(CN) – The “win-at-all-costs unethical conduct” of an attorney for Chicago prejudiced the trial of a man whose confession to rape in 1952 was coerced, a federal judge ruled.
More than 60 years ago, Oscar Walden Jr. was arrested for attacking and raping Elsie Anderson on the South Side of Chicago. Walden confessed to the crime, but retracted it later, claiming it was coerced through physical abuse and threats to his family.
A jury convicted Walden of rape in 1952, and he was released from prison on parole in 1965. In 2002, Gov. George Ryan granted Walden a pardon of innocence.
Walden sued the city of Chicago for violating his right to equal protection and for coercing a confession.
At trial, Walden testified that the police threatened to “string him up,” and have his family evicted from their home. He alleged that they kicked his shins, hit his head and damaged his fingers, “leaving scars that are still visible today.”
Though the jury found for the city on all of Walden’s claims in February 2011, U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo said the pardoned inmate can get a new trial because the cumulative effect of the city attorney’s misconduct was prejudicial.
“Walden has been waiting a long time for a fair court hearing; unfortunately, this court sadly concludes that he did not receive a fair trial in his delayed lawsuit,” Castillo wrote on March 5
“The most egregious misstep by the city’s attorneys is the city’s distribution of an unredacted version of Walden’s signed confession to the jury during Walden’s cross-examination. What ensured on cross-examination was a series of follies that reflected a lack of care and preparation on the part of the city’s attorneys that deeply concerns the court.”
“Instead of distributing a copy of the confession with the graphic details of the rape redacted, the city put the complete version in the hands of the jury,” the 25-page decision states.
The city’s opening statement contained numerous references to evidence that was barred. “The court is most troubled by the city’ attorneys’ numerous references to evidence that the court warned was not guaranteed would be admitted,” Castillo said. The city’s attorney threw caution to the wind however, and referred extensively to the 1952 testimony throughout his opening statement.”
Furthermore, the city’s attorney improperly questioned witnesses about previously barred evidence, and misstated evidence during the city’s closing statement.
“Each specific instance of inappropriate conduct by the city’s attorneys alone was not sufficient prejudicial to warrant a new trial,” Castillo held. However, “the same can not be said when analyzing the impact of this inappropriate conduct in the aggregate and the court concludes that the cumulative effect of these occurrences when viewed in the context of the entire trial unduly prejudiced Walden’s case.”
“There must be a bright line between aggressive advocacy and ‘win-at-all-costs’ unethical conduct,” he added. “This bright line has been crossed by defense counsel’s repeated ill-advised actions in this case. Walden is not entitled to a perfect trial nor is he guaranteed success at trial. Instead, he is entitled to a fair trial conducted within the legitimate contours of advocacy. He did not receive one.”