Saturday, 31 October 2009

All Charges Dismissed Against Former Texas Death Row Inmate--139th Exoneration Nationally

On October 28, 2009, Travis County, Texas, prosecutors moved to dismiss all charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who had been convicted in 2001 of the murder of four teens in an Austin yogurt shop in 1991. Springsteen had been sentenced to death and Scott was sentenced to life in prison. The convictions of both men were overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because they had not been adequately allowed to cross examine each other. State District Judge Mike Lynch had released the defendants on bond in June, pending a possible retrial by the state. However, sophisticated DNA analysis of evidence from the crime scene did not match either defendant and the prosecution announced it was not prepared to go to trial. The judge accepted the state's motion to dismiss all charges. Prosecutors are still trying to match the DNA from crime with a new defendant.

"This has been a long time coming," said Scott, once charges were dropped, "and I'm happy to be here." Both Scott and Springsteen implicated themselves at the time of their arrest, 8 years after the crime. However, both claimed that their statements had been coerced by police. The police investigation had been compromised from the start because the building had been set on fire, and thousands of gallons of water were poured on the crime scene before an investigation was carried out. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg issued a statement that said in part: "Make no mistake, this is a difficult decision and one I would rather not have to make."

(S. Kreytak, "Charges dismissed in yogurt shop case," Austin American-Statesman, October 28, 2009; see also J. Vertuno, "Murder counts tossed in Texas yogurt shop slayings," Associated Press, Oct. 29, 2009). See also Innocence. Robert Springsteen is the 139th person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center's compilation of such cases. The criteria for inclusion on this list are:

Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-

a) their conviction was overturned AND

i) they were acquitted at re-trial or

ii) all charges were dropped

b) they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.


15 exonerees attend conference at UTA

ARLINGTON — During a prolonged standing ovation, the Texas exonerees were brought forward one by one. By the time the introductions were done, 14 men and one woman, each having served years in prison for crimes they did not commit, stood together on a stage at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"On this panel there is 200 years of incarceration," one of them, Anthony Robinson, told a large crowd of students, educators, relatives and government officials. "Two hundred years of suffering. Two hundred years of ignoring a problem that is screaming to be dealt with.

"You have a chance to make a phenomenal difference," said Robinson, who was wrongly convicted of rape. "This is a cause."

The emotional gathering of exonerees, one of the largest since wrongful convictions began making national headlines several years ago, headlined a daylong conference Friday sponsored by the UTA School of Social Work. Also on the program was the brother of Fort Worth’s Timothy Cole, who died in prison after being convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. A panel of criminal justice experts concluded the day.

But the event clearly belonged to the former prisoners. Conference organizer Jaimie Page, a UTA professor of social work, first heard a smaller group of exonerees speak at an Innocence Project event in Fort Worth a few years ago. Ever since, she has worked to help them make the transition into life in the free world.

"I’m not an emotional person, but I cried my eyes out," Page said Friday. "It was a life-changing moment, and I hope it will have the same effect on someone in the audience today so we can keep the movement going."

The exonerees greeted one another on stage with hugs and handshakes as they were introduced. Then, in eerily similar terms, they told of being wrongly convicted of crimes including rape and murder and spending up to 27 years behind bars before being freed. Most were exonerated through DNA testing.

"I was in the break room at work, and a woman said my voice sounded like the man who raped her," said Keith Turner, who was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated sexual assault in Dallas and forced to register as a sex offender when he was paroled.

Turner said he contacted a judge to try to clear his name after seeing a television program about DNA evidence.

James Waller, another Dallas resident exonerated in 2007, said he was convicted by a jury in 46 minutes for raping a 14-year-old boy.

"I was the only black man living in the apartments close to where he lived," Waller said. "They said [the assailant] was 5-8. I’m 6-4. They said I was light-complected, but all my people are from Africa.  . . .  If I was innocent, I know there are a whole lot more people like me."

That was a theme. Almost to a person, the exonerees said those liberated so far (245 by DNA testing in the United States since 1989) comprise a fraction of the wrongly convicted.

"Those voices cry out from behind the walls: Help me," said Dallas exoneree Eugene Henton, who was cleared two years ago.

They also praised Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose office joined the Innocence Project to investigate innocence claims and expedite exonerations. More prisoners have been cleared in Dallas County than in any other U.S. county.

"Dallas has a head start on the rest of the country," said Robinson, who spent a decade in prison and became a lawyer after his exoneration. "Do not let his term pass away. Do not let the voice of reason and justice be silenced because they do not like to look at the faces they tried to throw away."

In the afternoon session, Cory Session dabbed away tears while remembering his older brother, Timothy Cole. Cole was wrongly convicted of raping a woman in Lubbock and died in prison a decade ago. His name was later cleared when another man admitted to the crime. This year, in the Tim Cole Act, the Texas Legislature passed a law boosting payments to the wrongly convicted from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year behind bars.

"Some say of the exonerees, they are millionaires," Session said, with many of the wrongly convicted sitting in the audience. "I say you are heirs to millions who have been wrongly convicted. Millions didn’t make it, but you are one of the lucky ones who did. But there had to be a sacrificial lamb who stepped up by the name of Tim Cole."

The conference came a week after the work of UTA student Natalie Ellis helped exonerate Claude Simmons and Christopher Scott in a Dallas County murder. On Friday, the men thanked Ellis from the stage. Several other exonerees spoke directly to students in the audience.

"Students did most of this," said Steven Phillips, who served 25 years in prison for rape before his exoneration in Dallas last year. "Things like that give us hope."


Monday, 26 October 2009

Free Tjostolv Moland and Joshua French


© Beskyttet av Lov om Åndsverk

Joshua French og Tjostolv Moland ble 8. september 2009 dømt til døden 5 ganger i en kongolesisk militærdomstol. De ble dømt kun på grunnlag av indisier og to vitner som slapp å avlegge ed. Vitnene ble omgjort til ”informanter” av retten, fordi de også krevde erstatning av de to drapsdømte nordmennene. Nordmennene hadde under store deler av rettsaken ingen tolk, og en gang i blant en svært dårlig tolk. De skjønte svært lite av hva som ble sagt. På grunn av dårlig tolkning, forhåndsdømming og tillatelse av uriktig bevisføring, valgte Joshua og Tjostolv å forholde seg tause under rettsaken, som de selv kalte ”en mock trial”.

De to nordmennene ble dømt til døden for:

*Spionasje for Norge,
*dannelse av ett kriminelt forbund,
*væpnet ran.

I tillegg fikk Tjostolv 20 års fengsel for:

*Ulovlig besittelse av våpen.

Rettsaken foregikk over 4 uker, og var en farse. Beviser som ble fremvist var blant annet kart, kompass, turutstyr, ID-kort fra det norske forsvaret, ID-kort fra SIG, bilder av to kvinner, ett bilde av en norsk pressefotograf som peker på ett kart over Afrika, og diverse andre bilder. Også ett bilde hvor Tjostolv vasker blod ut av bilen skal være ett bevis på drap. Den døde sjåføren Abedi Kasongo ble aldri obdusert.

Tjostolv og Joshua har hele tiden forklart at de ble overfalt av røvere/milits den kvelden sjåføren Abedi Kasongo ble drept, og at de to kom seg unna. De ble senere arrestert. En ankesak skal etter planen starte opp den 13. oktober 2009.

Vi i familiene til guttene har ingen tiltro til at denne rettsaken skal bli noe bedre enn den første. Blant annet fordi det ikke er tillatt å komme med nye bevis, som kan vise at de er uskyldige.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland

Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland received 5 death sentences each from a military tribunal in DR Congo on September 8. 2009.

They were convicted solely based on circumstational evidence and two witnesses who weren't expected to give their oath. Those witnesses were called "informants" by the military tribunal, simply because they would otherwise not be able to claim reinbursements from the two convicted Norwegians.

The Norwegians did not have any interpreterer for the most part of the trial, however, every now and then, they had an extremely incompetent interpreter.

