Thursday, 29 May 2008

Dean Cage exonerated in Chicago

After nearly 12 years in Illinois prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Innocence Project client Dean Cage is finally free today. His mother and other family members picked him up when he was released late last night from a prison three hours outside of Chicago. Back at his mother’s Chicago home early this morning, his family threw a party to welcome Cage home.

Cage said at a Chicago press conference this afternoon that he is overjoyed to be rejoining his family and that he is committed to working for fair justice in his home state and across the country. He is the 217th person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States, and the 29th in Illinois. Only Texas — with 31 — has more DNA exonerations than Illinois.

Read news coverage of Cage’s release — and learn more about his case and others across the country — on our website.

Cage was wrongfully convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl on her way to school during the winter of 1994. The victim’s identification of Cage as the attacker was the centerpiece of the state’s evidence against him at trial. After the assault, the victim helped police prepare a composite sketch of the perpetrator. A week later, police received a tip that a man matching the sketch worked at a local meat market. Police took the victim to the market, where she identified Cage. Later, at the police station, the victim identified Cage again, this time based on the sound of his voice.

At today’s press conference, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said Illinois has been a national leader for several years in reforming the criminal justice system for capital cases. But the state has fallen short in implementing reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions in non-capital cases, which are the vast majority of convictions — and wrongful convictions — in the state. Last summer, the Illinois Legislature created a commission to study non-capital wrongful convictions and develop reforms that can make the criminal justice system more fair and accurate. Nearly a year later, that commission has not been funded and no members have been appointed to it.

Neufeld and Cage today called on the Illinois Legislature to move quickly to get the commission started on its critical mission, noting that a similar commission in Illinois led to substantial reforms in capital cases. "If this commission were operating as it’s supposed to, it could help prevent a substantial number of wrongful convictions and restore confidence in the state’s criminal justice system," Neufeld said. "Perhaps most chilling is the reality that people across Illinois are still being wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness misidentification that could be prevented if the state enacted simple, straightforward reforms that are proven to work."

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Exonerations Continue Across the Country -- But Are Innocent Prisoners Ever Truly Free?

What does it take to be freed from a wrongful conviction?

In the case of Walter Swift, who was found guilty in 1982 of a rape and burglary in Michigan, an air-tight alibi, exculpatory forensic evidence, and a clearly clueless defense attorney who would later lose his license weren't compelling enough reasons to spare him from conviction. And for years, they were not enough to get him cleared for a crime he did not commit.

Swift, who is African-American, was convicted based solely on an eyewitness identification by the victim, a pregnant white woman who described the man who attacked her as a black teenager, clean-shaven, with braids and "poofs of hair" on his head. Yet, when presented with a police line-up that included Swift -- well over 18 years old, with a mustache, long sideburns, and short, unbraided hair -- she chose him, telling the police she "believed" he was the man who had assaulted her. The police officer in charge expressed doubts, saying she seemed unsure of her selection, but Swift's fate was as good as sealed. The accuracy of her identification was never questioned in the courtroom.

False identification is one of the leading reasons innocent people are thrown in jail. When it comes to cross-racial identification, the problems are especially pronounced. Decades' worth of research has found evidence of bias when the accused is of one race and the accused is of another. Swift's case is a classic example.

In prison, Swift maintained his innocence for years. When he became eligible for parole in 2000, it was repeatedly denied, due to his refusal to admit to his guilt. After more than 15 years behind bars, Swift contacted the Innocence Project, who decided to take his case.

"Over the course of a decade, each layer we pulled back led to more evidence that Walter Swift is innocent," said Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney, in a news release. "We also began to work with people throughout the criminal justice system, some of whom were directly involved in convicting Mr. Swift, who were becoming increasingly convinced of his innocence. It's highly unusual to have the original prosecutor, the police officer who investigated the case and the lab analyst who handled the case all come forward to support an innocent prisoner -- but that's exactly what happened in this case."

With the team of people who first imprisoned him now behind him, Swift was exonerated and released from prison on Wednesday, May 21st. He spent almost 26 years behind bars.
Incredibly, the prosecutor's office will not go so far as to admit to his innocence. "Our position is not that Mr. Swift is innocent," prosecutor Kym Worthy told reporters yesterday. "Our position is that there were some irregularities and some things that should not have happened during this trial."

Still, leaving Detroit's Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, Swift told reporters he was not bitter. "I might just take a walk," he said. "I've been craving to take a walk."
His 27-year old daughter, Audrey Kelly Mills, however, who has not seen her father since she was a baby, expressed anger at the injustice of his incarceration for a quarter century. "I'm angry that this is supposed to be a justice system, and it's nothing even close to a justice system," she said.

As with so many stories of innocent prisoners who are exonerated after being locked up for years, news reports show images of a joyful Swift, eager to enjoy his second lease on life. But reality can often be cruel wake-up call.

Earlier this week, CNN did a two-part report on life after a wrongful conviction. Concentrating on Dallas County, Texas (the unofficial exoneration capital of the country) and with a focus on prisoners who were cleared thanks to DNA evidence (only a fraction of exonerations), it tells the story of Wiley Fountain, a 51-year old black man who, five years ago, was freed from prison after a decade and a half, only to find himself homeless.
"What happens to these men in the months and years after their release is an often overlooked story," writes CNN reporter Ed Lavandera. "These men find themselves starting life at middle age."

"Some men have married and had children … Others came out of prison so jaded and changed that it ruined marriages and relationships. A few have had repeated troubles with the law. And almost all of them talk about how the ghost of their past follows them wherever they go."
In Fountain's case, according to CNN, "Just as the headlines of his release vanished from the front pages of the newspaper, Fountain, 51, has disappeared."
"And so have his hopes for a fresh start after spending 15 years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault he did not commit."

