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The maddening irrelevance of Charlie Vaughn's innocence
A severely intellectually disabled man has spent more than 30 years in an Arkansas prison. The system doesn't care if he's actually guilty.
In the summer of 1995, an envelope arrived at the federal courthouse in Little Rock, Arkansas. Inside was a handwritten, barely coherent plea from Charlie Vaughn, a man serving a life sentence for murder in the Tucker maximum security prison in the south central part of the state.
Vaughn can’t read or write, so he presumably asked another prisoner to draw up the document for him. It was a one-page bid for his freedom. “Amendment five is a constitutional right which was violated kidnap railroaded false imprisonment, [sic],” it read. “I would like to be released from custody.”
In 1991, Vaughn had confessed and pleaded guilty to the murder of 81-year-old Myrtle Holmes. In doing so, he implicated three other people. They were convicted after two trials and, like Vaughn, sentenced to life in prison.
In a form for indigent prisoners attached to his letter, Vaughn checked off that he had been falsely arrested, had received inadequate legal representation, and was wrongly convicted. He was right about all three. But without a lawyer, Vaughn provided no documentation for his claims. He couldn't cite a trial transcript, evidentiary record, or case law. He made no legal arguments.
Not surprisingly, the federal district court dismissed his petition with a short, little-noticed order, similar to thousands of other orders dismissing thousands of other petitions self-filed by prisoners every year.
A quarter century later in 2015, faced with the possibility of more advanced DNA testing that could definitively implicate him, one of the other three people convicted for the crime confessed. In his confession, he insisted that not only did he commit the crime alone, he barely knew Vaughn or the other two people who had been convicted.
DNA did not implicate Vaughn or the others. In fact there was no physical evidence linking Vaughn to the crime.
The confession and other new evidence would eventually free the other two people wrongly convicted for the murder. But not Charlie Vaughn. Despite strong evidence that his confession was coerced, and despite the fact that even the family of the victim wants him released, Vaughn remains in prison.
Arkansas provides no real way for prisoners like Vaughn to get back into state court, even when they have persuasive evidence of their innocence. This ought to be where the federal courts would intervene. But because of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a law signed five years after Vaughn’s 1991 conviction, the federal courts won't even consider the evidence of his innocence. AEDPA gives prisoners like Vaughn one shot at federal review. The two other defendants never took their shot. Vaughn took his with that handwritten letter in 1995. So now he's out of luck.
AEDPA is a sprawling, bewilderingly complex law passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. One section of the law has proven particularly consequential – a provision restricting when prisoners can ask federal courts to review their cases. This section is also especially complicated and confusing, and subsequent Supreme Court rulings have only made it harder to comprehend.
"I have a three-dimensional chess set in my office," says Richard Bourke, who runs a non-profit law firm in New Orleans that provides death penalty defense. "It reminds me to always be thinking about AEDPA. We represent clients at all three stages of a conviction -- trial, direct appeal, and post-conviction. If you make a mistake at any step in the process, it can crush your client's chances in a subsequent stage."
Many defense attorneys concede that there are only a handful of lawyers in the country who truly understand AEDPA and its attendant case law. But it affects millions of people — essentially everyone convicted of a major crime in a state court.
That a law affecting so many is understood by so few isn’t an accident. When it was passed, AEDPA's proponents made no secret of their intent. They claimed prisoners and unscrupulous defense attorneys were flooding the federal courts with frivolous appeals. They wanted to dam the system, slowing federal review of cases like Vaughn's to a trickle.
But AEDPA's culling process has little to do with the actual merits of prisoners' claims. Instead, AEDPA winnows them down by imposing a dizzying array of procedures, deadlines, and rules. Failure to follow any of them typically results in what's called "procedural default" -- a dismissal before giving any consideration at all to the prisoner's actual claims. And as Vaughn did, the overwhelming majority face these hurdles without a lawyer.
For those prisoners fortunate enough to avoid procedural default, AEDPA still requires federal courts to show extraordinary deference to state court rulings. It isn't enough for a federal judge to believe a state court is wrong on the law or facts of a case. The federal judge must find the state court was so wrong that “no reasonable jurist” would agree with the outcome. To overturn a state court ruling on a constitutional matter, then, AEDPA requires a federal court to deem state judges and justices all but unfit for the bench.
The federal court system is littered with cases attesting to AEDPA's arbitrary cruelty. But Vaughn's case is among the cruelest. "I think about Charlie Vaughn every day," says Tricia Rojo Bushnell, director of the Midwestern Innocence Project. Bushnell represented one of the prisoners freed by the evidence that should also have freed Vaughn.
"I think about him sitting in a prison cell, and how utterly unfair and unjust it all is," she says. "The system failed him."
“I’ve spent a good deal of my own money investigating my great aunt’s murder,” says Michelle Tull, Myrtle Holmes’s grand-niece. Tull now represents the family’s interests in legal matters pertaining to her great aunt’s murder. “We don’t believe Charlie should be in prison. I’ve seen no evidence to convince me he’s guilty. He needs help and mental health care.”
"I wasn't ready for a case like that"
When Holmes was murdered in her home in September 1988, the savagery of the crime shook the small town of Fordyce. Holmes had been bound, raped, severely beaten, and repeatedly stabbed with knives from her own kitchen. Her killer then slashed Holmes’s throat and stuffed her body into the trunk of her car.
After more than a year passed without an arrest, Holmes’s family hired a retired police officer to investigate. They offered him $5,000 to solve the murder.
The investigator was a Fordyce native, and he came to the case with a network of informants from his career in law enforcement. As is often the case with informants, some had criminal records, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, and some were facing their own charges at the time. One informant eventually directed the investigator’s attention to Vaughn, a high school dropout known in the community to have an intellectual disability and to suffer from mental illness.
It isn't clear why the informant singled Vaughn out, but records show that Vaughn had recently been arrested and charged with making “terroristic threats." Court documents don't specify the nature of those threats, but Stuart Chanen, who has represented Vaughn since 2016, suspects it was related to a mental health episode. “My sense is that Charlie was seen as different, maybe a little off,” he says. “That’s probably how he became a suspect."
By the end of 1988, the police had interrogated Vaughn at least four times. Each time he told them he knew nothing of the murder. Yet in March 1990 Vaughn and two other men -- Reginald Early and John Brown -- were charged with robbing, raping, and murdering Myrtle Holmes.