The Norwegians understood little to nothing from what was being said in court. Because of incompetent interpretation, prejudice, and that the prosecution were allowed to present incorrect a and false evidence before the judges, Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland chose not to say anything at all during this trial, which they both called a "mock trial".

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Rick Perry Can Run, But He Can't Hide: Pressure Builds to Admit Texas Executed An Innocent Man

As the corporate media picks up on the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, Gov. Perry is going to desperate lengths to cover it up.

By now you've probably heard of Cameron Todd Willingham, the Texas man who was executed in 2004 for supposedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. His conviction was based on junk science, prejudice, and wild allegations about his homicidal tendencies based on his tattoos (really). The arson investigation that sent Willingham to the death chamber has been thoroughly debunked by no fewer than six arson experts, leading to one inevitable conclusion: Texas killed an innocent man.

Not surprisingly, Texas Governor Pick Perry, who signed off on Willingham's execution despite alarming proof of his innocence, has gone to great length to suppress this story. In the past two weeks, Perry fired four members of the state Forensic Science Commission -- including its chairman -- 48 hours before it was scheduled to hold a critical hearing on the Willingham case. He has appointed a new Commissioner, John Bradley, a district attorney and "one of the state's most notorious tough-on-crime advocates," according to the Texas Observer. The investigation is now stalled until further notice.

Perry's moves reek of desperation, particularly given his upcoming bid for re-election. His top challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, has seized on the Willingham case, simultaneously using it to discredit her opponent while reaffirming her own pro-death penalty stance. (She accuses Perry of providing "liberals" with ammunition against capital punishment.)

CNN and MSNBC have now picked up on the Willingham case, echoing some of the questions being raised by the local press. "Only the governor knows whether his motives were political, but these recent episodes have produced a pungent smell of politicization," wrote the Fort Worth Star-Telegram this week. "And the odor is nauseating."

Most recently, Perry has gone beyond backroom machinations to publicly restate his own belief in Willingham's guilt. "Willingham was a monster," he told reporters this week. He claims that there is "clear and compelling, overwhelming evidence that he was in fact the murderer of his children," even if their was no proof that the fire that killed them was set on purpose. But as Bob Moser recently wrote, "That makes so sense. if there was no arson, there was no crime, and Willingham was, by definition, innocent."

Rick Perry is running scared. But he can't hide. After signing off on more than 200 executions during his term -- a figure that makes one wonder how he sleeps at night -- it looks like one of them will be coming back to haunt him.

To sign a petition demanding the truth from Texas, go here.


Death penalty foes emboldened by Willingham case

AUSTIN — Regardless of how it ultimately plays out, the roiling controversy over the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham is already energizing death penalty opponents into a renewed attack on capital punishment in Texas.

Gov. Rick Perry, depicting Willingham as a "monster" who murdered his children in a Christmastime house fire in 1991, says that opponents of the death penalty are using the case as "propaganda" to promote their cause. But advocacy groups that oppose capital punishment say the possibility that Texas may have put an innocent man to death underscores the need to end or seriously restrict the state’s executions.

"It has raised a lot of questions," says Scott Cobb, director of the Texas Moratorium Network. "No matter how things turn out, people are looking at the death penalty in a new light. They’re saying if it could have happened in the Willingham case, it could have happened in other cases."

Texas has a global reputation as the most prolific execution state in the country, having put 441 inmates to death since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.

Willingham was No. 320, executed Feb. 17, 2004, after he was found guilty of setting his Corsicana home afire and killing his three daughters — a 1-year-old and 1-year-old twins. Willingham reasserted his claims of innocence in his final statement just before the sentence was carried out.

Perry, as well as investigators and prosecutors, say evidence overwhelmingly supported the jury’s decision, which was affirmed at each step of the appeals process. But several noted arson experts who re-examined the fire investigation say it relied on outmoded concepts and did not support a finding of arson. The Texas Forensic Science Commission opened a review of the arson investigation in 2008, but the inquiry stalled this month after Perry replaced four members of the panel.

Although Texans have traditionally strongly supported the death penalty — surveys generally show a breakdown of about 75 percent for and 25 percent against — Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, says that Texans are "beginning to think twice" about capital punishment.

Scheck’s organization has led the push for a re-examination of Willingham’s execution and features details of the case on its Web site, including a photograph of Willingham with one of his daughters perched on his shoulders. Scheck said questions raised by the investigation contribute to the "widespread perception that the process of trying these cases has broken down."

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose office has helped obtain exonerations for 20 wrongfully convicted defendants in Dallas County, says "it may be wise for all DAs throughout the state to implement a policy . . . to make sure mistakes weren’t made" in prosecuting capital cases.

In Fort Worth, Tarrant County District Attorney Joe Shannon says he supports the death penalty "in the proper case" but said prosecutors need to ensure that correct procedures are followed and that the evidence is sound. "If you’re going to have the death penalty," he said, "you need to do it right."

Other questionable cases

Cobb says concern over Willingham’s execution could also prompt a re-examination of several other executions in which questions have been raised, either by advocacy groups or newspaper investigations.

One case centers on Ruben Cantu, a teen-age offender who was executed in 1993 for shooting a San Antonio man during an attempted robbery. A two-part investigation by the Houston Chronicle in 2005 concluded that Cantu "was likely telling the truth" when he denied being involved. A key eyewitness who survived being shot in the robbery attempt at first identified Cantu as the assailant but recanted, the newspaper reported.

Questions have also been raised in the 1997 execution of David Spence, convicted of killing three teen-agers in a botched killing-for-hire scheme that became known as the Lake Waco murders. A convenience store manager was also charged and sentenced to death but was acquitted in a new trial. He said repeatedly that neither he nor Spence was connected to the killings. A homicide investigator involved in the case also expressed doubts about Spence’s guilt.

"The problem is that Texas goes so fast and executes so many people," Cobb said. "That creates the environment of making more mistakes."

The Willingham case is also likely to fuel efforts to find new safeguards against wrongful convictions.

The Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions began a yearlong effort last week to develop legislative remedies against false eyewitness identification, fraudulent testimony from snitches and other criminal justice flaws that could land the wrong person behind bars. The panel was created by the 2009 Legislature and named after Tim Cole, a wrongfully convicted inmate from Fort Worth who died in prison and was posthumously exonerated.

Austin battle brewing

Cobb said death penalty opponents are already gearing up for the next session of the Legislature in 2011 with plans to call for a moratorium and a study panel to examine Texas’ death penalty policies. "A lot is going to happen between now and then," he said. "I see radically increased support for a moratorium after the Willingham case."

But law enforcement groups, prosecutors and other death penalty supporters are also expected to marshal their forces to help keep the death penalty in place. Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who are battling for the Republican nomination in the 2010 governor’s race, are both ardent death penalty supporters.

"I think the people of Texas believe in the death penalty and believe it’s an appropriate sanction," said state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, vice chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which will hold hearings on the forensic commission next month. "But they also believe it should be administered with unerring accuracy."

Charley Wilkison, spokesman for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said the 17,500-member organization will continue to make the case that capital punishment deters murder and helps protect police.

If the death penalty were repealed in Texas, he said, "It would be absolutely an open season on policemen by drug dealers, transnational gangs and other criminals if the consequences were only life in prison with a decent bed, a TV and three squares."


If you can't say anything nice...If you can't say anything nice...

Just this evening, the topic came up with my family of what, if anything, I would say about a case long after my representation of a client was over. I was asked to declare whether I believed a particular client had been guilty or innocent. With my own family, I was extremely cagey on some questions and flat-out refused to answer others. My obligation to hold my client's confidences goes to the grave. My grave, not his. And my continuing duty of loyalty, as we call it here in Kansas, goes just as far. I don't think I am prohibited from talking about cases in sort of general ways. But even long after a case is over, I am always mindful that I am that client's advocate above all else.

Then I saw this video. (Hat tip to Mark Bennett at Defending People for posting it first.)

This is the lawyer who represented Cameron Todd Willingham at trial and he's getting a little annoyed that we're all still talking about the doubt that has been cast on Willingham's guilt 5 years after he was executed. David Martin thinks it's "absurd" that we're wasting our time on this obviously guilty guy.

