Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Editorial: Cases illustrate need for innocence project

Editorial: Cases illustrate need for innocence project

Web Posted: 02/27/2007 06:14 PM CST
San Antonio Express-News
No system is fail-proof.

The increasing number of wrongful convictions being uncovered in Texas indicates flaws in the state's criminal justice system.

During the past few years, two dozen Texas men have been exonerated by DNA testing. Twelve of them were prosecuted in Dallas.

The statistics are scary, and the situation is unconscionable.

It is time for the state to invest the resources and effort necessary to review questionable convictions by creating an innocence commission.

It is not enough to release those prisoners who have been exonerated, offer them monetary compensation and wish them a good life.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, have introduced legislation to create such a commission.

Previous attempts have met with stiff resistance. The efforts resulted in the formation of the governor's Criminal Justice Advisory Council, but its aim is to review the system, not individual cases.

The Legislature also has funded innocence clinics at Texas law schools, but those are not the innocence commission Thompson and Ellis seek.

According to the New York-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic and criminal justice resource center, 185 people in 32 states have been cleared of their convictions through DNA testing.

California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois and North Carolina have established innocence commissions in recent years as a result of the attention those cases have focused on the impact that new and improved DNA testing can have on criminal convictions.

Instead of worrying that this might be an attempt to make an end run on the death penalty, opponents to the creation of an innocence commission should focus on the need to ensure innocent people are not locked up unjustly.

There are flaws in our criminal justice system; the exoneration of 24 convicted felons proves that.

Ignoring the problem won't make it go away.

Released from death row, he uses ‘anger to educate’

Released from death row, he uses ‘anger to educate’

By Ellie Hidalgo

The Tidings (

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (The Tidings) - Juan Roberto Melendez Colon endured 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. On Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death-row inmate in the United States since 1973 to be cleared of wrongdoing and released from prison.

Melendez now spends part of each year speaking at conferences and law schools and offering living testimony to the pervasive problems of the death penalty system. A captivating and dynamic speaker, Melendez will be telling his story at the Religious Education Congress March 2 at 1 p.m. in English and on March 4 at 10 a.m. in Spanish.

"The death penalty is cruel, unnecessary, costs too much and doesn't deter crime," Melendez, 55, told The Tidings during a recent phone interview. "And there's always a risk that an innocent person is going to be executed."

The father of three daughters was convicted of first degree murder in Central Florida in 1984 based on the false testimony of two questionable witnesses, including one who recanted his story 16 years later.

"There was no physical evidence against me whatsoever," said Melendez. The trial started on a Monday, he was convicted that Thursday and sentenced to death on a Friday.

The former migrant farm worker still marvels at how swiftly the courts can condemn someone - usually a poor person - to death.

Even though he was innocent, Melendez's conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal three times by the Florida Supreme Court. Then in 2000, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped confession by the real killer was discovered in a box of legal papers.

Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned Melendez's conviction and death sentence. She wrote a long opinion highlighting the injustices endured by Melendez and chastising the prosecutor for withholding crucial evidence about the credibility of the witnesses.

What sustained Melendez during the many years he languished in prison?

"My faith in God. Every time I felt suicidal, God sent me a beautiful dream," he said. He also counted on the support of his family - his mother and five aunts. From Puerto Rico, the women wrote many letters.

Anti-death penalty pen pals around the world wrote to inmates. "They let us know we're not alone. They bring a lot of compassion and make you feel like a human being," he said.

However, Melendez cut off communication with his three daughters. "I didn't want them to go through all the pain," he said.

While in prison Melendez learned to read, write and speak English. His teachers? "The condemned. The worst of the worst taught me how to do that," he said.

What turned out to be most painful, reflected Melendez, were the 51 fellow inmates executed during his time on death row - men he had gotten to know personally.

"You are next door to him for so many years, 10, 15 years. And then one day they snatch him out of there, and put him in an electric chair," he said.

"Some of them were innocent," he added, rattling off names. "They most likely didn't commit the crime. I couldn't do anything about it. All I could say is, 'I'll see you soon.'"

After Melendez was exonerated and released from prison, he reestablished contact with his daughters. Today he splits his time between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where he works on a plantain field and counsels troubled youth.

Is he bitter?

"Oh, no. I have no time for that. I don't let the anger dominate me. I'm very happy to be free," said Melendez. "I use my anger to educate people, to let them know that the death penalty is a bad government policy that only brings suffering and pain. We don't need it."
- - -

This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of The Tidings (, official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Friday, 23 February 2007

Cleared inmate to speak at Congress

Friday, February 23, 2007

Released from death row:

Cleared inmate to speak at Congress

By Ellie Hidalgo

Juan Roberto Melendez Colon endured 17 years, eight months and one day on Florida's death row for a crime he did not commit. On Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death-row inmate in the United States since 1973 to be cleared of wrongdoing and released from prison.

Melendez now spends part of each year speaking at conferences and law schools and offering living testimony to the pervasive problems of the death penalty system. A captivating and dynamic speaker, Melendez will be telling his story at Congress March 2 at 1 p.m. in English and on March 4 at 10 a.m. in Spanish.

"The death penalty is cruel, unnecessary, costs too much and doesn't deter crime," Melendez, 55, told The Tidings during a recent phone interview. "And there's always a risk that an innocent person is going to be executed."

The father of three daughters was convicted of first degree murder in Central Florida in 1984 based on the false testimony of two questionable witnesses, including one who recanted his story 16 years later.

"There was no physical evidence against me whatsoever," said Melendez. The trial started on a Monday, he was convicted that Thursday and sentenced to death on a Friday.

The former migrant farm worker still marvels at how swiftly the courts can condemn someone --- usually a poor person --- to death.

Even though he was innocent, Melendez's conviction and death sentence were upheld on appeal three times by the Florida Supreme Court. Then in 2000, a long-forgotten transcript of a taped confession by the real killer was discovered in a box of legal papers.

Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned Melendez's conviction and death sentence. She wrote a long opinion highlighting the injustices endured by Melendez and chastising the prosecutor for withholding crucial evidence about the credibility of the witnesses.

What sustained Melendez during the many years he languished in prison?

"My faith in God. Every time I felt suicidal, God sent me a beautiful dream," he said. He also counted on the support of his family --- his mother and five aunts. From Puerto Rico, the women wrote many letters.

Anti-death penalty pen pals around the world wrote to inmates. "They let us know we're not alone. They bring a lot of compassion and make you feel like a human being," he said.

However, Melendez cut off communication with his three daughters. "I didn't want them to go through all the pain," he said.

While in prison Melendez learned to read, write and speak English. His teachers? "The condemned. The worst of the worst taught me how to do that," he said.

What turned out to be most painful, reflected Melendez, were the 51 fellow inmates executed during his time on death row --- men he had gotten to know personally.

"You are next door to him for so many years, 10, 15 years. And then one day they snatch him out of there, and put him in an electric chair," he said.

"Some of them were innocent," he added, rattling off names. "They most likely didn't commit the crime. I couldn't do anything about it. All I could say is, 'I'll see you soon.'"

After Melendez was exonerated and released from prison, he reestablished contact with his daughters. Today he splits his time between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where he works on a plantain field and counsels troubled youth.

Is he bitter?

"Oh, no. I have no time for that. I don't let the anger dominate me. I'm very happy to be free," said Melendez. "I use my anger to educate people, to let them know that the death penalty is a bad government policy that only brings suffering and pain. We don't need it."

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Listen to Kirk Bloodsworth; Stop Capital Punishment

Listen to Kirk Bloodsworth; Stop Capital Punishment

Kirk Bloodsworth does this for a living now, telling people who truly
believe that killing a killer is the right and just thing to do that they
are mistaken, that man is too flawed, too prone to error, to render the
kind of final judgment that we read about in Scripture.

