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Why the CJ Rice case is all too common — and his exoneration an anomaly

“Justice Delayed: The Story of C.J. Rice” will air on “The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper” Sunday at 8 p.m. ET.

Justice was served this past week, a dozen years too late, when CJ Rice was legally exonerated by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.

The district attorney’s office dropped all charges against Rice for a 2011 shooting that sent him to prison for a crime he insists he did not — and was physically unable to — commit.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, who covered Rice’s case on CNN and in a cover story in The Atlantic in 2022, has a new documentary airing Sunday on CNN at 8 p.m. ET examining Rice’s 2013 conviction, his ineffective counsel at trial, and the long and winding road it took to free him.

Tapper was alerted to Rice’s case because his pediatrician father, Dr. Theodore Tapper, treated Rice in 2011 five days before the shooting, when Rice could barely walk — much less run, as the shooters were described as having done — because he was recovering from a separate shooting at the time.

Tapper’s 2022 stories documented the many ways Rice’s attorney — an overworked, underpaid, court-appointed lawyer — made critical errors at trial, including failing to subpoena Rice’s cell phone location data, which might have provided an alibi, and allowing prosecutors to put forward to the jury a motive for the shooting that lacked evidence.

It took a high-powered team of attorneys and an exhaustion of the state’s appeals process for Rice’s case to finally get reconsidered by the judicial system last year through a successful federal petition for habeas corpus, a legal principle that allows people who believe they are being held unlawfully in prison to challenge their convictions.

Advocates and lawyers say Rice’s cause was also aided by a district attorney willing to give a decade-old case an honest reexamination and a doctor who happened to have a journalist son and who remained troubled for years by the conviction of a patient he believed was not physically capable of committing the crime he was accused of.

The events that led to the charges against Rice being tossed are a stark reminder that this (relatively) happy ending is very much the exception, not the rule, for those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

A 1990s law and Supreme Court rulings in recent years have raised the bar even higher for successful habeas petitions, in which defendants have to correctly navigate a procedural labyrinth for the opportunity to prove their convictions were flawed.

“It’s too rare,” Karl Schwartz, Rice’s attorney on his habeas petition, said on CNN’s “The Lead” on Monday. “The limitations over the past decade or so that have been put on habeas proceedings and habeas representation makes it even rarer. And that’s really regrettable, especially with what we’ve learned about exculpatory evidence.”

A common problem in convictions later overturned

Advocates and experts in habeas law and the post-trial appeals process say that cases where defendants receive ineffective counsel at trial are all too common.

According to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, inadequate legal defense has been one of the factors in 27% of the nearly 3,500 exonerations since 1989. In Pennsylvania, it was a factor in 41% of exonerations, according to the registry.

Rice, who could not afford an attorney, was represented at his 2013 trial not by a public defender but by a court-appointed attorney, Sandjai Weaver, who received a flat fee for taking the case to trial — a system that advocates argue encourages underpaid attorneys to take too high a volume of cases.

At the trial, Weaver failed to raise doubts about the lone eyewitness who named Rice, even though the testimony contained inconsistencies. There was no physical evidence tying Rice to the crime.

Rice’s hospital records, which would have revealed he was dealing with a fractured pelvis in addition to recovering from surgery, weren’t obtained until years after his conviction, when Rice asked Dr. Tapper to retrieve them.

“CJ and many others have court-appointed counsel that don’t get paid well, often can’t get the court to approve money for an investigator, have high caseloads,” said Nilam Sanghvi, the legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, who worked on Rice’s appeal. “It is a product of how the system is set up and then not funded.”

Until recently, Pennsylvania was one of a few states that did not provide state-level funding to attorneys representing clients who cannot afford a lawyer. Instead, the system was funded at the county level. In December, the state legislature approved $7.5 million in funding, providing for the first time a revenue stream to bolster how counties currently pay for public defenders and court-appointed attorneys.

The uphill battle for post-conviction challenges

C.J. Rice. - Courtesy Crystal Cooper
C.J. Rice. - Courtesy Crystal Cooper

Rice’s first attempts to appeal his conviction in Pennsylvania were unsuccessful. But the initial attorney Rice had retained after Weaver made an important decision: raising Rice’s ineffective counsel in his first appeal through the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act.

