Sunday, 24 January 2010

Death row exonerations point to flaws in system

By Alison Bath

Eight men have been found innocent of the crimes that put them on Louisiana's death row. All were exonerated before they were put to death and ultimately freed from prison.

Most often, those exonerations came after it was revealed that prosecutors withheld evidence that was favorable to the defendant, relied on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch or used faulty eyewitness identification to gain a conviction.

Those men aren't alone.

Nationwide, 139 people sentenced to death since 1973 subsequently have been found innocent and released from death row, according to data provided by the Washington D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

With 23, Florida leads the nation in death row exonerations. Illinois, Texas and Oklahoma take second, third and fourth, respectively. And Louisiana holds fifth place with two other states for the most death row exonerations in the country.

The reasons for these wrongful convictions vary, but advocates say the exonerations are evidence the country's judicial system is fatally flawed when it comes to the death penalty.

"We don't know how many mistakes have been made," said Richard Dieter, Death Penalty Information Center executive director. "It points to a danger that we may have missed some. It raises a number of concerns that innocent people may have been executed."

But death penalty supporters say the exonerations are proof the legal system works. Higher court review and a lengthy appeal process help root out those who are innocent and ensure only the guilty are put to death. Additionally, there are some crimes that are so heinous and some criminals who are so depraved that the only answer is to put them to death, they say.

"It seems to be the character and propensity of this particular person are deserving of more than just locking him up," Orleans District Attorney Leon A. Cannizzaro, Jr. said

Numbers distorted?

While acknowledging some of the exonerated cited by Death Penalty Information Center likely are innocent, death penalty supporters insist the number of death row exonerations nationwide is distorted. They maintain the term innocence has been "redefined" to include individuals freed on a technicality or those not retried due to a lack of evidence. Actually innocent is different from legally innocent, they say.

"None of those exoneration categories establishes or even suggests actual innocence," death penalty supporter Dudley Sharp wrote in an article published at

That notion is dismissed by opponents.

"Our system of justice from our founding is that the person is innocent until proven guilty," Dieter said.

"It's not a question of knowing absolutely what happened 20 years ago, but only that a person now has had their status of innocence restored. Certainly, those are not people who should be executed."

No single cause

Emily Maw, Project Innocence New Orleans director, said most exonerations don't have a single cause. Rather, a combination of factors paired with an overburdened and underfunded criminal justice system can lead to putting innocent people behind bars.

Among the causes of wrongful conviction:

Prosecutorial and police misconduct, such as withholding evidence or not revealing a witness was a paid informant.
Poor evidence handling and preservation, such as throwing away or careless processing.
Wrong witness identifications or using questionable witnesses to build a case, such as co-defendants who have a vested interest in pointing the finger at someone else.
Those problems, due in part to a "win at all costs" attitude among some statewide prosecutors, not only are resulting in wrongful convictions and increased jurisprudence costs but also are threatening citizens' safety, Maw said.

"It's not cost effective to incarcerate people who are innocent," said Maw, who was careful to point out that not all misconduct by prosecutors or people is willful. "If you incarcerate the wrong person, it's pretty likely that someone else is going to continue doing bad things."

In the case of the eight men exonerated, removed from Louisiana's death row and freed, most occurred after 1997. Some were freed because more sophisticated DNA testing was able to exclude them from the crime. Four of those exonerations — including the precedent-setting case of John Thompson — were the result of problem prosecutions out of the Orleans district attorney's office.

Cannizzaro candidly admits a former prosecutor was wrong when he withheld and destroyed crucial exonerating evidence in an effort to secure a conviction against Thompson for a carjacking in 1984 in New Orleans. The conviction kept Thompson from testifying on his own behalf and was used against him to obtain a death penalty verdict at a subsequent murder trial in 1985.

A judge later ruled that Thompson's rights were violated and ordered a new trial on the murder charge. A jury deliberated 35 minutes then found him not guilty in 2003. Thompson, who was able to testify and who maintained his innocence, was released from prison. He subsequently was awarded $15 million for his wrongful conviction. That verdict is being appealed by the Orleans district attorney.

"The Thompson case was a case that went terribly wrong, but it came out. It was exposed and we are paying a terrible price for that," said Cannizzaro, who was elected to office in 2008, more than two decades after Thompson was convicted. "Results like this cause people to lose confidence in this system."

But Cannizzaro and other district attorneys insist such examples are few — the majority of prosecutors don't break the rules to get a conviction. In the case of Thompson, a "rogue" junior district attorney acted outside the authority and scope of the office and without the knowledge of his supervisors, Cannizzaro said.

Prosecutors work hard to obtain legal and constitutional convictions. Cheating or unethical behavior is not tolerated and could result in a prosecutor being disbarred or prosecuted.

"The satisfaction you get is making sure the victim or the witness has their day in court," Cannizzaro said of a prosecutor's job. "It's not about winning at all costs. It's about doing what is fair and playing by the rules."

Locally, no Caddo, Bossier, Webster or DeSoto inmates have been exonerated from death row. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in November 2007 that prosecutors erred when they excluded a black man from a Caddo jury in the first-degree murder trial of Robert G. Coleman. As a result, his guilty verdict and death sentence were overturned. He faces a retrial in April for the killing of a retired Blanchard minister.

The death sentence meted out to a Caddo man accused of repeatedly raping a 5-year-old Shreveport girl was overturned in 2008 by the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision drew sharp criticism from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said the court overstepped its authority.

"One thing is clear: The five members of the court who issued the opinion do not share the same 'standards of decency' as the people of Louisiana," the governor said in a news release in 2008.

Other states react

Citing concerns about the reliability of convictions and gross flaws in Illinois' death penalty, Gov. George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 death row inmates in 2003. Most received life in prison, but three were given 40 years with the possibility of parole. Ryan's actions came after 13 Illinois death row inmates were found to have been wrongfully convicted.

