Introducing State v. Wilder
Dear Empire Family:
Today, I am excited to introduce you to the 2020 Empire case: State v. Wilder.
This year’s case release feels different because it comes at such an unprecedented time. We are battling a pandemic that has led to casualties, mass unemployment, and countless other negative results. At the same time, fueled in part by the activism of young people, we are seeing renewed, louder calls for racial equality for Black Americans. Empire spoke up about Black Lives Matter, and we’ll continue to advocate for a more compassionate and just society.
The Case Committee has worked hard to put together a challenging fact pattern for you, with members collaborating from Sydney (AUS) to California (US), to Sheffield (UK). We are incredibly grateful to Minneapolis, Minnesota lawyer Collin Tierney, for developing the case from the ground up, and we thank the entire Case Committee, who helped Collin execute his vision.
Leveraging his background as a Public Defender, Collin built State v. Wilder to look and feel like a real criminal case. Our defendant, aided by an accomplice, is accused of robbing a home to feed a drug addiction. If found guilty, the defendant could be sentenced to life in prison because of Empirion’s “Three Strikes Law,” which compels the Court to impose a life imprisonment sentence on conviction for a third offense (subject to some prerequisites).
Introduced in the early 1990s, the federal “Three Strikes Law”1 provides for mandatory life imprisonment if a person: (1) has previously been convicted in federal court of a “serious violent felony”; and (2) has two or more previous convictions in federal or state courts, at least one of which is a serious violent felony (the other offense may be a serious drug offense). Since its enactment, more than half the states have followed with similar laws, though many differ in how they define a “strike”.
Unfortunately, the adoption of three strikes laws have led to the imprisonment of even more Americans, often those of color, and contributed to the country’s mass incarceration problem. In an open letter to Washington state voters, more than 20 current and former prosecutors urged the public to vote against a three strikes proposal. To explain why, those prosecutors described the following scenario:
“An 18-year old high school senior pushes a classmate down to steal his Michael Jordan $150 sneakers—Strike One; he gets out of jail and shoplifts a jacket from the Bon Marche, pushing aside the clerk as he runs out of the store—Strike Two; he gets out of jail, straightens out, and nine years later gets in a fight in a bar and intentionally hits someone, breaking his nose—criminal behavior, to be sure, but hardly the crime of the century, yet it is Strike Three. He is sent to prison for the rest of his life.”2
As another example, a Court was required to sentence a California man to life in prison for shoplifting a pair of $2.50 socks because that defendant had been convicted of taking part in a series of robberies 14 years prior.3 No one condones shoplifting or participating in a physical altercation. Through our case, Empire encourages you to think about whether these outcomes are just, and what the goals of our criminal justice system are. Deterrence? Rehabilitation? Both? These incidents are anecdotal and illustrate significant questions about three-strikes laws, which remove important sentencing discretion from judges. You can read more about some of the problems with three-strikes laws here.
As part of our mission to educate, connect and empower young people, we select case topics that shed light on social justice issues to which we want to expose our student participants. Mock trial, as an extracurricular activity, helps students build skills in public speaking, critical thinking and extemporaneous arguing, all of which benefit them as they approach voting age and begin engaging with their laws on a local and national level. Their Empire case topic empowers them to be more informed, and thus more engaged and compassionate citizens—that is a goal more important than learning how to raise an objection in court.
I know you are eager to learn more about this year’s case. Well, you’re in luck! Our Case Committee Chair has provided us with a detailed summary that follows this letter.
When preparing for your 2020 Empire competition, please practice responsibly. If you meet in person, follow all guidelines for social distancing and stopping the spread of the virus. Together, we can stay safe and have an awesome 2020 Empire season.
1 See the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994)
By Collin Tierney
Case Committee Chair
It all happened so fast. One minute, late at night, Taylor Amelia awoke on the second story of the Amelia family house on a calm residential street in the well-off Fort Schwartzreich neighborhood of Jaydia, Empirion. The next minute, Taylor Amelia found a masked intruder, wearing all black and holding a gun, at the top of the staircase.
Within seconds, Amelia realized the house was being burglarized. But just like that, it was over. The intruder shouted something downstairs, apparently at another burglar, and then they were gone, down the stairs and running out the back door in a panic. Who robs a house late at night and doesn’t expect to find anyone home?
Shocked and traumatized, Amelia called the police and struggled to put the pieces together. By luck, the police apprehended one of the masked suspects, Ryan Manwill, a few blocks from the house, but the second burglar apparently got away in a car.
