Saturday, 31 March 2007

Freed death row inmate talks at Queens College

March 29, 2007


Freed death row inmate talks at Queens College

By Howard Koplowitz, Times Ledger

"My nightmare started May 31, 1985," former Oklahoma death row inmate Greg
Wilhoit told the audience of about 40 students assembled in a second-floor
classroom at CUNY Law School at Queens College.

On that day, Wilhoit's wife Kathy, from whom he had been separated for three
weeks, was found murdered with her throat cut and strangled with a telephone
cord inside her Tulsa apartment.

Wilhoit's subsequent arrest, conviction and death penalty sentence is one of
four murder convictions documented in John Grisham's first non-fiction book,
"The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town." The book is
sharply critical of the death penalty in the legal system, particularly in

In Kathy Wilhoit's case, nobody was seen entering or leaving her apartment.
None of the hairs found matched those belonging to Greg Wilhoit and there
was an unidentified footprint at the scene.

"In fact, there was not one iota of evidence that put me (at) the crime
scene," Wilhoit said. "To this day, I still don't understand this."

But eight months after the murder, police showed up at Wilhoit's home.

"They just threw me in the back of the police car and took me to the Tulsa,
Okla., jail," he said.

After staying at the jail for two days, Wilhoit was released on $50,000
bond. Police never told them why they were holding him, but when he asked
they said it was for capital murder. They said his wife had been sexually
assaulted and bite marks on her breasts were linked to him.

Although he maintained his innocence, Wilhoit understood why the cops were
investigating him.

"I knew right off the bat they had to give me a pretty hard look," he said.

Since he lived alone, Wilhoit did not have an alibi that could be

He said he hired "two jokers" who were highly recommended lawyers for
$25,000 cash to handle his case.

"These guys were supposed to be my zealous advocates," he said, but instead
they advised him to cop a plea because the bite marks were "smoking guns."

After firing those lawyers, Wilhoit hired a local attorney who also turned
out to be incompetent. He did not know it at the time, but the second lawyer
had been cited by the Oklahoma Bar Association for operating without a

At his trial, the prosecution put on the stand what Wilhoit called two "bite
mark experts" who said that evidence amounted to a fingerprint that can only
belong to one person and Wilhoit was that person.

"These two guys were very convincing," he said, noting that he would have
convicted himself if he were on the jury. "I could see the writing on the
wall, there was no doubt about it."

It took only three hours of deliberations for the jury to convict Wilhoit.

He did not put on any witnesses during the penalty phase, resigning himself
to death.

"I wanted the death penalty because I wanted to cut my losses," he said.
"The way I looked at it, I took the easy way out."

In 1 hours, the jury returned with a death sentence.

"I actually felt relief getting my death sentence," Wilhoit said.

He was sent to cell 13 at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in 1987, a maximum
security prison where he was alongside Roger Dale Stanton and Chuck Coleman.

Wilhoit said they would terrorize other inmates who they hated or those who
had something they wanted.

"Fortunately, they liked me and I didn't have jack s---," he said.

Six months into his sentence, Wilhoit was appointed a public defender to
handle his appeal.

The attorney, Mark Barrett, was able to get the bite mark evidence reviewed
two years later. Barrett hired experts, including the FBI and the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police, to sift through the marks.

They found more than 20 inconsistencies with the marks, Wilhoit said, even
though one inconsistency was enough to clear him.

Their testimony was heard at his appeal and Barrett filed a motion to have
the case dismissed. The judge said Wilhoit was free to go in 1993.

"It was quite a moment," he said. "It was just a wild, wild emotional ride."

It turned out that the prosecution experts testifying about the bite marks
at Wilhoit's trial were not experts at all. He said one was just out of
dental school and read a book about forensic evidence and the other taught
dental ethics at a local community college.

Kathy Wilhoit's case remains unsolved.

Although he was a staunch death penalty supporter before his arrest and even
while on death row, Wilhoit changed his mind in a spiritual epiphany when
Coleman became the first man in Oklahoma to be executed in 32 years.

He said Coleman had been a friend of his in prison and although Coleman was
a murderer, he "actually had a capacity for kindness."

"I changed my mind because my friend got executed," he said. "The
cornerstone of Christianity is forgiveness.


After his release, Wilhoit left Oklahoma, where he said he "felt like a
square peg in a place filled with round holes" because of his left-leaning
politics. He has since moved to Sacramento, Calif., and now spends his time
visiting colleges and churches speaking out against the death penalty.


Source : Times Ledger

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Durham assistant DA to lead state panel

Durham assistant DA to lead state panel

By John Stevenson, The Herald-Sun
March 28, 2007 10:57 pm

DURHAM -- Durham Assistant District Attorney Kendra Montgomery-Blinn next month will become the first executive director of North Carolina's new Innocence Inquiry Commission, which reportedly is the first agency of its kind in the country and is intended to protect innocent people from languishing behind bars.

The Legislature established the Raleigh-based commission last year to investigate claims of actual innocence by inmates convicted of crimes.

Lawmakers believed it was needed because of defendants like Alan Gell, who spent more than seven years on death row for a murder in which he later was exonerated.

Commission Chairman Quentin T. Sumner, a Nash County judge, said Wednesday it took longer than anticipated to find an executive director. But the wait was worth it, he added.

"Of all the applicants we reviewed and interviewed, Ms. Montgomery-Blinn stood out as possessing a balanced combination of the administration and legal skills needed to do the commission's work," said Sumner. "Moreover, it's clear from both her work history and our discussions with her, Ms. Montgomery-Blinn has neither a political agenda nor an ax to grind. She's seen and experienced how criminal law works from both sides of the fence."

A graduate of Purdue University with a law degree from Duke, Montgomery-Blinn has been with the Durham District Attorney's Office for three years, most recently specializing in domestic violence cases.

While at Duke, she was a volunteer with the school's Innocence Project and eventually became its student director.

Montgomery-Blinn said Wednesday she was excited about her new position, but also sad to leave her current job.

