Innocence

Former Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom Released from Mississippi Prison

Michelle Byrom (pictured, seated) was released from prison in Mississippi on June 26 after spending 16 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row, for the murder of her husband. Byrom maintains her innocence for the crime, but agreed to an Alford plea -- which means that she pleaded no contest to the charges against her -- in exchange for her release. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Byrom's conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, citing numerous problems in her case. Byrom's attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence, and the jury was never told that Byrom's son, Junior, had confessed to killing his father. Junior initially told police that his mother had hired someone to kill his father, but later wrote in a letter, "You are all I have, and they're trying to take that away from me now, but Mom I'm gonna tell you right now who killed Dad 'cause I'm sick and tired of all the lies. I did, and it wasn't for money, it wasn't for all the abuse — it was because I can't kill myself." Junior pleaded guilty to conspiring in the murder, was sentenced to 30 years, and received a supervised release in 2013. John White, one of Byrom's attorneys, said of her release, "It's been a long arduous journey. The outcome is appropriate, given the history of the case."

Death Row Exoneree Glenn Ford Dies One Year After Release

Glenn Ford, who was exonerated last year after spending almost 30 years on Louisiana's death row, died of lung cancer on June 29 at the age of 65. At the time of his release, Ford was the nation's longest-serving death row exoneree. Just hours after his death, Ford's case was cited in the dissenting opinion of Justice Breyer in Glossip v. Gross, as providing “striking” evidence “that the death penalty has been wrongly imposed.” Justice Breyer mentioned innocence, prosecutorial wrongdoing, the length of time inmates spend on death row, and the unreliability of capital convictions among the reasons why he now “believe[s] it highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.” In 1984, Ford was convicted of murder on the testimony of a witness who later said police had helped her make up her story. Ford's attorney had never tried a case before a jury. After Ford's exoneration, the lead prosecutor on his case, A.M. "Marty" Stroud III, issued a public apology. He expressed his belief in Ford's complete innocence, saying, "There was no technicality here. Crafty lawyering did not secure the release of a criminal...Pursuant to the review and investigation of cold homicide cases, investigators uncovered evidence that exonerated Mr. Ford. Indeed, this evidence was so strong that had it been disclosed during of the investigation there would not have been sufficient evidence to even arrest Mr. Ford!" Stroud urged the state to grant Ford compensation for his wrongful conviction, but no compensation was granted before Ford's death.  

Gary Clements, Director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, tells DPIC that "At 2:11 [Monday] morning, Glenn slipped away very quietly and peacefully. He was held and surrounded by people who cared about him, and was listening to a song he loved."

Recent Texas Execution: Did An Innocent Man Fall Through Death Penalty Procedural Cracks?

Lester Bower was executed in Texas on June 3 despite maintaining his innocence throughout the 30 years he spent on death row. The evidence of Bower's innocence included testimony from a woman who said that her boyfriend and three of his friends -- not Bower -- had committed the murders for which Bower was executed. The witness came forward in 1989, after reading that Bower had been sentenced to death for the crime her boyfriend had confessed to committing six years earlier. In 2012, a judge rejected Bower's request to present the testimony to a jury, saying, "the new evidence produced by the defendant could conceivably have produced a different result at trial...it does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is actually innocent." Maurice Possley, a senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, explained the judge's decision: "He points out in pretty clear terms that this guy probably would have been found not guilty had this evidence been available at trial. But now, all these years later, he can’t meet the new standard, which is actual innocence. That was not the standard at trial. Then it was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Samuel Gross, editor and co-founder of the registry, said, "To me it’s one of the most troubling features of our justice system. In the absence of procedural error, you have no effective escape valve. We don’t have a procedure for reviewing convictions for accuracy."

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

STUDY: "The Hidden Costs of Wrongful Capital Prosecutions in North Carolina"