Clearly, David Martin does not come from the same school of criminal defense that I do. I don't care how much I disliked my client, how much I firmly believed in his guilt, or how much my representation was being attacked. I would never, NEVER talk about any of my former clients in this fashion. I would never talk about the (ridiculously simplistic) experiments I had conducted that helped convince me my client was guilty. I would never call efforts to exonerate my client after the fact absurd. I would never let anyone know what little respect I had for my client and our relationship. I would also never think that my job as a trial defense attorney was ONLY to challenge the state's evidence through vigorous cross-examination.

I have nothing nice to say about David Martin after watching this appalling performance, so perhaps I should not say anything at all. Except, I have no duty of loyalty to David Martin. But I do feel a duty of loyalty to my profession. I happen to think that defending people is one of the most noble things you can do. I can go on quite a tear about how we defenders of the constitution are the true patriots and the most noble actors of all in the criminal justice system. I take my job seriously. Very seriously. My clients trust me with their lives, just as Todd Willingham had to trust David Martin. As much as I rail against prosecutors and cops who bend the rules or cut corners, no one offends me more than the defense attorney who does not live up to my high ideals for the profession. From what I've seen in this video, David Martin is the kind of defense attorney I don't ever want to be.

Oh, and I don't think he helped persuade me that Willingham got such a fair trial. If that was the attitude of the guy assigned to defend Willingham, I have to wonder whether Willingham really got the sort of trial advocacy he deserved. Maybe a defense attorney who wasn't so sure the guy was guilty might have gone looking to find some experts who would counter the bad arson evidence that was produced by the state.


Never Smear Your Own Client, Not Even In Death

My initial reaction was "why?" Why would he do this? Why would he say this? Of the many things that have passed my consciousness over the years, few are as inexplicable as this. Like anyone else, it caused me to strain to find an answer, but nothing came.

I'm talking about the interview by Anderson Cooper of David Martin, the attorney who tried the Cameron Todd Willingham case, which Mark Bennett posted at Defending People. Given the intense pressure that arose from the overwhelming post mortem evidence that Willingham was innocent, coupled with the additional pressure arising from Texas Governor Rick Perry's scuttling of the his Forensic Science Commission's personnel on the eve of its hearings, there was certainly an abundance of interest in what happened at trial.

But as far as I've heard, no one has suggested that it was Martin's fault that Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death. Maybe I'm not close enough to the local scuttlebutt to know what's being whispered around the ranch, but no one has openly challenged Martin as a flaming incompetent, personally responsible for the death of a human being.

So why would Martin do this?

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Martin has no grossly improper motive, like he's been promised a judgeship by Perry if he does everything in his power to undermine the evidence of Willingham's innocence. If Martin truly believes what he's saying to be true, his statements are the most irresponsible, unethical, improper I have ever heard from the mouth of a criminal defense lawyer. Outrageously wrong. Utterly disgraceful.

He may not be tainted by the fact of Willingham's conviction, but he should be forever tainted by his overt effort to argue the guilt of his client. Worst still, if that's possible, is his apparent use of confidential information to bolster his claim. Willingham may be dead, but his privileged communications are buried with him. They aren't Martin's to reveal at his convenience.

Mom's old adage, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all, applies. Martin is under no duty to come forward to argue Willingham's innocence, especially if he doesn't believe it to be true. But under no circumstances should he come forward to argue Willingham's guilt. Don't want to argue innocence? Fine, then stay on the ranch and off TV. Keep your mouth shut and say nothing. That's a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Bennett ponders whether Martin was enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, his opportunity to go on Anderson Cooper and be the Big Man. It's clear from the interview that Martin is inadept at television interviews, given his slow, long-winded, pedantic speech pattern, refusal to give the floor to the host and background muttering of "this is absurd." That would explain why Martin, with nothing good to say about his client, agreed to go on air, but it offers no explanation for his egregious breach of trust.

There is no ethical duty of perpetual loyalty to one's client. A lawyer need not argue the client's innocence after his representation has ended. But that doesn't mean that the alternative is to smear his client, to argue his guilt, to expose his confidences, either. If Martin so desperately wanted his moment in the sun, then his options were limited to speaking in his client's best interest or discussing issues surrounding the present circumstances. There was no option of exposing communications, investigations, thoughts that existed solely within the defense. Martin had no right to offer that up in exchange for the opportunity to go on TV in his Texas rancher hat and tout himself at the expense of his client.

If I was forced to explain Martin, the best I could offer is that he now fears that Willingham's death is on his shoulders for his failure as a lawyer to have adequately represented his client. Even though the fingers aren't point at him, he believes in the back of his mind that he failed miserably. Perhaps he anticipates that eventually the fingers will come around to him, point at him, blame him, for his incompetence. Perhaps he knows something we don't, that there's good reason for the fingers to point at him. Perhaps he is responsible for the death of Cameron Todd Willingham. This is merely his pre-emptive way of deflecting responsibility.

Even now, Martin's description of the "scientific method" the defense team used to determine the accuracy of the arson claim rings ridiculous. They bought lighter fluid, burned a carpet, and it looked just like the carpet in Willingham's home? That's what he claims is proof that his client was guilty? Now that's absurd.

While no one can make a criminal defense lawyer believe in the innocence of his client, or chose to argue it after his representation has ended, he can be taken to task for doing the unthinkable, the outrageous and the facially wrong. David Martin's comments are a disgrace of the lowest order. And, for good measure, just as criminal defense lawyers aren't expected to believe in the innocence of every client, they similarly aren't endowed with the superhuman ability to know when a person who professes innocence is in fact guilty.

I may lack an explanation for what drove David Martin to condemn his own client publicly, particularly in the face of overwhelming evidence of innocence, but I have no doubt that his statements on Anderson Cooper 360 are some of the most despicable I've ever heard from the mouth of a lawyer. Never, but never, smear your own client.


Friday, 16 October 2009

A juror’s doubts

It all started in 1991 just days before Christmas in the small town of Corsicana, Texas.

Cameron Todd Willingham was home alone with his three little girls when the house caught on fire. All three children died and Willingham got out with just some minor burns. He was convicted of “arson homicide” and sentenced to death for setting the fire while his wife was out shopping for Christmas presents.

I’ve covered this case for years now for AC360° and there are still so many unanswered questions.

Top of the list: “Was an innocent man executed?” And now, is Texas Governor Rick Perry trying to cover up evidence that would show he was innocent? Willingham died by lethal injection February 17, 2004, after Texas Governor Rick Perry refused to grant him a stay even though new evidence had come to light that the fire was not arson! Mr. Perry is now in a heated re-election campaign.

Willingham’s stepmother, Eugena Willingham, told me she visited her son on death row every six weeks for 12 years. She always believed in her son’s innocence. I remember discussing the case over iced tea and homemade cookies in her Ardmore, Oklahoma home. She’s a sweet woman with a Texas-sized heart.

We sat in her kitchen a couple years ago, when I first interviewed her for a story on AC360°, and she showed me the family photo album. So many pictures of her son Todd and her granddaughters. She told me, “Todd called them his babies.” She spread his ashes over their graves.

For weeks, Governor Perry has been facing criticism for suddenly removing four members of a state commission which had set out to determine once and for all if Todd Willingham was innocent when he died.

This replacement of four members of the commission that had already been working on the case means the state’s work on the case is delayed, and maybe even derailed for good. The findings were supposed to be released just weeks before the Texas Republican Primary vote.

One person watching this case with eyes wide open now is Dorenda Lynn Brokofsky. She was on the jury in the Willingham arson trial back in 1992 and she told me today, she hasn’t slept very much since. All these years later, Brokofsky wonders if Willingham was innocent, even though she decided along with the others at the time that he was guilty.

We spoke by phone from her home in the midwest, where she moved after leaving Corsicana, where the fire took place. She dropped a couple of bombshells that left many of us here at AC360° shaking our heads.