Swift is 47 years old, just about the same age as Fountain was when he was released. "I know it's a beautiful time right now, but life will start to get back to reality," he told the Detroit Free-Press. "This is a million light-years from where I was … I can't describe the distance and time."

For CNN's two part series, "DNA cleared them, but they'll never feel free," go here.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Lethal injections raise defense attorneys' fears

Monday, May 26, 2008 2:09:23 PM


A call from death row inmate Terry Lyn Short interrupted a meeting in the office of his attorney, James Rowan.

Short wanted a promise that, after he is put to death next month, he won't end up in a pauper's grave in the cemetery that contains the bodies of many of those hanged, electrocuted and lethally injected at the 100-year-old Oklahoma State Penitentiary.

Rowan told his 47-year-old client not to be concerned about that. "It's not going to cost you anything, so don't worry about it. That's the least of your worries," he said.

What worries Rowan and other defense attorneys is the possibility that an innocent man could be executed now that the nation's death-row machine is gearing up again following the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection.

They point to past death sentences of men who were later exonerated, blaming ineffective lawyers, overzealous prosecutors and shoddy evidence.

"The answer is yes, it could happen," said Rowan, who has defended more than 40 capital cases.

Since 1973, 129 people have walked off death rows in 26 states after evidence proved they were wrongfully convicted, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Florida leads all states with 22 exonerations, followed by 18 in Illinois. Oklahoma is one of five states that have each freed eight inmates from death row. One of the Oklahoma men, Ron Williamson, spent nine years on death row and came within five days of execution before he was set free by DNA evidence. The case formed the basis of John Grisham's best-selling "The Innocent Man."

Oklahoma's executioners have administered lethal injections to 86 people since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, trailing only Texas with 405 and Virginia with 98.

Nobody has ever been able to produce irrefutable proof that any innocent man was executed in recent U.S. history, but Oklahoma's execution of Malcolm Rent Johnson has troubled many death penalty opponents. He went to his execution proclaiming his innocence.

A star prosecution witness against Johnson, convicted of the 1981 rape and strangulation of an elderly woman, was police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who was later fired amid allegations of shoddy forensic work and misleading testimony.

"There were serious questions about his case," said Vicki Werneke, chief of the capital post-conviction division of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System. "There was a lot of circumstantial evidence in that case, but he was executed in 2000, right before the whole issue with Joyce Gilchrist came to light."

Attempts to contact Gilchrist for comment were unsuccessful; there is no listed telephone number for her in Oklahoma City.

A current case that has raised questions is that of Paris Lapriest Powell, convicted in the 1993 shooting death of a 14-year-old in a gang-related, drive-by shooting in Oklahoma City.

Powell, then 19, and a co-defendant were convicted and sentenced to death based largely on the testimony of prosecution witness Derick Smith, a convicted drug dealer who has since recanted his testimony and said he lied.

A federal judge has ordered a new trial for Powell, now 34. The state has appealed the judge's ruling.

Powell, one of 83 condemned inmates in the "H-unit" of the state penitentiary, has always maintained his innocence.

"I've never really sat back and contemplated my last meal or anything like that. I've refused to accept that," Powell said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

He describes a sense of community on Oklahoma's death row, where inmates share a common goal of avoiding the nearby death chamber.

"You can't help but to think about it. You always know that it's there," Powell said.

"I don't prefer death at all, but if I have to die ... I'd choose old age."

Both Powell and Johnson were prosecuted by the office of Bob Macy, Oklahoma County's chief prosecutor for more than two decades.

Macy, now 78 and retired, oversaw an office that sent to death row 34 of the 86 inmates who have been executed in Oklahoma since executions resumed in 1990.

While Macy acknowledges that forensic science has advanced greatly in recent years and that appellate courts sometimes criticized his arguments, he said he never sought the death penalty unless he was convinced a defendant was guilty.

"I have always believed the death penalty is a deterrent, and it's one reason I sought the death penalty as often as I did," he said.

"We tried at least 60 capital murder cases, and I think we got the death penalty in 54 of them," he said in a telephone interview. "The only time you get the death penalty is when you have greatly cruel, sadistic-type crime."

Saturday, 24 May 2008

An innocent man?

INNOCENCE DENIED: Supporters of Troy Davis gathered May 17 to rally their support for the condemned man.

Amnesty International leads fight to get Troy Davis off Georgia's Death Row

Published 05.21.08
By Mara Shalhoup

What is most puzzling to Virginia Davis is that nearly all of the witnesses who helped send her son to death row are now the people who might clear his name. But Georgia's legal system is unwilling to hear what they have to say.

At Troy Davis' 1991 trial, no physical evidence tied him to the murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, a young father of two who was shot three times while trying to break up a fight. Instead, nine witnesses ensured a conviction by testifying that Davis shot MacPhail.

Since then, seven of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. At least four have stated that they were pressured by investigators to identify Davis. Three other people have come forward to say that another man confessed to the killing. That man, Sylvester "Redd" Coles, admitted he was at the scene of the crime and was the first person to tell police that Davis was the shooter. He later testified against Davis and is one of the two witnesses who didn't recant.

Despite the new evidence, however, Georgia's courts – including the state Supreme Court – have ruled against hearing the witnesses' recantations.

"They believed these people before," Virginia Davis said, standing under a brilliant blue sky in the shadow of the state Capitol at a rally May 17 organized by Amnesty International. "Why not believe them now?"

Roughly 80 protesters congregated on the steps of the Capitol to draw awareness to a cause that has attracted the support of state legislators and congressmen, Amnesty International, and Pope Benedict XVI. Davis, who was granted a temporary stay of execution last July – less than 24 hours before he was to be put to death – is likely to receive another execution date this fall.

"What we've been yelling and screaming for the last eight years now is a hearing," says Washington D.C.-based attorney Jason Ewart, who's representing Davis pro bono. "All we want is a judge to hear our witnesses and decide whether they're credible or not."

