Monday, 31 December 2007
Samuel Jason Derrick has been on death row since his 1988 murder conviction.
New testing could exonerate a man who has spent half his life on death row for murder.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published December 28, 2007
Since its birth in 1992, the Innocence Project has used DNA testing to exonerate and free 210 wrongfully convicted prisoners from death row.
Now the nonprofit legal clinic has helped Samuel Jason Derrick, who has spent half his life on Florida's death row, win the right to have evidence in his 1988 murder conviction tested for DNA.
Circuit Judge Stanley Mills granted the defense's motion for postconviction DNA testing just before Christmas.
Derrick, his family and his lawyers hope the latest advances in forensic technology will exonerate the 40-year-old Moon Lake man in the 1987 murder of storekeeper Rama Sharma.
"I'm just thankful that the truth is going to come to light," said Derrick's former wife, Cherie.
A bloody remnant of a white T-shirt, a partially eaten hot dog, blood found under a picnic table and scrapings from the victim's fingernails will all be tested, the judge ordered Dec. 19.
The defense's hope is that viable DNA can be recovered from the evidence that will implicate someone other than Derrick in the stabbing murder of Sharma.
Or it could implicate Derrick and someone else. That could affect his death sentence.
But Derrick has always maintained his innocence, said appellate lawyer Harry Brody, and pursued DNA testing without fear that it might confirm his guilt.
"We always say to people, if you don't want us to do this, we shouldn't proceed," Brody said. "We don't want to make the case any worse.
"And Mr. Derrick has never hesitated."
Sharma was an immigrant from India who taught English in England. In 1985 he bought the Moon Lake General Store. Two years later he was dead at age 55.
He was last seen alive closing his store June 24, 1987. The next morning he was found dead, slashed and stabbed 31 times - 20 times in the back. The outside of the store was covered in blood, and $360 was missing.
Derrick was 20 then, and here was the evidence against him at his trial: Pasco sheriff's detectives said he confessed, but didn't record his statements. Detectives also said Derrick made incriminating statements to a jailhouse snitch and a friend.
Detectives testified that Derrick told them he threw the knife into the woods and his bloody shirt and shoes into a pond. But that evidence was never found.
The prosecution told jurors Derrick knifed Sharma to silence him. Derrick broke down during an interview, the detectives said, and confessed: "All right, I did it."
The judge's order said the state "conceded" that the DNA testing should be done. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office could not be reached for comment Thursday.
All that remains is for the state and the defense to agree on a Florida lab to do the testing. The Innocence Project is representing Derrick for free and will pay for the tests, which could cost thousands.
"In about 40 percent of these exonerations, the DNA testing doesn't just exonerate our client," said Innocence Project spokesman Eric Ferrero. "It also helps identify and apprehend the true perpetrator."
The defense has always bandied about names of others it says were responsible for Sharma's murder. Derrick, however, has never named anyone else.
"I'll just say Jason was very young at the time," Brody said. "We certainly have suspicions. We certainly wouldn't want to name anybody.
"We should just wait and see."
In a July 2007 statement, Derrick said he falsely confessed after detectives threatened to take his infant son from his wife and put him in foster care. Derrick said he himself was abused in foster care.
"So I did the only thing I could think of to save him," Derrick said in the statement, "which was to tell the detectives 'OK, yes, I did it.' "
The fingernail scrapings were tested in 2002 but gleaned no DNA profiles, the defense motion said. But they could still yield something to a more sensitive DNA test called Y-STR now available, according to the defense motion, that "targets genetic markers found on the Y-chromosome, which only males possess."
"It's really vital that we use Y-STR or one of the really cutting- edge tests that have been developed," said Alba Morales, Derrick's Innocence Project attorney. "Because it really improves the chance of getting a result from what is by now a fairly degraded sample."
Cherie Derrick, 39, said she met with her former husband recently at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to discuss his case.
"I would say it was upbeat," she said.
Brody said this latest news has given his client reason to be upbeat.
"He's very happy," the lawyer said. "He's been in prison a very long time but he remains optimistic."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 869-6236.
Pasco County's death row inmates
Carl Puiatti: Has spent 23 of his 45 years on death row for abducting Manatee County home economics teacher Sharilyn Ritchie from a Bradenton mall in 1983, robbing her and then gunning her down in a Dade City orange grove. Puiatti was convicted in 1984. In 2001 his co-conspirator, Robert Glock, became the 51st inmate put to death in Florida since 1979. He died of lethal injection at age 39.
John Ruthell Henry: First convicted and sentenced to die at age 36 for two 1985 murders: the stabbing of his 29-year-old wife, Suzanne, in Zephyrhills and his 5-year-old stepson, Eugene Christian, near Plant City hours later. After both were overturned, he was again sentenced to death in 1991 and 1992. Henry, who once served time for killing his first wife, is now 56.
Oscar Ray Bolin Jr.: The 45-year-old serial killer is the most infamous name on this list. He has been convicted of killing three woman and had six death sentences overturned. He abducted 26-year-old Teri Lynn Matthews from the Land O'Lakes post office and stabbed her to death in 1986. After two overturned convictions, Bolin was again convicted and sentenced to death in 2002. The Florida Supreme Court upheld his sentence in 2004. And this month in Hillsborough County he received his third death sentence for the 1986 murder of Stephanie Collins.
Dominick Occhicone: Sentenced to death in 1987 for killing the parents of his ex-fiancee because she ended their relationship. In 1986 he cut the phone lines at her parents' Holiday home, then fatally shot her father, Raymond Artzner, 66, once and her mother, Evelyn Artzner, 62, four times. Occhicone was 41 then. He's 62 now.
Samuel Jason Derrick: In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder a year earlier of Moon Lake General Store owner Rama Sharma, 55. Sharma had been stabbed 31 times and had $360 in receipts on him. Derrick was 20 at the time of the murder. He is now 40.
Alvin Leroy Morton: Has been sentenced to death twice for his role in Hudson's infamous 1992 "pinkie finger murders." Morton, then 20, and three friends shot 55-year-old John Bowers dead and nearly severed the head of his 75-year-old mother, Madeline Weisser. Bowers' right pinkie finger was cut off as a trophy. Morton, whose 1994 conviction was overturned but who was again convicted and sentenced in 1999, is now 35.
Michael Peter Fitzpatrick: In 1996, Laura Lynn Romines died at age 28, two weeks after she was found raped and stabbed in the neck on a Land O'Lakes road. Fitzpatrick was 38 when he was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. Now 45, Fitzpatrick's sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 2005.
Saturday, 29 December 2007
Friday, December 28, 2007 12:42 PM CST
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A former Oklahoma death row inmate has sued an
ex-police chemist whose testimony helped send him to prison more than
20 years ago.
Curtis Edward McCarty filed a federal lawsuit against Joyce
Gilchrist, police Chief Bill Citty and the city earlier this month
for allegedly ignoring his constitutional rights.
McCarty, 45, alleges Gilchrist fabricated the evidence that led to
him being convicted two times in the Dec. 10, 1982, murder of 18-year-
old Pamela Kaye Willis. He was sentenced to death three times, but
each of those convictions was overturned on appeal because of
questions about Gilchrist’s testimony.
According to the lawsuit, the chief of police failed to properly
train and supervise Gilchrist, whose work was questioned as far back
as 1986, according to his lawsuit. Officials fired her in 2001.