Bloodsworth tells his story nearly every day. And still, his voice
thickens, and still, the big man shudders and stifles a sob, as he did
yesterday before a Senate committee in Annapolis that is considering
repealing Maryland's death penalty. Bloodsworth -- a former waterman who
grew up on the Eastern Shore, served in the Marine Corps and had never
been arrested -- spent eight years, 11 months and 19 days in prison and
two of those years on Maryland's death row, until his brute persistence
finally persuaded authorities to conduct a DNA test. Bloodsworth, it
turned out, did not commit the rape and murder of which he was convicted.
Kimberly Ruffner committed those crimes, and in 2004, he pleaded guilty.

The taxpayers of Maryland paid Bloodsworth $300,000 as compensation for
the income he lost during all those years. That's $92.39 a day, $23,000 a
year. That doesn't include the millions the state spent to convict him,
twice. Or the millions it cost to keep him on death row. It doesn't begin
to compensate him for the fact that while he was wrongly kept in a box, he
lost his mother. "And I lost my dignity," he told me. "Everybody said they
were doing the right thing. And everybody was wrong."

On too many nights, even now, 14 years after his release, Bloodsworth's
wife, Brenda, must shake him awake because he is in distress, in a cold
sweat, having yet another nightmare about Maryland's death chamber, the
room he slept under for hundreds of nights.

On this day, Bloodsworth told his story to men and women who have been
elected by their fellow citizens to decide whether it is right to take the
life of a fellow man who committed a terrible wrong. On their foreheads
this day, several of those who must make this decision bore the sign of
the cross in black ash.

They had taken time out of their workday to have a priest mark them in
recognition of their penance. The priest had blessed them with these
words: "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return."

On this Ash Wednesday, Maryland's governor, having received his blessing,
made a rare appearance before members of the legislature to urge them to
do as his conscience commanded him to do and repeal the death penalty.

Martin O'Malley did not run for governor with any promise to abolish
capital punishment. This new governor entered office looking to avoid the
most volatile issues, hoping, he said, to focus on "the things we agree

But now O'Malley told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that "the
death penalty cannot coexist with a republic founded on the belief in the
inalienable dignity of the individual." The governor urged lawmakers to
accept that the death penalty is "inherently unjust," that it is
preposterously, pointlessly expensive, that it is flawed and therefore a
danger to the innocent, and that it plain doesn't work as a deterrent.
"Repeal the death penalty in our state this year," he said. Capital
punishment is on hold in Maryland following an appeals court's ruling last
year stopping lethal injections until the state issues new regulations for
the procedure.

Neither Brenda nor Kirk Bloodsworth had any strong view about the death
penalty before it became the defining concept in their lives. Most of us
don't have to have a position on capital punishment. Politicians do, and
their stands tend to be sharply defined; their jobs depend on it.

So turning around a state's policy on this issue is no simple task. Yet in
one state after another this year, lawmakers are voting to repeal or put a
moratorium on capital punishment. The death penalty seemed right to so
many for so long, but now, in this era of DNA evidence, in this time when
people are questioning the nature of truth and evidence in so many spheres
of life, it just doesn't seem quite as clear.

Sen. Lisa Gladden from Baltimore, sponsor of the repeal bill, handed her
colleagues dimestore mirrors to help them examine themselves before
deciding whether the state should be in the killing business.

But if yesterday's parade of witnesses slamming the death penalty as a
counterproductive, flawed, expensive relic changed any minds, nobody was
admitting to it. The committee is expected to say no to a repeal, probably
by a 1-vote margin.

Nobody on the committee argued that the death penalty is fairly
administered, not in a state where every single man executed since 1978
killed a white person, not where every single executed prisoner committed
his crime in Baltimore city or county. And nobody argued that the system
is error-free.

No, the politicians who still believe in the death penalty were relegated
to grasping at straws, repeatedly asking what the state would do without
having the ultimate punishment to use against prisoners who are serving
life sentences and then kill a prison guard. "What punishment do we give
that guy?" asked Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican who represents Cecil and
Harford counties.

No one had an answer for her. The voices on the other side of the issue
were looking at this from a completely different altitude. Bloodsworth
told the politicians this: "The possibility that we could kill an innocent
person -- that trumps it all."

Kirk Bloodsworth, First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA Testing, to Lecture

Kirk Bloodsworth
Kirk Bloodsworth, First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA Testing, to Lecture

Kirk Bloodsworth will recount his experience with wrongful conviction on Monday, March 5, in Gannett Auditorium of Palamountain Hall.

Bloodsworth’s case was the first capital conviction to be overturned as a result of DNA testing in the United States. A former Marine, he was convicted of sexual assault, rape, and first-degree premeditated murder and sentenced to death in 1984. The ruling was appealed on the grounds that evidence was withheld at trial, and he received a new trial. He was found guilty again and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

After Bloodsworth fought for years for a DNA test, evidence from the crime scene was then sent to a lab. In 1993, final reports from state and federal labs concluded that Bloodsworth's DNA did not match any of the evidence received for testing. By the time of his release, Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, including two on death row.

Almost a decade later, on September 5, 2003, the Maryland State’s Attorney announced that a DNA match had been made in the nearly 20-year-old case. That person pleaded guilty on May 20, 2004 to the murder for which Bloodsworth had been wrongfully convicted.

Today, Bloodsworth is a program officer for the Justice Project’s Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform and the Justice Project Education Fund, and he has been an ardent supporter of the Innocence Protection Act (IPA) since its introduction in Congress in February 2000. The IPA, which includes the “Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program,” a program that will help states defray the costs of post-conviction DNA testing, was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2004.

Bloodsworth has spoken about the injustices of the capital punishment system on numerous television shows, including Oprah and Larry King Live, and his story has been featured in national publications, including the New York Times Magazine.

The dramatic story of Bloodsworth’s 20-year journey is chronicled in the book Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA by Tim Junkin.

Bloodsworth's visit is sponsored by the Law and Society Program.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Deliverance by DNA

Deliverance by DNA

Mary Willis, National Post
Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Americans have a complex relationship with the death penalty, which is rooted in their national identity and yet which is becoming increasingly difficult to support. In this final instalment of a three-part series, Mary Vallis considers the changing attitude toward capital punishment.

The story can be read here :

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Kerry Max Cook - Justice Reclaimed

Kerry Max Cook - Justice Reclaimed
Feb. 18, 2007
Justice reclaimed-----After decades on death row, Kerry Cook had to learn
how to live again.

Beginning in the summer of 1977, when Linda Jo Edwards was found raped,
murdered and mutilated in her Tyler apartment, Smith County fought hard to
kill Kerry Max Cook for the deed.

Tried, convicted, sentenced to die and sent to the Ellis Unit in
Huntsville, Cook was raped shortly after his arrival and made a sexual
slave, a commodity to be traded like cigarettes in the death house
economy. Over more than 2 decades he endured 3 trials, appeals that raised
his hopes and dashed them again, brutal assaults and suicide attempts, the
last of which, in August 1991, included nearly severing his penis. He
dipped a finger in his own blood to scrawl a final message on the wall of
his cell: "I was an innocent man." The organ was reattached and Cook

Over and over, his lawyers argued that Cook had gotten a raw deal,
railroaded to death row by prosecutors and police. Finally, the appeals
court agreed with them and ordered a new trial, his fourth. At the 11th
hour, prosecutors offered a deal, and Cook walked out of the Bastrop
County Courthouse a free man.

That was 8 years ago. But to borrow from Faulkner, the past is never in
the past for Kerry Max Cook.

His case has become a rallying cry for criminal justice reform advocates
and death penalty opponents. Where once his companions were the scum of
humanity, he now hobnobs with Ben Stiller, Bruce Springsteen and Susan
Sarandon. His tale is one of those told in the hit play "The Exonerated."
He has a book coming out Feb. 27, "Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing
Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit" and a
Web site,

These days, Cook lives with his wife, Sandra Pressey, and their 6-year-old
son, Kerry Justice Cook, in a Plano apartment complex overlooking a golf
course. They have a big-screen JVC TV, a Macintosh computer with a Scooby
Doo mouse pad and a couple of frenetic Jack Russell terriers.

Solidly built and square-jawed, he paces in his living room and talks
fast, like a man who's been struggling for a long time to be heard.

