The Tale of Darell Chancellor: Imprisoned by a Lying Officer

The Tale of Darell Chancellor: Imprisoned by a Lying Officer
My former client Darell Chancellor is among the most recent people to be exonerated by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) Mr. Chancellor was convicted in 2012 based on lies told in a search warrant and on the stand by a Detroit police officer. Mr. Chancellor has since sued the officer involved, Stephen Geelhood, who, despite the statements made by Kym Worthy when his conviction was overturned, is not on the publicly released Brady list.
Mr. Chancellor had previously sued the Detroit Police Department after William “Robo Cop” Melendez, who is now on the  prosecutor’s Brady list, allegedly planted a gun in his car.  Officer Melendez was indicted but acquitted of criminal charges in that earlier case.

In the fraudulent search warrant in the 2012 conviction, Officer Geelhood claimed a confidential informant told him there was a lot of heroin being sold out of a home in Detroit where Mr. Chancellor’s mother lived and that he saw three suspected drug sales in a short period on a single day. Officer Geelhood claimed he saw a man in the house making the sales whose physical description varied markedly from Mr. Chancellor’s, but testified that it was Mr. Chancellor and that he had never made a mistake identifying anyone in his career. Mr. Chancellor testified at his trial that he lived with his wife and child, not with his mother, and was at work when the search warrant was executed. No heroin was found, but some alleged cocaine was seized. When produced at trial, the “rock cocaine” was no longer solid, but rather a “smelly liquid.” According to his federal complaint, the CIU could find no evidence that a tip had been provided to Geelhood or that he had conducted the claimed surveillance.

As a result of Officer Geelhood’s fraudulent affidavit and trial testimony, Mr. Chancellor was incarcerated for more than eight years, losing invaluable time with his family and years of his life. I’ve been asking myself, what could we have done to right this injustice earlier? On appeal, I sent the cocaine to an expert to analyze, but the expert’s testimony alone was not going to be that helpful. We FOIA’ed Officer Geelhood’s daily log for the date of the alleged surveillance, but despite repeated efforts by our office to obtain the information, the DPD did not even answer the request until years after the appeal concluded and told us, “DPD does not have any record which corresponds to the description of your request.” On appeal, we continued to question the basis for the conviction and pointed out the discrepancies and holes in the case but did not prevail. People v Darell Chancellor, 2014 WL 6865488.  Perhaps a FOIA appeal seeking to compel a response earlier might have been successful, but the better option of course would have been if all of that work had been done in the trial court before Mr. Chancellor’s conviction during a challenge to the search warrant or seeking information about the informant. Or perhaps the judge in this bench trial should have been more skeptical of the officer’s testimony that the man he described “as much as 4 inches shorter and up to 50 pounds lighter” than Mr. Chancellor was actually Mr. Chancellor.

How a defense attorney with evidence of past police misconduct can use it to prevent future wrongful convictions

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20. Evidence that is currently available through the police misconduct databases, Pacer searches, and other investigation/discovery can be used as impeachment evidence to help the accused every step of the way, from bail to trial. Since the federal cases lag by years, access to the public’s complaints about officers is needed.  If an attorney has impeachment evidence about an officer, they can use it as has been done by the lawyers in New York City during a bail hearing to argue to the court that the prosecution’s case may not be as strong as they think it is. More information about the efforts by The Legal Aid Society in New York City are available here:
At a suppression hearing, or at trial, the analysis for the admissibility of the potential impeachment evidence starts with a preliminary question: What does [prior bad act] make more or less probable? The next question is whether the answer to that first question is a fact that the trier of fact has to apply in this case. Framing the answer to that first question so the answer to the second question is “yes” is the key to admissibility.

So, say the fact that defendant initiated the aggressive encounter with the officer is a fact that the trier of fact has to apply in the hearing or trial. Evidence that the officer previously assaulted someone or several someones makes it less probable that the defendant initiated the aggressive encounter. The officer’s assaultive history also makes his testimony less reliable because he could be trying to avoid further administrative punishment. Or, if you have evidence that the officer lied to get a search warrant in the past, that information can be used to call into question whether the search in your client’s case was legitimate.

An attorney should also be prepared to argue that the impeachment material from the database (or other sources) is not collateral. Those reasons are all familiar: they can go to credibility on an issue the trier of fact must determine, show bias, motivation to testify, hostility, reasons to fabricate and modus operandi. People v Smith, 27 NY3d 652 (2016), is a helpful case on cross-examination about a lawsuit against an officer.

No one wants their client to be wrongfully convicted. An innocent person spending even a few days behind bars is upsetting; the prospect that they spent years there, far more so. Discovery, FOIA, databases, and perhaps ultimately material obtained as a result of new legislation can all be invaluable tools to prevent these travesties of justice. As attorneys, we need to be prepared to utilize these powerful arrows in our quivers.

by Christine Pagac
Assistant Defender
State Appellate Defender Office

Christine Pagac has been an Assistant Defender at SADO since 2004 and won the Norris J. Thomas award for excellence in appellate advocacy in 2014. She is a proud graduate of the University of Michigan, where she earned both her B.A. and J.D. Go Blue!