He is seeking unspecified damages, according to the Dec. 5 filing.
A city attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday, while
Gilchrist’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Gilchrist has been sued by at least two other former inmates who
blamed her for their wrongful incarceration.
Oklahoma City officials agreed in January to pay $4 million to
Jeffrey Todd Pierce, who spent 15 years in prison for a rape he did
David Johns Bryson, who spent 17 years in prison for rape and
kidnapping before being exonerated by DNA evidence, still has a
lawsuit pending against Gilchrist, the city of Oklahoma City and
former Oklahoma County District Attorney Bob Macy.
McCarty was released from prison in May when an Oklahoma County judge
dismissed the murder charge filed against him in 1985. His case
differed from the other two because authorities don’t consider him to
District Judge Twyla Mason Gray said evidence in the case was tainted
by Gilchrist, but she still thought McCarty was involved in Willis’
slaying. Prosecutors maintained there was enough evidence to convict
McCarty but opted not to appeal Gray’s decision to dismiss the
McCarty’s attorneys contend there was no evidence linking him to
Willis’ death once testimony offered by Gilchrist was refuted by
subsequent scientific tests.
“Her unscientific methods and testimony were the direct ... cause of
McCarty’s wrongful incarceration,” his attorneys wrote in the
Tuesday, 25 December 2007
Gov. Bob Riley runs the risk of the state murdering an innocent man if he refuses to order DNA testing in capital cases where biological evidence exis
Gov. Bob Riley runs the risk of the state murdering an innocent man if he refuses to order DNA testing in capital cases where biological evidence exists
THE ISSUE: The governor runs the risk of the state murdering an innocent man if he refuses to order DNA testing in capital cases where biological evidence exists.
Two weeks ago, John Jerome White walked away from a life sentence in Georgia's Macon State Prison, cleared by DNA evidence of a rape he did not commit.
He became the seventh Georgia convict, and the 210th nationwide, to be set free after DNA testing. Incidentally, in all the Georgia cases, eyewitness accounts wrongly led to convictions.
Thursday, six men not from Georgia - all of them sentenced to death and then exonerated by DNA testing - asked Gov. Bob Riley to order testing of evidence in the case of Alabama Death Row inmate Thomas Arthur.
"Prosecutors, judges or governors rejected our initial pleas for DNA testing," the men said in a letter. "Each of us sat on Death Row, wondering whether the truth would come out before we were executed. And each of us was spared when the irrefutable science of DNA proved that we were innocent."
To date, Riley inexplicably has refused requests to order DNA testing for Arthur, who has always maintained his innocence. We say inexplicably, not because we're convinced Arthur is innocent, but because Riley has nothing to lose if Arthur's DNA is tested.
Arthur was scheduled to be executed Dec. 6 for the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wicker Jr. of Muscle Shoals. But the U.S. Supreme Court stayed his execution until it rules in a Kentucky case whether lethal injection is constitutional.
The state can't set Arthur's execution date before the high court rules in the Kentucky case, which won't happen until spring. DNA testing would take about a month, according to Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, which has been involved in the DNA exonerations of more than 200 inmates across the country and orchestrated Thursday's letter to the governor. The pause gives the governor plenty of time to order DNA testing.
Semen and other biological evidence were found at the scene of Wicker's murder. Were Arthur being tried today, that evidence would be tested. But the scientific technology wasn't available then.
If modern DNA testing points to Arthur, Riley and other death penalty supporters can send Arthur to his death with their consciences clear. If DNA found at the death scene belongs to someone else, it may not necessarily mean Arthur didn't kill Wicker, but surely it would call his guilt into serious doubt. Surely, too, it would put a halt to the state's effort to kill him.
Why Riley would ignore that potential outcome is impossible to fathom. This editorial page has made its position against capital punishment clear. But even death penalty supporters should demand the state do all it can to get it right.
If DNA testing can ensure an inmate's guilt - or call it into question - it is imperative for Riley to order it. Not just for Arthur, but for every Death Row inmate for whom the new technology can shed light on their guilt or innocence.
For Riley to refuse to do so, he runs a very real risk of the state murdering an innocent man.
Saturday, 22 December 2007
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- For more than two decades, Ken Richey insisted
he didn't set a fire that killed a toddler. He maintained his
innocence from behind bars, even though it cost him his freedom.
He turned down a plea deal soon after his arrest in 1986 that would
have sprung him years ago. And in just the last few months, he said
no again when prosecutors offered to free him if he would admit to
starting the fire.
Now Richey, 43, is getting ready to walk free on his own terms after
spending 20 years on Ohio's death row, where he once came within an
hour of being executed.
Richey, a U.S.-British citizen whose death sentence was overturned
earlier this year, agreed to enter a plea deal Thursday that will
allow him to accept a sentence of time already served and go home to
his native Scotland, his attorney said.
He will enter no contest pleas to attempted involuntary manslaughter,
child endangering and breaking and entering, said attorney Ken
"That's as good as you can get," Parsigian said.
Richey was originally convicted of setting a fire that killed 2-year-
old Cynthia Collins in 1986. He stayed on death row until a federal
appeals court determined in August that his lawyers mishandled his
The state was set to try him again in March and to seek another death
Instead, Richey will plead no contest to the state's charge that he
told the toddler's mother he would baby-sit the girl, but that he
didn't and left her in harm's way, Parsigian said.
"We would never agree to anything on murder or arson or a guilty
plea," he said.
For Richey, it will be a day he has dreamed about.
"You've got to try to not lose hope," he said in a November interview
with The Associated Press. "I got that way myself, almost, a couple
He admitted he was a bit worried about what life would be like
outside of prison.
"It's kind of scary," he said from his cell. "I'm still living in
the '80s. The world has changed and left me behind."
Following his release, Richey will share a celebratory beer or two
with his brother, who still lives in Ohio, before he leaves for
Scotland on Friday to spend Christmas with his mother.
He plans on staying there and said he might live on a farm. Richey's
former fiancee, Karen Torley, from Edinburgh, said he's anxious to
"So many things have changed in the world since he has been in
prison, so many advances in technology, the Internet and such and it
must be nerve-racking," she said. "I think it will take a bit of time
for him to get used to it."
Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers said he would not comment on
why he agreed to the deal until after Thursday's plea hearing.
While Richey's case has generated limited interest in Ohio, his name
is a familiar one in Britain. He has drawn support from members of
the British Parliament and the late Pope John Paul II.
"To be honest we have had one step forward and two steps back in this
case and I wondered if this day would ever come," said Scottish
lawmaker Alistair Carmichael, who has campaigned for Richey's
Thursday, 20 December 2007
OTTAWA — 10:23 a.m., Dec. 19 — Former death row inmate Kenneth Richey’s fight to regain his freedom will end Thursday in a Putnam County courtroom through a deal with prosecutors that will allow him to walk away a free man, The Lima News has learned.
Richey will plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter, child endangering and breaking and entering, according to his attorney, Ken Parsignian. Richey was charged in connection with the June 30, 1986, fire death of 2-year-old Cynthia Collins at a Columbus Grove apartment complex. As part of the deal, prosecutors have agreed to give Richey credit for time served and he will return to Scotland on Friday, Parsigian said.
