Prosecutorial Misconduct Caused Life Sentence for 19 Year Old - Wrongful Conviction
  • Petitioned United States Department of Justice

This petition was delivered to:

United States Department of Justice
Attorney General of Pennsylvania

Prosecutorial Misconduct Caused Life Sentence for 19 Year Old - Wrongful Conviction

    1. Trish Holfelder
    2. Petition by

      Trish Holfelder

      Freeport, PA

Wrongful Convictions happen.  Lawmakers are becoming more aware of this and attempting to find ways to prevent wrongful convictions.  Governor Rendell was concerned with the high incident of wrongful conviction in the Pennsylvania Court System and supported the formation of the Pennsylvania Wrongful Conviction Advisory Commission.  The House of Representatives recently passed a bill to review and reform the criminal justice system which is now waiting Senate Approval. 

It is well known that wrongful convictions happen.  In many of the cases the wrongful conviction is due to prosecutorial misconduct.  According to the Innocence Project report Prosecutorial Misconduct and Wrongful Convictions, most of the misconduct claimed by wrongfully convicted prisoners include improper argument at trial and withheld evidence of innocence

A Prosecutor’s Duty:

A prosecutor is required to disclose any exculpatory evidence, which is evidence that proves the defendant’s innocence or would impeach other witness testimony, to the defense attorney.  By not disclosing this type of evidence the prosecution is violating a citizen’s constitutional right and right to due process. 

When a prosecutor fails to disclose this type of evidence and only discloses the evidence he/she wishes to use, in essence is controlling what the jury sees and what evidence they will base their decision.  This action takes away the ability for the defense to properly prove innocence and provide the jury with reasonable doubt.  This is why a large number of wrongfully convicted innocent individuals sit in prison this very second.  After all a jury is supposed to be provided with the proper and true evidence and decide a verdict based on that, not what evidence an individual prosecutor feels the decision should be based on. 

The Vogt Case is a Perfect Example of A Wrongful Conviction Based on Withheld Exculpatory Evidence That Would Have Proved His Innocence:

In May of 1990 Steven Vogt was a 19 year old male, who although troubled and fell into the use of drugs and alcohol; he had no prior history of violence or anger issues.  Steven has always maintained that he was innocent of the crimes he was charged with and extremely intoxicated and passed out during the most of the night the events occurred and therefore lacked memory of most of the events he was charged with.  Steven's only crime was being a trouble teen who got drunk around the wrong people, most of whom he just met that evening. On May 13, 1990, Steven Vogt (19), Michael Sopo (18), Margaret Zawadniak (32), Walter Cowfer (26) and Art McClearn (27) were drinking alcohol at various places in Export.  The alcohol was provided by the two older males who both resided in Export that Steven had just met that night.  Steven’s memories end around the time he injured his ankle while walking on the sidewalk outside due to his severe intoxication.  The rest of the evening Steven was in and out of consciousness due to the large amounts of alcohol he consumed over a 24 hour period.  During the evening, the parties traveled to Cupec’s Mine, which is a well known local spot where people would go to drink and hang out, and events, which Steven was not a part of, occurred which lead to the death of Frank Landry.

 In January of 1991 there was a joint trial for Steven Vogt (19), Walter Cowfer (26) and Margaret Zawadniak (32) for the murder of Frank Landry. Michael Sopo and Art McClearn where present that night and testified for the state according to respective plea agreements.  Steven Vogt and Walter Cowfer were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, while Margaret, the only female on trial, was acquitted of all charges.

 The exact moment when exculpatory evidence is withheld:

The District Attorney assigned to the case, William R. Shaffer, presented 2 witnesses who testified Walter Cowfer and an "unknown male" confessed to the murder of Frank Landry at their home.  Steven had no memory of this visit due to his severe intoxication and passing in and out of consciousness throughout the night.  Steven’s defense attorney raised concerns to the court believing the testimony being exculpatory to Steven and believed it was evidence that should be provided to him in order to prove Steven’s innocence.  The defense attorney stated that he believed the “unknown male” was actually the state's next witness, Mr. McClearn. District Attorney William E. Shaffer states on record “It’s inexculpatory”.  (Click here to see the transcript where this Constitutional violation occurred as District Attorney Shaffer stated on record "Its inexculpatory." The violation begins on page 11.)  When Steven’s defense attorney questioned the identity of the “unknown male” as being Art McClearn, Attorney Shaffer failed to disclose the identity of the “unknown male” as being the state's key witness against Steven leading Steven (due to his admitted severe intoxication and lack of memory of the visit), the court and the jury to believe it was Steven when in fact it was Art McClearn. Keep in mind.  The prosecutor was REQUIRED to inform Steven's attorney if the "unknown male" was not Steven. 

