An Old Murder Case Stirs Questions About Prosecutors’ Practices

Jerrin Hickman has been fighting for his freedom for over a decade.

For the past 12 years, Jerrin Hickman has been incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Hickman claims he’s behind bars because a high-profile prosecutor broke the rules.

That prosecutor, former Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill, has denied any misconduct. But Hickman’s case is attracting renewed attention—and Underhill is under new scrutiny. In early June, Eugene Weekly profiled Hickman’s daughter, who continues to fight for her father’s freedom. Later that month, Hickman’s attorney raised eyebrows when she presented Hickman’s legal battle as a case study of prosecutorial misconduct at a Bend conference. Here’s where Hickman’s case stands.

The Killing

In 2007, Hickman went to a New Year’s Eve party in the Madison South neighborhood of Northeast Portland. At the party, a man in a ski mask shot 25-year-old Christopher Monette four times in the chest.

Prosecutors said the shooter was Hickman, who spoke to police before fleeing the scene. He was found shoeless the following morning at a nearby golf course after breaking his leg jumping a fence.

The Trial

Four witnesses positively identified Hickman as the shooter that night, according to an Oregon Supreme Court decision. Others described a shooter similar in appearance to Hickman, but couldn’t identify him.

Two of the four who positively identified Hickman did so after striking deals with prosecutors to reduce prison time on other charges, according to Hickman’s attorney.

The final two witnesses were a pair of white teenage girls from West Linn. They were childhood friends who were driven to the party and witnessed the shooting from the backseat of a Toyota Corolla. Both, at the time, described the shooter as a young, “stocky” African American man. One admitted all of the Black partygoers “pretty much all looked, like, the same.”

But their memories improved by the time they testified at trial two years later. Both identified Hickman as the shooter.

Aliza Kaplan, director of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School, calls it a “textbook case” of problematic cross-racial eyewitness identification. Studies, she says, have routinely linked such identifications to wrongful convictions.

“We all know better,” she adds. “We know that 75% of wrongful convictions involve faulty identifications—not even as bad as this.”

The Aftermath

Hickman was found guilty in 2010. An appeals court tossed the verdict, but the state Supreme Court disagreed. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Hickman sought post-conviction relief from a new judge, who also ruled against him last summer. That decision is now being appealed.

Hickman has fought his battle not only in court, but also at the Oregon State Bar, where he has filed a series of complaints, beginning in 2014, against Underhill.

“Underhill cheated,” Hickman told the bar.

His attorney, Ginger Mooney, laid out the argument for prosecutorial misconduct in a presentation at this year’s annual conference of the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in Bend.

She argues that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence to the defense that could have helped Hickman’s case, a constitutional requirement stemming from a 1963 Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland. Specifically: Prosecutors withheld the magnitude of the deals they’d made with the two witnesses who testified against Hickman in exchange for decades of avoided prison time.

What does all of this add up to? It’s a problem for Underhill but not an exoneration for Hickman, says Judge Daniel Ahern, who delivered a verdict in Hickman’s suit for post-conviction relief last summer. Ahern said the witness was “handled improperly” by the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office and that Underhill had “improperly arranged a signal” in the courtroom. (For more on Underhill’s alleged secret signal, read this story.)

Still, even with the errors, “evidence of the petitioner’s guilt was overwhelming,” the judge said.

Hickman filed a new complaint with the state bar last year. It is now under investigation.

“We expect, based upon the applicable law and facts, that the Bar will reach the same conclusion they reached in 2014 and will dismiss Mr. Hickman’s complaint in its entirety,” Underhill’s attorney, Peter Jarvis, wrote in a statement.

Reached via phone from prison, Hickman tells WW he remains confident he’ll be exonerated. “There’s no reason for me not to be optimistic,” he said. “I got justice on my side.”