The federal district judge, H. Lee Sarokin, had just ruled that Vincent James Landano would not be granted a writ of habeas corpus, which would have released him from prison. The judge then said something else that confounded the prisoner and his attorney:
"No decision of this court has ever been made with greater reluctance. In the current debate over judicial restraint and judicial activism, one tends to forget that individuals as well as concepts are involved. . . . The court candidly admits an exhaustive search for grounds to grant the writ but could find none without violating the court's oath to follow existing precedent."
As rare as that statement from a judge was, it was followed by an even more remarkable confession from the bench:
"In upholding the law, the court fears that a great injustice has occurred and respectively invites reversal of its decision."
Judge Sarokin is widely respected as an exceptionally knowledgeable and conscientious jurist. This New Jersey case which has so troubled him began in 1976 with an attempted robbery that ended in the murder of a policeman. One of the suspects turned state's evidence and testified that Landano had been his accomplice and had committed the murder.
Landano has persistently claimed that he had nothing to do with the robbery or the murder. But at the trial, the most damaging evidence against him was supplied by a truck driver, Raymond Portas -- the only witness to identify Landano as the driver of the getaway car. In 1977, Landano, found guilty of the killing, was sentenced to Rahway State Prison for life plus 15 years. In prison, Landano kept trying to find a way to prove that he was innocent. He examined and reexamined trial transcripts, other documents and law books. But when his break(or so it appeared) did come, it had nothingto do with his ceaseless fathoming ofthe record. Five years after the trial,Portas came forward, after much agonizing,to recant his testimony against Landano.
Portas now said he wasn't sure that Landano was the man he had seen driving the car. Actually, he added, the prosecutor had manipulated him into identifying Landano. New Jersey Superior Court Judge Joseph Hanrahan did not believe Portas' recantation, characterizing his testimony as "inconsistent," "contradictory" and "untrustworthy."
In 1987, Federal District Judge Sarokin held a hearing at which Portas again tried to recant the testimony he had given at the murder trial. Sarokin was convinced, as he put it, "that Raymond Portas is a credible witness and, further, that his recantation testimony is believable. The court was struck by Mr. Portas' sincerity and candor."
More to the immediate habeas corpus point, Sarokin emphasized that if a jury heard what Portas was now saying, "This court is convinced that the recanted testimony would probably produce an acquittal on retrial."
Why, then, did Sarokin not grant the prisoner the writ of habeas corpus? A statute, he said, prevented his doing that. The judge cited Section 28 U.S.C. #2254. This says that when a state court makes a factual finding -- the credibility of Portas, for instance -- great deference must be shown to that conclusion in federal habeas corpus proceedings. In the case of Landano, it would require more than simple disagreement with the state court for Sarokin to reject that finding and issue a writ of habeas corpus.
"Accordingly," Sarokin said with regret, "judicial restraint requires this court to afford deference to the state court's findings."
The reason Sarokin urged that his decision be overturned is his belief that if there is a possibility of an exception to the "judicial restraint" statute for this case, it's up to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to make that ruling.
There's a great deal wrong with a statute that so limits independent fact-finding authority by federal judges, thereby cutting off defendants' ability to have their constitutional claims heard. This case can hardly be the only one to exemplify what Judge Sarokin calls "a bitter exercise of judicial restraint" in habeas corpus proceedings.
Meanwhile, from prison, Vincent James Landano fears that the Third Circuit Court of Appeals "may also find that law must triumph over justice in my case.