He says, "I think my case is as Kafkaesque as it could ever get in
America. A man was railroaded here."

Says Tyler attorney David Dobbs, who prosecuted him and is now in private
practice: "It's such a joke that we promote and support people such as
Kerry Max Cook in our world. . . . It has nothing to do with justice; it's
all about publicity and targeting weak cases from the past that are

Says Paul Nugent, Cook's attorney: "Kerry's case is the most egregious
prosecutorial misconduct ever documented in Texas. . . . It is shocking.
Prosecutorial misconduct is easy to allege but it's hard to prove. We
proved it."

However you view it, the case has no shortage of tragedy. Linda Jo
Edwards, her life cut short at 21. Kerry Max Cook, sentenced to death at
21 and locked up for most of his adult life for allegedly killing his
neighbor and acquaintance.

And Cook will forever be defined by this dark history. It's the only story
he knows.

A life on death row

"This has been my entire life," says Cook, now 49. "I remember more of
death row than I do my entire childhood."

"When you go to prison, you're thrown into a lion's pit," he says. "There
is absolutely no help from the guards. None. You're there to die. It's
every man for himself. It was a killing field."

Fights were routine. A friend got stabbed to death with a chicken bone to
the heart. They didn't call it Gladiator School for nothing.

He was first raped within weeks of arriving, and had a vulgar expression
carved on his buttocks.

"There was only one way to escape: Stab and preferably kill the person
who punked you out," Cook writes. ". . . The moment another person even
uses the term 'punk' toward you or questions your manhood, the bizarre
world of prison justice takes over you either must attempt to kill him or
live as a sexual slave according to the whims of dark and tested men. The
point is to demonstrate to the prison hierarchy that you are prepared to
keep your respect at all costs."

Banking that his appeal would succeed and soon Cook chose not to fight
and risk killing somebody, and facing another murder charge.

So Kerry Cook was punked out.

"I couldn't afford to stand up for myself," he says as his wife and son
toss a ball around outside. "Even when I was getting raped."

Cook believed he had reasons to hope his conviction would be reversed. At
trial, Edwards' roommate, Paula Rudolph, had repeated what she had told
police that the man she saw in the apartment appeared to have white or
silver hair. Cook's hair was brown. A Tyler police sergeant had improperly
testified that fingerprints of Cook's the one piece of physical evidence
linking him to the crime scene were between 6 and 12 hours old, when
experts say there is no scientific method for dating latent fingerprints.
And there was at least one other suspect police should have seriously
considered: James Mayfield, an older married man with whom Edwards had
recently ended an affair.

That wasn't all. Early in his prison stay, The Dallas Morning News broke
the story that a fellow inmate, Edward Scott Jackson, had lied when he
testified against Cook at his trial and had been coached by the district
attorney's office and that a murder charge pending against Jackson was
later reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

Meanwhile, Cook's brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sat with
no action for 8 years.

An unprecedented plea

"The lies kept me going. This is a case that was manipulated from the
start. First, there was a vicious rape and murder. Second, I was charged
for it. Those are the only facts."

Kerry Cook is sitting in a booth at the Cheesecake Factory. He unscrews
the top to the pepper shaker and pours spice on his Thai food; years of
bland prison gruel have made him crave intense flavors.

In December 1987, the court finally ruled in his case, affirming Cook's
conviction. 11 days before his execution date, the U.S. Supreme Court sent
his case back to the Texas appeals court.

The turning point came when Cook wrote to Centurion Ministries of
Princeton, N.J., which seeks to reverse wrongful convictions by finding
new evidence. After collecting more than 50 interviews with associates of
James Mayfield, Linda Jo Edwards' onetime lover, the group issued a report
titled, "Why Centurion Ministries Believes Jim Mayfield Killed Linda Jo

After a re-hearing before the Criminal Court of Appeals, Cook's conviction
was reversed. A 2nd trial in 1992 ended in a hung jury.

At a third trial, in Georgetown in 1994, Cook was again convicted and
sentenced to death.

But in 1996, after attorney Paul Nugent wrote a 213-page appellate brief,
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Cook's conviction in blunt
terms: "Prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter
from the outset. Little confidence can be placed in the outcome of the
appellant's 1st 2 trials as a result."

Jim McCloskey, Centurion's founder who investigated Cook's case, is even
more blunt.

"This is the rankest prosecutorial misconduct I've ever seen or ever hope
to see for the rest of my life," McCloskey says. This is as bad as it
gets. It was dastardly."

After a November 1997 hearing, Cook was released on an appeal bond.

In 1999, as lawyers prepared for a 4th trial in Bastrop, lab technicians
detected semen on the panties Linda Jo Edwards was wearing the night she
was murdered. It was James Mayfield's, not Cook's.

Meanwhile, the Smith County district attorney's office tried to negotiate
a guilty plea, giving Cook credit for time served. He refused, saying he'd
rather risk being convicted and executed. Minutes before his Bastrop
trial, the prosecution and defense finally made a deal: Cook would plead
no contest (legally, neither admitting guilt nor disputing the charges)
and leave prison.

It was an extraordinary event no-contest pleas are usually for lesser
offenses, not murder cases, and such a plea typically implies guilt. But
Cook specifically rejected any language that carried that implication.

"The no contest plea was historic no lawyer could recall a Texas judge,
or anywhere for that matter, ever accepting such a plea in a capital
murder case and allowing a defendant to maintain his innocence and walk
free," Cook writes. "After a 21-year struggle, my case was over in less
than 10 minutes."

Living in the world

"There's no getting around the fact that it was a difficult case, and that
in the earlier trials he was not treated like he should have been," says
Dobbs, the former prosecutor. "There's no question that's true. You have
to look at the legal context in '78. Things were done differently then. It
doesn't make them right. But at the end of the day, we made the decision
we had to make and we've moved on from it."

Moving on hasn't been that simple for Cook. His family was mostly gone.
His only brother was murdered in a bar fight while Cook was in prison; his
father died while he was in, and his mother in 2005.

He has had to re-learn life on the outside, including learning to drive
all over again. Once at a gas station, a woman almost called the police on
him when he asked for help locating the gas tank on his car.

Sandra Pressey: "I remember the 1st time I met him at the Amnesty
International meeting, he had trouble making eye contact and I thought he
was profoundly shy. But then we went out to grab a bite to eat and he
wouldn't even pick up the menu. He was never allowed to make any choices,
so given this freedom of making a choice was terrifying. He would panic.

"He's directionally illiterate. North, south, east, west it was just this
past year he got the concept. Because as you navigate through life you
make choices, but he was never allowed."

Kerry Cook, execution number 600, is gregarious, funny and has a voracious
appetite for knowledge: Pressey once gave him a week's worth of computer
tutorial videotapes, which he ran through in a day. He is also profoundly
lonely and lacks the social filters people take for granted.

One day he told Pressey about a phone call from a woman named Maria: "She
was asking about aluminum siding. She was so nice. We talked and talked.
She said it snows where she's at. She said she's going to send me

Pressey concludes the story: "A couple days later, he got a letter and it
was from Minnesota or something. There's a picture of Maria, her daughter,
the snow. He would get himself in these situations because he loves
people. He was this odd mix of Rain Man, Forrest Gump and 'The Other
Sister' the Juliette Lewis character.

"He's very childlike. That's one of the reasons he and K.J. have that
special bond. Kerry is like another kid to him."

K.J. is every bit as outgoing as his father, sometimes telling strangers,
"My daddy was on death row for 20 years." The strangers' reaction often is
to remark on the boy's vivid imagination.

Cook, meanwhile, continues to show up on the anti-death penalty circuit.
He's spoken at Princeton and Yale and has appeared on "Nightline,"
"Frontline" and "The Today Show." (Once on Phil Donahue's program to talk
about "The Exonerated," in which Richard Dreyfuss played Cook, Cook joked,
"The last time I saw this guy, he was being eaten by a shark.") He also
speaks to young people about overcoming adversity but has a hard time
making a steady living.