Richey has maintained his innocence throughout the 21 years he’s been locked up. He was sentenced to death following a conviction at 1987 trial. After years of appeals, Richey was awarded a new trial when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year ruled Richey’s trial attorneys didn’t do a good enough job representing him.
Meantime, another capital exoneration , this time Jonathon Hoffman in North Carolina who had been sentenced to death, despite any substantial physical evidence, for the 1995 shooting of a jewelry store owner. John Jerome White was cleared by DNA evidence for the 1980 the rape and robbery of a 74-year-old woman. On his last day in office Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher commuted or pardoned commuted death row inmate Jeffrey Devan Leonard’s sentence to life without parole.
Friday, 14 December 2007
For more information contact:
David Rudolf (919) 815-9776
Joseph B. Cheshire, V (919) 833-3114
MONROE, NC – Union County District Attorney John Snyder today dismissed capital murder charges against former death row inmate Jonathon Hoffman, another innocent person sentenced to death in North Carolina for a crime he did not commit.
“We are grateful Mr. Snyder had the integrity and courage to do the right thing, and to release Jonathon after years on death row for a crime he did not commit. It was the actions of the prior District Attorney that put Jonathon on death row in the first place,” said David Rudolf, one of Hoffman’s attorneys. “And, as a result of what the State Bar described as egregious misconduct by the prosecutors, the real killer was never caught. That’s the lesson the public, and prosecutors, must recognize. Cheating to win a case doesn’t protect the public. It hurts everyone.”
Hoffman was sentenced to death in Union County for the 1995 shooting of jewelry store owner Danny Cook. No physical evidence linked Hoffman to the crime. Importantly, the State did not tell Hoffman’s jury that their star witness against him, Johnell Porter, was promised and later given significant rewards for his testimony. He received thousands of dollars, was never prosecuted for crimes he admitted to on the witness stand, and was given a reduced federal sentence for a bank robbery.
In addition, the District Attorney’s notes were altered to omit a reference to setting up a deal for Porter; one copy contains the sentence “Meet with US Att. and get some concessions made to Porter in the event he testifies for us.” But a copy of the same notes, given to a judge and filed under seal, did not include that sentence.
Hoffman, a black man charged with killing a white man, was tried by an all-white jury. He has been waiting for his new day in court since he was awarded a new trial in 2004 based on the State’s misconduct.
Hoffman’s prosecutors in his original trial were Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer, who were later criminally and civilly investigated for not revealing the deals promised to Porter. When Honeycutt was the District Attorney in Union County, he often wore in court a gold lapel pin shaped like hangman’s noose and awarded them to assistant district attorneys who won death penalty cases.
“The release of Jonathan Hoffman continues the exposure of a pattern of wrongful prosecutions and convictions in North Carolina,” said Joseph B. Cheshire, V, Hoffman’s other attorney. “While these miscarriages of justice continue to undermine public confidence in our criminal justice system and make our citizens wonder how many other people are wrongfully imprisoned in our state, we can take some solace in recent efforts by our legislature to recognize that problem and address it by establishing Indigent Defense Services and passing the open file discovery law. These advances in the fairness of our system should be preserved and increased with additional reforms if we are to stop the pattern of injustice that has been exposed in North Carolina.”
Tuesday, 11 December 2007
A Chattanooga man just released after serving 20 years in prison -- 15 of
them on Tennessee's death row -- thinks he deserves money from the state
based on a wrongful murder conviction.
Defense lawyer Michael Richardson said he is pursuing avenues of
compensation for Michael Lee McCormick based on what he called faulty
evidence used against his client in 1987.
"He would like to get some compensation or reparations from the state of
Tennessee," Mr. Richardson said. "We are definitely going to look at
Mr. McCormick was convicted and sentenced to death in 1987 for the 1985
Valentine's Day slaying of 23-year-old Donna Jean Nichols, but a jury last
week found him not guilty after he was awarded a new trial based on
ineffective assistance of counsel.
"Mr. McCormick does feel like he was wrongly convicted based on tainted
evidence, among other things," Mr. Richardson said.
Specifically, he cited a hair found in the victim's car that an FBI
analyst initially said microscopically was consistent with Mr. McCormick's
According to testimony at Mr. McCormick's 2nd trial, the hair, which
prompted police to focus solely on Mr. McCormick as a suspect and was used
against him at his first trial, later was determined through DNA analysis
not to belong to Mr. McCormick.
In 2004, the Tennessee Board of Claims awarded almost $833,000 to a
Memphis man who spent more than 22 years in prison for rape before DNA
testing cleared him of the crime.
Clark McMillan was exonerated by the Board of Probation and Parole before
filing a request for compensation with the Claims Board, records show.
Anne Adams, director of the Division of Claims, said Mr. McCormick first
would need to file a petition for exoneration directly with Gov. Phil
Bredesen's office or with the Probation and Parole Board, which would
determine whether to grant or deny a hearing.
If exoneration is granted, Mr. McCormick then could file a claim for
compensation, she said.
"We're only aware of 1 person, Mr. McMillan, who has received
compensation, " Ms. Adams said. "I can't really say that this man would be
Melissa McDonald, spokeswoman for the Board of Probation and Parole, said
Mr. McCormick should file a request for executive clemency, which will
come before the board for review. The board will make a recommendation to
the governor, she said.
"The final decision is up to him after his review of the application and
the board's recommendation, " Ms. McDonald said.
According to state law, exoneration may be granted "to any person the
governor finds did not commit the crime for which the person was
Steve Elkins, legal counsel for Gov. Phil Bredesen's office, said
exoneration carries a higher burden to prove one's innocence rather than
simply being found not guilty by a jury.
"Once you have been granted an exoneration, that qualifies you to apply
for compensation for the time you have been in prison," he said.
Compensation cannot exceed $1 million, he said.
(source: Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Don't be quick to dismiss constitutional rights
In response to the letter written by Ms. Valerie Gardner, there is almost no
money in representing those individuals on death row. Many states do not
even require representation for post-habeas proceedings and therefore most
of the attorneys that take on these cases are investing an inordinate amount
of time with little to no money in return.
It is apparent these facts are lost on you or surely you would not have
referred to these lawyers as "fame- and money-hungry." In fact, there is no
fame in protecting individuals on death row with a public comprised of
individuals such as yourself who are constantly on the attack.
More importantly, the Constitution provides everyone the right to due
process, which includes time spent defending and prosecuting those who are
and are not guilty. And I am completely sure if you ever found yourself in
such a situation where others perceived your civil rights as a mere "waste
of time and millions of dollars," you would be less than excited to know
that the society around you would rather just kill you than give you the
benefit of the doubt and actually investigate whether or not you committed
the crime you are accused of.
The constitutional rights we are afforded are not just for the innocent or
even just for the guilty, they are for everyone; you can find that in the
14th Amendment equal protection clause. Perhaps a refresher course in
constitutional law would give you a bit more perspective before you continue
proclaiming all who commit crimes should just die.
Source : Montgomery Advertiser, letter
Dec. 10, 2007
Break in his case came from the FBI
The evidence used to convict Derrick Smith was based on shaky science.
By Meg Laughlin, St. Petersburg Times
A few weeks ago, attorney Martin McClain was pushing a boulder up a
mountain, trying one more time to persuade a judge to hear new evidence for
a death row inmate convicted of killing a St. Petersburg cab driver.
