Innocence Cases: 2004 - Present
113. Alan Gell North Carolina Conviction: 1998, Acquitted: 2004
Alan Gell was arrested for a 1995 robbery and murder of a retired truck driver named Allen Ray Jenkins. The two key witnesses presented by prosecutors were Gell's ex-girlfriend and her best friend, who were both teenagers. Both girls, who were at Jenkins' house and pled guilty to involvement in the murder, testified that they saw Gell shoot Jenkins on April 3, 1995. However, prosecutors withheld valuable evidence that might have cleared Gell in the initial trial, including an audio tape of one of the girls saying she had to "make up a story" about the murder. (News and Observer, December 10, 2002) In 2002, a State Superior Court Judge found that the prosecutors withheld evidence "favorable" to Gell, and vacated Gell's conviction. (North Carolina v. Gell, No. 95 CRS 1884, Order (Superior Court of Bertie County, December 16, 2002) (Vacating conviction and granting new trial.) Gell was re-tried in February 2004. The defense team was able to present evidence that Gell was out of state or in jail at the time of Jenkins' murder, which was placed closer to April 14th. This refuted the April 3rd claim by the original prosecutors. Also challenging the state's timetable was a series of statements by as many as 17 witnesses who told investigators that they had seen Jenkins alive between April 7th and April 10th. The most important new evidence was the taped conversation mentioned above, in which the state's key witness referred to making up a story about the murder. Gell was originally convicted in 1998 and spent the next four years on death row until a new trial was ordered. On February 18, 2004, a jury found Gell not guilty on all counts, and he left the court with his family. (PHOTO: Alan Gell (Center), leaves the Courthouse in Bertie Countie, North Carolina, with his sister Frankie and mother Jeanette following his exoneration for the 1995 murder of Allen Ray Jenkins. Photo courtesy Scott Lewis, News & Observer.) (News and Observer, February 18, 2004)
Read "Time of Death: A Murder Mystery" by Joseph Neff in The News and Observer
Read "Gells Files Suit Over Prosecution" by Joseph Neff in The News and Observer
114. Gordon "Randy" Steidl Illinois Conviction: 1987, Charges Dismissed: 2004
Gordon "Randy" Steidl was freed from an Illinois prison May 28, 2004, 17 years after he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the 1986 murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads. An Illinois State Police analysis in 2000 found that local police had severely botched their investigation, resulting in the wrongful conviction of Steidl and his co-defendant Herbert Whitlock. Due to the poor representation Steidl received at trial, a new sentencing hearing was granted in 1999. An appeals court reduced his sentence to life without parole. In 2003, federal judge Michael McCuskey overturned Steidl's conviction completely and ordered a new trial, stating that if all the new evidence would have been presented at the original trial, it was "reasonably probable" that Steidl would have been acquitted by the jury (267 F. Supp. 2d 919 (C.D. Ill 2003)). The state reinvestigated the case, testing DNA evidence, but was not able to link Steidl to the crime.
The lack of concrete DNA evidence, coupled with the fact that the prosecution’s eyewitness to the murder recanted her statement, forced State Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Edgar County prosecutors to drop the charges against Steidl. (Chicago Tribune, May 27, 2004).