Attorney Shaffer then presents Art McClearn as a witness.  McClearn was the only witness who said Steven Vogt had anything to do with the murder of Frank Landry.  McClearn testified as part of a deal he made which included a prison sentence of 4 to 8 years for third degree murder, kidnapping, burglary and conspiracy to commit murder.  Art was facing life in prison prior to the plea bargain made with the district attorney.    

McClearn’s testimony did not match the physical evidence available and could have been easily impeached if the defense attorney was not denied the knowledge of the exculpatory evidence that District Attorney William R. Shaffer withheld from Steven's defense attorney by stating to the court “It’s inexculpatory” when questioned as to the identity of the “unknown male” who was with Cowfer during the confession.  THE IDENTITY OF THE ‘UNKNOWN MALE’ WAS MCCLEARN AND NOT STEVEN VOGT.  MCCLEARN WAS THE ONLY WITNESS WHO TESTIFIED STEVEN HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE MURDER OF FRANK LANDRY and did so in order to avoid a life sentence for himself because he was the actual ‘unknown male’ present with Cowfer at the confession and during the crime.

Walter Cowfer and Steven Vogt were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.  Ms. Zawadniak was acquitted of all charges.  Steven Vogt was convicted based on the testimony of the two witnesses who stated Cowfer and an “unknown male” came to their home and confessed to the crime and the testimony of McClearn who is later learned to be the actual “unknown male” who was present with Cowfer during the confession of the crime.  

Cowfer has indicated since 1991 that Steven took no part in the death of Frank Landry. (Click here to see letter from Mr. Cowfer stating that Steven Vogt is innocent)  In 2004, Cowfer sent an affidavit to Steven Vogt stating that the "unknown male" that was with him during the time of the confession was actually McClearn.  Steven was not aware of the Constitional violation until this affidavit was sent.   (Click here to see affidavit revealing the Constitional violation)  McClearn was the person with Walter at the time Mr. Landry died and was with Walter during the confession of the crime. 

Steven has always maintained he was innocent of the crime he was convicted of.  The district attorney in this case violated Steven Vogt's Constitional rights by failing to disclose the evidence that would prove his innocence. Then he continued to deny Steven Vogt a fair trial by utilizing the unreliable testimony of the man who was actually present during the confession and commission of the crime in order to convict Steven Vogt.   

Justice is still denied 6 years after the discovery of a constitutional violation and proof of actual innocence.

Steven was only 19 when he was sentenced to life in prison for a crime that he did not commit.  Steven has always said he was innocent. 

The only evidence against Steven during trial was a clear Brady violation using edited and withheld exculpatory evidence and the testimony of the person who actually committed the crime who received a plea agreement of 4 to 8 years for third degree murder, kidnapping, burglary and conspiracy to commit murder. 

Steven has been in prison for over 20 years and it has been over 6 years since he received proof of the failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence that he was required to disclose.  He has been trying to get his case heard in court and to this date no court has yet to hear his claims, but rather deny them as "untimely". 

While Steven has always known of his innocence of the crime, he became aware of the Constitutional Violation when Mr. Cowfer sent an affidavit notifying Steven that the violation occurred when the prosecutor stated the identity of the “unknown male” was inexculpatory.  Since the discovery of the constitutional violation in 2004 Steven has been trying to get the Courts to hear the merits of his case.  Unfortunately, the Courts are once again failing Steven by procedurally defaulting his claims.  The Courts are right about one thing.  The exculpatory evidence that would have cleared Steven Vogt of the crime he is convicted of should have been found earlier.... it should have been found 20 years ago during the trial when the defense attorney asked for it; but instead the district attorney failed to disclose it  by stating the evidence was "inexculpatory". 

Wrongful Conviction happens.  It can happen to anyone and needs to be addressed and prevented.  You can help Steven get his claims heard and overturn the wrongful conviction that sent a 19 year old to serve life in prison 20 years ago.  Take a moment to sign this petition to let lawmakers know that you are aware that wrongful convictions happen and the proper steps need to be taken to correct this problem and that Steven's case needs to be corrected. 

Relevant Documents:

Transcript Where exculpatory evidence is withheld at triall. (violation begins on page 11)

Letter from Defendant Cowfer Stating Steven is Innocent of the Crime

Affidavit from Defendant Cowfer Revealing the Constitional Violtion to Steven Vogt

Affidavit from Co-Defendant Zawadniak (who was aquitted) that Steven Did Not Commit the Crime he is Convicted of

Three Componants of a True Brady Violation in Comparison to the Vogt Case

Order of Court addressing issues that the Former District Attorney Shaffer's (who is now a judge) has "knowingly ommitting" facts that he was required to report according to his duties as a sitting Judge 

 

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