McClain had several arguments to make: that the prosecution had withheld
important information about a key witness; that lethal injection in Florida
was cruel and unusual; and last, that the method the FBI used to link his
client, Derrick Smith, to a bullet fragment recovered from the cab driver
was scientifically bogus.
"I hoped the judge would reverse his opinion," said McClain. "But I knew it
was an uphill climb."
Then something remarkable happened.
On Nov. 18 McClain got a call from his colleague Terri Backhus: "Did you see
60 Minutes? This could be huge for Derrick Smith."
That evening 60 Minutes had aired a segment about a joint investigation with
the Washington Post. The segment began: "There are hundreds of defendants
imprisoned around the country who were convicted with the help of a now
discredited forensic tool."
That tool, called "FBI bullet lead analysis," which had been relied upon
since the 1960s in more than 2,500 cases across the country, was the very
test that had produced the main forensic evidence in the Smith case.
But now FBI officials were admitting on camera that "the science doesn't
"The testimony was misleading and inappropriate in criminal trials," former
FBI lab director Dwight Adams told60 Minutes.
McClain couldn't believe the timing.
"I have a tiny window for refiling in the Smith case, and while it's still
open the FBI steps forward," he said. "I've never heard of new evidence of
this magnitude coming out at this stage, between pleadings."
Shortly after midnight on March 21, 1981, Jeffrey Songer got a call for a
fare at a barbecue restaurant in St. Petersburg's Midtown. Whoever Songer
picked up there told him to drive to a nearby neighborhood where he was shot
in the back and died.
The case against Derrick Smith was built on fingerprints of his found on the
pay phone at the barbecue restaurant, a witness who said he saw him there
but couldn't identify him after, and the statements of a co-defendant and a
prison inmate, each of whom had something to gain by blaming Smith.
His co-defendant, Derrick Johnson, said he and Smith were in the cab, but
that it was Smith who shot Songer in the back during a botched robbery.
Smith said he never got in the cab. He did rob a couple at gunpoint, at noon
the next day. No gun was ever found - either for the Songer murder or the
robbery the next day.
But the one piece of evidence that seemed beyond question was the bullet
fragment from the murder scene that the FBI said matched a box of bullets at
the home of Smith's uncle, where Smith had recently visited.
At Smith's 1983 murder trial, a 1990 retrial and a 2002 evidentiary hearing,
FBI witnesses insisted that their testing of the bullets proved that Smith
was linked to the murder. At retrial, a prosecutor told jurors that if they
doubted witness testimony, they need only consider this "technical evidence"
to corroborate it.
In 2002, an FBI lab director testified that the odds were "essentially
nothing" that the match of the fragment to the bullets in the box could have
been by chance.
The FBI witnesses explained that their tests used extreme heat to measure
the waves of energy thrown off by different metals in the lead. The results,
they said, showed that five metals found in the fragment were found in
almost exactly the same quantity in the unspent bullets. It was like a
chemical fingerprint connecting Smith to the crime.
McClain presented an expert, too, a well-known metallurgist, who said that
the matching of the amounts of metals "shows nothing about a fragment
matching a bullet in a box." How metals congregate in bullets when lead is
melted was coincidental, he said, and, despite the similarities, did not
relate to where bullets originated. Hundreds of thousands of bullets matched
this way, proving nothing, he said.
The judge, however, was not convinced.
In his latest rejection of the defense argument last month, Pinellas Circuit
Judge Mark Shames referred to a 2004 National Academy of Sciences report
provided by McClain. The report, commissioned by the FBI, was critical of
the FBI's conclusions on bullet matching, saying "available data do not
support any statement that a crime scene bullet came from a particular box
But Shames said the report simply "indicates the differences in opinion." He
didn't give the report any greater weight than other expert testimony.
"The opinions of one group of experts over another does not qualify as newly
discovered evidence," he concluded.
At the end of the 60 Minutes program, the commentator announced that the FBI
had acknowledged its experts "made mistakes in handling bullet lead
testimony and should have done more to alert defendants and the courts."
With this admission, the debate between experts was over.
FBI assistant director John Miller issued this statement: "We are going the
entire distance to see that justice is now served."
The FBI is handing over thousands of cases, involving bullet lead analysis,
to the National Association of Criminal Defense attorneys and the Innocence
Project for review. The investigation, which an NACDL spokesperson calls
"the biggest retroactive crime lab investigation ever done," will include
the Derrick Smith case and three other Florida cases.
"The Smith case will be among the earliest to test how the courts handle the
FBI's admission," said McClain.
Patricia Songer, mother of Jeffrey Songer, is "extremely interested" in what
the FBI's rejection of the forensic evidence will mean to the Smith case.
She does believe, however, that "other things linked Derrick Smith to the
For her, the strongest evidence was the testimony of Derrick Johnson whom
she found to be "a very reliable witness." Johnson served 10 years in prison
and now lives in New York.
"I believed him when he said it was Smith who shot Jeffrey," she said.
But her daughter, Lynn Songer, is not so sure Johnson was telling the truth
about Smith killing her brother.
"Maybe Johnson was a little smarter and knew how to manipulate the jury to
avoid a death sentence," she said. "It wouldn't surprise me if somebody
decided it was Smith and then put a lot of stuff together to make it stick."
Both mother and daughter are waiting for word of whether McClain's newly
buttressed argumentswill alter the judge's opinion.
"I'm not sympathetic with Smith," says Patricia Songer, "but I'm willing to
listen if the evidence falls apart."
Source : St. Petersburg Times
The Birmingham News, opinion
THE ISSUE: The U.S. Supreme Court's delay of Tommy Arthur's execution last
week was a signal to Alabama.
The country's highest court refused to allow the state of Alabama last week
to execute Tommy Arthur, and let's hope our officials are finally getting
There's not much point in setting execution dates when the U.S. Supreme
Court and other courts have decided to hear challenges to lethal injection
methods in various states, including Alabama.
A number of other states already had gotten the message and have stopped
trying to carry out death sentences while the legal cases are pending. Even
Texas has put the brakes on its busy execution chamber.
Alabama, though, has continued to set execution dates. Indeed, it has one
set Jan. 31 for James Callahan, an inmate who has a lethal injection case
pending in a Montgomery federal court. The state should do the kind thing
for the families of Callahan and his victim and postpone that execution now.
It is cruel to put them through the buildup, when there's every reason to
believe courts won't allow the execution to go forward anyway.
State officials shouldn't be eager to go through with executions anyway when
questions remain about whether inmates experience unconstitutional suffering
while being put to death. And, yes, we know that sounds like a bad joke. But
we live in a society - and thankfully so - which requires that condemned
inmates at least be executed in a legal, humane manner.
Until that can be assured, the state of Alabama should not even attempt to
put inmates to death.
And while state officials are killing time instead of inmates, they should
go one step further - and order DNA testing for Death Row inmates for whom
the new technology could shed light on their guilt or innocence.
Arthur's case is a prime example.
Hair, semen and other evidence in the case certainly would be tested if
Arthur were being tried today. But the scientific testing wasn't available
when Arthur was tried and convicted (wrongfully, he says) for the 1982
murder of Troy Wicker. Gov. Bob Riley has refused repeated requests to test
the evidence now, even though at least one of those requests has come from
On Thursday, the celebrated Innocence Project, which has been involved in
the DNA exonerations of more than 200 inmates across the country, again
called on Riley to order the tests. The Innocence Project is right: "Now is
the time to act."
