Monday, 31 December 2007
Samuel Jason Derrick has been on death row since his 1988 murder conviction.
New testing could exonerate a man who has spent half his life on death row for murder.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published December 28, 2007
Since its birth in 1992, the Innocence Project has used DNA testing to exonerate and free 210 wrongfully convicted prisoners from death row.
Now the nonprofit legal clinic has helped Samuel Jason Derrick, who has spent half his life on Florida's death row, win the right to have evidence in his 1988 murder conviction tested for DNA.
Circuit Judge Stanley Mills granted the defense's motion for postconviction DNA testing just before Christmas.
Derrick, his family and his lawyers hope the latest advances in forensic technology will exonerate the 40-year-old Moon Lake man in the 1987 murder of storekeeper Rama Sharma.
"I'm just thankful that the truth is going to come to light," said Derrick's former wife, Cherie.
A bloody remnant of a white T-shirt, a partially eaten hot dog, blood found under a picnic table and scrapings from the victim's fingernails will all be tested, the judge ordered Dec. 19.
The defense's hope is that viable DNA can be recovered from the evidence that will implicate someone other than Derrick in the stabbing murder of Sharma.
Or it could implicate Derrick and someone else. That could affect his death sentence.
But Derrick has always maintained his innocence, said appellate lawyer Harry Brody, and pursued DNA testing without fear that it might confirm his guilt.
"We always say to people, if you don't want us to do this, we shouldn't proceed," Brody said. "We don't want to make the case any worse.
"And Mr. Derrick has never hesitated."
Sharma was an immigrant from India who taught English in England. In 1985 he bought the Moon Lake General Store. Two years later he was dead at age 55.
He was last seen alive closing his store June 24, 1987. The next morning he was found dead, slashed and stabbed 31 times - 20 times in the back. The outside of the store was covered in blood, and $360 was missing.
Derrick was 20 then, and here was the evidence against him at his trial: Pasco sheriff's detectives said he confessed, but didn't record his statements. Detectives also said Derrick made incriminating statements to a jailhouse snitch and a friend.
Detectives testified that Derrick told them he threw the knife into the woods and his bloody shirt and shoes into a pond. But that evidence was never found.
The prosecution told jurors Derrick knifed Sharma to silence him. Derrick broke down during an interview, the detectives said, and confessed: "All right, I did it."
The judge's order said the state "conceded" that the DNA testing should be done. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office could not be reached for comment Thursday.
All that remains is for the state and the defense to agree on a Florida lab to do the testing. The Innocence Project is representing Derrick for free and will pay for the tests, which could cost thousands.
"In about 40 percent of these exonerations, the DNA testing doesn't just exonerate our client," said Innocence Project spokesman Eric Ferrero. "It also helps identify and apprehend the true perpetrator."
The defense has always bandied about names of others it says were responsible for Sharma's murder. Derrick, however, has never named anyone else.
"I'll just say Jason was very young at the time," Brody said. "We certainly have suspicions. We certainly wouldn't want to name anybody.
"We should just wait and see."
In a July 2007 statement, Derrick said he falsely confessed after detectives threatened to take his infant son from his wife and put him in foster care. Derrick said he himself was abused in foster care.
"So I did the only thing I could think of to save him," Derrick said in the statement, "which was to tell the detectives 'OK, yes, I did it.' "
The fingernail scrapings were tested in 2002 but gleaned no DNA profiles, the defense motion said. But they could still yield something to a more sensitive DNA test called Y-STR now available, according to the defense motion, that "targets genetic markers found on the Y-chromosome, which only males possess."
"It's really vital that we use Y-STR or one of the really cutting- edge tests that have been developed," said Alba Morales, Derrick's Innocence Project attorney. "Because it really improves the chance of getting a result from what is by now a fairly degraded sample."
Cherie Derrick, 39, said she met with her former husband recently at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford to discuss his case.
"I would say it was upbeat," she said.
Brody said this latest news has given his client reason to be upbeat.
"He's very happy," the lawyer said. "He's been in prison a very long time but he remains optimistic."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 869-6236.
Pasco County's death row inmates
Carl Puiatti: Has spent 23 of his 45 years on death row for abducting Manatee County home economics teacher Sharilyn Ritchie from a Bradenton mall in 1983, robbing her and then gunning her down in a Dade City orange grove. Puiatti was convicted in 1984. In 2001 his co-conspirator, Robert Glock, became the 51st inmate put to death in Florida since 1979. He died of lethal injection at age 39.
John Ruthell Henry: First convicted and sentenced to die at age 36 for two 1985 murders: the stabbing of his 29-year-old wife, Suzanne, in Zephyrhills and his 5-year-old stepson, Eugene Christian, near Plant City hours later. After both were overturned, he was again sentenced to death in 1991 and 1992. Henry, who once served time for killing his first wife, is now 56.
Oscar Ray Bolin Jr.: The 45-year-old serial killer is the most infamous name on this list. He has been convicted of killing three woman and had six death sentences overturned. He abducted 26-year-old Teri Lynn Matthews from the Land O'Lakes post office and stabbed her to death in 1986. After two overturned convictions, Bolin was again convicted and sentenced to death in 2002. The Florida Supreme Court upheld his sentence in 2004. And this month in Hillsborough County he received his third death sentence for the 1986 murder of Stephanie Collins.
Dominick Occhicone: Sentenced to death in 1987 for killing the parents of his ex-fiancee because she ended their relationship. In 1986 he cut the phone lines at her parents' Holiday home, then fatally shot her father, Raymond Artzner, 66, once and her mother, Evelyn Artzner, 62, four times. Occhicone was 41 then. He's 62 now.
Samuel Jason Derrick: In 1988 he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder a year earlier of Moon Lake General Store owner Rama Sharma, 55. Sharma had been stabbed 31 times and had $360 in receipts on him. Derrick was 20 at the time of the murder. He is now 40.
Alvin Leroy Morton: Has been sentenced to death twice for his role in Hudson's infamous 1992 "pinkie finger murders." Morton, then 20, and three friends shot 55-year-old John Bowers dead and nearly severed the head of his 75-year-old mother, Madeline Weisser. Bowers' right pinkie finger was cut off as a trophy. Morton, whose 1994 conviction was overturned but who was again convicted and sentenced in 1999, is now 35.
Michael Peter Fitzpatrick: In 1996, Laura Lynn Romines died at age 28, two weeks after she was found raped and stabbed in the neck on a Land O'Lakes road. Fitzpatrick was 38 when he was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. Now 45, Fitzpatrick's sentence was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court in 2005.