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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Serial Killer Suspect's Suicidal Thoughts are Nothing New

Today The Hartford Courant reported that serial killer suspect William Devin Howell wrote to the newspaper on September 20, 2016, stating that he was suicidal in his current status as an inmate at Bridgeport Correctional. This is old news, to me.

In letters dating back to July 2015, Howell has repeatedly told me about his depression and despair. In our first phone call, on December 21, 2015, Howell ended by saying that he just wanted to close his eyes and never wake up again. The call was being recorded, and shortly thereafter, Howell was transferred from MacDougall-Walker CI in Suffield and put on suicide watch at Garner CI. Over the holidays, Howell was kept in solitary confinement wearing a Ferguson Gown, also known as a Turtle Suit. The nylon material of the garment cannot be tied into a noose for self-hanging. He wrote letters to me on a daily basis, using the ink cartridge of a pen. The outer plastic had been removed by the Department of Corrections (DOC) to prevent Howell from breaking it into a jagged instrument that could be used to slit his wrists.

Howell was transferred back to the protective custody unit at MacDougall-Walker CI about two weeks later. He was grateful to return to a cell with electricity, where he could have recreation time with other prisoners in that unit, and make food from the commissary in his hot pot. When I visited him, he voiced his depression but was careful to say that he had no plans to attempt suicide. He was, of course, aware that our calls were recorded by DOC, and he did not want to get sent back to the suicide watch unit at Garner. It was also important to him to have the proper lighting and a chair and desk in his cell in order to review legal documents provided to him by counsel.

Everything changed last month when Howell was transferred from Walker to Bridgeport CC. When I visited him a few weeks ago, I was dealing with a very different man than the one I met with a few times at Walker. In the past, he would get a bit get teary during our face to face discussions, but during the recent visit, the tears were flowing steadily down his face and he talked about committing suicide at every turn. The week before, Howell was on suicide watch at Bridgeport CC and though his desire to kill himself did not diminish, he was eventually released from suicide watch and put back in the protective custody cell.

There were a few things that kept Howell sane at Walker: a small television, a hot pot to cook with, proper lighting in his cell, a chair, a bed that was off the floor (not just a mattress on cement), and air conditioning. Bridgeport, in contrast, provides him with none of these amenities. Last week, Howell wrote to inform me that he had tried to kill himself by hanging but the attempt failed and he was left with only a sore neck. He was not placed in suicide watch after that failed attempt.

The readership comments to today's article in the Hartford Courant reflect the overall public sentiment towards Howell. If he is guilty of the crimes that he has been charged with committing, then that sentiment is warranted. That said, he remains innocent until proven guilty, and so has a right to a fair trial without killing himself beforehand. The Constitution says as much.

I will personally be very surprised if Howell can survive another two to three years until a trial takes place and verdicts are rendered. If anything keeps him alive, it will be the fact that it is surprisingly difficult to succeed in killing oneself in the present-day prison system. Petit home invasion murderer Joshua Komisarjevsky recently learned that lesson when he attempted to hang himself in a Pennsylvania prison. It is not easy to do when you have to use a bed frame or chair and willfully pull your body away until the choking process is complete.

What Howell did not tell the Courant in his September 20th letter is that his options for a transfer to another prison are slim. There are only three protective custody units in Connecticut. Howell was in the PC Unit at Walker but was transferred to the PC Unit at Bridgeport due to issues involving another prisoner. It appears that authorities may have been questioning the other prisoner about Howell. He cannot go to the protective custody unit at Cheshire CI, because the State's lead witness, inmate Jonathan Mills, is in that unit. The only place left for Howell to go is Northern CI, which does not have a protective custody unit, but has a special needs unit.

When someone is in prison, likely for life, little things mean everything: that extra bag of chips, or a favorite TV show to look forward to, or a bed that is raised from the ground and a cell temperature that is tolerable for sleeping. At Bridgeport CC, Howell has none of these things. It is ironic that the Supreme Court of Connecticut recently eliminated the death penalty, because Howell has repeatedly told me that he would be glad to die and have this nightmare over with. For those who think that the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, I beg to differ. Howell is living in his own personal hell right now.    

See The Hartford Courant's article, Who is Devin Howell. My upcoming book will share so much about this suspect, based on my ongoing written and face to face interviews with him. This novel/blog is a work in progress that contains substance and insight not contained within ordinary press reports.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Purpose of Habeases and the Role of the Jailhouse Snitch

Quadruple murderer Jonathan Mills stands to make a nice chunk of money as an informant in the case against serial killer suspect, William Devin Howell. It is likely that he will get the $150,000.00 in award money in exchange for his testimony regarding Howell's alleged confessions at an upcoming trial.
Mills and Howell, courtesy of CT prisoner website and NB PD.

For the friends and family of Mills' victims, it must be sickening to know that the career criminal who took away their loved ones stands to profit from the matter of State vs. Howell. The crimes for which Mills has been convicted are on equal footing with the crimes that Howell is alleged to have done. On October 10, 2000, Mills strangled a female neighbor; a single mother of a two year old girl, and dumped her remains in a wooded section of the fairgrounds in Guilford, Connecticut.

Two months later, Mills broke into his aunt's house, armed with two knives, in search of money for drugs. Katherine Kleinkauf was asleep in bed with her two children, ages 6 and 4. When Kleinkauf awoke and confronted Mills, he stabbed her 45 times. The children awoke during the struggle, and he stabbed each of them six times. He then made off with the dead mother's ATM card and got high on heroin and crack. Later that morning, 10 year old Alyssa Kleinkauf returned from a sleepover at a friend's house to discover the lifeless bodies of her mother and younger siblings. Years later, she would stare down Mills in a courtroom, stating that she still cried herself to sleep at night and woke up in the morning hoping it was all just a nightmare.
Mills disposed of one victim's body in the forest of the Guilford Fairgrounds.

