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YES ON SIX: Harry's Story

02 May 2016 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

“That looks like the guy who robbed me.” Those are the eight words that sent Harry Miller to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. harrymiller smile

This blog post was written by Delaney Woodfield, ACLU of Utah 2016 Winter Intern

Without the intervention of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and other supportive legal advocates, Harry Miller might still be behind bars.

On December 8, 2000, in Salt Lake City, someone robbed a woman of her purse at knifepoint. She reported that her assailant was a black male in his early 20s. Three years later, Harry was arrested for the crime, despite the fact that he was a black male in his late 40s - who also happened to be in Louisiana recovering from a massive stroke at the time the crime was committed.

Nonetheless, Harry was charged with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, punishable by a sentence of five years to life in prison.

Like most of us, Harry did not have the expendable income to hire a private attorney. So, in accordance with the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of legal counsel, Harry was assigned a public defender. This is very common: across the country, more than 80% of people charged with a crime and who face time behind bars, do not have the funds to hire a private attorney.

That’s why the Sixth Amendment is so important, by the way. The Supreme Court has explicitly said that because governments “spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants,” a person of meager means, if charged with a crime, cannot really get a fair trial unless a lawyer is provided by the state. 

Unlike the vast majority of criminal defendants (more than 95% of all cases end in a plea bargain), Harry's case went to trial. And over the course of that trial - because a key witness was unable to travel to Salt Lake to establish Harry's alibi - it did not come to light that Harry had been in Louisiana, recovering from a stroke, at the time of the robbery.  All the jury heard was that Harry lived in Louisiana and was off work for the weeks preceding and following the robbery. 

When the verdict came in, Harry was found guilty of aggravated robbery, largely based on two questionable eyewitness identifications. That’s all it took – Harry Miller received a sentence of five years to life.

After spending several years in prison, Miller received help from several appellate attorneys who were shocked by the unfairness of his case.  After further time and investment, these attorneys found facts supporting Miller’s alibi that morning in 2000 – facts that should have saved him from imprisonment in the first place. Harry was eventually released from prison, but only after having spent five years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. It took several more years before the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center helped Harry prove his “factual innocence” of the crime and assisted him in receiving compensation for the time he spent wrongfully incarcerated.

Harry’s story is shocking – but it shouldn’t be surprising. By now, it has been well established that Utah is failing its residents when it comes to fulfilling their Sixth Amendment rights.

Just last fall, the Sixth Amendment Center, a nationally-recognized non-partisan research organization, released a report detailing numerous constitutional issues in Utah. The 6AC report confirms what the ACLU of Utah documented in 2011, in “Failing Gideon: Utah’s Flawed County-by-County Public Defender System." In both reports, every county studied fell far short of meeting national criteria for a constitutionally-adequate public defense delivery system.

We’ve accumulated enough data, and we’ve seen enough stories like Harry’s. It’s time for action! Harry’s story is tragic, and without serious reform, we are certain to see many more such miscarriages of justice.

IDP YesOn6