Innocence

STUDIES: Innocence and the Death Penalty Around the World

A new report from The Death Penalty Project, "The Inevitability of Error," examines the risk of wrongful convictions in capital prosecutions through case studies from around the world. The report analyzes recent innocence cases in Japan, the U.S., Taiwan, and Sierra Leone, as well as older cases from the United Kingdom that encouraged abolition efforts there. Among the cases included are those of Iwao Hakamada, who was released after 47 years on death row in Japan, and Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person in the U.S. exonerated from death row by DNA evidence. The study recommends improvements to investigative and appellate procedures, but concludes, "This may, in theory, decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions, but it will never eliminate it altogether....There is no perfect justice system - error is inevitable. Wherever the death penalty is imposed, there is always a risk that innocent people will be convicted and executed."

INNOCENCE: New Evidence Supports Case That Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004. His conviction was based largely on forensic evidence of arson that both prosecutors and defense attorneys now agree was seriously flawed. Prosecutors have maintained that other evidence pointed towards Willingham's guilt, especially the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Willingham confessed to the crime of murdering his children. Now according to an investigative article by Maurice Possley for the Marshall Project and published in the Washington Post, newly uncovered letters and court records suggest that the informant, Johnny Webb, received special treatment and a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony. The jury was told that Webb had not received any deal in return for his testimony. However, the prosecutor in Willingham's case wrote to Webb in prison and contradicted those claims. He wrote, "We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”  According to Webb, the prosecutor told him, "If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later." Webb now says Willingham "never told me nothing." The prosecutor also arranged for Webb to receive financial assistance from a wealthy rancher who was interested in helping at-risk young men.

NEW VOICES: Retired Judges Support Death Row Inmate's Appeal

In a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, eight retired judges recently asked the Court to review the case of Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed. Reed is scheduled to be executed in January 2015. While the judges, who served on federal and state courts in many jurisdictions around the country, did not take a stance on Reed's innocence claims, they urged the Court to hear his appeal so that new evidence in the case could be examined under the light of cross-examination in a full hearing, rather than just through the review of legal papers. "That is not how our system of justice is designed to operate," the judges said. "When courts have only affidavits without witness testimony, they lack the means of testing the accuracy, reliability, competence, scientific acumen, proper training and judgment of the [person testifying]." Reed is claiming that his trial lawyers did not adequately investigate forensic evidence that experts now say might be unreliable. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rejected Reed's appeal because they found the new testimony unpersuasive as presented in appellate briefs. The eight judges who petitioned the Supreme Court said the evidence should have been heard by a district judge in an evidentiary hearing, rather than by the appeals court. "Trial courts are the appropriate venue for developing a factual record and resolving questions of fact," they said. See list of judges below.

Inspector General's Report Faults FBI Review of Death Penalty Cases

According to a report released on July 16 by the Inspector General's Office of the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to provide timely notice to many capital defendants that their cases were under review for possibly inaccurate testimony by FBI experts. Some of these defendants were executed without being informed of the misleading testimony provided by the government. The report stated: "[T]he FBI did not take sufficient steps to ensure that the capital cases were the Task Force’s top priority. We found that it took the FBI almost 5 years to identify the 64 defendants on death row whose cases involved analyses or testimony by 1 or more of the 13 examiners. The Department did not notify state authorities that convictions of capital defendants could be affected by involvement of any of the 13 criticized examiners. Therefore, state authorities had no basis to consider delaying scheduled executions." At least three defendants were executed before the FBI made it known that their cases were under review. The report recommended retesting of physical evidence for 24 defendants who were executed or died on death row.

Federal Judge Stays Imminent Execution Over Mental Competency Concerns

UPDATE: Middleton was executed on July 16, after the U.S. Court of Appeals lifted his stay. On July 15, a federal judge in Missouri stayed the execution of John Middleton, less than 24 hours before it was to occur. The judge was concerned that Middleton might be mentally incompetent, and hence ineligible for execution: "Middleton has provided evidence that he has been diagnosed with a variety of mental-health disorders and has received a number of psychiatric medications over the years," Judge Catherine Perry wrote in her order staying the execution. "[Other] inmates indicate that he frequently talks to people who are not there and tells stories that could not have had any basis in reality." Middleton's attorneys have also introduced new evidence to support his claim of innocence. An expert witness who supported the prosecution's case at trial has now said the murder most likely took place when Middleton was in jail in another state. Kay Parish, an attorney for Middleton, said, "Part of the reason we don't execute people with mental deficits is that they have more difficulty navigating the system. And I think that's very true in this case, and I think that's why he had trouble in the past in getting lawyers or anyone to listen to his claim of innocence or look at this evidence."

Texas Bar Taking Action Against Prosecutor in Innocence Case

The State Bar of Texas has found "just cause" to pursue disciplinary action against prosecutor Charles J. Sebesta, whose conduct in the trial of Anthony Graves (pictured) resulted in a wrongful conviction and death sentence. Sebesta, the District Attorney of Burleson County, did not inform Graves' attorneys that the main witness against Graves had confessed to the crime. Graves spent over 18 years in prison, 12 of them on death row, before being exonerated in 2010. Kathryn Kase, Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service and counsel to Graves, said, "A prosecutor’s duty is not simply to secure convictions, but to see that justice is done. Conviction of an innocent man like Mr. Graves through prosecutorial misconduct is abhorrent and undermines public trust and confidence in the Texas justice system. The way to restore that trust and confidence is to hold prosecutors like Charles Sebesta accountable when they violate their legal and ethical obligations."

NEW VOICES: Florida Justice Warns of Fallibility of Eyewitness Testimony

Justice Barbara Pariente of the Florida Supreme Court recently commented on the danger of mistake in eyewitness testimony and the importance of warning juries about the possibility of error. Her comments came in a death penalty case where she said that widely accepted scientific research, "'convincingly demonstrates the fallibility of eyewitness identification testimony and pinpoints an array of variables that are most likely to lead to a mistaken identification.'" (citation omitted).  She also noted that "eyewitness misidentification has played a role in more than seventy-five percent of convictions that were subsequently overturned through DNA testing" in Florida. She recommended that courts allow experts to testify about the fallibility of such testimony.

After Almost 30 Years, DNA Shows State's Case "Has Collapsed"

On June 26, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin and ordered a new trial because new DNA evidence completely contradicted the state's evidence presented at trial. Hildwin was convicted of a 1985 murder and sexual assault. At trial, an FBI forensics expert wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found at the crime scene matched Hildwin and could not have come from the victim's boyfriend. However, more recent DNA testing excluded Hildwin and found that the fluids matched the boyfriend, who is incarcerated for the sexual assaults of two minors. In the decision overturning Hildwin's conviction, the Court said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense." Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which was involved in Hildwin's appeal, said, “As Mr. Hildwin’s thirty year quest to free his name so dramatically illustrates, there is a real danger that the recently enacted ‘timely justice act’ could result in the execution of innocent people.” 

Pages