Philip Scott Cannon Sheds Light on Potential Faults in Oregon’s Judicial System

By Javin Dana '17

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Philip Scott Cannon was convicted on three counts of aggravated murder on February 29, 2000, and quickly sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without opportunity for parole. He maintained his innocence throughout the nine years he served, attempting to appeal his case throughout his time in prison.

It was not until August of 2009 that a Polk County Circuit Court judge vacated Cannon’s conviction as a result of erroneous bullet lead analysis, and a lack of reputable evidence on the part of the prosecution. Cannon is currently pursuing a $20 million lawsuit against Polk County.

In the midst of his current case, CatlinSpeak spoke with Cannon about his experiences in the criminal justice system, and his opinions regarding the flaws in the trial process.

Cannon described his initial arrest as an object of confusion. Knowing that he had not committed the crime he was being charged with, he assumed the charges would be dropped, and the issue resolved in short order. His predictions were far from reality.

“They arrested me in my driveway. I was just coming home from picking up my son from the babysitter’s, and apparently they followed me to the babysitter and all the way back,” explained Cannon. He also noted the disconcerting way in which they arrested him, stating that “they made certain that there was an eight year old boy in the car.”

Cannon quickly experienced the brunt of the trial process, facing a taxing interrogation, followed by a series of court proceedings.

“I was interrogated for … a little over eight hours. I got arrested, brought in around eight o’clock at night so it went throughout the night,” said Cannon.

When asked about the trial process, Cannon continually discussed the issues he had finding a dependable defense attorney, and the disproportionate allocation of resources between the prosecution and defense.

“Originally one was appointed, and I did some questioning of him, and the answers that I got made me super uncomfortable. Ultimately I had a mixed defense, so I had a court appointed plus a privately retained,” stated Cannon.

He clarified that his initial discomfort with his court appointed attorney came about because of the attorney’s poor case record. “I asked him what kind of cases he had worked on, because I realized immediately that it wasn’t going away; I wasn’t going home any time soon. It was a big deal, and I wanted to know his qualifications for working on that kind of a case,” noted Cannon. “He started naming other cases he had worked on, and every one of them he never won.”

Cannon attempted to resolve his issues of discomfort with his defense team by hiring a highly reputable defense attorney. However, he found that the man he hired was a “retired, and what turned out to be a very ill, old man” rather than what his strong track record and reputation may have suggested. He noted that the problems surrounding his search for a defense attorney corresponded with the disproportionate resource allocation between prosecutors and defendants. Cannon expressed his resentment for the fact that he struggled to establish a decent defense team, while the prosecutors were allotted innumerable resources to pursue their claims against him.

From the start of the trial, Cannon began to realize his odds of being deemed innocent were rapidly decreasing. He acknowledged that the problematic nature of his trial in large part had to do with the evidence presented against him. He also reinforced that both the prosecutors and the jury perceived him as guilty before he had any opportunity to defend himself.

“Things started going horribly wrong basically from the time of my arrest and the way they did it,” he asserted. He slowly and clearly continued, “I mean, they put a gun on an eight-year-old boy. That’s pretty zealous, to the point where… I mean the mentality that is willing to do that is a mentality that is pretty much close-minded to any other action, to any other thought that perhaps this isn’t the right guy. And I sat in jail for 16, 17 months before trial and you could just see how at every turn there was a lot of stubbornness going on.”

Alongside the Polk County prosecutors, who had already devoted great resources to pursuing charges against Cannon, the media also played a part in generating a false image of him.

Cannon described the unfair precedents set by the media and prosecutors, stating, “it is clearly told to you that if you do anything other than [sit still in the courtroom] you will have repercussions when you get back to your jail cell that night. You come in, you don’t acknowledge anyone around, you look cold, and that’s by design, so the media gets spoon-fed an image of you that is tailor made by the jail staff and ultimately by the prosecution. It’s a recipe for success on their part.”

Each night throughout the 17 months of his trial, Cannon returned to a small holding cell where he was required to stay during the absences between proceedings. He explained the corrosive effect it had on his mental state:

“I did almost the entire time in solitary confinement. It wears you out when you’re in that setting as a pre-trial detainee on something big. I can’t help it—I know it’s my own personal feelings, but they never shut off the lights 24/7 and they wake you up every hour on the hour. It’s cold. It’s isolating. You don’t see the outside. The windows were opaque. You don’t get good sleep. You’re stressed out. The food sucks. By the time you’re ready for your trial, you look pretty haggard.”

Although exhausted by the trial process, Cannon maintained an optimistic view of his trial until the final proceedings, where comparative bullet lead analysis was entered as evidence.

Philip Scott Cannon  (pictured above) during his interview (Photo: Javin Dana '17)

Philip Scott Cannon (pictured above) during his interview (Photo: Javin Dana ’17)

“Their lynchpin evidence was a comparison—comparative bullet lead analysis,” stated Cannon. “Most people had never heard of it—I had never heard of it. I understand it quite well at the moment, but it took me a long time to research it and educate myself on it. The theory that went with [the analysis itself], regarding how bullets are made and how basically the recipe on any given batch of bullets never repeats itself was completely erroneous and had been so for forty some years.”

In 2002, the FBI requested that the National Academy of Sciences conduct a detailed review of their comparative bullet lead analysis. After 18 months of careful evaluation, the National Research Council concluded that the FBI model for interpreting results contained such a great deal of error that arguments suggesting that bullet fragments could be matched to an independent box of ammunition constituted overstatement that broke the rules of evidence. This evaluation called into question over 30 years of testimony used to convict thousands of people.

As a result of the new revelations regarding forensic testimony, many individuals were exonerated, Cannon included. However, one glaring problem remains evident in the way Cannon’s exoneration was handled: he continued his sentence for an excess of seven years following the dismissal of the comparative bullet lead analysis that caused his conviction in the first place.  

He expressed that in order to actually have his sentence appealed, he pursued a long and arduous process wherein he needed to petition individuals with specialties in forensic analysis to testify for him in appellate court.

“You know I wrote a lot of letters to a lot of attorneys and forensic people. I got to say I was really fortunate,” stated Cannon. “I had some of the most prestigious, reputable experts in their respective fields respond to handwritten letters and come on board for free. I got the recently retired former Chief of Forensic Metallurgy for the FBI—not the Portland FBI, the whole FBI—to come on board for free to talk about comparative bullet lead analysis.”

The support from expert examiners led to Cannon’s exoneration in 2009, and his freedom thereafter. Cannon mentioned in passing how he questions whether or not his charges would have been vacated had he not requested the support of forensic experts to, ironically, discount previously supported forensic evidence.

Cannon left the judicial process with a new perspective on the issue of wrongful conviction. He mentioned both feeling more grateful for the freedom he currently experiences as a result of his false conviction, and more critical of the decisions he makes as a voter, citizen, and individual.

Cannon maintains that while his conviction was an evident mistake on the part of the police department and judicial system, he considers it an exception to the numerous valid convictions made regularly. However, he does caution individuals to be aware of the unequal treatment of defendants in the court system, the manner in which the media skews perceptions of those being prosecuted, and the potentially dubious nature of typically undisputed evidence, such as forensics.