She told me, “My dad was a fire marshall for eight years in Corsicana.” He wasn’t the fire marshall at the time of the Willingham fire, but she had a connection. And get this, she said her family was “good friends” with Douglas Fogg. Fogg was the deputy fire marshall and a key witness in the case. Fogg’s determination that the fire was arson really helped send Willingham to death row.

I interviewed Douglas Fogg years ago about this case and he told me he still stands by his findings and believes Willingham set the fire. I asked him if he’s at all concerned he may have sent an innocent man to his death? He said, simply, “No.”

But back to the juror who knew Investigator Fogg. How could prosecutors, the judge, and even the defense, let a woman on the jury who was “good friends” with a key witness for the prosecution and the deputy investigator? Wouldn’t that be a mistrial? Too late for Todd Willingham now, but the juror told me, “I told them I knew Mr. Fogg but they didn’t care.”

To this day, Brokofsky isn’t sure Willingham was guilty. “When you’re sitting there with all those facts, there was nothing else we could see. Now I don’t know. I can’t tell you he’s innocent, I can’t say 100 percent he’s guilty,” Dorenda said.

“I don’t sleep at night because of a lot of this,” she told me. “I have gone back and forth in my mind trying to think of anything that we missed. I don’t like the fact that years later someone is saying maybe we made a mistake. That the facts aren’t what they could’ve been.”

Brokofsky said, “I’ve got to stand in front of my God one day and explain what I did.”

To be fair, Todd Willingham wasn’t perfect. He had a history and was known around town for domestic disputes with his wife. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has always said there was “overwhelming” evidence Willingham was guilty, just yesterday called him a “monster” and said he had tried to beat his wife into having an abortion, suggesting Willingham did not want the children. Willingham’s stepmother told me they did fight, but she “never saw any bruises on his wife.”

When I told the juror that arson science has changed over the years and that at least half a dozen arson experts now say the fire was not arson and not intentionally set, Brokofsky got so upset she had to get off the phone. She said she needed some time to “process this.”

Imagine, wondering all your life, if you sent an innocent man to the death chamber?


AC360 10/14/09 Keeping Them Honest

Death Penalty Coverup

See the video here :


AC360 10/15/09 Keeping Them Honest

Todd Willingham's Defense Lawyer Embarrasses Texas Justice System on National TV;

See the video from Anderson Cooper . Klick on the heading.


Thursday, 15 October 2009

Pictures of Juan Melendez’s Visit to Tallahassee

Here are some pictures of Juan Melendez, the 99th death-row exoneree in the United States, when he returned to Florida last week for a screening of his documentary, Juan Melendez-6446:

The first two photos are during Juan’s riveting presentation after the film and the third is me presenting Juan with some tokens of our appreciation for him coming all the way in from New Mexico, on short notice, to show us his movie and discuss how he feels about the death penalty. Also, Florida Public Radio has a great piece on his visit that you can listen to here.


MSNBC Rachel Maddow Show on Todd Willingham and Rick Perry's Cover Up

Click on the heading to see the video.


Gov. Rick Perry’s changes at forensic commission raise eyebrows

Gov. Rick Perry’s hatchet has fallen once again on what was a little-known state commission created to ensure the credibility of forensic science used in criminal investigations.

The governor has now replaced all four of his appointees, including the chairman, to the nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission. His actions came as the commission was investigating its highest-profile case, involving the possibility that an innocent man was executed in 2004.

Because of the reshuffling of members, an Oct. 2 meeting of the commission, at which it planned to hear from an arson expert, was indefinitely postponed.

The out-of-state expert had prepared a report that said the forensic evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, accused of murdering his three daughters in a fire, was faulty and that the blaze that killed the children was not a result of arson.

Just two days before the scheduled meeting, the governor began his purge, informing three members that their services were no longer needed. Last week he dismissed his fourth appointee, leaving many to wonder if his sudden moves were politically motivated because he had signed off on the Willingham execution five years ago — and he has a tough primary race coming up in March.

Perry has said that all the dismissals were routine, as each member’s term had expired. Although he had been encouraged by others not to make changes at this juncture, the governor saw the need to move swiftly in replacing members.

The former chairman of the commission, Austin attorney Samuel Bassett, told the Chicago Tribune that top members of the governor’s legal staff had injected themselves into the commission’s work and had applied pressure regarding the Willingham investigation, which the governor’s office did not regard as a priority. He said the investigation’s cost and the fact that the expert was not from Texas were also issues.

Bassett said there was the implication that the commission’s funding was in jeopardy, and the general counsel’s office began sending a representative to all the commission meetings.

There was apparently some concern on the part of the governor’s aides that the Forensic Science Commission had overstepped its bounds in taking on the Willingham investigation. In a case where a man is put to death based largely on forensic evidence, one would think this is exactly the kind of issue that would be part of the commission’s purview.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which includes three members who pushed for legislation to create the commission, has rightly set a hearing next month to explore the commission’s plans and processes.

The newly appointed commission chairman has been invited to appear, and the senators should make it irrefutably clear that the Willingham case must not be shelved or unduly delayed.

Only the governor knows whether his motives were political, but these recent episodes have produced a pungent smell of politicization.

And the odor is nauseating.


Man's conviction set aside in 1993 shooting death

Edwin Chandler wept while holding Maguerite Thomas' hand after Circuit Judge Fred Cowan told Chandler he was a free man after the judge vacated the manslaughter and robbery charges against him in a 1993 slaying and robbery case. Thomas is the director of the Kentucky Innocence Project. Chandler spent nine years in prison before being paroled. (By Matt Stone, The Courier-Journal) Oct. 13, 2009

For 16 years, Edwin Chandler faithfully believed the day would come when everyone would know he wasn't the man who shot Brenda Whitfield in the head during a 1993 robbery at the Chevron station where she worked.

That day finally arrived Tuesday, when Jefferson Circuit Judge Fred Cowan vacated the manslaughter and robbery charges against Chandler after prosecutors and police announced they had convicted the wrong man.

“All I can do at this point is apologize to you on behalf of the criminal justice system,” Cowan said. “You are a free man. God bless you, sir.”

Though they were the words Chandler always hoped for, to hear them out loud in a Louisville courtroom nearly overwhelmed him. He crumpled on the table next to his attorney, his body wracked with sobs of relief.

“This is like a big, old dream,” Chandler said in an interview later, as he prepared to celebrate his son's first birthday. “It's like I'm waking up from a dream.”

His conviction for manslaughter and robbery in Whitfield's death was vacated just hours after a Jefferson County grand jury indicted 45-year-old repeat offender Percy Phillips for her death. Phillips is already serving a 20-year sentence for assault.

Tuesday's news reopened an old wound for Whitfield's family, who had thought they had put the trial behind them long ago.

“Now I have to go through the whole thing again,” said Keith Whitfield, who had been married to the victim for three years before she was killed. The couple had a 2-year-old son, Keith Jr., and Brenda had a 4-year-old son, Cory, from a previous relationship.

Keith Whitfield met Chandler on Tuesday afternoon for the first time since Chandler's trial and spoke with him privately for an hour before talking with reporters.

“I'm sorry he had to go through it,” Whitfield said. “I'm just glad he's able to get his life back, whatever he can get back.”

Prosecutor surprised

When Steve Schroering prosecuted Chandler in 1995, he said he had no doubt that the right man went to prison.

“It was never a case I had second thoughts about until this morning” when Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Stengel called to tell him the conviction was being set aside.

After all, a store video camera captured the crime and an eyewitness tentatively identified Chandler. Fingerprints, a knit cap and sunglasses were found at the scene. And Chandler made a taped confession to detectives, admitting to the robbery and saying the shooting was accidental.

But the fingerprints didn't match Chandler's, the owner of the cap and sunglasses was uncertain, and Chandler said he falsely confessed, coerced by police scare tactics and coaching.

Chandler said then-Detective Mark Handy told Chandler he believed he was lying and threatened to charge his sister and girlfriend with harboring a fugitive if he didn't tell the truth.

“Having to explain yourself to someone who doesn't believe you, it's kind of like bumping your head against the wall,” Chandler said Tuesday. “I thought if I tell them what they want to know, they'll leave me alone.”

