Innocence

Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Granted New Trial on Innocence-Related Claims; Capitally-Charged Inmate Exonerated

Two Philadelphia, Pennsylvania capital cases involving men who have long asserted their innocence reached major milestones on August 23, with one winning an appeal granting him a new trial and a jury acquitting a second in his retrial. Both cases involved allegations of serious police and prosecutorial misconduct. James Dennis (pictured), who has been on the Commonwealth's death row for nearly 25 years, was granted a new trial by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit after prosecutors withheld evidence that supported his claims of innocence. Anthony Wright, who was capitally tried but received a sentence of life without parole when the jury split 7 for death, 5 for life on the penalty verdict, was exonerated after 25 years. Dennis was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of a 17-year-old in Philadelphia. The full federal appeals court voted 9-4 on Tuesday to uphold a district court ruling granting Dennis a new trial, reversing an earlier decision by a three-judge appellate panel. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth's case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court." On the same day, a jury acquitted Anthony Wright in a retrial for another 1991 Philadelphia murder. Prosecutors had initially sought the death penalty when Wright was convicted in1993, but did not pursue the death penalty after agreeing that DNA evidence entitled Wright to a new trial. DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene excluded Wright and identified another perpetrator who recently died in prison in South Carolina. Wright's attorneys say police pressured him into signing a confession and falsely claimed that a set of bloody clothes they reportedly "found" in Wright's bedroom in his mother's house belonged to Wright, when in fact they belonged to the victim and contained DNA from the actual killer. Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, said "DNA testing proved not only that Mr. Wright is absolutely innocent but also that law enforcement fabricated evidence against him." Grace Greco, the jury forewoman for Wright's retrial, said, "I'm angry. The evidence was there that he did not commit this crime. The city should never have brought this case. I'm just happy that today's verdict will let Tony move on with the rest of his life."

EDITORIAL: San Jose Mercury News Endorses Death Penalty Repeal, Says Competing Measure Would Magnify Inequity

Weighing in on California's competing death penalty ballot initiatives, the San Jose Mercury News editorial board urged voters to support repeal of capital punishment and reject a proposal to speed up executions. The editorial called California's death penalty system, "a failure on every level," noting that the state has spent $4 billion to carry out just 13 executions and the $150 million annual savings the independent Legislative Analysts Office says death penalty abolition would achieve could be better spent "on education, on rehabilitating young offenders or on catching more murderers, rapists and other violent criminals." The editorial also addresses the misperception that the death penalty deters crime: "District attorneys throughout the state argue that the death penalty is a tool to condemn society's most vicious criminals. But this claim flies in the face of actual evidence: For every year between 2008-2013, the average homicide rate of states without the death penalty was significantly lower than those with capital punishment." After describing the racially- and geographically-biased application of the death penalty in California, the editorial argues that Proposition 66, which proposes to speed up executions, "would actually magnify the inequity and sometimes outright injustice in the death penalty's application" by reducing the opportunities to catch mistakes. "In the United States, for every 10 prisoners who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one person on death row has been set free." Speeding up executions, the editorial says, "is the opposite of what nations concerned with actual justice would do."

Bo Cochran, Acquitted in 1997 After 19 Years on Alabama's Death Row, Dies at 73

James Willie "Bo" Cochran, who spent 19 years on Alabama's death row for a killing he did not commit, has died at age 73. His lawyer, Richard Jaffe, said that Mr. Cochran and his case "are reasons why the death penalty does not work. He did not kill anyone, was wrongfully convicted and found innocent because he had lawyers that took up his cause."  Mr. Cochran, who is black, was found guilty and sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store clerk. His jury, which was composed of 11 white and one black jurors, had been told that the victim had followed Cochran out of the store after a robbery and that, after police had arrived on the scene, Cochran shot the clerk, leaving his body under a trailer in a nearby mobile home. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual murder. Cochran was arrested nearby with a gun that had not been fired. Cochran won a new trial after proving that prosecutors unconstitutionally removed black jurors from his case on the basis of race. He presented testimony from former prosecutors that the DA's office had a pattern of striking black jurors, had a philosophy that prospective black jurors "were anti-police, anti-establishment and should not be left on juries, if at all possible,” and that race was a factor in these strikes, "particularly where you had a white victim and a black defendant․" On retrial, Cochran was acquitted after presenting evidence that the victim had been accidentally shot by two officers responding to the robbery, who then panicked and moved the body under the trailer, where it was discovered by other officers. After Cochran's acquittal, he and Jaffe made frequent appearances to talk about the case. Jaffe described Cochran as "never bitter, always grateful." He called Cochran's life "a story of redemption and forgiveness," exemplifying the lesson that "We can be forgiving, no matter what happens to us. He truly touched a lot of lives. We loved Bo. He'll be missed." 

