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How Jake Tapper started investigating the conviction of one of his father’s patients in South Philadelphia


By Jeremy Herb, CNN

In September 2011, Dr. Theodore Tapper treated 17-year-old CJ Rice for lingering and debilitating injuries after he was shot in the abdomen. Six days later, Rice was arrested and ultimately convicted on charges of attempted murder in a shooting of four people in South Philadelphia.

Nearly a decade after Rice’s trial, CNN anchor Jake Tapper has closely examined the conviction of his father’s patient, reporting a story that raises significant doubts about the case against Rice — and the effectiveness of the legal counsel he was provided at his trial.

Tapper’s cover story in The Atlantic, “‘Good luck, Mr. Rice’: A Philadelphia teenager and the empty promise of the Sixth Amendment,” takes a deep dive into the circumstances behind the September 2011 shooting that led to Rice’s conviction 18 months later and a prison sentence of 30 to 60 years. The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to counsel.

Tapper learned about the case from his father, an 82-year-old physician who practiced in South Philadelphia for more than four decades. When Theodore Tapper saw Rice to care for his bullet wounds and a long incision on his abdomen less than three weeks after he had been shot, the teenager was still in severe pain, his wound still stapled together, and he had trouble walking.

“As a doctor, he believes Rice’s involvement in the crime for which he was convicted was physically impossible,” Jake Tapper wrote of his father.

In the story, Tapper identifies numerous problems with the case against Rice beyond his medical condition, including an eyewitness who changed her story to pinpoint Rice after not identifying anyone when she was initially asked. There was no other physical evidence tying Rice to the scene, and a weapon was never retrieved.

But the most egregious problems Tapper raises stem from Rice’s defense counsel, Sandjai Weaver, a court-appointed lawyer who failed to take statements from Rice’s alibi witnesses before trial, failed to subpoena cell phone location data that could have cleared her client and failed to raise doubts about the eyewitness’ inconsistencies. Weaver died three years ago.

“She was an incompetent attorney — very basic things that should have come out in trial did not come out in trial,” Tapper said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Wednesday. “She didn’t know basic facts about the case. And that is what passes for legal representation in this country. That’s OK with our system.”

“It is the most unjust case like this I’ve ever seen,” Tapper added. “The bottom line is CJ’s case is important because it’s not unusual. It is the case of a person who does not have means given a court-appointed attorney.”

Theodore Tapper told CNN that he’s been exchanging letters frequently with Rice since 2016, when Tapper’s former patient asked for his full medical records as part of his appeal. Their letters, he said, range from discussions about the serious socioeconomic problems facing areas like South Philadelphia to the latest update on Philly’s sports teams.

“I get a little obsessive about things,” Theodore Tapper said. “And I’ve been obsessed with the CJ Rice story since probably either 2011, since he was first locked up, or certainly since 2016 when he wrote me a letter saying, ‘Please try to track down my medical records. He and I have been corresponding since.’ “

The elder Tapper’s self-described obsession with Rice’s story led him to talk about it with his family and a small circle of friends, including his son. “They knew that I was concerned. And Jacob is a writer, among other things,” Theodore Tapper said. “And he said, ‘Hmm’ and scratched his head and started listening to what I was saying and doing research on his own.”

An unexplained shooting

Theodore Tapper treated Rice on September 20, 2011, less than three weeks after he had been shot while riding his bike, in a case of what Rice believed was mistaken identity. Rice was in severe pain but told the doctor that he didn’t want to take painkillers because he didn’t like how they made him feel, Jake Tapper writes.

Five days after the doctor’s visit — four people, including a six-year-old girl — were shot on a stoop in South Philadelphia, suffering non-life-threatening injuries. Two of the women who were shot told police that night that two to three Black men in hoodies shot at them.

Though none of the victims or witnesses were able to identify the assailants the night of the shooting, overnight police claimed they received a tip from a confidential informant claiming that Rice was involved. The detectives investigating the case went to the hospital and brought photos of Rice for a photo lineup. In 2014 the Philadelphia police department changed procedures so detectives investigating cases couldn’t present the lineups, to guard against inappropriate suggestion.

The next day, the detectives separately visited two of the women who were shot. The officers showed the women photo arrays of possible suspects, and one woman identified Tyler Linder, while the other identified Rice. Detectives, however, offered no explanation for why the women didn’t identify the suspects the day prior.

