By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Members of juries often wonder what information is not being shared with them as they sit in the hallway outside the courtroom while the judge and lawyers yak it up. But, sometimes, that withheld evidence can make a world of difference.
In the case of Jeremy Puckett, it made 19 years behind bars of difference.
Last week, on Friday the 13th no less, Puckett walked free after Sacramento County Superior Court overturned his murder conviction and the Sacramento County District Attorney dismissed all charges it originally filed in 2001.
His wrongful incarceration cost taxpayers nearly a million dollars, $919,800 to be precise, said his lawyers.
It was on March 13, 1998, that the DA claims Puckett shot and killed Anthony Galati. However, the crime actually took place on March 12 – the first of many mistakes the DA would make. And just one reason Puckett should not have gone to prison.
It was an old-fashioned “gumshoe” investigative effort, claimed the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) and the global law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.
Puckett was freed after six years of work by a team including two NCIP volunteers (a retired Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney and a retired San Jose Deputy Police Chief), Santa Clara Law School students, and lawyers from Simpson Thacher.
Puckett, they explained, walked free because of “unearthed suppressed evidence, a confession by an accomplice, and an alibi that the jury never heard.”
Sacramento Superior Court Judge, and former Sacramento County District Attorney Steve White, who wasn’t around in 2001 when Puckett was prosecuted, gaveled the case closed. He was very critical of the DA’s office.
“This was not a strong prosecution case. No physical evidence tied Petitioner to the crime or the crime scene,” said White, who reversed the conviction.
“Not only was it not a strong case for the prosecution,” notes Simpson Thacher partner Buzz Frahn, “but we proved Jeremy was innocent. The prosecution’s original theory – that the events happened on a Friday night – completely crumbled under the facts we proved, and the DA ultimately stipulated that it wasn’t Friday, but Thursday.
He added, “And we proved that on Thursday, Jeremy was at a family barbeque and spent the night at home with his sick baby, so he could not have been the perpetrator.”
Galati was found murdered near White Rock Road in Sacramento County, with two gunshot wounds to the head, and his body covered in abrasions. Puckett was implicated in the murder when the real killer – a jailed man named Israel Sept – told a prison guard he knew who killed Galati.
In exchange for his testimony, Sept got a sweet deal – sentencing and other personal benefits – when he confessed. Sept only got 11 years in prison, charged NCIP.
NCIP maintains an innocent man was charged, tried and imprisoned, although no physical evidence tied him to the scene – but that and other “glaring” problems were not presented to jurors.
Jurors never heard Sept’s recantation of his original story – he reportedly told Puckett’s defense attorney that Puckett didn’t do it.
Puckett also claimed he had an alibi – court records indicate he had four alibi witnesses. But the jury never heard them.
And Puckett’s lawyer never used the testimony of Puckett’s sister at an evidentiary hearing that Puckett attended a barbecue at the time of the murder, and was home with a sick child.
Puckett’s NCIP lawyers said “significant evidence implicated others besides Sept in the murder-robbery, including that an accomplice to Sept’s murder of Gal
But, again, Puckett’s poor jury never heard it.
The Innocence Project said an accomplice to Sept “confessed participation to his estranged wife and said that Puckett had not participated.” Also, NCIP was able to establish with “newly discovered evidence” that the accomplice had “possessed a gun matching the description of a gun used to pistol whip the victim as well as other items likely stolen from Galati.”
Puckett’s jury heard none of this.
And, most probably because of the jury’s ignorance of these facts – not the jury’s fault, as they spent lots of time sitting outside the courtroom – Puckett was convicted of murder and robbery in a jury trial in which deliberations lasted almost as long as the trial itself.
On March 14, 2002, 18 years ago almost exactly from Puckett’s release last week, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Puckett has always maintained his innocence.
NCIP reports that it uncovered 700 pages of materials the DA withheld from Puckett, including evidence that “corroborated Sept’s recantation, implicated others in the murder-robbery, and documented impeachment evidence against the prosecution’s trial witnesses.”
“The wrongful conviction of Jeremy Puckett was a perfect storm which resulted from perjury, the government suppression of evidence, and inadequate legal representation,” said retired Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery, who volunteered with NCIP on the Puckett exoneration project.
“The fact that justice has been done at long last is the result of the stellar legal work of NCIP and the Simpson Thacher law firm, a Superior Court judge who painstakingly evaluated the newly discovered evidence, the hard work of retired San Jose deputy police chief Don Anders, as well as the work of many Santa Clara Law School students,” Sinunu-Towery added.
“This case demonstrates the critical importance of prosecutors’ complying with the constitutional mandate that they turn over to defense counsel all potentially exculpatory and impeaching information,” said NCIP Executive Director Linda Starr, emphasizing “Had the jury heard this information, Jeremy would not have been convicted and lost 18 years of his life.”
NCIP is a non-profit clinical program of Santa Clara University School of Law that is known to work for the rights of “the innocent.” Since it started in 2001, NCIP said it has processed more than 10,000 requests for inmate assistance, investigated hundreds of cases, pursued litigation or collaborative resolution in dozens, and obtained victories for 30 wrongfully convicted individuals.
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