Former Death Row Inmate Acquitted in One Court, Now Convicted in Another

Master Sgt. Timothy Hennis was convicted in 1986 of murdering three people in North Carolina.  He was tried in state court.  However, his conviction was overturned because of weak evidence and improper statements by the prosecution.  He was re-tried, and the jury voted unanimously for his acquittal in 1989.  The evidence from the crime scene was preserved and, when DNA testing became available, a re-evaluation of the evidence pointed to the possibility that Hennis was indeed guilty of the murders.  Although the constitutional protection against double jeopardy prevented his being re-tried in North Carolina's court, military courts have separate jurisdiction and can try cases under military laws, allowing a retrial even after an acquittal in state court.  Hennis, who had left the service, was recalled to active duty in the military and then recently tried for the third time for the triple murder--of a woman and two children.  A military jury convicted Hennis of murder on April 8.  The prosecution is seeking the death penalty, and a sentencing hearing will begin soon.  Hennis was previously included on DPIC's list of exonerated individuals.

(See J. Schwartz, "In 3rd Trial, Conviction in Murders From 1985," N.Y. Times, April 8, 2010).  See Innocence.  Timothy Hennis was previously listed on DPIC's list of death row inmates who had been exonerated of their offense.  With this conviction, Hennis's legal status has now returned to guilty.  Some questions and answers about DPIC's list are included below:


Q.1. If Hennis was acquitted at one trial and then convicted at a later trial, is he actually innocent or guilty?

A. Hennis is guilty under military law and faces punishment.  It is impossible to know exactly what happened at the time of the crime twenty-five years ago.  The legal system can make mistakes in determining guilt and in acquitting an individual.  But unless his most recent conviction is overturned, he is considered guilty of the murders he was originally charged with.

Q.2. What are the criteria for a case to be included on DPIC's list of exonerated individuals?

Defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either-a) their conviction was overturned AND

i) they were acquitted at re-trial, or
ii) all charges were dropped

b) or they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.


Q.3. So, was it a mistake to include Hennis on DPIC's list of exonerated individuals?

A. No.  DPIC's list is not the result of subjective judgments regarding the guilt or innocence of individuals.  Rather, DPIC depends on the objective determination of our criminal justice system to make that determination.  If a person has been found guilty and that conviction still stands, then that individual would not be included on DPIC's innocence list, regardless of strong evidence indicating he did not commit the crime.  Similarly, if an individual's conviction is overturned, and he or she is either acquitted at a retrial or the prosecution drops all charges, then that person would be included on the list, even though the prosecution continues to believe in their guilt.

Q.4. Could there be other individuals on DPIC's list who may be found guilty at a later time?

A. Yes, it is possible, though this is the first case in almost 20 years that such a subsequent conviction has happened.  Any form of research is subject to change as new evidence becomes available.  The implications from that research, however, are not necessarily changed.  The fact that the number of exonerations from death row has temporarily dropped from 139 to 138 does little to alter the conclusion that mistakes are made in death penalty cases and that innocent people could be executed by mistake.

It should also be noted that there are thousands of cases of people who were sentenced to death and who still could be exonerated based on subsequent evidence.  It seems far more likely there will be more exonerations in coming years than that there will be unusual re-convictions like that of Timothy Hennis.  Even this case underscores the reality that the criminal justice system is not infallible--either in determining guilt or in exonerating.  Hence the imposition of an irreversible punishment like the death penalty carries a heavy risk.