She added that she has "great respect" for District Attorney Mike Nifong and was "absolutely not" departing because of turmoil surrounding the Duke lacrosse sex-offense case.

According to Montgomery-Blinn, the transition from prosecution work to helping convicted defendants isn't as big a leap as it might appear.

"Prosecutors are very concerned about justice," she said. "As a prosecutor, my biggest nightmare would be to convict an innocent person. Nothing has changed. I'll just be going at things from a different direction."

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Freed by DNA, ex-convict sues county, police

March 28, 2007


Freed by DNA, ex-convict sues county, police

By David Conti, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

A Braddock man who spent more than 16 years in prison on a murder rap before
DNA evidence set him free filed a federal lawsuit today against Allegheny
County, six former homicide detectives and a lawyer who once represented

Drew Whitley, 51, claims the county and its detectives ignored evidence that
would have cleared him of the crime years ago and fabricated testimony that
led to his 1989 conviction for the fatal shooting of a fast-food restaurant

"The criminal proceedings instituted by the defendants herein were
undertaken maliciously, vengefully and with bias..." attorney Lawrence H.
Fisher wrote in the lawsuit filed this morning in U.S. District Court,

Whitley is seeking unspecified damages for his claims of malicious
prosecution and civil rights violations.

He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for
the August 1988 slaying of Noreen Malloy, 22, outside the McDonald's in
Duquesne, near Kennywood Park. The jury's verdict was based partly on
testimony from a death-row inmate who claimed Whitley confessed, and a crime
lab technician's opinion that hairs found in a stocking mask worn by the
killer were similar to Whitley's.

DNA tests last year showed the hairs did not come from Whitley. The District
Attorney's office withdrew the charges and a judge set him free in May.

Whitley also named attorney Sanford A. Middleman in his lawsuit, claiming
the lawyer shirked his responsibilities to pursue appeals on Whitley's


Source : Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Federal judge throws out death row inmate's conviction

July 27, 2004

Federal judge throws out death row inmate's conviction

Associated Press

A federal judge has thrown out a death row inmate's conviction, ruling
that West Texas authorities concealed evidence and needlessly drugged him
during his trial.

U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson ruled July 21 that there is "strong
reason" to believe Ernest Ray Willis, 58, is innocent of setting a house
fire that killed two women. He was convicted in 1987.

Defense lawyers later discovered that jailers had treated Willis' back
pain with large doses of anti-psychotic drugs, which left him too dazed to
meaningfully confer with his attorneys.

They also later learned that prosecutors had failed to disclose a
psychologist's report saying Willis was not dangerous - a key issue in any
death penalty case.

Furgeson declared in his ruling that the state's highest criminal court
erred when it dismissed those concerns, and he echoed a state trial judge
who ruled four years ago that Willis never received a fair trial.

James S. Blank, who has been representing Willis in his appeal, said his
client was cautiously pleased.

"It was a measured response because he's been in (death row) for 17 years,
and he understands it's not over till it's over," Blank said.

Willis remains on death row while the state decides whether it will appeal
Furgeson's ruling, seek a new trial or set him free. Officials must make a
decision by Nov. 18.

A spokesman for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott did not immediately
return a telephone call seeking comment.

Furgeson's ruling did not surprise Willis' friend Michael Robinson. The
fire Willis was convicted of setting happened at Robinson's Iraan house.

"Hell, we knew Ernie wasn't guilty," Robinson said in Tuesday's edition of
the San Antonio Express-News. "They didn't have any evidence at all, and
everything they came up with even at the original trial was all just blown
out of proportion."

The fire was ruled an arson, but prosecutors offered no motive to explain
why Willis would set fire to his friend's home.

The case took an odd twist years after the trial when another death row
inmate confessed to setting the fire. David Long claimed he had shown up
at the house, drunk and on drugs, and set it on fire to get even with
Willis' cousin, who also was staying there.


Source : Associated Press

Virginia agrees to murder case deal

Virginia agrees to murder case deal

$1.9 million would go to Earl Washington, cleared in Culpeper woman's death

Mar 27, 2007

Virginia has agreed to pay $1.9 million to Earl Washington Jr. for a wrongful conviction that nearly cost the former farm worker his life and tarnished the reputation of the state's criminal-justice system.

If the agreement is approved by the court, it would end Washington's claims against authorities and toss out a $2.25 million verdict -- now on appeal -- that he won last year in federal court.

A jury in Charlottesville found that in 1983, former Virginia State Police investigator Curtis Reese Wilmore, who has since died, gave Washington details of the crime that only the killer could have known in order to buttress Washington's confession.

Washington, who is mildly retarded, falsely confessed to the June 4, 1982, rape and murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams, a 19-year-old mother of three, in Culpeper. He recanted the confession but was sentenced to death and came within nine days of being executed in 1985.

DNA testing in 2000 led to Washington's freedom and implicated a convicted rapist, Kenneth Maurice Tinsley. Tinsley, now facing capital-murder charges, was further implicated in 2004 DNA testing conducted as a result of Washington's suit.

Washington was not available for comment yesterday. He is married, lives in Virginia Beach and has a job with Support Services of Virginia. He will celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary and his 47th birthday in May.

"If the court signs off on it, obviously it's the end of a very, very long road," said Robert T. Hall, one of Washington's lawyers. "Earl will be relieved, and we'll be relieved that Earl will be taken care of for the balance of his life."

William G. Broaddus, one of the lawyers representing Wilmore's estate, said the Wilmore family is pleased that a condition of the agreement will be erasure of last year's judgment against Wilmore and the dismissal of the lawsuit.

Wilmore was left as the only defendant in the case initially filed in 2002 against numerous officials. Wilmore, however, appeared to be the only one in law enforcement who had misgivings about Washington's guilt and put them in writing.

Broaddus said that during the investigation, Wilmore reported the inconsistencies between Washington's statement and the facts of the crime and voluntarily described all of them to the jury that sentenced Washington to death in 1984.