According to court records, the only evidence against Vaughn at that time came from informants and sources working with the private investigator. Some claimed to have seen the three men together around the time of the murder. Others claimed to have overheard them discussing the crime. But no one saw them going in or out of Holmes's house.
For the next 10 months, Vaughn continued to insist on his innocence. Because he was indigent and Dallas County, Arkansas, had no full-time public defender, a judge assigned Vaughn’s case to Edward Oglesby, an attorney in private practice. Oglesby had been out of law school for a little more than a year.
“I’ll be the first to say I wasn’t ready for a case like that,” Oglesby says. “But back then, if you were assigned an indigent case, you were expected to accept it unless you had a valid reason to withdraw. And lack of experience wasn't considered a valid reason."
After just a few conversations with Vaughn, Oglesby had doubts about his new client’s guilt. “I just didn’t think Charlie was capable of a crime like that," he says. “At worst, I thought he might have been manipulated or drawn in by someone else.”
Oglesby also worried that Vaughn lacked the intellectual capacity to assist in his own defense. "He clearly had some disabilities,” Oglesby says. "He needed an attorney who understood that."
In January 1991, after nearly 10 months in jail and at Oglesby's direction, Vaughn changed his plea from not guilty to “not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.” The following month, Olgesby persuaded a state judge to order a 30-day mental health evaluation.
It isn’t clear if that evaluation ever happened, or if it did, how thorough it was. Vaughn would later tell a judge he had been sent to the town of El Dorado, where he was examined by a doctor. But there’s no record of a written report or diagnosis, and the judge never held a hearing on Vaughn’s competency, as was required by state law.
Instead, local law enforcement set out to extract a confession from Vaughn. On March 24, 1991, the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office sent an informant into Vaughn’s jail cell with a hidden tape recorder. The informant was from out of state, had never previously met Vaughn, and was told his own felony drug charges would be dropped if he could get Vaughn to confess.
Later the same day, the Dallas County sheriff announced that Vaughn had not only confessed, he had given police a detailed description of how he, Brown, and Early robbed, raped, and murdered Myrtle Holmes. Vaughn also allegedly told investigators that a woman named Tina Jimerson drove the men to and from the crime. Vaughn would later say the informant had tricked him, telling him his innocence didn’t matter — that he’d get the death penalty unless he confessed. The recording of Vaughn’s alleged confession was never handed over to his defense, and police and prosecutors never disclosed the role of the informant in extracting the confession.
Oglesby was eventually forced to withdraw from Vaughn’s case, in part because of a pre-planned move to Little Rock. Vaughn’s new attorney had barely spoken to him before the court hearing to address the alleged confession. Vaughn would later say he told his new attorney he was innocent and wanted a jury trial. Instead, according to Vaughn, the new attorney too told him his only hope of avoiding the death penalty was to plead guilty and implicate the others. Vaughn’s second attorney is now deceased.
It's perhaps understandable why a lawyer might have encouraged Vaughn to plead guilty. Vaughn stood accused of a horrific crime that had traumatized the community. Eyewitnesses claimed to have seen him with the other suspects around the time of the murder. And the sheriff had just announced that Vaughn confessed.
A conviction might well have seemed like a foregone conclusion, and avoiding the death penalty the best possible outcome. And so on March 25, 1991, on the advice of his new lawyer, Vaughn confessed in open court. During a short colloquy with the judge, Vaughn said he, Brown, and Early had robbed, raped, and murdered Holmes, and that Jimerson had driven them to and from the crime.
At an evidentiary hearing for Jimerson 28 years later, Vaughn was asked why he confessed to a crime he hadn’t committed. He responded, “that was my first time ever having, you know, having a murder charge, you know. I was kind of new, you know, I was real young. But like now I'm 49 years old, like I say, I've done got myself wised up. I know kind of what's going on now.”
The judge convicted Vaughn and, per prosecutors’ recommendation, sentenced him to life in prison. The judge added, “I’m sure that some governor somewhere down the road will reduce the sentence or commute it to a term of years.”
“This is a poster case for false confessions”
Vaughn's alleged confession should have been suspect from the start. At his colloquy he seemed confused, and appeared to be taking cues from the judge.
The confession was also short-lived. Vaughn confessed in March 1991 and retracted his confession the following year. He has maintained his innocence ever since.
The confession also included several assertions inconsistent with what investigators knew about the crime, including a glaring one — Vaughn implicated himself in a rape he couldn’t have committed.
“Most of us in Arkansas knew very little about DNA at the time,” Oglesby says. “But by coincidence, John Brown’s attorney had just gone to the East Coast to get training on this new technology called DNA that could be used in criminal cases. So he filed a motion early on to preserve the biological evidence and have it tested.”
In the late 1980’s, DNA testing couldn't match blood or sperm to one person as it can today. But it could exclude someone as the source of biological evidence. And in 1989, more than a year before Vaughn confessed, DNA testing had already excluded both Vaughn and Brown as the source of the sperm found in Holmes. Reginald Early could not be excluded. Despite Vaughn’s confession, then, it’s highly unlikely either he or Brown raped Holmes.
The Arkansas Attorney General’s office has brushed off this contradiction and pointed to other details provided by Vaughn, details supposedly known only to police at the time. But given that the police concealed the existence of the informant, their credibility here is suspect. Even if the claim is accurate, without the recordings of Vaughn's alleged initial confession, it’s impossible to know whether investigators may have conveyed those details to the informant, or if the informant conveyed them to Vaughn. In depositions decades later, Vaughn said his second attorney gave him details about the crime. (When I reached out to the AG’s office, they asked me to email a list of questions. I did, but they did not respond.)
Vaughn also got other details wrong. He misstated how the killer entered the house, how Holmes was killed (he wrongly said she’d been struck with a pipe and skillet), and even where she lived. And while the state has alleged -- with little evidence -- that Vaughn and Early were longtime friends, in his colloquy Vaughn formally referred to Early as “Reginald.” At trial and in depositions, those who knew Early well called him “Reggie.” He was only known as Reginald in court documents.
