25 Feb SEX, LIES, AND A SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH The Story Of The Trial Of Michael Tadlock Part II
Why would somebody lie? Why would anybody lie about something like this?
The first thing we did was try to understand more about the accuser. Luckily for us we have the best paralegal staff around. Within a week I had copies of records from medical facilities that gave us some insight into who this woman was. There was a long history of mental illness and descriptions of erratic behavior.
However, this didn’t mean she was lying about what happened between her and Michael. Her history didn’t mean that she was lying, but it did give us some insight into what may have motivated her to lie. Many of the incidents in her records showed a desire, even a need for attention. She had a history of abuse. She had been betrayed by many people during her life, and when someone hurt her, she acted on it.
On one occasion, she had to be hospitalized after a disagreement with another resident at the New Hope Nursing Home. Isn’t it just as likely she would create this lie about Michael when he didn’t answer her calls? She didn’t call the police right away. She didn’t disclose what had happened to her until she was with her therapy group. She waited to tell this story until a situation existed in which she would receive the maximum amount of interest, and an audience ready and willing to give her attention.
We began to piece together our defense as the date of trial approached. And we knew there was going to be a trial. I had approached the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Christina Burns, and gathered from our first conversation that she was not interested in anyway in discussing a resolution that wouldn’t include a conviction and prison time for Michael. I showed her the medical records, and explained why her client may have had a reason to lie.
She was not only unimpressed, she acted as if my discovery was fruitless exercise.
JUST LET US TELL OUR STORY
On May 3rd, 2016 we appeared in front of Judge Mills. Ms. Burns, on behalf of the State of Oklahoma, had filed a motion to continue Michael’s trial. Prior to this hearing we had requested that the defense be allowed to introduce the accuser’s medical records. Ms. Burns objected and argued that those records were privileged. We advised the court we were willing to forgo introducing the records and would only use them if the accuser denied facts contained in them. More than anything we just wanted to get to trial. By this point Michael had been in jail and unable to post a bond since September 2015.
Ms. Burns argued that the court should grant her continuance so that she could get more medical records and examine them. She argued that the information contained in these records could be exculpatory and cause her to reconsider prosecuting Michael. Not for one second did we believe that Ms. Burns was interested in considering the possibility that she was prosecuting an innocent man, but the court granted the continuance.
I took advantage of the state’s sudden change of heart and requested that Michael’s bond be reduced so that he could be released from jail. Of course, Ms. Burns immediately changed her position and now argued that Michael was definitely a dangerous rapist and should be given no consideration as to bond. Judge Mills would eventually lower Michael’s bond, but would require him to be on an ankle monitor, which would cost his family nearly $100.00 a week for that service.
CAN WE JUST HAVE A TRIAL?
Over the next few months very little happened. Michael followed all the conditions of his bond, and Ms. Burns’ investigation for exculpatory evidence resulted in more medical records that revealed the accuser’s motivation for lying, but this did not change her desire to prosecute in any way. We maintain that the state had come up with this story to search for new evidence just to avoid going to trial, and the record seems to support that.
As we finally began to approach the date of trial, more motions were filed and arguments were heard. What should have been typical procedural matters continued to result in long drawn out fights, and Ms. Burns either suggesting another continuance, or threatening to file a writ because of one of Judge Mills’ rulings that was not the state’s favor. The encounters with the state over the most routine of matters was frustrating to exhausting, but both Blake and I hung in there knowing that eventually we would get to tell Michael’s story to a jury.
Finally, after the threats from the District Attorney’s office were dealt with and the judge made his rulings, the potential jurors were led into the courtroom. Jury selection can be a rather monotonous affair. The jurors are herded and shuffled through the courtroom and await a lottery style drawing to hear if their name is called. Once it is called they are led to take a seat in the jury box and then questioned first by the judge. The judge’s questions are mundane and choreographed, but serve the purpose of asking the most basic of qualifying questions. After that the state’s attorney questions the jury.
Ms. Burns questioned the jurors. She asked them questions about their personal beliefs and whether they could be fair to the state and the defense. As the jurors are questioned first by the judge and then by the state, you begin to get a picture of what they are, but not necessarily who they are.
In one instance, a juror revealed that she was a former law enforcement officer in another county. She went on to state that she investigated crimes against the elderly and disabled. She also disclosed that she would have a hard time not giving more credence to a police officer’s testimony. This is a classic situation in which a defense attorney would request that a juror be challenged and probably be excused because they could not be fair. Judge Mills turned in his chair and looked to me as if expecting me to make a motion that this juror be stricken for cause, Ms. Burns turned to me as well.
“Your Honor, I heard this juror state that she would try to be fair. I am willing to take her at her word and do not make a motion,” I said. What Blake and I believed was that this juror could be perfect for our case. We thought that if she were a trained police officer she would be upset over the way that the police had investigated this case. We believed that she could not only be a good juror for the defense, but might lead our jury as well.
Ms. Burns ran through what I’ve come to know as a typical prosecutor’s voir dire. At times, she even addressed things that were not at issue in the case. She spoke to the jury about scientific evidence, which was puzzling considering that there would be no scientific evidence presented.
She finished, and I approached the jury. I told them that I took issue with some parts of our case. I told them how it troubled me that Michael had lied to the police and that they would hear his lie. The jurors reacted just as we expected. It upset them that he would lie. They wanted to know why he would lie. They wanted him to explain why he lied. That’s when I told them that he would not testify.
