Colorado’s incoming attorney general says he hopes to settle a lawsuit filed by a Denver man who spent 28 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. Because a settlement may be pursued, current AG Cynthia Coffman has asked to postpone the financial-compensation trial of Clarence Moses-EL, now scheduled for February.
Republican Coffman says she’s seeking the delay because Democrat Phil Weiser, who was elected earlier this month to replace her in January, “strongly favors settling” Moses-EL’s compensation claim rather than fighting it, as Coffman herself has chosen to do.
State law compensates people $70,000 for each year they spent in prison on wrongful convictions.
Weiser confirms he is “interested in exploring a settlement in this case.” But until he takes office, he’s in no position to comment, let alone offer a compensation settlement.
Without a firm commitment from the state to pay Moses-EL $1.9 million for his more than 28 years behind bars, Moses-EL’s lawyers are opposing Coffman’s quest to postpone the compensation trial from February until April 2019. A postponement, Moses-EL’s attorney Gail Johnson says, “is merely a tactic to further delay justice for Mr. Moses-EL.”
Moses-EL, who turns 63 next week, filed his claim last year after a jury exonerated him for the 1987 rape and brutal assault of a woman in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. A man named LC Jackson – the first person the victim identified to police as her assailant, but whom police failed to investigate – confessed to the attack in court in 2015.
The case has made national headlines, partly because Moses-EL had been convicted solely on the victim’s statement days after the incident that his identity as her attacker came to her in a dream.
“A dream,” Moses-EL told this reporter from prison in 2006. “I’m in here because of a dream.”
The story also made news because of Denver’s mishandling of key evidence. From prison in the early 1990s, Moses-EL won court orders and raised $1,000, mostly from fellow inmates, to test evidence believed to bear the attacker’s genetic fingerprints. But before the DNA samples were sent to the lab for testing, Denver police tossed the box of evidence – clearly marked “DO NOT DESTROY” – in a Dumpster. Moses-EL has likened hearing the news that police trashed the physical evidence to being “given cement shoes and thrown in the water just to sink.”
Despite the police department’s bungling of the evidence, Denver’s DA office and District Court refused to grant him a new trial.
The case took an even more bizarre turn in 2006 after then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office used DNA to prosecute Jackson for the cold case rapes of a mother and daughter at knifepoint in 1992 – an attack remarkably similar to the 1987 assault for which Moses-EL was serving a 48-year sentence. Though Morrissey’s office won a conviction against Jackson, it refused to investigate his involvement in the 1987 case.
Unwilling to admit their office’s and Denver Police Department’s missteps, Morrissey and his office repeatedly lied to the news media and lawmakers about major details of Moses-EL’s case, including the fact the victim had named Jackson as her assailant immediately after her attack. As a result, Moses-EL sat behind bars for nearly another decade, blocked in his attempts to prove his innocence even after Jackson starting confessing. Morrissey tried for years to keep Jackson from testifying in court after Jackson sent Moses-EL a letter in 2012 saying, “I really don’t know what to say to you. But let’s start by bringing what was done in the dark into the light.” After Jackson confessed in court and a judge overturned Moses-EL’s conviction 2015, Morrissey still retried Moses-EL in what one of the jurors called “a joke of a trial.”
That jury exonerated Moses-EL in November 2016.
Morrissey was term-limited in January 2017 and replaced by current Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who had said during her campaign that she wouldn’t have retried Moses-EL. But McCann did an about-face once in office, saying Moses-EL’s acquittal wasn’t an indication of “actual innocence,” which is a condition of state compensation.
Criticism was widespread, and 11,000 people signed a petition urging her to stop denying Moses-EL’s innocence. But Democrat McCann sided with Republican Attorney General Coffman in refusing to sign off on paperwork that would compensate him, and in parroting many of the falsehoods Morrissey and his staff had issued about Moses-EL’s case.
Moses-EL has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that both state and federal governments violated his civil rights. Denver’s DA’s office, which McCann represents, and the state, which Coffman represents, are among defendants. A trial date in that federal case hasn’t been scheduled.
In a press release announcing she wants to postpone Moses-EL’s state compensation trial in February, Coffman said she aims to “avoid further trauma to the victim and to halt the expenditure of taxpayer funds for trial preparation” in case Weiser settles the compensation claim, as expected.
Moses-EL’s attorney Johnson, in turn, said, “It is Attorney General Coffman whose unreasonable position in this case has ratcheted up the costs to taxpayers and the pain for all involved.”
Coffman asserted in her press release that the victim consistently identified Moses-EL as her attacker. Several pieces of evidence – including the police report, hospital records, transcripts of the preliminary hearing and original trial, and the victim’s own testimony at the 2016 trial – refute that claim.
Coffman also asserted that the DNA evidence could have “just as easily confirmed” that Moses-EL was the victim’s attacker. Johnson responded: “This is contrary not only to Mr. Jackson’s confession but also the physical evidence that is available in this case.” A University of Denver forensic scientist testified that, based on data analysis of evidence collected at the scene, it’s “highly likely” that someone with Jackson’s blood type was the assailant, and “highly unlikely” that it was someone with Moses-EL’s blood type.
Coffman said she is “profoundly saddened for the victim in this case and I thank her for the bravery she has shown over the last thirty years… Sadly, Moses-EL may now walk away with a large amount of cash while the victim’s struggle continues,” she added.
Moses-EL, for his part, texted The Independent Wednesday that he’s tending to “family business” related to his terminally ill brother in Baltimore, not to the compensation battle. “That is my focus,” he wrote.
Over the past three years, has started rebuilding his life as a free man, reconnecting with the now-grown children who were toddlers when he was sent to prison, and with his 12 grandchildren, whom he says he was too proud to let meet him in prison. He has worked jobs at a Wendy’s in Commerce City and an inventory service in Westminster, but health problems have made manual labor – and making a living without specialized training – especially tough. He volunteers his time counseling young men entwined in the criminal justice system on his Moorish Science faith and on the patience he has learned in his 31-year battle to prove his innocence.
“Take it from me,” he said earlier this month. “Justice can take a long – and I mean long – time to see delivered.”