Chatham County District Attorney Spencer Lawton, who's been in office since before Davis' trial, has stood by the jury's verdict. In court filings and hearings, he's reiterated that the right man was convicted.

Davis' sister Martina Correia wonders why the initial verdict is so sacred – especially considering that four of the jurors have signed sworn statements that say they wouldn't have sentenced Davis to death if the evidence available today had been presented at his trial.

Five years passed before witnesses began to come forward and renounce their testimony. Prior to that, Davis didn't have access to the kind of representation that could track down and grill those witnesses, according to Laura Moye, deputy director of the southern regional office of Amnesty International.

Moye says that the Georgia Resource Center, which handles the appeals of most of the 100-plus people on Georgia's death row, has suffered over the past dozen years from budget cuts that slashed its staff from eight lawyers to two. And in the early '90s, Davis had depended on GRC attorneys for representation.

It wasn't until 1996 that the first witness recanted, and it took seven years for lawyers to obtain statements from six other trial witnesses. But Davis' case then hit another hurdle. Due to a 1996 federal law that shortened the appeals process for death row inmates, the new evidence was considered by the state's lower courts to be too little, too late.

By the time Davis' execution was set for July 2007, the Georgia Supreme Court offered one last chance to hear the evidence. But when the justices issued their opinion two months ago, they voted 4-3 against Davis.

Justice Harold Melton, writing for the majority, stated, "We favor that original testimony over the new. ... We simply cannot disregard the jury's verdict in this case."

Chief Justice Leah Sears expressed disappointment in the court's decision. In a minority opinion, she wrote: "This Court's approach ... is overly rigid and fails to allow an adequate inquiry into the fundamental question, which is whether or not an innocent person might have been convicted or even, as in this case, might be put to death."

Stephen Bright, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, points out that the Supreme Court's ruling follows the law – seemingly to the exclusion of common sense. Legally, a witness's original testimony carries far more weight than any revelation that might come later. Even if someone were to go to the authorities and say that he, and not the convicted murderer, actually pulled the trigger, it's difficult to get the court to consider new testimony.

"This case shows just how hard it is to get a second look at the evidence," says Bright, who's represented hundreds of death row inmates and teaches classes at Yale University.

Ewart has appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he admits the odds of the nation's highest court hearing the case are "kind of like winning the lottery."

There is one more hope, though. In Georgia, the Board of Pardons and Parole has the authority to commute Davis' sentence. And the board has indicated a willingness to do so. According to an order issued in July: "The members of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles will not allow an execution to proceed in this State unless and until its members are convinced that there is no doubt as to the guilt of the accused."

The board already has heard from five of the trial witnesses and, according to Davis' sister, is interested in hearing from more.

Ewart is optimistic about the Board of Pardons and Parole, which cannot commute a death sentence until an execution date has been set. That likely will happen in October.

While Bright says the likeliest scenario would be that Davis’ sentence is commuted to life without the possibility of parole, Ewart is holding out hope that Davis will be pardoned. Short of that, he’s pushing for a life with parole sentence. In that event, he says, “we’re not talking about Troy walking out of jail.” That’s because when a death sentence is commuted to life with parole, the state requires that an inmate serve at least 25 years.

Bright says that if Davis is innocent, a life without parole commutation would only be reassuring to a point. “It’s not as bad as being executed for something you didn’t do,” Bright says, “but it’s still pretty bad.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Troy Davis’ attorney, Jason Ewart, is pushing for the possibility of a pardon or a life with parole sentence for his client.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Reddice acquitted in killing of drug dealer

Theodore Reddice

A Northampton County jury this afternoon acquitted Theodore Reddice of all charges filed in the killing of South Bethlehem drug dealer Luis Cruz more than two years ago in a building described as a crack house.

Reddice, 35, a native of Rhode Island who was living in the 500 block of Cherokee Street on April 26, 2006, the day 34-year-old Cruz was shot to death execution style, could have faced the death penalty if the jury convicted him of first-degree murder. He was also acquitted of the other charge against him, second-degree murder.

After the verdict was read, members of Reddice's family started to scream, and Judge Anthony S. Beltrami ordered them out of the courtroom. While in the hallway, they continued screaming and county sheriffs escorted them outside the courthouse in Easton.

Reddice did not testify, but Bethlehem police Detective Sgt. Mark DiLuzio told the jury that Reddice in an interview acknowledged he had been in the rooming house at 409 Wyandotte St. shortly before the killing.

Otelia Duffy, who said she knew Reddice as "Mike" and had bought crack cocaine from him several times, testified Reddice came to the rooming house minutes before the killing and asked her to point out Cruz's room. Duffy said Cruz left the building but came back immediately with two other men. Duffy recounted that she heard a scuffle and gunshots, then the sound of people leaving the building.

About 15 minutes later, Duffy said, she went to Cruz's room and saw Cruz's father, Rogelio Cruz, holding his dead son in his arms.

Police charged a second man, Stephen K. Rivers, 27, who was living in Fountain Hill and Allentown at the time, but he was never taken into custody. Instead, he was found shot to death about two months later in Bristol Township, Bucks County. His killer, police said, was Phillip Everson, 29, of Newark, N.J., who was found slain in Trenton, N.J., less than 24 hours after Rivers' body was located.

Reddice told police he had gone to Cruz's room early on the day of killing to buy heroin but left when Cruz said he had none. As he was leaving the rooming house, Reddice said, he saw three men coming into the building.

-- Reporting by Tyra Braden, The Morning Call

Thursday, 15 May 2008

'Innocence' argument dramatically changed death penalty public support, policy

May 15 2008, 10:47 AM EST

Contact: Vicki Fong
Penn State

University Park, Pa. -- The recent execution of a convicted murderer in Georgia and a Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of a form of lethal injection have prompted fears of a rush to executions nationwide. But American public support for the death penalty has fallen dramatically over the last 20 years shaped by a unique set of forces, and a new book by Penn State researchers examines the factors behind the transformation.