“I think that’s significant,” says Jeff Kukucka, a psychology professor at Towson University who studies false confessions. “When assessing the reliability of a confession, you look for those kinds of discrepancies. Why would he have used Reginald? The most likely explanation is that’s the name that was given to him by the informant or by police.”
According to data from the Innocence Project, about one in four convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing involved a false confession. Academic research also shows that people with intellectual disabilities are among the most likely to falsely implicate themselves.
“This case sets off every red flag and then some,” says Saul Kassin, a psychologist and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who has studied false confessions since the 1980’s. “You have an intellectually disabled man, you have a year of incarceration, you have the threat of the the death penalty, and you have him confessing to a rape that he couldn’t have committed. You have a jailhouse informant pressuring him. These are all classic characteristics common in false confessions.” Kukucka agrees. “This is a poster case for false confessions,” he says.
In fact, Kassin has found that innocent suspects subjected to coercive interrogations are actually more likely to confess than the guilty. An innocent person worn down by an extended stay in jail or intense questioning will confess just to end the discomfort of the moment. Because they know they’re innocent, they’re confident the evidence will eventually clear them.
“It’s one of the most paradoxical and counterintuitive things about false confessions,” Kassin says. “They believe in justice and they believe in the system, so they think their innocence will shine through, that it will overcome the confession. The tragic thing is that it's often the opposite -- the confession is often the only evidence left that keeps them incarcerated.”
Kassin and and Kukucka both say Vaughn’s second attorney should have factored Vaughn’s disabilities into his legal defense. “Even back then, there was plenty of research showing that disabled and mentally ill people were vulnerable to false confessions,” Kassin says.
“I have a daughter with a traumatic brain injury,” says Tull, Myrtle Holmes’s grand-niece. “I can assure you that if someone wanted to interrogate her, they’d have to get through me first. When I first learned about how they treated Charlie, how they interrogated him after keeping him in jail all that time, I was furious. No one was there for him. No one advocated for him.”
In 1992, a year after Vaughn’s confession, Brown, Early, and Jimerson were all tried together for Holmes’s murder. The decision to try all three at once, in front of the same jury, was likely driven in part by economics. Murder trials are expensive. Fordyce was a small town with a small budget.
But the decision also made the state's theory of the crime more persuasive to jurors. It suggested that all three defendants were accomplices who were equally culpable, despite their protestations that they barely knew one another.
The judge also appointed the same attorney to represent both Jimerson and Early. Even under the state's theory of the crime, DNA testing had suggested Early was the most culpable of the four alleged perpetrators, and Jimerson the least. Their interests couldn't have been more at odds.
"That wasn't uncommon at the time," says Oglesby. "But yes, you'd be hard pressed to find a clearer example of a conflict of interest."
At the first trial, Vaughn testified for the prosecution. But the defense emphasized how Vaughn’s confession conflicted with the DNA evidence. The jury deadlocked 6-6, resulting in a mistrial.
Brown, Early, and Jimerson were tried again in August 1992. By then Vaughn had retracted his confession and declared his innocence. He refused to cooperate at the second trial, insisting his attorney had “put all them words in my mouth” to help him avoid the death penalty. He said he barely knew Brown or Early and that he knew nothing about the crime.
But this time around, John Brown’s attorney inexplicably failed to introduce the DNA tests that undermined Vaughn's confession (the attorney would later be convicted of various felonies and permanently disbarred). The jury convicted, and the judge sentenced Brown, Early, and Jimerson to life in prison.
An exploited tragedy
After a defendant is convicted, the case moves to a phase called "direct appeal." Here the courts are required to consider constitutional violations or an unfair trial, but any claims must be based on the trial record. At this stage, if a defendant finds new evidence after the trial, it can only be utilized in his defense with a judge’s permission, and the bar for including such evidence is high.
Once a prisoner loses a direct appeal, the case moves into "post-conviction." At this stage, a petitioner can bring claims based on evidence outside the trial record. This is also when courts tend to allow more access to police and prosecutors’ files. Because of this, post-conviction is when prisoners are most likely to discover the most consequential problems with the state’s case, like prosecutorial misconduct, undisclosed alternate suspects, or exculpatory evidence that was never disclosed.
But there's a catch. Once a case enters post-conviction, it also becomes much more difficult to get a court to consider any new evidence. In many states, post-conviction procedures are loaded with restrictions and deadlines, and courts and legislatures have made it clear that the law should prioritize the “finality” of jury verdicts.
At the time Vaughn was convicted, a prisoner who exhausted his state-post conviction claims would then turn to a federal judge, who would review the claims de novo — meaning without any deference to how state courts had already ruled. A federal court could also review a state’s rules and procedures themselves, and grant exceptions if a prisoner had tried in good faith but failed to comply with overly onerous requirements.
AEDPA, passed in 1996, changed all of that. AEDPA requires prisoners to exhaust all their constitutional claims in state court before they can ask for federal review. If they fail to successfully navigate the gauntlet of state procedures and deadlines correctly, they lose by procedural default, at which point AEDPA all but bars them from federal court.
If they do successfully navigate the state system but lose on the merits of their claims, they can then turn to the federal courts. But first they must negotiate a new maze of federal procedures and deadlines. If they manage to get through all of that, the federal courts can then consider the merits of their petition — but here again, AEDPA requires extraordinary deference to the state court's ruling.
There's a long tradition of lawmakers riding the wake of a national tragedy to pass unrelated legislation, and AEDPA is as good an example as any. For decades, conservatives had lashed out against the new slate of constitutional protections created during the Earl Warren era of the Supreme Court, and had long sought to dilute those rulings by restricting the federal courts' ability to review state convictions.
But until the Oklahoma City bombing, they hadn’t had much success. After the bombing, Congress responded with AEDPA. It’s an immense law that ropes in wide swaths of federal policy, from immigration to terrorism funding to nuclear secrets. But the restrictions on federal habeas corpus are arguably its most controversial provisions.
During congressional debate over AEDPA, supporters of the restrictions described nightmare scenarios in which the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing or future attacks were sentenced to death but managed to live out their lives in prison on the taxpayer dime by delaying their executions with frivolous appeals.
This was a canard. Terrorism cases were and still are almost always prosecuted in federal court. AEDPA applies to state prisoners asking to be heard in federal court.