Likewise, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine commuted the sentences of eight death row inmates to life in prison in 2007 when he signed legislation abolishing the death penalty in that state. And in March, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson abolished the state's death penalty due to a lack of confidence in the justice system being the "final arbiter" when it came to meting out the death penalty for a crime.

Jindal, however, remains a strong supporter of the death penalty. "The most repugnant crimes deserve the harshest penalties, and nothing is more repugnant than the brutal rape of an 8-year-old child," he said in expressing outrage of the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring Louisiana's death penalty for child rape law unconstitutional.

Even so, Maw said, simple reforms could reduce the possibility of wrongful convictions not only for those under a death sentence but also for others serving life in prison or other sentences. Statewide, a total of 25 people, including a Caddo man who served 22 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, have been found innocent.

Those reforms include:

Changing eyewitness identification procedures, such as photo lineups, to help reduce the incidence of false identifications while not reducing true identifications.
Requiring law enforcement to videotape or record an entire interrogation would ensure investigators were not leading a suspect to make a false confession.
Mandating police, prosecutors and criminal laboratories to retain evidence indefinitely would ensure that evidence would be there when new technology or testing that could prove innocence becomes available.
Louisiana's law allowing the death penalty for a variety of crimes is too broad, making it vulnerable to the discretion of prosecutors and judges who are all too aware of the political consequences of appearing soft on crime, death penalty expert Burk Foster said. Limiting the crimes and extenuating circumstances eligible for the death penalty possibly could decrease wrongful convictions and reduce the number of death row sentences overturned on appeal.

"States should only seek the death penalty in the most limited circumstances," said Foster, a former associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who now teaches in Michigan. "It shouldn't be a panacea for any type of violent crime where someone gets killed."

Additional Facts
Project Innocence New Orleans
Death row exonerations in the U.S.
Death penalty supporter Dudley Sharp's argument questioning the validity of death row exonerations
Standards the Death Penalty Information Center used in compiling its listing of death row exonerations

Monday, 18 January 2010

Local Volunteers Take Part in Annual MLK Day of Service

People throughout the country were celebrating the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on Monday. Here in the Delaware Valley, thousands of volunteers were fanned out at various events to do their part.

KYW's Karin Phillips reports that 3,000 volunteers were expected at Girard College on Monday for the centerpiece of the Philadelphia region’s Martin Luther King Jr. day of service.

A health and wellness fair, community workshops, a civic engagement expo, weatherization kits, 175 community service projects throughout the Girard College campus, with the main activities in the Armory.

Todd Bernstein is executive director of the MLK day of service says Haiti will not be forgotten:

"At our opening ceremony, we will ask the 3,000 volunteers at the armory in Girard College to take out their cell phones and text in a donation for the people of Haiti through the Red Cross."

Martin Luther King Jr. came to Girard College in 1965 to march and help protest the then whites-only admission policy of the school.

KYW's Brad Segall reports that Doctor King’s spirit was alive and well in Montgomery County where students from throughout the area volunteered their time to help less fortunate students in the Philadelphia area.

Nearly 200 volunteers, including dozens of students, turned out at Cradles to Crayons to help make packages for underprivileged kids in the region. The organization partners with social service agencies to get school supplies, toys and clothing into the hands of kids who don’t have them.

Kelly is an eighth grader at Perkiomen Valley Middle School:

“I like helping kids in need and I know that they need a lot of help. It’s just kind of like from the goodness of my heart so, you know, it’s fun to help people.”

It’s also a big day for Cradles to Crayons. The non-profit organization is packing up it’s donated items, getting ready for a move to a new home -- a 19,000 square foot warehouse in West Conshohocken that will be ready in early March.

KYW's Steve Tawa reports that a Fishtown recreation center got the once-over by "White-Williams scholars" - both current high school students and alumni who wanted to be part of the MLK day of service.

The young people included at-risk, high achieving, low-income Philadelphians like Egypt and Tom, who were circling a bench outside the rec center, applying their design technique, and paint to liven it up:

Egypt: "We were going to put a message. This one reads 'the sky is the limit,' so we were going to make a message that people could read, and give them hope when they read it."

Tom: "What were doing is painting the bench, mostly red, but then there are blue squares in random parts of the whole bench."

Tanequa Neale is a program associate with the White-Williams scholars:

"Our theme is art for social change. Our students are excited about giving back. Civic engagement is an important component of our program."

Several others at the rec center on East Montgomery Avenue broke out lime green and aqua blue paint, to bring out the fish motif on the walls of the Fishtown skating rink.

KYW's Mike Dunn reports that this year's traditional Martin Luther King Day ringing of the Liberty Bell was particularly poignant: it featured a man freed after 35 years in prison after being exonerated of rape charges.

The bell ringing was ceremonial, of course, but standing at the Liberty Bell was a man who never imagined he would be there: 54-year James Bain, who just last month was freed from a Florida prison after serving 35 years. Ceremony emcee James Tucker praised Bain's courage:

"He is the personification of liberty and justice."

Bain was freed after the Innocence Project law center successfully petitioned the court for DNA testing. Bain reflected on the moment:

"I only have but a few words to put this. I never dreamed I would be here to do what I got to do."

KYW's Pat Loeb reports one MLK Day project took place at Richard Allen Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia.

Dozens of student and adult volunteers put the finishing touches on a library that's been three years in the making, according to Richard Allen Charter School's chief academic officer Jessica Richard:

"When we moved into this building, our school had not yet secured the funding to acquire the library books, furniture and all the necessary materials."