Court Hearing Under Way on Constitutionality of Federal Death Penalty

A court hearing is under way in the capital trial of Donald Fell in a Vermont federal district court challenging the constitutionality of the federal death penalty. This week, death penalty experts testified for the defense about systemic problems Fell's lawyers say may render the federal death penalty unconstitutional. Fell was sentenced to death in 2006, but was granted a new trial because of juror misconduct. The hearing began on July 11 and is scheduled to continue until July 22. Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford, who is presiding over the hearing and is set to preside over Fell's second trial in 2017, said the hearing will, "create a rich, factual record for higher courts with broader authority to rule on the big questions." On Monday, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz, discussed research on the effects of solitary confinement, the conditions under which Fell has been held on death row. "According to the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, anything greater than 15 days is inhumane, cruel and degrading treatment," Haney said. On Tuesday, Michael Radelet, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, testified about the decline of the death penalty both in use and in public opinion, saying, "Attitudes toward the death penalty have changed more rapidly than any other social issue other than gay marriage." Radelet testified that research has disclosed no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or affects overall murder rates. He also emphasized the prevalence and causes of the 156 wrongful capital convictions as a major problem with capital punishment. “Last year six people were released, most having served 25 years. In 2014, seven were released from death row as innocent. One had been in for 30 years," he said. "The number one cause of error is prejudicial prosecutorial testimony. Prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, fraudulent forensics.”

NEW VOICES: Former FBI Agent Now Opposes Death Penalty, Seeks Exoneration of California Death Row Prisoner Kevin Cooper

During his 45 years in law enforcement, including 24 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, homicide investigator Tom Parker (pictured) changed his view on the death penalty. "There were times during my career when I would gladly have pushed the button on a murderer,” he said. “Today, my position would be, life without parole." Parker says that seeing corrupt homicide investigations convinced him that innocent people could be executed. As result, he now opposes capital punishment and is supporting California's Justice That Works Act, a ballot measure that would repeal the death penalty. Parker says the worst case of police misconduct he has seen in a capital case is that of California death row prisoner Kevin Cooper. Parker has re-investigated the case pro bono for five years in an effort to free Cooper. “I’m convinced he was framed. We arrest and convict innocent people almost every day in this country. As long as we have a death penalty in America, we will continue to execute innocent people.” Cooper was sentenced to death for four 1983 murders, and has completed his appeals, meaning that he could be executed if California resumes lethal injections. Parker says Cooper's conviction was a result of "police tunnel vision" - making the evidence fit the suspect, rather than seeking a suspect who fit the evidence. Working as a consultant with Cooper's attorneys, Parker has found witnesses who say they saw three white men, two of whom wore blood-spattered clothing, acting strangely at a bar near the crime scene on the night of the murders. The initial statement from the one survivor of the crime pointed to three white men as the perpetrators, but Cooper is black. Cooper recently received support from the American Bar Association in his efforts to receive clemency from Governor Jerry Brown.

Nebraska Exonerees Awarded $28 Million, Prosecutor Says Case Made Him Oppose Death Penalty

A federal court jury has awarded six Nebraska exonerees (pictured, at their exoneration) $28 million in damages for official misconduct that led to their wrongful convictions in the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. The "Beatrice Six," as the group came to be known, were falsely accused of the killing and threatened with the death penalty. Five of the defendants—James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, and Tom Winslow—agreed to plea bargains or pled no contest to avoid possible death sentences. The sixth—Joseph E. White—demanded a jury trial, and was convicted. All six were exonerated by DNA evidence tested in 2008. On July 6, the jury found that the Gage County, Nebraska Sheriff's Office had been reckless in its investigation and had fabricated evidence. The $28 million damages award exceeds the entire annual budget of Gage County by $1 million, and the county does not have an insurance policy to cover court judgments resulting from law enforcement misconduct. At a press conference on July 8, Randall Rintour, the Gage County prosecutor who reopened the Beatrice Six case in 2008, said the case had changed his views on the death penalty. “It happened right here in our backyard. We can’t say it’s not possible to make a mistake because we did, we made a huge one," he said. "Our ability to execute all the ... murderers we can is not worth the death of one innocent individual at the hands of the state." State Sen. Burke Harr, a former Douglas County deputy prosecutor, joined Rintour in urging Nebraskans to retain the state's repeal of the death penalty, which is the subject of a November referendum. Sen. Harr, one of 30 legislators who voted in favor of repeal, said, "The death penalty is just that, it’s forever. There’s no coming back."