Then there is his book, a horrific and well-written memoir that forced
Cook to relive experiences that might be better forgotten if they could
be. It's gotten good advance reviews and has been kindly blurbed by
Harvard Law School's Alan Dershowitz, former FBI director William Sessions
and others.

"I always said I'd write a book but nobody believed me," Cook says. "They
thought I'd be executed."

"The Kerry Cook who came out who was good at putting words together but
was scared to death has been replaced by a man who's even better at
putting words together, and he's gotten more sureness about how to live in
the world," says Kate Germond, Centurion Ministries' assistant director
and K.J.'s godmother. "But it's still hard. You don't exorcise the
betrayal these guys have endured."

Pressey: "If you just read the newspapers, you would think he was this
derelict, crazed, maniacal killer. When Kerry meets people, he's wondering
what they've heard about him, and he wants them to know, 'This is me.'
That's the intensity. He wants to be understood."

His past is always with him, whether applying for a job or getting stopped
by a traffic cop in Lancaster on the way home from lobbying the
Legislature. Cook wishes for a gubernatorial pardon, but that would
require the assent of Smith County authorities, which isn't likely to
happen. Barring that, he'd like to see the law changed to allow for
pardons in extraordinary cases such as his, pardons that could bypass
local authorities before going to the governor's office.

"He should not settle for this scarlet letter," Pressey says. "I'm glad
that he's finally demanding that. At first it was enough that he could
maintain his innocence. Now the freedom isn't really freedom. He's
convicted but innocent."

Cook says in many respects, it's not about him any more, it's about when
K.J. gets old enough for people to start asking questions, asking whether
his father is a vicious killer.

"Suffice to say the birth of K.J. was preordained and a miracle," he says.
"I'm everything to him. And if I'm everything to him, that's everything to

(source: Austin AMerican-Statesman)

Saturday, 17 February 2007

After Innocence: DVD Documents Plight of the Guilty till Proven Innocent

February 17, 2007 (2 articles)

After Innocence: DVD Documents Plight of the Guilty till Proven Innocent

by Kam Williams, Insight News

This revealing documentary is essentially ten different stories, each a
tragic case of mistaken identity and a rush to judgment. For all of the men
profiled here can thank their lucky stars that evidence was preserved,
otherwise they'd still be in jail.

For example, Herman Atkins had been sentenced to 45 years for rape and
robbery despite having an alibi and no previous criminal record. In the
film, his father, a cop, admits that he now regrets never visiting his son
even once during his 11-year incarceration, explaining that, as an officer
of the law, he had believed in the justice system.

Another of the unfortunate subjects, Scott Hornoff, was a police officer
when he found himself arrested for murder. Although he sat on Death Row for
over six years till his conviction was overturned, the State of Rhode Island
still refuses to pay him any damages or back pay. A common theme running
through each of the frightening tales told here is that none of the victims
have been compensated for the ordeals they had to endure.

Without money to get back on their feet, they presently find themselves
ill-equipped to cope in a world which has moved on without them. We also see
the toll that the time in jail has exacted on their families, from wives
having to work and to raise children alone to kids feeling alienated to
relatives not living long enough to see a son's name cleared before they
passed on.
One mother wonders why the jury had so callously dismissed her passionate
testimony, under oath, that her son had been with her at the time that the
crime had been committed. Meanwhile, one false accuser contritely tries to
explain away her regrettable mistake of identifying the wrong man as her

By shining a scientific spotlight on the criminal justice system's dirty
little secret, After Innocence leaves no doubt that thousands of other
wrongly-imprisoned persons must currently be rotting away behind bars, with
only the ability to afford a Dream Team of DNA experts standing between them
and their freedom.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 95 minutes
Distributor: New Yorker Video
DVD Extras: Deleted scenes, bonus footage, updates, interviews, Pearl Jam
performance, media coverage, footage from the Sundance and theatrical
premieres, MTV and Larry King Live coverage, website and contact info, and a
theatrical trailer.


Source : Insight News

Innocence Project to review DNA for 354 inmates

February 16, 2007

Innocence Project to review DNA for 354 inmates

Associated Press

DALLAS - The Innocence Project of Texas will receive unprecedented access to
review the cases of 354 inmates requesting DNA testing under a plan unveiled
by new Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.

The upcoming review is the first of its kind in Texas and "virtually
unprecedented" nationwide, said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence
Project, a New York-based legal center that specializes in overturning
wrongful convictions.

Smaller-scale efforts have been undertaken in Virginia, Florida and North
Carolina, experts said, but this is believed to be the first time a
prosecutor has called for an outside examination of every request for appeal
based on DNA evidence.

Decision a no-brainer

Watkins, who has seen two men exonerated by DNA since taking office Jan. 1,
describes his decision as a no-brainer.

"We had to make this move," Watkins said Friday. "We're going to do things
right in Dallas County and right some wrongs that have been done in the

DNA evidence has exonerated 12 Dallas County men since 2001, which is more
than all but two states, according to the Innocence Project.

A 13th man, James Giles, is expected to be exonerated within the next few
weeks, Watkins said.

Thirty-four Dallas County inmates have received DNA testing since being
convicted. Eleven saw their guilt confirmed and six are still going through
the testing process. In five cases, the DNA testing was inconclusive,
according to the district attorney's office.

Lab keeps evidence longer

Dallas County has been the site of an inordinate number of exonerations in
part because the laboratory prosecutors use holds onto biological evidence
for up to 25 years, said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project
of Texas.

Other labs across the state often destroy samples after convictions, he

Innocence Project lawyers and staffers will work with law students at Texas
Wesleyan, Texas Tech, North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington and
Southern Methodist to identify the most likely candidates for exonerations.

No tax money will be used to pay for testing, Watkins said.


- Top two: Illinois and Texas lead the nation in DNA exonerations with 26

- Next in line: New York follows with 21.

- Nationally: There have been 194 exonerations.

Source: Innocence Project


Source : Associated Press

Friday, 16 February 2007

Wrongful Conviction: Fair compensation

Friday, February 16, 2007

Wrongful Conviction: Fair compensation


A new proposal would allow for compensation in cases of wrongful conviction and imprisonment. If the idea -- at least in part -- behind incarcerating someone is to take something away from them, it's only logical to try to somehow give something back to them for all the things that were unjustly taken away, such as freedom, livelihood, opportunity and relationships.

So what would a year of your life be worth in Washington state? At least $50,000, which would also cover time spent waiting for trial. That amount is bumped up to at least $100,000 for every year spent on death row. Also provided would be needed resources such as job training and health insurance. If House Bill 2122 passes, we would be the 22nd state to offer such compensation, although the degree of reparation varies. Although the federal government compensates the wrongfully imprisoned, it does so only in federal cases. Federal compensation is capped at $100,00 a year for those who received a death sentence. Prior to the Justice for All Act of 2004, that amount was limited to $5,000 a year.

"It is a sense of Congress that states should provide reasonable compensation to any person found to have been unjustly convicted on an offense against the state and sentenced to death," reads the last paragraph of the act.

It shouldn't have taken this long for us to do it, and we can't help but wish that the bill went even further, in terms of flagging the records of prosecutors with several wrongful convictions.


Monday, 12 February 2007

"The Wheels of Justice are Flat" - New York Speaks Out Against the Death Penalty

February 11, 2007 06:31PM EST

"The Wheels of Justice are Flat" - New York Speaks Out Against the Death Penalty

Four exonerated prisoners speak out against the death penalty and NY's criminal justice system

By Ali Winston

In the wake of Ronell Wilson's death sentence, four exonerated prisoners and death penalty spoke out against the death penalty and New York state's flawed criminal justice system at the National Black Theater in Harlem on February 6th, 2007.

The death penalty is no longer America’s sweetheart. Executions are on hold in 11 states across the country, compelled by public horror at the inhumane, drawn out deaths by lethal injection such as Stanley Tookie Williams [] in California and Angel Nieves Diaz []in Florida. 12 states, along with the District of Columbia, do not have the death penalty on their books.

