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C.J. Rice conviction overturned

C.J. Rice could soon be a free man.

Rice, whose case and ineffective representation in court we told you about on CNN
and in a cover story in The Atlantic in October 2022, was granted a petition for writ of habeas corpus on Monday by Judge Nitza I. Quiñones Alejandro, United States District judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Alejandro found that Rice’s “trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance” and ordered that Pennsylvania decide whether to retry him or free him within 180 days.

The decision will be made by the Philadelphia district attorney within the next six months. Rice has already been in prison for more than 11 years.

The case first received national attention because of a cover story in The Atlantic written by this reporter, titled, “This Is Not Justice: A Philadelphia teenager and the empty promise of the Sixth Amendment,” which noted many ways Rice did not have effective counsel when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania sent him to prison for 30 to 60 years for a 2011 shooting.

This reporter was first alerted to the Rice case by his father, Dr. Theodore S. Tapper, who was Rice’s pediatrician and testified that he did not believe Rice would have been physically capable of carrying out the 2011 shooting given that he was recovering from a separate shooting at the time. The story also noted that attorney Karl Schwartz, thought to be hired by this reporter’s father, was working on a habeas petition to free Rice. Habeas corpus is a legal principle that allows people who believe they are being held unlawfully in prison or detention to challenge it.

In December of 2022, Schwartz filed the habeas petition, which specifically argued that Rice’s attorney incompetently stipulated to evidence that provided a motive for the charged shootings. Subsequently, attorneys Nilam Sanghvi and Amelia Maxfield of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, former Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, and attorney Ginger Anders of Munger, Tolles & Olson, LLP, joined the effort. On September 22, the district attorney’s office conceded relief based on the motive claim.

On October 23, Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells, United States Magistrate judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ordered that “habeas relief is warranted.” The decision then went to Alejandro, who ruled Monday.

The basics of the story are as follows: Rice had been shot in September 2011, and after he was released he saw his pediatrician. Rice could barely walk. Soon after that, two young Black men shot a separate family, causing injury but thankfully no deaths. That night, no suspects were identified, even though the victims knew Rice. The next day, however, after an anonymous tip, the police re-interviewed the victims and suddenly one picked out Rice as one of the shooters in a photo lineup that didn’t follow recommended procedure. After hiring Sandjai Weaver, an overworked, underpaid defense attorney who behaved incompetently, Rice was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison for a crime in which no one was even seriously injured.

After The Atlantic story was published, this reporter ran into Verrilli and urged him to read the story. He did and soon he was also working with Schwartz and with Erin Haney of Reform Alliance, which had become involved because of the interest of this reporter’s CNN colleague Van Jones. After this reporter did a CNN version of the story with Jones and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, that organization became involved as well.

Schwartz’s petition focused on Weaver agreeing to stipulate “to an otherwise inadmissible fact that established a motive for Rice to commit the crime,” as Assistant District Attorney Peter Andrews acknowledged. “The prosecution’s theory was that the shooting was retaliation against one of the victims for shooting Rice three weeks earlier. However, neither the police nor the prosecutor could offer any concrete evidence supporting the victim’s culpability for the earlier shooting, and the trial court was prepared to exclude the motive evidence for being more prejudicial than probative. Instead, on the morning of trial, Rice’s counsel stipulated that the evidence could come in. Trial counsel’s decision to agree to that stipulation was objectively unreasonable, as the evidence was otherwise inadmissible and only could have hurt her client.”

Andrews, acknowledging that Rice was not provided the rights afforded under the Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees a defendant’s right to counsel, said that the inadequate counsel means that Rice is “due habeas relief” – a fundamental right elsewhere in the Constitution that protects against unlawful and indefinite imprisonment. Because of this, Andrews wrote, “the Commonwealth respectfully requests that the Court grant a conditional writ of habeas corpus and order that Rice be retried within 180 days or released from custody.”

The case now is sent back to state court, specifically to the Court of Common Pleas, where it will be assigned to a judge who will schedule a status hearing for both parties – Rice and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to be represented by the district attorney of Philadelphia, who has up to six months to decide whether he wants to try this case, though his office has already ruled that Rice did not get a fair trial.

A statement from the district attorney’s office Monday said it was “pleased” with the district court order vacating Rice’s conviction. “This matter will now be referred to the DA’s Sentencing Review Committee, which includes homicide prosecutors and will invite participation of survivors of the 2011 shooting for which Mr. Rice was previously convicted. After the Sentencing Review Committee makes a recommendation on how to proceed with the charges against petitioner Rice, the decision of District Attorney Larry Krasner will be formally communicated to the Court of Common Pleas ahead of its ruling. We expect this matter to be finally resolved within the next several months.”

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