Testing the DNA isn't going to hold up the execution any longer than it is
already being held up. A test that confirms Arthur's guilt will merely
remove one less concern when states get a green light to resume executions.
A test that raises questions about Arthur's guilt will indeed open a whole
new can of worms - but it's a can that should be opened before Arthur is put
to death for a crime he insists he did not commit.
Riley is called on to make many difficult decisions as governor. But this
isn't a difficult one. Riley should order DNA testing for any Death Row
inmate who disputes his guilt and whose case involved evidence that could be
The U.S. Supreme Court has given him yet another window of opportunity to do
the right thing.
Source : The Birmingham News, opinion
Fifty-nine years ago today the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The opening sentence of the Preamble of that document speaks a fundamental truth and timeless aspiration:
"(R)ecognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world."
We are getting closer to the day when the world recognizes that a state execution, the ritual killing of a human being by agents of a government, is a human rights violation, not a criminal sanction. I look forward to the time when International Human Rights Day is celebrated in a world where nations and people live without executions.
Below is the International Human Rights Day posting from "For Victims, Against the Death Penalty," MVFHR's blog. MVFHR's staff, board and members honor all who work daily for human dignity and for human rights, and to end capital punishment. And are grateful to all who, today and every day, support the work of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights.
Renny Cushing, Executive Director
Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
2161 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140
617 491 9600 Office
617 930 5196 Mobile
For Victims, Against the Death Penalty
The web log of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights
Monday, December 10, 2007
Happy Human Rights Day and Happy Birthday MVFHR
Today is International Human Rights Day and the third anniversary of the founding of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights. I'm remembering the ceremony at the United Nations Church Plaza on December 10, 2004, when several victims’ family members spoke powerfully and movingly about their reasons for working against the death penalty and several allies and friends saluted the new organization. All who were present signed a document pledging their commitment to working to end the death penalty.
It’s been a full and busy three years, during which we've been moved and energized and enraged and determined and so many other feelings that this work engenders. Now we're full of plans and hopes for the next three years, but today is a day to pause and thank everyone who makes MVFHR the powerful voice for victims and against the death penalty that it is. If we haven't heard from you in a while (or even if we have!), take a moment to drop us a line and let us know how you are and what you've been up to. (You can send email to email@example.com)
In celebration of Human Rights Day, here is an excerpt from Sister Helen Prejean’s book The Death of Innocents:
It was to be expected when Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was debated back in the 1940s that such a declaration, which granted everyone the right to life without qualification, would provoke debate, and one of the first proposed amendments was that an exception ought to be made in the case of criminals lawfully sentenced to death. Eleanor Roosevelt urged the committee to resist this amendment, arguing that their task was to draw up a truly universal charter of human rights toward which societies could strive. She foresaw a day when no government could kill its citizens for any reason.
And here is the U.S. Human Rights Network’s inspiring statement about the importance of focusing on human rights work in the United States:
Underlying all human rights work in the United States is a commitment to challenge the pernicious belief that the United States is inherently superior to other countries of the world, and that neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. rights movements have anything to gain from the domestic application of human rights. Rather, in the view of a growing number of U.S. activists, the U.S. government should no longer be allowed to shield itself from accountability to human rights norms.
Finally, here is a snippet of what Renny Cushing wrote in the first issue of MVFHR’s newsletter, Article 3:
In the human rights community, there is talk about how to integrate respect for universal human rights with recognition of the harm suffered by victims. There is talk of the need to hold accountable those who violate the human rights of others. How do we hold nations - or individuals - accountable? How do we respond to one violation of human rights without involving ourselves in another such violation? How can we apply an ethic of respect for people’s humanity consistently to those who have committed crimes and to those who have been victimized?
These questions drive our work at Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and they will inform the stories we publish in Article 3. We decided to name this newsletter Article 3 knowing that a lot of people might at first wonder about its meaning. But this name - like our work in general - is an act of faith that people can be invited to look closer, to consider more deeply, to ente r into new ways of thinking. We believe people can come to see that the death penalty is a violation of basic human rights and that it is time for nations across the world to abolish it.
December 9, 2007
By MARK WOODS, The Times-Union
After Chad Heins was convicted of first-degree murder, the prosecution
sought the death penalty.
It was unquestionably a heinous crime, the kind that one could see leading
to the death penalty. Tina Heins, Chad's sister-in-law, was pregnant when
someone stabbed her 27 times.
The jury had deliberated for hours before deciding that, yes, that someone
was Chad Heins. But when it came to a sentencing, the jury quickly
recommended life, not death.
Twelve years later, that decision has new significance.
On Tuesday, Heins, now 33, became a free man.
In light of DNA testing of physical evidence - which matched someone other
than Heins - murder and attempted rape charges were dropped.
Afterward, one of his Jacksonville lawyers, Robert Link, left the courtroom
and headed to the office of County Judge Brent Shore. In 1996, Shore was one
of Heins' defense attorneys.
"He congratulated me," Link said. "But I told him, 'This might never
happened if you hadn't gotten him a life sentence.'"
"By now," said Robert Beckham, another local lawyer who represented Heins,
"he could have been executed."
And there lies my qualms with the death penalty.
For me, it isn't a matter of whether it's an effective deterrent, or whether
the method of execution is humane. In something like the case of a couple
buried alive, I have trouble mustering any concern about whether the
killers' punishment will be "cruel or unusual."
It isn't so much a belief that a civilized society cannot execute a guilty
person as it is a belief that we cannot execute an innocent one.
I've heard the argument that if the cost of killing the Ted Bundys of the
world includes killing a few innocent people, so be it. You have to break a
few eggs to make an omelet, right?
Through the years, we've undoubtedly broken some eggs. Heins is among more
than 200 people nationwide, and the ninth in Florida, freed by DNA testing.
Our justice system isn't perfect. Never will be. So with the death penalty,
the question becomes: What level of potential error is acceptable?
The jury in the Heins case seemed to wrestle with that, deciding to convict,
then quickly recommending life.
That was Dec. 27, 1996.
In Florida, the current average length of time on Death Row before execution
is 12.19 years.
If Heins had been sentenced to death, and if the new evidence hadn't led to
the dismissal of charges, it's conceivable that about now Heins could have
been deciding what to have for a last meal.
Instead, Tuesday night, he went to a local steakhouse and had a first
dinner. Filet and fries, berries and cream for dessert.
When the steak came, Heins started to reach for it with his hands, then
looked up and apologized. He explained that he hadn't used a knife and fork
in more than a decade.
The next day, nearly 14 years after the murder, Chad Heins headed home to
Some have asked: What if he was guilty? What would that say about our
Heins, who has always maintained his innocence, waived his speedy trial
rights. So the case can be reopened any time.
But with physical evidence - from DNA to a fingerprint in a bloody sink -
now pointing to someone else, it raises the flip side of that question.
What if he always was innocent? And what if he had been executed? What would
that say about our justice system?
Source : Times Union
Sunday, 9 December 2007
Nov. 25, 2007
Free and Uneasy
By FERNANDA SANTOS, New York Times
As a boy, Jeffrey Mark Deskovic could swim the length of a pool underwater
without coming up for air. On sultry days at the Elmira state prison, where
he spent most of his 16 years behind bars for a rape and murder he did not
commit, Mr. Deskovic would close his eyes under a row of outdoor showers and
imagine himself swimming.