Anticipating this criticism, the law's supporters turned to Robert Macy, the longtime district attorney for Oklahoma City. In a letter to Congress, Macy wrote that he planned to try the bombers in state court as well, and AEDPA would ensure they were executed in a timely manner. Ironically, while Macy did convict Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in state court, he failed to win a death sentence. McVeigh was ultimately executed by the federal government.
AEDPA's advocates also had another line of argument, one that for many hit closer to home. By the early 1990s, violent crime had hit an all-time high in the U.S. (The crime rate actually peaked in 1994 and by the time AEDPA was signed had begun a historic 20-year decline, but there was no way to know that at the time.) During congressional debate, the law’s supporters played up public fear of crime while pointing to serial killers, child killers, and other death row prisoners who committed ghastly murders but had yet to be executed 15 or 20 years after their convictions.
This argument, too, was misleading. Even at the time, over 99 percent of murder convictions did not result in a death sentence. AEDPA applied to everyone convicted of any felony, in any state court. The argument would also be proven wrong — while AEDPA does severely limit federal review, it did not speed up executions.
As Congress debated AEDPA, there was also another historic trend in the making. By the mid-1990’s, DNA testing had already begun to show that the criminal justice system was far more fallible than most people believed. The new technology was slowly revealing that entire categories of evidence commonly thought to be slam-dunk proof of guilt — eyewitness identification, informant testimony, and forensic analysis of bite marks, hair fibers, or bullets — had sent innocent people to prison, and sometimes to death row.
AEDPA supporters dismissed such concerns. By the time a case got to federal post-conviction review, they argued, it had already been seen by multiple courts at multiple levels. That was true, but only in the sense that the case had crossed the desks of the judges who sat on those courts. The reality is that appellate courts typically only look for procedural or constitutional errors. They rarely second-guess juries, reassess the evidence, or otherwise look to overturn wrongful convictions.
No one embodied these newly exposed flaws in the criminal justice system better than Robert Macy, the prosecutor who helped get AEDPA passed. Macy’s office sent more people to death row than any DA’s office in the country. He and his deputy prosecutors would also be excoriated by the courts for misconduct. The office's go-to crime lab expert would be exposed as one of the biggest forensic frauds in American history. Several people convicted under Macy have been exonerated, including three who had been sentenced to death. Others are still in prison — and on death row — despite persuasive claims of innocence. One man with significant innocence claims was executed in 2000.
At the time congressional leaders were complaining about frivolous appeals, there were at least 40 people on death rows across the country who would later be exonerated and released. Some were exonerated decades after their convictions, well after they had exhausted their appeals. Most were cleared only because of DNA testing, which is only dispositive of guilt in a small percentage of murders and rapes. If not for DNA, many of them would have been executed.
A stacked deck
At the time Charlie Vaughn was convicted, few states showed less interest in protecting the rights of the accused than Arkansas. One study published four years before Myrtle Holmes’s murder ranked Arkansas dead last among all states in public defense spending per capita.
"We got $200 per felony to represent an indigent client -- $350 if it was a potential death penalty case,” says Oglesby. “But you only got paid when the case was closed. It didn’t matter if it took two weeks or if it took a year."
That created some perverse incentives. If a client pleaded guilty an hour after the attorney was assigned the case, the attorney got $350 for an hour’s worth of work. If the client went to trial, the attorney could be looking at months, or possibly years of work for the same $350, payable only once it was all over. Persuading clients to plead guilty and ask for lenience was far more lucrative.
Attorneys assigned to indigent cases could spend no more than $100 per case on an investigator. The state cap on all expenses — copies, mileage, experts, investigators, office supplies, everything — was just $1,000. Recent studies have put the cost of a bare-bones death penalty defense at $120,000 to $500,000 — or $60,000 to $250,000 in 1989 dollars. Post-conviction attorneys say a thorough death penalty defense can run significantly higher, $600,000 to $1 million or more.
“I want to think our system is just I want to think it is fair. So it hurts me to think about Charlie still sitting in prison. It hurts me as a lawyer. And it hurts me as a man.”
All four people convicted for Myrtle Holmes's murder received wildly inadequate legal representation. All four did avoid the death penalty, but that blessing came with a curse: In most death penalty states, including Arkansas, only people sentenced to die are provided with a public defender once their cases enter post-conviction. Unless they're fortunate enough to find someone who will take their case for free, everyone else must negotiate the post-conviction minefield on their own.
Arkansas's post-conviction regime also happens to be one of the toughest in the country. In most states, once a conviction is final, prisoners have one year to file a post-conviction petition. That isn’t a lot of time. In death penalty cases, post-conviction lawyers typically need to examine police and prosecutor files, hire investigators, interview witnesses, and look for exculpatory witnesses or alternative suspects. They hire experts to review the forensic evidence and the state’s expert witnesses, or to test DNA. They review the trial attorney’s performance for possible mistakes.
“You bring it all,” says Tiffany Murphy, dean of academic affairs at the University of Arkansas and former director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project. “You send out your investigators, you line up your experts, and you go all out. This is not the time to be shy. Unless you have DNA, even in a slam-dunk innocence case you have to absolutely overwhelm the courts to get any relief. It takes a lot of time, and it takes a lot of money.”
Doing all of that in just a year is a massive undertaking, even for a well-trained, well-funded office. If you’re an indigent prisoner in a non-capital case who doesn’t have an attorney, it’s all but impossible.
But here too, it’s quite a bit worse in Arkansas. Instead of a year, prisoners have just 90 days to file a state post-conviction petition. If, like Charlie Vaughn, they never filed a direct appeal, they have just 60 days.
If you’ve been sentenced to anything less than death in Arkansas, then, you have 90 days at most to learn enough state law to understand post-conviction procedures, obtain and review a trial transcript, find experts willing to review the state’s experts for free, and send friends and family out to find witnesses and investigate alternate suspects.
According to Arkansas defense attorneys I’ve interviewed, it can take a month or more just to obtain a trial transcript. They also say prisoners typically aren’t aware of these deadlines. “In all my years practicing in this state, I can think of one, maybe two judges who ever bothered to give a defendant notice about the deadlines,” says John Wesley Hall, a criminal defense attorney who has practiced in Arkansas for nearly 50 years. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard inmates say they didn’t know how or when they were supposed to file.”
