Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Michael Mordenti

The Michael Mordenti case - summary available here:


Sunday, 27 July 2008

Former Dartmouth resident, once on Florida death row, freed

By Brian Boyd
Standard-Times staff writer
July 26, 2008 6:00 AM

A Dartmouth native who spent 13 years on Florida's death row in a murder-for-hire case was released Friday after he agreed to a plea deal, his lawyer said.

Michael W. Mordenti, 67, was convicted in 1991 of killing Thelma Royston in Odessa, Fla., after the victim's husband allegedly sought to have her murdered for $10,000. First sentenced to death and later given life, Mr. Mordenti accepted a lesser charge of second-degree murder offered by the state after he won an appeal, his lawyer, Martin McClain, said.

His new sentence is 25 years, and he was ordered released immediately for time served plus good behavior, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

"This is a glorious day for me and my family," said his daughter, Michelle Bergeron, a New Bedford resident. "God has answered our prayers."

Mr. Mordenti, a former used-car dealer, grew up in Dartmouth. He and his third wife, Gail Milligan, sold a used-car lot on State Road in the early 1980s and moved to Florida, said Ms. Bergeron, who is the daughter of his second wife.

The victim's husband, Larry Royston, allegedly convinced Mr. Mordenti's ex-wife, Ms. Milligan, to arrange a hit on his wife. She said she contacted three people before getting her ex-husband to carry out the hit, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Mr. Royston committed suicide before his trial.

The Florida Supreme Court granted him a new trial in 2004 on grounds the prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence casting doubt on the credibility of his ex-wife, who was given immunity, the newspaper reported at the time of the court's decision.

However, following a second trial ending with a deadlocked jury, a third trial in 2005 resulted in Mr. Mordenti being convicted a second time and given life.

Earlier this year, an appellate court in Florida ordered a new trial, which was scheduled to start next month, due to evidence not admitted by the judge in the 2005 trial. Prosecutors offered second-degree murder, and Mr. Mordenti pleaded "in his best interest," without admitting guilt, Mr. McClain said in a telephone interview.

"He always maintained his innocence," said Ms. Bergeron, who praised his lawyers.

"It was very hard for my family through the years to go through this," she said.

It was not immediately clear what Mr. Mordenti would do next. Mr. McClain said he is considering moving to Alaska.

Contact Brian Boyd at bboyd@s-t.com

Inconsistency a given with death penalty

Dale Leo Bishop

By Tim Kalich

Saturday, July 26, 2008 9:15 PM CDT

Mississippi has been averaging an execution a year for the past six years — enough that we’re starting to grow somewhat numb to them.

We’ve come to expect the last-minute flurry of legal appeals, the countdown in the press, the pro and con vigils outside the gates of Parchman or at the Governor’s Mansion, and the deaf ear of whoever is governor for clemency.

And when the deed is done — when the lethal chemical mixture is injected into the arm of the condemned inmate — the show closes down until the string runs out for the next one on death row.

Mississippi is a pro-capital-punishment state. By margins of 3-to-1, maybe more, citizens here believe in an eye-for-an-eye. Their major complaint with executions is that they don’t happen often enough. Even the fact that at least 16 innocent inmates, including one in Mississippi, served time on death row but were later exonerated doesn’t seem to quench support for the ultimate punishment.

It’s unlikely that Dale Leo Bishop’s execution this past week will change public attitudes much. Bishop was guilty of the crime for which he convicted. He never pretended otherwise.

Still, his case exposes another troubling aspect of capital punishment having nothing to do with guilt and innocence. Rather, it demonstrates the arbitrariness of the death penalty.

Bishop, as has been amply pointed out, got a worse deal as an accomplice to a murder than did the associate who actually dealt the death blows.

Bishop, who is mentally ill, was his own worst enemy at his sentencing eight years ago. He waived his right to a jury’s determination of his punishment and asked to be executed. The presiding judge complied. The co-defendant who admitted to the gruesome bludgeoning went on trial later and drew a life sentence.

When Bishop got stabilized with medication, he tried to recount his death wish. He acknowledged his culpability in the murder of his former buddy Marcus Gentry, and he expressed remorse for his actions. He did not expect Gentry’s family to forgive him, but he decided that he would like to live after all. The appeals courts repeatedly turned him down.

So did Gov. Haley Barbour.

Now Barbour is taking grief not because he showed no mercy for Bishop, but because he did for another killer, Michael David Graham.

Days before Bishop’s execution, Barbour suspended Graham’s life sentence. Graham’s crime was just as dastardly — gunning down his ex-wife in broad daylight on a public street while she sat in her car. But Barbour, who got to know Graham as a trusty in the Governor’s Mansion, decided 19 years in incarceration was punishment enough.

Barbour and his spokespersons have been unconvincing in explaining the governor’s disparate judgment. They claim there’s no comparison between the the cases of Graham and Bishop.

The only real difference, though, is that Barbour had the opportunity to get to know one of the two men. Would Barbour’s response to Bishop’s request for clemency been different had Bishop been serving the governor eggs every morning rather than languishing on death row?

That’s what happens to those who take a hard line on capital punishment. It’s hard to extricate themselves from it later.

The Clarion-Ledger put itself into a similar bind. For years, the Jackson newspaper has editorialized in favor of capital punishment. It has complained about the lengthy delays, periodically showing the faces of every inmate on death row and how long their appeals have dragged out.

Last week, however, the Jackson newspaper argued in vain for clemency for Bishop. It said it was unjust to execute an accomplice to murder while letting the actual murderer’s life to be spared.

Later, in comparing Bishop’s fate to that of Graham, it bemoaned the apparent inequity. “If the law is not consistent, that is, equal for one as the other, it’s not justice,” the paper wrote.

That’s a commendable ideal, but it ignores the realities of the criminal justice system — and human nature for that matter.

There is no consistency in the criminal justice system. There are guidelines, of course, for the judges and juries to follow. Within the guidelines, however, there is a lot of room for humans on the bench and in the jury box to apply their sense of fairness or to be influenced by their own biases.

There will always be arguments about disparate verdicts and punishments. That’s because criminal trials are not and never will be flawless. As a rule, rich defendants do better than poor. White defendants do better than minorities. Sane defendants do better than the mentally ill. Even when all these factors are equalized, a defendant’s fate hinges heavily on the venue of his trial.

Bishop drew a death sentence from a judge who went by the book. A judge in another county might have seen Bishop’s death wish for the craziness it was and ordered a mental evaluation.

There are going to be inequities with every punishment. That’s a given. With the death penalty, though, the inequity is irreversible.

Saturday, 26 July 2008


To: Fellow Anti-Death Penalty Bloggers, NACDL/TTLA/TCDLA/ ATLA Members and Law Faculty

Re: Rhode Island and West Hollywood International Film Festivals

During the last few years DNA evidence has cleared 400+ condemned prisoners in the United States. This irrefutable scientific evidence has caused many Americans to consider the probability that the “system” has been executing the innocent.

The Last Word is the first documentary to dig deeper than exoneration and prove beyond any doubt a case of wrongful execution. Most scholars, attorneys, religious leaders and politicians agree that proving a wrongful execution is the most important step toward slowing if not banning capital punishment.

The Last Word is not only dramatically captivating but also possesses high educational and motivational value for Americans (potential jurors) who presently support the death penalty. Through interviews and investigation this documentary unravels the complexity of our criminal justice system and demonstrates how we (society) built and continue to perpetuate a seriously flawed “machine” void of constitutionally guaranteed safety nets for the innocent. Equally inspirational is the film’s powerful message to Christians who have been misled by extremists to misinterpret the Bible as supportive of the death penalty.

The purpose of this email is to request your help by spreading the word about The Last Word (e.g. festival attendance; public screenings; classroom instruction; email forwards; home/church discussion groups; online chatter; etc.)

The film is currently weaving across America on the film festival circuit. DVD copies are available at thelastworddocumentary.com and Amazon.com. Educational and library distribution is being handled by National Film Network- - nationalfilmnetwork.com.

Click here to view details on seven executions scheduled in Texas within the next few weeks!