Handy, now with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, said he was surprised that Chandler was exonerated.

“Having interviewed the guy … I just can't imagine that he was not involved,” said Handy, who defended his interrogation tactics. “It never crossed my mind that he didn't do it.”

Witness overlooked

Whitfield was shot in the head on Sept. 28, 1993, just 15 minutes before her shift was to end.

A man walked into the store, grabbed a bottle of beer from the cooler and walked up to check out. When Whitfield rang up the 99-cent bottle, the cash drawer opened and the man shot her in the head.

He grabbed $32 from the till and fled.

Chandler said he was a few blocks away, watching a movie with his girlfriend. He remembers seeing a swarm of police cars but didn't know what had happened.

Police focused on Chandler after a witness identified him near the scene, and he already was wanted on a jail-escape charge.

Even as his trial approached, Chandler believed that the evidence would show that he hadn't committed the crime.

But Chandler's jurors never heard some of the information that could have helped acquit him.

They never heard from John Gray, who was pumping gasoline when the shooting occurred. Gray left his name with a county officer at the scene, but it was never passed on to the city officers investigating the case.

Even after a jury convicted Chandler, Gray tried to tell police that they had the wrong man —calling the station and writing a letter to detectives.

In 1996, Gray was serving time in prison with Chandler and told him he saw the shooter and his name was Percy.

In 2002, Chandler approached the Kentucky Innocence Project, which investigates potentially wrongful convictions. They took up his case in 2004, even though he had already been paroled.

Marguerite Thomas, director of the Kentucky Innocence Project, said it was the first time the project has taken on a case in which a defendant had already been released from prison.

“It was so incredibly shocking that he was convicted at all,” she said.

Thomas said there were many roadblocks as they worked to exonerate Chandler. They struggled to get information from Louisville police. They were told physical evidence had disappeared.

But in October 2008, Sgt. Denny Butler, who works Louisville Metro Police's cold case homicides, took on the case and retested the fingerprint on the bottle of beer left on the counter. This time, the more advanced automated fingerprinting system matched the print to Phillips.

No new trial?

It's unclear whether Phillips will ever stand trial for Whitfield's murder.

Phillips, who made headlines recently after a courtroom outburst prompted deputies to user a Taser on him, was recently found not competent to stand trial. A judge ruled that Phillips was unlikely to become competent in the foreseeable future.

Jay Lambert, Phillips' attorney, said he has not received Tuesday's indictment and could not comment on the new charges. Phillips had a 2002 murder and robbery charge dismissed for lack of evidence.

Chandler said he wants to see the man who shot Whitfield prosecuted and held responsible for the crime that cost him nine years behind bars.

Still, Chandler doesn't want to waste time being bitter about the years he's lost.

“Even though I've been through a lot, I know I'm still blessed,” Chandler said. “I'd like for someone to miraculously go back, give me my nine years back. I can't get back what's been taken from me.”


Monday, 12 October 2009

Death penalty opponents tour Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - A man who spent 13 years on death row only to be exonerated hours before his scheduled execution is sharing his story.

Shabaka WaQlimi will speak against the death penalty in Virginia as part of a statewide tour this week. He was convicted of rape and murder based on the testimony of a man who later admitted he lied.

Members of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Witness to Innocence are making stops in Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Harrisonburg, Arlington and Winchester.

Besides WaQlimi's story, Beth Panilaitis will discuss Virginia's death penalty laws. She is the executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Both speakers will answer questions afterward.

The events are free and open to the public.


Better late than never, DNA lets innocent people reclaim liberty

THERE have been 244 "exonerees" since the creation of the Innocence Project in the United States 17 years ago. Exoneree is an unwieldy but precise term invented within the Innocence Project to describe the prisoners it has helped to release not on ambiguous technical grounds of mistrial but because examination of the DNA evidence from the crime scene established that they didn't do it. They were innocent of the crimes they were jailed for.
Seventeen of the 244 had served time on death row. They would have been executed for crimes they did not commit. Most others had sentences measured in decades.

The Innocence Project was founded by Barry Scheck and co-director Peter Neufield. Scheck is best known in this country for his part in the 1995 OJ Simpson defence team and later as defence lawyer for the British nanny Louise Woodward.

Scheck and Neufield wanted to apply the still relatively new science of DNA profiling as its inventor, Professor Alex Jeffreys, originally envisaged – as proof of innocence. The assumption among the public and prosecutors of the world had quickly become that DNA evidence was a failsafe tool for securing convictions.

The first raft of cases on the Innocence Project books involved people – almost entirely men – whose convictions predated the arrival of DNA profiling.

But in their rather austere offices downtown on New York City's 5th Avenue, the banks of filing cabinets contain hundreds more active cases in which available DNA evidence was ignored, or wrongly analysed. Exoneree number 245 is likely to be one Ernest Sonnier, who was freed on bond in August after 23 years in Texas prisons for a rape he didn't commit. DNA testing eventually proved Sonnier's innocence of the attack on Christmas Eve 1985 and implicated two other men.

His conviction had preceded the invention of DNA profiling and had been based on identification from photographs by the victim and by evidence from the scientist who examined blood-group evidence and who gave testimony that implicated Sonnier, even though his own written report tended to exclude him as the assailant.

Stephen Saloom, policy director of the project, says misidentification is a factor in a high proportion of wrongful convictions and in particular rape and sexual assault cases. Although all participants in the criminal justice process agree that eye-witness testimony is the least reliable evidence, it remains so often the clinching moment in the theatre of a trial. A woman who was undoubtedly raped points to the accused in the dock and says it was him. How difficult it must be for a jury not to convict. But in dozens of the Innocence Project cases, she was wrong. Honest, but wrong.

Misidentification is most common when the victim and accused are from different races. In the project's most recent newsletter, Saloom lists the other common causes of wrongful conviction.

They include inadequate forensic scientific analysis. It is extraordinary to discover that, in the land of CSI, there are no basic general standards of validation for forensic examiners. The threshold in some counties is very low. In a number of wrongful conviction cases, forensic scientists have actively engaged in misconduct.

About a third of cases involved false confessions by young or mentally suggestible accused. Audio and DVD recording of police interviews is required throughout Scotland but is still patchy across the US.

About 16 per cent of cases involved "snitch testimony", in which other prisoners – and sometimes the actual perpetrator – had given statements that incriminated the accused in return for deals, special treatment or the dropping of charges.

In the meantime, how have the 244 exonerees fared after their campaign for release has at last succeeded and the prison doors have closed behind them? "Mixed," say Angela Amel and Karen Wolff, the two- person social work team charged with easing the transition back to life outside.

"There is very little in the way of support services for any ex-prisoner on release in most states," says Wolff. "Bizarrely, if you are released because you turned out to have been wrongly imprisoned then you may not be eligible for what little there is. That will be linked to parole conditions and our guys aren't on parole."

Wolff is a lawyer turned social worker. Amel is a career social worker, previously employed on a youth homelessness project in New York City. "There were more 'f*** yous' than 'thank yous' in that job compared to this," she says. "I guess our guys had to be perseverers in jail to stick with their campaign for release for year after year. So they understand they have to persevere again when they get out, usually with just the clothes they stand up in."

More than half the American states have no system of compensation for wrongful convictions. The others grind extremely slowly. "An exoneree needs support the day he gets out," says Wolff. "Three years later is too late."

Their first task is to give the exoneree an identity. "With no bank account or driving licence or credit record for 20 years, they are invisible to day-to-day society."

The Innocence Project now boasts a panel of celebrity supporters, and prolific author John Grisham is on the board of directors. His "faction", The Innocent Man, told the story from wrongful conviction to derelict death of exoneree No 59, Ron Williamson.

Optimists might have hoped the project would be beginning to run out of cases to investigate after 17 years.

Alas not, according to Scheck. "When we founded the project, our intention was to exonerate as many innocent people from prison as possible, identify the causes of those wrongful convictions, and use them to reform the criminal justice system.

"DNA exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg of issues within our system. Over the past two decades, the exonerations we have secured have led to sweeping reforms in how line-ups and interrogations are conducted, how evidence is collected, and how our system of justice handles claims of innocence.