A new study by North Carolina's Center for Death Penalty Litigation examines the financial and human costs of cases in which, "prosecutors sought the death penalty despite a clear lack of evidence, resulting in acquittal or dismissal of charges." The report found 56 such cases in North Carolina since 1989, in which innocent people spent a total of 112 years spent in jail, with $2.4 million spent in defense costs alone in these weak death penalty cases. The authors compare these cases to those in which people were wrongfully convicted and sent to death row, saying, "We found cases in which state actors hid exculpatory evidence, relied on junk science, and pressured witnesses to implicate suspects. In several cases, there was no physical evidence and charges were based solely on the testimony of highly unreliable witnesses, such as jail inmates, co-defendants who were given lighter sentences in return for cooperation, and paid informants. Reliance on such witnesses was a factor in more than 60 percent of the cases we studied." In addition to the clear-cut time and financial costs, the study also describes the effects of wrongful prosecutions on the defendants: "In addition to leaving many in financial ruin, the state does not even do these exonorees the favor of clearing their criminal histories. They must request a court order to expunge their criminal records, an expensive and lengthy process. Those who were already living at the margins of society often struggled to find jobs, and some fell into homelessness after they were released from jail." The authors conclude by contrasting the intended use of the death penalty with their findings: "A punishment as serious as execution should be pursued only in the most ironclad cases: those with the strongest evidence of guilt and in which the circumstances of the crime make the defendant more culpable than most—the 'worst of the worst.' Yet, the reality is entirely different. This report uncovers a system in which the threat of execution is used in the majority of cases, regardless of the strength of the evidence."

Texas Disbars Prosecutor for Misconduct in Sending Innocent Man to Death Row

On June 12, the State Bar of Texas disbarred Burleson County District Attorney Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor whose misconduct led to the wrongful conviction of death row exoneree Anthony Graves (pictured, r.). The bar found that Sebesta violated no fewer than five of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including making a false statement to a court, using evidence known to be false, and failing to disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves' conviction, finding that prosecutors elicited false statements and failed to provide key evidence to Graves' attorneys. Graves was exonerated in 2010, when a special prosecutor re-examined the case, found no credible evidence against Graves, and dropped the charges against him. Assisted by pro bono attorneys Neal Manne, Charles Eskridge, and Kathryn Kase, Graves filed a grievance against Sebesta in 2014 because, according to his attorneys, "even after Mr. Graves' exoneration, Mr. Sebesta continued to claim he had done nothing wrong in prosecuting Mr. Graves. Grotesquely, Mr. Sebesta continued to torment Mr. Graves and his family by insisting both in public statements and on a web site he maintained that Mr. Graves really was a murderer and was guilty of the crimes." Graves said, "No one who makes it a goal to send a man to death row without evidence—and worse, while hiding evidence of my innocence—deserves to be a lawyer in Texas."

INNOCENCE: Alfred Dewayne Brown is Released from Texas Death Row; Nation's 154th Death-Row Exoneration

Harris County, Texas prosecutors announced on June 8 that they have dismissed charges against Alfred Dewayne Brown, who had been sentenced to death in 2005 for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Brown's conviction last year because prosecutors withheld a phone record that supported Brown's alibi. Prosecutors in 2013 said that the phone record had been inadvertently misplaced. Brown had long maintained that he had been alone at his girlfriend's apartment at the time of the murder, and that he had called her after seeing reports of the shooting on television. Defense lawyers argued that the time of the phone call established that Brown could not have been at the store when the murder occurred. There was no physical evidence against Brown, and a series of Pulitzer prize-winning columns by Houston Chronicle writer Lisa Falkenberg disclosed irregularities in the grand jury process, that Brown's girlfriend had faced intimidating questioning and threats of perjury by a police officer who was the grand jury foreman, and that she had been jailed for seven weeks until she changed her testimony to implicate Brown. She has since recanted that testimony. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "After very careful consideration, I have decided that at this time, there is insufficient evidence to corroborate the testimony of Brown's co-defendant. Accordingly, we dismissed Alfred Brown's capital murder case earlier today. It is the right thing to do." Since 2007, Brown's attorneys have compiled strong evidence that the murder was committed by another man with a history of robbery and connections to the co-defendants in the crime. Despite a 2008 motion to test the alternate suspect's DNA, such a test has not been carried out. Alfred Brown is the 154th person exonerated from death row since 1973, the 13th in Texas, and the fourth in 2015.

North Carolina Governor Formally Pardons Two Death Row Exonerees

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory granted pardons to Leon Brown (l.) and Henry McCollum (center, r.), allowing the two men to receive compensation for their wrongful convictions. Brown and McCollum are half-brothers who were convicted of the 1983 murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to death. McCollum spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2014. Brown was released after 30 years in jail, eight of them on death row. At the time of their arrests, Brown was 15 and McCollum 19. Both gave coerced confessions. An investigation by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission found DNA at the crime scene from a man who was in prison for a similar crime committed just a month later. Upon granting the pardons to Brown and McCollum, McCrory said, "This has been a very comprehensive and thoughtful process during the past nine months. Based upon the available evidence that I have personally reviewed, I am granting pardons of innocence to Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. It is the right thing to do." A review board may now determine whether to grant each man up to $750,000 in compensation.

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