Richard says the school got grants for books and a server and, in honor of Martin Luther King, IKEA sent the furniture. Students such as Terrence Burnson came in on their day off and helped put it together, though he didn't see it as a purely noble activity:

"It's just about having fun, it's not really nothing special because this is my school and this is my library and this is what I do for my school, I work within my school."

Burnson also says he plans to take out plenty of books, now that the library is officially open.

KYW's Mike DeNardo reports that Jewish and Muslim students worked together in community service.

Students from the Al-Aqsa Islamic Academy in North Philadelphia and the

Saligman school in Melrose Park assemble toiletries in 200 so-called "dignity kits" for the homeless. They then helped to distribute them to the homeless with activist Sacaree Rhodes at the Municipal Services Building. Student Lily Mohamed says it's rewarding to find common ground:

"For Muslims and Jewish to unite in one place and work for someone, or try to help someone, that's actually a great feeling."

And student Josh Perloff says it's gratifying being able to see and interact with the people you're helping:

"It's a bit different of a feeling. You get a bigger sense of, 'Wow, I helped someone.' Rather than just giving money or something to an organization."

Students at South Philadelphia High School are using this Martin Luther King Day to help bridge the culture gap.

"You have to really allow yourself to be led by your partner."

In one workshop, students in parallel lines faced each other, and mirrored each other's movements. South Philadelphia High School principal LaGreta Brown says it's only one way to help blacks, asians, and all cultures find a common humanity on King Day:

"The significance of the activities are to continue the dream of Martin Luther King of Unity, of peace and non-violence."

After racial unrest at the school, superintendent Arlene Ackerman says the exercises are designed to promote Doctor King's teaching:

"What we're doing here is acknowledging that, and the importance of healing and unity."

About 75 students attended the workshops.

Source :

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Tortured into confessing, Chicago man freed in Burge case

'I'm glad justice finally prevailed,' says man held over two decades for rape and murder.

Michael Tillman, a victim of torture linked to indicted former Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge, gets his freedom after 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Here he leaves Cook County Court on Thursday.

A man imprisoned for more than two decades for rape and murder on the basis of a confession he said he was tortured into making by officers under the direction of then-Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge was ordered freed this morning.

Michael Tillman, 43, confessed but long maintained he did so only after being tortured by officers under Burge’s command. And another man ultimately was convicted in the killing after evidence including his fingerprints and the victim’s possessions tied him to the crime.

“It felt good, and I’m glad justice finally prevailed,” Tillman said after being released.

Special Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Myles O’Rourke asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to drop all charges against Tillman in the murder, rape and kidnapping of Betty Howard, 42, citing “unreliable” and “forced confessions.”

Tillman’s attorney Flint Taylor said he plans to file documents seeking Tillman’s formal exoneration and might seek compensation for wrongful imprisonment.

Tillman was arrested July 22, 1986. He has long maintainted that, over three days in police custody, he was beaten with a phone book, punched in the face and stomach until he vomited blood, had a plastic bag put over his head and 7-Up poured into his nose in a crude form of waterboarding.

The result: Tillman, then 20, confessed to killing Howard, a mail clerk whose body was found in a South Side apartment building where Tillman lived at the time with his girlfriend and worked as the janitor.

Tillman told police at the time that two other men had also raped Howard before she was shot. One of the men, Steven Bell, was acquitted of charges related to Howard’s death, and the other man was never charged, prosecutors said.

He was convicted in a bench trial Dec. 18, 1986, solely on the basis of his confession, according to the petition filed in Cook County Circuit Court that led to his being freed today.

Tillman’s attorney initially raised the torture allegations during his trial, but the judge who heard the case refused to throw out his confession, and Tillman was sentenced to life in prison.

Police later arrested another man, 27-year-old Clarence Trotter. Trotter was found with Howard’s possessions, and his fingerprints and other physical evidence linked him to Howard’s killing.

Trotter was charged and convicted and given life in prison, and Tillman was granted a new trial in 1991.

But a jury again convicted Tillman in 1996. And, despite the conviction of Trotter, Tillman lost a 1999 appeal, when an appellate court decided that, despite the lack of evidence tying him to the crime or to Trotter, Tillman’s confession was “sufficient.”

Howard’s daughter Angelita and Howard’s boyfriend Ora Russell, who had proposed to her a day before her murder, said today they still believe Tillman was involved in Howard’s death.

Angelita Howard loudly sobbed as she left Gaughan’s courtroom, wailing repeatedly, “They let him go.”

Asked about how the case fell apart due to the police torture allegations, Russell said: “I’m sorry it fell apart, but. . . .I would have done more than that to them.”

Taylor expressed condolences to Howard’s family.

Tillman added, “I was a victim, too.”

Tillman, who now has two adult children, said he plans to take life as a free man “one day at a time.”

The sweatsuit-clad Tillman said his immediate plans were to get some chicken at Popeye’s and then start “getting to know his family better.”

Burge, former Area 2 commander, and more than 20 officers who worked with him have been accused of torturing confessions from murder suspects in the 1970s and 1980s. Burge now awaits trial on federal perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Flanked by his mother and sister, Tillman said he expects that Burge and his former underlings will “get what they got coming. The system will do to what they did to me.”


Friday, 15 January 2010

Jamie Bain to Ring Liberty Bell

From the blog Plain Error :

One of Jamie Bain’s heroes is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is fitting that on the day to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, Jamie will be in Philadelphia to kick off the festivities by ringing the Liberty Bell. Jamie is being honored by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Non-Violence as an honorary Bell Ringer and recipient of the 2010 Drum Major Award for Criminal Justice.

I will be in attendance and will have a report with photos when I return next next Tuesday. In the meantime, check out these enws reports from local Philadelphia news agencies on the ceremony and how Jamie’s brother Mark, who lives in enarby Allentown, PA, will be able to witness the event.