"We still have a great deal of work to do, but we've made more progress already than anyone thought possible."


Is Rick Perry Hiding Smoking Gun in Todd Willingham Case?

According to an article in today's Houston Chronicle, Texas Governor Rick Perry is refusing to release documents that could show whether or not he considered or even read the information sent to him on the day of the execution of Todd Willingham informing him that there was new evidence casting doubt on Willingham's guilt and raising the question of whether Texas was about to execute an innocent man.

We must put pressure on Perry to release all information dealing with the Willingham execution. Rick Perry is continuing to hide information and cover up whether Texas executed an innocent person.

The same information that Perry is now refusing to release has been released before. In 2003, there was an article by Alan Berlow in The Atlantic ("Texas Clemency Memos") that discussed and contained copies of execution day memos sent to Governor George W Bush from his staff, including many written by his legal counsel Alberto Gonzales. According to Berlow:

Gonzales never intended his summaries to be made public. Almost all are marked CONFIDENTIAL and state, "The privileges claimed include, but are not limited to, claims of Attorney-Client Privilege, Attorney Work-Product Privilege, and the Internal Memorandum exception to the Texas Public Information Act." I obtained the summaries and related documents, which have never been published, after the Texas attorney general ruled that they were not exempt from the disclosure requirements of the Public Information Act.

Call Perry's office at 512 463 1782 and demand that he release all information.

Sent him an email through his website here.

Sign the petition to Governor Rick Perry and the State of Texas to acknowledge that the fire in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was not arson, therefore no crime was committed and on February 17, 2004, Texas executed an innocent man.

Excerpt from the Chronicle:

In a letter sent Feb. 14, three days before Willingham was scheduled to die, Perry had been asked to postpone the execution. The condemned man's attorney argued that the newly obtained expert evidence showed Willingham had not set the house fire that killed his daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron, two days before Christmas in 1991.

On Feb. 17, the day of the execution, Perry's office got the five-page faxed report at 4:52 p.m., according to documents the Houston Chronicle obtained in response to a public records request.

But it's unclear from the records whether he read it that day. Perry's office has declined to release any of his or his staff's comments or analysis of the reprieve request.

A statement from Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone, sent to the Chronicle late Friday, said that “given the brevity of (the) report and the general counsel's familiarity with all the other facts in the case, there was ample time for the general counsel to read and analyze the report and to brief the governor on its content.”

A few minutes after 5 p.m., defense lawyer Walter M. Reaves Jr. said he received word that the governor would not intervene. At 6:20 p.m. Willingham was executed after declaring: “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit.”

Summaries of gubernatorial reviews of execution cases previously were released as public records in Texas, most recently under former Gov. George W. Bush. Yet Perry's office has taken the position that any documents showing his own review and staff discussion of the Willingham case are not public — a claim the Chronicle disputes.

Plan to attend the 10th Annual March to Abolish the Death Penalty on October 24 in Austin at the Texas Capitol. We plan to deliver the petition that day. Members of Todd Willingham's family are expected to attend the march and rally.

Todd Willingham was executed for arson/murder on February 17, 2004. He professed his innocence from his arrest until he was strapped down on the execution gurney. Now, we know for certain that he was telling the truth. On August 25, 2009, Dr Craig Beyler, the investigator hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the Willingham case, released his report in which he found that “a finding of arson could not be sustained” by a scientific analysis (Read the report here). He concluded that the fire in the Willingham case was accidental and not arson. In fact, there was no arson, so there was no crime. Texas executed an innocent person. The proven execution of an innocent person should mean the end of the death penalty in the United States.

Send Perry an email by filling out the email form on his website.

You can also send Perry a letter in the postal mail to the mailing address:

Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428

You can also call him on the phone and leave him a message:

Information and Referral Hotline [for Texas callers] :
(800) 843-5789

Citizen’s Opinion Hotline [for Texas callers] :
(800) 252-9600

Information and Referral and Opinion Hotline [for Austin, Texas and out-of-state callers] :
(512) 463-1782

Office of the Governor Main Switchboard [office hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST] :
(512) 463-2000

Citizen’s Assistance Telecommunications Device
If you are using a telecommunication device for the deaf (TDD),
call 711 to reach Relay Texas

Office of the Governor Fax:
(512) 463-1849


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Ex-prosecutor Robert Carney draws scrutiny over disputed murder cases

Broward Circuit Judge Robert Carney looking through the window of the door to his courtrom. As a prosecutor, he has been involved in a number of case that have been overturned or put in question. (Mike Stocker, S-S / September 17, 2009)

For five years, Robert Carney, a Vietnam-era Marine, represented the people of Broward County in murder cases, a prosecutor's gravest responsibility. It was his duty to bring killers to account, to seek justice and the truth in cases where the defendant faced life in prison or the ultimate penalty — execution.

A brainy, aggressive prosecutor, Carney became known around the courthouse for his ability to look jurors in the eye and deliver his closing arguments without notes. He was later appointed to a judgeship, a position he announced in August he will retire from at the end of this year.

As Carney, 62, spends his final months in judicial robes, though, hard questions have arisen about his role in four murder cases from the 1980s.

Those cases were thrown out on appeal, disproved by DNA evidence or have become marred by serious doubt that justice was truly done.

"The public should absolutely be concerned any time you have one person involved in a single wrongful conviction," said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, a Tallahassee-based organization that investigates claims of innocence.

"When someone has been involved with four wrongful convictions, it is something that deserves further scrutiny," Miller said.

As a homicide prosecutor, Carney played a major part in three Broward murder cases — against John Purvis, Anthony Caravella and Christopher Clugston — that were thrown out by appeals courts or in which the validity of the convictions has been greatly undermined. He also played a lesser role in one of Florida's most notorious wrongful convictions, that of Frank Lee Smith.

Carney declined to be interviewed by the Sun Sentinel in person or by phone for this story, but agreed to make some comments by e-mail. He declined to discuss details of the cases.

"It is easy to sit as a Monday morning quarterback and judge from a perspective 25 years later with information unknown at the time of prosecution," Carney wrote.

Two of the cases involve unconnected murders committed days apart in November 1983, in Miramar and Fort Lauderdale. Both were assigned to Carney, who won swift convictions of Purvis and Caravella.

One of those long-ago convictions is now back in the news. Caravella was released from prison Sept. 10 after DNA tests cast doubt on his guilt. More testing is being done that could lead to his exoneration.

Both prosecutions were built on the shaky foundations of incriminating confessions. Purvis was schizophrenic, with the mental capacity of an 8-year-old. Caravella was 15 and had an IQ of 67. In both instances, Carney sought the death penalty but jurors voted for life in prison.

Questions have arisen in the two cases about whether Carney should have turned over evidence to the defense that might have set off alarms about the reliability of the confessions and the strength of the state's case.

Purvis' conviction took nearly 10 years to fall apart; Caravella's may be unraveling 26 years later.

Carney said two juries were convinced of both men's guilt.

"Twelve people unanimously, in both cases attributable to me, found there was no reasonable doubt. That is how the system works," Carney wrote. "The 'new' evidence came to light long after trial and could not have been reasonably known before trial. In Caravella, the [DNA] science was not available in 1983," he wrote.

Prosecutors play a key role in the justice system, Carney said, but are not the only players. Judges monitored his conduct; each accused man had an attorney; juries indicted and later convicted both defendants; and appeals courts initially upheld the convictions, he said.

"Yet in spite of these safeguards, the system is not perfect and, on occasion, there is a bad result," Carney wrote. "When it happens it is a stark reminder to all of us of the gravity of what we do. If an innocent person serves time for a crime he or she did not commit, this is a terrible thing and is felt deeply by all who are involved in the process."

Some of the defense attorneys involved in the four murder cases said that they lay more of the blame for what has happened on police — who initially targeted the suspects and interrogated them — than on Carney.

Carolyn McCann, the prosecutor who is handling the Caravella appeal and is familiar with some of the other cases, said Carney is an honorable person.

