Innocence

Ruling Expected on Arizona Execution Hold, Amid Systemic Problems With Arbitrariness, Lethal Injection

Arizona's last execution, the botched lethal injection of Joseph Wood in July 2014, sparked controversy and legal challenges to the state's lethal injection procedure, and came at a time when Arizona was struggling not only with the logistics of carrying out executions, but also broader issues of fairness and costs. In a sweeping piece for The Arizona Republic, Michael Kiefer, who witnessed Wood's execution, describes the historical and legal background that led up to Arizona's current hold on executions.  He describes how Arizona's list of statutory aggravators — factors that make a case eligible for the death penalty — became so expansive that then-Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a proposed aggravator in 2014 because she worried it would make the death penalty law unconstitutionally broad and vague. Kiefer notes Arizona's 42% reversal rate in capital cases, meaning that 129 of the 306 death sentences in the state were reversed or remanded by higher courts. Nine people have been exonerated in Arizona, and one, Jeffrey Landrigan, was executed despite test results weeks before his execution that found DNA from two different men, but not Landrigan, on the victim's clothing. Landrigan was executed in 2010 using lethal injection drugs imported illegally from London. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration later seized the remaining drugs, causing Arizona to switch first to pentobarbital and later to midazolam, the first drug in Wood's botched execution. U.S. District Judge Neil Wake halted all executions in Arizona, asking the state to clearly specify what drugs it has and how it intends to carry out executions. His ruling is expected soon.

Tennessee Legislature Unanimously Passes Bill to Require Preservation of Biological Evidence in Capital Cases

On April 13, the Tennessee House of Representatives joined the Tennessee Senate in unanimously approving a bill that would mandate the preservation of biological evidence in cases involving a death sentence. The House voted 94-0 in favor of the bill after the Senate had passed the bill on April 4 by a 31-0 vote. If the governor signs the bill, such evidence must be held until the defendant is executed, dies, or is released from prison. Destruction of evidence will be handled as criminal contempt. At the House hearing for the bill, Ray Krone (pictured), who was exonerated from Arizona's death row and now lives in Tennessee, testified to the importance of DNA evidence. Krone was exonerated after DNA from the victim's shirt was tested and was found to match neither the victim nor Krone. "That DNA not only saved my life.” Krone said. “It also, because it was preserved by the Phoenix Police Department, it identified the true murderer.” DNA testing also played a key role in the Tennessee death row exonerations of Paul House and Michael McCormick. A March 2007 Tennessee Death Penalty Assessment Report by the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project (now the ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project) had found that Tennessee death penalty law failed to comply with ABA recommendations on the collection, preservation, and testing of DNA and other evidence. The ABA Death Penalty Due Process Review Project has found that only 2 of the 14 states whose death penalty procedures it assessed complied with the ABA recommendations on preservation of biological evidence in death penalty cases.

Victim's Cousin in Oklahoma Death Penalty Case Speaks of "Awful" Guilt Upon Learning Defendants Were Actually Innocent

After Debbie Carter was raped and murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982, police and prosecutors told her cousin, Christy Sheppard (pictured) that Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were guilty of the crime. In 1988, Williamson was convicted and sentenced to death; Fritz received a life sentence. Eleven years later, the pair were exonerated when DNA testing excluded them as perpetrators and pointed to another man who had once been a suspect. Sheppard, now a criminal justice counselor and victim advocate in Ada, recently shared the story of her experience learning that Williamson and Fritz were actually innocent. “The guilt has been awful,” she said. “It is horrible to think that you prayed, wished, helped and condoned to bring harm to someone else and then to find out that it wasn’t deserved and later learn what they went through.” Sheppard said her family was shocked, "It was like being in a Twilight Zone. It fit nothing we knew to be true." The experience changed her views on the death penalty, which she had previously supported. "In theory, it seems like that’s the way it ought to be: The punishment fits the crime. But when you pick it apart, it’s just a mess," she said. Sheppard is serving on the recently-announced Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission, and is also campaigning on behalf of Retain a Just Nebraska, a group working to defeat a ballot initiative that would reverse that state's legislative repeal of the death penalty.

American Bar Association Urges Reprieve to Allow Full Investigation of Kevin Cooper's Innocence Claims

American Bar Association President Paulette Brown has sent a letter to California Govenor Jerry Brown urging him to grant a reprieve to death row inmate Kevin Cooper to permit a full investigation of Cooper's possible innocence. The ABA President wrote: "Mr. Cooper’s arrest, prosecution, and conviction are marred by evidence of racial bias, police misconduct, evidence tampering, suppression of exculpatory information, lack of quality defense counsel, and a hamstrung court system. We therefore believe that justice requires that Mr. Cooper be granted an executive reprieve until the investigation necessary to fully evaluate his guilt or innocence is completed." The ABA letter described Cooper's case as "a particularly unique example of a criminal justice system falling short at every stage" and referenced a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Cooper’s conviction and sentence violated his human rights. Cooper has exhausted all appeals in his case, but evidence that was previously suppressed as a result of official misconduct raises questions about his guilt. New evidence includes a statement by the surviving victim that the perpetrators were white or Hispanic (Cooper is black); police destruction of a pair of blood-spattered overalls before testing could take place; and unreliable forensic testing that may indicate evidence contamination. In 2009, five judges of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dissented from the court's decision to uphold Cooper's conviction, writing, "The State of California may be about to execute an innocent man." The ABA letter agrees, asking Gov. Brown to use his clemency power to review the case: "We request that you grant this reprieve and order a meaningful investigation into Mr. Cooper’s case to prevent the possibility of a miscarriage of justice—one that can never be undone."