"This reporting led many to question Mr. Washington's guilt, long before the advent of the DNA testing, which ultimately proved his actual innocence," he said.

The settlement agreement must still be approved by U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon, who indicated he would do so if the case is sent back to him by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it is now pending.

According to papers filed in court last week, the agreement was reached after months of settlement negotiations involving the lawyers, the governor's office and mediators.

Details were not available. But the papers said the $1.9 million would be paid to both Washington and his lawyers.

Kevin Hall, spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, said he could confirm that there is a tentative settlement, "but until the court signs off on it, I'm not at liberty to say a whole lot more."

Wilmore's lawyers have already been paid $1 million in fees by the state to defend Wilmore. If paid, the $1.9 million would bring the cost to the state to nearly $3 million, not counting the cost of years of work by the Virginia attorney general's office.

Washington had also been convicted of an unrelated assault against an elderly woman. State legislators were asked in 2003 to compensate Washington $1 million for his wrongful murder conviction but refused.

Robert Hall said it appeared that because of limits on state coverage under its risk-management plan, no more than $2 million could be collected. And, he said, it was unclear that anything could be collected should the state contest liability.

"We were looking at another three to five years of litigation if we had to go that route," he said.

Contact staff writer Frank Green at
or (804) 649-6340.

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Gary Lamar James wrongful-imprisonment settlement offer rejected

Gary Lamar James wrongful-imprisonment settlement offer rejected: Alan Johnson has this story in the Columbus Dispatch, entitled "Wrongfully jailed man offered lower settlement," on compensation offered to Ohio death row exoneree Gary Lamar James of less than half the amount awarded co-Ohio death row exoneree Timothy Howard last year. AP has more here.
...If an agreement is not reached, James' case will go to trial April 30 before Common Pleas Judge David Cain.

"We offered to try and mediate the amount and that was turned down," [James attorney James D.] Owen said. "Essentially, we were told that unless we made an offer that was less of 40 percent of what Tim got, we would be going to trial. If that's what they want to do, fine, we'll go to trial."

Owen said [Franklin County Prosecutor Ron] O'Brien's office would be "attempting to defend the indefensible" because James' case would expose allegations of perjury by a police fingerprint expert as well as misconduct by Tom Jones, the now-retired lead investigator in the old case.

O'Brien declined to discuss negotiations, but he said he expects the matter will go to trial. ...
(Some earlier coverage of Timothy Howard and Gary Lamar James cases is here and here. AP report on death of Timothy Howard on Monday is here.)

Graves Retrial Judge Erred in Gag Order, Panel Finds

Graves Retrial Judge Erred in Gag Order, Panel Finds

That's the headline in today's Houston Chronicle reporting on the troubled saga of the Anthony Graves case. LINK

A state appeals court ruled that a Burleson County judge abused her discretion by imposing a gag order in the capital murder retrial of former death-row inmate Anthony Graves.

The opinion issued last week gives Burleson County District Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett 14 days to vacate the gag order.

Towslee-Corbett "committed a clear abuse of discretion by issuing a gag order without making sufficiently specific findings to support a prior restraint on Graves' right to free expression" under the Texas Constitution, the opinion said.

The majority said the judge presented no evidence to support her gag order, but they were not ruling on whether there was such evidence.


Graves' attorneys opposed the gag order, arguing their client was first convicted in 1994 because of prosecutorial misconduct and that unrestrained access to the media was necessary to ensure a fair retrial.

His attorneys appealed, arguing the order violated Graves' free-speech rights under state and U.S. constitutions.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Continuing Saga of Anthony Graves' New Trial

Continuing Saga of Anthony Graves' New Trial

The Houston Chronicle reports that a special prosecutor will seek a death sentence when Anthony Graves receives his new trial, "Former Texas death-row inmate to face death again."

A special prosecutor will seek the death penalty in the retrial of former death-row inmate Anthony Graves, whose capital murder conviction was overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The decision to seek the death penalty for Graves, who the Texas Innocence Network says is innocent, came in a one-sentence court filing this week in Burleson County district court by former Navarro County District Attorney Patrick Batchelor.

Batchelor was appointed Burleson County district attorney pro tem in January after District Attorney Renee Mueller recused her entire office.

Batchelor is being assisted by Assistant Attorney General Julie Stone, a rare case of the Texas Attorney General's Office being involved in a local criminal prosecution.

A gag order imposed by Burleson County District Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett prevents either prosecutors or defense attorneys from commenting.

Graves was convicted in 1994 as an accomplice in the slaying of Bobbie Joyce Davis, 45; her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole; and four grandchildren, between 4 and 9.

They were bludgeoned, stabbed and shot to death and Davis's Sommerville home doused with gasoline and set ablaze.

Robert Carter was executed in 2000 for the slayings, proclaiming Graves' innocence moments before his death. Carter said in a deposition that he gave false testimony against Graves to prevent prosecutors from trying his wife as an accomplice.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial last year after finding that prosecutors withheld from the defense Carter's statement that he acted alone. The court also said that the prosecution elicited false testimony.

Graves remains in the Burleson County Jail awaiting trial under a $1 million bail that a federal magistrate judge in Galveston, chosen by the 5th Circuit to handle federal issues in the case, has called "pretty excessive and pretty oppressive," but legal.

Earlier coverage is here and here.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The Brain on the Stand

Published: March 11, 2007

I. Mr. Weinstein’s Cyst When historians of the future try to identify the moment that neuroscience began to transform the American legal system, they may point to a little-noticed case from the early 1990s. The case involved Herbert Weinstein, a 65-year-old ad executive who was charged with strangling his wife, Barbara, to death and then, in an effort to make the murder look like a suicide, throwing her body out the window of their 12th-floor apartment on East 72nd Street in Manhattan. Before the trial began, Weinstein’s lawyer suggested that his client should not be held responsible for his actions because of a mental defect — namely, an abnormal cyst nestled in his arachnoid membrane, which surrounds the brain like a spider web.