Exonerated Death Row Inmate Speaks To Students

A Florida man who spent nearly two decades on death row for a murder he didn't commit shared a message with high school students in Louisville Thursday.

Juan Melendez spoke to students at Central High School while visiting Louisville this week for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference.

Melendez said he has an important reason for going to high schools to share his story of resilience, courage and hope.

Melendez used humor as he told students how he came close to being executed for a crime he did not commit.

"It was May 2, 1984. I'll never forget it," said Melendez.

That's when, Melendez said, police officers came to his job in Pennsylvania looking for him in connection to a slaying in Florida.

"Then when I got in front of them, they told me to open my mouth. They wanted to see if I have a missing tooth. I show it to them. There you have it," Melendez recounted. "Then they told me to lift the sleeve on my left arm and then they said, 'Yes, you are the man we are looking for.

'"Melendez said he was extradited to Florida, but could barely speak English as he went through the trial. He did not understand much of what got him locked away.

Had it not been for the discovery of a long-forgotten taped confession of the real killer, Melendez said he most certainly would have been executed.

"People need to know you always can release an innocent man from prison, but you can never release an innocent man from the grave," said Melendez.

Melendez believes as more stories like his are told to the younger generation, they'll be moved to want to change the system in the future, so he travels to schools across the country.

"They are the ones who can take the job to the end," said Melendez.

Melendez was released from Florida's death row on Jan. 3, 2002 -- 18 years after he was imprisoned.

The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty conference is at the Seelbach Hotel through Sunday.


Sunday, 10 January 2010

Death row inmate might be innocent

Star witness admits she lied

November 2004
By Nathan Crabbe and Jamie Keaney

He seemed like a logical suspect. After all, Ernest Simmons had spent most of his adult life behind bars and his last prison stretch was for beating and robbing two elderly men.

So in May 1992, when 80-year-old Anna Knaze was found robbed and brutally murdered in her Johnstown home, suspicion quickly focused on Simmons. In short order, he was arrested, convicted and condemned to death row, where he has narrowly escaped execution twice.

In the past, Simmons had always pleaded guilty to his crimes, but this time, he swore he was innocent - even when he was being secretly taped by his girlfriend.

An investigation by the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania at Point Park University and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shows he may be right. At the very least, the jury that convicted him lacked key evidence and information challenging witnesses' stories.

The jurors didn't know police withheld hair tests that didn't match Simmons. They never heard the secret tape recordings made by his girlfriend, which were hidden by police. They didn't know that two witnesses against him escaped time behind bars in return for their testimony. Most significantly, the jury didn't know the state's star witness lied on the stand when she identified Simmons as the killer--a falsehood she admitted just months ago to reporters from the Innocence Institute.

A federal judge heard arguments Jan. 30 on whether Simmons, now 46, deserves a new trial or certain death. Police and prosecutors maintain a steadfast resolve they have the right man and any errors made were harmless. In fact, they have intimated he got away with other murders before meeting his match in the aggressive detective who investigated Knaze's killing.

Simmons acknowledges he was a longtime thief but insists he is no killer.

"Merely because I was black and had previous convictions was I accused of a murder that had nothing to do with me," Simmons wrote from the section of SCI Greene that houses most of the state's death row inmates. "I, like most people, am not perfect, but I did not kill this elderly woman."

A frightened public

In the early 1990s, Johnstown was still recoiling from the collapse of the steel industry, which helped fuel a 21-year-peak in the city's crime rate. By 1992, the local newspaper had declared a crime wave was underway and residents were applying for new gun permits at a record pace.

After four residents older than 70 were attacked in February and March, the city's graying population was warned to be on alert. But Anna Knaze wasn't fazed. Her son would later recall she was a friendly old woman who didn't hesitate to help a stranger.

Knaze lived in one of a handful of aging residences on the road connecting downtown to the abandoned steel mills. When neighbors didn't see her for a day and her mail was untouched, they contacted her son.

He found her body slumped on a hallway floor in the late afternoon of May 6, 1992, and suspected she died from a fall or natural causes. But an autopsy uncovered the horrors of her final minutes.

Her spine was severed, all her ribs broken and she was strangled more than a day before she was found. Her purse, the only item missing from the home, would never be recovered.

An aggressive detective

The detective assigned to the case, Sgt. Richard Rok, grew up in Johnstown and always aspired to wear a badge. A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and former juvenile probation officer, Rok started as patrolman in 1989 and in two years worked his way to detective.

Rok was known for busting drug dealers and breaking other high profile cases in a 13-year career that saw him rise to lead detective and department spokesman.

But he was also accused of abusing his authority, allegedly telling one black resident he didn't "need a warrant for niggers." Johnstown's black residents called him Robocop for his aggressive tactics and a fellow officer said the 5-foot-6 detective took his Napoleon complex out on suspects.

Knaze's killing was his first big murder case. Neighbors told Rok that they last saw her inviting a black man, who claimed his car broke down, into her home. He had Simmons pegged as the man from the beginning.

A troubled suspect

It's easy to see why Ernie Simmons was a target. Born in 1957 to a 13-year-old mother in Philadelphia, his father abandoned the family, then sexually abused him during visits. His mother controlled her son by tying him up, before letting him roam the streets and find his meals in the garbage.

After child welfare agencies took him, he bounced between foster homes until a Harrisburg preacher and his wife adopted him. His stepmother later told his lawyers he was their most grateful foster child, but said the couple "got to him too late. He had spent too many years on the street just trying to survive."

Simmons was busted for stealing at least three times as a juvenile and quit Susquehanna High School in the 11 th grade. By the time he was 27, he pleaded guilty to 19 different charges for stealing everything from swimming trunks to credit cards.

