
may have been bungled. It's fouled up enough that a new trial is in
across the country have been getting death-row
inmates exonerated in surprising numbers. At my alma mater,
University, the school's college of law sponsors a Center on
Convictions, which is staffed partly by students from the
school. They've been involved in the cases of 11 of the 17 people
released from death row in Illinois since the death penalty was
re-instituted in 1977. That's 5.7 percent of the 298 people
death in that time.
center's work was behind Gov. George H. Ryan's decision in January
to commute the sentence of every death-row inmate in the state. He
in a speech at the law school that those in the justice system had
refused to act, and he could not live with himself if he failed to
Today's column is not
an argument that Duckett, at the time a
29-year-old rookie cop in the south Lake town of 1,600 people, is
innocent. It is an argument that says we'd better be certain that
guilty before we take his life. If those in the justice system know
there was something awry in the trial -- and they have to know it
-- they should work to make it right.
Consider first the
nature of law enforcement in Lake County and the
political circumstances surrounding Duckett's arrest.
The sheriff was Noel
E. Griffin Jr., who had just botched the Wall
Sink murder case involving the slaying of a ranch owner and his
-- to the point that former Lake Circuit Judge C. Welborn Daniel
declared the sheriff's testimony couldn't be believed. The sheriff
was under heavy fire from the media, particularly the Daily
which published a series of stories detailing items missing from
department's supposedly secure evidence locker.
And election time was
Amid all this, the
body of Teresa, a fifth-grader at Mascotte
Elementary, surfaced in the shallows of Knight Lake on May
child had walked about 10 p.m.
to a nearby convenience store to buy a
pencil to do her homework. She never returned, and her mother had
reported her missing about midnight.
The key pieces of
evidence that convicted Duckett were his squad car's
tire tracks at the scene, testimony of an expert about hair,
fingerprints on Duckett's cruiser and the word of a 16-year-old
Tire tracks near
Knight Lake matched those from Duckett's patrol car,
and her palm print was found on the hood of his car, fingers
outward as if she were sitting on the hood. Duckett's explanation
that he saw and talked with the child at the store. He said he
to go home because the city's 10:30 p.m. curfew for children was
approaching. And Duckett says that he drove around Knight Lake
for Teresa after her mother summoned police.
All of that is hardly
conclusive on its own. A single pubic hair found
in Teresa's underpants was the sole piece of critical physical
Experts from the
Florida Department of Law Enforcement's laboratory
examined that hair and 30 taken from Duckett for comparison.
Twenty-eight of Duckett's hairs had nothing in common with the one
on the child, presumably by the rapist and killer. The remaining
Duckett hairs showed some characteristics in common with the single
-- along with some differences. At the time, DNA testing wasn't
enough to test hairs without follicles, which the single hair
Jurors learned at the
trial, however, that the prosecution had ignored
a request from the
FDLE for more Duckett hair samples and had shopped
around until it found an expert to say that the hairs matched.
"expert" was a chap named Michael Malone, a decorated senior
agent in the FBI's crime lab in Washington, D.C., who provided the
damning piece of testimony in the trial. He declared that one of
Duckett's hairs had "exactly the same characteristics"
"completely indistinguishable" from the one found in
Malone has been at
the heart of a number of controversial cases --the
North Carolina Army surgeon accused of killing his family and the
impeachment of U.S. District Judge Alcee Hastings are two. So when
scandal over forensic bungling at the crime lab broke out in the
1990s, Malone was in the middle of that, too.
general at the time issued a
scathing report that singled out Malone and a dozen other agents
scientifically flawed reports in 18 high-profile cases, including
Simpson's, the Oklahoma City bombing and the case of John Hinckley,
man who shot former President Reagan.
Michael Bromwich concluded that Malone had
"testified falsely" on 27 different points -- you and I
know that as
"lying" -- in the impeachment of Hastings. Malone said he
one of the tests himself on a purse that Hastings had submitted as
evidence during the bribery scandal. He hadn't, and the agent who
actually did the tests blew the whistle. That started the probe.
The St. Petersburg
Times and the Wall Street Journal reported in 1997
that local prosecutors of 3,000 cases in which Malone and his
had testified -- 263 in Florida -- were notified that the agents
misrepresented evidence, did shoddy work and in some cases lied.
Prosecutors were left to decide whether to revisit any convictions.
Some did. Take, for
example, the case of a Rhode Island man convicted
of raping a woman at knifepoint in 1988. Superior Court Judge
Fortunato Jr. ruled in 2001 that Malone had misrepresented forensic
evidence. He called the FBI agent a "rogue" and ordered
the release of
Carlton Bleau, 63. The man had been sentenced to 55 years in prison
based mostly on the testimony of Malone -- and had already spent 9
The St. Petersburg
Times documented four Florida cases other than
Duckett's in which Malone played a pivotal role in a murder
One of those,
according to an August 2000 article in the Los Angeles
Times, was a death-row inmate whose life, like Duckett's, hinged
on a single strand of hair and Malone's identification of it. Brett
Bogle was 22 when he was arrested in 1991 for raping and killing
girlfriend's sister outside a bar near Tampa. At Bogle's trial,
testified that three hairs found on Bogle's clothing belonged to
victim -- two head hairs and one pubic hair. The pubic hair was the
crucial evidence tying Bogle to the rape, and by extension, the
After the crime-lab
scandal broke, the FBI sent Malone's analysis to
an independent scientist, who reported on Sept.
13, 1999, that the
pubic hair was actually a third head hair from the victim and not a
pubic hair at all. Bogle appealed, and the court review is ongoing.
scientist also concluded that Malone's work was not adequately
documented and his testimony differed from his lab notes.
That's the integrity
level of the first of two key witnesses against
Friday, we'll examine
the second shining star in the case, a
16-year-old pregnant girl who was in the Lake County
Jail for violating
her probation on a felony theft conviction.