Read Judge Michael McCuskey's 2003 Retrial Order (PDF)
Read "The Snitch System" by Northwestern University School of Law Center on Wrongful Conviction
115. Laurence Adams Massachusetts Conviction: 1974, Charges Dismissed: 2004
Laurence Adams left a Massachusetts prison 30 years after his conviction for the 1972 robbery and murder of a transit worker in Boston. Superior Court Judge Robert Milligan overturned Adams’ conviction in 2004 because police had withheld important evidence. The District Attorney recommended that Adams be released on his own recognizance. (Boston Globe, May 20, 2004). Charges against Adams were formally dropped on June 7, 2004. (New York Times, June 8, 2004). Adams had been convicted at age 19 on the testimony of two witnesses, both of whom had unrelated charges against them dropped after their testimony. The government's key witness testified that
116. Dan L. Bright Louisiana Conviction: 1996, Charges Dismissed: 2004
In 1996, Dan L. Bright was convicted of first-degree murder in Louisiana and was sentenced to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana found the evidence insufficient to support his conviction of first-degree murder and rendered a judgment of guilty of second-degree murder. (State v. Bright, 776 So.2d 1134 (La. 2000)). The trial court imposed a sentence of life without parole at hard labor. On May 25, 2004, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed Bright's conviction, vacated the sentence, and remanded for a new trial holding that the state suppressed material evidence regarding the criminal history of the prosecution's key witness, Freddie Thompson. The court noted that there was no physical evidence against Bright, and that Thompson's testimony was the only evidence that served to convict him. Thompson was very drunk on the day of the crime. Moreover, the prosecution failed to disclose that he was a convicted felon and in violation of his parole. The court held that the specific facts of Thompson's criminal record and the fact that he was still on parole when he testified against Bright raised questions about the veracity of his trial testimony: "This conviction, based on the facts of this case which include a failure to disclose what the State now admits is significant impeachment evidence, is not worthy of confidence and thus must be reversed." Because material evidence had been withheld by the state, Bright's conviction was overthrown. (See State of Louisiana v. Bright, No. 02-KP-2793, May 25, 2004). The prosecution subsequently dismissed all charges and Bright was freed. (See Associated Press, April 15, 2004; also conversation with Ben Cohen, attorney for Dan Bright, July 21, 2004).
Read "Name Dropping" by Katy Reckdahl in The Gambit Weekly
117. Ryan Matthews Louisiana Conviction: 1999, Charges Dismissed: 2004
On Monday, August 9, 2004, Jefferson Parish prosecutors dropped all charges against 24-year-old Ryan Matthews, making him the nation's latest death row inmate to be exonerated in the last 25 years, and the 14th death row inmate freed with the help of DNA testing. Shortly after his 17th birthday, Matthews was arrested for the murder of a local convenience store owner. Three individuals interviewed by police were unable to definitively identify Matthews, and witnesses described the murderer as short - no taller than 5'8". Matthews is at least 6 feet tall. Matthews' court appointed trial attorney was unprepared, and unable to handle the DNA evidence. On the third day of the trial, the judge ordered closing arguments, and sent the jury to deliberate. When they could not agree on a verdict after several hours, the judge ordered the jury to resume deliberations until a verdict was reached. Less than an hour later, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Matthews was sentenced to death two days later.
In March 2003, Matthews' attorneys had the physical evidence (including a ski mask) re-tested. The DNA results excluded Matthews, and this time they pointed directly to another individual - one serving time for a murder that happened a few months after the convenience store murder and only blocks away. In April of 2004, based on the new DNA testing and findings that the prosecution suppressed evidence, District Attorney Paul Connick agreed that Matthews was entitled to a new trial (Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2004). Released into his mother's care after she posted bond, Matthews was officially exonerated on August 9, 2004 when Connick dropped all of the charges against him. Prosecutors conceded that charges should never have been brought and stated that Matthews’ exoneration was “in the interest of justice.” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, August 9-11, 2004; Associated Press, August 11, 2004)
118. Ernest Ray Willis Texas Conviction: 1987, Charges Dismissed: 2004
Ernest Ray Willis was sentenced to death for the 1986 deaths of two women who died in a house fire that was ruled an arson. Seventeen years later, Pecos County District Attorney Ori T. White revisited the case after a federal judge overturned Willis' conviction. (Willis v. Cockrell, 2004 WL 1812698 (W.D.Tex.)) White hired an arson specialist to review the original evidence, and the specialist concluded that there was no evidence of arson. Willis, who was staying briefly at the house where the fire occurred, escaped from the house. Investigators believed they found an "accellerant" in the carpet. Officers at the scene of the blaze said that Willis had acted strangely, and prosecutors had Willis arrested. Despite limited evidence, Willis was indicted for murder and arson. Prosecutors used Willis' dazed mental state at trial - the result of state-administered medication - to characterize Willis as "coldhearted" and as a "satanic demon." Willis' court-appointed lawyers, one of whom later surrendered his law license following drug charges, offered little defense. The attorneys spent a total of three hours with Willis, and as a result, Willis was found guilty and sentenced to death.The state's new arson specialist revealed, however, that the "accellerant" initially suspected of causing the fire was in fact "flashover burning," consistent with electrical fault fires. U. S. District Judge Royal Ferguson held that the state had administered medically inappropriate antipsychotic drugs without Willis' consent; that the state supressed evidence favorable to Willis; and that Willis received ineffective representation at both the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial. He ordered the state to either free Willis or retry him. The state attorney general's office declined to appeal, and prosecutors dropped all charges against Willis. White, whose predecessors prosecuted Willis, said that Willis "simply did not do the crime. ... I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years." (Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2004). Willis, who had no prior record, was released on October 6, 2004 with $100, ten days of medication, and the clothes on his back. (Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, and Dallas Morning News, October 7, 2004).