In New York state, public support for the death penalty has plummeted by 20% since the 1990s. In a September 2006 New York Times-CBS poll, only 29% of New Yorkers said they favored the death penalty, while 50% preferred life in prison without parole. Yet on January 30th, U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis condemned Ronell Wilson to die for killing two undercover New York Police officers in Staten Island during a sting operation in 2003, New York’s first death sentence in over 50 years.

The impact of Wilson’s sentencing reverberated a week later at the National Black Theater in Harlem, as four wrongfully convicted men spoke about their ordeals at a panel hosted by the Campaign to end the Death Penalty and New Yorkers against the Death Penalty. Jeffrey Deskovic, Lawrence Hayes, Alan Newton, and Yusef Salaam were all exonerated of crimes ranging from robbery to rape to murder. However, they spent anywhere from 6 to 21 years in prison, and Hayes passed 2 years of his life on death row.

“It’s important for us to talk about the people that are innocent and wrongfully convicted, but it’s also important for us to talk about the ones that are guilty,” said Lee Wengraf, a board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Focusing on the intervention of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, which was instrumental in moving Wilson’s case from state to federal court (the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the death penalty violates the state’s constitution), Wengraf excoriated the government for “making an example” out of Wilson:

“Ronell is one of the many thousands of people who the government disinvested itself from – they said it was ok to strip the social investment from communities [like the Stapleton Houses, where Wilson grew up], which creates conditions that foster crime. “

“Every time they push forward cases like this, they also rob the public of a basic understand of who’s responsible for what in this society. They want the Ronell Wilsons on death row so they can say; ‘they’re the worst of the worst, they’re the ones causing problems.’”

Lawrence Hayes, a former Black Panther who was wrongfully convicted [] for killing a police officer in 1970, spent two years on death row in New York before the state’s death penalty was abolished in 1973 (it was reintroduced in 1995). Sent back to prison several times for his activism following his release on parole in 1991, Hayes spoke passionately about the harm America’s fixation with the death penalty wreaks at home and abroad:

“This country is holding humanity back from that next step, which is to appreciate, value, and respect life. And we right here have an opportunity to change that.”

Yusef Salaam is living proof of how public hysteria and overzealous authorities pervert America’s criminal justice system. Convicted at the age of 15 along with four other teenagers for rape and assault in the infamous Central Park jogger case [,schanberg,39999,1.html], Salaam was exonerated in 2002 when a serial rapist already behind bars confessed to the crime. Throughout his trial, real estate tycoon Donald Trump took out advertisements in the major New York papers advocating the death penalty for Salaam and his co-defendants [].

Though his name has been cleared, Salaam has struggled to hold down a steady job because his conviction hasn’t been fully cleared. Moreover, he is still suffering from the pain of a lost youth, spent behind bars instead of the classroom. “I never had a high school graduation, don’t know what it’s like to be on prom – my first job getting a full paycheck came in my late 20’s,” he said.

In the last 2 ½ years, 10 prisoners sentenced to lengthy prison terms in New York state have been found innocent after reviews of evidence in their case. Jeffrey Deskovic (convicted of rape, murder, and possession of a weapon in 1989, given a 15 to life term) and Alan Newton (convicted of rape and robbery in 1984, given a 40-yearn sentence) were both released last year after the DNA evidence in their case was reexamined at the insistence of the Innocence Project, a litigation organization dedicated to freeing wrongfully convicted prisoners and reforming the criminal justice system [].

Deskovic and Newton maintained their innocence while in prison and tried to request reviews of the evidence presented during their trial. However, both men encountered stiff resistance from the courts and district attorneys when they sought to reopen their cases.

Deskovic’s appeal to the New York Court of Appeals was turned down because he unknowingly filed his petition four days late. Then-Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro (who twice refused to review the DNA evidence, telling him to “come back when you have an attorney”) took the stance that the tardy petition was “prejudicial against the people,” and the judge dismissed Deskovic’s petition without being heard. The Innocence Project took up his case in 2005, and Deskovic was found innocent when the DNA in his case was traced to a convicted murdered in an upstate prison [].

“The criminal justice system is broken,” Deskovic told the assembled crowd. “Guilt and innocence don’t matter – finality of a conviction is given greater importance than obtaining justice.” Based on his own ordeal, Deskovic recommended greater oversight of prosecutors and strict punishment for misconduct, the videotaping of police interrogations to guard against coerced confessions, and a sustained effort to improve the quality of public defenders.

For his part, Newton sought to have the DNA samples from the woman he was wrongly convicted of raping re-tested. He first requested the rape kit in 1994, and was told that it could not be located. This cycle went on for a decade, until the Innocence Project convinced the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to look into the matter – the kit was found right where records indicated it would be [].
“You know why prosecutors withhold evidence? Because they’re not about justice, they’re about seeking convictions. It’s a job to them,” Newton said, echoing Deskovic’s call for increased oversight of prosecutors.

The case for axing the death penalty is strong – relatives of homicide victims have given testimony to state commissions in New York and New Jersey advocating its abolition, and studies show that it is more expensive to execute a prisoner rather than incarcerate them for life [].

Janice Greishaber, the mother of a murder victim, addressed members of the New York State Assembly in December 2005 about how death sentences prolong the suffering of bereaved relatives.
“The death penalty brings as much pain as it does relief," she said. "It creates an entirely new layer of pain, and many survivors of homicide victims would prefer that the offender in their case spend a ifetime of unimaginably painful confinement before dying a lonely and often painful death behind bars.”

Even New York’s Federal Courts are not single-minded in this matter – on February 9th, a jury refused to reach a unanimous verdict to execute drug kingpin Kenneth McGriff for ordering the assassination of two rivals in the 1980s []. According to one of McGriff’s lawyers, David Ruhnke, the death penalty was an unlikely outcome in the case because “the rest of the country is falling out of love with the death penalty, and the Bush administration is still in the infatuation stage.”

So why, if a criminal with as much blood on his hands as McGriff is spared the death penalty, has Ronell Wilson been sentenced to die (and agonize through years of appeals)? Perhaps the comments of Ben Davis, a volunteer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, shed some light on the matter:
“Because Ronell offered to spend every day of the rest of his life in prison, the prosecution said, ‘no, we will try this in front of the cameras for five months as a death penalty case. They want to show there is a person that they can put down like a dog.”

For further information about the death penalty and wrongfully convicted prisoners:

The Innocence Project

Campaign to End the Death Penalty

New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty
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Saturday, 10 February 2007

Freed inmate awarded $14 million

February 10, 2007


Freed inmate awarded $14 million

Lab report hidden in '85 murder trial

By Susan Finch, Times Picayune

A federal court jury on Friday ordered the Orleans Parish district
attorney's office to pay $14 million to a former death row inmate who
claimed he was wrongly convicted for the 1984 murder of local hotel
executive Ray Liuzza.

The verdict capped a five-day trial in 44-year-old John Thompson's lawsuit
claiming his rights were violated because a prosecutor on then-District
Attorney Harry Connick's staff hid information that could have helped
exonerate him.

District Attorney Eddie Jordan, whose office will have to deal with the $14
million bill, said he will appeal because the financial burden it imposes
"will seriously affect our ability to execute our present functions and
serve our city."

Taking pains to distance himself from the case, Jordan said, "This
unfortunate incident happened on Connick's watch" and "is in no way
reflective of the procedures and practices of the district attorney's office

The $14 million award was viewed as vindication by supporters of Thompson,
who was 22 when he was convicted of Liuzza's murder and swiftly shipped off
to Louisiana's death row.

Liuzza, 34, was gunned down by a robber after midnight Dec. 6, 1984, in the
1700 block of Josephine Street, just around the corner from his apartment
building. He was shot five times, including three times in the back.

A neighbor heard Liuzza plead for his life, offering his watch and wallet to
the attacker. "Why did he have to shoot me?" Liuzza asked the police officer
who found him lying near the sidewalk.

Thompson, acquitted of Liuzza's murder by a second jury in 2003, chose not
to testify in his own defense at his original 1985 trial because taking the
stand would have allowed prosecutors to bring up his conviction for
attempted armed robbery in an unrelated case.