“Unique, intriguing and dramatic as it leads to a heart breaking conclusion. One of America’s greatest miscarriages of justice!”
Millard FarmerDeath Row AttorneyAtlanta, GA
[Mr. Farmer was Louisiana Death Row inmate Patrick Sonnier’s appellate attorney. Sean Penn portrayed Mr. Sonnier in Dead Man Walking.]

“A must see for every Christian who has an opinion about capital punishment.”
Bishop Emeritus Leroy Matthieson

“This film should be required viewing for every high school and college student in America.”
Bonita GundenUnited States Public Defender

“A perfect example of how lazy lawyers, crooked politicians and asinine laws caused the system to fail. In Garrett’s case, the match got thrown early on. His own lawyers threw the case!”
Jeff BlackburnTexas Director,The Innocence Project

“Had I known then what I know now I never would have voted to convict the boy. He’d still be alive today. We trusted in the doctors and the lawyers and the system. Unfortunately, we trusted too much.”
Nathan Shackleford Juror #12

“Powerful! Eye opening and informative. The Last Word is a valuable educational resource which will inspire my students in many ways.”
Claudia StuartProfessor Criminal JusticeTexas A&M University

“I’ve watched the film (three times) and enjoyed it immensely!”
Aaron PhillipsTravel & Entertainment Reporter Amarillo Globe News

Attorney and Documentarian Jesse Quackenbush has been notified that his feature documentary, The Last Word is an “Official Selection” of the West Hollywood and Rhode Island International Film Festivals.

According to Quackenbush The Last Word has been recognized as the first documentary in America to establish convincingly that a criminally accused man has been executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The film re-examines the case of Johnny Frank Garrett, a mentally retarded teenage boy who was arrested, convicted and ultimately executed for the rape, mutilation and murder of a 76 year old nun on Halloween night 1981. Sister Tadea Benz was brutally attacked as she slept in her room at the St. Francis Convent in Amarillo, Texas.

Garrett claimed his innocence from the moment of his arrest until his dying breath. DNA evidence and admissions from the actual killer are revealed for the first time in the film. Adding a twist of horror, this documentary also reveals a curse Garrett cast on those responsible for his murder. The curse was written by Garrett in his final letter to “society.” The untimely and sometimes violent deaths of 20 people directly associated with Garrett’s case (including 5 suicides, 6 freak accidents and 7 rare cancers) are documented in the film. Quackenbush, who served as the films Writer, Director and Producer believes “the curse” is real and provides his reasons in Producer Comments at the film’s website.

The Last Word previously premiered at the Buffalo and Seattle International Film Festivals. The film is also an “Official Selection” at the Scottsdale & Eugene International Film Festivals in October. Discounted educational distribution is provided through National Film Network. DVD copies of the film are available through Amazon.com or at http://www.thelastworddocumentary.com/.

Contact Info: Cinco Rosas Productions 512-963-0475

The next victim of the Texas “Death Machine” will be Larry Donell Davis, scheduled for execution on July 31, 2008. I was actually present at Mr. Davis’ trial in Amarillo when his Prosecutor committed an egregious mistake jeopardizing Mr. Davis’ chance for a fair trial. The Prosecutor, during closing argument, stalked over to Mr. Davis who was seated at counsel table and screamed “How can you find for this man who sits . . . silently . . . hiding behind his lawyer!”

This was a direct attack on Mr. Davis’ 5th Amendment right to remain silent and not have his silence counted against him. I testified at the Motion for New Trial about the reaction from three of the jurors, ranging from nodding heads of approval to gasps for air. The jury was clearly affected by the Prosecutor’s actions. The hang-em-high Judge, Sam Kaiser denied the Motion for New Trial in spite of his in chambers oral admonishment to the Prosecutor for potentially causing reversible error. I will learn soon if Mr. Davis has placed me on his witness list. If he decides to have me, I will attend and witness my first execution. I am also hoping to film Mr. Davis’ family as they prepare for and experience the execution. I hope to bring their misery to viewers in a future project.
Jesse QuackenbushDirector, The Last Word

The Last Word is an "Official Selection" of the following upcoming film festivals.
West Hollywood International Film Festival Regency Theatre 7907 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90048 July 29, 2008 @ 2:30 p.m. website Rhode Island International Film Festival Bell Street Chapel 5 Bell Street Providence, RI 02903 August 10, 2008 @ noon website Eugene International Film Festival October 3-5, 2008 website
Scottsdale International Film Festival October 3-7, 2008 website
The Last Word has participated in the following film festivals in 2008.
Buffalo Film Festival Seattle International Film Festival


1. Is the Death Penalty Legal in the United States?
After being suspended in 1972 because of a lack of national standards, the death penalty was declared constitutional (legal) again in 1976 with the provision that rigid statutes be used as a guide. Each state determines whether to permit the sentence of the death penalty. Thirty-six states currently have the death penalty. New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty in 2007. (DPIC)

2. Is it legal to execute juveniles or the mentally ill in the United States?
The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for juveniles in 2005 and declared it illegal to execute defendants with mental retardation in 2002. (DPIC)

3. Is the Supreme Court currently considering the legality of the death penalty?
No, the Supreme Court is currently considering a very specific issue of whether the “3-drug cocktail” method of lethal injection constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and would thus be unconstitutional. The Court held a hearing in January 2008 and is expected to make a ruling in spring 2008. (DPIC)

4. What is a moratorium?
A moratorium is a halt on executions for a certain time period. During a moratorium, detailed examinations of capital punishment laws and processes can take place. In a 2007 opinion poll by RT Strategies, 58% of respondents believed it was time for a moratorium on the death penalty, many of those supporting a moratorium also being supporters of the death penalty. (DPIC)

Death Row Executions
5. How many inmates are on Death Row?
In 2008 there are 3,263 inmates on Death Row, with the largest rows in California (609), Florida (388) and Texas (370). (DPIC)

6. How many people have been executed in the United States?
There have been 1,099 executions in the US since 1976, with a peak in 1999 of 98 executions. The largest number of executions since 1976, 405, took place in Texas, with 26 of those occurring in 2007. (DPIC)

7. What countries are responsible for the most executions worldwide?
In 2006 91% of all known executions took place in six countries: China (1,010), Iran (177), Pakistan (82), Iraq (65+), Sudan (65+), U.S. (53). American and Japan are the only post- industrial nations that impose the death penalty. (DPIC)

8. Don’t most people in the U.S. support the Death Penalty?
The percentage of Americans in support of the death penalty peaked in the mid-1990s. According to Pew Research Center surveys, support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range of 62% of 68% since 2001, while opposition has ranged from 24% to 32% during this time. A Pew survey from August 2007 finds that 62% of Americans favor the death penalty, while 32% oppose it and 6% are unsure. (DPIC)
9. How much does the death penalty cost tax payers?

According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, the estimated cost of single death penalty cases from arrest to execution ranges from $1 to $3 million, compared to an estimated cost of life imprisonment, including incarceration cost of $500,000. The estimated average cost of a death penalty case in TX, according to The Dallas Morning News is $2.3 million. (DPIC)

10. What methods of execution are currently used in the United States?
36 of the states with the death penalty use lethal injection for executions. In 2008 Nebraska, the only state that used the electric chair as the exclusive form of execution, outlawed the use of the electric chair. Some states utilizing lethal injection have other methods available as back-ups. (DPIC)

11. What is the “3-drug cocktail”?
A form of execution by lethal injection that involves three separate injections. The inmate is injected with sodium thiopental – an anesthetic, which puts the inmate to sleep. Next flows pavulon or pancuronium bromide, which paralyzes the entire muscle system and stops the inmate’s breathing. Finally, the flow of potassium chloride stops the heart. Death results from anesthetic overdose and respiratory and cardiac arrest while the condemned person is unconscious. (DPIC)

Wrongful Convictions and Exonerations
12. How many people have been released from death row?
Since 1973 over 120 people were released from death row with evidence of their innocence. From 1973-1999, there was an average of 3.1 exonerations per year. From 2000- 2007, there has been an average of 5 exonerations per year. (DPIC)

13. Is there any proof that an innocent person has been executed?
Until now, there has never been "uncontroverted proof" that an innocent person has been executed. No forum or legal standard exists for establishing such proof. However there is considerable evidence that other innocent persons have been executed. Cameron Willingham, executed in 2004 in Texas, is one such case. After examining evidence from Willingham’s prosecution, four national arson experts concluded that fire that Willingham was convicted of starting, was accidental. There are many other cases where significant doubts about guilt arose after a person’s execution, such as the case of Carlos DeLuna.