Darryl Hunt, North Carolina Exoneree Who Narrowly Escaped Death Sentence, Dies 12 Years After Release

Darryl Hunt (pictured), an exoneree and anti-death penalty advocate, was found dead in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on March 13, 2016. Hunt was wrongfully convicted of the 1984 rape and murder of Deborah Sykes, a newspaper copy editor. Prosecutors sought the death penalty against him, but he received a life sentence because a single juror refused to vote for death. His conviction was overturned in 1989 and prosecutors offered Hunt a deal for time served, in exchange for pleading guilty. Continuing to assert his innocence, Hunt refused the offer, and he was retried, convicted, and again sentenced to life. In 1994, a DNA test excluded him as the perpetrator of the crime, but it took another 10 years of appeals before he was released in 2004. After his exoneration, Hunt became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Steve Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said, "I think everyone who saw Darryl speak was deeply moved by the resilience and kindness and gentleness with which he spoke." But Hunt was firm about the dangers of the death penalty, saying: "A system that can perpetrate an injustice like this has no business deciding life and death. If I had gotten a death sentence, there’s no doubt in my mind, I would have been executed.” Hunt's case was covered in an eight-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal and was the subject of a documentary film, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, both of which were critical of the racial bias and official misconduct that contributed to his wrongful conviction.

Orthodox Jewish Organization Calls for an End to Capital Punishment in the U.S.

"As Jews, as citizens of a nation dedicated to liberty and justice, we believe that governments must protect the dignity and rights of every human being. The use of the death penalty, in America, fails to live up to this basic requirement," wrote Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz (pictured), founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Orthodox Jewish social justice movement. In a column for Jewish Journal, Rabbi Yanklowitz outlines the reasons for Jewish opposition to the death penalty, focusing particularly on the issue of innocence. "[O]ur American system today lacks the highest safeguards to protect the lives of the innocent and uses capital punishment all too readily," he says. "It is time to see the death penalty for what it is: not as justice gone awry, but a symptom of injustice as status quo" with "consequences [that] ... produce racially disparate outcomes." Rabbi Yanklowitz cites numerous studies that have estimated 2-7% of U.S. prisoners are likely innocent, then ties the issue to Jewish teachings. "Jewish law strongly upholds the principle that the innocent should be spared undue punishment," he explains, recounting the biblical story of God agreeing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there are even ten righteous people in those cities. He lauds the work of organizations like the Innocence Project, which work to free people who have been wrongfully convicted. "This is nothing short of the championing of justice over inequity, and as a community, we must support their work. Jewish community leaders should call for an end to this cruel practice, but also for the beginning of a new paradigm of fair, equitable, and restorative justice," he concludes.

Texas Board Confirms Disbarment of Prosecutor for Misconduct in Anthony Graves Case

The disciplinary board of the Texas State Bar rejected an appeal on February 9 from Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor whose misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves (pictured, r.). The board's decision disbarring Sebesta for what it called "egregious" misconduct is now final. Anthony Graves was convicted in 1994 on the false testimony of Robert Carter, who claimed Graves was his accomplice. Graves was exonerated in 2010 and filed a complaint against Sebesta in 2014. Sebesta was disbarred for eliciting Carter's false statements and withholding exculpatory evidence from Graves' defense. The disciplinary board made an initial ruling to revoke Sebesta's law license in 2015, but he appealed the ruling on technical grounds. Graves lauded the board's decision, saying, “The bar stepped in to say that’s not the way our criminal justice system should work. This is a good day for justice.”

California Inmate Raises Innocence Claims As State Seeks to Resume Executions

As California's new lethal injection protocol moves the state towards resuming executions, Kevin Cooper (pictured, left) is seeking clemency from Gov. Jerry Brown on the grounds that he is innocent. Cooper - one of 18 death-row prisoners who have exhausted their court appeals and face execution - was sentenced to death for the 1983 murders of a married couple, their 10-year-old daughter, and the daughter's 11-year-old friend. However, evidence that was suppressed as a result of police and prosecutorial misconduct raises serious questions as to his guilt. The key witness against Cooper was the 8-year-old son of the murdered couple, who was gravely injured, but survived the attack. On the day of the murders, the boy said that three white or Hispanic men had committed the killings, and after seeing photos of Cooper on television, he told his grandmother and a sheriff's deputy that Cooper - who is black - was not the killer. After subsequent interrogations by deputies, in which they misrepresented his recollections, he later identified Cooper as the sole killer and testified to that effect at Cooper's trial. Cooper's lawyers were denied an opportunity to cross-examine him. Prosecutors also presented evidence at trial that shoeprints from the crime scene had to belong to Cooper, because he had recently escaped from prison and the prints matched prison-issued shoes that weren't available to the public. A warden from the prison, however, had provided investigators with information rebutting that assertion, but prosecutors hid the warden's statements from the jury. Police also illegally destroyed blood-splattered pants given to them by a woman who believed her husband had been involved in the murders, eliminating an essential piece of evidence that could have helped Cooper prove his innocence. Finally, independent testing of a blood sample that the state claimed had been drawn from Cooper found two different sets of DNA, meaning that the sample had either been contaminated or deliberately altered. In 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Cooper's conviction, but five judges wrote a strong dissent detailing the misconduct and concluding that it was, "highly unlikely that Cooper would have been convicted," without it.

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