The Counsellor's Corner


     There was a disturbing decision by a court in New York approximately two weeks ago.  A woman who has served almost 25 years for second degree murder is about to be released as a judge has overturned her second degree murder conviction.  Without going on any further, this disturbs me.  It means that either someone has served 25 years for a crime they did not commit and as the prisoner, Betty Tyson, is 49 years old, that accounts for more than half of her life.  The other alternative is that a woman who committed a murder is being released well before her release date.  Of the two scenarios, I find the former to be more disturbing, especially when one considers the reason for her pending release.

     Betty Tyson is a former prostitute and on May 25, 1973 she was arrested and subsequently convicted for the strangling of a Philadelphia businessman.  She signed a confession and a key witness testified at trial that he saw Ms. Tyson with the victim, Timothy Haworth, shortly before Mr. Haworth was killed.  Mr. Haworth was found beaten in the head with a brick and was strangled to death with his own neck tie.

     Sounds cut and dried, right?  Not right.  Shortly after her confession, Ms. Tyson alleged that she signed her confession after being continually and severely beaten by the police officers investigating the case.  For the last ten years, New York activists have attempted to obtain freedom for Ms. Tyson, however, the key came in early May when prosecutors acknowledged that the witness who tied Ms. Tyson to Mr. Haworth on the night of the murder, had been earlier interviewed by the detectives from the police department and had told the detectives that he never saw Haworth with Tyson at any time on the evening of his murder.

     Just two weeks ago, Judge John Connell correctly ruled that if the defense had known about this previous inconsistent statement on the part of the key witness at trial, they would have had the opportunity to impeach his testimony and according to the judge there would have been a "reasonable possibility that the verdict would have been one other than guilty."  Why didn't the defense have this statement?  Because the prosecution didn't turn it over to them.  They buried it and never disclosed it.

     So now 25 years after her first day in jail, in the wake of allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, coerced testimony, and police beatings, Ms. Tyson's conviction has been vacated and she is about to be set free.

     This story leaves me feeling very sad about what can happen in our judicial system.  There are times such as this when the system breaks down.  There are no circumstances under which a confession ought to be beaten out of an arrestee.  There are no circumstances under which a prosecutor should not turn over an interview of a key witness that could easily turn a case around.

     Lastly, there is no time when it is ever appropriate to coerce testimony out of an individual in a criminal trial.

     I have worked as a criminal defense lawyer for approximately 17 years and I know that the majority of police officers and prosecutors in this State, and I am sure in most other states for that matter, are good people.  But this shouldn't happen.  We are all given but one life to live and for this woman to have to spend 25 years of it wrongfully behind bars leaves me both angry and sad.  It is often said that our system is the best around, but we still have a long way to go.

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     Charlie Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal & Family.  Mr. Unger writes a bi-monthly column on legal and psychological issues.