R.E. (Trip) Chalkley, III
Hanover County Commonwealth’s Attorney, R.E. (Trip) Chalkley, III has a perspective on wrongful convictions that few people can share: he prosecuted one MAIP client and served as the trial attorney for another. But instead of shying away from the issue, he opened up to MAIP this fall for a candid conversation about those experiences.
I prosecuted Marvin Anderson in Hanover County: multiple rape and singular robbery, abduction and sodomy charges. The victim positively identified him after several hours of being with him in daylight. And 15 years later, DNA evidence cleared him. I read it in the paper, I ran to the bathroom, and I threw up. I had been firmly convinced of his guilt the entire time.
I defended Thomas Haynesworth in the city of Richmond in the ‘80s. And DNA cleared him, too. I thought he was innocent as much as you allow yourself to believe a client is innocent, but if you start off with the preconceived notion that he’s innocent, you can miss other things. Thomas Haynesworth is a pure gentleman, and his mother’s a delightful lady, but I don’t assume my clients are guilty and I don’t assume they’re innocent. I judge my clients’ cases on the facts, and there were no facts in Mr. Haynesworth’s case that made me believe he was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The problem with the judicial system is that you deal with humans. Effective cross examination and effective interviews by attorneys on both sides get to the truth, but as long you have human beings testifying, mistakes can be made. You can pass all the laws and the procedures you want to, but if the person thinks that I robbed the 7/11 store, they’re going to keep saying it. And they’re not lying. People fill in what they don’t see and say it’s true. And as long as human beings are jurors and attorneys, there’s a chance they’ll make mistakes, too.
I think about Marvin and Thomas’ cases weekly, and on some level I think it affects me every day. Cases come in and it triggers something, and I think: What could I have done to make sure Mr. Anderson wasn’t convicted? Who could we have spoken to? What could we have found? But I keep returning to the fact – maybe it’s self preservation – that I did all that I could do as a prosecutor and a defense attorney. That’s just what we were dealing with at the time. Had there been DNA, neither one of them ever would have been prosecuted. The system was a victim of the times. It doesn’t make it right; it’s just the fact of the matter.
It’s hard for me to be in some other prosecutors’ shoes; I don’t know what their relationships are with their police departments and such. But there’s nothing wrong in my opinion with having an open-file [discovery] policy. Virginia’s rules of discovery give defense the right to all scientific analysis of reports, statement of the defendant, any tangible evidence . . . and exculpatory evidence. That’s all we have to supply. Well, I think it’s far more beneficial to both sides, and far more economical, to say ‘Okay, here’s my case. Here’s everything we’ve got. No surprises; you get to see everything we see.’ It gives the defense attorneys the chance to go back to their client and say ‘The government has six witnesses – you’re crazy to put this before a jury.’ It’s one thing to go to your client and say, ‘The prosecutor told me they have witnesses and this is what they say,’ and another to say, ‘I’ve seen the witness statements, the police reports, and this is what they have.’
I still assess cases as a prosecutor should, which is if a victim comes in and says this is the person who did this to me, and there’s no evidence to contradict that, and they’re credible and consistent, it’s my job to let a jury decide whether or not it’s true. But it’s as much my job to clear the innocent as it is to convict the guilty.
So open up your files. If the conviction is solid, it will stand. And if it’s not, the prosecutor should be delighted to let an innocent man go. It’s a person’s liberty we’re playing with.
–As told to Rachel Cicurel