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Higgins v. State

Superior Court of Rhode Island

July 3, 2015


Providence County Superior Court

For Plaintiff: Katherine E. Godin, Esq., George G. West, Esq.

For Defendant: Jeanine McConaghy, Esq.



Before this Court is the application of Henry Higgins (Mr. Higgins or Petitioner) for postconviction relief. Mr. Higgins contends that his convictions must be overturned, asserting that: (1) the newly-discovered recantation by Ms. Murphy, if known before the plea, would have prompted him to seek a successful acquittal at trial; (2) the Attorney General's Office failed to provide all exculpatory evidence as required by Brady and its progeny; and (3) his counsel was constitutionally deficient in failing to inform him of all relevant information before his plea. Jurisdiction is pursuant to G.L. 1956 §§10-9.1-1 et seq.


Facts and Travel

Following a hearing for postconviction relief, "[t]he court shall make specific findings of fact[.]" Sec. 10-9.1-7. Hence, the Court makes the following findings as to the circumstances surrounding the instant petition.

Mr. Higgins met Ms. Debra Murphy (Ms. Murphy) approximately seven years ago through the social networking website MySpace. (Tr. 8:6-9, Jan. 7, 2014.) They soon met in person at Ms. Murphy's home, whereupon they began a sexual relationship. Id. at 8:24-9:3. Not long after, such intimate contact turned abusive and violent with Mr. Higgins slapping and hitting Ms. Murphy, id. at 25:14-17, burning her with a cigarette, id. at 9:22-23, and forcing her to prostitute herself to strangers under the threat of further violence. Id. at 12:19-23; Tr. 111:17, Mar. 18, 2014.) Mr. Higgins also persuaded Ms. Murphy to surreptitiously place a video camera in her thirteen-year-old daughter R.'s[1] bedroom to capture footage of the girl undressing for his sexual pleasure.

Upon investigation by police, Mr. Higgins was found to be in possession of three films depicting R. entering her bedroom "in a towel and then capture her nude in the process of getting dressed." (Computer Forensics Examination Report at 1, Apr. 15, 2010.) He also had still shots derived from these videos, individually labeled with titles such as "She's amazing"[2] (Tr. 82:9, Feb. 11, 2014) and "[R.]nkd1" (Computer Forensics Examination Report at 7, Apr. 15, 2010.) Such images were located in a file folder titled "[R.]" Tr. 82:8, Feb. 11, 2014. Additionally, Mr. Higgins had five images depicting child pornography on his computer. These images included a "[n]ude juvenile female being vaginally penetrated by an adult male[, ]" the "[g]raphical exhibition of the genitals of a nude prepubescent female laying in a bed with a nude juvenile female[, ]" and three photographs displaying the "[g]raphic exhibition of a nude juvenile female's genitals[.]" (Computer Forensics Examination Report at 7, Apr. 13, 2010.)

In the wake of such incidents, Ms. Murphy-in her statements to her family, police, and counsel-repeatedly vacillated between identifying Mr. Higgins as abusive and violent and retracting such assertions. The first report by Ms. Murphy of her abuse at the hands of Mr. Higgins occurred when she was having drinks one night with her sister, Kathy. During the course of their conversation, Ms. Murphy informed Kathy that Mr. Higgins was forcing her to exchange sexual favors for money with various unfamiliar men. (Tr. 11:11-12:1, Jan. 7, 2014.) Subsequently, Ms. Murphy was confronted by her two sisters and mother, who expressed concern over her relationship with Mr. Higgins. Id. at 12:4-22. Ms. Murphy proceeded to inform her family that what she had said earlier was not true and that these acts were consensual rather than the result of Mr. Higgins compelling her in any way. Id. at 12:22-24. Her family did not believe this retraction, insisting that she file charges against him. Id. at 13:2-5.

Later, Ms. Murphy arrived home after walking her dog to find an officer and detective from the Pawtucket Police Department waiting for her. Id. at 13:7-11. She reiterated her story that the various sexual acts performed were indeed of her own volition. Id. at 13:20-21. The policemen left a business card, requesting Ms. Murphy contact them if she changed her mind. Id. at 13:23-25. Subsequently, Ms. Murphy's mother told Ms. Murphy that she did not believe that Ms. Murphy's daughter was in a safe environment and that she would try to have R. taken away if such conditions persisted. Id. at 14:2-4. Ms. Murphy then spoke with the police, informing them that Mr. Higgins "forced [her] to have sex with other men[, ] . . . threatened [her] to have sex with other men for money[, ] . . . hit[] [her] . . . [and] burned [her]." Id. at 14:19-22. She further informed the police that Mr. Higgins directed her to surreptitiously film her minor daughter undressing. Id. at 15:6-16:9. With this information, the police proceeded to search Mr. Higgins' home and happened upon the aforementioned child pornography as well as the videos and images of R. in various stages of undress. (Tr. 21:15-23:3, Feb. 11, 2014.) Another image-found by police on the same hard drive as the pornographic images-was labeled "me" and depicted Mr. Higgins. (Computer Forensics Examination Report at 5, Apr. 15, 2010.)