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Brendan Monroe

The implications of the claim were considerable. American law holds people criminally responsible unless they act under duress (with a gun pointed at the head, for example) or if they suffer from a serious defect in rationality — like not being able to tell right from wrong. But if you suffer from such a serious defect, the law generally doesn’t care why — whether it’s an unhappy childhood or an arachnoid cyst or both. To suggest that criminals could be excused because their brains made them do it seems to imply that anyone whose brain isn’t functioning properly could be absolved of responsibility. But should judges and juries really be in the business of defining the normal or properly working brain? And since all behavior is caused by our brains, wouldn’t this mean all behavior could potentially be excused?

The prosecution at first tried to argue that evidence of Weinstein’s arachnoid cyst shouldn’t be admitted in court. One of the government’s witnesses, a forensic psychologist named Daniel Martell, testified that brain-scanning technologies were new and untested, and their implications weren’t yet widely accepted by the scientific community. Ultimately, on Oct. 8, 1992, Judge Richard Carruthers issued a Solomonic ruling: Weinstein’s lawyers could tell the jury that brain scans had identified an arachnoid cyst, but they couldn’t tell jurors that arachnoid cysts were associated with violence. Even so, the prosecution team seemed to fear that simply exhibiting images of Weinstein’s brain in court would sway the jury. Eleven days later, on the morning of jury selection, they agreed to let Weinstein plead guilty in exchange for a reduced charge of manslaughter.

After the Weinstein case, Daniel Martell found himself in so much demand to testify as a expert witness that he started a consulting business called Forensic Neuroscience. Hired by defense teams and prosecutors alike, he has testified over the past 15 years in several hundred criminal and civil cases. In those cases, neuroscientific evidence has been admitted to show everything from head trauma to the tendency of violent video games to make children behave aggressively. But Martell told me that it’s in death-penalty litigation that neuroscience evidence is having its most revolutionary effect. “Some sort of organic brain defense has become de rigueur in any sort of capital defense,” he said. Lawyers routinely order scans of convicted defendants’ brains and argue that a neurological impairment prevented them from controlling themselves. The prosecution counters that the evidence shouldn’t be admitted, but under the relaxed standards for mitigating evidence during capital sentencing, it usually is. Indeed, a Florida court has held that the failure to admit neuroscience evidence during capital sentencing is grounds for a reversal. Martell remains skeptical about the worth of the brain scans, but he observes that they’ve “revolutionized the law.”

The extent of that revolution is hotly debated, but the influence of what some call neurolaw is clearly growing. Neuroscientific evidence has persuaded jurors to sentence defendants to life imprisonment rather than to death; courts have also admitted brain-imaging evidence during criminal trials to support claims that defendants like John W. Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate President Reagan, are insane. Carter Snead, a law professor at Notre Dame, drafted a staff working paper on the impact of neuroscientific evidence in criminal law for President Bush’s Council on Bioethics. The report concludes that neuroimaging evidence is of mixed reliability but “the large number of cases in which such evidence is presented is striking.” That number will no doubt increase substantially. Proponents of neurolaw say that neuroscientific evidence will have a large impact not only on questions of guilt and punishment but also on the detection of lies and hidden bias, and on the prediction of future criminal behavior. At the same time, skeptics fear that the use of brain-scanning technology as a kind of super mind-reading device will threaten our privacy and mental freedom, leading some to call for the legal system to respond with a new concept of “cognitive liberty.”

Jeffrey Rosen, a frequent contributor, is the author most recently of “The Supreme Court: The Personalities and Rivalries That Defined America.”

Freed death row inmates visit school

Freed death row inmates visit school

Originally published March 10, 2007

By Sarah Fortney
News-Post Staff

Freed death row inmates visit school

Photo by Skip Lawrence

Chris Conover, left, and Kirk Bloodsworth, former death row inmates who have been exonerated, speak to students at St. John's Catholic Prep School on Friday morning.

FREDERICK — A knock on the door of Kirk Bloodsworth's Cambridge home came early on a hot August 1984 morning. He was escorted, barefoot, out of his home and told he was under arrest for the murder of 9-year-old Dawn V. Hamilton.

Witnesses testified against him — even his neighbor said he fit the description.

"It was a grim experience," he said.

Bloodsworth said he had a "eureka" moment when he realized the power of DNA testing.

When Bloodsworth demanded the evidence be re-examined, he was told it was lost and no one could help him. He pushed relentlessly until his DNA was tested.

Eight years, 11 months and 19 days later, he celebrated his freedom by devouring his favorite food — crabs. Hard and soft shelled crabs, crab soup, crab dip, Bloodsworth said.

"I crabbed it up," he said.

He was the first death row inmate cleared by DNA testing in the nation and is fighting to free other innocent people by supporting the Innocence Protection Act, signed by President Bush as part of the Justice for All Act of 2004. The law is designed to combat crimes with DNA technology and provide safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions and executions.

The Innocence Protection Act also helped develop the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program, which defrays some of the costs of DNA tests.

Bloodsworth was one of two men wrongfully accused of murder who talked about flaws in the judicial system in front of about 300 students Friday morning at St. John's Catholic Prep School.

He and Chris Conover of Kitty Hawk, N.C., shared their experiences as inmates living in cells with cockroaches and indescribable odors while the actual killers were walking around scot-free.

They explained the importance of abolishing the death penalty in Maryland, an issue being discussed among state legislators.

State Sen. Alex Mooney, a Republican who represents Frederick County, will vote on a proposal next week to repeal the death penalty.

"We've been talking to legislatures," Bloodsworth said. "I go all over the country talking about my story."

Conover spent almost 19 years in jail after he was convicted of the 1984 murder of drug dealer Charles Jordan and Jordan's 18-year-old stepdaughter, Lisa Brown. He was to serve triple life sentences plus 80 years without parole until DNA evidence surfaced.

Conover believes his conviction was partly his fault.

"Because of my extensive records I got looked at," Conover said to the students. "I put myself in a suspect pool. It only takes one time for (police) to know about you."