For months after his release in September 2006, he had been yearning for a
chance to dive in, to test his endurance, to feel that familiar sensation of
pushing his body through the water, to get to the other side.
On a late-winter afternoon before giving a speech on wrongful convictions,
Mr. Deskovic giggled mischievously as he stood at the edge of a hotel pool
in Latham, N.Y., an Albany suburb, then leapt in abruptly, hugging his knees
to produce a huge splash. In shorts and T-shirt, he sucked in some air and
dived under, holding his breath. And holding it. He made his way across the
pool in hurried, sideways strokes, and emerged gasping but smiling.
"Yes! Yes! I did it," Mr. Deskovic yelled, his fists clenched above his head
like a victorious boxer. "I still have it in me."
A grown man with a full bushy beard, celebrating the simple accomplishment
of an innocent youth. A tiny yet transcendent moment, one among many such
moments of recaptured pleasures and newfound problems since his exoneration
and release from prison last autumn.
Having walked out of the Westchester County Courthouse vindicated yet
petrified of the unpredictable tomorrows ahead, Mr. Deskovic found that his
first year on the outside was more turbulent than triumphant. Still trying
to recover what was stolen from him, he is, at 34, a free man who has yet to
feel truly free.
At least 205 men and one woman nationwide have been exonerated through DNA
evidence since 1989, including 53 who, like Mr. Deskovic, were convicted of
murder. In gathering information on 137 of them over the past four months -
one of the most extensive such efforts to date - The New York Times found
that many faced the same challenges Mr. Deskovic has confronted, like making
a living, reconnecting with relatives and seeking financial recompense for
his lost years.
But given Mr. Deskovic's age at conviction (he was 17, one of about two
dozen of the 206 exonerated inmates imprisoned as teenagers) and length of
incarceration (about 35 percent spent more than 15 years behind bars), he
has faced particular challenges.
He could be the assertive adult who articulately lobbied at the State
Capitol in April to require videotaping of police interrogations. He could
also be the overgrown adolescent who stamped his feet and pouted at a Grand
Central Terminal kiosk in August when asked if he wanted his smoothie with
yogurt or apple juice.
Having spent nearly half his life locked up, accused of brutalizing a high
school classmate he hardly knew, Mr. Deskovic was sent into the world last
fall lacking some of life's most fundamental skills and experiences.
He had never lived alone, owned a car, scanned the classifieds in search of
work. He had never voted, balanced a checkbook or learned to knot a tie.
He missed the senior prom, the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise
him, and his best friend's wedding.
He said he had never made love.
For six months, Mr. Deskovic got by on $137 a month in disability checks and
$150 in food stamps from the federal government, carrying cans of tuna in
his backpack. Now earning money through speeches and newspaper columns about
wrongful conviction, Mr. Deskovic paid rent for the first time in his life
in August, for a cozy attic apartment in Tarrytown that the county
subsidizes because of his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In September, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the police,
the medical examiner, a prison guard and the governments of two counties,
alleging that detectives falsified reports and coerced his confession, and
that the prison guard groped and beat him. A separate lawsuit in the Court
of Claims is planned seeking payment from the state for the wrongful
Since January, he has been enrolled at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, and he
expects to earn a bachelor's degree in behavioral sciences in two months.
Since June, he has studied daily for the Law School Admissions Test in hopes
of soon going to law school.
At Mercy on a $22,000 scholarship, Mr. Deskovic has read Marx, Freud and
Jung but has struggled to navigate the nuances of flirtation and friendship.
"These people are half my age," he said one morning in a campus cafeteria
filled with loud young men in baseball caps and baggy jeans. "They have
their own social networks and I'm not part of it. They have direction.
They're going through the normal cycle of things."
Mr. Deskovic's life after exoneration has been punctuated by milestones like
getting a driver's license (and a $3,000 Pontiac Grand Am with a bumper
sticker proclaiming, "Failure is not an option"), and new adventures, like
playing table tennis at a Greenwich Village bar with people he had met
There have been confounding trips to the supermarket and painful reunions
with his mother, hard-won victories over his fear of speaking in public and
profound disillusionment over his own inability to accept his past.
And there was a bittersweet return to the courthouse in White Plains in May
for the sentencing of the man found by DNA evidence to have committed the
crime. There, the victim's mother offered Mr. Deskovic an apology: "How I
would like to turn back time and return to you what was cruelly taken away."
Of course, she can't. No one can.
"Sometimes," Mr. Deskovic said one morning in his dorm room, "I feel that
the only difference from here to prison is that I don't have bars on my
windows." He was kneeling on his bed and staring at the neat lawn outside.
"I'm free, but I'm trapped, and no matter how much I run, I'll never make up
for the lost time."
Scarred Life, Severed Family
Carrying a box of religious and self-help books, a garbage bag full of legal
documents and a few worn-out sweaters, Mr. Deskovic went from prison to
Cobleskill, a speck of a town in central New York where his mother, Linda
McGarr, settled after his conviction. He calls Cobleskill "the boondocks,"
adding an expletive whenever he is angry at his mother, which is often.
While he was locked up, Ms. McGarr was Mr. Deskovic's connection to the
outside world (he has never known his father). He wrote letters and sent
them to her to type. She, in turn, sent money for cans of oysters at the
prison commissary. When he needed to badger a lawyer, she was his voice. But
the relationship withered through the bars. Ms. McGarr, 60, said she tired
of the lonely 150-mile drives to visit him. Mr. Deskovic said he resented
her lack of urgency in tackling his legal appeals.
Two days after his release, Mr. Deskovic exploded: "How come you didn't do
more to help me?"
"I know you went through hell in there," Ms. McGarr responded, "but I paid
The next morning, Mr. Deskovic stuffed his possessions in plastic bags and
boarded a train to Peekskill, the scene of the crime that scarred his life.
On Nov. 15, 1989, Angela Correa - a sophomore at Peekskill High, like Mr.
Deskovic - slipped a "New Kids on the Block" tape into a portable cassette
player and took her camera to a park near her home, snapping a picture of a
dove perched on the roof as she left. Two days later, someone spotted her
naked body in the woods.
The police retrieved hair and semen samples, which did not match Mr.
Deskovic's DNA; prosecutors argued that they were from earlier consensual
sex. Mr. Deskovic, however, fit the description provided by a criminal
profiler for the police, and raised investigators' suspicions when he cried
copiously at Ms. Correa's funeral, though they were not close friends. (In a
recent interview, Mr. Deskovic explained that he was always picked on in
school and Angela was one of few students who were nice to him, once helping
him with algebra.)
After repeated questioning over two months, Mr. Deskovic confessed during a
seven-hour interrogation and polygraph test, telling the police he had hit
Ms. Correa with a Gatorade bottle and grabbed her around the throat. In the
lawsuit, Mr. Deskovic contends that detectives fed him these details, and
promised that if he confessed he would not go to prison but would receive
"I was tired, confused, scared, hungry - I wanted to get out of there," he
recalled recently. "I told the police what they wanted to hear, but I never
got to go home. They lied to me."