A well-argued post-conviction petition typically runs 50 pages or more, and a thorough petition with lots of claims and supporting exhibits can easily run hundreds. Arkansas limits prisoners to just 10 pages, including exhibits. The restriction means most prisoners have no choice but to leave out potentially valid claims. Any claims not in the first petition are forfeited, and the state then bars them from filing subsequent petitions to litigate any claims they couldn’t fit in the first.
Perversely, this restriction is probably hardest on innocent prisoners, who are more likely to have more valid claims. A good attorney can get around these restrictions, but again, the vast majority of Arkansas prisoners don't have attorneys at this stage of their appeals.
As mentioned above, AEDPA not only requires federal judges to defer to the rulings of state courts, it also requires them to defer to the states’ rules and procedures for judicial review, even if a federal judge believes those rules and procedures are unfair. If an Arkansas prisoner does manage to meet all of the procedural requirements, that merely means his claims will finally be considered on their merits. He still must convince the state’s courts to reopen his case.
That too can be difficult. In many cases, a prisoner seeking relief must appeal to the same judge who presided over his trial, which means convincing that judge to admit mistakes. “You’ve already lost at trial on direct appeal,” says Jeff Rosenzweig, who represented one of the West Memphis Three. “You're representing someone convicted of a serious crime. Too often it’s just too big of a political risk for the judge to do what’s right.”
The state's appellate courts aren't much better. “The state supreme court will overrule a trial judge every now and then,” Rosenzweig says. "But it typically takes really flagrant misconduct. Even clear evidence of innocence isn’t enough.”
A broken window
All four of the people convicted for the murder of Myrtle Holmes missed the 90-day deadline to file their state post-conviction petitions. So all four were barred from filing any petition in the future. Under AEDPA, if you default in state court, you also automatically default in federal court. And because AEDPA was made retroactive, once they missed that state deadline, all four faced a substantially higher burden if they ever wanted a federal judge to hear their claims of innocence.
Under AEDPA, in order for prisoners like Vaughn, Brown or Jimerson to get relief, they must meet four criteria:
(a) They’ve found new evidence could not have been discovered at the time of trial.
(b) If the new evidence had been presented at trial, no reasonable juror would have convicted them.
(c) They filed their claim within a year of when the new evidence could reasonably have been discovered with due diligence.
(d) The new evidence was undiscoverable at the time of trial because of a violation of their constitutional rights.
The Fordyce convictions illustrate just how difficult it can be to meet all four criteria.
In 2014 Karen Daniel, then the director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, began looking into Tina Jimerson’s conviction. The first break came when Daniel’s investigator tracked down the informant who allegedly solicited Charlie Vaughn’s confession.
Then, in 2015, when faced with the possible results of more sophisticated DNA testing, Reginald Early confessed. He described his crime in lurid detail, first in an affidavit, then at an evidentiary hearing. Early said he had grown up in Fordyce. He left the state after accumulating a significant criminal record, but had returned in the summer of 1988 to attend a funeral. Early started drinking early on that late summer morning, then began wandering around his old neighborhood. When he passed by Holmes’s house, he said, he flashed back to an incident years earlier in which Holmes had called the police on him as he attempted to rob her. In his drunken state he grew angry, then flew into a rage. He entered her home, robbed, raped, and killed her, and then stuffed her body into the trunk of her car. Unlike Vaughn’s confession, Early’s description of the crime was wholly consistent with the evidence.
Early also stated unequivocally that he acted alone. He said he barely knew Brown, Jimerson, or Vaughn. He then added a chilling detail: He had actually considered confessing shortly after his arrest. He changed his mind when he learned that people he barely knew -- and knew were innocent -- had been charged as well. At that point, he said, he assumed the police and prosecutors didn’t know what they were doing. So he decided to take his chances at trial.
At about the same time, Tricia Rojo Bushnell and the Midwest Innocence Project took up John Brown's case. That legal team also re-interviewed the eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the four suspects together or heard them discussing the murder. Nearly all of the witnesses were police informants or owed favors to the private investigator hired by Holmes’s family. Some were battling drug or alcohol addiction. One had schizophrenia and couldn’t remember testifying. Another potential witness, who was 14 at the time, said the police threatened to send him to juvenile hall unless he fabricated incriminating information about one of the four suspects. He refused. Decades later, he’d learn police falsely claimed he had implicated the man, anyway.
Early’s confession was powerful proof of Brown, Jimerson and Vaughn’s innocence. But it wasn't enough to exonerate them. Federal courts have ruled that even when witnesses recant or someone else confesses, a defendant must show that prosecutors knew the original confession or witness statements were false and failed to disclose it. Otherwise, the new evidence fails on prong (d) of the criteria listed above. Since there's no evidence police and prosecutors knew Early was lying about his innocence or encouraged him to do so, his confession alone wasn't enough.
But collecting additional evidence would also be a problem. Under prong (c) of the new evidence criteria, prisoners who discover new exculpatory evidence must file a new claim within one year of when that evidence could reasonably have been discovered with due diligence. But no one can say for certain when that one year clock begins.
Once Brown and Jimerson’s attorneys learned about the suppressed informant, it took time to track down the informant and interview him. It then took time to track down, investigate, and interview the eyewitnesses, all but one of whom recanted. Then came Early's confession.
But because of AEDPA's one-year rule, the attorneys had to reassess the pace of their investigation after every new discovery: By what date might a judge say the new evidence should have been "reasonably discovered”? When they first heard about a possible jailhouse informant? When they first confirmed his existence? When they first interviewed him? If the informant alone wouldn't be enough to establish innocence? After the trial witnesses recanted?
“New evidence rarely comes out in one big chunk,” says Tiffany Murphy. “It comes out little by little. If you file early and the court says you haven't presented enough new evidence to conclusively establish innocence, you’re out of luck and you’re barred from filing again. So let's say you keep investigating instead. A court could later decide that you did have enough after that first batch of new evidence, and you waited too long to file. Now you’re also out of luck.”
“If you read the court filings, you’ll see that the attorneys for Brown and Jimerson were doing this delicate dance,” says Stuart Chanen, Charlie Vaughn’s attorney. “They had to finesse how they went about looking into the new evidence. They needed to clear their clients, but you don’t want to have to forfeit one piece of exculpatory evidence because the filing deadline hit while you were on the cusp of finding something potentially more powerful.”
