ST. LOUIS — When Lawrence Callanan was convicted in 1996 of the murder of John M. Schuh, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch wasted no words in celebrating the jury’s decision.
“The evidence was clear, convincing and overwhelming as to his guilt,” McCulloch said. “Mr. Callahan is heading for the spot where he belongs.”
Last week, a judge disagreed, and he blamed prosecutorial misconduct for Callanan’s conviction.
Sitting as a special master appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court, Judge Gael D. Wood ruled that Callanan’s conviction should be vacated “due to the egregious Brady violation by the prosecutor.” His report now goes to the Missouri Supreme Court for a final ruling.
Callanan’s case highlights a new national trend involving elected prosecutors, in which they examine old cases and seek to reverse past injustices in order to increase the public’s faith in the legal system.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell — who replaced McCulloch in a stunning election upset in 2018 — wrote a letter to the court on behalf of Callanan, supporting his motion for freedom.
“We are deeply concerned by the prosecutorial misconduct that occurred during Mr. Callanan’s 1996 trial,” Bell wrote. “Mr. Callanan’s conviction rested entirely on circumstantial evidence. … The prosecution was based upon a theory of ‘exclusive opportunity’ that hinged on the testimony of a lone and uncorroborated witness …”
That witness, Bell points out in the letter, actually told the prosecutor who handled the case, Dan Diemer, that she saw two cars leaving the scene of the crime. Diemer instructed her not to tell anybody about the second car, and he never disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defense.
“Compounding this error, having instructed her to lie, the prosecutor then repeatedly vouched for her credibility,” Bell wrote. “Were it not for the prosecutor’s egregious misconduct in this case, Mr. Callanan would not have been convicted. Such misconduct is not tolerated by this office.”
At the time of his conviction, Callanan was the 20-year-old son of two generations of union officials, who had suspected mob ties. His grandfather, Lawrence “Larry” Callanan, ran Pipefitters Local 562 until his death in 1971. His father, Tom Callanan, also ran the local after his father’s death. In 1973, Tom Callanan’s legs were blown off in a car explosion in Spanish Lake suspected of being a mob hit.
Lawrence Callanan blamed prosecutors for targeting him because of “events that took place before I was born.” He has always maintained his innocence.
In his 116-page report, Wood doesn’t determine that Callanan met the legal standard for proving his “actual innocence,” but he leaves no doubt that his conviction was improper.
“The clear result is a verdict not worthy of confidence, a verdict that has deprived Petitioner of his liberty for life,” Wood wrote. “At a minimum, Callanan deserves a trial free from constitutional error.”
The case, Bell says, shares some similarities with the high-profile case of Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murder in the city of St. Louis in 1995. In that case, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has filed a motion for a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, but is being blocked by the judge and Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
“We have the duty to correct injustices,” says Bell, who has also signed an amicus brief supporting Gardner’s attempts to free Johnson. “We have to have safeguards in place so that when we do get it wrong, we correct those injustices.”
Kansas City attorney Lindsay Runnels of the Morgan Pilate law firm, represents both Callanan and Johnson. While one (Callanan) sought his freedom by filing a writ of habeas corpus that took nearly five years to make it through the courts, the other avenue sought by Gardner is just as valid, she says.
The point in both cases is that prosecutors, and judges, have to have a path to correct manifest injustices. The freedom of both Callanan and Johnson is now in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court. In both cases, prosecutors are asking the court to set the men free.
“A prosecutor’s duty to tell the truth never ends,” Runnels says. “The elected prosecutors in both of these cases recognized past errors committed by their offices and are trying to correct those injustices today. A system of justice based on truth and fairness does not stand in the way.”
News | U.S./World
Published at Sat, 07 Mar 2020 10:40:00 +0000