Mills receiving the six figure award offered by the State for information to convict Howell is an unfortunate reality of a legal system that heavily relies on the testimony of criminal informants. Commonly known as "jail house snitches", informants hold a powerful place in the criminal legal system, and their role is not without a lot of controversy. On one hand, snitches help in the solving of many crimes that would otherwise remain unsolved.

On the other hand, they are not always on the up and up given the incentives that they are provided.  A 2004 study by Northwestern University Law School examined all of the wrongful capital convictions to that date and concluded that over 45 percent of those innocence cases were the result of the testimony of a lying informant. Also, one cannot help but wonder if a quadruple murderer (or a child molester, or a longtime narcotics dealer, or any other convicted criminal, for that matter), deserves favors from the State- monetary or otherwise.

Don't get me wrong. I am by no means implying that Mills is lying or that his testimony should not be allowed in court. I am saying that it gets under my skin – and it should get under your skin, too – that the State will likely lift the lien on that award money and, rather than applying it to the cost of Mills' incarceration, hand the money over to Mills for distribution as he sees fit. After all, but for the heinous murders of four people, two of them small children, Mills would never have been in a place to hear Howell's alleged confessions and report them to the State.

A year has passed since Howell was officially charged with murdering six individuals and dumping their remains behind a strip mall in New Britain, Connecticut, and a trial is not even close to being scheduled. The wheels of justice move slowly, but often for good reason. In the case of State vs. Howell, a lot is at stake: family members of the victims will show up in full force throughout the trial; anxiously waiting for justice and tearfully reliving the horrible events as the evidence is presented. In turn, while the defendant's life may not be hanging in the balance (last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional) it might as well be. A guilty verdict on even one of the many charges will lead to a lifetime behind bars for Howell with no hope of parole.

Finally, there is the fact that the future trial will attract an enormous amount of media attention at both local and national levels. For all of these reasons and more, State's Attorney Brian Preleski and Howell's attorneys, Jeffrey Kestenband and William Paetzold, must be on top of their respective games in the months and years to come.

How are both sides faring in preparation for the battle ahead? To date, legal filings indicate that the State has taken full advantage of its many broad privileges not available to the defense. For example, when defense attorneys need to speak with an incarcerated client or witness, they must make a trip to the prison. In contrast, the prosecution can file a habeas application that allows transport of the prisoner to the courthouse at the taxpayer's expense. This is basically the court's way of allowing an inmate without freedom the temporary liberty to show up in court at a specific time and place and for a specific reason.
Prisoner transport is a risky business.

The legal question then arises: for what purposes can the State exercise its habeas rights? Clearly, habeases can be filed to summon a prisoner to the courthouse on the day of an arraignment, a pre-trial hearing, or a trial. In recent years, however, Preleski has filed habeases for investigative purposes in a matter where a man had yet to be charged with the crimes in question. Since the case of State v. Howell did not exist until September 2015, when official charges were laid, Preleski was unable to file original habeases requesting the transportation of various witnesses at the clerk's office, as required. When he did subsequently present the habeases (when an open file came into existence at the clerk's office) the paperwork teemed with inaccuracies and omissions.

Two of the habeases, one filed before Howell's arrests, one after, request the transport of leading witness, Jonathan Mills, to the courthouse from Cheshire Correctional Institute. Another habeas requested the transport of defendant Howell to court in January 2015, ten months before the case against him existed, in order to serve him with a search warrant. Howell's attorneys argue that the habeas was also intended for the purpose of interrogation.

As one example of the many errors contained in the habeases in question, on April 15, 2015, the State checked the form's box indicating that the transport of Mills was required because he was a defendant in the criminal action specified as State v. Jonathan Mills. No such case existed when the habeas was issued. Mills had long since been convicted for the grisly murders of two women and two children. Also, Mills was being transported for questioning as a witness, not a defendant.  

In a Motion to Preclude Improper Use of Habeas and Subpoenas filed in on June 28, 2016, Howell's attorneys challenged the State's practice of filing habeases for investigative purposes, stating that the "Other" box on the form cannot serve the purpose of allowing the State to summon prisoners to court to for any reason it wants. According to the Defense, habeases are not designed for broad investigative purposes, nor are they intended to assist in pre-trial preparation, including a private meeting where Mills agreed to testify for the state in exchange of a six figure award. Can the State continue to use habeases for investigative purposes outside official court appearances? The judge will let us know that answer when he rules on the Defense's motion in the months ahead.

The State plans to submit evidence of a cooperation agreement with jail house informant, Jonathan Mills, the terms of which suggest that Mills will provide "truthful" testimony at trial. The Defense argues that such language has a prejudicial effect because it is for the trier of fact to determine what is truthful, not the prosecution. Sometimes informants tell the truth, other times they lie, and their information is often difficult to check. For now, the Defense's motion objecting to the language of the cooperation agreement has been tabled. It is likely that the judge will permit such language in the cooperation agreement presented at trial, given that cooperation agreements commonly use terms pertaining to "truthfulness." He may appease the Defense by offering jury instructions that explicitly state that it is for the members of the jury alone to determine what is truthful.

The State has a lot of work ahead, but it remains in the position of a mighty Goliath possessing a deadly arsenal of discovery. In contrast, Howell's attorneys are in the unenviable position of wee Davids engaged in a fight with astronomical odds against them. In keeping with that metaphor, the Defense's pretrial motions to date resemble sticks and stones thrown in the giant's direction. Such disparity between the State and the Defendant is not unusual in the criminal setting. However, in this case, the disparity could be better defined as a massive chasm.