Innocence

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." 

Texas Judge Dismisses Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate

A judge dismissed murder charges against former Texas death row prisoner Kerry Max Cook on June 6, after prosecutors conceded that his due process rights had been violated by the presentation of false testimony from an alternative suspect. The decision moves Cook one step closer to exoneration, nearly 40 years after he was originally convicted and sentenced to death for the 1977 murder of Linda Jo Edwards. Smith County prosecutors tried Cook three times, twice winning convictions and death sentences. After Smith's second trial ended in a hung jury, prosecutors withheld evidence and misrepresented a deal they had made with a jailhouse informant who falsely testified in the third trial that Cook had confessed to him. An appeals court overturned that conviction and death sentence for what it called “pervasive” and “egregious” prosecutorial misconduct. To avoid a fourth capital trial in 1999, Cook pled no contest to reduced charges and was released from prison. He continued to maintain his innocence. Prosecutors finally agreed to drop the charges against Cook after an alternate suspect in the case, James Mayfield—who had been granted complete immunity from prosecution—admitted that he had lied during Cook's trials. Mayfield, who had an extramarital affair with Edwards, had testified at the trials that he had not had sex with Edwards for weeks before her murder. However, several DNA tests identified semen in Edwards' underwear as Mayfield's, not Cook's. In a deposition in April, Mayfield testified that, in fact, he had sex with Edwards the day before she was killed. That admission also shed new light on the trial testimony of Edwards' roommate, who initially identified Mayfield as the man she saw in the apartment the night of the murder, but later changed her story to implicate Cook. Mark McPeak, who represented Cook during an earlier stage of his case, described his prior trials as "the quintessential railroading." Texas Defender Services executive director Kathryn Kase said: "It is long past time for the state of Texas to admit that it got the wrong man and that it prosecuted the wrong man repeatedly and sought the death penalty against the wrong man repeatedly." Cook continues to pursue a declaration of "actual innocence" that would make him eligible for more than $3 million in compensation from the state of Texas for the two decades he was wrongfully incarcerated on death row. The trial court is expected to rule on that claim later this month and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will then review the dismissal of charges.

NEW VOICES: Former Chief Justice of North Carolina Supreme Court Questions Constitutionality of Death Penalty

I. Beverly Lake, Jr.—a staunch supporter of North Carolina's death penalty during his years as a State Senator and who, as a former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, repeatedly voted to uphold death sentences—has changed his stance on capital punishment. In a recent piece for The Huffington Post, Lake said he not only supported capital punishment as a State Senator, he "vigorously advocated" for it and "cast my vote at appropriate times to uphold that harsh and most final sentence" as Chief Justice. His views have evolved, he said, primarily because of concerns about wrongful convictions. "My faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes," he wrote. However, his concerns about the death penalty are broader than just the question of innocence. Lake says he also questions whether legal protections for people with diminished culpability as a result of intellectual disability, mental illness, or youth, are adequate. "For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability. Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime," he said. He describes the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana death row inmate who was 18 at the time of the offense and has an IQ of 74, placing him just outside the Supreme Court's bans on the execution of juveniles and people with intellectual diabilities. Lake argues, "Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute." He concludes, "Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot."

Two Capital Cases Involving Innocence Claims Resolved Decades After Conviction

This week, two decades-old cases involving men with innocence claims reached final resolution: Louisiana inmate Gary Tyler (pictured) was released after 42 years in prison and Paul Gatling was exonerated in New York more than 50 years after his wrongful conviction. Both men had once faced the death penalty. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old white boy in 1974 during a riot over school integration. A white mob had attacked a bus filled with black students, including Tyler. After the shooting, Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace for talking back to a sheriff's deputy. The bus and students were searched, but no weapon was found. Police later claimed to have found a gun on the bus during a later search. That gun turned out to have been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff's department. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury when he was 17 years old. His death sentence was overturned after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Louisiana's mandatory death penalty statute unconstitutional in 1976, and his life sentence was recently overturned after the Supreme Court barred mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders. Tyler was released on April 29, after the district attorney's office agreed to vacate his murder conviction, allow him to plead guilty to manslaughter, and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years, less than half the time he had already served. Mary Howell, one of Tyler's attorneys, said, "This has been a long and difficult journey for all concerned. I feel confident that Gary will continue the important work he began years ago while in prison, to make a real difference in helping to mentor young people faced with difficult challenges in their lives." On May 2, 81-year-old Paul Gatling was exonerated. Brooklyn prosecutors charged Gatling with capital murder in 1963 despite the fact that he did not fit the description of the killer and no physical evidence linked him to the killing. He pled guilty to second-degree murder after his lawyer told him he would get the death penalty if the case went to trial. Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted Gatling's sentence in 1974 and he was released from prison, but he continued to seek exoneration, in part, because his conviction prevented him from voting. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, whose Conviction Review Unit reinvestigated the case, said, "Paul Gatling repeatedly proclaimed his innocence even as he faced the death penalty back in the 60s. He was pressured to plead guilty and, sadly, did not receive a fair trial.... We're here because Mr. Gatling would not let go of his demand to be deemed innocent." 

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.

Pages