This revelation had the most immediate impact on the panel of jurors. At first it seemed to upset them that Michael would not explain himself. Then a juror suggested that he could understand why Michael wouldn’t take the stand. That prompted a woman sitting directly in front of me to exclaim, “then I guess it will be your job to tell us why he lied.” It was what we were waiting for. It was a direct challenge to Blake and I, a challenge we were hoping that they would issue.
I did not move to strike any jurors for cause. And when I finished I told Judge Mills that the panel was acceptable to the defense. All of the jurors were excused and in their absence, the state and the defense selected which jurors they wished to remove (these are called peremptory challenges, and each side has 6) until we arrived at the twelve that would decide Michael’s fate.
After the jury was seated, Judge Mills called for the state to begin Opening Statements. Ms. Burns rose and walked to the podium. She began by reading the charging information. “Michael Wayne Tadlock did then and there unlawfully, willfully, knowingly and wrongfully commit the crime of rape in the first degree, a felony. On or about the 26th day of September, 2015, with the use of force, threats, violence, or by means of threats of force or violence accompanied by apparent power to execute to one M.R., and did then and there rape, ravish, carnally know and have sexual penetration and intercourse with said M.R. against her will and consent.”
Those words were heavy; the weight of those words fell onto the shoulders of every person in the courtroom. Ms. Burns began to explain that the evidence would show that Michael Tadlock committed this terrible crime. She claimed that the witnesses she presented to them [the jury] would convince them of his guilt, including the accuser herself. She spoke about how the accuser was in a back brace and was overpowered by the much larger Tadlock. She promised that they would hear how Michael attempted to deceive Detective McClendon, but ultimately confessed to having sex with the accuser on that day. Michael would claim that it was consensual, but the accuser’s own words and the evidence would prove otherwise.
Blake was tasked with delivering the opening statement for the defense. He approached the podium and before he began he addressed Ms. Burn’s opening statement.
“I believe that this trial is about two stories. The state has their story and the defense has theirs. I think it is important for you [the jury] to get a glimpse of what each story will be. You may notice that I did not interrupt Ms. Burns, or object during her opening statement. That is because I think you should get the opportunity to hear what they [the state] have to say. I appreciate that she will allow me the same opportunity to tell our story.”
Over the course of the next thirty minutes or so, Blake told Michael’s story. He didn’t plan to speak that long, but he was interrupted by objections five times. Ms. Burns made it clear that she was not interested in the jury getting to hear Michael’s story. Fortunately for us, the jury did want to hear it.
THE FIRST WITNESS
Judge Mills took a recess after both sides concluded with opening statements. The hour had drawn too close to five o’clock he believed for the state to call their first witness. The state planned to call the accuser first.
The next morning, we all arrived at the courthouse ready to begin and end the trial that day. The morning could not start without some controversy. It came to our attention that the accuser had been spotted at the courthouse that day, and she was physically very different in appearance from all the times she had appeared before. She was now in a wheel chair. Blake and I were incredulous. When did, this happen? Wasn’t she walking her dog on Carl Albert just a week ago? We demanded answers.
Ms. Burns claimed that her health had deteriorated and this was her current physical state. She didn’t inform the defense. In the end, we had to accept that it was how it was. We knew that when the jury saw her in a wheel chair it would invoke sympathy and that was not only what we feared the most, but the cornerstone of the state’s case. I did then, and I still do question the legitimacy of the situation.
We had to put that all aside and do our job. The accuser was wheeled into the courtroom and amid a deafening silence she adjusted the microphone. Ms. Burns would question her first.
Ms. Burns’ direct examination was a process of facts and emotion. Although we intended to object as few times as possible, Ms. Burns left us few options. Blake spent much more time than we wanted, objecting and arguing at the bench. However, this did not discount from the power of the accuser’s testimony. When she described the incident, she cried, she shook, she expressed how fearful she was. She gave details. When Ms. Burns asked to describe her pain level after the attack on a scale of one to ten, she looked hard toward the juror’s box and said, “Ten.”
We knew how difficult of a task it would be to question this witness going into this trial. We believed without doubt that we were defending an innocent man, but we could not call his accuser a liar. At this point we were deeply familiar with the accuser’s mental health history. And even though she had never been raped, it was clear that she believed she had been harmed by Michael Tadlock. She told her story with conviction and detail. However, the problem was in the details.
Blake rose to do the cross examination. This was scary for us, because we believed that our story would be told through Detective McClendon, but if we did not approach this witness in the right way we might lose the jury. Blake’s cross examination wasn’t accusatory; it wasn’t without emotion either. He expressed sympathy through his questions. He began to talk to her about her long battle with mental illness, her hospitalizations. He began to question her about all those details. He was continually met with objection after objection. At one point, he appeared to have to approach the bench after every question he asked, only to return to the podium and restate it. The objections were relentless. What were they trying to hide?
The details did become a problem. Blake reenacted the physical handling she claimed to have received at the hands of Michael. With her assistance, he made motions in front of the jury acting the extreme physical nature of the attack. However, she admitted this did not cause her any injury. Her fragile physical condition and recovery from surgery was not harmed or set back in any way.
Blake was able to prove that her pain level of “Ten” was not possible. Through skillful questioning he was able to draw out of her more testimony that showed this was an impossibility and it began to cast lingering doubt on all of her testimony. By the time he completed his cross examination it was clear that she had at least embellished the facts of her attack or just fabricated it all together.
Yet he ended his examination with a sympathetic tone. He made it clear to the jury that the defense did not blame this woman, the false accusations against Michael were not her fault.