At his second trial at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Thompson was
able for the first time to personally profess his innocence to a jury.

During cross-examination, Thompson was repeatedly asked by prosecutor Val
Solino why he had no alibi for the night of the crime. "I was probably

" Thompson said, recalling his days as a street-corner drug
dealer who plied customers with "clickums," marijuana laced with PCP. In the
retrial, the state focused on its original theory that Thompson was guilty
because he had at one time possessed the handgun that killed Liuzza and the
gold ring that Liuzza's killer took from him.

Thompson explained he got the ring and the gun through his drug dealing, and
he said it was common in those days to trade in "hot" merchandise.
Thompson's defense learned in 1999 that a former Connick assistant had
confessed as he was dying of cancer that he had suppressed a crime lab blood
report that cleared Thompson of the robbery. The stunning revelation came
weeks before Thompson was scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Angola
state penitentiary.

Two years later, in a decision that paved the way for Thompson to get a
second trial, a state appeals court overturned his 1985 murder conviction on
grounds that concealment of evidence denied him of his right to testify.

In its verdict, reached after about four hours of deliberating, the federal
court jury of six women and one man concluded Connick did not have an
official policy to withhold exculpatory evidence.

But the jurors agreed that a violation of Thompson's rights in the robbery
case and the murder trial were substantially caused by Connick's "failure,
through deliberate indifference, to establish policies and procedures to
protect one accused of a crime from these constitutional violations."

The Friday verdict is the latest victory won for Thompson by Philadelphia
attorneys Michael Banks and J. Gordon Clooney, who have waged a years-long
pro bono fight to clear his name.

Jurors were told that Disney has approached the two attorneys about doing a
movie on the Thompson case and that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would star as
the lawyers.


Source : Times Picayune

PBS segment on Anthony Graves

PBS segment on Anthony Graves:

The PBS show Now featured a segment on Texas death-row inmate Anthony Graves on last night's show (rebroadcast by most PBS stations at various times over the weekend). Graves was recently granted a new trial by the US 5th Circuit Ct of Appeals after spending 12 years on Texas' death row. Video stream of show is here (26:48; segment on Graves begins at 12:45). The Now website has some related links related to the case here. (A PBS website channel finder to obtain local schedule information is here.)

Thursday, 8 February 2007

Wrongful convictions dispute death penalty

February 8, 2007

New York

Wrongful convictions dispute death penalty

In response to the Feb. 1 article, "Killer's sentence sparks a debate: Death
penalty foes say prosecutors in police murders ducked law":

Retired Colonie Police Chief John Grebert's acknowledgment of the potential
for wrongful convictions is a welcome law enforcement voice in the death
penalty discussion. He is correct that the DNA databases are a useful tool
in identifying violent criminals; however, databases will not prevent
wrongful convictions and the real possibility of executing the innocent.

Douglas Warney and Jeffrey Deskovic were recently freed from New York state
prisons after spending 10 years or more for murders they did not commit. In
both cases the DNA at the time of the trial clearly did not match the
defendant, yet the juries convicted.

The district attorneys in their cases had no obligation to retest the DNA
and did not for more than a decade. What if no one had agreed to the new
tests and a sentence of death was in place? What if the real killer's DNA
was not yet part of the database?

DNA is only recovered in roughly 10 percent of murder cases. Olmado Hidalgo
and Barry Gibbs, also exonerated this year, were convicted of murder with no
DNA evidence. Their wrongful convictions only came to light as a result of
law enforcement investigations into separate crimes that just happened to
lead to the killers in their cases. The death penalty is an unwise, unsafe,
expensive policy.


Deputy Director

New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty



Source : Albany Times Union

Georgia Innocence Project Uses DNA To Free Man After 22 Years In Prison

Georgia Innocence Project Uses DNA To Free Man After 22 Years In Prison

Willie Williams has been freed from a Georgia prison after spending half of his life, 22 years, behind bars for a crime he did not commit. "I never gave up," Williams said following his release, which came just 5 days after the Georgia Innocence Project discovered Williams' DNA did not match a swab taken from the woman he was convicted of raping in 1985. After learning about the DNA evidence excluding Williams, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard ordered Williams released. Prosecutors now want to compare the DNA from the victim's swab to the DNA of another convicted rapist who has since been released from prison. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, January 24, 2007). See Innocence.

Another Prisoner Freed After DNA Evidence Leads to Exoneration

Another Prisoner Freed After DNA Evidence Leads to Exoneration

After spending 15 years in a New York prison for murder, Roy Brown has been exonerated through DNA evidence and is free. Brown is the eighth person in New York to be exonerated due to DNA evidence in the past 13 months, more than in any other state during the same period.

While in prison, Brown conducted his own investigation of his wrongful conviction and found documents incriminating another man in the murder of Sabina Kulakowski. The documents pointed to Barry Bench, a volunteer firefighter whose brother had lived with Kulakowski until the months before her death. Earlier tests conducted by Brown's attorneys found a connection between one of Bench's close relatives and the genetic code lifted from the saliva on the victims' nightshirt. In 2003, five days after Brown mailed Bench a letter accusing him of the crime, Bench jumped to his death in front of an Amtrak train. His body was later exhumed to confirm his genetic link to the crime.

Attorneys from the New-York based Innocence Project represented Brown in the proceedings that resulted in his freedom. His attorneys said that an investigator in the case initially dismissed a fellow-firefighter's suspicions about Bench's involvement in the crime because the investigator knew Bench and thought him incapable of killing anyone. In addition, one of the nation's leading forensic odontologists, Lowell Levine, who analyzed the bite marks on Kulakowski's body before trial, told the district attorney at the time that the one mark he could interpret "excluded" Brown as a suspect. Prosecutors then decided to not ask Levine to file an official report, but relied on another expert - a local dentist - whose testimony helped to convict Brown.

"I'm sorry it's taken such a long time for you to come to this day. I'm happy for you and your family," Judge Mark H. Fandrich told Brown after prosecutors joined the defense's motion to release Brown. After he was freed, Brown noted, "Changes have got to be made, man. They say the wheels of justice move slowly, but you know what? The wheels of justice are flat." Brown's attorneys say that he has no money, does not know where he is going to live, and suffers from hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver.

(New York Times, January 24, 2007). Murder cases such as Brown's can result in death sentences. However, New York did not have a capital punishment law at the time of this crime. See Innocence. Read a Press Release about this case issued by the Innocence Project.

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Former inmate advocates against death penalty

Former inmate advocates against death penalty

By Scott Rothschild (Contact)

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

— Death penalty opponents Tuesday introduced legislation that would do away with capital punishment in Kansas after a former death row inmate talked about how he was almost killed by a broken judicial system.

When Ray Krone was freed from an Arizona prison in 2002, he became the 100th defendant in the United States cleared of a crime that had brought a death sentence.

“Our justice system, I don’t support it now,” Krone, 50, said to a gathering of death penalty opponents.

Krone, who had no previous criminal record, was sentenced to die in the 1991 slaying of a cocktail waitress.

Krone said he was the victim of inadequate legal defense and an overzealous prosecutor and judge.

He spent 10 years in prison before being freed when DNA evidence was reviewed and found a match with another man.

Without the support of his family and a dedicated appellate attorney, Krone said he would have been executed or spent his life in prison.

The same thing could happen to anyone, he said.

“Mistakes happen,” he said.

People see sports referees make wrong calls all the time, he said, but they refuse to believe that the justice system could condemn an innocent man.

Krone now works to get states to repeal their death penalty statutes.

Cecilia Wood, a private investigator from Lawrence, said Krone’s story showed why the death penalty should be jettisoned.

“There are too many errors in the system,” Wood said. “There are too many mistakes in law enforcement.”

Measures to end the death penalty were filed on the 100th anniversary of the day in 1907 that Gov. Edward Wallis Hoch signed legislation abolishing the death penalty, which had been on the state’s books since 1859 when Kansas was still a territory.

The death penalty was reinstated in 1935, repealed again in 1972 and finally reinstated in 1994.

