Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted                                Volume 1, Issue 6

Edward Humes' Mean Justice caused a furor in Kern County, California, home of some recently overturned cases (Jeffrey Modahl, for one), and other cases in which people have claimed to be innocent. Reviewer Hans Sherrer says Humes is telling us we're all vulnerable to a wrongful conviction. Could that be?

Hans Sherrer reviews the controversial Mean Justice.

Mean Justice: A Town's Terror, A Prosecutor's Power, A Betrayal of Innocence


by Edward Humes, Simon & Schuster, NY, 1999


A review by Hans Sherrer


Mean Justice is a modern American horror story. Relating a true-life tale that would make Stephen King green with envy, it cracks open the door normally hiding the dark secrets of the "justice" system to public scrutiny.

Mean Justice was written by 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Edward Humes. Humes exposes the cases of more than 100 innocent people who were prosecuted for major felonies in Kern County, California since 1982. Focusing on the conviction of successful Bakersfield businessman and one-time school teacher Patrick O'Dell Dunn for the 1992 murder of his wife, Alexandra, Humes also shows how many other wrongful prosecutions occurred.

Edward Humes first learned of Pat Dunn's case when Laura Lawhon, private investigator for Pat Dunn's lawyer, contacted him. She claimed Pat was innocent. After investigating Dunn's case, Humes came to the same conclusion. In Mean Justice, Humes systematically reveals that the prosecution and conviction of Pat Dunn was not based on evidence of his guilt, but on false characterization, innuendo and jury manipulation.

Kern County prosecutors contended that Dunn murdered his 56 year-old wife of 5 years to get the millions she inherited when her previous husband died. On July 1, 1992, Dunn called 911 to report that his wife didn't return from a late night walk with her dog. He said he'd gone to bed before she did, and although she typically walked her dog at 4 a.m., he had awakened before 4, and she was gone. Alexandra was found half buried in an odd sitting position in the desert outside of Bakersfield three weeks after disappearing -- stripped, stabbed and her body mutilated "by cutting tissue out of her rectum." (p. 103)

Pat Dunn's house was microscopically searched for 15 hours by a small army of police, and subjected to a stressful marathon interrogation focused on his recollection of events surrounding her disappearance. No incriminating evidence came from the search and, in spite of the best efforts of the police to waylay him, he "did not contradict himself in any meaningful way, nor did he utter any telling inconsistencies..." (pp. 105-106)

Although the police investigation produced no physical evidence linking Pat Dunn to his wife's death, he was indicted and tried for her murder. In the absence of evidence, the prosecution based its case and focused the jury's attention on Pat's report to police that his wife was missing 18 hours after not returning from her walk, and that he didn't sound frantic when he did call.

Edward Humes summed up investigator Lawhon's opinion of Pat Dunn's allegedly incriminating behavior by writing, "So what if he waited a while before calling the cops? Maybe he kept hoping against hope she would return to him. Maybe he wanted to spare her the embarrassment of telling all her friends she was losing it [her memory to Alzheimer's]. So what?" (p. 16) Pat Dunn's behavior could just as easily be said to "prove" he's not guilty of killing his wife. After all, if he killed his wife, it seems he would have tried to avoid suspicion by being melodramatic while reporting her missing immediately after she disappeared.

Responding to the prosecution's reliance on the phantom "evidence" of Pat Dunn's guilt and the trial judges' open bias in favor of the prosecution, Edward Humes writes:

"Yet, even with a hostile judge and adverse rulings, Laura [Lawhon] had given the defense attorney all the ammunition he should have needed to take apart the prosecutor's case and reveal it as a passel of unproved suspicions,outright lies and insinuations lacking evidence to back them up. ... Laura had fought such insinuations with hard evidence and testimony that, she felt certain, demonstrated her client's innocence. She had even marched into court with the brother of the state's star witness in tow, who explained how the key testimony in the prosecution's case had been concocted. What more could a jury ask for? The DA had been left reeling, Laura thought, and the defense lawyers, exhilarated." (pp. 15-16)

Considering that the prosecution's case against Pat Dunn primarily consisted of shaky suppositions that he might be guilty, it isn't surprising that his lawyer said before the trial: "My client is an innocent man. I know it. He is being framed for a murder he did not commit." (p. 14)

Without any evidence that he killed his wife in a gruesome and near-ritualistic way, the jury convicted Pat Dunn of her murder. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1993, where he remains while his appeal winds its way through the courts. After Pat Dunn was convicted, the burden of proof shifted to him, so unless an appellate court determines that the trial judge committed significant procedural errors, he has little chance of ever being free from prison unless an eyewitness comes forward, the real murderer confesses, or new physical evidence is discovered (which may be hidden from him by his prosecutors) to establish his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Pat Dunn's conviction came as no surprise to Edward Humes because while investigating Dunn's case, he had the sort of consciousness-altering realization some people call an "Aha moment" -- the innocent Pat Dunn's prosecution and conviction wasn't an aberration. It was business as usual for Kern County DAs to prosecute an innocent person for a major crime. Humes also realized it was normal for Kern County jurors, indoctrinated with an inordinate fear of crime, to meekly go along with any assertions prosecutors made and to convict a defendant on weak or non-existent evidence. Humes' realizations became the basis for the important story told in Mean Justice about the prevalence of injustice in Kern County, California.

