S is for Spriegl

"I tried to cry, but it didn't work": Robinson at Oak Park Heights
Teddy Maki

Dameion Robinson was playing chess with another inmate in the Shoe Unit--the most stringently regulated cell block at Minnesota's maximum-security prison--when he got called to the "bubble." At Oak Park Heights, as at other state correctional facilities, staffers are required to let inmates watch as they open legal mail to show that there's no tampering.

When Robinson arrived in the glassed-in room reserved for such proceedings, a guard handed him a manila envelope. The top sheet was a letter from his lawyer informing Robinson that on January 13, the state Supreme Court had upheld his June 1998 conviction for murder. Underneath it was the court's 17-page decision. "I just looked at it and I said, 'damn,'" he recalls. "I was preparing myself for them to overturn it. That's why it was such a big letdown."

Clutching the letter, Robinson went back to his cell. "I put it under my bed on top of my footlocker," he says. "I tried to cry, but it didn't work. No tears came out. Since then I've just felt real bitter, just wondering where to go from here. How am I going to dig my way out of this hole?"

He's still asking himself that question two weeks later as he sits down at a fake-wood conference table in an improbably sunny room normally used for resolving prison disciplinary matters. Huge windows on one side let guards keep an eye on the conversation; on the opposite wall a row of barred windows looks out on a stadium-sized open courtyard where a dozen inmates are stir-crazy enough to play football.

Robinson places the court decision in front of him, on top of the appeal bound in bright-blue heavy stock. Both documents are dog-eared, and Robinson smoothes out the edges as he lines up the little pile at a right angle to the table edge. He has spent the last two weeks poring over the paperwork, trying to figure out what happened at the high court--which tidbits of testimony from his two trials the justices might have puzzled over before they hammered out their ruling. "How they weigh [cases] out is so secretive," he says. "They never tell no one they weighed this or that. They have no set pattern they decide things on."

For a long time, Robinson's life seemed headed anywhere but a prison cell. His mother is a supervisor at a local health care facility. He has an older sister who is a registered nurse, a younger sister who is most of the way through a degree at the University of Minnesota, and a younger brother who works at a health club. They're in close contact with him and, he says, "they're just devastated."

Robinson describes himself as a motivated student right up until he graduated from Minneapolis's South High School in the mid-1980s. But his ambitions weren't academic: He dreamed of becoming a pro fighter. "My family all boxed, my dad and my uncles," he says. "And I could box. I was a good boxer." He trained at the Circle of Discipline on Lake Street and sparred with local champion Will Grigsby. "But then after that my life just..." His voice trails off. "I didn't start working. That's when I started getting in a lot of trouble being in the streets and hanging with the gang and that kind of thing. I was kind of just lost, maybe, not having enough direction. It was all right, it was fun, it was something to do."

The rest of the story embarrasses him. The wrong friends, the wrong drug, and here he is, confining his boxing to the prison gym. After more than a year and a half inside, Robinson has come to believe that most of the 370 men at Oak Park Heights did commit the crimes that landed them here. He has studied some of their cases in the facility's law library. That, and the advice of his attorneys, served to convince him that few convictions from the Hennepin County court system are ever overturned.

Still, he admits, he thought his appeal would be different. The justices would zero in on the strange coincidence at the core of his case--the fact that he was tried twice, for crimes the prosecution said had to have been committed by the same man, and that one jury sent him to prison for life while the other pronounced him not guilty.

In the first trial, for first-degree murder, Robinson was convicted of killing Derangle "Dino" Riley, an alleged drug dealer, in the summer of '97. Riley and Robinson had left a south Minneapolis party together; the next day Riley was found dead in his car with a slug from a .25 in his head. Another day later, according to forensic evidence, the same .25 was used to shoot two men during a robbery on the other side of the city. The victims in that incident told police they recognized one of the two suspects, a man named Johnny Edwards; Edwards in turn identified Robinson as the shooter. In the prosecution's words, the two cases together created "a seamless web" of damning evidence.  