In his rare time outside prison, friends in Harrisburg say Simmons acted paranoid and exhibited delusions of grandeur, such as wearing a doctor's coat and claiming he was a medical student while working at a fast-food restaurant. He was later diagnosed with organic brain damage.

His most serious conviction came in 1984 in Harrisburg, where he admitted he forced his way into the homes of two elderly men, stealing a car from one and beating another before taking $70. He was sentenced to 7-15 years in prison.

At the same time, police began to suspect he was responsible for killing two other elderly Harrisburg residents, even though they lacked proof.

Was he a serial killer?

In prison Simmons earned his barber's certificate before being paroled in Aug. 1991 at age 34. He chose Johnstown as a place where he could have a fresh start. With ambitions to run the city's first black beauty shop, he found work cutting hair and enrolled in cosmetology school.

Within six months of arriving in Johnstown, he would run into trouble. Simmons called police and reported he stumbled upon an 83-year-old man with a knife in his neck in his apartment complex. The man died a month later without identifying his attacker.

Police believed Simmons committed the murder, but like the Harrisburg killings, they had no evidence.

On the second day of the Knaze investigation, Rok traced Simmons back to the Harrisburg detective who busted him for the robberies there. The detective said he believed Simmons also killed two other elderly victims but couldn't prove it.

Rok figured he had his man. Simmons was imprisoned on a technical parole violation nine days after the killing, giving Rok time to build a case against a man he now believed was a possible serial killer.

Simmons has been behind bars ever since.

Jail ID spurs charges

Simmons told police he drove his girlfriend to an appointment in downtown Johnstown on the day of the murder. He then took her friends to an auto shop and stopped at a bank on the way back. He was late picking up his girlfriend, arriving around 11:45 a.m.

He claimed the tight schedule precluded him from committing the murder, but Rok believed he had just enough time.

If the murder likely occurred around 11, as the autopsy showed, Simmons argued his tight schedule didn't give him time to commit the crime. Rok believed Simmons had just enough time. The belief was bolstered by two workers from a day-care center 150 feet away, who identified Simmons as part of an interracial couple they saw walk past near the time of the killing.

Later, they would hedge on who they saw.

A next-door neighbor and her son's girlfriend told Rok they watched Knaze speaking with a black man near her home between 11-11:30 a.m. But neither woman picked Simmons out of a six-man photo lineup.

A month into Rok's investigation, the same neighbor who couldn't identify Simmons reported her son, Gary Blough, also saw the man near the murder scene.

Blough was later jailed for violating parole on a two-year prison sentence for receiving stolen property, unlawful restraint and other charges. In a jailhouse interview with Rok, he fingered his fellow inmate Simmons.

Blough's statement would set him free, but the reason for his early release would be kept from jurors.

No physical evidence

Rok still had only questionable witnesses and no physical evidence connecting Simmons to the crime. Nine partial fingerprints found in Knaze's home didn't match him, while a bloodstain and fingernail at the scene weren't adequate for testing.

Two months later at a coroner's inquest, the next-door neighbor still didn't recognize Simmons in a six-photo lineup. But Blough joined the day-care workers in identifying him as the suspect.

And now Blough's girlfriend, who admitted she saw Simmons while visiting Blough in jail, identified Simmons as the suspect for the first time. He was charged the next day with murder.

"The police, who should have been searching for truth and justice, instead were allowed to manufacture charges and to suppress the truth," he later wrote.

A mysterious clue

Knowing he faced a trial with questionable witnesses, Rok stepped up his pursuit of Simmons' girlfriend, LaCherie Pletcher, figuring she knew more than she was letting on.

Long after the trial, Pletcher revealed in court that she agreed to help him because she "was scared he was going to try to pin something on me, and I was worried about the welfare of my daughter."

Her help included secret tapings, but the information wouldn't be revealed until years later.

Pletcher also provided a key tip: she told Rok that she searched Simmons' wallet weeks before the murder and found the license of an elderly woman who lived on Figg Avenue. The identification itself would never be found, but Rok pursued the lead anyway.

He used the morsel of information to locate a report Figg Avenue resident Margaret Cobaugh said her wallet was stolen around the same time. But that wasn't all.

He then found a report that Cobaugh also claimed she was raped, just 13 hours after Knaze's murder.

13 changes to story

Cobaugh, then 61, was a friend of Knaze and lived nearby . She had put an 11-year jail stint long behind her and worked at the local senior center.

According to the report, Cobaugh told police she was attacked as she walked home from helping her elderly next-door neighbor.

In her initial statement, Cobaugh said she called an ambulance company to fix the neighbor's faulty breathing system and left as the vehicle approached. A man grabbed her from behind and threatened to kill her if she screamed, she said.

She told police she didn't get a good look at the man's face . She didn't get medical attention and didn't tell her husband that night. Instead, she waited until the next day to call police and destroyed possible evidence by soaking her underwear in the toilet.

She would ask police the next day to withdraw the report, but that information would be long kept from Simmons' defense lawyers.

Rok also never let lawyers know he questioned her at least 10 times over two months before he took a formal statement from Cobaugh about the incident. By then, she had changed 13 elements from her original story.

Most critically, she now claimed her attacker had warned her not to "open your motherfucking mouth" or she would "get the same thing Anna Knaze got"--even though the attacker would have been saying the statement before Knaze's body had been discovered.

She now claimed she saw her attacker's face , later identifying him as Simmons. The threat was the crucial piece of information Rok needed to connect him to the killing.

'Tell him the truth!'

As the trial neared, Simmons' defense team began to uncover inconsistencies in witnesses' stories. Private investigator James Porreca, a retired Philadelphia police officer, found the two day-care workers who identified Simmons were hedging.

Rok said two day-care workers identified Simmons in front of Knaze's home, but one told Porreca she wasn't sure Simmons was the man because "all blacks look alike." The other said she told police she saw the same man again at a time Simmons was already in jail.