14. Do Americans believe those killed are guilty?
Three-quarters of Americans believe that an innocent person has been executed within recent years and that convictions is resulting in lower levels of support for the death penalty, according to a 2005 study by the University of Cincinnati and Radford University. When life in prison without the possibility of parole was offered as an alternative sentence for capital murder, less than half of all Americans who believe an innocent person has been executed supported the death penalty.

15. Do most Christians support the death penalty?
Some of the most recent data focusing on religion and the death penalty has looked at the views of Christians, a group that comprises over three quarters of the American population. According to a 2004 Gallop Poll, individuals who self-identify as Protestants are somewhat more likely to endorse capital punishment that are Catholics and far more likely than those with no religious preference. The poll found that more than 7 of 10 Protestants (71%) support the death penalty, while 66% of Catholics support it and that 57% of those with no religious preference favor the death penalty for murder. A 2005 Zogby poll revealed that only 48% of Catholics now support the death penalty. A recent poll by NationalChristianPoll.com found that two thirds of active Christians who oppose the death penalty are concerned about judicial error that could lead to an innocent person being executed. The poll also found that of Christians who support the death penalty, 60% do so because of biblical teachings. According to a 2007 Pew Forum poll, the strongest supporters of the death penalty are white evangelicals, with 74% approval.
16. What are the official stances of religious organizations on the death penalty?

According to the American Friends Service Committee’s Criminal Justice Program, which maintains a list of faith and ethical group that are opposed to the death penalty, many groups are officially opposed to capital punishment, including American Baptists, American Ethical Union, American Friends Service Committee, America Jewish Committee, The Bruderhof Communities, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Disciples of Christ, Church of the Brethren, Church Women United, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Friends United Meeting, General Conference of General Baptists, General Conference of Mennonite Church, Mennonite Church, Moravian Church in America, Orthodox Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Rabbinical Assembly, Reformed Church in America, Reorganized Church, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, and the United States Catholic Conference. The Southern Baptists and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not taken a public position on the issue of capital punishment. The Qur’an supports the death penalty, but there is a strong tradition of mercy within the faith.

Texas Moratorium Networkwebsite email
Texas Students Against the Death Penaltywebsite email
Lamp of Hope Projectwebsite email
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penaltywebsite email
The Death Penalty Information Centerwebsite email
The Advocates for Human Rightswebsite email
Citizens United for Alternative to the Death Penalty (CUADP)website email
Ohioans to Stop Execution (OTSE)website email
National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP)website email
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penaltywebsite email
Fight the Death Penalty in USAwebsite email
Catholics Against Capital Punishment (CACP)website email
Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penaltywebsite email
Wisconsin Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP)website email
Campaign to End the Death Penaltywebsite email
Coloradans Against the Death Penaltywebsite email
The Moratorium Campaignwebsite email
New Yorkers Against the Death Penaltywebsite email
The Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penaltywebsite email
Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penaltywebsite email
United States Against the Death Penaltywebsite email
The Peace Farmwebsite email
New England Death Penaltywebsite email

Interviews from Texas' Death Row.
Condemned prisoners facing imminent execution share their "Last Words" and thoughts each month.

Mississippi Innocence Project Contributes to Exonerations

Newswise — Of the 18 years Levon Brooks spent wrongfully imprisoned at Parchman Penitentiary, three days were easy.

In March, an attorney called with news that sent Brooks' mind reeling. DNA evidence had proven what he and others had known since his arrest: He was innocent. After more than 6,000 days locked up without tangible hope of justice, a mere three days stood between Brooks and freedom. He used those days to make a list – a freedom list, a mental list of what he missed most.

"I couldn't begin to tell you all of the things on that list," Brooks said, with the grin that has seldom left his face since he was freed. "Seeing my mom, eating fish, going fishing, seeing my friends – so many things."

Brooks and Kenny Brewer, both of Noxubee County, are the first prisoners exonerated in Mississippi based on post-conviction DNA testing. Brooks was convicted in 1992 for the capital rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl. Brewer was convicted in 1995 of a remarkably similar crime in the same community less than 18 months after the murder for which Brooks was convicted. Interestingly, Brooks and Brewer knew each other growing up, and both know the man charged with both murders.

Their freedom is due to the work of the National Innocence Project in New York and the Mississippi Innocence Project, established last year at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

Work on Brewer's case began after a call from one of his attorneys, NIP co-founder Peter Neufeld said. At the same time, organizers started talking with author and UM law alumnus John Grisham, who had just joined the NIP board, about the need for an innocence project in Mississippi.

"The truth is, you can only do so much from 1,000 miles away," Neufeld explained. "It really takes people on the ground in each state to make a difference. It's really remarkable that in such a short time, the Mississippi Innocence Project got itself started, got students interested, got the backing of the university and other lawyers in the state, and, within a very, very brief time, pulled off a very important exoneration here in the state."

The Mississippi project was created with funding from Grisham and attorney Wilbur Colom of Columbus. In fall 2007, Grisham joined fellow author Scott Turow at a dinner to raise operating funds for the state organization.

"There has been very little innocence activity in Mississippi," Grisham said. "Our state has a high rate of wrongful convictions, literally hundreds of innocent prisoners behind bars. These people are serving time for crimes committed by others, and in many cases the real criminals are still breaking the law.

"There is a lot of work to be done, and the best place to start is in the law schools. The successful innocence projects are those based on campuses where there are student interns and dedicated faculty. It's a great opportunity for students, one I wish I had 30 years ago at Ole Miss."

Housed at the UM School of Law, the MIP includes a clinical program for students and is investigating more than 80 cases around the state. The Brooks and Brewer cases were the first for the new state project, which is not officially tied to the national organization.

"The two students assigned to Mr. Brooks' case were tremendous," said MIP Director Tucker Carrington. "They had been working on his case for a few weeks when they got word that the DNA tests and arrest of the perpetrator had absolved him. They set to work, and in two days' time drafted a pleading that we eventually filed in the Mississippi Supreme Court for Mr. Brooks' release."

The students help not only the organization but also themselves, he added.

"The students are a huge help during the year; they read applications, investigate cases, travel and visit clients in prison," he said. "What's more, they take with them a number of experiences, not the least of which is that the status quo treatment of indigent criminal defendants in this state is often a shameful and embarrassing fact that does so much damage to so many people. I don't think they're going to countenance it in their profession once they leave the law school."

Krystal Walker, a third-year law student from Louisville who worked on the Brooks case, was at the courthouse in Macon when he was released. She and other students talked to Brooks on the courthouse steps as he experienced his first few minutes of freedom.

"It is very fulfilling to know that what we did had a dramatic impact on Levon Brooks' life," she said. "When we went to court and met him, he thanked us. I wanted to thank him for letting me know that hard work pays off and it makes a difference. It is almost indescribable how I felt."

Whether the law students involved in more than 30 innocence projects across the country become divorce lawyers or tax attorneys, working on innocence cases helps shape them, Neufeld said.

"I've been doing this now for 17 years, and I can tell you I have never gotten tired of walking into a prison and taking someone by the hand and walking them into the light of day," he said. "There is one thing I know for sure, (the UM students) had a life-changing experience on the courthouse steps in Macon, Mississippi, and it will affect how they conduct themselves as lawyers and the way they live their lives as human beings until the day they die."

Still, there is a bittersweet aspect of the exonerations.