He said he had several drug and armed robbery charges working against him -- he fit the profile of the murderer of a drug dealer.

He said Bloodsworth's action opened doors for him. Without each of them taking a stand for themselves they might not be able to speak about their experiences as free men.

The numbers

A 2005 study published in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology states that more than 350 people were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated in the United States from 1989 to 2003.

Ninety-six percent of the exonerations were either for murder, rape or sexual assault, according to the study. The remaining 14 cases were six robberies, two attempted murders, a kidnapping, an assault, a larceny, a gun possession and two drug cases.

"There is no evidence that an innocent person has been executed," Conover said.

Conover and Bloodsworth both said they hope to educate the students, who can then question their parents about the death penalty. They could ask their parents if they have called local legislators or written to senators.

"We want them to go home and ask their parents about it," Conover said, specifically questioning how many innocent people they believe should die before the person at fault is penalized. "You can't bet on people's lives."


Quron Lewis, 18, is a St. John's senior. As he waited to hear the men tell their stories, he said it's important to raise awareness about the death penalty. Listening to what they say will make an impact on those who are about to leave for college, free to make their own decisions, including whether they should experiment with drugs.

"It's good to have those lookout messages," he said. "We're all learning. Stuff like this is out there."

Sitting with Lewis was senior Tony Cummings, 18. Lewis said the discussion would be meaningful for the student body.

Angie Galleno, director of campus ministry, said the students have expressed interest in the debate.

"They were absolutely on fire, for lack of a better word," she said.

Several students hung posters around the school with statistics and facts about the death penalty, Galleno said. For example, the United States is the only industrialized Western nation still using capital punishment.

"It's good for them to speak about how they were falsely accused," he said.

Freshman Ecisi Izevbigie, 14, sat in the audience with several friends.

"Through this whole experience, I think the issue about the death penalty has broadened my stance on it," she said. "It has expanded my views and made us realize what needs to be done to abolish the death penalty."

Thursday, 8 March 2007

Falsely accused teen settles for $775,000

More information about the Brenton Butler civil case can be found on the website of lawyer Robert J. Slama who represented Mr. Butler.

Brenton Butler

Murder on a Sunday Morning won the academy award for feature documentary, 2001

Falsely accused teen settles for $775,000

By Jim Schoettler and Paul Pinkham, Times-Union staff writers , April 29, 2002

Jacksonville City Hall and the family of falsely accused teen murder suspect Brenton Butler settled the Butler's civil lawsuit this morning for $775,000, family attorney Tom Fallis said.

The settlement followed three weeks of serious negotiations between the parties over the suit, which was filed in October. Among the allegations was that Butler was beaten by police and wrongly jailed for six months before being acquitted by a jury in the May 2000 robbery and slaying of Georgia tourist Mary Ann Stephens.

Fallis said the family decided to settle for various reasons, including concerns about how long the case would drag out and whether it could be proved under federal civil rights law. City officials are denying any responsibility for what happened to Butler under the action.

Judge throws out teen's civil claim, chastises attorney

By Paul Pinkham and Jim Schoettler, Times-Union staff writers, April 19, 2002

An angry judge temporarily dismissed a lawsuit filed by falsely accused teen murder suspect Brenton Butler against Jacksonville police a second time yesterday, saying its sloppiness and length make it read like a grade-school storybook.

"With all the garbage you've thrown in there, you're destroying the good case that your client may have ...," Senior U.S. District Judge John H. Moore II told attorney Robert Slama in court. "I think you've probably got a pretty good case if it is provable, and it's a darn shame he's got you for a lawyer because you are an embarrassment to The Florida Bar."

The judge gave Butler's attorneys 10 days to refile the 115-page civil rights claim and ordered them to limit it to 35 pages.

Butler, then 15, was tried in 2000 for the slaying of a Georgia tourist at a Southside motel. A jury quickly acquitted him amid allegations that police beat a confession out of him, and police and prosecutors later admitted they had the wrong man. A grand jury found no wrongdoing by police but sharply criticized their handling of the case. Two other suspects, unrelated to Butler, are awaiting trial.

Butler and his family are suing the city and individual officers. Slama's co-counsel, Thomas Fallis, said he has been in settlement negotiations with the city for about two weeks.

Slama had little to say after court about Moore's criticisms. "I think my reputation speaks for itself," Slama said.

In a telephone interview later, he named two law professors with expertise in civil rights litigation he said reviewed the pleading before it was filed.

"We anticipated that the judge would make this personal," Slama said. "You didn't hear him get into the substantive issues of the complaint because there are no problems with the substantive aspects of the complaint."

He told Moore in court the pleading was difficult to pare down because federal civil rights cases require enough facts to overcome a finding of immunity on the part of the police.

"I don't know how the court can evaluate these claims ... without understanding what happened because it does tend to turn on small facts," Slama said. "I would certainly like to file a shorter complaint. ... I don't know what the magic number of facts is."

Moore would have none of it.

"You've tried to allege so much garbage in here that there are tons of inconsistencies," Moore said, pointing out as an example that the time of the slaying listed in the complaint is 17 minutes later than the 911 call reporting the crime. "It can be done in a legal, scholarly way. ... Everything in your case has been done in violation of the rules."

Fallis said he didn't think yesterday's events would hurt Butler's case.

"The cause of action is still there," he said. "The court is telling us to trim down the pleadings to your best shots, not all your shots."

Fallis wouldn't criticize Slama but said in light of Moore's criticism he is considering bringing in additional counsel to protect his clients' interests. He said he will take a more active role in preparing the refiling and indicated Moore's limit of 35 pages could make the task difficult.

"In the event it gets dismissed for a lack of facts, we have a record for appeal," Fallis said.

Attorney Tad Delegal, who represents the officers, said he isn't worried about Moore's characterization of the suit as a potentially "good case."

"It's early and none of the discovery has been done. Every case looks good when all you see is one side of the story," he said. Neither he nor city attorneys would discuss Moore's criticism of Slama.