Edward Humes also found that the pattern of false prosecutions he detected dates back at least to Ed Jagels' election as Kern County prosecutor in 1982, and his promotion of a win-at- all-costs attitude among his deputies. The over one hundred innocent men and women listed in the appendix of Mean Justice are the legacy of prosecutor Jagels' regime. These people were variously accused of auto theft, murder, child molestation, drug offenses and grand theft. Of these, fifty six were convicted, but so far only nine convictions have been upheld on appeal for various procedural reasons. The Kern County false child molestation cases, some of which involved over a dozen innocent adults, are reminiscent of the Wenatchee, Washington "sex ring" case in which 43 innocent people were falsely accused from 1992 to 1995 of molesting 60 children.

Mean Justice, compelling and well written, has been favorably reviewed in major newspapers, including The LA Times, The New York Times, and The Seattle Times. It has generated enough positive publicity that John Somers, a Kern County deputy DA, circulated a response on the Internet to a couple of Edward Humes' conclusions. In all fairness, his main objections deserve to be considered.

One of Somers' complaints is that Pat Dunn's conviction was based on evidence the jury heard in court, so Edward Humes is being disrespectful of their decision by claiming that Dunn is innocent and a victim of a false conviction. However, Pat Dunn and his lawyers claim that during the discovery process before his trial, the prosecution withheld potentially exculpatory evidence from him.

Under the Brady rule (based on the 1963 U. S. Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland), the prosecution is required to disclose all evidence it has that might tend to exonerate a defendant. The Supreme Court established this legal requirement to help prevent false convictions and help ensure the right of an accused person, presumed innocent, to a fair trial. The Brady rule's inherent weakness and inability to prevent widespread injustices is evident in Mean Justice: if a defendant doesn't know what information the prosecution possesses, he can't ask the trial judge to order its disclosure. Pat Dunn contends that prosecutors hid information that discredited key prosecution witnesses, and withheld other crucial information that would have undermined the state's case. (p. 453) This means Dunn's jury was misled and didn't base its decision on the truth, but on evidence selected by the prosecution to ensure his conviction.

It's disturbing, but Humes' revelation that the prosecution withheld potentially exonerating evidence from Pat Dunn, contributing to a miscarriage of justice, is not an isolated incident. The Chicago Tribune, for example, published a 5-part series in January 1999, documenting that violations of pre-trial disclosure of evidence to defendants is epidemic among state and federal prosecutors nationwide. Specific reasons that prosecutors withhold information in individual cases vary, but they fall into two main categories: they know it may tend to show a defendant isn't guilty, or they know it may conclusively prove he is innocent. Whatever the reasons, withholding potentially vindicating evidence from an accused man or woman amounts to a gross and routine obstruction of justice by prosecutors.

Prosecutor Somers' complaint also overlooks the prosecution's reliance on the bait and switch tactic to convict Pat Dunn. It's a tactic prosecutors use to trick jurors by deflecting their attention from the lack of substantial facts supporting their case, substituting facts that have little or nothing to do with a person's possible guilt. In Pat Dunn's case, the prosecutor switched a lack of facts to the bait of the time he called police about his wife's disappearance and his demeanor to imply "proof" of his guilt.

More importantly, Mr. Somers' protests about Mean Justice ignore its revelation that the tactics used against Dunn are the norm in Kern County. This means that Mean Justice serves as a dire warning to us all. Why?

Protections against being falsely targeted for a prosecution are so weak and ineffectual that we are all vulnerable to finding ourselves in Pat Dunn's shoes, particularly considering that the tactics used in Kern County are used by prosecutors nationwide.

Mean Justice is an important book by a nationally recognized investigative reporter. Its wide distribution and favorable reviews enables many Americans to become aware for the first time that innocence is no bar to being criminally prosecuted and convicted. Mean Justice accomplishes this by presenting a strong and convincing case that there is a lack of meaningful evidence linking Pat Dunn to his wife's murder. If Edward Humes is correct, then Dunn is a member of the least envied club in America: the multitude of people victimized by the meanest of all injustices -- being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.