Post-conviction attorneys often cite the one-year restriction as the most onerous part of AEDPA. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges can expound for hundreds of pages about when and how a new piece of evidence should have been discovered before ever getting to what the new evidence actually means. When the deadline hits is often more important than the evidence itself.
These cases are a great example. Attorneys for Brown and Jimerson had sharp disagreements with the state about when the one-year clock on new evidence should have started. The federal magistrates who reviewed the respective cases disagreed with the defense about when the clock should start on some pieces of new evidence, and with the state on others. The federal district court judges who reviewed those magistrates’ opinions also disagreed with the magistrates. The three-judge panel for the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in turn disagreed at times with both the magistrates, and at times with the federal district court judges.
It’s one thing if an objective technicality like a page limit prevents a court from ruling on the merits of a prisoner’s claims. But the one-year deadline is neither objective nor predictable. It requires a defense attorney or pro se prisoner to anticipate when a federal judge would think the clock should start, then tailor their legal strategy accordingly. Guessing wrong can mean an innocent client remains in prison.
“Sometimes, you don’t even know what a new piece of evidence means until you find another piece that can contextualize it,” says Tricia Rojo Bushnell. "But the more important question here is why are we making a deadline that stops a review on the merits at all? Why are we forced to spend all this time litigating when the clock starts instead of litigating what the evidence actually means for guilt or innocence?”
Deferring to the states
In theory, the argument over AEDPA came down to states’ rights, or the concept of federalism. Supporters argued that state systems were perfectly capable of protecting the rights of the accused, and of preventing and correcting wrongful convictions. During congressional debate, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch cited a handful of cases in which a state court had recently overturned a conviction or exonerated a prisoner and declared, “I do not know of one case where Federal habeas corpus review has saved the defendant.”
Even at the time, there were plenty of such cases. It was true that 10, 15, or more years could often pass between a conviction and execution. There were also at least some examples of defense attorneys making frivolous arguments to save their clients’ lives. But more often when federal courts intervened, it was because the states had failed to provide even a rudimentary defense for capital defendants. The defense was so inept, the trials so unfair, and the system so rigged that some federal judges felt obligated to order the states to protect the constitutional rights of the accused.
Arkansas paying defense attorneys just $350 for capital cases would certainly be one example. But there were plenty of others. Mississippi didn't execute anyone between 1989 and 2002, but it wasn't for lack of trying. It was because the state tried too hard. The state was repeatedly reprimanded by the courts for failing to provide an adequate indigent defense system, and then for passing unconstitutionally vague laws pushing the death penalty. Since the onset of DNA testing six Mississippi death row prisoners have been exonerated, or about 17 percent of its current death row population.
Even as Hatch and his allies argued that the states were doing a fine job protecting the innocent, many state legislatures were chipping away at even the paltry protections that existed at the time. In the mid-1990s, states slashed funding for indigent and capital defense while approving sweeping new powers for police and prosecutors. Many passed their own "mini-AEDPAs" to strip away protections for the accused and further limit the ability to appeal in state courts.
In Arkansas, Brown, Jimerson, and Vaughn faced another hurdle: Arkansas provides no way for prisoners with actual innocence claims to access the state’s courts. In fact, one 2000 law review article warned that unless the legislature fixed the issue, “in time, Arkansas will accept a shocking injustice: innocent persons will serve sentences of imprisonment or be put to death despite the discovery of new evidence that could prove their innocence.” The lead author on that article wasn't a crusading public defender or ACLU attorney. It was Josephine Linker Hart, at the time a justice on the state’s court of appeals, and who would later serve on the state supreme court.
In court filings, the Arkansas Attorney General’s office acknowledged there was no way for Brown or Jimerson to get back into state court with any of their new exculpatory evidence -- not the confession, not the recantations of eyewitnesses, not the informant. Yet in keeping with AEDPA’s hall-of-mirrors jurisprudence, when a state provides no avenue for a prisoner to adjudicate innocence claims, it’s the prisoner who is punished -- the law considers the prisoner to have defaulted on the non-adjudicable claims. And again, once a prisoner has defaulted in state court, AEDPA treats any subsequent filings in federal court with more hostility.
In the end, even with their bounty of new evidence, John Brown and Tina Jimerson did clear AEDPA’s restrictions, but only barely. The two federal magistrates who first reviewed their respective cases both recommended against overturning their convictions. In both cases, a federal district judge would later disregard the magistrate's recommendations with a long, analytical opinion explaining why even under AEDPA, the two had produced enough evidence to overturn their convictions.
The two judges also separately found that prosecutor Robin Wynne had provided false information to defense attorneys, and had either hidden or destroyed exculpatory evidence or knew about its destruction and failed to disclose it. The courts also found that in failing to disclose the existence of both the jailhouse informant and the now-missing recording of Vaughn's alleged confession, Wynne had acted in bad faith. (Wynne’s office did not respond to my requests for an interview.)
When the Eighth Circuit later upheld those rulings, the state of Arkansas decided not to try Brown and Jimerson again. Both were freed in the fall of 2018 after 26 years in prison.
After their release, both also filed civil rights lawsuits. Jimerson's case is still in litigation, but Brown will never receive any compensation. Two years after his release he died of congestive heart failure, likely the result of untreated high blood pressure while he was in prison. He was 53 years old.
Sadly, the tragedy didn't end there. After seeing her client Tina Jimerson freed, Karen Daniel was killed in 2019 when a car struck her in a crosswalk near her home. Daniel was a pioneer in the legal specialty of litigating exonerations. Over the course of her career she helped free 20 innocent people.
When it first became clear in the mid-2010s that their own clients were innocent, attorneys for Jimerson and Brown realized that Charlie Vaughn was likely innocent too. So did Michelle Tull. Myrtle Holmes had no children, so for decades Holmes’ niece — Tull’s mother — represented the interests of her family as the four people accused of the murder made their way through the system. When Tull’s mother died, she became the designated representative for Holmes’s family.
“My Aunt Myrtle was a sweet and kind woman,’ Tull says. “She was murdered when I was eight.” Tull is a former prison guard in Arkansas and a former private investigator. She now oversees security for a children’s hospital in Little Rock.