"There is nothing special about those cases. They weren't movie stars or athletes that someone set out to get. They are just regular people," Neufeld said. "What that tells you is that the same causes of their wrongful convictions are happening every day all across the country for other simple folk – common folk – who don't have the money to get good forensic testing or experts. So, it makes our job much more challenging, but of course much more essential. As soon as we possibly can, we have to wake up the nation to the causes of wrongful conviction and begin to remedy it."

That is why the MIP strives for meaningful criminal justice reform, said Carrington, who came to Ole Miss from Georgetown Law School in Washington, where he also served as a public defender.

"Our office endeavors to be a leader, whether it is representing clients with viable claims of innocence or legislative initiatives," Carrington said. "The facts of the Brooks and Brewer cases speak for themselves. They are emblematic of sloppy law enforcement, questionable forensic science and the perils of the state's lack of DNA preservation and testing legislation."

Because of problems surrounding the testimony of the two forensic witnesses in both the Brooks and Brewer cases, the state and national innocence organizations are working together to investigate the possibility of similar fraud in other cases in which those witnesses testified.

In July, state Attorney General Jim Hood formed a task force to study the financial needs of the state medical examiner's office and Mississippi Crime Lab. Mississippi has not had an official medical examiner since 1995, and the Crime Lab has been unable to hire enough DNA analysts because of inadequate funding.

Coupled with the subsequent arrest of a single suspect in the Brooks and Brewer cases, these investigations highlight the need for the MIP.

"It's not just about civil rights," Neufeld said. "In 82 of the exonerations the Innocence Project has worked on, the real perpetrator was identified. Those 82 people alone committed a few hundred rapes and murders from the time the wrong guy was convicted to the time that the real criminal was identified."

The families of the innocent become victims as well. The 15 years Brewer's mother spent without her son were extremely difficult. Confined to a wheelchair with medical problems related to diabetes, Brewer broke down as she recalled the shock and sadness she felt when Kenny was convicted.

"I prayed through it," she said. "I prayed for God to send him home. I prayed, 'Don't let him be electrocuted for something he didn't do.'"

Brewer works at a local food production company and is adjusting to living at home. On death row, he stayed in his cell 23 hours a day, with an hour for exercise.

"I stayed locked up for 15 years for nothing," he said. "They can't give that time back to me."

Brewer describes his goals since being exonerated as "what any man wants: to own a house and a vehicle, to have that type of life."

As for Brooks, he has spent the past few months crossing items off that list that he created during the three-day wait for freedom.

"First thing I ate was three plates of fried fish," he said. "I couldn't get enough. I got one, then another and another. All I wanted was fish."

Since that first fish fry, he has been fishing almost every day. He has spent a lot of time with his mother, whose health is failing. He's also dabbled in art, one of his goals before being incarcerated.

Using a variety of intricate techniques, Brooks creates one-of-a-kind greeting cards using detailed ink drawings shaded with colored pencils. The art kept him focused while he was locked up, and he hopes it will provide some income now that he is free.

Beneficiaries of a growing movement, Brewer and Brooks are among 220 people who have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in the past 17 years, Neufeld said.

"What's happened is that we started with one project and two people," he said. "We now have more than 30 projects around the country with hundreds of law students and law professors involved. We have journalism students. We have projects in half-a-dozen other countries. What this has become is a burgeoning civil rights movement – the innocence movement."

For more information on the Mississippi Innocence Project, go to http://www.mississippiinnocence.org/

Libraries Life News (Law and Public Policy)




Available for logged-in reporters only

In less than a year, the National Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project have secured the release of two Mississippi prisoners who were wrongly convicted. Levon Brooks spent 18 years locked up for murder, and Kenny Brewer was in prison 15 years for a similar crime, but both men were freed when DNA testing cleared them of the crimes. The exonerations spotlight a pressing need for innocence work nationwide.

Brainstorming to end injustice in Wisconsin

Exonerees, attorneys and community activists will come together Saturday in Milwaukee to discuss the causes of wrongful conviction and proposed reforms in the state to prevent future injustice. Panelists will include Chris Ochoa, who served nearly 12 years in Texas prison before DNA tests proved his innocence. Ochoa, who was represented on appeal by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, now lives in Madison and works as an attorney.

Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director John Pray said Wisconsin has made progress on addressing the causes of wrongful convictions, but still has work to do.
“The same kinds of problems that go into wrongful convictions in other states certainly exist in Wisconsin,” he said. “We’re ahead of the boat on some things but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen and won’t happen.”

Saturday’s event is free and open to the public.
Read the full story here and get details on attending the event. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 07/24/08)

Watch a video interview with Chris Ochoa here.
The Milwaukee event on Saturday comes on the heels of successful community events addressing wrongful convictions around the country.

In May, the Texas Senate held a major Summit on Wrongful Convictions and another panel addressed the problem in the Dallas area last week. Earlier this month, a New York State Senate task force addressed reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

Organize an event in your area to raise awareness about wrongful convictions. Get started here.

Inquiry hears horror tales of injustice

At hearing in Houston July 18,immigrant workers who had beenarrested in ICE raid.

At Houston prisons hearing, July 18.Left front, Wilma johnson, mother andTeresa Turner, cousin of Lonnie Johnson,executed last summer. Behind themis Njeri Shakur from the Texas DeathPenalty Abolition Movement.
WW photos: Gloria Rubac

By Gloria Rubac Houston
Published Jul 24, 2008 11:40 PM

“I’ve been stunned. I’ve been shocked. I’ve been deeply moved by what I have heard today,” said U.S. Congressperson John Conyers after hundreds of people crammed into Houston’s City Hall on July 18 to give testimony at an Inquiry of Crime, Justice and Race in Harris County. Conyers is chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

The inquiry was hosted by Texas Congressperson Sheila Jackson-Lee and organized by her staff, along with the Coalition for Justice. Preparations for the hearing began last winter after revelations of shocking racist and sexist e-mails sent by the Harris County District Attorney.

The hearing attracted community leaders, grassroots activists, and dozens and dozens of victims of the criminal justice system. When the City Council chambers could no longer hold the crowd, an overflow room was set up with television monitors for those who kept arriving.

Joining Conyers and Jackson-Lee on the panel were Texas state legislators and Houston City Council members.

Speaker after speaker condemned the criminal justice system for being systemically racist and uninterested in true justice. Applause broke out many times and signs were hoisted that read, “Houston, we have a problem!” and “Time to clean house!”

Jose Saavedra cried as he told the panel how his mother died in the county jail after being arrested for a minor traffic ticket. She was diabetic and was refused the insulin she needed, he said. She had also injured her knee in the jail and was denied treatment for that. “There is a problem at the jail,” he stressed. “We could not get any medical care for my mother. She told us they were not caring for her, but we couldn’t get the jail to do anything. We are young and we have lost our mother. And over a ticket?”

Long-time immigrant rights advocate Maria Jimenez spoke about a raid in June by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a local rag factory. Over a dozen people who had been arrested in the raid stood up with her in the chambers. The workers, mostly women, attended the hearing with their children.

Brothers Sean Ibarra and Erik Ibarra told how Harris County deputies stormed into their home six years ago as Sean was taking photos of deputies’ misconduct toward his neighbors. “They beat my brother and almost beat my mother, pulled guns on my mother and brother, stole evidence, stole my film, and filed false charges on us and arrested us. We tried to have the sheriff investigate these deputies and he did nothing. Six years later, they still work for the sheriff. They have not even been investigated or disciplined,” said Sean Ibarra.

The brothers recently won a $1.7 million lawsuit against Harris County.

Stephanie Storey was engaged to Hernando Torres, one of two men shot and killed by vigilante Joe Horn in November of 2007. “I want justice for these men. They shouldn’t have been burglarizing the house, but they never got to face a jury. Joe Horn was their judge, jury and executioner. Horn took the law into his own hands. This is not right. I want this case to be presented to another grand jury so they can investigate the case,” she told the panel.

Invited speakers included Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, the first African American D.A. in the state of Texas. “We run our office in Dallas with the goal of seeking justice, not convictions,” he told the inquiry panel.

