Innocence

After Almost 30 Years, DNA Shows State's Case "Has Collapsed"

On June 26, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin and ordered a new trial because new DNA evidence completely contradicted the state's evidence presented at trial. Hildwin was convicted of a 1985 murder and sexual assault. At trial, an FBI forensics expert wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found at the crime scene matched Hildwin and could not have come from the victim's boyfriend. However, more recent DNA testing excluded Hildwin and found that the fluids matched the boyfriend, who is incarcerated for the sexual assaults of two minors. In the decision overturning Hildwin's conviction, the Court said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a significant pillar of the state’s case, as presented to the jury, has collapsed and that this same evidence actually supports the defense." Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which was involved in Hildwin's appeal, said, “As Mr. Hildwin’s thirty year quest to free his name so dramatically illustrates, there is a real danger that the recently enacted ‘timely justice act’ could result in the execution of innocent people.” 

Florida Supreme Court Directs Acquittal of Death Row Inmate

On June 12, the Supreme Court of Florida (6-1) overturned the convictions and death sentence of Carl Dausch because the state presented insufficient evidence of his guilt at trial. The Court directed that he be acquitted of all offenses, stating, "[T]he record lacks sufficient evidence of the perpetrator's identity." Dausch was convicted primarily on fingerprints and DNA from a cigarette butt that were found in the victim's car. DNA evidence taken from the victim was less definitive. Dausch said he had hitchhiked while returning home from a family vacation, and the person who picked him up was likely the actual killer. Because the evidence against Dausch was circumstantial, the court applied a "special standard of review," which required "that the circumstances lead ‘to a reasonable and moral certainty that the accused and no one else committed the offense charged. It is not sufficient that the facts create a strong probability of, and be consistent with, guilt. They must be inconsistent with innocence." The Court said the evidence only linked Dausch to the victim's car, not to the murder itself.

Sabrina Butler, Death Row Exoneree, Tells Her Story

Sabrina Butler (pictured, r.), the only woman among the 144 people exonerated from death row since 1973, recently told her story in TIME Magainze. Butler was just 17 years old when she went to check on her infant son and found he had stopped breathing. She attempted to resuscitate him and rushed him to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The next day, a detective accused Butler of murdering her son. "I was alone with no lawyer or parent with me. I told him I tried to save my baby. He wrote down what I said and threw it in the garbage. He yelled at me for three hours. No matter what I said, he screamed over and over that I had killed my baby. I was terrified. I was put in jail and not allowed to attend Walter’s funeral." Butler describes how she was coerced into signing a false confession: "I was a teenager who, less than 24 hours before, had lost my precious baby boy. Ambitious men questioned, demoralized and intimidated me. In that state of mind, I signed the lies they wrote on a piece of paper. I signed my name in tiny letters in the margin to show some form of resistance to the power they had over me." She was convicted and sentenced to death, spending six years in prison before she was acquited in a retrial where she presented evidence that her son had died of a hereditary kidney condition. Butler explains that her wrongful conviction is part of a larger problem, citing a recent study that estimates a rate of erroneous convictions on death row of over 4%. Butler said, "As long as human beings are in charge, they will make mistakes. If we can’t get the death penalty right every time, we shouldn’t do it at all."

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BOOKS: "I Am Troy Davis"

I Am Troy Davis is a recent book by Jen Marlowe and Troy Davis' sister, Martina Davis-Correia, that tells the story of a possibly innocent man who was executed in Georgia in 2011. Troy Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer in Savannah. Years later evidence casting doubts about his guilt emerged, including recantations from several of the witnesses who had testified against him. Pope Benedict XVI, President Jimmy Carter, and 51 members of Congress petitioned for his clemency. Regarding the book, actress Susan Sarandon said, "I Am Troy Davis is a painful yet very important book, one that will bring you face to face with the human impact of the death penalty system, prompt you to think deeply about the flaws in our criminal justice system, and inspire you to stand with all those who have been wrongfully placed on death row." Kirkus Reviews called the book, "Poignant and humane... a powerful narrative that challenges the notion that 'the taking of one life can be answered by the taking of another.'"