Porreca also found no ambulance company within 20 miles of Cobaugh's neighbor responded to her home. He interviewed the neighbor, who said Cobaugh admitted concocting the tale. The neighbor said she told Cobaugh, "You got yourself involved in something and don't include me in your problems."

Porreca later testified that he went to confront Cobaugh, he first encountered her double amputee husband Donald, who asked "What happens if they find out my wife was telling a lie?" When Margaret Cobaugh walked in the room, her husband said "Tell him the truth! Tell him the truth!" before she stopped the interview by wheeling him away.

After prosecutors complained about the incident, a judge chastised defense lawyers for badgering the witness. Porreca never found out what Cobaugh's husband meant. Neither would Simmons' jury.

Confusion among witnesses

"Shut your motherfucking mouth or you will get the same thing Anna Knaze got" were the first words out of Cambria County Assistant District Attorney Gary Costlow 's mouth at the start of the June 1, 1993 trial .

Costlow conceded he lacked physical evidence to tie Simmons to the crime, but told jurors "you will realize that the statement reveals the identity of the murderer in this case."

Simmons' lawyer, Cambria County Assistant Public Defender Michael Filia, told the jury police engaged in a "target-oriented investigation" aimed at Simmons. Filia would never be given the forensic evidence that excluded Simmons and supported his claim.

"The police had one suspect, one suspect in mind and that was Mr. Simmons ... Their investigation was designed to lead them to that conclusion," Filia said.

Five witnesses fingered Simmons as the man they saw near Knaze's home but contradictions were brought out in each case. The witnesses provided conflicting descriptions of his clothing and couldn't agree on times.

One of the day care workers identified Simmons despite admitting confusion, while the other wasn't called to take the stand.

Blough admitted he didn't contact police about seeing Simmons until after he was locked up but denied receiving any benefits for his testimony. Blough's mother and girlfriend also identified Simmons, despite the fact they repeatedly failed to identify him for months after the crime.

The mother said she spotted Knaze as late as 11:30 a.m., which would have given Simmons only 15 minutes to pummel and rob her before meeting his girlfriend.

Neighbor never called

As Costlow said in his opening, the prosecution's case hinged on Cobaugh's claim her rapist mentioned Knaze. Despite her claim in the first rape report she wasn't able to see her attacker's face, she now testified Simmons was definitely the man. At the end of the testimony, she collapsed before jurors.

Simmons' lawyers showed her story grew from initial statements to the court testimony, changing the time of the attack and adding the statement about Knaze.

They called representatives from the ambulance companies to show she made up that part of her story. But the neighbor who contradicted her refused to answer a subpoena.

Defense attorneys decided forcing the elderly neighbor to testify might harm Simmons' case, believing they already showed the jury Cobaugh was lying.

Cobaugh key to verdict

Attorneys again focused on the threat during final arguments of the four-day trial. Assistant public defender Kenneth Sottile suggested Rok led Cobaugh to invoke Knaze's name.

"Did your attacker say anything about Anna Knaze? That is all it would take. One question and I think Marge's mind would start," he said.

"What phrase could we use to summarize this case? 'Shut your f-in mouth or you are going to get what Anna Knaze got.' ... Who said that statement killed Anna Knaze," countered Assistant District Attorney Patrick Kiniry.

The jury, which included just one black member, took five hours to find Simmons guilty of murder and robbery. Juror Rose Anna Kaiser would later say she rationalized the changes to Cobaugh's story as results of the stress.

The conviction "was entirely based on circumstantial evidence, but it was strong circumstantial evidence," Kaiser said.

A decade later when told of the evidence she never heard, she said she likely would have voted to acquit him.

'It's far from over'

Prosecutors offered Simmons life in prison if he pleaded guilty to the Knaze murder and admitted to other crimes. He refused and entered the death penalty phase of the case with public defender Linda Fleming, who hadn't attended the trial.

The American Bar Association recommends attorneys develop their penalty phase argument early in the case and use a mental health specialist to mitigate evidence against defendants. Pittsburgh attorney Caroline Roberto, who has handled a half-dozen death penalty cases, said such work "takes weeks or months to do if you're going to do it right."

Fleming had just two days. She spoke two hours with Simmons, knew little about his background and didn't request a mental examination, calling only a woman he met through a prison pen-pal service in his defense.

After the prosecution presented witnesses who detailed Simmons' past crimes against the elderly, the jury deliberated less than three hours before condemning him to death. Even then, Simmons maintained his innocence.

"It's far from over," he told reporters.

Days before death

Simmons twice came close to lethal injection. After the state Superior and Supreme courts denied his appeals, Gov. Tom Ridge signed his death warrant in November 1995.

He was given a stay of execution to appeal the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case. Ridge signed another death warrant in March 20, 1996, setting the execution for April 14.

Four days before he was to die, Simmons was granted another stay for a post-conviction hearing.

Soon the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents death-row inmates on appeal, found for the first time Pletcher helped police secretly tape record Simmons.

Despite five subpoenas, Johnstown police and prosecutors denied tapes existed. At a March 1998 hearing, Rok claimed 10 times that no tapes were made.

"If they exist, I am not aware of them. I never used them. I never played them. I never heard them," he said.

Pletcher, however, testified months of recordings were made. The day of her testimony, Rok checked out 1 1/2 hours of recordings from the Johnstown police evidence locker, where they'd been for five years.

Within a week, another Johnstown officer admitted he took home 20 pages of police reports referring to the tapes.

'The silence of the lamb'

On the tapes the jury never heard, Simmons told Pletcher "without a shadow of a doubt my innocence can be proven." He declared his innocence 19 times, while she lied nine times about working for police.