"The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence," published by Cambridge University Press, provides statistical analysis of data documenting the historic shifts in public opinion and of the sharp decline in the use of the death penalty by juries across the country.

"Since 1996, death sentences in American have declined more than 60 percent, reversing a generation-long trend toward greater acceptance of capital punishment," said co-author Frank Baumgartner, the Miller-LaVigne Professor of Political Science. "In theory, most Americans continue to support the death penalty for the truly guilty, but the discovery of innocence has been documented through innocence projects conducted by law schools and journalism programs and the resulting media coverage. Also, the use of DNA evidence in clearing some of the convicted and heard in popular TV shows and movies has helped the public understand the new vocabulary."

"The innocence argument has reframed the thinking of many Americans who might support the death penalty in theory due to a moral code or a religious tradition that supports an 'eye for an eye' rather than forgiveness and redemption, but they would recoil from possibly executing someone who might be innocent of the crime," said co-author Amber Boydstun, a graduate student who will receive her Ph.D. in political science from Penn State this summer and will be teaching at University of California Davis this fall.

"As attention focuses on the new innocence argument, several other familiar arguments such as racial bias have gained ground as well," she added. "The new 'innocence' frame has moved public discussion away from morality and religion, where people are least prone to persuasion, and to the idea that the death penalty is a bureaucratic process that is extremely costly and inefficient, that has expensive and unpopular solutions, and that may have executed some innocent people in the past."

Capital punishment in America peaked in 1935 at nearly 200, declining until 1968 where there were no executions, staying at that level until 1976. From 1977 to 1996, there was a steady increase in the number of executions due to a "tough on crime" approach heard in public opinion and discussions, and public policy, according to the book.

In relation, the number of death sentences in America also has declined steadily from a peak of 326 in 1995 to 110 in 2007, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. A Columbia Law School study in 2000 found that over 60 percent of all death sentences are overturned when reviewed by a federal judge. There have been 124 exonerations between 1973 and 2007, mostly due to trial errors or prosecutors' misconduct, and only 15 of them due to new DNA evidence.

"If the U.S. Postal Service failed to deliver even 1 percent of the billions of pieces of mail it delivers each year, or if the Social Security Administration erred the same percentage of its monthly checks, Americans would be outraged," said Baumgartner. "Our entire system of government is based on the idea that man is imperfect and other actors in the political system must act as checks and balances on the others. Yet, attention to the possibility of error has been virtually absent in the debate until recently."

In the book, authors Baumgartner, Boydstun and Suzanna De Boef, professor of political science at Penn State, published an intensive analysis of the New York Times stories on capital punishment or the death penalty from 1960 to 2006, almost 4000 stories in all. The analysis found that the number of death sentences resulted from a combination of factors: previous year's death sentence total, public opinion, the tone of the media coverage, and the number of homicides.

The researchers developed new methods to measure and analyze data that show how issues are defined and framed by media and advocates, and then how the change affects overall public opinion and actual policies themselves. Boydstun started the data collection and coding work on this project as a new graduate student at Penn State, although her master's thesis and Ph.D. dissertation have expanded to the influence of issue definitions and re-definitions on media agenda and its impact on public policy.

The continued decrease in public support is even more striking in the post-Sept. 11, 2001 era with the war on terror, heightened security, reduced civil/private rights philosophy and a rise in evangelical religious denominations in American society. As Governor of Texas, George W. Bush oversaw more executions than any single person in American history, but the numbers of executions have steadily declined throughout his term in the White House. In 2007, New Jersey was the first state to rescind capital punishment through legislative action.

The book notes that only five states comprise the bulk of executions: Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida. The typical state has executed just three individuals over 30 years and many states have executed none. Further, the book notes that geographical disparities in the use of executions have become starker in recent years. Houstons Harris County has executed over 100 individuals, more than any other state besides Texas. Dallas, by contrast, makes rare use of the penalty.

The Supreme Courts recent ruling that Kentuckys lethal injection protocol was constitutional suggests that executions will likely return. However, the authors of the book suggest that we are unlikely to see a surge of executions to levels more common 20 years ago. It remains extremely costly; life sentences without the possibility of parole are now available in every state with capital punishment; and people are wary of the possibility of mistakes, a concern that until recently was virtually absent from the study of capital punishment.

"This study of capital punishment support illustrates that policy change can occur in either direction -- from the public and media to the policymakers -- or vice versa," Boydstun and Baumgartner said. "Every policy issue has many dimensions, several ways of framing the idea, and many advocates for and against it. However, such a dramatic and unlikely reversal of public support and policy in just a decade is rare. Death row inmates are the least sympathetic figures, and there have always been claims of innocence.

"However, the reframing of the issue has raised the question: what level of error is acceptable in the justice system, particularly with the death penalty being irretrievable?" the researchers noted. "Popular culture has kept the question alive in stories about crime labs, police actions and exonerations, and people have been shocked to see evidence that the justice system may have more in common with FEMA than with any past assumptions about an error-free justice system."

Wrongful Incarceration Act may not solve problems it was intended to

By Stephen D. Price • FLORIDA CAPITAL BUREAU • May 12, 2008

Lawmakers have called the bill an "automatic trigger" that will make it easier and quicker for those who unjustly lost their liberty to get a measure of financial compensation from the state.

Instead of years of legal and political maneuvering to, as Gov. Charlie Crist has said, right a wrong, the legislation was designed to hasten and level the process. The state will pay $50,000 for every year spent in jail for a crime a person didn't commit.