After Rice was arrested, his mother called Weaver, a former colleague, who was working as a defense attorney. Weaver promised to hurry to the police station, but never showed up, Tapper writes

Weaver was eventually named Rice’s court-appointed attorney. In the 14 months between Rice’s arrest and trial, Weaver only met with him twice while he was in jail awaiting trial, according to Tapper, in visits lasting less than 15 minutes.

Rice asked her to provide him with the discovery documents of his case. She did not do so. He urged her to subpoena his Cricket Wireless cell phone location data to provide an alibi. The data was never retrieved.

Different lawyers with different approaches

At the trial, Rice and Linder were tried together with separate lawyers. Linder’s lawyer poked key holes in the eyewitness testifying against Linder, Tapper writes. But Weaver did not do the same for Rice.

Ahead of the trial, Rice’s lawyer failed to take any statements from his potential alibi witnesses at the time of the shooting. As a result, the testimony of one alibi witness was delivered for the first time at the trial, and the prosecutor undermined the account precisely because it hadn’t come until more than a year after the shooting, Tapper writes.

Rice’s attorney did not visit the crime scene, and as a result, she missed Johnson’s inconsistencies in her testimony. The eyewitness claimed the shooters were 20 feet from the stoop, under a streetlight, when in fact they were 60 feet away with no streetlight, according to Tapper.

Weaver also did not obtain Rice’s full hospital records, which would have revealed he was grappling not just with the incision in his abdomen but also a fractured pelvis. When Theodore Tapper testified on Rice’s behalf, he was unaware of the additional injury to Rice’s pelvis — only discovering it when he obtained the medical records for Rice well after the trial.

“The amount of pain that I saw him with and the inability to stand and get onto and off the table in my office on the 20th of September makes me very dubious as to whether he could walk standing up straight, let alone run with any degree of speed, five days after I saw him,” Theodore Tapper testified, according to the court transcript.

But Tapper writes that his father’s testimony on Rice’s condition amounted to a wash because in cross-examination, the prosecutor suggested that Rice could have taken painkillers in order to be able to run from the crime scene after the shooting. Theodore Tapper was unable to rebut that assertion because Weaver had done no prep with him — and so she didn’t know to ask about Rice’s previous conversation that he didn’t like taking painkillers.

The jury acquitted Linder. Rice was found guilty. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years. “Good luck, Mr. Rice,” the judge said handing down the sentence.

‘Reasonable doubt’

Tapper writes that Weaver, who was facing serious financial troubles at the time of Rice’s arrest, was a court-appointed attorney, which is different than a public defender. In Pennsylvania, court-appointed private attorneys are paid a flat fee for trial preparation. “It’s in their interest to maximize their caseload and minimize their prep time,” Tapper writes.

As Rice pursued an appeal of his case, his new lawyer tried to call Weaver as a witness in 2016. She failed to respond to a subpoena, however, and her daughter said she was suffering from a medical crisis, Tapper writes. Weaver died in 2019.

To date, Rice’s appeals have been unsuccessful. The cell phone location data to support his alibi from Cricket Wireless was deleted after AT&T purchased the cell phone provider in 2014. “The nature of the case against him is an obstacle,” Tapper writes. “It’s hard to call evidence into question when there was virtually no evidence to begin with. DNA wasn’t a factor. Impropriety by the police didn’t play a role.”

Tapper began reporting Rice’s story in 2020, he wrote, and he tweeted a thread that year about his father’s account raising questions about the conviction.

Rice has written the witness who accused him of shooting at her 70 letters since his conviction, and he has explained he doesn’t hold her testimony against her.

Tapper notes that the Supreme Court established a standard for determining violations of the Sixth Amendment that’s both vague and circular, writing that the high court defined deficient counsel as one who “made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defend by the Sixth Amendment.”

“There is certainly reasonable doubt — an excess of reasonable doubt — that Rice committed the crimes of which he was accused,” Tapper writes. “But what happened after that night is not open to argument: Rice lacked legal representation worthy of the name. And as he has discovered, the law provides little recourse for those undermined by a lawyer. The constitutional ‘right to counsel’ has become an empty guarantee.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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