After months of publicity, Butler's lawyers filed a 128-page lawsuit in October alleging 49 civil counts against individual detectives, their supervisors and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. But Moore dismissed it as "one of the worst pleadings this court has ever read."

A 115-page amended complaint was filed in February and trimmed ate Wednesday to 84 pages. But Moore said that claim was improperly filed.

Moore's frustration was evident yesterday as soon as he entered court and held up two law books.

"Before we start, I think we ought to go back to law school," Moore said. "I would suggest all of you, and particularly you, Mr. Slama, that when you leave this courtroom today, you get copies of both of these books. ... If you have them, you obviously haven't read them."

Death row prisoner moves pupils to tears

Death row prisoner moves pupils to tears

A FORMER death row prisoner shared his moving life story with dumbstruck schoolchildren.

Nick Yarris, 45, spent 22 years in a Pennsylvania prison in the USA for a murder and rape he did not commit.

Mr Yarris was jailed in 1981, but was released three years ago after DNA evidence exonerated him.

He now campaigns against the death penalty with UK human rights charity, Reprieve, and in May 2005 married British woman Karen Karbritz, who he met at one of his speaking engagements. The couple have a baby daughter, Lara.

Mr Yarris was invited to share his experiences with pupils at Barking Abbey, Sandringham Road.

Head of sociology Eugene Spiers said: "He talked about how he overcame adversity and there was an excellent student response.

"Before the talk, lots of students were a bit sceptical about his story and the trouble he was in, but a couple of students were crying at the end. It's raised a lot of interesting questions about crime and the death penalty."

Mr Yarris spoke to year 13 theology and sociology pupils and other students from years 11 and 12.

Mr Spiers said: "It was the quietest I've ever heard all the students. You could have heard a pin drop for the 45 minutes he was talking.

"Several of them asked questions and some stayed behind at the end to talk to him. He's a very inspirational man."

Pupil Samuel Draper, 17, said: "It was very moving and it acted like a verbal lesson to make sure that I try to minimise my mistakes. I have never been a fan of capital punishment and I wish Reprieve every success in its aims."

Sarah Halliday, 17, said: "The talk was very interesting and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

"I found the talk inspiring as well as moving and thought that Nick Yarris was extremely brave to talk about his ordeal in front of a large audience. Hearing him speak has completely changed my view of capital punishment."

* More schools ever week in the Barking and Dagenham Recorder.

Monday, 5 March 2007

The characters in "The Exonerated" come from different backgrounds

March 5, 2007

The characters in "The Exonerated" come from different backgrounds

BY DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA, Theater Critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press

The characters in "The Exonerated" come from different backgrounds. They're
black and white, male and female, hippies and Army vets and operators of
small businesses.

They were all convicted of murders they didn't commit. They were all
sentenced to death. They were all released. And all of their stories are

If you're looking for a balanced and dispassionate examination of crime and
punishment in the United States, this isn't it. But if you want some
compelling and highly personalized stories of how the American justice
system has broken down, then Frank Theatre's current production will provide
plenty to think about.

Staged readers-theater style - in the vein of "The Vagina Monologues" or
"Love Letters" - "The Exonerated" places 10 actors on an essentially bare
stage, sitting on chairs with music stands holding scripts in front of them.
Without benefit of set or props or much in the way of interaction between
the performers, there are only the words and the stories.

And the stories are fascinating. There's Kerry Max Cook, who shares horrific
and harrowing accounts of a bungled trial and 22 years of almost-unspeakable
horrors on death row. There's Sunny Jacobs, who was convicted and condemned
for the murder of two police officers. She was exonerated, but not before
the sentence of her common-law husband, Jesse Tafero, was carried out in one
of Florida's most notoriously botched electric-chair executions.

And there are others. People in the wrong place at the wrong time. People
who didn't understand the system. People with bad luck, bad instincts or bad
attorneys. Their stories are told mostly in their own words, gleaned from
interviews conducted by the play's creators, Macalester College graduates
Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen.

In its original off-Broadway staging and then in a later national tour that
came through the Twin Cities, "The Exonerated" was a celebrity stop-off,
where marquee names would spend a few weeks rotating in and out of the
production. The Frank production - the first local staging of the work -
uses a permanent, skilled cast of local actors who had a bad night the
Saturday evening I attended.

Grant Richey, playing Cook, lost his place a couple of times and was caught
casting panicked glances at his script. As Jacobs, Virginia Burke muffed a
line at a critical emotional juncture. And many of the other 10 cast
members, caught between the crutch of having the script in front of them and
the desire to "act" the words, seemed to slip gears.

It was probably just an off night rather than under-preparation - the
performance immediately after opening night traditionally is a rocky one.
But in a show like this, with no distraction from the stage dressing, such
slip-ups are magnified and threaten to suck the vitality right out of a
show, rendering it more reportage than performance.

The company is better than what they showed at this particular performance.
But they're saved by the stories they tell. They're gritty and haunting, and
they linger long after 90 minutes of "The Exonerated."


Source : St. Paul Pioneer Press

Sunday, 4 March 2007

Wrongly convicted man writes of justice reclaimed

March 4, 2007

Wrongly convicted man writes of justice reclaimed

By STEVE WEINBERG, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Some miscarriages of justice never fail to shock, no matter how many times
the saga is repeated. The wrongful conviction of Kerry Max Cook in a Tyler
rape/murder 30 years ago still shocks. And Cook's personal account of his
case, Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death
Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit, is more shocking than all the news coverage
combined. That's because the saga is not concentrated in a newspaper article
or a magazine story. Instead, it grinds on for more than 300 pages, as
police detectives, sheriff's deputies, prosecutors, judges, jurors, prison
guards and fellow inmates either misperceive the evidence or manufacture it.