More than a quarter of all prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence had falsely
confessed or made incriminating statements, according to the Innocence
Project, the legal clinic that secured Mr. Deskovic's release. Like many of
those men, he had maintained his innocence since shortly after the
confession, proclaiming at his sentencing hearing: "I didn't do anything."
"Maybe you're innocent," the judge conceded before sentencing him to 15
years to life. "But the jury has spoken."
Back in Peekskill after his release, frosty raindrops pelting his skin, Mr.
Deskovic ambled past the police station on Nelson Avenue where he was held
after his arrest and up Brown Street toward Crossroads, the apartment
complex where he grew up.
"I used to play kickball here, and when it snowed, I'd get a piece of
cardboard and sled down this hill over there," he said, staring at a slope
between a tall brick building and a playground. "I used to have a life."
"Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that there are people on other
planets and that all of a sudden you're dropped there, with no idea how
these people live their lives, how their society works," he blurted. "I'm
this alien. I'm the man pretending he knows what the hell is going on around
him when, in fact, he's clueless."
Growing up, Mr. Deskovic and his younger half-brother, Christopher McGarr,
spent hours shooting hoops at Depew Park, swimming in a local pool or
watching wrestling on television, then mimicking the moves of Hulk Hogan and
Mr. T on the living-room carpet.
"I didn't have no father growing up, so I looked up to my brother,"
explained Mr. McGarr, now 30. "But when he went to prison, a part of me
On the school bus, other children called his brother a rapist, a killer. So
he stopped taking the bus. Eventually, he stopped going to school. Soon he
followed Mr. Deskovic into the criminal justice system, racking up more than
20 arrests and several stays in jail for drugs, theft, assault and
By the time of Mr. Deskovic's release, the brothers had not seen each other
for 12 years. They waited another six months, until Mr. Deskovic was
speaking at Siena College, near Albany, where Mr. McGarr lives.
"I don't see him," Mr. Deskovic said as he entered the lecture hall.
"He's right there," his mother replied, pointing to a man on a couch.
Mr. Deskovic hesitated, pursing his lips to stop them quivering, then
trudged over to his brother, who spread his arms. They hugged a long time -
Mr. Deskovic in a suit and striped tie, Mr. McGarr in loose clothes and gold
chains - as their mother snapped pictures and an uncle rolled video.
"It's been so long," Mr. McGarr said, rubbing his fists against Mr.
But the brothers saw each other only once more, for a tense evening of
bowling and pizza in April. Mr. Deskovic's meetings with his mother have
devolved into sporadic phone calls that invariably end in screams and tears.
"Too much time has passed; we have no connection," Mr. Deskovic said. "My
relatives don't know who I am."
In his canvas book bag, Mr. Deskovic carries a copy of a newspaper article
about his exoneration, in case anyone questions why a convicted killer is
walking the streets. The newspaper picture of him and his lawyers also
adorns Mr. Deskovic's new Web site (jeffreydeskovicspe aks.org) and MySpace
page, which until recently included a plea: "Is anyone up to showing a man
who has been away for 16 years how to have a good time?"
In his loneliest moments, when he scans the few personal contacts on his
cellphone and realizes he has no one with whom to share his angst, Mr.
Deskovic misses the predictability of prison life, where decisions were made
At Elmira, guards woke Mr. Deskovic at 5:30 a.m. and escorted him to the
kitchen, where he helped prepare breakfast for 1,800 inmates. He stood
outside his cell for each of four daily counts; after the last, at 10:30
p.m., what the guards call the "quiet bell" signaled bedtime.
"If I was looking for entertainment, I'd stand by the chess players in the
yard until someone challenged me" for a match, Mr. Deskovic recalled. For
kinship and protection, Mr. Deskovic - a former altar boy who converted to
Islam during his first year in prison - sought out fellow Muslim inmates.
"If it weren't for my religion," he said, "I would have taken my own life in
prison, or I would have lost my mind."
On the outside, life's pace is his to establish. During the week, there are
classes, college work, psychotherapy sessions, meetings with a social worker
and with the lawyers handling his compensation suit, plus practicing table
tennis. Most weekends, he sits alone in his apartment, scouring the Internet
for phone numbers of colleges, churches and other institutions that might be
interested in hiring him for a speech.
He also trawls the Web for companionship, joining a hodgepodge of groups:
"Westchester/ So CT Social and Active Group," "Straight Edge NYC" and a table
One June evening, Mr. Deskovic took the train to the Fat Cat, a cavernous
basement bar in Greenwich Village, to meet the table tennis players. As a
duo played Sinatra on piano and trumpet, Mr. Deskovic ordered a ginger beer
and stood across the table from a 37-year-old stockbroker who runs the
"I got the momentum, baby," Mr. Deskovic said, bobbing side to side.
"I got the serve now!"
"I'm going to win! I'm going to win!"
Speaking With Motivation
On a brisk March morning, Mr. Deskovic arrived at the Mercy College
cafeteria ahead of the breakfast rush, wearing a suit and carrying three
ties on a hanger. He approached a woman wiping counters and whispered in her
ear. She grabbed the silver tie with white diamonds and knotted it around
"I'm an adult and I don't know how to fix my ties," Mr. Deskovic said.
He wolfed down a plate of pancakes, then called Darren Wilkins, a concert
promoter he met in December and hired to manage his career as a speaker.
Weeks before, Mr. Wilkins took Mr. Deskovic shopping in Harlem, where he
bought three four-button suits. For inspiration, they have listened to the
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. For technique,
they have watched videos by the motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
Together, they drafted a lecture describing the mistakes that led to Mr.
Deskovic's wrongful conviction and outlining changes to prevent others from
meeting the same fate.
That March day, before speaking to the League of Women Voters at an elegant
home in Bronxville, he and Mr. Wilkins, a Christian, held hands, bowed their
heads and prayed.
"Public speaking is a way for me to find some meaning to what happened to
me," explained Mr. Deskovic, who has not applied for traditional jobs since
his release, but has traveled across New York and four other states for
speeches, including one in Texas in September.
In Bronxville, Mr. Deskovic rested his hands on a plant stand in lieu of a
lectern. His voice was flat and soft. He seemed to deliberately lock eyes
with each of the 16 women sipping coffee.
"If anything I've said here today has moved you in any way, I'd like you to
join me in a movement against wrongful convictions and to get the death
penalty out of New York State," he said. "Can you make a phone call? Can you
join a demonstration? "
Between speeches, Mr. Deskovic counts on donations of food, clothes and cash
from people who have heard his story in the news, as well as members of
local mosques and the Westchester charity New Beginnings.
He rarely eats out, but for the occasional $4 kebab. Mostly, he survives on
Cheerios, tuna, canned corn and shrimp-flavored noodle soup.
On July 27, Mr. Deskovic got the keys to a one-bedroom attic apartment, in a
yellow house with green shutters in Tarrytown. The living room window
overlooks the Hudson River, a view much like the one he had during a short
stint at nearby Sing Sing.
He trimmed his beard that day, shedding perhaps the last visible reminder of
the man prison had made him.
A month later, a dean at Mercy College, Shelley Alkin, who had helped
arrange Mr. Deskovic's scholarship after his release from prison, took him
shopping at Pathmark to teach him about cleaning products, what types of
food he ought to be eating and how much he should expect to pay.
"And I have a plan for when I go shopping on my own," Mr. Deskovic said
proudly. "I'm saving up the empty containers so I can bring them with me and
buy the same things all over again."
