INNOCENCE: Award-Winning Play About Former Death Row Inmates Returns

This Fall the Culture Project is hosting a limited engagement of its award-winning production, The Exonerated. The play is a groundbreaking dramatization of the real-life stories of six death row inmates who were freed after being cleared of their capital charge. The production, which premiered a decade ago and traveled the country, is culled from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and court records. Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno described The Exonerated as follows: "What has been done tonight through this play is one of the most extraordinary events I have ever seen and it will do more to promote justice than any literary efforts I have seen. The play will feature a rotating cast of high-profile actors, including Stockard Channing, Brian Dennehy, Steve Earle, John Forté, K’naan, Delroy Lindo, Lyle Lovett, Chris Sarandon, and Brooke Shields. The presentation will also include a series of "Talk-Backs" with leading criminal justice experts, including Christina Swarns, NAACP Legal Defense Fund (October 16), Shari Silberstein, Executive Director of Equal Justice USA (October 24), and Stephen Bright, President, Southern Center for Human Rights (October 31). The Exonerated will run for seven weeks, beginning on September 15, at the Culture Project’s 45 Bleecker Street theater.

INNOCENCE: Wrongful Convictions Demonstrate Risk with California Death Penalty

Several cases in California illustrate the inherent risk with the death penalty that an innocent person could be executed.  Lee Farmer was freed from death row in 1999 after winning a new trial based on newly discovered evidence that an accomplice admitted to the crime for which he faced execution. Farmer was acquitted of murder at his retrial. Troy Lee Jones (pictured) was sentenced to death even though there were no eyewitnesses to the murder of which he was accused. Jones’s conviction and sentence were overturned in 1996 because he received inadequate representation. The state dropped all charges.  Patrick Croy and Jerry Bigelow had their death sentences overturned by the California Supreme Court.  Both were acquitted of the main charges against them at retrials.  Oscar Lee Morris's capital conviction was overturned because prosecutors withheld crucial evidence. The state eventually dropped all charges.  Charles Bonneau, a lawyer for an inmate who was released after 14 years on death row, said cases like these should lead to the conclusion that "it's just a bridge too far for human beings to try to make that judgment" between life and death.

EDITORIALS: Sacramento Bee Ends Support for Death Penalty

The Sacramento Bee announced in an editorial that it is reversing its historic 150-year support of the death penalty and endorsing the repeal of California's capital  punishment law. The editorial called the state's death penalty an "illusion," which is rarely carried out, despite the large number of death sentences. It cited the high cost of the death penalty as one of the reasons for supporting repeal, noting, "California has already spent billions of dollars – one recent study pegged the figure at $4 billion – administering the death penalty since 1978, with little to show for it....In a state prepared to further cut public education, universities and public safety, do we really want to invest in accelerated executions?" The Bee also spoke to the needs of victims' families, who, rather than getting closure from the death penalty, "are being tormented by the inflated expectations that California's judicial system has foisted on them." It concluded, "The state's death penalty is an outdated, flawed and expensive system of punishment that needs to be replaced with a rock-solid sentence of life imprisonment with no chance of parole." Read full editorial below.

INNOCENCE: Ohio Judge Dismisses All Charges and Frees Inmate from Death Row

On September 6, Michael Keenan (pictured) was released from prison after spending about 20 years on Ohio's death row. Keenan and co-defendant Joseph D'Ambrosio, who was exonerated in April, were convicted of the 1988 murder of Tony Klann. Keenan's first conviction was overturned in 1994, but he was retried and again sentenced to death. His second conviction was overturned earlier in 2012 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Prosecutors withheld evidence that could have exonerated Keenan and D'Ambrosio, including police statements that discredited testimony from the only eyewitness to the crime and evidence that the man who led police to Keenan had a possible motive for killing the victim. A Cuyahoga County judge dismissed all charges against Keenan and barred a re-trial, but the state may still appeal that decision. If today's decision is upheld, Keenan will likely be added to DPIC's Innocence List. Since 1973, 140 people have been exonerated and freed from death row.  Six of those exonerations have been from Ohio, including D'Ambrosio.