Over 20 innocent people have been released from prison since Watkins took office in January of 2007. Many had served 15 to 25 years and were exonerated after DNA evidence was examined. Watkins has told prisoners convicted in Dallas County that, if they claim innocence, his office will investigate. He has allowed the Innocence Project of Texas to have space in the D.A.’s office and its volunteers work with assistant district attornies to look into cases of innocence.

Many people left the three-hour hearing frustrated because they had not been called to testify. Dozens turned in written reports of abuse because time expired before they could speak. Relatives of those locked in prison or executed submitted information on behalf of their loved ones.

The mothers of Lonnie Johnson, executed on July 24, 2007, and Joseph Nichols, executed on March 7, 2007, submitted information of prosecutorial misconduct in the cases of their sons, who they both said were innocent. Regina Schmahl Guidry submitted documentation on the wrongful conviction of her husband, Howard Guidry, who is a prisoners’ rights activist on Texas death row.

The Judiciary Committee staff will review statements and submitted documents to determine if a full congressional hearing by the committee should be held, Conyers said after the hearing.

Released from death row, but not exonerated

Paul Gregory House has known many prisons.

Death row. His own body ravaged by multiple sclerosis. A long, legal limbo that traps him between judges who have said he may be innocent — and state prosecutors who have refused to give up.

On July 2, unable to walk or feed himself, he was wheeled out of a hospital prison in Nashville, Tennessee, turned over to his mother, fitted with an electronic tracking bracelet, and placed under house arrest. His new trial for first-degree murder is scheduled to begin Oct. 14.

This time, Union County District Attorney General Paul Phillips will not seek the death penalty. But he still thinks House should be incarcerated for the rest of his life.

For 22 years, House has been blamed for raping and killing a neighbor in the clannish, dirt-poor hills of eastern Tennessee's Union County, a place where even in the 1980s, some houses still lacked indoor plumbing.

He was sentenced to death in 1986. Since then, his appeals have bumped up and down a long legal staircase, ultimately reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which questioned his guilt in a landmark 2006 ruling and ordered a new trial.

No "reasonable juror," the high court said, would have convicted House after seeing DNA results, a testing technology not available at the time of his trial. Nor, the justices noted, would jurors have been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt if they had heard witnesses — who did not come forward until years later — describe the victim's husband as a drunken abuser who confessed to killing her.

A federal judge ordered House released pending a new trial. But he stayed locked up for two more years while state prosecutors filed procedural challenges.

He remains accused.


On July 14, 1985, people were looking for Carolyn Muncey, a 29-year-old mother of two young children. She had been missing for at least 12 hours from her home, a four-room shack without running water; her husband, Hubert "Little Hube" Muncey, said he was out drinking beer at a local dance the night she disappeared.

Around 3 p.m, they found her shoeless body in a roadside ditch. She was lying on her side, her hands bloodstained to the wrists. Her floral housecoat had cinched under her armpits, as if she had been dragged by her legs, which were scratched and bruised, across the wooded hills.

She had been an attractive woman before someone blackened her eye, left a necklace of bruises around her throat and hit her hard enough to dislodge her brain from its moorings — a blow the coroner said caused her death.

Authorities claimed House lured Muncey from her dilapidated cabin, beat her, killed her, and then dumped her body in a branch-filled culvert about 100 yards (90 meters) up the road from her driveway.

There were no witnesses. The evidence was circumstantial: semen stains on her white cotton panties and silky green nightgown; a pair of muddy jeans with reddish spots belonging to House.

Guilty, the jury said. And it spent less than four hours deciding he should be put to death.

But during the trial, a drunken "Little Hube" stumbled into another gathering, lifelong neighbor Penny Letner later claimed. Appearing "pretty well blistered ... he went to crying and was talking about his wife and how it happened and how he didn't mean to do it," she said during a 1999 federal appeal hearing.

Muncey said the couple had been arguing that night, Letner recounted, and "he said he smacked her and that she fell and hit her head. He said 'I didn't mean to do it, but I had to get rid of her because I didn't want to be charged with murder.'"

Letner's sister, Kathy Parker, was there to hear his story, too. "I freaked out and run him off," she testified.

The women and three others testified that "Little Hube" was a violent drinker who regularly beat his wife, sometimes in public. One neighbor said he had asked her for an alibi on the night of the murder.

Parker testified she had gone down to the courthouse after Muncey's visit, and spent two days waiting to give a statement, but no one came to take it.

Meanwhile, new DNA testing produced incongruous results, making his case one of the more puzzling among 218 DNA exonerations and some 115 execution reversals in this country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Genetic testing exonerated him as a rapist — the semen on Carolyn Muncey's clothes belonged to her husband. But it implicated him as a killer — the blood on House's jeans was hers.

In a narrow, bitter 2004 ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected the new testimony and DNA evidence. The 8-7 ruling prompted strong dissenting opinions. Justice Ronald L. Gilman called the case "a real-life murder mystery, an authentic 'who-done-it' where the wrong man may be executed."

Muncey has long denied killing his wife or confessing to it.


District Attorney General Phillips is a determined man who has consistently said House killed Muncey to keep her from telling anyone that he raped her.

But most recently, in conversations with The Associated Press earlier this month, he said he may drop the case if genetic analyses now being conducted — on crime scene evidence never before tested — shows a third party's DNA. That is the first time Phillips has raised the possibility of giving up.

Did he and the state of Tennessee send an innocent man to death row?

They had some help from House, himself. Even federal public defender Steve Kissinger acknowledges his client undermined his own case, beginning with lying about where he was on the night of the murder.

He told investigators he had been home all night with his live-in girlfriend. Then investigators found those stained jeans in the couple's laundry hamper.

House admitted he had not told the whole truth.

He had taken a walk at about 10:30 p.m. He said he had left out that part because he feared that without an airtight alibi, he would become the prime suspect. He was on parole for a rape committed in Utah.

House also had what seemed to be a dubious explanation for new scratches and bruises on his hands and arms: While he was out walking, a white truck had pulled up behind him. Its occupants jumped out and tried to grab him on the dark road, yelling that he was not welcome in these parts and firing shots him.

House said he never saw his attackers. He ran headlong through pitch-black hills and brambles, losing his tank top and one of his shoes in the process, he said. He returned to his girlfriend's home about an hour later. That period roughly coincided with the coroner's two-hour window for Carolyn Muncey's time of death.

The account begged credibility — except that House and his mother were outsiders to Union County. Joyce House had recently married a local man and moved there from outside Knoxville. Her son had come only a few months before the killing, fresh from prison. Both were mistrusted by some locals — hard people born by hard country.

That same distrust may have figured in his easy conviction.

"He had long hair," Kissinger said. "He didn't work like everyone else did, he was living off his mom. Then he was kind of living off his girlfriend, too. He didn't fit with these people. And these people are very, very loyal to each other."

Why did some wait years before coming forward to testify that Hubert Muncey had confessed? "People heard that her blood was on his jeans and there was semen evidence," Kissinger said. "So why say anything?"

The blood on House's jeans was a big problem, but there was an explanation.

Dr. Cleland Blake, the assistant chief medical examiner for Tennessee, testified in 1999 that the blood on House's pants came from vials taken during Muncey's autopsy. House's lawyers provided two scenarios: either the tubes spilled on the way to the FBI testing laboratory, while House's jeans and Muncey's blood samples were placed in the same container, or someone tampered with the evidence.

There is no disagreement that a tube and a half of blood disappeared. Photos now part of the court file show blood on the outside of the emptied tubes and inside the Styrofoam storage container.


Paul House, now 46, sits in his mother's house about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Nashville, trembling and jerking from a disease gnawing his nervous system. He slurs because of the advanced stage of his disease, but his humor is sharp.

Asked how he was doing, he laughed. "I'm all right. I just had a big lunch."

House says he is not worried about the prosecutor or the future. "Paul Phillips is a fool," he said. "I really don't think there's going to be a trial. They pretty much don't have any evidence."

Phillips still considers House a menace.

"The fact that he has MS and is confined to a wheelchair does not protect the community," Phillips said. "He is a person who tricks others into positions of vulnerability."

Joyce House does not believe he will ever abandon the case against her son: "He just don't want to admit he's made a mistake."