But the Wrongful Incarceration Act, which Crist has said he will sign, may be loaded with just as many complexities as the legislative process it is to replace.

The cases of seven men released from Florida prisons after DNA evidence cleared them of their crimes show how the legislation may not simplify things. Five of the men aren't eligible for the automatic provisions because they have prior felonies, contrary to the "clean-hands" requirement of the bill.

Even the cases of the two who are eligible provide a glimpse of just how difficult things could be.

That's not what the bill was supposed to do. It was written to avoid the pitfalls of the claims system, the legislative act required to override the state's sovereign immunity caps on any settlement larger than $200,000.

It was the way that process has worked — dependent on effective, connected lawyers and advocates — that lawmakers wanted to fix.

Most recently, Alan Crotzer spent more than two years navigating the maze of the Legislature to get a settlement for the more than 24 years he spent behind bars for crimes he was later cleared of. This year, the Legislature approved a $1.25 million payment to Crotzer.

Wilton Dedge, a Brevard County man who spent 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, won a $2 million settlement from the Legislature in 2005, nearly 18 months after he was released from prison.


For some, getting compensated may be as difficult as proving they are innocent all over again.

Luis Diaz, who had been convicted of being the Bird Road rapist in Coral Gables in the late 1970s, will have a difficult case to prove under the global bill, his lawyers say.

Diaz, one of two Florida men eligible for compensation under the bill, was convicted of seven rapes, but DNA evidence exonerated him of two of those rapes and he was freed in 2005 after serving 25 years in prison. The problem is that for him to receive compensation, his lawyers his lawyers will have to prove he didn't commit the other five rapes.

"They will have to go and reconstruct why he isn't the rapist from over 30 years ago," said one of Diaz's lawyers, Curt Kiser, a former House and Senate member from Dunedin and now is a lobbyist in Tallahassee.

Kiser said police have long claimed that one man was guilty for all seven rapes. "Some of the (witnesses) may not be alive, or moved away."

Chad Heins is also eligible for compensation under the new plan. He was freed in December after serving 13 years in prison, when DNA evidence showed he was not guilty of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery.

Heins now lives in Wisconsin where he works on a dairy farm. Prosecutors are still investigating that case.

Orlando Boquete, who in 2006 was exonerated from a sexual battery and burglary conviction based on DNA evidence, won't have an easy road to compensation either. The new law prevents those with prior felonies from receiving automatic compensation, but Boquete's prior felony is a conviction for escaping while serving his wrongful imprisonment.


Advocates for the wrongfully incarcerated say they will wait to see how the process works, but they have doubts whether all the proven innocent will be compensated.

"You're innocent when we release you but you're not innocent enough to be compensated?" said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. "These two ideas just don't jibe together."

To file for compensation under the Wrongful Incarceration Act, an applicant, who has been exonerated of a conviction, must go before a judge and the prosecutor in that case must decide whether to argue against his or her fight for compensation or agree to it. Either way, a judge makes the final decision.

During the legislative session, the bill was most criticized for its "clean hands" provision which would exclude anyone with a prior felony from receiving compensation.

Those people are still able to file a claims bill, a lengthy procedure.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

As Executions Resume, So Do Questions of Fairness

Levon Jones, one of three inmates recently freed from North Carolina’s death row.

Published: May 7, 2008

RALEIGH, N.C. — The release of the third death row inmate in six months in North Carolina last week is raising fresh questions about whether states are supplying capital-murder defendants with adequate counsel, even as an execution on Tuesday night in Georgia ended a seven-month national suspension.

In all three cases, North Carolina appeals courts found that evidence that would have favored the defendants was withheld from defense lawyers by prosecutors or investigators. In two of the cases, including that of Levon Jones, who was released on Friday after 14 years on death row, the courts said the defendants’ lawyers had failed to mount an adequate defense. Nationwide, Mr. Jones’s release was the sixth in a year.

John Holdridge, director of the A.C.L.U. Capital Punishment Project, which provided representation for Mr. Jones, said the successful appeals showed that the problem with the death penalty was not the method of execution — the issue ruled on by the Supreme Court last month — but instead “poor people getting lousy lawyers.”

“All these states are gearing up to start executing people again, and nobody seems to be concerned about these systemic problems,” Mr. Holdridge said.

On Tuesday evening, after the Supreme Court declined to stop it, the State of Georgia conducted the first execution since the court ruled last month that a method of lethal injection was not unconstitutional. William E. Lynd, 53, was put to death by injection for the 1988 killing of his girlfriend, Ginger Moore. No prisoners had been executed in the United States since last September, while the court was considering the issue.

During that same period, Georgia’s new public defender system came under attack by politicians and was recently forced to cut more than 40 positions.

That system, established after a series of lawsuits, was patterned after one North Carolina put in place in 2001, which was considered a national model. But not many other states have followed suit, said Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.

“I wish I could say that things have gotten a lot better, but in fact I can say with confidence that things have changed not much at all,” Ms. Maher said. “We are seeing the same kinds of egregiously bad lawyering that we saw 10 or 15 years ago, for a variety of reasons, including inadequate funding.”

Of the 36 states that allow the death penalty, only about 10 have statewide capital-defense systems, one of the practices recommended by the Bar Association.

The three men released in North Carolina were all convicted in the mid-1990s, before a barrage of criticism of the state’s capital punishment system, including an investigation in 2000 by The Charlotte Observer that showed that 16 death row inmates had been represented by lawyers who were later disbarred.

North Carolina made a number of changes that included establishing the statewide defender system and broader discovery rules for defense lawyers. Beginning in 1996, defense lawyers working on appeals in death penalty cases were permitted to view all investigative files pertaining to the case, and in 2004 the same right was extended to the defense in all criminal cases.

Joseph B. Cheshire, the lawyer for one of the three released men, Jonathon Hoffman, credited the discovery rules with bringing to light what he called a pattern of wrongful convictions.