It is unusual for a wrongfully convicted person to write a book about his or
her case -- not even a handful of such volumes exist. Cook was just 20 when
he was arrested in 1977; he was not well-schooled and was in many ways
naive, despite a street life that included a nonviolent criminal record. He
is not a smooth writer. Still, the book is clear. The degradation he
suffered is so depressing that it is difficult for even a professional
writer like me to find the appropriate descriptive words.

Wrongful convictions are more common than most laypeople realize. Much of my
time as an investigative reporter is spent studying them. The Cook case is
legendary because it dragged on so long, because he came close to being
executed by the state, because the misbehavior of police and prosecutors was
so egregious, because none of them suffered punishment for their wrongdoing
and because as the true nature of the case became clear, the more likely
suspect (named by Cook) escaped arrest. (The person in question was a highly
educated married man who was the victim's workplace supervisor and lover.)

Wrongful convictions yield many tragedies. One of those is obvious yet
overlooked: The real perpetrator is free to enjoy life, perhaps to strike
again. Yet in case after case around Texas and around the nation, police and
prosecutors' faulty arrest logic too often allows the real perpetrators to
remain free. It certainly made no sense from the opening of the rape/murder
investigation to arrest Cook. The only explanation for the mistake in this
case was the overwhelming desire of police and prosecutors to impress their
constituencies with a quick collar.

Cook says he had a casual sexual encounter with the victim, Linda Jo
Edwards, the same week she was found murdered at the apartment complex where
they both lived. For years, he withheld information about that encounter
from the authorities, a decision that hurt his situation and branded him as
a liar. In the book, Cook confesses his lie and explains it more or less
adequately. The voluminous police, prosecutor and court records back up the
truth of the rest of his saga.

The book allows a few honorable men and women to shine. Most notable is
James McCloskey, who left his careers as a businessman and minister to
investigate wrongful-conviction claims. McCloskey, at his tiny Centurion
Ministries office in Princeton, N.J., takes on fewer than 1 percent of the
cases that come to his attention. Cook won McCloskey's attention and was
able to beat the odds, after spending two excruciating decades in prison,
where he was raped and tortured.

The overturning of one conviction in a criminal justice system that rarely
sets aside mistakes is a miracle of sorts. McCloskey and his Centurion
Ministries colleagues have played major roles in freeing more than three
dozen innocent men and women from Texas prisons and elsewhere.

Cook's saga offers little hope that McCloskey can relax anytime soon.

Chasing Justice

By Kerry Max Cook

William Morrow, $25.95



Source : Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Steve Weinberg is the former executive
director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.)

Friday, 2 March 2007

Former death-row inmate wants to abolish penalty

March 2, 2007

Former death-row inmate wants to abolish penalty

by Joseph Kenny, Review Staff Writer

Juan Melendez lists a number of reasons why people should support abolishing the death penalty.

But the best reason is one he has experienced. He knows that an innocent person is at risk of being killed by any state that has the death penalty because he is one of those people, he told an audience at St. Louis University last week.
Anti-death penalty arguments offered

As Juan Melendez fights for the abolition of the death penalty, he focuses on injustices he saw in his own case.

Included is the risk of the death penalty being imposed on innocent people, the almost exclusive application to the poor and its disproportionate application on the basis of race and ethnicity.

A summary of the arguments includes:

Innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death.

The death penalty is applied unfairly and arbitrarily.

Scientific research indicates capital punishment is not a deterrent to homicide or other violent crimes. States without the death penalty have lower homicide rates.

The death penalty is more expensive than life imprisonment.

Many family members of murder victims don’t want the death penalty and actively oppose it.

The United States is the only Western country that still imposes it.

The vast majority of religions and mainline faith groups oppose the death penalty, including many leaders of the Catholic Church. • Alternatives to the death penalty exist.

Melendez’s Voices United for Justice Project urges people to visit
The native of Puerto Rico spent 17 years on death row in Florida after being convicted of the first-degree murder and armed robbery of Delbert Baker, a beauty-shop owner.

In 2001, Judge Barbara Fleischer overturned the conviction. She noted there was no physical evidence which connected Melendez to the murder and that additional information attacked the credibility of the state’s key witnesses’ testimony.

Evidence that was not presented at the trial showed that three witnesses provided an alibi. Another man had been seen at the home of the murder victim on the night of the homicide, had been wearing bloody clothes and admitted to other witnesses that he had killed Baker.

"The evidence also helps to substantiate the defense theory that someone other than the defendant committed the homicide," the judge wrote.

The St. Petersburg Times reported that prosecutors withheld evidence from defense lawyers. A tape that emerged contained the confession of the real killer, now deceased, who said Melendez was not present.

"Check the record. It’s all in black and white," Melendez said of those who might doubt his innocence.

Surviving 17 years on death row, knowing he did not commit the crime, tested Melendez, a Catholic. "Without God I never would have made it. I wanted to commit suicide. But God sent me beautiful dreams. That gave me hope that one day I would be out of there, that I would be free."

Melendez was interviewed by the Review while in St. Louis Feb. 22 for a talk at SLU about his experiences. When he was released from prison Jan. 3, 2002, he became the 99th death-row inmate in the United States to be released since 1973.

Now, 123 people have been let off death row. Another 1,062 have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated, he said. "Only God knows the (innocent) ones who did not have the luck I had," Melendez noted.

Catholic News Service recently carried the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, convicted of a brutal 1984 rape and murder of a 9-year-old near Baltimore. Sentenced to die in the gas chamber, Bloodsworth was the first person to be exonerated by DNA testing. In 2003, another man was identified as the killer. He pled guilty and is serving a life sentence.

On death row, Melendez said, "I was like a little kid who is learning to walk. I’d walk, fall down and get up again. Every time I had an appeal and it was denied, I took a step down. Sometimes I lost hope but I was able to pick it up again."

He is thankful for his appeals attorneys who believed in his innocence and that the case eventually came before a judge who took the time to study it carefully. Her 72-page opinion chastised the prosecutor, law-enforcement officers and the defense lawyer, he said.

As an indigent man who at the time did not speak English, he was at the mercy of the court, he said.

