At about 8:45 p.m. on June 30, 1990, Anthony Henderson, assistant manager of a McDonald’s restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, was attacked and severely beaten near the men’s restroom.
David Tucker, 28, an employee of the restaurant called police after finding Henderson unconscious.
Henderson remained comatose in a Detroit hospital for an extended period of time after the assault. Medical records indicate that he was comatose for a period of one month, that he was speaking coherently two to four months after the assault, and that he did not have any broken ribs.
Detroit Police initially charged two other restaurant workers, Robert Wiley and Nathaniel Oden, based on an interview Henderson had with police about two months after the attack.
The charges against Wiley were dismissed and Oden proceeded to a preliminary examination on August 8, 1991. Tucker came, expecting to be called as a prosecution witness. However, Henderson took the stand and pointed to Tucker—saying Tucker was the person who pushed him into the restroom where others attacked him.
On February 14, 1992, a few weeks prior to trial, Tucker’s trial counsel received a letter from Henderson's workmen's compensation attorney. The attorney stated that Henderson was “unable to testify with specificity as to the identity of the individuals who assaulted and severely beat him.” Although the attorney also advised that Henderson was not agreeing not to testify against Tucker, the defense attorney interpreted the letter as indicating that Henderson would not testify. As a result, the attorney did nothing to prepare for the trial.
When the trial began on March 4, 1992, Tucker’s counsel learned that Henderson would testify, but he did not request a continuance. In a one-hour bench trial before Judge Leonard Townsend, Henderson was the sole prosecution witness. He testified that Tucker pushed him into the restroom where Wiley and an unknown man assaulted him. Henderson also testified that he had been comatose for a period of six months after the assault, that he had been unable to speak to the police for a period of nine months, and that all of his ribs had been broken in the attack.
Tucker testified, denying any involvement in the assault. His attorney told Judge Townsend that Henderson’s medical records would show that he had no memory of the assault. But the lawyer didn’t have the records and so could not introduce them as evidence. Tucker was convicted of assault with intent to do great bodily injury.
At Tucker’s sentencing hearing, Henderson gave a victim impact statement in which he again said he had been comatose for six months after the assault and that he had been unable to speak for an additional three months. He testified that all of his ribs had been broken. Judge Townsend deviated from the applicable sentencing guideline which called for a sentence of no more than two years and imposed a term of six to ten years of imprisonment.
After the trial, Tucker obtained new counsel and persuaded the Michigan Court of Appeals to remand the case for hearing on whether Tucker had competent counsel at trial. The investigating police officer testified that Anthony Henderson had initially identified Wiley as the man who pushed him into the restroom.
Judge Townsend said evidence of Henderson’s initial statements was not relevant.
Judge Townsend also indicated that the contents of the letter sent to Tucker’s trial lawyer regarding Henderson’s state of mind were hearsay and of no evidentiary value.
Tucker’s trial lawyer testified that he had not been aware that Henderson had initially identified Wiley, rather than Tucker, because he had trusted the prosecution to provide him with relevant documents and he had not requested police investigation reports. After the attorney testified that he did not attempt to impeach Henderson with his statement to his workmen's compensation attorney because he believed the statement to be hearsay, Judge Townsend terminated the hearing and denied the motion for new trial, saying the hearing had been an “academic irrelevancy.”
Several weeks after the hearing, Tucker’s appellate counsel, David Moran, received Henderson’s medical records and moved to reopen the hearing on the ground that the medical records demonstrated that Henderson had testified falsely at Tucker’s trial.
At a January 8, 1993 hearing, Moran made an offer of proof of the medical records. Judge Townsend allowed Moran to read portions of the records into the record and to argue that they were critical impeachment evidence.
Judge Townsend then said, “I saw the trial. I heard the witnesses. I believed the complainant. Those records that you brought in here today prove absolutely nothing at all. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I saw the terrible injuries that this man sustained.”
The judge continued, “Now I know there was no robbery. I knew that the only reason this fight started was that there was an argument over getting off or changing a shift or something, and that this man was hit over the head; he was put in the hospital. He cannot walk. He's having trouble walking.”
Moran replied, “There’s no dispute about that, Your Honor.”
The judge said, “I don't care how long he was in a coma, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Moran said, “Your Honor, don’t you think that impacts his memory?”
The judge then said, “Let the Court of Appeals handle that. The man is guilty. You can bring all the records in you want, that hasn't changed one thing, except all it’s done to me is make me even more convinced than I was before. How in the world could there be a difference? We know a person in a coma for one month, how would you like to be in a coma for two days? He was in a coma for 40, 30 days.”
On March 31, 1993, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the motion for new trial, concluding that Tucker had failed to show that, but for the claimed error, he would have had a reasonable chance of acquittal. That court also ruled that Tucker had failed to show prejudice of any kind resulting from his trial counsel’s lack of preparation.
By a divided vote, the Michigan Supreme Court denied Tucker’s motion for leave to appeal on September 13, 1994.
On July 8, 1996, Tucker filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, asserting a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.
On August 29, 1997, U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood granted the writ based on the failure of Tucker’s lawyer to obtain Henderson’s medical records. The district court concluded that Tucker was prejudiced by his attorney’s failure because the medical records cast serious doubts upon Henderson’s trial testimony and the quality of his memory.
On June 10, 1999 the district court’s decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
The appeals court noted that Judge Townsend’s “conclusion that impeachment evidence would have been of little value given the extent of the witness’ injuries and the witness’ testimony at trial is so arbitrary as to be outside the universe of plausible, credible outcomes.”
Tucker was not retried. The charges were dismissed. He had been paroled in 1998.
– Maurice Possley