The federal public defender says that is the reason Phillips won't let go.

"How can you live with yourself if you admit that you took away the last healthy years of a man's life?" Kissinger said. "That's a big burden."

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Death Penalty Questioned

COLUMBIA - Organizers of the anti-death penalty event used a man who spent 17 years on Missouri death row as an example of errors in the system.

A jury convicted Joe Amrine of murder back in 1985 and gave him the death penalty; but the courts took another look at his case, and in 2003 Amrine walked free.

Amrine was in Columbia Monday to speak out against the death penalty. Amrine spoke to the gathering about how his case is a prime example of why the state of Missouri needs to take a closer look at its capital punishment policies.

For Amrine the past five years of freedom have had some mixed emotions.

"It's been hell. I mean, for real, it's been rough, for real," Amrine said. "I mean I wouldn't give it back for the world, but it's really been rough."

After spending 17 years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Amrine is speaking out against the death penalty.

"I'm living proof that innocent people do get put on death row, and I'm hoping that my presence here may have an impact," Amrine said.

The meeting in downtown Columbia brought together public citizens, politicians, and Amrine himself, all speaking out against the death penalty.

"It's time for us to re-evaluate Missouri's death penalty," Amrine said.

But a lawyer and former police officer says the death penalty does have its place.

"Well, in some cases I think the death penalty is approriate," Columbia attorney Stephen Wyse said. "And frankly in some cases I think it prevents additional violence."

But the opponents just want to use Amrine's anniversary as a time to reconsider.

"The time is now for at least this review," death penalty opponent Jeff Stack said. "We want to have a system in place that is fair, reasonable and just."

The meeting also featured brief speeches from area candidates for state legislature.

Reported by Syed Shabbir

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Lancaster event focuses attention on DNA exonerations

07:05 PM CDT on Saturday, July 19, 2008

By FRANK TREJO / The Dallas Morning News ftrejo@dallasnews.com

The use of DNA testing to clear those wrongfully convicted of crimes, and the lessons that have been learned through exonerations in Dallas County, took center stage Saturday during panel discussions that attracted local, state and federal officials to Lancaster.

The event at Cedar Valley College, organized by U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, focused attention on the cases of 18 men convicted of crimes in Dallas County who have been exonerated through the use of DNA testing. Some of the men spent decades behinds bars.

Three of those who have been freed spoke Saturday about the impact the convictions had on their lives and their efforts to adjust to life outside prison walls.

Ms. Johnson said no one would argue that those who commit crimes should be punished, but she added that the panel discussions were about those who are innocent and are convicted.

“There is perhaps no greater failure in our democracy and our justice system than the conviction and incarceration of those who have been wrongfully accused,” Ms. Johnson said. “Today we will examine what went wrong — how these men and many others were wrongfully convicted.”

Among the participants was U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., who said the DNA exonerations in Dallas are helping to spark a national examination of the issue.

“I consider this to be very important in bringing us a little bit closer to justice,” said Mr. Conyers, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “More and more people are beginning to hear about this problem.”

Also participating in the panels were Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins; state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston; state District Judge John Creuzot; and Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas.

Charles Chatman, who was released in January after 27 years in prison for a wrongful aggravated rape conviction, said he wanted to remind people that others in similar situations still remain in prisons.

“We need to get out to the public that we still have work to do,” Mr. Chatman said.

Similar thoughts were echoed by James Woodard, who served 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

DNA testing, Mr. Woodard said, presented an opportunity to show the “prosecutorial misconduct” that occurred in his case.

Billy James Smith, who was released from prison two years ago this month after DNA testing, had served 19 years for aggravated sexual assault.

Mr. Smith said he has tried to move on with his life. He now has a job as a delivery truck driver, but he acknowledged that he sometimes struggles. He said he sometimes is afraid of being around women, concerned that they might accidentally touch.

“The most difficult thing is when I have to tell people I was in prison and what happened to me. And then the next difficult thing is when they ask me if I’m getting compensation, like if that was the most important thing,” he said. “The most important thing is to be stable and to be able to function.”

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Causes of Wrongful Conviction


The execution of an innocent person cannot be remedied. This fact, together with mounting evidence of innocents on death row, has strengthened opposition to the death penalty.

Download Acrobat PDF file of article (8pp., 46 K)

Louisiana pays a pittance for 26 years of wrongful imprisonment

Rickey Johnson knows $150,000 is not adequate payback for the decades he wrongly spent in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. But he also knows it can mean a fresh start when he needs it most. Johnson, who was freed earlier this year when he was cleared of the rape he served 26 years for, will get the money thanks to Rep. Frankie Howard, R-Many. Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed the $150,000 in reparations. It will be paid from the general fund for the fiscal year 2007-08.

Johnson learned to craft leather in prison and says he has the leather works business he wants to open here in his hometown ‘‘mapped out.’’ He says he’s just trying to put his life together the best he can, and that means making the best of everything. Howard says Johnson could get his money as early as this month. Howard had sought an additional $40,000 for Johnson, but that was not approved with the supplemental bill.

Johnson was released in January based on DNA results proving his innocence, according to the Innocence Project, which represented him. “Rickey Johnson lost more than a quarter of a century, nearly his entire adult life, to a wrongful conviction. He had three young children when he was arrested, and a fourth was born shortly after he was incarcerated; all of those children are now adults,” said Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project staff attorney representing Johnson. “Rickey Johnson’s long nightmare will be in vain if we don’t learn from it and make sure other people in Louisiana have access to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.”

Johnson was arrested in 1982 for the rape of a woman in Many in July 1982. The victim said a man broke into her home at 1 a.m. and stayed for several hours, during which he raped her. She later identified Johnson in a photo array that included an old photo of Johnson and just two other photos. Johnson was convicted of the rape in January 1983 and sentenced to life without parole. He has been at Louisiana’s Angola Farm Prison ever since.

Ironically, he served his prison sentence alongside the man who was later convicted of the crime for which Johnson was serving. The two became acquaintances while in prison, though they never discussed their charges, Johnson said.

In June 2007, the Innocence Project (which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) asked Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett to agree to DNA testing on a vaginal swab collected after the rape. Within days, Burkett agreed, and testing was conducted. The DNA profile did not match Johnson, and late last week, state officials entered the DNA profile in a database of convicted offenders -- yielding a match to John Carnell McNeal, who was already in prison for a rape in the same apartment complex just nine months after the rape for which Johnson was wrongfully convicted.

After McNeal was convicted of the April 1983 rape, he was sentenced to life without parole. “If police and prosecutors had not focused on Rickey Johnson so early in their investigation -- and if a proper eyewitness identification procedure had been used instead of a deeply flawed photo lineup -- the real perpetrator might have been brought to justice sooner and might not have been free to rape another woman in the same apartment complex,” Potkin said. “Anyone who doubts that our criminal justice system is stronger when we take steps to prevent wrongful convictions should take a close look at Rickey Johnson’s case.”

Original report here

‘McJustice’ - the crisis of indigent defense in America

Posted: July 15, 2008 4:10 pm

“The death penalty is too often reserved not for the "worst" offenders, but for those defendants with the worst lawyers”—ACLU death penalty strategist Christopher Hill in a column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

It’s not shocking to learn that many of the 218 DNA exonerees were represented by public defenders at trial. They were all innocent, but they all lost. In some cases, overburdened, inexperienced and underfunded public defenders were simply not equipped to stand up against the state. And the system hasn’t improved much in the last three decades. It wasn’t always the lawyer’s fault, of course. In many cases a talented defense attorney did all he or she could to represent their innocent client, but lost to a broken system that convicts the innocent based on flawed evidence.

Indigent defense in the U.S. is a state-by-state system with no national standards. Criminal defendants are often forgotten when it comes time to trim a state budget, and indigent defense services feel the pinch. A recent report on Michigan’s indigent defense services found a system that is wholly incapable of upholding a defendant’s constitutional right to adequate defense counsel.