He said racism fueled the investigation. "Look, I'm black in a black and white relationship in a dominant white town." He said police accused him of being "the Johnstown Stalker," responsible for a dozen deaths across the state.

"Yesterday, I was a mild-mannered guy. And now they've got me as a serial killer, the silence of the lamb," he said.

Public defender Sottile called the tapes "a defense attorney's dream" at the post-conviction hearing. He would have been able to present Simmons' side of the story without putting him on the stand, which would have subjected him to questions about his criminal past.

"The argument is that they take the woman that he loves, they wire her up and they have her have a two-hour conversation where she very artfully tries to get him to make admissions (and) they didn't get anything even close to that," he said.

'I washed them away'

Eight months after Rok's denials about the tapes, he was hauled back to court to explain their discovery.

"I never thought of the tapes after those days ... I washed them away. I washed that situation away. I didn't obtain what we were seeking," he testified.

Under criminal law regarding discovery rules, prosecutors must seek out and provide defense lawyers evidence that might show innocence or shed negative light on witnesses. As it turns out, the tapes weren't the only withheld evidence.

Jurors never knew Cobaugh's clothes were tested after she reported the attack. No blood or semen was found on any of the items, but hair found on Cobaugh's nightgown matched neither her nor Simmons.

At the hearing, Rok claimed he didn't disclose the results because they were a "dead end." He explained, "They revealed no evidentiary value" -- meaning they didn't implicate Simmons.

Rok also admitted Cobaugh failed in her first attempt to pick Simmons from a book featuring 300 mug shots. He didn't divulge the information because he "never thought of it."

But he never hinted that Cobaugh's inability to identify Simmons went much deeper.

Secret deals revealed

Rok also prevented jurors from hearing about Cobaugh's criminal past. Cobaugh was a former runaway prostitute who was convicted of burglary and larceny at age 21 for breaking into a woman's home and stealing clothes. She served an 11-year prison sentence.

Days after she made the rape report, she bought a handgun and lied about the conviction on the firearms form. A state trooper discovered the offense during a routine check and she faced at least five years in prison for gun possession by a felon.

While the jury never heard it, Rok admitted at the appeal he asked the trooper to drop her gun case. A prosecutor acknowledged he convinced a judge to dismiss the charges three months before Simmons' trial.

Another prosecutor disclosed that he helped another witness, Blough, the ex-convict who was jailed on a parole violation, obtain early release. One of his fellow inmates told attorneys in a sworn affidavit that Blough called Simmons his "get out of jail free" card and would say whatever he needed to gain freedom.

Prosecutors in the case didn't answer questions sent to them. Public defender Sottile says he remains shocked by Rok and their claims of memory lapses about the withheld evidence.

"They would have mocked a criminal for that kind of testimony. They would have crucified him," he said.

The judge decided other evidence against Simmons outweighed the new information. He ruled the tapes contained self-serving declarations of innocence and the hair tests didn't prove anything, denying him a new trial.

A disgraced detective

Around the same time, Rok's abuses started to gain new attention. U.S. District Court records show Rok was accused of cajoling an elderly witness in 1998 to falsely identify a robbery suspect.

After the suspect was acquitted, he sued Rok and Johnstown police for false arrest, witness tampering and destroying evidence. The case was later dismissed.

Also in 1998, Rok helped Johnstown police apprehend a man in a domestic dispute. While the man was handcuffed on the ground, Rok kicked him in the face and broke his nose, then stepped on his groin, according to an action filed in U.S. District Court.

Following a federal investigation, Rok pleaded guilty in 2002 to a misdemeanor civil rights violation. After a hearing in which two other criminals claimed they were attacked by the detective, he was sentenced to one year in prison and quit the force.

Using the light sentencing of officers in the Rodney King case as an example, he appealed the sentence as too harsh. A judge upheld the sentence in September 2003.

Suffering from a lifelong kidney ailment that forced a transplant, he was sent to a federal medical prison in Missouri. He didn't return requests for comment sent to the prison, his wife and family members.

'He didn't have a witness'

Simmons would land a last-ditch federal appeal before another date was set for his execution.

The appeal judge ordered another piece of withheld evidence, the handwritten notes of the officer who took Cobaugh's initial rape report, to be turned over.

The notes showed for the first time that Cobaugh called police the day after the report and asked for the investigation to be ended.

Between her statements to police, conversation with a neighbor and testimony, Cobaugh had changed her story five times. Her recent conversation with reporters makes at least six.

Cobaugh, now 73, lives in the same home she did during the alleged attack. She told reporters from the Innocence Institute that she named Simmons because Rok "was positive that Ernest Simmons did it, but he had no proof of it.

"Detective Rok already knew it--but he didn't have a witness," she said.

Never saw his face

She now says Rok convinced her that Simmons was guilty, telling her that her license, Social Security card and checkbook was found on him. In reality, Rok had found nothing.

Cobaugh said she told Rok she "could not positively identify anyone," but he continued to interrogate her 10 times over several weeks.

"I think Detective Rok wanted a conviction more than anything. He wanted Ernie Simmons bad," she said.

After Rok showed her a picture of Simmons wearing a ring she said was similar to what her attacker wore, she finally agreed to finger Simmons.

"I didn't exactly picture Ernie Simmons, but what I went by is the ring on his hand," she said.

Despite her court testimony to the contrary, she now admits she never saw the face of her alleged attacker.

"It could have been [Simmons], it could have not," she said.

Admits lie, but still convinced

Cobaugh dismissed questions about the contradictions to her story, including her husband, neighbor and the ambulance companies refuting key details and forensic evidence that discounted Simmons.

She didn't mention the Knaze statement for at least four months after the rape because she was scared, she said, rejecting suggestions Rok fed the line to her.

"There's no way on this Earth that anyone in their right mind would make up a story like that," she said.