The court-appointed trial lawyers for Mr. Hoffman, convicted of killing a jewelry store owner during a robbery, were not told that the main witness against him had been paid for his cooperation and was given immunity from prosecution and a reduced sentence for bank robbery. Mr. Cheshire said that a copy of the district attorney’s notes was altered to conceal those facts before they were provided to the defense for discovery. Mr. Hoffman was released in December.

Mr. Cheshire is also the chairman of the state’s Indigent Defense Services Commission. Thanks to those two changes, he said, “the likelihood today of someone being convicted who’s innocent is far less than it was five or six years ago.”

The man who prosecuted Mr. Jones, however, does not concede that the defendant was innocent. The prosecutor, G. Dewey Hudson, said that he still believed that Mr. Jones was involved in the murder, but that he could not retry him because crucial witnesses had died and one had recanted.

“It has taken 15 years for the court system to make the determination that Mr. Jones’s original counsel was ineffective,” Mr. Hudson said in a statement released Friday. “As a result of this delay, the State has been severely handcuffed in its obligation to prosecute Mr. Jones for the murder of Leamon Grady.”

Cassy Stubbs, the A.C.L.U. lawyer who represented Mr. Jones, said all of the witnesses from the initial trial were still living.

Mr. Jones was convicted of robbing and shooting Mr. Grady, a bootlegger in Duplin County. The main witness against Mr. Jones was a former girlfriend, Lovely Lorden, who testified that she had gone with him to Mr. Grady’s house the night of the killing and heard gunshots while waiting outside.

State courts rejected Mr. Jones’s claims of ineffective legal counsel. But a federal judge, Terrence W. Boyle, later found that Mr. Jones’s trial lawyers failed to do a background check that would have revealed Ms. Lorden’s criminal background, failed to interview her before trial and failed to obtain copies of inconsistent statements she made. They also failed to present evidence that Mr. Jones might be mentally ill, cognitively impaired, or had a history of substance abuse, the judge found, information that could have saved him from a death sentence.

“Jones received two appointed attorneys that spent virtually no time or effort investigating the offense or his background,” Judge Boyle said.

In subsequent hearings and affidavits, it became clear that Ms. Lorden was a frequent police informant and that, contrary to testimony at the trial, she had known when she came forward in the Grady case that there was a $4,000 reward available.

Though Ms. Stubbs said that there was evidence that pointed to another man in the killing, Mr. Hudson said in a telephone interview that he considered the case closed.

Mr. Jones’s release came on the heels of that of Glen E. Chapman, who was convicted of killing two women, Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Y. Conley, in Union County in 1992. Judge Robert C. Ervin of State Superior Court ruled in April that Mr. Chapman’s lawyers had failed their client, noting that one of them could recall interviewing only one witness and had visited the crime scenes for the first time two weeks before trial. The lawyers had both admitted to heavy drinking during other trials.

Judge Ervin also found that Dennis Rhoney, then a police detective, knowingly presented false and misleading information on the stand. The State Bureau of Investigation is reviewing perjury claims against Mr. Rhoney.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Former death row inmate still fights death penalty

By James G. Muhammad
Updated Apr 30, 2008, 12:57 pm

CHICAGO ( - Delbert Lee Tibbs always has been against the death penalty, but ever since he was forced to serve three years on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit, eliminating the death penalty has become his life’s mission.
“If you’re Black and grew up in America, you know nothing else has been applied fairly, so why would the death penalty be applied fairly?” he asked several dozen people gathered for a special poetry reading session in his honor. “I believe God has chosen me for this job and I will work (to eliminate executions) until it’s gone away.”

Reading from two of his books of poetry, Mr. Tibbs said the government knows it has killed innocent people “who haven’t done a damned thing.” He applauded the moratorium against the death penalty in Illinois implemented by former Gov. George Ryan and condemned the recent Supreme Court ruling that upheld executions by lethal injection.

Statistics show that when given a choice, the American people prefer to give life in prison over death, Mr. Tibbs said. People who prefer the death penalty feel that by killing people they don’t have to be afraid anymore, but that also has been proven wrong, he said.

Race and discrimination have played major roles in the application of the death penalty, studies have revealed. Executions were more than 10 times likely to occur when the victim was White, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. More than 120 people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence, the center reports, and 42 percent of inmates on death row are Black.

Mr. Tibbs was convicted in 1974 of murdering a 27-year-old White man and raping the man’s 17-year-old girlfriend, even though the girl’s description of the attacker did not match Mr. Tibbs, who also had an alibi.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1977, but the state continued to threaten a retrial until 1982 when the original prosecutor said the case was so flawed that he would testify in Mr. Tibbs’ defense at a retrial.

Mr. Tibbs said bitterness and anger about his wrongful conviction sometimes arises, but he has learned to let it go. Dwelling on bitterness would destroy me, he said.

“What happened to me was mild compared to the brothers up in this wilderness,” he said of others who have served on death row much longer and who weren’t as fortunate as he was to have a national movement organized for his release.

Interviewed by local radio talk show host Cliff Kelley, Mr. Tibbs referred to Mumia Abu Jamal as one of his heroes. Many view Mr. Abu Jamal, a death row inmate who’s the center of an international movement, as a political prisoner. Organizers were hopeful that a call would come during the program from the Philadelphia death row inmate accused of a 1981 slaying of a Philadelphia police officer.

“Mumia is a great titan. He’s a giant,” Mr. Tibbs said. “In addition to fighting for his own release, he’s fighting the injustice of the whole system.”

An environmentalist, Mr. Tibbs’ poetry covers such issues as the insanity of human beings destroying animal life and the environment, and media fascination with the indecent exposure of Janet Jackson during the 2004 Super Bowl.

