When state District Judge August Hand banged down the gavel after sentencing William J. Graham for his 2013 conviction on a single count of molestation of a juvenile, the St. Tammany Parish man faced being confined behind bars until 2059.
But after the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction this week, saying the prosecution of the case “presents a myriad of problems,” Graham could be home before Christmas. What’s more, the errors in the case were such that instead of sending the case back to the district court for a retrial, the Supreme Court ruled that Graham should have been found not guilty and can’t be tried again.
One justice dissented.
Graham, 26, was 19 when he was arrested and 23 when he was convicted. He has been in jail since his arrest and is now at the Dixon Correctional Institute in Jackson. But before he can get out, the state — represented in this matter by 22nd Judicial District Attorney Warren Montgomery — has 14 days to ask the Supreme Court to rehear the case.
Montgomery issued a statement pointing out that the case was handled during the tenure of his predecessor, Walter Reed, and the specific prosecutor who handled the case — Jack Hoffstadt — no longer works at the office. Hence, he said, prosecutors in his office are collecting the trial records to examine them before deciding what to do.
A petition for a rehearing has little chance of success, according to Loyola University law professor Dane Ciolino.
The Supreme Court is “not going to grant that unless there was something they just completely missed,” he said.
If Montgomery doesn’t seek a rehearing or the court denies the motion, the judgment will become final, and officials at the Department of Corrections can begin processing Graham’s release. A spokeswoman said she could not comment on how long that would take.
Graham’s legal saga — and the missteps cited by the Supreme Court — began in 2009, when he was charged with aggravated incest and pleaded not guilty. That charge requires the state to prove that the accused has a specific biological, adoptive or stepfamily relationship to the victim.
Once the defense rested at the trial, the prosecution apparently believed that it had not proved that element of the case, and it asked Hand to permit the jury to return with a verdict of guilty on a different charge: molestation of a juvenile.
The jury should never have been allowed to consider molestation, which was offered only because prosecutors were “evidently suspecting that the defendant might be acquitted on the more serious charge,” the Supreme Court said.
The molestation charge contains elements that are not necessarily covered under the incest statute, the court said. To address this switch, Hoffstadt argued that Graham had some “control or supervision” over the victim. But the Supreme Court noted that Hoffstadt never mentioned “control or supervision” in his opening statements and presented no evidence to that effect.
Further, the court said, because the jury returned with a verdict on the lesser charge, that carries the same legal weight as a “not guilty” finding on aggravated incest and Graham cannot be tried again because of the ban on double jeopardy.
Such a decision from the Supreme Court is “fairly remarkable,” Ciolino said. “Any reversal of a criminal conviction is rare. It is especially rare to have one that results in freedom.”
Public Defender John Lindner, who along with Assistant Public Defender David Anderson handled Graham’s defense and his appeal to the Supreme Court, called the decision “pretty heady.”
The decision was the first such victory by a public defender in Lindner’s tenure, which began in 2012.
Lindner praised Anderson, noting that Graham’s case was his first jury trial.
Rene Flowers, Graham’s mother, called the decision “surreal.”
“It’s a long-fought victory,” she said. “I felt like someone finally listened to what we had been saying.”
Nobody has told Graham yet. Prison rules won’t let him talk on the phone to his attorneys, and his mother’s next scheduled visit isn’t until next weekend.
“I didn’t want to tell him in an email,” his mother said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.