Except that, in Robinson's and his attorneys' view, that web was full of holes. He knows it's naive, he says now, but he really thought the justices would see the gaps in the evidence, the chasm between the tales told at his two trials.

For starters there was Edwards, the notorious informant (and subject of two City Pages cover stories, "Get Out of Jail Free," January 27, 1997, and "Stool Pigeon," February 18, 1998). During the first trial, the one for murder, Robinson's attorney hadn't been allowed to discuss Edwards's history of fingering others when he found himself in a jam. During the second trial--for the robbery--that evidence helped convince jurors that Edwards couldn't be trusted.

Then there were the witnesses. During the murder trial, four people claimed they'd had no trouble identifying him as the shooter in the robbery. In front of the second jury, however, some of those same witnesses said they'd compared notes before testifying, to help each other pick Robinson out of a police photo lineup. And two witnesses who hadn't appeared at the first trial put the key weapon in the hands of another man--a man who had found the body of the murdered dealer within spitting distance of his own house, and who had a penchant for this particular, relatively rare kind of pink-pearl-handled gun.

Finally, the prosecution had been able to secure a conviction of Robinson only by using an uncommon procedure that allows testimony about one crime during a trial for another. Such evidence is normally prohibited in court because it can prejudice juries. But in Robinson's murder trial, prosecutors employed a rule stemming from the 1965 State of Minnesota v. Spriegl case: Only by introducing information on the robbery, assistant county attorney Mike Furnstahl argued, could he show that Robinson was a killer. Without that connection, he acknowledged, the case was too weak to go to the jury.

Robinson's appeals attorney told the Supreme Court that if the case couldn't make it through trial on its own merit, it should have been thrown out. But the justices disagreed: In fact, they reasoned, the weaker the state's case, the stronger the argument for Spriegl evidence.

To Joe Margulies, a local defense and civil-rights attorney who has followed Robinson's case, that's a worrisome conclusion. "Just by the fortuity, almost the random whim of which case went forward first, he ends up spending life in prison," Margulies points out. "Because if they'd tried the [robbery] first and he'd been acquitted, they wouldn't have been able to use it in the murder.

"I'm just disappointed that the opinion didn't seem to recognize the peril it creates," Margulies continues. "The real problem is that you reach a point where the state's case is so weak that it can't stand on its own. When you reach that point, that's when you have the greatest risk that you're going convict an innocent man."

Prosecutors, meanwhile, say the matter would have been a moot point had Robinson been tried anywhere but Minnesota: "In virtually every other jurisdiction in the United States, there would not have been this debate about letting [the Spriegl evidence] in, because the cases would have been joined," explains Paul Scoggin, the assistant Hennepin County attorney who heads the office's appeals section. "They would have been tried together and decided by a single jury." Prosecutors here have used the Spriegl rule for years, according to Scoggin, but they're not thrilled with having to ask special permission every time. "This weak-case/strong-case discussion doesn't exist for any other piece of evidence anywhere" in state criminal courts, he says. "We'd like to treat [Spriegl evidence] the way we treat any other piece of evidence: Is it relevant? If it is, let it in. If it isn't, don't."

Last fall, when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Robinson's appeal, the inconsistency between his two trials did seem to give the justices pause. If evidence from the robbery was convincing enough to convict Robinson of murder, one justice asked the state's appeals attorney, why had the jury in the robbery trial voted to acquit? "Because juries make mistakes," was the reply. That answer apparently convinced the high court: Its decision never even mentioned the acquittal.

For now, Robinson says, he and his lawyer have agreed to take some time to cool off: When they first got the news, both were so upset they could hardly speak. There has been talk of asking the Supreme Court to rehear the case, and of appealing the matter to federal courts. But Robinson knows the odds aren't good. And if his conviction stands, the earliest he could be released under present rules is 2028.  

"When I lost my appeal, I thought, 'Maybe it's God's plan for me to be in here and help other people find God,'" he says, and after the briefest pause he chuckles. "When I think about it that way, I think, 'Oh, God, I sure wish you had another plan for me.'" Then he adds: "I'll get out somehow. I just have to keep smiling."

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