“I had always been told that these three men did this to my aunt, and that this woman Tina drove the car. That’s what I’ve always believed. Early lived a block over from my aunt. He knew her. He knew she lived alone. But the others? I just kept waiting for the state attorney to present evidence that they knew her. That they knew Early. All they had were these — pardon the term — but these crackhead witnesses who couldn’t remember anything. I just kept thinking, where’s the evidence that the others had anything to do with this? Where’s the evidence? It never came.”
Karen Daniel referred Vaughn’s case to Chanen, an attorney in private practice just outside Chicago. He took the case pro bono.
Vaughn was the first of the three wrongly convicted prisoners to test the new evidence in federal court, filing a year before Brown and Jimerson. But Chanen had a challenge ahead of him. Vaughn faced the same AEDPA hurdles as Brown and Jimerson, but because of that handwritten letter he sent in 1995, he faced one additional barrier: Vaughn would have to ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit to waive AEDPA's ban on “successive petitions” and grant him permission to file his case in district court. Basically, Vaughn would have to prove his innocence "on paper" to get approval to prove it again to a lower court.
So in 2017, Chanen filed Vaughn's petition requesting that permission. Drawing on the investigative work of Daniel and the Midwest Innocence Project, Chanen laid out seven constitutional claims, along with the new evidence of Vaughn’s innocence.
In January 2018, a three-judge panel for the Eighth Circuit issued its order: Vaughn was denied. The judges didn’t bother writing an opinion. It's possible they decided Vaughn had been tripped up by one of AEDPA’s many procedural requirements and deadlines. Perhaps they weren’t convinced he had adequately established his innocence. Or maybe, given his confession, Vaughn would have been denied no matter what sort of petition he filed. Whatever the court's reasoning, Vaughn doesn’t get to know it. Because of AEDPA, Vaughn was only seeking permission to file for relief, not filing for relief itself. The denial, which all but ended Vaughn's chances of having his conviction overturned, was just 20 words long.
Two post-conviction attorneys with no relation to these cases who reviewed Chanen's petition told me it was thin. The successful federal petitions Jimerson and Brown would later file a year later were 69 and 53 pages, respectively. Vaughn’s was just 15. And though Vaughn’s intellectual disability and mental illness were critical components in his case, Chanen didn’t have Vaughn evaluated by a medical or mental health professional prior to filing his petition (though he has since done so in his bid to get Vaughn a pardon).
Chanen concedes that while he has litigated other wrongful convictions, he isn’t an AEDPA specialist. By the time he was asked to take Vaughn’s case, a lot of time had passed since the attorneys for Brown and Jimerson had uncovered the new evidence. The AEDPA deadlines were fast approaching (indeed, the state of Arkansas would argue they had already passed), and Vaughn urgently needed an attorney.
“I’ll be the first to admit that I made some mistakes when I first took on Charlie’s case,” Chanen says. “I did the best I could. But I carry a lot of guilt knowing that my mistakes may be why Charlie never gets out of prison.”
“By design, AEDPA is complicated and unforgiving,” says David Moran, who runs the innocence clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. Moran was speaking generally, and isn't familiar with the specifics of Vaughn's case. “Remember, the entire point of the law was to limit the ability of prisoners to access federal courts. Because you have just a few attorneys who truly understand it, there’s far more demand for AEDPA expertise than supply. You can be a really smart, well-intentioned lawyer, but if you aren’t an AEDPA specialist, you’re susceptible to making mistakes. And clients pay for those mistakes."
In both the Jimerson and Brown cases, federal judges mentioned Vaughn’s disability and how it had rendered his confession insufficiently credible to support the convictions. One judge even referred to the confession as “illegally procured.” And in November 2019, two years after it denied Charlie Vaughn, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the reversal of Brown and Jimerson’s convictions.
Brown, Jimerson, and Vaughn were all convicted on the same evidence. All three had to plead their cases to the same appeals court, based on the same evidence. But Vaughn had the added burdens of AEDPA’s ban on successive petitions and a less experienced attorney. Now, only Vaughn remains in prison.
“This is an intellectually disabled man who has been in prison for a very long time‚” says Chanen. “He has compelling evidence of his innocence, and the state committed multiple constitutional violations to convict him. But because of AEDPA, this federal appeals court can reject him with one sentence. They’re under no obligation to explain why. And he has no right to appeal, object, or ask them to reconsider.”
Edward Oglesby is now a well-respected commercial litigation lawyer in Little Rock. He hasn't handled a criminal case in years. But he still thinks about Charlie Vaughn. “I want to think our system is just," he says. "I want to think it’s fair. So it hurts me to think about Charlie still sitting in prison. It hurts me as a lawyer. And it hurts me as a man.”
Innocence isn’t enough
Since AEDPA became law 25 years ago, many states have improved their indigent defense systems and add at least some protections for the accused. But defense attorneys and reform advocates in Arkansas and elsewhere say the notion that there's no need for federal review of state convictions remains as dubious now as it was then. DNA testing just last year, for example, strongly suggested that as recently as 2017, Arkansas may have executed an innocent man.
Today, Arkansas does have a statewide public defender system. But critics say the system is still inadequate. In 2015, the Arkansas Times reported that some public defenders carry 400 or more felony cases per year. The American Bar Association recommends no more than 150. Some offices cover swaths of the state so large that attorneys have to drive two hours or more just to get to court. Some told the paper they're often forced to meet with clients for the first time just minutes before they’re due in court.
Arkansas still provides no recourse in state court for prisoners who find evidence establishing their innocence, despite the repeated pleas and warnings from judges and legal scholars. More than 30 years after the first DNA exoneration, Arkansas's criminal procedure still doesn’t acknowledge the reality that innocent people can be convicted.
After the federal appeals court overturned Brown and Jimerson’s convictions, the Arkansas Attorney General’s Office decided not to try them again. At first blush, that at least seems like recognition that the two were wrongly convicted. But the convictions were only overturned because federal judges determined the new evidence was so overwhelming that it cleared even AEDPA’s high bar. Arkansas officials had known about that evidence for years. Rather than drop the charges against Brown and Jimerson, they repeatedly asked federal courts to keep the two incarcerated on technicalities. And they nearly succeeded.