By JESSICA VESS
The mother of a murder victim spoke out Friday morning against the death penalty. Martha Cotera joined a group of death penalty opponents at the capitol.
The group released new numbers about capital punishment in Texas. Cotera lost her son Juan to murder in 1997.
She explained why she never wanted her son's killers to die for what they did.
"Death penalty, I think, is a cheap, it's an evil, an immoral and frankly a very stupid way to confront our social issues," said Cotera.
Cotera was joined by Bishop Gregory Aymond, a state representative, a former legislator and representatives of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Each one took a turn at the podium to argue against capital punishment.
"We live in a culture that encourages death and violent crime," said Bishop Aymond, of the Catholic Diocese of Austin.
According to the coalition, the rate of death sentences handed down in Texas is four times higher than the rate in other states. So far this year in Texas, 26 convicted killers have been put to death.
"They've done something terrible, but they're still human beings," said Frances Farenthood, former Texas legislator.
The panel released the new numbers Friday on the 25th anniversary of the first execution by lethal injection in the country.
"25 years ago today Charles Brooke was strapped to a gurney in Huntsville and Texas initiated the use of lethal injections," said Bob Van Steenburg, vice president of the coalition.
Representatives with the group Justice for All support the death penalty.
"The majority of citizens of America are in favor of capital punishment for capital murder," said Rusty Hubbarth, with Justice for All.
Cotera says it does anything but give closure.
"That is the saddest thing to offer a grieving family,” said Cotera.
Cotera will work with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. It wants to introduce a bill in the state legislature that it hopes will lead to abolishing capital punishment.
The Associated Press
HOUSTON -- The Innocence Project of Texas, which tries to overturn wrongful convictions, is teaming up with Harris County to review 180 cases of questionable blood-analysis work performed by the Houston Police Department's crime lab, officials said Friday.
The cases were identified as having "major issues" in a final report earlier this year from a special investigator hired by the city of Houston to investigate the lab.
The project's chief counsel, Jeff Blackburn, said his organization usually finds itself at odds with government officials and prosecutors. His group is an offshoot of the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal clinic that has helped exonerate inmates across the country.
"This is a historic process that Harris County is getting involved in," Blackburn said.
The Houston crime lab's work has been under scrutiny since 2002, when the DNA section was shut down. Inaccuracies were later found in four other lab divisions that test firearms, body fluids and controlled substances. The DNA section has since reopened.
Three inmates have been released from prison because of mistakes by the lab: two men wrongfully convicted of rape and another man convicted of kidnapping and rape whom prosecutors decided not to retry.
The cases being reviewed, some of which date to the 1980s, involve several Death Row inmates and others convicted of violent crimes such as robbery and rape.
Retired state District Judge Mary Bacon is presiding over the probe. During a meeting Friday with defense attorneys and prosecutor Marie Munier, she praised the Innocence Project's help with the review. Munier's office has pledged its cooperation.
The Innocence Project of Texas will provide 40 to 50 law students in Houston, Dallas and Lubbock who can help lawyers review case files and sort through legal documents.
It will be similar to a Dallas County review in which the Innocence Project has teamed up with officials to examine more than 400 cases in which inmates have requested DNA testing. Over the past five years, DNA tests have exonerated 14 inmates in Dallas County, Blackburn said.
In the first three months of the Dallas review, 57 cases have been evaluated. Of these, seven will have DNA testing, said Blackburn, an Amarillo-based lawyer.
Saturday, 8 December 2007
The U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday granted a stay of execution to convicted killer Thomas D. Arthur, just one day before he was to be executed for the 1982 murder-for-hire killing of Troy Wicker Jr. of Muscle Shoals.
It was the second time this year Arthur had come within a day of being executed.
Sherrie Arthur Stone, Arthur's daughter, blasted the state of Alabama for scheduling the execution despite what amounts to a national moratorium on the death penalty.
Only one state has executed a prisoner since Sept. 25, when the Supreme Court announced it would hear a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. Even that state, Texas, has since halted executions.
"I think it was irresponsible for the state to set this at this time," she said. "They wasted a lot of taxpayers' dollars."
The Supreme Court, in a three-sentence order, delayed Arthur's execution until it determines whether it will hear an appeal in which he challenges Alabama's lethal injection procedure on the same grounds being challenged in the Kentucky case, Baze v. Rees. The court is not expected to decide whether to hear Arthur's case until after it hears the Kentucky case in the spring.
In Montgomery, Assistant Attorney General Clay Crenshaw, the state's capital punishment chief, said he was disappointed with the high court's decision.
He said Arthur's conviction and sentence for "horrible crimes" have been upheld "by every court that's ever looked at it." But he said he wasn't surprised by the high court's action because stays have been granted in other states based on the Kentucky case.
Gov. Bob Riley already delayed Arthur's execution once, to allow the Department of Corrections to add a step to its lethal injection procedure after the court announced it would hear the Kentucky case. Before Alabama changed its procedure, it was identical to the one used by Kentucky.
Alabama added a step meant to confirm that the condemned is unconscious. After a barbiturate is administered to render the inmate unconscious, a guard is to speak the prisoner's name, brush a finger over the prisoner's eyelashes and pinch his arm. If the prisoner is deemed unconscious, the execution is to continue, Department of Corrections officials have said.
The state keeps most details of its execution procedure secret, but court documents indicate the state uses the drug Thiopental to cause unconsciousness, Pavulon to cause paralysis and halt breathing, and potassium chloride to stop the heart. Those three drugs make up the most commonly used lethal injection cocktail.
Arthur, now 65, was convicted of killing Wicker, 35, who was shot through the right eye as he slept.
Wicker's wife, Judy, initially told police that a man had raped her and killed her husband. But she later recanted and said she paid Arthur, a work-release inmate with whom she was having an affair, to kill her spouse so she could collect $90,000 in life insurance proceeds.
Advocates, including Amnesty International and The Innocence Project, have championed Arthur's case because of irregularities in each of his three trials, and because they believe modern DNA testing of evidence in the case could prove he is innocent.
Arthur's first two convictions were overturned on appeal. The first was overturned because prosecutors wrongly introduced evidence about a prior murder conviction, and the second because he was questioned after requesting a lawyer. After the second conviction Arthur shot a guard in an escape. The guard survived and Arthur was captured.
Among the trial irregularities cited by Arthur's supporters:
The district attorney who prosecuted Arthur during the final trial represented Wicker's wife as a private attorney when she negotiated early release for testifying against her husband.
Witnesses, some of whom were convicted criminals, drastically changed testimony between the second and third trials, saying they had been bribed or pressured to testify for the prosecution.
Arthur acted as his own counsel during the third trial, and asked for the death penalty even as he professed his innocence. He said at the time that being sentenced to death would give him an advantage on appeal.
Amnesty International and The Innocence Project had appealed to Riley, requesting that he issue a stay and order DNA testing.
A spokeswoman for the governor said Wednesday afternoon that Riley would not stop the execution. Efforts to reach a representative of the governor after the stay was issued were not successful.
Stone, who lives in Tampa but was in Atmore Wednesday to witness her father's execution, said his lawyers notified her of the stay late Wednesday afternoon, and she was still waiting to learn the details.
"We don't know the legalities of it yet, but we got the stay," she said. "We're very happy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report firstname.lastname@example.org