After an hour of interrogation, Manwill came clean and confessed to the burglary. Manwill also gave police access to a cell phone with text messages to a person named “Charlie,” who helped Manwill plan the burglary. Manwill told police that “Charlie” was a friend from drug rehab, where both received treatment for methamphetamine abuse.
In less than one day, Charlie Wilder, a young adult who lives on the opposite side of the city, in West Jaydia, would be arrested and charged with that same burglary. Wilder tells the defense lawyers that Manwill is lying, and that Wilder had nothing to do with the burglary. Wilder’s lawyers explain that, unfortunately, the stakes could not be higher: Wilder will be mandatorily sentenced to life in prison if convicted at trial.
But what trial? Things aren’t moving so fast anymore. COVID-19 hit the island of Empirion in April 2020, when much of the rest of the United States was struggling to handle the pandemic. Court systems slowed to a crawl, and jury trials were suspended. Charlie Wilder has been waiting in the DeMent County Jail since January 11, 2020, waiting day by day, growing restless, stressed, and fearful of what might be to come.
Even now, in-person trials have not yet started up again in Empirion, and Wilder is trying to figure out what to do. Is Wilder willing to have a remote trial, thereby waiving Wilder’s constitutional right to a trial with all parties present in the same room? Or does Wilder wish to wait for the Empirion government to resume in-person trials, leaving fate up in the air indefinitely?
Charlie Wilder is desperate but Wilder also knows the State’s case is strong. Let’s talk about what the case looks like.
Can the State Meet its Burden?
The victim, Taylor Amelia, isn’t able to describe much about the intruders. It was very dark, and after all—it all happened fast. However, Amelia can recall some important details, like the name one of the intruders used to address the other out loud: “Charlie.” Amelia also remembers seeing one of the masked individuals run out to a black Honda or Hyundai and drive off. Charlie Wilder, it turns out, drives a black Honda Civic.
It gets worse, too, because Charlie Wilder is listed by the phone company as the owner of the cell phone that Ryan Manwill has been texting for months. Ryan Manwill even texted Wilder two days before the burglary about a “party” planned for the night of January 10, 2020—a party at the victims’ address of 1606 Sherman Ave. That is what Wilder’s lawyers describe to Wilder in confidence as “a bad fact.”
Another bad fact: The police tracked Wilder’s cell phone number as it connected to different cell towers in the Jaydia area in the hours surrounding the burglary. For some reason, the cell phone site location information reveals that Wilder’s phone had taken a fifteen-mile-long trip from home in West Jaydia all the way up and over to the victim’s neighborhood of Fort Schwartzreich, arriving when the burglary was committed, and leaving along the same route back home around the time 911 was called.
Yet another bad fact: the DNA. At first, it didn’t seem like a big deal when police investigated the Amelia household and found a key attached to a chain with a small plastic beach ball laying on a kitchen counter. On review, this small object helped crack one of the big mysteries in the case: How did the burglars enter the home without breaking in? That key, as it turns out, was a spare key the Amelias gave a home renovation contractor just days before the burglary. The home renovation company was supposed to use that key over the following week to enter the house and perform work on the basement. Ryan Manwill, the codefendant apprehended blocks away with the gun, is on a list of employees who work for that renovation company. And a small, invisible smidgen of DNA on the beach ball can exclude 99.96% of all humans on earth from coming into contact with the keychain, but cannot exclude Charlie Wilder.
If you think that’s bad, don’t forget Wilder’s confession. Sadly, although Wilder has been through the system several times before, Wilder did not exercise the constitutional right to remain silent after arrest. Not only did Wilder talk to the police, but Wilder confessed. Wilder admitted to knowing the codefendant Manwill, admitted to being present at the burglary, and admitted that the motive was to acquire money for methamphetamine. Wilder maintains this confession was the result of police trickery, but will the jury agree when they get to read the actual transcript?
The Defense Rests? Not So Fast
Throughout the spring and summer, Wilder’s lawyers have been busy working from home and building a defense. First, they contacted Wilder’s treatment counselor. How could Wilder have been burglarizing houses in January 2020 for drug money if Wilder was actually in treatment at the time, doing well and testing clean for drugs?
Next, the Defense enlists the help of an expert witness, a Yale Law School professor and preeminent authority on mistaken eyewitness memory and false confessions. Perhaps the jury will be less impressed with Wilder’s so-called “confession” when they hear it used the coercive practices of the infamous Reid interrogation technique.