Florida Passes Bill to Compensate Exonerated Death Row Inmate

As the last act of its legislative session, the Florida Senate passed a bill allowing the state to compensate James Richardson, who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and incarcerated for 21 years. In 1967, Richardson, who is black, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murder of his seven children. Many years later, a former babysitter confessed to the crime, prompting an investigation that revealed that witnesses had been beaten to convince them to falsely testify against Richardson. In 1989, Richardson's conviction was thrown out and he was released. Richardson, now a frail old man, had not been able to receive compensation for this injustice because the evidence from his case had been lost or destroyed. Now he will be able to apply for compensation based on the special prosecutor's investigation and the order to release him from prison. Sen. Geraldine Thompson, a sponsor of the bill, said "This will allow him to have an opportunity to revisit some dreams that were deferred early in his very young life." Robert Barrar, an attorney who has represented Richardson, said, “The Legislature did the right thing. To right an injustice for all those years that were taken away from him.”

Blue Ribbon Panel Recommends Extensive Changes to Death Penalty

On May 7, the Constitution Project released a new report, Irreversible Error, calling for reforms in many aspects of the death penalty system. The Project's Death Penalty Committee, which consists of renowned experts on capital punishment, made suggestions for reducing the risk of executing the innocent and improving the fairness of capital cases from arrest and interrogation, through prosecution and appeals, to the execution procedure itself. "Without substantial revisions -- not only to lethal injection, but across the board -- the administration of capital punishment in America is unjust, disproportionate and very likely unconstitutional," said committee member Mark Earley, a Republican and former Attorney General of Virginia. Among the 39 recommendations in the report were increased access and improved standards for forensic testing, videotaping of interrogations in homicide investigations, and exemptions for the severely mentally ill. In capital sentencing, the report recommended requiring a unanimous jury vote for death before a death sentence could be imposed. Virginia Sloan, President of the Constitution Project, said, "Some of the members of the Committee believe that the range of punishments may include death; others do not. But they all agree that no one should be denied basic constitutional protections, including a competent lawyer, a fair trial and full judicial review of any conviction and sentence. The denial of such protections heightens the danger of wrongful conviction and sentencing."

President Obama Orders Review of Death Penalty

President Obama has ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to review the application of the death penalty in the U.S. following the failed execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on April 29. The President noted concerns about innocence and racial bias: “In the application of the death penalty in this country, we have seen significant problems — racial bias, uneven application of the death penalty, you know, situations in which there were individuals on death row who later on were discovered to have been innocent because of exculpatory evidence. And all these, I think, do raise significant questions about how the death penalty is being applied.” The Department of Justice was already reviewing federal execution protocols. Brian Fallon, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said, “At the president’s direction, the department will expand this review to include a survey of state-level protocols and related policy issues.” The President called the events in Oklahoma, in which the inmate regained consciousness and apprarently suffered before dying of a heart attack, "deeply disturbing."

STUDIES: The Problem of Innocence Is Worse Than Was Thought

On April 28 a study published in the prestigous Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that far more innocent people have been sentenced to death than those found through the legal process. According to the study, many innocent defendants are probably not being identified because they were taken off death row and given a lesser sentence. The rate of exonerations for those sentenced to death would be over twice as high if all cases were given the heightened scrutiny often accorded to those who remain on death row. The authors of "The Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants Who are Sentenced to Death" concluded: "[A] conservative estimate of the proportion of erroneous convictions of defendants sentenced to death in the United States from 1973 through 2004 [is] 4.1%." The percentage of death row inmates who were actually exonerated during the time of the study was only 1.6%. Professor Samuel Gross (pictured) of the University of Michigan Law School, one of the authors of the study, pointed to the gravity of the problem: “Since 1973, nearly 8,500 defendants have been sentenced to death in the United States, and 138 of them have been exonerated. Our study means that more than 200 additional innocent defendants have been sentenced to death in that period. Most of these undiscovered innocent capital defendants have been resentenced to life in prison, and then forgotten.”

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