Since the death penalty was last reinstated in Kansas, there have been 10 death sentences but no executions. One sentence was removed by the prosecutor’s request and two have been vacated by the Kansas Supreme Court.

Ex-inmate seeks compensation for time lost

Ex-inmate seeks compensation for time lost

DeWayne McKinney was released six years ago after spending 19 years in prison for a murder in Orange. He could be awarded about $700,000 if he convinces a state board he's innocent.
By Christopher Goffard, Times Staff Writer
January 31, 2007

SACRAMENTO — DeWayne McKinney spent 19 years behind bars on a first-degree murder conviction before the recanting of eyewitnesses and confession of another inmate led to his release six years ago. What he never got, however, was an official ruling that he is an innocent man.

McKinney stands to win about $700,000 — or $100 for each day he spent in prison — if he prevails this week in a hearing before the state's Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. He must prove to the board that he is not the man who vaulted the counter of a Chapman Avenue Burger King in Orange during a Dec. 11, 1980, robbery and put a .22-caliber hollow-point bullet in the head of the night manager, 19-year-old Walter Bell.

Yet McKinney, who at 46 now runs an ATM business in Hawaii, said winning the case is not about money, but vindication.

"They're saying I'm responsible. There's a stigma," McKinney said in an interview. "This is something that's hanging over my head. A certain part of you can't move on."

The state attorney general's office is fighting his compensation claim, arguing that although two of the four witnesses who implicated him at trial have since recanted, the other two remain convinced of his guilt.

"The evidence certainly seems to suggest that he was indeed the Burger King killer," the attorney general's office has argued in papers filed with the compensation board.

Expected to testify today on McKinney's behalf is Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, who prosecuted him personally in 1982 — and unsuccessfully argued for the death penalty — but in 2000 called for his release because there was enough evidence "to undermine confidence" in the conviction.

It is unclear how far Rackauckas will go in his support, however. He has said that he remained unsure whether McKinney was innocent or guilty. Still, McKinney's lawyers say they are ready to introduce statements of two district attorney investigators who examined McKinney's case and concluded he was innocent.

Taking the stand to testify Tuesday, McKinney had a soft voice and retiring manner. He said that he "wandered the street" after his mother died when he was 12 and within two or three years had found a second family in the 52nd Street Crips. He acknowledged breaking into cars and participating in an attempted jewelry store robbery.

About a month before the Burger King murder, McKinney testified, he suffered a shotgun wound to the right leg — apparently from a rival gangster — that left him hospitalized and on crutches. His lawyers argue that rules him out as the killer, whom witnesses said vaulted the restaurant counter.

Asked to display his wound at the hearing, McKinney lifted his pant leg to show a calf that remained visibly deformed 27 years later. McKinney, who maintained he was at his sister's house during the robbery, said that going to trial for a murder he didn't commit felt "surreal."

"It's almost like watching a movie or something," he said.

McKinney, who was 20 and living in Ontario at the time of his arrest, said he entered lockup with a hot temper and a "self-destructive" streak. Within his first few months at the Orange County Jail, he said, guards forced him and other black inmates to share cells with Latinos, prompting a defiant lieutenant in the Mexican Mafia prison gang to attack him. When he bested the man in a fight, McKinney said, he found himself a marked man for years and was stabbed three times — at the Orange County Jail and at the state prisons in Chino and Folsom — and assaulted more times than he could count.

McKinney said that while in protective custody at the Orange County Jail, he met inmate Charles Hill, who claimed to have planned the Burger King robbery, along with his cousin Willie C. Walker and another man who was never charged with the crime. Hill said he backed out, but the other men went through with it and that the shooter later admitted to killing the restaurant manager.

Though McKinney alerted his public defenders, they questioned Hill's story and could not get Walker to confirm the story. It would not be until 1997 that Hill, then an inmate at Lancaster State Prison, came forward with a letter again detailing his claims. The letter prompted investigations by the public defender's office and the district attorney's office that led to McKinney's release in January 2000. Walker confessed to being the getaway driver and said that McKinney was not involved.

Testifying Tuesday, McKinney said he did not press Hill to come forward sooner because he believed Hill would have to do it in his own time. "I couldn't twist his arm," McKinney said. "I could cry and scream, and he could say no."

Asked how incarceration affected him, McKinney said that being ordered around by guards for two decades has made him hypersensitive to any hint that he is being controlled.

"I've walked the tightrope between sanity and insanity," McKinney said over a cafeteria lunch. "I can understand homeless people walking the streets. You can just let go."

Walking on the streets, he said, he still eyes people as potential attackers and clenches up defensively as they pass, a survival lesson learned behind bars. He said he remains guarded around people he's closest to. "I don't think I'll ever be normal," he said.

During his cross-examination of McKinney, Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael Farrell forced McKinney to acknowledge his past as "Crazy DeWayne," the gangster once convicted of attempting to rob a jewelry store in Glendora. He also elicited McKinney's testimony about a time, at age 14, he chased a woman with a knife. Farrell also implied that it was an implausible coincidence that McKinney should just happen to run into Hill, the man who would help exonerate him, in the same protective custody unit at the same Orange County Jail.

In papers filed with the board, the attorney general's office has argued that Hill and Walker — described as "violent serial rapists" who are serving life behind bars — concocted the story of McKinney's innocence in the hopes of earning reduced sentences. The office argues that Hill considers McKinney "a brother," giving him a further motive to lie for him.

To prevail at the hearing, which is expected to run through Thursday, McKinney must prove that it's more likely than not that he did not commit the crime. The single hearing officer presiding over the case, Kyle Hedum, will make a recommendation to the victim compensation board, which will decide whether to grant McKinney's request.

In 2001, a California law went into effect allowing the wrongfully incarcerated to claim $100 a day for each day spent behind bars after conviction. Since then, 17 people have filed claims with the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, according to statistics kept by the board, and eight have been successful, with awards ranging from $17,200 to $756,900.

Board spokesman Miles Bristow said that he knew of no case in which a claimant had prevailed over opposition from the attorney general's office.



Justice isn't always easy to grab on to

Justice isn't always easy to grab on to

The case of DeWayne McKinney gives us much to reconsider
February 1, 2007

Sacramento — DeWayne McKinney came to Sacramento this week in search of his pound of cash from a system that once was certain he was a coldblooded killer and then changed its mind. To borrow a phrase, what a long, strange trip it's been, complete with the swearing-in of the man in the dark suit on the white horse who came to speak up for him Wednesday afternoon.

From the witness stand the day before, in the near-empty hearing room, DeWayne McKinney more than once used the word "predicament" to describe his 19 years behind bars, including stints at Folsom and San Quentin, three stabbings and a suicide attempt. Predicament, eh? A master of understatement, you might say. A man who was taken in when he was 20 and didn't emerge into society again until he was 39.

Now 46 and freed from his life sentence since January 2000, McKinney's biography suggests that nothing has been easy. Nor, it appears, will be getting the $700,000 he's asking from the state board that reimburses people wrongly convicted.

McKinney is financially comfortable because of business ventures, so in a way, the compensation request is the final step on the way back.

Before the hearing began Tuesday, McKinney said the award would remove whatever stigma remains.

But to get the money — based on a formula of $100 a day for each day behind bars — he must prove his innocence. The attorney general's office is arguing otherwise, and a state official said he's not aware of a case where money was awarded over the attorney general's objections.

It is not a token objection. In a 66-page report, the A.G.'s office concludes that "not only has McKinney not demonstrated his innocence, the evidence certainly seems to suggest that he was indeed the Burger King killer."

Enter the man who took the stand after lunch Wednesday. Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas flew in for the occasion and told the hearing officer that he asked for McKinney's release from prison in 2000 because his investigators convinced him that two other men had committed the robbery-murder at the fast food restaurant in Orange in December 1980.

Irony filled the room. Rackauckas was the young deputy D.A. who tried McKinney in 1982 and had asked for the death penalty. Had the jury gone along, McKinney may well have been executed before Rackauckas changed his mind on his guilt in 2000.