Broward prosecutors have worked to correct any issues in cases he handled, as well as others, as soon as problems became known, she said.

"I don't believe any prosecutor, including Rob Carney, would ever want to convict an innocent person," McCann said. If Caravella is exonerated, Steven Drizin, a law professor with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, said there should be an independent investigation of every aspect of the case.

"It's way too early to focus blame on a single [person in the justice system]," Drizin said. "Often these cases are a total system meltdown beginning with the police, moving on to the prosecutor and defense attorney and ultimately to the judiciary and the jury."

Drizin added: "What is striking to me is we're talking about a death penalty case against a 15-year-old. You'd think every effort would have been made to ensure it was being done right."

Carney was a Broward prosecutor for nine years and has spent 24 years on the bench. Once dubbed "the jumping judge" because of his love of sky diving, he is regarded as intelligent and organized. He was known as one of the county's top prosecutors, tough but persuasive, and with evident ambitions to earn a black robe. His record as a prosecutor is still being assessed.

Ed McGee, who was a prosecutor with Carney in the 1970s, later defended a homicide case Carney prosecuted, and has represented clients before him as a judge. He said Carney is a "straight shooter" and "takes his job very seriously and does it very, very, very well."


Perry's office quiet on expert's arson report

Just 88 minutes before the February 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, Gov. Rick Perry's office received by fax a crucial arson expert's opinion that later ignited a political firestorm over whether Texas, on Perry's watch, used botched forensic evidence to send a man to his death.

In a letter sent Feb. 14, three days before Willingham was scheduled to die, Perry had been asked to postpone the execution. The condemned man's attorney argued that the newly obtained expert evidence showed Willingham had not set the house fire that killed his daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmon and Kameron, two days before Christmas in 1991.

On Feb. 17, the day of the execution, Perry's office got the five-page faxed report at 4:52 p.m., according to documents the Houston Chronicle obtained in response to a public records request.

But it's unclear from the records whether he read it that day. Perry's office has declined to release any of his or his staff's comments or analysis of the reprieve request.

A statement from Perry spokesman Chris Cutrone, sent to the Chronicle late Friday, said that “given the brevity of (the) report and the general counsel's familiarity with all the other facts in the case, there was ample time for the general counsel to read and analyze the report and to brief the governor on its content.”

A few minutes after 5 p.m., defense lawyer Walter M. Reaves Jr. said he received word that the governor would not intervene. At 6:20 p.m. Willingham was executed after declaring: “I am an innocent man, convicted of a crime I did not commit.”

Summaries of gubernatorial reviews of execution cases previously were released as public records in Texas, most recently under former Gov. George W. Bush. Yet Perry's office has taken the position that any documents showing his own review and staff discussion of the Willingham case are not public — a claim the Chronicle disputes.

Discredited techniques

Without those records, the question of how much — or how little — Perry considered the newly obtained evidence in his decision to proceed with execution will remain forever a state secret.

Perry has presided over more than 200 executions during his time as governor; Willingham was one of three people put to death in February 2004 alone.

Reaves first alerted Perry about the new arson analysis three days before the execution and requested more time to develop it.

“There is nothing more I would like than to be able to present you with evidence of actual innocence,” Reaves wrote Perry, according to a document released to the Chronicle. “I think we are close … The death penalty whether you agree with it or not, should be reserved for the most serious crimes. More importantly, it should be reserved for those crimes about which there is no doubt about the guilt of the person.”

By execution day, Perry was Willingham's last chance. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had rejected a reprieve, calling the arson expert's report “no more than an opinion.”

Willingham, then a 23-year-old unemployed mechanic and father of three, claimed to have been asleep on the morning his house in Corsicana, just south of Dallas, caught fire on Dec. 23, 1991. Willingham escaped with burns, but his three tiny daughters died. A profane man with a history of minor offenses in his native Oklahoma, the grieving father quickly became the target of a capital murder investigation based on the finding of arson, a history of beating his wife even while pregnant and other bizarre behavior.

At trial, prosecutors argued that Willingham had deliberately trapped his children inside a burning house to free up time to play darts and drink beer. Willingham repeatedly professed his innocence and refused the offer of a life sentence.

His 2004 execution gained renewed prominence this year after the newly formed Texas Forensic Science Commission, created by the Legislature to explore and fix forensic flaws, released a report that criticized the arson evidence. Two days before the panel was to review that report, Perry abruptly replaced three members, including the chairman, and the meeting was canceled. The governor also attacked the report, according to other media reports.

Yet the 2009 report was only the latest in a string of expert opinions that suggested arson investigators had relied on outdated and discredited techniques in the Willingham case.

Similar flaws found

The five-page opinion faxed to Perry's office on Willingham's execution day in 2004 was the first. It said investigators made “major errors” and relied on discredited techniques akin to an “old wives tale.”

It was authored by Dr. Gerald Hurst, an Austin-based arson expert who holds a doctorate in chemistry from Cambridge University.

By 2004, Hurst already had received national media coverage for helping to obtain a string of high-profile exonerations by debunking arson evidence in other criminal cases. Hurst said in an interview that his previous analysis of flaws in another Texas arson-murder case had helped prompt the Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1998 to free a woman convicted of setting a fire that killed her infant son. She had served six years of a 99-year sentence.

Opposing lawyers concur

The dispute over the arson evidence in Willingham's case likely would have died with him. But six months after the execution, Hurst was hired to review the evidence in another death row arson case. By October 2004, Ernest Willis was freed after Hurst found flaws eerily similar to those he had previously found in Willingham's case.

Records released by the governor's office do not show whether Navarro County case prosecutor John Jackson, now a senior judge, was consulted about Willingham's reprieve. Jackson remains skeptical of the arson experts' criticism and convinced of Willingham's guilt, but had offered a life sentence and knew about Hurst's report at the time.

He told the Chronicle he doesn't recall getting a call: “I probably wouldn't have had any problem either way.”

In the days before the execution, members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted by fax against clemency, Reaves said. But Texas law gives governors the right to delay an execution for 30 days without board approval.

Both Jackson, the original prosecutor, and Reaves, the last defense attorney, called for the governor to release all information on his review.

“From a fairness and honesty and integrity standpoint, there are very few circumstances where these things should not be made public,” Jackson said, “and I see no reason why not in this case.”


Texas Forensic Science Commission in the spotlight and facing legislative scrutiny

AUSTIN — A once-obscure commission formed to oversee the use of forensic science in Texas criminal investigations is under a glaring public spotlight after a shake-up by Gov. Rick Perry stalled an inquiry that could determine whether the state executed an innocent man.

The nine-member Texas Forensic Science Commission will be the focus of a hearing in November by the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which includes three senators who helped lead the push to create the oversight panel five years ago.

Until recently, the commission was all but invisible to most Texans, struggling to overcome a lack of funding and gain its operational footing.

But that changed after the panel launched a review of the arson investigation that helped convict Cameron Todd Willingham in the deaths of his three daughters, who were killed in a house fire two days before Christmas in 1991. Willingham, who insisted he was innocent, was executed in 2004.

"Most people had no idea there was a Forensic Science Commission, but they know about it now," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who suggested that the panel’s name should be changed to "political science commission" after Perry dismissed three commission members. "It has a cloud over it now," said Ellis, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee. "Its credibility has been severely tainted."

Hearing planned

Perry said the dismissals were part of the normal process to replace members whose terms had expired. But the timing of his actions has prompted criticism that Perry was trying to gut the commission to avoid potentially embarrassing findings. The shake-up forced the cancellation of a meeting to hear fire expert Craig Beyler, who has denounced the arson investigation that led to Willingham’s execution.

Perry replaced Chairman Sam Bassett, an Austin defense attorney, with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley of Georgetown. Also dismissed were Alan Levy, a top prosecutor in the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, and Aliece Watts of Burleson, a forensic scientist at a private laboratory in Euless.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the committee chairman, said Bradley will be invited to the hearing to discuss his intentions for the commission. Whitmire said he will ask Bradley about his plans for the Willingham inquiry but stressed that the hearing will not be a full review of the case itself. He declined a request from another committee member, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojoso, D-McAllen, to invite Beyler to testify.