Prosecution of Reggie Clemons in Missouri to be Subject of Special Death Penalty Hearing

Reggie Clemons has been on Missouri's death row for 19 years for the murder of two young white women.  He has already come close to execution, and one of the co-defendants in the case has been executed. Clemons' conviction was based partly on his confession to rape that he says was beaten out of him by the police.  Other testimony against Clemons came from his co-defendants.  Of the four men charged with the murders, three were black and one was white.  The white co-defendant is already out on parole.  Because of doubts that have arisen about the validity of his conviction, a special hearing will be held on September 17 to determine whether crucial errors were made in prosecuting Clemons.  The special master presiding at the hearing will then present a recommendation to the Missouri Supreme Court. Clemons’ lawyers are expected to present new evidence that supports his assertion that he was physically beaten into making a confession, and that the coerced confession should not have been admitted at trial. Other issues likely to be raised include the prosecution’s failure to disclose a rape kit to defense lawyers, and that the manner in which the jury was selected was later ruled unconstitutional. (Ed Pilkington of The Guardian discusses his investigation into the case in the accompanying video.)

BOOKS: "Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity"

A new book by Professors Saundra Westervelt and Kimberly Cook looks at the lives of eighteen people who had been wrongfully sentenced to death and who were later freed from death row. In Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity, the authors focus on three central areas affecting those who had to begin a new life after leaving years of severe confinement: the seeming invisibility of these individuals after their release; the complicity of the justice system in allowing that invisibility; and the need for each of them to confront their personal trauma. C. Ronald Huff, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, noted, “The authors skillfully conduct a journey inside the minds of exonerees, allowing readers to see the world from their unique perspectives.” 

U.S. Court of Appeals Throws Out Virginian's Death Sentence and Conviction

On August 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling vacating Justin Wolfe’s (pictured) conviction and death sentence for a drug-conspiracy murder in Virginia in 2001.  His conviction was based primarily on the testimony of the actual shooter, Owen Barber, who claimed that Wolfe hired him to kill Daniel Petrole because of an outstanding drug debt. In 2010, Barber testified in open court that his testimony at Wolfe's trial was false, and that Wolfe had nothing to do with Petrole's death. Barber also admitted he agreed to implicate Wolfe in order to avoid the death penalty.  The 4th Circuit threw out all of Wolfe's convictions because the state had withheld crucial evidence showing that it was the police who introduced Barber to the idea of Wolfe's part in the conspiracy, and implying that Barber could avoid the death penalty if he so testified. (Referring to the Newsome report).  The court criticized the prosecution for intentionally withholding vital materials from the defense: "[W]e feel compelled to acknowledge that the Commonwealth’s suppression of the Newsome report, as well as other apparent Brady materials, was entirely intentional," the court wrote.

INNOCENCE: Shujaa Graham, Exonerated and Freed from California's Death Row, Tells His Story

In a video interview with Voice of America, former death row inmate Shujaa Graham discusses the emotional toll of being wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in California in 1976.  Graham was convicted of the murder of a prison guard during a protest and spent five years on death row before being acquitted of the crime.  He went through four trials, only one of which resulted in a guilty verdict.  He first went to prison for a robbery conviction, which was also overturned, at age 18.  Graham said, “What has happened to me is over with and done. No one can bring those years back, and no one can remove the psychological scars. No one can remove the physical scars. But Shujaa Graham can go on and make sure what happened to him never happens to anyone else.” Graham’s wife, Phyllis, adds that the experience of facing execution still weighs on him. She said, “It’s been a long time now that we’ve been together and he still suffers and I think there’s still really ways that he holds on to what that formative years of your 20s, is your life, of how you look at the world. His were in prison and death row and being tortured.” Graham concludes, “Each and every day that I wake up, death row is the first thing on my mind. I can look at my children and look at my wife and say what if California would’ve had their way, I wouldn’t be here today.”