Concerned about the increasing levels of violence among youth, Mr. Tibbs said he is forming a mentoring program that will bring elders in contact with young people. He is also impressed by the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, who is seeking to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

Sen. Obama has caught the fascination of the babies of those who wanted to but did not support Rev. Jesse Jackson’s run, Mr. Tibbs said.

“Also, Barack is hip,” he continued. “White folks have always loved hip Black folks, even though they might not have always wanted you to live next door.”

Continuing Coverage of Dallas Exonerations

Thursday's Dallas Morning News carried the editorial, "Even non-DNA cases merit scrutiny."
James Lee Woodard walked out of a Dallas County courthouse this week as the second local man to be cleared of a murder thanks to DNA evidence. Miscarriages of justice involving murder should cause Texans to feel especially queasy, given the state's hyperactive death chamber.
And even though Mr. Woodard wouldn't have paid the ultimate price for someone else's crime, he did pay an outrageous 27 years on a life sentence.

The shady dealings in the district attorney's office that caused this injustice conjure the grotesque specter of another murder case from the same era, that of Randall Dale Adams.
As with Mr. Woodard, the Adams case involved the office of legendary hardball District Attorney Henry Wade. Both cases involved unforgivable prosecutorial tactics of playing hide and seek with evidence that would have helped the defendants bring the truth about their innocence into court. And in both cases, the actual killers would later rape or murder others.
ABA e-journal reports, "18th Innocent Freed in 1 Texas County; Officials Vow Change."

For the 18th time in approximately seven years, an innocent man cleared by DNA testing reportedly has been released from prison by one Texas county.
This time it was 55-year-old James Woodard who walked out of a Dallas courtroom yesterday, a free man. He had served 27 years in prison for the murder of his girlfriend—the longest time ever spent in prison by anyone subsequently exonerated by DNA testing, Reuters reported. Like many other wrongfully convicted individuals, he is a black man, the news agency writes, and his case "highlight[s] problems in the local justice system that include what critics have said is a history of racism and racial profiling."

Woodard could have been released earlier, if he admitted his "guilt" in the rape-murder to the state parole board. But he refused to do so, reports the Associated Press.
"It says a lot about your character that you were more interested in the truth than your freedom," state District Judge Mark Stoltz told Woodard as he ordered his release. To formally be declared innocent, Woodard must now obtain an appellate court order or a pardon from the Texas governor, according to AP.

The deluge of wrongful convictions in Dallas County—reportedly there have been 18 inmates since 2001 who were cleared by DNA testing, the most in any one county in the country—has caught the attention of state lawmakers, according to Reuters and the Innocence Project.
Finally, Janet Elliott reports on the wrongful convictions summit Senator Rodney Ellis is hosting next Thursday at the Texas Capitol, noted earlier in this post. Her article is, "Exonerations prompt summit on convictions."

Several of those individuals are expected to attend the May 8 Summit on Wrongful Convictions, along with judges, prosecutors, police and lawmakers.
The public is invited to the summit, which will begin at noon in the Texas Senate Chamber.
"We've reached a tipping point on wrongful convictions in Texas," said Ellis. "Nobody can seriously doubt that there's a problem, and next week leaders from across our criminal justice system will come together to start solving it."

Ellis has tried since 2003 to pass legislation to create a state-funded Innocence Commission to review convictions. He is meeting this week with Gov. Rick Perry and Attorney General Greg Abbott, asking them to use their authority to set up a panel.
Earlier coverage of James Lee Woodard's exoneration is here.

Close call -- again: Another North Carolina death row inmate is freed, with a judge citing flaws in his defense and the case against him

With his great-niece Tatyana McCormick and great-nephew Christian McCormick in hand, Levon "Bo" Jones walks out of the Duplin County Jail a free man after spending 13 years on death row, charged with robbing and shooting Leamon Grady in February 1987.

May 03, 2008 (The News & Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX)

Were Levon "Bo" Jones of Duplin County the very first person freed from North Carolina's death row because of problems with his murder trial and judicial doubts about the case, he still would be a good example of why the death penalty is grievously flawed. But he is the eighth such person. The eighth.

Jones spent 13 years on death row for the killing of a man in Duplin -- Leamon Grady, a bootlegger, was robbed and shot in his home in February of 1987. Jones was released yesterday, after charges against him were dropped by the same district attorney who successfully prosecuted him in 1993. A retrial had been planned, but the star prosecution witness recanted her testimony that had helped put Jones and two others away. Prosecutor Dewey Hudson still believes Jones was involved.

Jones was convicted along with a co-defendant who is serving a life sentence. Another co-defendant who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder was released in 2001.

Jones' current lawyers maintain he is innocent, and Lovely Lorden, his former lover and the witness against him, has long taken back her claims that Jones did the killing. She now says she was coached by a detective.

In any case, thanks to U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle, who offered a tough and clear-eyed assessment of the trial and all that was wrong with it, Jones will walk free. Boyle, a veteran conservative jurist with a reputation for calling them as he sees them no matter who is involved, had ruled in 2006 that Jones should be taken off death row. He minced few words in saying that Jones' trial attorneys, Graham Phillips Jr. and Charles C. Henderson, had offered a defense that was "constitutionally deficient."

He said that the lawyers had failed to research Lorden enough to try to discredit her with jurors and that they had been inadequately prepared to talk to jurors about Jones' health problems and his troubled childhood in order to persuade them to spare him the death penalty. Boyle ruled that "but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."

North Carolina's death penalty has been on hold since last year, as legal issues are debated, including whether doctors can be forced to participate in any way in the execution process (the state's Medical Board says no).

But there have been too many instances of less-than-adequate defenses, of excessive zeal by prosecutors, of questionable investigations. And yet eight people who were on death row might well have been executed despite the various flaws in their cases.