Read "Death Isn't Fair" by Micheal Hall in Texas Monthly
Read "After 17 Years..." by Maureen Balleza in The New York Times
119. Derrick Jamison Ohio Conviction: 1985, Charges Dismissed: 2005
On February 28, 2005, Ohio Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus dismissed all charges against Derrick Jamison for the murder of a Cincinnati bartender after prosecutors elected not to retry him in the case. (Associated Press, March 3, 2005). On death row for 17 years, Jamison was a granted a new trial in 2002 when a court ruled that the prosecution had withheld critical eyewitness statements and other evidence from the defense. Jamison was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1985 based in part on the testimony of Charles Howell, a co-defendant who received a lesser sentence in exchange for his testimony against Jamison. The prosecution withheld statements that contradicted Howell’s testimony and that would have undermined the prosecution’s theory of how the victim died, and would have pointed to other possible suspects for the murder. A federal judge ordered a new trial for Jamison in 2000, holding that Hamilton County Prosecutors withheld key evidence. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision in 2002 (Jamison v. Collins, 291 F.3d 380 (6th Cir. 2002)).
One of the withheld statements involved James Suggs, an eyewitness to the robbery. Suggs testified at trial that he had been unable to make a positive identification when the police showed him a photo array of suspects. In fact, police records show that Suggs identified two suspects, neither of which was Derrick Jamison. Additional withheld evidence consisted of a series of discrepancies between Jamison’s physical characteristics and the descriptions of the perpetrators given to police investigators by eyewitnesses. The co-defendant, Howell recently testified that he could not remember anything about the crime, and state prosecutors decided not to proceed against Jamison. He remains incarcerated on other unrelated charges.
(See also, K. Perry, "'85 Murder Conviction Dismissed," Cincinnati Post, Mar. 1, 2005).
120. Harold Wilson Pennslyvania Conviction: 1989, Acquitted: 2005
More than 16 years after a Pennsylvania jury returned three death sentences against Harold Wilson, new DNA evidence has lead to his acquittal. Wilson was arrested the day after the April 10, 1988, slayings of Dorothy Sewell, 64; her nephew, Tryone Mason, 33; and Mason’s girlfriend, Cynthia Goines Mills, 40. The three were murdered with a carpenter’s ax inside Sewell’s home. At his 1989 trial, police testified that they found a jacket spattered with the victims’ blood in the basement of Wilson’s home. Wilson was convicted and sentenced to death. Wilson’s trial was conducted by Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Jack McMahon, a man best known for his role in a training video that advised new Philadelphia prosecutors on how to use race in selecting death penalty juries.