"Most attorneys who deal with death-penalty cases are appointed by the state. They don’t have enough experience, and they have too many cases. They don’t have funds for crime investigators, while the prosecutors have the resources. The death penalty is arbitrary, racist, costs too much and doesn’t deter crime," Melendez said.

He has travelled the country to share his story and speak about the death penalty. He works in construction in New Mexico for a man who gives him time off to pursue the cause. He also spends time in Puerto Rico counseling high-risk youth.

Many people on death row accept God or change for the good, he said. "We are not killing the same people who committed the crime because people change and redeem themselves. I don’t say let them go. They committed a crime and have to pay for it. Put them in prison where they can counsel those who one day will get out."

Released from prison with nothing but a pair of pants, a shirt and $100, Melendez chose the path of forgiveness.

"You either can hate them the rest of your life and be miserable or you can forgive them and go on with your life. When you forgive them, you’re helping yourself."

Similarly, he said, the death penalty does not provide healing. Only after forgiving, he said, can someone start to heal.

He said he appreciates the Catholic Church’s teachings against the death penalty, and he pointed to statements from Pope John Paul II. "We eventually will win. I just hope it will be in my lifetime. We have won some battles. They no longer can kill young ones and the mentally retarded. It’s all about education."

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty story is now a stage play.

March 1, 2007

Passionate cause is thriving

Sister Helen Prejean's anti-death penalty story is now a stage play.

By ROBERT TRUSSELL, The Kansas City Star

Sister Helen Prejean has seen herself portrayed repeatedly on film and on

And while that might go to a person's head, Prejean, 67, is about the least
pretentious media star you're likely to encounter.

"It's about me, but I'm like the prism through which the light comes,"
Prejean said by telephone from the Burbank Airport last weekend.

It began with Dead Man Walking, her nonfiction account of her ministry to
convicts on death row in Louisiana. It was on the best-seller charts for 31

Then Tim Robbins adapted it as a film. Sean Penn played a fictional convict,
a composite of two of the real death-row inmates Prejean worked with, and
Prejean was played by Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her performance.
It became an opera by composer Jake Heggie with a libretto by playwright
Terrence McNally.

And Prejean talked Robbins into adapting it as a stage play, which the Avila
University theater department is presenting this weekend.

"I remember I sat at the San Francisco Opera and there was Sister Helen and
she was singing, 'My journey, my journey, and I know it's taking the people
on this journey, too," Prejean said. "So I'm like an instrument or a
witness. I'm not trying to be overly humble in this. It's really the way I
feel. Because I know that before that ride is over they're gonna be brought
deep into the depths of that issue."

So every time the opera is produced, every time the play is staged, every
time someone rents the DVD, Prejean sees it all as a way to heighten the
death penalty in the public consciousness. She approached Robbins about the
idea of writing a stage version after reading an article about Arthur
Miller's "Death of a Salesman," which has been produced countless times all
over the world.

"I prevailed on him that for a year we would just let Jesuit schools do it,
and he agreed to that," she said. "And the understanding was that at the end
of that year he would take the play back."

Robbins was so impressed by the response of young people and the play's
ability to stir discussion in the community that he decided to continue
licensing it to schools. Now it's in its third year.

"He knows the important thing is to get the discourse going and also to
start the educational process," she said. "Theater was always meant to deal
with the issues of the time and not just be this fantasy thing . It's using
the arts to bring people to deeper reflection. And the death penalty is so
hidden for most people . it's not a moral issue that affects most people
personally. And so this brings them close to the reality. You know, the play
is constructed just like the film. It brings you over to both sides. It's
not just a polemic against the death penalty."

Anyone else in Prejean's position would probably be enjoying the wealth that
comes from literary success.

"What do I do with money? I take the money and run," she cracked.

In reality she gives everything she earns to her order, the Sisters of St.
Joseph of Medaille.

"The sisterhood supports you in whatever you want to do," she said. "So it
gives you beautiful freedom. So whatever you make you turn back into the
sisterhood . for the needs of the community and the mission of the

Critics of those who would do away with the penalty usually make a simple
argument: That society would be better off without housing and feeding
killers in prison.

Prejean, obviously, sees it another way.

If there were no death penalty, she said, society would benefit "because
then we don't engage ourselves in this protocol of death, of killing them,
and by even claiming the arrogance that we can decide who lives and who

Sustaining the death penalty doesn't make sense even if you look at it
simply as a matter of money.

"It takes huge amounts of resources to keep this death machine going," she
said. "And we could be putting that into life and preventing violence. We
know where the seeds of violence are, where they're given birth to in our
society, and we need to prevent it. We need to deal with at-risk kids, we
need to deal with homelessness, we need to deal with education, jobs, people
being addicted to drugs and alcohol."

It actually costs less to keep somebody in prison for life, she said. But
the bottom line is what is says about us as a society.

"The less we involve ourselves in making our social policy legalizing
torture and death, the better off we are as a people," she said. "We're
really not worthy of this thing. That's the main reason we need to get rid
of it."

in town

Sister Helen Prejean will do a book signing from 2 to 3:30 p.m. today at
Barnes and Noble at Town Center Plaza, 119th and Roe, Leawood. She will also
speak in a question- and-answer session after the opening night performance
of "Dead Man Walking" tonight at the Goppert Theatre at Avila University,
11901 Wornall Road. The show begins at 8. Tonight's performance is sold out,
but tickets remain for performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2
p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $10. Call (816) 501-3699. For more information go
to or


Source : Kansas City Star

Kerry Max Cook interview on Diane Rehm show

Kerry Max Cook interview on Diane Rehm show:

Ex-Texas death row inmate Kerry Max Cook was interviewed yesterday on NPR's Diane Rehm show (with guest interviewer Susan Page of USA Today). Audio is here (51:20 16kbps). Information on Max's new book, "Chasing Justice: My Story of Freeing Myself After Two Decades on Death Row for a Crime I Didn't Commit," is on the HarperCollins website here.