The report, prepared by National Legal Aid and Defender Association, found:“… judges handpicking defense attorneys; lawyers appointed to cases for which they are unqualified; defenders meeting clients on the eve of trial and holding non-confidential discussions in public courtroom corridors; attorneys failing to identify obvious conflicts of interest; failure of defenders to properly prepare for trials or sentencings; attorneys violating their ethical canons to zealously advocate for clients; inadequate compensation for those appointed to defend the accused …”

The report found a culture that emphasized speed and revenue over justice to such an extent that employees of the system in Ottawa County referred to the days devoted to arraignments of low-income people as “McJustice Day.” Inadequate defense counsel provided by the Michigan system led to the wrongful convictions of innocent men like Eddie Joe Lloyd and Walter Swift, who were later exonerated with the Innocence Project’s help.

Unfortunately, the situation in Michigan is all too common. Across the country, people are regularly being denied their constitutional right to adequate representation, and this system of sub-par representation is causing wrongful convictions. Although many public defenders are dedicated and competent, publicly-appointed attorneys are overworked and under-funded in even the best jurisdictions.

The worst jurisdictions are tolerating lawyers who are incompetent and poorly trained, apathetic and condescending to their clients, insufficiently independent from judges and prosecutors; or even occasionally bullies and drunks. Institutional deficiencies in how the public defense system is structured and funded perpetuate these problems. It’s difficult to improve indigent defense across 50 diverse states and for the federal government when there’s no uniform set of standards. To fill this vacuum, NLADA and the American Bar Association published The Ten Commandments of Public Defense Delivery Systems, calling for speedy appointment, competent representation and adequate funding of public defense offices.

Funding for indigent defense also varies by state. Even though states are constitutionally obligated to provide defense counsel to those who can’t afford it, many states leave the funding to unreliable local sources, including court fees and traffic tickets. To find out how public defense is doled out in your state, visit the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ state-by-state listing of indigent defense delivery structure and funding.

Here are a few of the most pressing indigent defense crises around the country:

• In Minnesota, the state legislature has just cut indigent defense funding by $1.5 million which will lead public defender offices to cut staff, delaying criminal cases and causing some types of cases not to be represented at all.

• Last August, the director of the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office resigned, saying that the office could not adequately represent clients facing the death penalty with the budget provided by the state. Then, in June, budget cuts in that state forced the closing of an important public defender office that takes on defendants when there are conflicts of interest with other public defenders.

• A U.S. Department of Justice report on California’s system found that low-bid contractors are providing inadequate representation to low-income defendants. In one rural county in 1997, three attorneys – with no help from paralegals or investigators – took on 5,000 cases.

• In 18 states, including Michigan, indigent defense is paid for by individual counties who often get the funds through property taxes or court fees paid by defendants. More on indigent defense:Read about bad lawyering as a cause of wrongful convictions.

"Bitter Pill” Add-On Sinks Bill to Overturn Wrongful Convictions

Rhonda Fields, a DNA analyst with the State Law Enforcement Division, works with DNA samples from convicted criminals. Fields is based at SLED headquarters on Broad River Road in Columbia. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

BY FREE TIMES WRITERS editor@free-times.com

By Corey Hutchins

A bill that could help prisoners wrongly convicted in South Carolina overturn their convictions with help from new science and DNA analysis got the axe from Gov. Mark Sanford earlier this month.

Sanford vetoed the bill because of a last-minute “bitter pill amendment” to it, says Columbia lawyer Joe McCulloch, president of the Palmetto Innocence Project.

The project is an independent volunteer-based organization that works with the national Innocence Project in New York. Its focus is educating law enforcement and state legislatures about new science involving evidence gathering, the post-conviction process and using DNA to clear prisoners wrongly convicted of crimes, among other issues.

The original bill would have established statewide rules for evidence preservation and created a legal path to get prisoners who could prove their innocence through DNA back in front of a judge.

That legislation seemed to be on the fast track to passing but was torpedoed at the 11th hour by political maneuvering, McCulloch says.

At the end of the legislative session, lawmakers lifted language from a different and controversial DNA bill, which the governor had vetoed, and added it to the original legislation.

The tacked-on language, added on the last day of the legislative session, exploded any chance of the bill he supported passing, McCulloch says.

The amendment would have made it OK for police to take DNA swabs from people arrested for serious crimes before they were convicted, authority that critics say could open a door to Orwellian-style misuse by the government.

In his veto message, Sanford said he couldn’t live with that provision of the bill but lauded the original language.

“We applaud the first part of the bill because it provides those who may have been wrongly accused a chance to clear their names and we fully support the notion of due process in all cases,” Sanford wrote in a July 2 veto letter to Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who presides over the state Senate. “If this were the only provision of [the bill], we would have signed this legislation into law.”

Since 2005, the Palmetto Innocence Project has pushed for passage of legislation that would create a process to get wrongly convicted prisoners in front of a judge, if DNA could prove their innocence.

“We don’t have that path today,” McCulloch says. “Our system is not geared to recognize mistakes later on.”

By using DNA evidence to clear innocent prisoners of crimes they were convicted of, 218 exonerations have occurred nationwide, according to the national Innocence Project.

The issue is particularly crucial in death penalty convictions, which are coming under increasing scrutiny in parts of the country.

In 2000, Republican Illinois Gov. George Ryan put a moratorium on that state’s death penalty, saying in a CNN report, “There is a flaw in the system, without question, and it needs to be studied.”

McCulloch says he argued vigorously to keep the two DNA bills separate based on fears that Sanford wasn’t keen on the government collecting DNA merely on the basis of arrests.
But because lawmakers married the two bills — and the governor subsequently vetoed the hybrid legislation — McCulloch says that any chance of reforming the post-conviction relief process this year has been blocked.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Md. governor names panel to study death penalty

By BRIAN WITTE • Associated Press • July 10, 2008

ANNAPOLIS -- Former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti will head the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, along with 22 other people chosen to study the death penalty in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced today.

Civiletti, attorney general from 1979 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter, said he intends to listen to both sides of the debate and reserve judgment in the five months the commission has to study the issue.

"I come in with views but they are not fixed views, and so I am anxious to learn as much as I can in the short period of time that we have to do this important work," said Civiletti, a former attorney in the law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard in Baltimore.

The commission was established in the last legislative session to address several specific concerns, including racial, jurisdictional and socio-economic issues in the use of capital punishment in Maryland.

The commission also will study the risk of an innocent person being executed. It addition, it will compare costs of "prolonged court cases involving capital punishment" with costs for life imprisonment without parole.

The commission will issue a final report on its findings to the Maryland General Assembly by Dec. 15.

O'Malley, a Democrat and death penalty opponent, has supported repealing capital punishment in Maryland. However, repeal attempts have failed in the last two years.

The commission includes a variety of people, among them three relatives of murder victims and Kirk Bloodsworth, a former Maryland death row inmate whose case was the first capital conviction overturned as a result of DNA testing in the United States.

"We all are in this to do the right thing, and to make sure that our study is open, honest and thorough," Bloodsworth said.

The commission also includes Scott Shellenberger, a Baltimore County state's attorney who has prosecuted a death penalty case.

Critics have said Maryland already has studied the issue enough. Republicans also have questioned whether O'Malley and the state's Democratic leadership have leaned the commission toward an anti-death penalty stance.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, questioned why the commission includes two Democratic senators, but not a single Republican senator.

"It seems to me that there should have been a Republican member of the Senate," Kittleman said.

Maryland currently has a de facto moratorium in place against capital punishment, because of a ruling in late 2006 by the state's highest court. The court ruled the state's protocol for the lethal injection procedure was implemented without proper approval by a legislative committee. Executions can't resume until the O'Malley administration submits new rules for the committee to approve.

O'Malley has directed the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections to begin working on the protocol, a process that could be finished by the end of the year.

O'Malley chose 13 of the 23 commission members. Four were chosen by House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Five were selected by various legal and public safety agencies. Civiletti was chosen in a joint decision by O'Malley, Busch and Miller.

In 2003, University of Maryland criminologist Raymond Paternoster released a study that found black defendants who killed whites were statistically most likely to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death in Maryland.