Texas Court Stays Execution of Man Convicted by Now Debunked "Shaken Baby" Testimony

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted a stay of execution to Robert Roberson (pictured), who had been scheduled to be executed on June 21 for the 2003 death of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Nikki Curtis. The court's June 16 stay order halts Roberson's execution under a recent Texas law permitting court challenges based on new scientific evidence of innocence. Prosecution experts had testified at Roberson's trial that his daughter died of Shaken Baby Syndrome, asserting that the child exhibited symptoms that she must have been shaken or beaten. Roberson said she had fallen out of bed during the night, but that she seemed fine and went back to sleep. Hours later, when he checked on her again, she was blue and could barely breathe. Prosecutors charged him with murder and with sexually assaulting his daughter - although there was no evidence that she had been sexually assaulted. The sexual assault charges were later dropped, but only after the prosecution had discussed them in open court in front of the jury. The court granted Roberson review of four issues: that (1) new scientific evidence establishes that he would not have been convicted; (2) the State's use of "false, misleading, and scientifically invalid testimony” about Shaken Baby Syndrome violated due process; (3) Roberson is "actually innocent of capital murder"; and (4) "the State’s introduction of false forensic science testimony that current science has exposed as false" made his trial fundamentally unfair. "Instead of taking Robert’s explanation about a fall seriously or exploring all possible causes of the injury sustained by a chronically ill child who had been at the doctor’s office with 104.5-degree temperature only two days before," Roberson's lawyer, Gretchen Sween wrote, "a tragedy was hastily deemed a crime and a father, doing the best he could to care for his daughter despite severe cognitive impairments, was branded a murderer." Roberson presented affidavits from four medical experts challenging the accuracy and scientific validity of the State's shaken baby testimony. Forensic pathologist Dr. Harry Bonnell, in an opinion shared by all four defense experts, wrote: "it is impossible to shake a toddler to death without causing serious neck injuries—and Nikki had none." They suggest several alternate theories for Curtis' death, including meningitis caused by an ear infection, a fall like the one Roberson described to investigators, or a congenital condition. Roberson's appeal argues that, "[w]hen the trial record is viewed through the lens of current science and evidence-based medicine, it is clear that he is innocent of capital murder." The court returned the case to the trial court in Anderson County to conduct an evidentiary hearing on Roberson's claims. 

As Miranda Decision Turns 50, False Confessions Still Affect Death Penalty

On June 13, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miranda v. Arizona, granting suspects critical constitutional protections designed to combat abusive police interrogation practices. In commentary for The Marshall Project, Samuel Gross (pictured) and Maurice Possley of the National Registry of Exonerations discuss the interplay between false confessions, the death penalty, and wrongful convictions and describe how Miranda's famous rights to remain silent and to be represented by a lawyer during an interrogation have failed to prevent numerous false confessions and false charges against others. Nearly a quarter of the 1,810 exonerations recorded in the National Registry of Exonerations involve false or fabricated confessions, including 227 (13%) cases in which suspects falsely confessed and 195 (11%) cases in which they falsely implicated someone else. Despite being given their "Miranda warning," many suspects agree to speak with interrogators without a lawyer present and confess to crimes they did not commit, as a result of the mental stress of interrogation, threats of severe punishment if they do not cooperate, deceptive interrogation practices, or because they do not understand what they are doing. 72% of all exonerees with reported mental illness or intellectual disability had falsely confessed. Among them was Earl Washington, a man with an IQ of about 69, who was convicted of a rape and murder after falsely confessing during two days of interrogations, despite the fact that his confession was full of errors about the facts of the crime. He spent 16 years on death row in Virginia before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Gross and Possley explain that "some innocent suspects ... blame others to deflect responsibility and reduce their punishment." They point to the case of Richard Ochoa, who, to avoid the death penalty, falsely implicated his roommate Richard Danziger as the actual killer in a 1988 murder in Austin, Texas, pled guilty to a murder he did not commit, and testified against Danziger at trial. In 2002, both were exonerated by DNA. The authors praise the Miranda decision as an important step in regulating coercive interrogation practices, but say additional reforms are needed. In particular, they recommend that all interrogations, especially in homicide cases, be recorded, as already required in 23 states. They write, "Recording greatly helps us evaluate any claim that a confession was false, and it has taught us how to improve the conduct of interrogations." 

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