Before Rackauckas took the stand, I turned to McKinney in the row behind me and asked if the situation seemed surreal, another word he'd used when testifying. "Everything has been pretty much surreal," he said, "not just this proceeding, but the whole case."

Rackauckas spent about 75 minutes answering questions from both sides. Mike Farrell, a deputy attorney general, made it rather obvious he thinks Rackauckas' investigators bought a bogus story from two habitual criminals who said they knew who committed the Burger King murder of night manager Walter Bell, shot once in the back of the head as four other employees were herded into a freezer.

The D.A. countered that the investigators were savvy enough to spot a phony story. He also noted that two of the four employees had backed off their identifications of McKinney over the years. In fact, the four identifications formed the core of the case against McKinney, against whom there was no physical evidence.

Rackauckas squared off against Farrell and, at times, sounded like the kind of defendant that prosecutors always gripe about. He couldn't remember some things, parried some of Farrell's more barbed remarks and at one point drew chuckles when Farrell was boring in on the credibility of the two men who exonerated McKinney. After the hearing officer overruled an objection, Rackauckas said he didn't remember the original question, then ad-libbed to Farrell: "I don't particularly want you to repeat it."

Irony and comedy!

Rackauckas deserves kudos for showing up. He didn't have to. He wasn't subpoenaed. He knew he'd be opposing a fellow law-enforcement agency. He knows the act of freeing convicted killers can backfire. He had already expedited McKinney's release seven years ago. He could have made up an excuse for not coming to the compensation hearing, which is all about money.

"He's been really honorable in this entire process," said Jeff Rawitz, an attorney representing McKinney. "He couldn't have been a more stand-up guy in our contacts with him."

Rawitz said beforehand he didn't know how far Rackauckas would go in defending McKinney's innocence.

When he asked him on the stand, Rackauckas paused a moment, then said, "I think it's likely he didn't commit the murder."

Farrell pounced on the hesitation and asked if it were a difficult question. Rackauckas said it was because it is difficult to quantify doubts.

"Do you think he could be the Burger King killer?" Farrell asked.

"I think that's possible," Rackauckas said.

For those who think that's waffling, I disagree. It'd be ridiculous to say he knew McKinney was innocent in a case that doesn't yield certainty. Still, I confess to some surprise that Rackauckas put so much stock in two hard-case criminals' counter-story about the Burger King murder, but he certainly didn't do it to curry favor. In other instances, these are the kind of stories that prosecutors in many jurisdictions dismiss out of hand.

Since Rackauckas didn't, you'd think a hearing officer would, in turn, put serious stock in the remarks of a district attorney who originally prosecuted the man seeking restitution.

After his testimony, Rackauckas talked a few minutes with me and a colleague. He said he wasn't happy about opposing the A.G.'s office but felt he had a duty to testify. He said the issue of McKinney's compensation wasn't part of his motivation in coming. He reiterated that he supported McKinney's release in 2000 because he was no longer convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. However, he said, he doesn't second-guess the decision to try him 25 years ago and is not in any way tormented by it.

We didn't have enough time to probe his psyche. I don't know if he'll reflect on his original certainty of someone's guilt — built on various pieces that once seemed to fit — only to realize a man did 19 years in prison and may be innocent.

That seems to me to be the point of McKinney's saga. We want a system of both truth and justice, but because human beings run it, we sometimes get neither. The Burger King case centered on eyewitness identifications, which remains an area ripe for abuse when not handled properly. A retired professor who has researched the subject for 30 years testified that most wrongful convictions stem from eyewitness accounts.

I told Rackauckas my head was spinning. He nails McKinney in 1982, then springs him, then practically gets accused of letting a killer go free, then comes to testify on his behalf. It's a justice system temporarily upside down.

The angriest guy in the room should have been McKinney. He's the one who did hard time in the 1980s and '90s while Rackauckas was climbing the professional ladder. But McKinney has said since his release he holds no grudges and that, somehow, he grew up in prison and figured out a lot of things.

It all happened for a reason, McKinney said.

If only the rest of us could figure out what that reason was and try to get it right next time.

Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons

Melendez comes to UA, tells story of exoneration, freedom

February 1, 2007


Melendez comes to UA, tells story of exoneration, freedom

Ex-death row inmate calls for death penalty abolition

By James Jaillet, The Crimson White

Just more than five years ago, Juan Roberto Melendez was an inmate awaiting
execution in a Florida prison. Today, however, Melendez is a free man,
traveling the world and giving speeches on his story, his faith and the
abolishment of the death penalty.

On Tuesday, Melendez was a guest speaker at the UA School of Law, where he
spoke to a classroom full of law students and other guests.

According to close friend and colleague Judi Caruso, Melendez's story is one
of "triumph and justice," and is also a key case in exploring the problems
of the death penalty in our country.

Melendez's story began in May 1984 when he was arrested for first-degree
murder and armed robbery of a cosmetics school owner in Auburndale, Fla.
After a one-week trial in September 1984, Melendez was convicted and
sentenced to death row, where his term started in November 1984.

Melendez was convicted on the word of David Falcon, a police informant, and
John Berrien, a former friend of Melendez, with both saying they new
Melendez had committed the crime and Berrien saying he was an accomplice to
the crime. No physical evidence existed that tied Melendez to the crime.

"His initial reaction was a very strong anger," Caruso said. "He knew he
wasn't supposed to be there. He just knew that the prosecution could never
prove the case and that justice would prevail, but when it didn't it was
very tough for him."

Melendez said, though, that anger is something he learned to deal with while

"I learned to let the anger go away," he said. "It wasn't the hating type of
anger, it was the type of anger that kept me going."

Sixteen years and three appeals later, a tape of the confession of the real
killer, Vernon James, surfaced. James' defense attorney made the tape one
month before his trial began and copies had been sent to the prosecution as
well. The tape not only contained the confession but also quoted the real
killer as to other crimes he had confessed.

"Juan said that there were really two miracles in his exoneration. The first
was that the tape itself was found. The second was that the case had gotten
moved from Polk County to Hillsborough County, [Fla.]," Caruso said. "In
Polk County, you could say they were practicing the good ol' network. What
it took was an individual judge to look at all of the evidence without any
ties to anything and decide that he needed to be free."

The real murderer had been killed by a police officer two years after Juan
had been sentenced. Sixteen witnesses came forward to say James had also
confessed his guilt to them, and on Jan. 3, 2002, Melendez was freed.

"The average time of length an inmate spends on death row in Florida is nine
to 10 years. Juan was very, very fortunate to be on 16 years, which was
enough time to allow the tape to resurface," Caruso said.

Edward Miller, a third-year law student, said he has seen a lesson in
overlooking minute details in cases such as Melendez's.

"Two of the biggest things for me are for one, what seems like a job to me
in law school could be details that are irksome sometimes, but to others
they could be the difference in them living and dying," Miller said. "The
second is that you should never be bored.

"To imagine being bored with any part of this job and not giving the effort
that could change someone's life completely is, to me, selling freedom

Millie Worley, a second-year law student, said Melendez's presentation was
"very moving and insightful."

"It certainly raises some of the serious questions about how we address
appeals and evidence in post-conviction death row inmates," Worley said.
"I'm sure it's something that's going to stick with me."

Ryan Ammons, a second-year law student, said that along with the insight
Melendez offered, it reinforced Ammons' belief in examining the infringement
upon human rights he sees in the execution of inmates.

"I have a lot of sympathy for human rights abuses that go on in our own
country," Ammons said. "I was already very sympathetic towards that cause,
but it's good to hear someone who fought when their rights were taken away.

"I think this can teach us that some cases, if pushed hard enough from the
outside, can still work out."

Melendez works with Caruso in a program known as the Juan Melendez Voices
United for Justice. Both are also board members of the National Coalition to
Abolish the Death Penalty. Melendez said though he is free, he still has
many wishes for the future.

"I'm still a dreamer," Melendez said. "I still pray to God every night to
get the death penalty abolished."


Source : The Crimson White (University of Alabama)