The state's treatment of Charlie Vaughn has been even worse. Investigators for Jimerson and Brown discovered the first of the exculpatory evidence in 2014. Brown and Jimerson's attorneys referred Vaughn's case to Chanen in late 2015, and Chanen filed Vaughn's federal petition in January of 2017. But in court filings, the state of Arkansas argued that by not filing within a year of when the first bits of new evidence were discovered, Vaughn had failed to show "due diligence" in establishing his innocence. And because he missed AEDPA’s deadline, he was procedurally barred from benefiting from the exculpatory evidence.
It’s an exceptionally cruel argument. Vaughn can’t read or write. A former employer testified that he has the IQ of a seven-year-old. In testimony at the evidentiary hearings for Jimerson and Brown, Vaughn appeared to be unaware of why he was there. He kept insisting he had “overdone” his time, and at times appeared to think the hearings were for him.
At the time the new evidence was discovered, Vaughn was in a maximum security prison cell, in another part of the state, with no legal representation. “You’re going to argue that this poor man who is illiterate and has mental health issues should have known what was going on in those other cases, despite no access to the outside world?” Chanen asks. “That he should have been aware of court fillings? Come on. It's just absurd."
A state system that adequately protected the constitutional rights of the accused would also hold prosecutors accountable when they commit misconduct, especially in cases that result in a wrongful conviction.
In 2014, the Arkansas Times looked into the state’s disciplinary procedures and couldn’t find a single documented incident in which a state prosecutor had been sanctioned for misconduct.
That includes the prosecutors in these cases, brothers Tom and Robin Wynne. Neither were ever disciplined, even after two federal courts ruled that they had suppressed exculpatory evidence.
Their careers haven’t suffered for it, either. Today, Tom Wynne is an Arkansas district court judge. Robin Wynne is currently a justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court -- the same court to which AEDPA demands deference when it comes to safeguarding the rights of Arkansas's accused.
Last April, Chanen submitted a clemency petition for Vaughn to the state parole board, which screens petitions and makes recommendations to the governor. As part of that petition, in December of 2021 — three decades after Vaughn’s confession — Chanen ordered the mental health evaluation Vaughn never received. Forensic psychologist Bhushan Agharkar concluded that Vaughn is severely intellectually impaired. Of the 1,500 people he has evaluated, Agharkar wrote, Vaughn is “unequivocally one of the lowest functioning individuals I have ever seen.”
He reported that Vaughn had “a debilitating lack of insight, rational weighing, ability to deliberate, and common sense.” Vaughn was “unable to perform simple math, interpret easy proverbs and sayings, or make simple change out of a dollar.” During the exam Agharkar asked Vaughn the length of the average human spine is. Vaughn responded, “10 feet.” When Agharkar asked Vaughn asked how high the ceilings in the exam room were Vaughn replied, “5 feet.” Vaughn himself is 5 feet, 6 inches tall.
Vaughn’s 2nd grade teacher described him in the petition as “a sweet boy who wanted to learn,” but who clearly needed special care.
According to the clemency petition, should Vaughn be released, he’ll have a place to go. Angelo Hempstead is a childhood friend who looked out for Vaughn growing up. His family also owns a farm, restaurant, and construction business in Smackover, Arkansas. Should Vaughn ever be released, the Hempstead family says they’ll take him in, giving him a place to live, providing him meals, and finding him a job on the farm.
Michelle Tull also wrote a letter for Vaughn’s clemency application. Tull wrote that she believed Vaughn had been exploited by police and prosecutors, and that he is “also a victim in this terrible tragedy.” She added that though she’s “fairly certain” Vaughn is innocent, even if he played some role in her great aunt’s murder, “31 years is simply long enough for a mentally disabled adult to be put in prison. My family and I want him released regardless.”
“I worked as a prison guard,” Tull told me in a phone interview. “I can guarantee you that Charlie isn’t getting the care he needs. I’ve seen people die preventable deaths in prison. I knew a man who died because he couldn’t walk to the medical office to fill out a form for dialysis. I think about Charlie suffering in there. It breaks my heart.”
But in July, the parole board denied Vaughn’s petition. They offered no explanation. The Arkansas Parole Board’s website includes ample language about the right of victim’s families to voice their opinion about a prisoner’s potential parole or clemency. But Tull was never contacted or asked to testify.
“When you represent the interests of the victim’s family, the state is required to keep you apprised of what happens in these cases,” Tull says. “When the parole board was considering Reginald Early’s case, the attorney general’s office asked me to testify. And I did. When John Brown’s case was re-opened, they reached out to me and invited me to the hearing. But since I wrote that letter for Charlie, I haven’t heard a word from AG’s office. I had to call them go get an update on his clemency petition.”
Prior to this year, there was at least one last hope for Charlie Vaughn. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court created a small exception to AEDPA for prisoners who had ineffective attorneys during both the trial and post-conviction phase of their cases. In theory, Vaughn might have exploited that opening to argue that both Chanen and the attorney who pressured him to confess in 1991 should have had him evaluated for mental illness or intellectual capacity.
But in the spring, the Supreme Court slammed shut that small loophole. In oral arguments for that case, the Arizona solicitor general told the court that it need not even consider the evidence that a death row prisoner might be innocent — evidence that had persuaded two federal courts that his conviction should be overturned. Under AEDPA, the Arizona prosecutor told the court, "innocence isn't enough" for the federal courts to overrule a state court. Procedure matters more. The court ruled 6-3 in his favor.
Charlie Vaughn remains in the same prison from which he sent that handwritten petition in 1995. He has now been incarcerated for more than 30 years, and barring clemency or a pardon from Arkansas’s governor, he’ll die in prison.
As of now, no court in the country has ruled on the merits of his conviction.
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1996 order by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas denying Vaughn’s post-conviction petition
2017 federal magistrate’s recommendation to deny Tina Jimerson’s federal habeas petition
2018 federal magistrate’s recommendation to deny John Brown’s federal habeas petition
2018 order from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit denying Vaughn’s petition
2018 federal district court order granting John Brown’s petition for habeas relief
2018 federal district court order granting Tina Jimerson’s petition for habeas relief
2020 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirming lower courts’ granting of relief to Brown and Jimerson
Michelle Tull’s 2021 letter in support of parole for Charlie Vaughn