Boyle is a lifetime appointee who doesn't run for election and has no motive to play to the galleries when it comes to controversial cases. He's also a conservative Republican, and a man of the law with guts and intellectual fortitude. That's the kind of jurist who was needed on this case.

Every episode such as this should be another lesson to North Carolina's legislators as to the hopeless rationale that the death penalty can be, always, fairly applied because the justice system is flawless. The system may do right most of the time, but it is not perfect, and this one penalty that cannot be corrected, or reversed, should be abandoned.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Death row inmate to go free

Levon 'Bo' Jones won't be retried in the 1987 slaying of a Duplin County bootlegger

Mandy Locke, Staff Writer

Another North Carolina man once condemned for murder will walk free today.
Levon "Bo" Jones of Duplin County spent 13 years on death row, convicted of robbing and shooting a well-liked bootlegger. In 2006, a federal judge ordered Jones off death row and overturned his conviction, declaring his attorney's performance so poor that his constitutional rights had been violated.

Today, Jones will become the eighth North Carolina man spared execution after charges against him were dropped. Judges turned the inmates loose after discovering a variety of problems in their cases, ranging from hidden evidence to inadequate defense attorneys.

The latest release comes as the legal system is re-examining the use of capital punishment in North Carolina. The death penalty has been on hold in the state since 2007. It has faced several legal attacks, including a case that challenges doctors' participation in executions.

Jones was sentenced to die for the death of Leamon Grady, who was robbed and shot in his home in February 1987. After the federal judge took him off death row in 2006, Jones remained in prison awaiting a prosecutor's second try at a conviction.

On Thursday, Duplin County District Attorney Dewey Hudson decided to give up. He said he'll ask a judge this afternoon to drop all charges against Jones and let him go. A new trial for Jones had been set to begin May 12.

Hudson, who also prosecuted Jones in 1993, had planned to ask a jury later this month to send Jones back to prison for life. Then, his case crumbled. Lovely Lorden, the state's star witness and Jones' former lover, recanted her claims that Jones killed Grady.

In an affidavit that Jones' attorneys filed in April, Lorden said, "Much of what I testified to was simply not true." She said a detective coached her on what to say at Jones' trial and that of co-defendant Larry Lamb. She collected $4,000 from the governor's office as a reward for offering the clues that led to arrests.

Lorden's new testimony also casts doubt on the conviction of Lamb, who is serving a life sentence for Grady's murder. Another co-defendant, Ernest Matthews, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was released in 2001.

Hudson doesn't believe Lorden's change of heart.

"She's lied one time or another, then or now," Hudson said. Still, he said he won't risk taking Lorden before another jury.

Hudson still thinks Jones had a hand in Grady's death.

Jones' attorneys swear he is innocent.

"Any investigation in this case shows Bo didn't do it," Ernest "Buddy" Conner said. "She gave at least five different stories. She's been recanting to people for a while."

A judge's wrath

Two years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle had stern words for Jones' previous defense attorneys when he took Jones off death row. Boyle granted the relief after state courts failed to do so.

Boyle lambasted defense attorneys Graham Phillips Jr. and Charles C. Henderson for performance he deemed "constitutionally deficient." He criticized the lawyers for failing to research Lorden's history well enough to try to discredit her before jurors. He also said they had inadequately prepared to investigate Jones' mental health problems and troubled childhood in attempts to ask the jury to spare Jones the death penalty.

"Given the weakness of the prosecution's case and its heavy reliance on the testimony of Lovely Lorden, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."

Jones spent Thursday night back in his native Duplin County, in the county jail. Conner drove there to share the good news.

Conner said Jones smiled, saying simply, "I knew this day was coming."

(Staff writer Titan Barksdale contributed to this report.) or (919) 829-8927

Death row survivor speaks in Billings

Posted: May 1, 2008 04:33 PM

Updated: May 1, 2008 04:34 PM

A former death row inmate who was exonerated, and a woman who's daughter was murdered, were in Billings this week for the "Justice and the Death Penalty" tour hosted by the Montana Abolition Coalition.

Back in 1975, Ron Keine was traveling through Albuquerque, New Mexico. A week before he got to the state, a male college student was raped and murdered. Keine and three of his friends were convicted by false testimony and no physical evidence. They were sent to death row

"So finally this guy did confess to it. He later said four bikers in prison was no problem if they served the rest of their lives for that murder. But he said he got to thinking when I was 10 days from execution and he read that somewhere...and he said all of a sudden he found Jesus and walked into a church and confessed to the preacher."

The four were released from death row, but that was not the end of their trouble. Keine's best friend committed suicide. Keine could not get a job or a place to live because everyone knew him as "that guy who was involved in some murder out west".

Years later, while he was raising four girls, the past continued to haunt him.

"School kids can be cruel. Your daddy was a murderer, he was on death row. When you say that to a second or fourth grader, I've had a few times to go get a daughter who's crying...gotta go get her at school and explain it to her."

In 1998, Northwestern University's center for wrongful convictions got a group of 128 exonorees together and they decided to fight the death penalty. But, none of them looked forward to the idea of public speaking.

"It's not about me anymore it doesn't matter what I feel like, or what I think, or if I can handle this or not because it's not about me's about the guys who are left behind, it's about the guys who are on death row, it's about the innocent people that are gonna die that are innocent" explains Keine. "It's about the new people that are gonna be filling up the death rows."
Keine wants people to know that wrongful convictions can happen to anyone, and when the death penalty is involved there's no taking it back.

"You can find mistakes if somebody's sentenced to life. They can walk out of prison if they're found to be innocent. You can't walk out of the grave."

Since 1976 Montana has executed three people and there are currently two people awaiting execution in the state. Both cases are under appeal.

A poll conducted by MSU-Billings last November found that an overwhelming majority of Montanans, 81%, do not think lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

- Adrienne Kitchen reporting from KTVQ in Billings