Innocence

CNN's "Death Row Stories" Examines Possible Innocence of Man Executed in Texas

In the first episode of season 2 of "Death Row Stories," CNN examined the case of Ruben Cantu, who was executed in Texas in 1993 despite serious doubts about his guilt. The episode featured an interview with Sam Milsap, the District Attorney at the time of Cantu's trial, who asserted his belief in Cantu's innocence. Cantu's co-defendant and a key eyewitness from the case both supported Cantu's claim of innocence. The hour-long episode of the documentary series recounted how Lise Olsen, an investigative reporter for the Houston Chronicle, raised questions about the case and eventually convinced Milsap that Cantu was not guilty. "Death Row Stories" is produced by Robert Redford and narrated by Susan Sarandon. It airs Sundays at 10 pm. Other episodes this season include the stories of Randy Steidl and Seth Penalver, who were exonerated and freed from death row.

"Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man" Premieres

A new film, "Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man," premieres on August 13. The movie, described as a "documentary memoir," tells the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, an innocent man sentenced to death in Maryland who became the first death row prisoner in the United States to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Bloodsworth was convicted and sent to death row in 1985 for the sexual assault and murder of a 9-year-old girl. He won a new trial as a result of prosecutorial misconduct, but was convicted again and this time sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 1993 by newly available DNA testing. After his exoneration, Bloodsworth became active in efforts to reform the criminal justice system and his case became symbolic of the innocence movement and the risks of wrongfully convicting and executing the innocent. In 2004, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the Kirk Noble Bloodsworth Post Conviction DNA Testing Program, which gives states grants for post-conviction DNA testing. As a result of his experiences, Bloodsworth became a strong opponent of the death penalty and was instrumental in Maryland's 2013 repeal of the death penalty. That legislative battleground provides the backdrop for the film's exploration of the events leading to his exoneration.The film's first preview screening is in Baltimore, Maryland. A second preview screening will take place in Boise, Idaho on September 25, and the film will be released soon after.

False and Contaminated Confessions Prevalent in Death Row Exonerations

A report by University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon L. Garrett describes the effects of false confessions in cases in which DNA evidence later led to an exoneration. Garrett reports that half of the 20 death row inmates who were exonerated by DNA testing had falsely confessed to the crime. He uses the recent exonerations of intellectually disabled defendants Leon Brown and Henry McCollum in North Carolina to illustrate the problem: "The police claimed that Brown and McCollum had each separately told them in gruesome detail how the victim had been raped and murdered, including how she was asphyxiated by her own panties: we now know that they were innocent and their confession statements were contaminated – meaning that police must have actually told the brothers each of those facts during the interrogation." Examining a data set of both capital and non-capital DNA exonerations, Garrett found that 65 of 69 false confessions were contaminated. In 19 of those cases, the defendants were convicted despite DNA testing that cleared them at the time of trial. In the case of Damon Thibodeaux, police did not conduct DNA tests that would have proved his innocence after securing a false confession after 9 hours of interrogation. In addition, 10 of the capital DNA exonerations featured false testimony from prison informants or snitches that that the defendant had confessed to them. Garrett concludes, "Interrogations themselves can be improved through safeguards such as videotaping. But the death penalty itself cannot be made foolproof – and indeed, high-profile murder investigations may be even more prone to tragic errors." 

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CNN Legal Analyst Calls "Sanity of the Death Penalty” Into Question

Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst who has been both a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, says in a recent op-ed that "it is hard not to question the rationality -- indeed the sanity" of the death penalty. Holloway says "there are several practical reasons why the death penalty just doesn't make sense any longer, if it ever really did in the first place," and outlines five reasons why he believes the United States should reconsider capital punishment. First, he says that life without parole is actually a harsher punishment than the death penalty, citing the harsh conditions of maximum-security prisons on the state and federal level. Second, Holloway points to the ongoing trial of James Holmes in Colorado as one instance of the excessive cost of the death penalty. The Holmes trial is expected to cost about $3.5 million, compared to an average of $150,000 in cases without the death penalty. Third, he notes the toll of capital cases on victims' families: "family members and loved ones of murder victims often find themselves entangled in the justice system for a very long time" because of lengthy appeals after a death sentence is handed down. His fourth point is the uneven application of the death penalty, which he says is the result of prosecutorial discretion in whether to seek a death sentence. Finally, Holloway says, "Despite safeguards, innocent people do wind up on death row." He mentions the 154 people exonerated from death row, highlighting last year's exoneration of Henry McCollum, who spent 30 years on death row before being cleared by DNA evidence. "Our criminal justice system -- and those caught up in it, including the families of victims -- would be the biggest beneficiaries should we choose to end capital punishment in the United States," he concludes. 

David Keaton, First Death Row Exoneree in Modern Era, Dies at Age 63

David Keaton, the first man exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty (1973-present), died on July 3 at the age of 63. Keaton was convicted and sentenced to death in Florida in 1971 for the murder of an off-duty police officer. His conviction was based on a coerced confession and erroneous eyewitness testimony. In 1973, the actual perpetrator was discovered because of new evidence, and Keaton was exonerated. In 2003, Keaton became a founding member of Witness To Innocence, an organization of death row exonerees who share their stories to educate the public about the death penalty. Kathy Spillman, director of programs and outreach at Witness To Innocence, said of Keaton, "His life was very difficult. He was sentenced to Death Row as a teenager. And like all exonorees, he struggled with issues related to being on Death Row and integrating back into a society that does not provide support for these men and women. [Yet], he was stoic and very gentle. He was a poet and a singer and whenever he got the chance, he participated in activities against the death penalty so that nobody else had to go through what he did." Since Keaton's exoneration in 1973, an additional 153 people have been exonerated from death row.

Urban League President Calls for Reconsideration of Death Penalty

Highlighting the recent abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska and concerns about wrongful convictions, National Urban League President Marc H. Morial (pictured) called for an end to executions. In an op-ed for The Philadelphia Tribune, Morial cited declining public support for the death penalty: "56 percent of Americans support the death penalty, this from a high of almost 80 percent in the mid-90s," he said. He also emphasized the growing conservative opposition to the death penalty, which was critical in bringing about repeal in Nebraska. "There are many experts who contribute much of today’s sea change in attitudes towards capital punishment to the growing number of conservatives coming to the frontlines of the opposition movement to the death penalty, questioning its efficacy and fiscal soundness," Morial said. Finally, he pointed to the stories of those exonerated from death row, saying, "No matter where you may stand on the death penalty debate, where is the value in maintaining a system that could likely execute an innocent man or woman?" He concluded, "As long as questions of equity, fairness and fallibility persist, we must stop executions and give death row inmates every chance to prove their 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."

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