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Judicial Soup

Judicial Soup

Judicial Soup exposes the need for criminal justice reform through one true crime story and summaries of more than a dozen other cases in which innocent people have been incarcerated, sometimes for decades.

In August 2010, the protagonist/victim, Heath Patrick Thomas, was arrested outside The Guards, a historic bar in Georgetown, Washington, DC, for assault with a deadly weapon. Heath had been removed from the bar by a bouncer, Mr. Marshall Brackett, for disruptive behavior. This resulted in a struggle over his service gun. While Heath maintained he was attempting to reseat the weapon in its holster after it became dislodged, the bouncer claimed Heath drew the weapon with the intent to use it. The bouncer's quick action to grab the gun, Brackett claimed, is the sole reason the gun was never pointed at him. The prosecution went on to argue that Heath was drunk and drew his weapon as a show of force. Despite evidence to the contrary, the judge believed the prosecution and Heath was found guilty.

When arrested, Heath was an off-duty agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Over the next three years, he was indicted, tried, and convicted of a crime that, as this book shows, he did not commit. Today, Heath lives with that wrongful conviction on his record and has paid the consequences, including losing his job and being unable to find a new one.

I first met Heath weeks after the incident when his lawyer asked me to be an expert witness in the case. I was in law enforcement for 42 years and have testified in court hundreds of times. What I saw unfold, and what I have since learned through transcripts, interviews, and case notes, was unlike anything I had experienced before.

Before the incident, Heath had been in federal law enforcement for 18 years; he held high-security clearances and was widely respected within his agency and allied agencies, and his coworkers. Heath was also familiar with the criminal justice system, having investigated and arrested numerous individuals and taken part in a wide variety of prosecutions. With his background, one might think he could navigate his way through the system unharmed. And yet, due to a series of mistakes, conflicts, and false information that melded together like ingredients in a soup, he was found guilty and lost his career.

We hear about problematic cases in which individuals are found guilty of serious crimes and spend years in jail before the convictions are overturned. This is not one of those cases. For Heath, the penalty was a fine and probation. The alleged offense was a crime but minor compared to many others. Nevertheless, the fallout of this wrongful conviction has been significant for the people involved. This one event permanently changed the trajectory of Heath's life.

The heavy impact of this relatively minor incident highlights another, more serious truth about the justice system. Over the years, we have heard of numerous people on death row who have had their cases overturned. Often, innocent people have spent decades incarcerated, which shocks our belief and trust in the criminal justice system. If we find injustice, misconduct, and incompetence in death penalty cases, which are supposed to be examined and reviewed in almost immeasurable ways, how many problems like Heath's exist in lesser cases?

In exploring these questions, the book details the alleged crime, the subsequent grand jury process and witness testimony, the criminal trial, and the appeals verdict. Readers get a firsthand account directly from these extensive primary sources through excerpts from the criminal trial transcripts, the motions, exhibits from the trial, and correspondence. Additionally, personal interviews with many of the participants in the case give the reader a greater understanding of the different perspectives. I have also included my own expert opinions and analysis where they differ from others, and I explain some legal terms and processes for a lay audience.

Following each chapter is a summary of a case in which an innocent person has been found guilty of a crime and was later exonerated. The cases expose a range of problems within the criminal justice system, such as witness misidentification and prosecutorial misconduct, a few of which will be known to readers while others will surprise them. The selected cases often reflect, and parallel problems discussed in preceding chapters.

Researching these cases of wrongful conviction was a learning experience in and of itself. It was not hard; in fact, it was easy—too easy—to find cases of individuals who had been found guilty of crimes they did not commit and then spent years incarcerated. I found hundreds of such cases. If one were to write and publish a book on innocent persons found guilty, the volume of materials could easily resemble a small set of encyclopedias. These are just the cases that we know of. If one can easily find hundreds of serious felony and death penalty cases where individuals were wrongfully convicted and sentenced, how many minor cases like Heath's exist?

With so many cases being reversed in our judicial system, it is easy to see why innocence programs have proliferated nationwide. While I applaud the investigators, the reporters, the attorneys, and the volunteers who give their time and energy to these cases, we also need to look at the other end. We need to examine the problem from the front end of the system—to prevent the back end from continually filling. Releasing innocent incarcerated people is a symptom of the real problem. The real problem is that innocent people are being found guilty and incarcerated.

These additional cases give the reader a broader perspective, informing them that this one case of a wrongful conviction is not unique. In fact, the cases demonstrate that the problems are prevalent, yet the extent of the problems is unknown. The book ends with a call to action for all of those in the criminal justice system to examine their perceptions, roles, and responsibilities. Changes can only occur when we understand the problem and address the causes.

The Author