Cobaugh said she didn't care if she didn't see Simmons' face, she's still convinced he killed Knaze.

"He was not going to hurt another person if I could help it," she said

In a recent letter, Simmons wrote he wasn't surprised she admitted lying.

"It's something that I've been saying for years, to the point that I felt like the boy who cried wolf," he wrote. "She just can't keep changing her story when she wants to, and think that she's going to get away with it."

Not perfect, but innocent?

U.S. District Judge Sean McLaughlin heard arguments Jan. 30 on whether ineffective defense attorneys, police and prosecutor misconduct and new evidence are enough reason to grant Simmons a new trial.

If the judge rules against Simmons, he will have few appeals left.

When told about all of the new evidence, juror Rose Kaiser expressed frustration so much information was withheld from the jury.

"It's scary and it's mind boggling that something like that could happen," she said.

Public defender Sottile said the gross misconduct by police and prosecutors gives enough cause for a new trial because Simmons "never got a fair one the first time around."

Others believe a new trial would give a man they believe is a serial killer a chance at freedom.

Rita Marcinek claims Simmons killed her father, the Johnstown man he found with a knife in his neck.

"No one put Ernie Simmons where he is but himself," Marcinek said. "Now it's time to just face up to it."

Simmons' attorneys wouldn't allow him to be interviewed for this story. But in letters, Simmons expressed regret for past crimes but maintained his innocence in the Knaze murder.

"During my life there have been crimes for which I have been in prison and for which I served my time and for which I am sorry," he wrote. "However, now I am waiting my turn on death row for a crime which I did not commit."

Published version: Is death row convict guilty of killing Johnstown woman?
(January 25, 2004)

Saturday, 9 January 2010

George H. Ryan is nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize


George H. Ryan is nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

Francis A. Boyle, long-standing, distinguished Professor of International Law and Human Rights, announces his nomination of retired Illinois Governor George H. Ryan for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

“The lives of about 3297 people on death rows throughout the United States of America stand in the balance. For the sake of them all, I respectfully request that you award the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to George Ryan,” Boyle states in nominating Ryan.

The former Illinois governor’s courageous opposition to the death penalty initiated the groundwork for the Moratorium Movement when in the year 2000 he declared the Illinois death penalty moratorium and emptied Illinois’ death row, the first such action in this country.
Due directly through Gov. Ryan’s pioneering efforts, the number of death sentences and the number of executions carried out in this country has reached a historical low, and has given promise to the end of the death penalty in the United States.

The year 2009 marked a historical landmark with the publication of The Death Penalty Information Center’s report "The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report” on December 18, noting that the country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Eleven states considered abolishing the death penalty this year, a significant increase in legislative activity from previous years, as the high costs and lack of measurable benefits associated with this punishment troubled lawmakers. In 2009 New Mexico became the 15th American state to repeal the death penalty.

According to Boyle: "Nothing could strike a more powerful blow against the death penalty in the United States and around the world" than for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to give their 2010 Award to Ryan.


Francis A. Boyle

Law Building

504 E. Pennsylvania Ave.


IL 61820 USA



Richard Dieter "2009 Death Penalty Info Center Report"

Richard Dieter "2009 Death Penalty Info Center Report"

The Death Penalty Information Center released its "The Death Penalty in 2009: Year End Report on December 18, noting that the country is expected to finish 2009 with the fewest death sentences sinc...

You will be able to see the video in LBN Studio here :

Friday, 1 January 2010

Death-row inmate accepts plea deal, could be free soon

After spending 17 1/2 years in prison, Ernest Simmons, a death-row inmate who steadily maintained his innocence and was granted a new trial after revelations of prosecutorial misconduct, is expected to walk free this year.

Mr. Simmons, 52, was convicted of the 1992 murder of Anna Knaze, an 80-year-old woman who was found strangled and beaten in her Johnstown home. He once came within four days of his scheduled execution.

His retrial was scheduled to begin Jan. 25, but yesterday he pleaded no contest to third-degree murder. Cambria County Judge Timothy Creany resentenced him to five to 10 years in prison and a 10-year probationary term.

Because he has already served a longer sentence, Mr. Simmons will be credited with time served. The Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole will determine his release date.

"Depending on how fast the board operates, we're hopeful that he'll be out by the holidays next year," said Kenneth Sottile, one of Mr. Simmons' lawyers. "He's probably looking at six months."

Mr. Simmons was awarded a new trial in 2005, after substantial misconduct on the part of prosecutors and police was uncovered.

When police searched for a suspect in Ms. Knaze's murder, they had quickly honed in on Mr. Simmons, a Philadelphia native who in 1984 had admitted to attacking and robbing two elderly men.

But an investigation by student reporters at the Innocence Institute of Point Park University revealed that police and prosecutors had hidden evidence favorable to Mr. Simmons, such as hair tests that did not link him to the crime and tapes of secretly recorded phone conversations during which Mr. Simmons repeatedly declared his innocence to his girlfriend. During an interview with student reporters, the prosecution's key witness recanted her witness identification.

"It would have been an entirely different proceeding had we had all the information that was withheld," said Mr. Sottile, who was also Mr. Simmons' lawyer during his original trial.

When he was offered the plea bargain, Mr. Simmons believed the most practical thing to do was to end the protracted judicial process, said Mr. Sottile.

"Ernie's maintained his innocence adamantly since day one," he said. "Had they not permitted him to enter a plea of no contest, he wouldn't have pled."

Cambria County District Attorney Patrick Kiniry said the commonwealth agreed to the plea partly because of the difficulty of reassembling witnesses after a 17-year lapse.

"When this opportunity arose, we decided to put closure to the case, to end all the appeals," he said. "Hopefully this provides closure for the family [of Ms. Knaze] as well."