Third, as unbelievable as it may sound, Wilder’s lawyers actually found a witness supporting an alibi defense. Wilder is adamant that Wilder never visited the site of the burglary. Wilder claims to have been approximately half a mile away helping an elderly client for Wilder’s part-time job as a personal care assistant (PCA). Not only may this elderly care client testify, but the alibi witness brought receipts to prove Wilder’s whereabouts. This witness is not without risks—there are several inconsistencies between Wilder’s account and the account of the alibi witness, and from jail, Wilder has made several suspicious calls (at least one of which, of course, was recorded) to the witness. Wilder’s lawyers explained to Wilder that this jail call is “not great.”
Finally, the case took one more twist: Prosecutors evaluated the evidence of Wilder’s alibi, and they realized it is strikingly similar to an alibi Wilder offered four years ago in a different burglary case. A burglary case that involves striking similar facts. In that case, Wilder pleaded guilty. In the transcript of the plea hearing, Wilder even admitted that the alibi offered in Wilder’s defense was total fiction, fabricated by Wilder to avoid responsibility for the burglary. Now, prosecutors have filed a Rule 404(b) motion asking the court in Wilder’s new burglary case to allow the jury to hear about Wilder’s 2016 burglary—most importantly, so prosecutors can explain why the alibi in each case is bogus and demonstrates a common scheme by the defendant. Alibi? More like modus operandi.
No doubt, the stakes are high for Charlie Wilder. Anything could happen, and the uncertainty of the proceedings only makes waiting for the result even more stressful. In what could be both good and bad, Wilder hears through the grapevine that the lawyers on both sides are said to be the best criminal trial lawyers on the entire island of Empirion.
This year, Empire competitors will have materials that rival the size and complexity of a real felony case file. They will have a view from both sides of the courtroom into the common hardships clients like my own experience on a regular basis. The legal issues are borrowed from an amalgamation of cases I and others have worked on in criminal trials. The police reports this year were drafted by Elliott Averett, a mock trial alumnus and current law student who was a police officer for three years. The DNA report was drafted under the supervision of a real DNA expert, Jeff Benson, a coworker of mine in the Hennepin County Office of the Public Defender. The eyewitness and confessions expert was written with the help of the most well-known expert on eyewitness memory retention in the world—Professor Elizabeth Loftus at UC Irvine School of Law, who was nice enough to provide transcripts of testimony she has offered in real cases.
If competitors for the Defense end up feeling like the deck is stacked against their client in this case, my personal response would be: good, because that is the reality of the system, both when dealing with the evidence in the file and in other ways. We are confident this case will present a challenge to competitors, particularly for those on the defense.
From a balance viewpoint, we had a goal this year of designing a case that, on paper, should favor the prosecution. Mock trial case writers usually seek balance, but we tried to push the boundaries. Which team “wins” (as in, captures the ballots) will hopefully come down to the level of care and preparation a prosecution devotes to its case, and the creativity of the defense as it tries to move with surgical precision through the different landmines in the materials.
Case Subject Matter
I enthusiastically concur with Justin when he says that Empire takes case subject matter seriously. I have felt for a long time that mock trial fact patterns need to do more to educate young adults on our criminal justice system. We wanted to make a case that respectfully and productively engages in issues that need more light in the universe of mock trial.
In the United States, approximately 90 percent of all criminal defendants are indigent—meaning they are financially unable to hire a lawyer of their choosing and rely on court-appointed legal services such as public defense agencies, court-appointed contract lawyers, and legal aid nonprofits. These defendants often live through repeated hardship: unstable family life, incarcerated loved ones, homelessness and transience, exposure to trauma in many forms, gaps in education, mental illness, chemical addiction, and lack of access to services that meet basic needs. Then there are the racial disparities, and America’s rush to mandatory minimums, sentencing guidelines, mass incarceration and mass monitoring as means to “solve” these challenges.
Television portrayals, sound-byte political messages, fear, and other influences create an image that the criminal justice system carefully sifts bad from good. Our responsibility and mission at Empire is to challenge our competitors to take a more sophisticated and nuanced look at the criminal justice system and the humanity of the people involved in it.
That said, these are not problems that a mock trial case can solve. Hopefully, however, our cases encourage you, our Empire Family, to start thinking about ways you can be a part of that solution.
We hope you enjoy State v. Wilder as much as we enjoyed writing it. Stay safe, everyone!
2020 Case Committee Chair