Maryland currently has five men on death row. Only five inmates have been executed since Maryland reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Wesley Baker, who was put to death in December 2005, was the last person to be executed in Maryland.

State's death penalty system: 'Close to collapse,' says panel

By R. W. Dellinger

In the first comprehensive look at capital punishment in California since it was restored in 1977, a prestigious state panel described the system as "close to collapse."

The 116-page report, released June 30 by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, found that the time between judgment and execution in California doubles that of every other state still executing criminals. While the national average is a dozen years, here the average delay is 20 to 25 years.

The report says the state's death penalty system is "plagued" with excessive downtime in the appointment of counsel for direct appeals and habeas corpus petitions, and a "severe backlog" in the review of appeals and habeas petitions before the California Supreme Court.

"The failures in the administration of California's death penalty law create cynicism and disrespect for the rule of law, increase the duration and costs of confining death row inmates, weaken any possible deterrent benefits of capital punishment, increase the emotional trauma experienced by murder victims, families, and delay the resolution of meritorious capital appeals," the report declared.

The 22-member commission was comprised of prosecutors, defense attorneys, victim advocates and law enforcement officials, including state Attorney General Jerry Brown, former attorney general John Van de Kamp, and LAPD Chief William Bratton.

With a backlog of 670 cases - the largest death row in the nation - the commission pointed out that it would take five prisoners being executed every month for the next 12 years to carry out the sentences of inmates now on death row.

"We currently have a dysfunctional system," stated the panel. "The lapse of time from sentence of death to execution averages over two decades in California. Just to keep cases moving at this snail's pace, we spend large amounts of taxpayers' money each year; by conservative estimates, well over $100 million annually.

"The families of murder victims are cruelly deluded into believing that justice will be delivered with finality during their lifetimes. Those condemned to death in violation of law much wait years until the courts determine they are entitled to a new trial or penalty hearing. The strain placed by these cases on our justice system, in terms of the time and attention taken away from other business that the courts must conduct for our citizens, is heavy."

The report points out that to reduce the average lapse of time from sentence to execution by even half, to reach the national average of 12 years, would cost an extra $95 million, nearly twice what it currently costs to run the state's death penalty system.

With California facing a $15 billion-plus budget deficit, the commissioners put on the table two alternatives to reduce the costs of carrying out the state's death penalty law.

One option is to reduce the number of death penalty cases by simply cutting the number of "special circumstances" that make certain crimes capital offenses. California has 21 of these circumstances involving the victim, motive, felony murder (commission of a murder during a felony crime) and other special conditions.

The other alternative is to replace the death penalty with a maximum penalty of lifetime incarceration without the possibility of parole. According to the commission, significantly lessening the number of capital crimes, combined with eliminating the death penalty in favor of life without parole, would reduce annual costs from $137 million to $11.5 million - a savings of more than $125 million every year.

Recommended: Review panel
Among the commission's other findings and recommendations:

---The California legislature needs to "immediately address" how to recruit qualified attorneys to handle direct appeals and habeas corpus proceedings in death penalty cases; and private lawyers who handle these cases should be paid at least minimum federal standard fees.
---Serious consideration should be given to allowing lower courts to hear death penalty appeals rather than having all appeals go to the California Supreme Court, which has such a backlog that only one appeal has been resolved since 1997.
---The establishment of a California Death Penalty Review Panel, composed of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, police and victim advocates, be appointed by the governor and legislature to gauge the progress of the courts in reducing delays, analyzing costs and monitoring the implementation of the commission's recommendations.

Currently, 240 inmates have been on California's death row for more than 15 years, 119 for more than 20 years, and 30 for more than 25 years, while 13 individuals have been executed in California since 1978. Twenty criminals every year are sentenced to death in California, the report said.

Of concern to the panel was that 79 inmates on death row do not have lawyers to handle their initial (which by law is automatic) appeal; 291 death row prisoners don't have attorneys to represent constitutional challenges based on facts that trial courts did not hear.

Fears: 'Wrongful' convictions
While the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice found no "credible evidence" that the state has ever executed an innocent person, it nonetheless declared, "The commission cannot conclude with confidence that the administration of the death penalty in California eliminates the risk that innocent persons might be convicted and sentenced to death."

The commission said all the factors it previously identified as enhancing the risk of wrongful convictions were "equally present" in capital cases. And it reported that nationally 205 defendants convicted of murder from 1989 through 2003 were exonerated with 74 having been sentenced to death. Fourteen of these murder cases occurred in California.

"Wrongful" death sentences are more problematic, according to the panel. While 87 percent of those charged with murder in California are eligible for the death penalty, less than 10 percent are actually sentenced to death.

"Yet if the defendant were inappropriately singled out for a death sentence, or if his lack of economic resources increases the probability of his death sentence, or if his lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence that might have convinced a jury to opt for a life sentence, or if the prosecutor suppressed exculpatory evidence, we would certainly conclude that his death was 'wrongful,'" the report noted.

The panel also touched on geographic and racial disparities concerning the death penalty in California. It quoted studies that examined racial, ethnic and geographical variation in the imposition of capital punishment, showing that death sentencing ratios varied in different counties from .58 for each 100 homicides to rates nearly ten times higher.

The commission, which was divided on some issues, concluded, "This report sets forth an ambitious and expensive agenda of reform. The failure to implement it, however, will be even more costly. The death penalty will remain a hollow promise to the people of California."

New information
"I think what the commission has done is made an enormous amount of information about the death penalty available to the public," said Stefanie Faucher, program director of Death Penalty Focus, one of the nation's largest advocacy groups dedicated to abolishing capital punishment.

Faucher welcomed the "detailed information" on the cost of the death penalty, and applauded the commission's explanation of the numerous delays in capital cases in California. "A lot of people don't really understand," she said. "They think it's just defense layers fiddling around, and they don't realize there's some real structural problems with the way the system works."

However, Faucher believes the commission's final report also has two major shortcomings. There is, she believes, no adequate explanation in the report about why racial minorities and the poor tend to receive the death penalty more often than those who are Anglo and better off economically. More data collection, which the commission recommends, is fine, she said, but there already have been "tons of studies" on the issue.

"So I think that was disappointing that they didn't go further in saying, 'This is a real problem, and we can't continue to operate a system that is so discriminatory, whether intentionally or accidentally,'" she told The Tidings.

Faucher also feels the commission missed an opportunity by merely suggesting the aforementioned "alternatives" to the current system instead of making forceful recommendations. Moreover, she said, reducing the number of special circumstances for capital offenses doesn't get to the heart of the issue: "Is the death penalty something that a modern society claiming to embrace values of human rights should be continuing to do when the entire world has essentially abandoned it?"

Father Chris Ponnet, a member of the board of directors of Death Penalty Focus and pastor of St. Camillus Church, which serves Los Angeles County Hospital and other nearby medical centers, also believes there are many positive things about the report.

The Southern California coordinator of Pax Christi agrees that having the numbers spelled out, especially the exorbitant costs of maintaining a death row, is a real eye-opener. He also thinks that bringing professionals together from many perspectives and disciplines to study an issue produces discussion, incites and, maybe, even meaningful change. And he likes the commission's recommendation for a statewide death penalty review panel to compare capital punishment policies in different California locales.

"But the report doesn't go where I wanted it to go," said Father Ponnet. "It definitely doesn't address the moral issue. As a person of faith and as a person who works with victims and criminals, I would have liked it to say we need to eliminate the death penalty in our country. Our church and most mainline churches have articulated that there is no place for the death penalty in our period and time."

Then there is the whole issue of restorative justice, he added. "It's the ongoing question among those of us who work on this: 'OK, let's imagine California or the world without the death penalty. What does the justice system look like at that point? How do you deal with these prisons that are just getting fuller and fuller?' But the ideal would be to eliminate, abolish the death penalty."

Still, the priest is hopeful about the report.

"Generally, I think it's good," he said. "I think anything that creates conversation about the death penalty can be helpful. When just everything remains the status quo and no one has a discussion, that become problematic. So I think the challenge now will be who will take on the implementation, recommendations and the funding of some of those recommendations?"