Subsequently, Ms. Murphy was charged with video voyeurism and conspiracy to commit video voyeurism under G.L. 1956 §§ 11-64-2[3] and 11-1-6[4]. The Attorney General's Office filed similar charges against Mr. Higgins, also including one count of possession of child pornography under § 11-9-1.3[5] and felonious domestic assault.

With charges filed against her, Ms. Murphy was appointed counsel from the Public Defender's Office. One of her attorneys, Assistant Public Defender Kara Hoopis (Ms. Hoopis), noted:

"From my very first meeting with Ms. Murphy, it was clear that she had three goals with regard to this case: the first was to avoid going to jail; the second was to avoid losing custody of her daughter [R.]; and the third was to try to help Henry Higgins as much as possible." (Tr. 158:11-16, Apr. 16, 2014.)

In March of 2011, Ms. Murphy composed a letter recanting her allegations against Mr. Higgins and presented it to Ms. Hoopis. In response, Ms. Hoopis told Ms. Murphy that:

"it was not believable that Mr. Higgins didn't know there was a tape in his camera, that he was, in fact, found to be in possession of not only the tape, but also still images that had been created from the tape, had been found in his computer after a forensic audit with her daughter's name. Each of the individual still frames had been given new titles, specifically, sexually referenced names assigned to these photographs, that, for me, to go to a prosecutor or to a jury eventually and say he had nothing to do with that was probably not believable, and ultimately may not be in her best interest to present as she would not be a credible witness in that regard." (Tr. 159:2-14, Apr. 16, 2014.)

After hearing this, Ms. Murphy "broke down crying." Id. at 159:18.

In the summer of 2011, Ms. Hoopis was assigned to work in Newport, and Assistant Public Defender Michelle Alves (Ms. Alves) proceeded to represent Ms. Murphy in Providence. (Tr. 130:12-17, Mar. 18, 2014.) Ms. Murphy occasionally recanted her statements to Ms. Alves regarding Mr. Higgins' involvement in the video voyeurism, "at times giv[ing] [Ms. Alves] information saying he wasn't involved, but then again she would." Id. at 139:8-10. Ms. Alves observed Ms. Murphy's position "fluctuate . . . depending on her mental status at the time [they] were having a conversation." Id. at 139:12-13. Additionally, Ms. Alves found that "almost all of [her] conversations [with Ms. Murphy] were through tears" and that it was rare to have a discussion with her "that wasn't driven by emotion." Id. at 119:8-10. She noted the influence that Mr. Higgins had over Ms. Murphy, where, although it was unclear whether "it was just an outside influence or something internal between her[, ] she was hanging onto him . . . [and this force was] driving her to say certain things at certain times." Id. at 120:25-121:4. She explained that whenever Ms. Murphy tried to say that Mr. Higgins "wasn't involved would be a very emotional cry, [with her saying things such as] 'He's not involved. He didn't do it. I shouldn't have said he did it.'" Id. at 144:10-12. Ms. Alves and Ms. Murphy would then proceed to:

"talk about the facts as would be presented by the State, which included . . . that she had never been to his house, that there was, obviously, these assaultive behaviors that the State was alleging, that he had other images on his computer, that this specific image with her face on it was on his computer as well. By the end of the conversation the tide was somewhat turned." Id. at 144:12-19.[6]

While Ms. Alves was representing Ms. Murphy on the video voyeurism charges brought against her, Ms. Murphy reached out to Assistant Attorney General Daniel Guglielmo (Mr. Guglielmo). On January 13, 2012, Ms. Murphy telephoned Mr. Guglielmo and told him that "whatever the assault was, it was consensual with regard to the cigarette." (Tr. 91:17-18, Feb. 11, 2014.) Mr. Guglielmo discussed these statements with Ms. Alves and the possibility of reducing the charge from felony domestic assault to nondomestic simple assault. Id. at 93:17-24. Ms. Alves informed him that Ms. Murphy would be amenable to that. Id. at 93:18-19.

Subsequently, Mr. Guglielmo discussed this recantation and reduction in charge with Mr. Higgins' attorney, John MacDonald (Mr. MacDonald), who, in response, asked Mr. Guglielmo to drop the assault charge altogether. Id. at 94:8-25. Mr. Guglielmo denied this request, explaining that he didn't "believe her recantation, number one, and, secondly, she didn't recant everything." Id. at 95:1-2. Additionally, he recorded in his notes that he conveyed the recantation to Mr. Higgins' defense counsel. Id. at 95:9-15. At this time, Ms. Murphy did not contest her statement to the police that Mr. Higgins would slap and hit her. Id. at 103:14-20. Mr. Guglielmo, ...

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