"My intention is to give Bradley a chance to get in there and tell us where he’s going with the commission," Whitmire said. "We’ll get to the bottom of the process and where it should go."

Bradley told the Star-Telegram that he needs time bring himself up to speed on the workings of the commission and doesn’t have a timetable for resuming the inquiry into the Willingham case. He declined to preview what he plans to tell the Senate panel "out of respect for Sen. Whitmire and his committee."

"I look forward to working with him on educating the public on the mission of the Forensic Science Commission," he said.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, committee vice chairman, said he agrees that Bradley should have some time to "get his feet on the ground" but adds that there should not be a long delay in the Willingham inquiry.

"I would be surprised to see John Bradley delay things," Seliger said. "I think public sentiment would not favor that. There’s a lot of public attention on this, and it’s an important issue."

Make-up of the panel

The commission was created in 2005 through legislation pushed by Whitmire, Hinojoso and Ellis, largely to improve forensic work and to crack down on misconduct in crime labs. The governor appoints four of its nine members, the lieutenant governor three and the attorney general two.

Seven members are experts in forensic science or laboratory medicine, including several from designated universities. One is Dr. Arthur Jay Eisenberg, a molecular biologist who heads the DNA Identity Laboratory at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth and oversees the Texas Missing Persons Database, which the Legislature created in 2001. The law requires that the position be permanently represented on the commission.

The governor also appoints a prosecutor and a defense attorney, based on recommendations from two major legal associations, to the two remaining slots.

"I was the idiot on the commission in the sense that I’m on there with a bunch of scientists who really know what they’re doing," said Levy, who was on the panel for four years before his dismissal. "It’s a great commission, I thought. Whitmire and others should be applauded for doing it."

A sluggish start

But Perry and other state leaders have appeared unenthusiastic about the panel, some of its supporters say. It got off to a sluggish start and wasn’t fully funded until 2007, slowing its work in reviewing a backlog of complaints. Even now, it has only one full-time staff member and a $500,000 operating budget for the 2010-11 state budget cycle. Ellis said he heard rumors during the 2009 Legislature that Perry was trying to kill funding for the program, but Hinojoso and a top aide to Whitmire said they were unaware of such efforts. The governor’s office flatly dismisses the reports.

The commission agreed to look into the Willingham case in 2008 on a request by the New York-based Innocence Project and commissioned Beyler, a noted arson expert in Baltimore, to examine the procedures used by arson investigators.

In his report, Beyler said the arson investigators had a poor understanding of fire science and concluded that a finding of arson could not be sustained. Corsicana officials, in a 21-page response prepared for the commission, have disputed Beyler’s findings, saying he distorted facts and overlooked inconsistencies in Willingham’s testimony.

Online: Beyler’s report,


Saturday, 10 October 2009

Death penalty 'utterly barbaric'

Since 2003, human rights and international advocacy groups, bar associations, and NGOs have earmarked October 10 as World Day Against the Death Penalty.

They have tried to raise awareness of the dangers of capital punishment and tried to mobilise public opinion against this practise.

Clive Stafford Smith is the founder and director of Reprieve, a UK-based legal charity, and has spent 25 years working on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty in the US.

He tells Al Jazeera why he believes capital punishment is a "horrific" act.

It is rather easy, looking back, to identify the beliefs that our ancestors clung to with a fervent faith.

No doubt, 400 years ago, those who burned witches at the stake thought they were righting evil in society.

Four centuries on, the history books are not kind to them. We know the "witches" were innocent, since no coven of witches actually existed. We now recognise that any trial that sent its victim to the stake was derived from a "witch hunt" that served no possible penal purpose.

It is more difficult, perhaps, to identify our modern "flat earth" beliefs - those present day certainties that will look very foolish when viewed from a globe that is self-evidently spherical.

However, I have absolutely no doubt that when the history books are written 100 years hence, the fact that we were killing our fellow human beings in the name of "just punishment" will be viewed with a mixture of bemusement and horror.

When we think of how our ideal society would behave, does anyone imagine it would include ritual executions?

Divergence of opinion

Amongst the large and ever-increasing body of people who oppose the death penalty, there is considerable divergence of opinion.

There are those who believe that it is state-sanctioned murder, pure and simple; those who oppose it on religious grounds (including the Pope); and those who think it is inevitably beset by racial or economic discrimination (how many millionaires does one encounter on Death Row?).

There are those who also recognise its non-existent deterrent value; those who believe that the diverse frailties of human beings guarantee that there will be mistakes; and doubtless many other variations besides.

When I held a purely theoretical opposition to execution, I used to indulge in all these arguments. When - 22 years ago now - I watched my first client being executed, it rather changed my perspective.

Edward Johnson was young, personable, black, and almost certainly innocent. I was a young lawyer then, and had taken on his case close to the end.

I had failed him. As the gas wafted up toward his lungs in the execution chamber at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, I was utterly disgusted.

How could anyone possibly think this a civilised way to deal with any problem? It was not just about how wrong it seemed - it was how utterly pointless and barbaric.

Mad or bad?

I have represented over 300 prisoners facing execution, and I am more interested in those who are not entirely innocent. Only someone who has never taken the time to meet these people can pretend that they are a distillation of the "pure evil" of society.

And only those who do not care to learn the truth can see these people as devoid of humanity. Just as each victim of murder is a unique human being, so is each person charged with the crime.

And each person tells a story.

Reprieve is currently trying to halt the imminent execution of a British man, Akmal Shaikh, in China. Mr Shaikh suffers from bi-polar disorder, just as my father did before him.

The Chinese court did not even know this when Akmal was sentenced to be shot in the back of the head for allegedly smuggling drugs.

He insists he is innocent, but let us assume he is not: only someone who has never had dealings with a floridly psychotic person could possibly believe he should be executed.

Akmal Shaikh is one of many. Mental illness is prevalent monist most prison populations, but is higher still monist those awaiting execution.

Just as our ancestors preferred to believe that strange happenings were caused by witches, so we do not like to accept the reality of mental illness. It is inexplicable, and we are more comfortable saying people are bad, rather than mad.

Great courage

Indeed, it takes great courage for the victims of crime to recognise that their own suffering has no rational basis.

In 1992, Ricky Langley was sentenced to death for killing six-year-old Jeremy Guillory. Before Ricky was born his parents were involved in a car crash. Two children died, including the six -year-old Oscar Lee.

The mother suffered horrific injuries and was in a full body cast when Ricky was conceived.

Her pregnancy went undetected for five months, during which time she and her foetus had been prescribed powerful drugs and bombarded with x-rays.

The doctors advised an abortion; her husband, a Catholic, strongly objected. Ricky was therefore born to almost inevitable mental illness.

His parents could neither understand nor accept it, and thought it merely odd when he announced at the age of 11 that he was not actually Ricky Langley, but his dead brother Oscar Lee.

Jeremy Guillory's mother, Lorilei, was desperate to understand why her child had been torn from her. In the end, she spent three hours with Ricky, and realised that he was truly insane.

She too was a Catholic, and opposed the death penalty. But gradually she came to believe what society tells us: that the insane should not be sent to prison, but rather to hospital.

Crying out for help

She testified on Ricky's behalf. I asked her whether she felt that the killer of her child had been mentally ill when he did it.

"I think that Ricky Langley has been crying out for help since the day he was born," she said, turning to the jurors. "And for whatever reason, his family, society, the legal system has never listened to him. And as I sit on this chair, I can hear the death cries of my own child, Jeremy; but I can still hear Ricky Langley crying out for help."

The prosecutor said she was an unfit mother for saying that. I said she was one of my heroes. We cannot expect everyone to invest as much compassion in such a tragedy, but we can tell the difference between our ideal society and the dark world that some would have us inhabit.

And Lorelei points the way toward our salvation. In 2008, around the world, 2,390 people were killed by the machinery of the state.

That is probably one person executed for every million crimes that were committed. Did this ritual sacrifice purify our world? Or did it merely prevent us from seeing as clearly as Lorilei Guillory?