Tapp appeal in the balance

Chris Tapp at the Bonneville County Jail on Sept. 19. Tapp has been in jail or prison for 7,264 days, nearly half his life. Monte LaOrange / mlaorange@postregister.com

Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com Judge Alan Stephens will, within weeks,rule whether Chris Tapp’s petition for postconviction relief can move forward. If successful, it could result in a new trial for Tapp. Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com

A key hearing in one of Chris Tapp’s petitions for postconviction relief ended without a ruling Tuesday. A final ruling is expected within the next few weeks.

Tapp is serving a sentence of 30 years to life for the 1996 murder of 18-year-old Angie Dodge, though many criminal justice experts claim he was wrongfully convicted.

The petition is based on the claim that prosecutors failed to disclose tapes of several interrogation and polygraph sessions Tapp underwent, sessions during which he was threatened with the death penalty and offered leniency in return for cooperation.

Outside experts have found that during those sessions, police fed Tapp nearly every detail of the murder, which wound up in his later confession. His DNA doesn’t match semen and other DNA samples left at the crime scene.

Steve Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, is a nationally renowned expert who has worked on false confessions for more than 15 years. He previously told the Post Register that Tapp’s was the “most contaminated and least corroborated” confession he had ever seen.

Public Defender John Thomas prevailed at a September hearing, where he argued that since the tapes weren’t noted on court discovery records, it’s mostly likely they weren’t turned over.

But following Judge Alan Stephens’ ruling in his favor, some of the tapes were discovered in the files of the State Appellate Public Defender’s Office. Deputy Prosecutor John Dewey filed a motion asking Stephens to reverse his prior ruling, which was the subject of Tuesday’s hearing.

Dewey argued that the court serves an important “gate-keeping function,” only allowing petitions to move forward if they present material issues and are presented in a timely fashion. Since some tapes were later found and Thomas has no affidavits saying that the tapes weren’t turned over, he argued, the court shouldn’t allow the case to proceed.

“Justice does not have an expiration date,” Thomas replied.

Throughout the proceedings, Thomas has attempted to draw the attention of the court to the lack of evidence that Tapp committed the crime for which he has spent half his life behind bars.

“This guy’s innocent, and we know he’s innocent. But we’re going to let him rot in prison?” Thomas said.

If that’s how the system works, Thomas told Stephens, he’ll turn in his state bar card.

In response, Dewey argued that Stephens should only consider the narrow issues before the court: whether the tapes were likely turned over to the defense and whether the statute of limitations for raising the issue has expired.

“This is a court of law. … This is not the court of public opinion,” Dewey said.

After the hearing, Thomas said he’s not certain the court system has sufficient procedures in place to ensure justice for the wrongfully convicted.

In petitions for postconviction relief — the only avenue that remains for a defendant after his appeals are exhausted, as Tapp’s are — the defense can raise issues such as whether prosecutors withheld evidence and whether prior defense lawyers were incompetent.

But there is no simple way to get a judge to look at all the evidence in the case in order to determine whether that evidence supports the conviction.

“We need a district judge out there looking at the case and seeing that there is an innocent man in prison,” Thomas said.

The law focuses courts on procedural matters and not the “meat” of the case, he said.

Stephens took the arguments under advisement without issuing a ruling. He noted that he has a packed schedule with several trials pending, so it may be some time before he can publish his decision.

Carol Dodge, Angie’s mother, was brought to tears watching the hearing. She called the investigative efforts over the last 20 years and the efforts to defend Tapp’s conviction “heartless.”

“They can drag this out forever by moving a centimeter at a time … while an innocent man sits in prison and my daughter’s murder remains unsolved,” she said.

Vera Tapp, Chris’ mother, was also disheartened.

“They just will not let go,” she said.

Tapp has been in jail or prison for 7,235 days.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.