Taking that step allowed Rice to raise the ineffective counsel issue when he filed the federal habeas petition that was granted last year. Otherwise, he might not have been able to use that as an argument to get his case thrown out.

In Pennsylvania, defendants can only raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims on their first post-conviction appeal under the PCRA law, said Amelia Maxfield, who worked on Rice’s case with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and is now at the Exoneration Project.

“When we get a case, and they’ve already exhausted their first PCRA — their counsel may be the worst attorney in the world and there’s almost no way we can bring that back into court,” Maxfield said.

The state law also raises additional procedural requirements, including that an appeal has to be filed within a year of learning of new evidence, Maxfield said, which can foreclose possible challenges.

Rice’s cell phone data — which his first attorney, Weaver, had failed to subpoena — was deleted when Cricket Wireless was purchased by AT&T in 2014, as Tapper reported in 2022. But had the data somehow been retrieved, Maxfield said, it might not have qualified as new evidence under the law’s one-year requirement.

In addition to procedural challenges, Rice faced a hurdle when it came to arguing the merits of his case: There was little evidence to challenge.

“The post-conviction system is actually premised on needing to produce new evidence. And if there’s weak evidence to begin with, it can be difficult,” Maxfield said.

A federal system that’s made habeas challenges harder

Rice’s attorneys filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court in 2022, after his state appeals had been exhausted. A year later, the appeal was granted by two federal judges. The case was sent back to the Philadelphia district attorney, who had 180 days to decide whether to retry Rice or drop the charges.

On Monday, the district attorney’s office announced it was dropping the charges.

Rice’s habeas petition was granted on a specific claim: His attorney at trial incompetently agreed to allow evidence that provided a motive for the 2011 shooting.

“The prosecution’s theory was that the shooting was retaliation against one of the victims for shooting Rice three weeks earlier. However, neither the police nor the prosecutor could offer any concrete evidence supporting the victim’s culpability for the earlier shooting, and the trial court was prepared to exclude the motive evidence for being more prejudicial than probative,” Schwartz wrote in the habeas petition.

Rice’s attorneys successfully argued that his constitutional rights had been violated by his ineffective counsel. But it’s rare for such a challenge to be successful: Tapper noted in his original Atlantic story that a 2007 study found habeas petitions are successful in just 0.3% of cases.

The claims also have to have been made during the state appeals process; new evidence typically isn’t considered, Maxfield said.

Congress and the Supreme Court have also raised the burden for habeas petitions over the past three decades.

One year after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, or AEDPA. The new law added a one-year statute of limitations for habeas petitions to be made after a state appeals process ended, as well as a “deference” provision, meaning the federal court would grant a review only when the state court unreasonably applied established federal law, Ira Robbins, a professor of criminal law at American University Washington College of Law.

“When all was said and done, AEDPA more than anything was a habeas corpus reform bill that severely increased the restrictions on writ of habeas corpus,” Robbins said.

In 2022, the Supreme Court decision Shinn v. Ramirez added new restrictions on habeas petitions related to ineffective counsel, ruling that federal habeas petitions could not conduct evidentiary hearings beyond the state-court record based on ineffective assistance of state post-conviction counsel.

C.J. Rice. - CNN
C.J. Rice. - CNN

Philly DA played a role in Rice’s exoneration

“When you put everything together here, it is very hard to get a court to take the time and make the effort to sort through this thicket in a way that helps the prisoner,” Robbins said. “Probably the most important thing that’s necessary is a willing prosecutor to do justice in these cases.”

In Rice’s case, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office re-investigated his case before the federal magistrate judge heard the appeal last year. That investigation was comprehensive, examining evidence including Rice’s prison conversations with his family after his arrest and inconsistencies around Rice’s hairstyle in the witness identification.

Rice’s attorneys say that the DA’s office was collaborative in the appeals process and was willing to waive procedural defenses that could have created roadblocks to the appeal.

Larry Krasner, who was a defense attorney in Pennsylvania before being elected district attorney, said at a press conference Monday that his office’s reinvestigation found the case ultimately was “murky,” without clear evidence one way or the other.

“We just don’t know, but the case has no integrity,” Krasner said his office concluded. “It would be a violation of my oath to leave someone sitting in jail on a case that has no integrity.”

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