In 1999, Wilson’s death sentence was overturned on state post-conviction review when a trial-level court determined that his defense counsel had failed to investigate and present mitigating evidence during his original trial. (Commonwealth v. Harold C. Wilson, Philadelphia Cnty. Com. PL.Nos. 3267-73, Aug.19, 1999). A subsequent appeal led the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to demand a new hearing in light of evidence that McMahon used racially discriminatory practices in jury selection. In 2003, a trial court found that McMahon had improperly exercised his peremptory strikes to eliminate potential black jurors and granted Wilson a new trial, a decision that the District Attorney’s office did not appeal. The court stated that in the new trial the death penalty could not be sought. The new jury, which did not have to be "death-qualified" and which was chosen without the prior race bias, acquitted Wilson of all charges on November 15, 2005. The defense relied heavily on new DNA evidence, which revealed that blood from the crime scene did not come from Wilson or any of the victims, thereby suggesting the involvement of another assailant. This type of DNA testing was simply not available at the time of the original trial.
(Associated Press, Nov. 18, 2005).
121. John Ballard Florida Conviction: 2003, Acquitted: 2006
The Florida Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction of death row inmate John Robert Ballard and ordered his acquittal in the 1999 murders of two of his acquaintances (Ballard v Florida, No. SC03-1012, February 23, 2006). The Court concluded that the circumstantial evidence against Ballard was insufficient to sustain his conviction. The state’s primary evidence presented against Ballard was a hair and a fingerprint, both of which he could have left during his many visits to the victims' apartment. Bloody fingerprints and 100 other hair samples were found associated with the crime scene, none of them belonging to Ballard, who has always maintained his innocence. The Supreme Court’s acquittal in this case was rare. In fact, since 1976 the Florida Supreme Court has acquitted only three people of all charges.
Jennifer Jones, one of the victims in the case, was a known drug dealer, and had been the target of gang violence in the past. However, the State Attorney never presented evidence ruling out gang violence, nor did the prosecutors address the suspected motive of robbery. The State Attorney General's office said that it would not seek a rehearing in the case. At Ballard's trial, only 9 of the 12 jurors recommended a death sentence. Yet the judge decided to sentence Ballard to death, commenting: "You have not only forfeited your right to live among us, but under the laws of the state of Florida, you have forfeited your right to live at all." The Florida Supreme Court, in overturning this decision, held that the circumstantial evidence used in the case was insufficient to support an inference of guilt “to the exclusion of all other inferences.” (Ballard v Florida, No. SC03-1012, February 23, 2006).
(Associated Press, Feb. 23, 2006; Miami Herald, Feb. 24, 2006; Ballard v. Florida, No. SC03-1012, Feb. 23, 2006).
122. Curtis Edward McCarty Oklahoma Conviction: 1986, Charges Dismissed: 2007
Curtis McCarty was released in May 2007 after District Court Judge Twyla Mason Gray ordered that the charges against him be dismissed. McCarty had spent the last 22 years behind bars for the murder of a police officer’s daughter in 1982; he spent 16 of those years on Oklahoma’s death row. Judge Gray ruled that the case against McCarty was tainted by the questionable testimony of former police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, who gave improper expert testimony about semen and hair evidence during McCarty's trial.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said his office will not appeal Gray's decision. According to the New York-based Innocence Project, an organization that assisted McCarty in his efforts to prove his innocence, Gilchrist falsely testified that hairs and other biological evidence showed that McCarty could have been the killer. In both trials, the juries convicted him and he was sentenced to death. In Gilchrist’s original notes, hairs from the crime scene did not match McCarty. She then changed her notes to say the hairs did match him. When the defense requested retesting, the hairs were lost. A judge has said Gilchrist either destroyed or willfully lost the hairs. DNA testing in recent years has also shown that another person raped the victim. McCarty's has maintained his innocence since his arrest.
Upon returning to his parent’s home in Moore, Oklahoma, McCarthy noted that his homecoming was like “landing on a new planet” and that he had “missed the entirety” of his adult life.
(The Oklahoman, May 11, 2007)
(The Oklahoman, May 11, 2007 and The Innocence Project)
123. Michael L. McCormick Tennessee Conviction: 1987, Acquitted: 2007
On December 5, 2007, a Tennessee jury acquitted Michael Lee McCormick of the 1985 murder of Donna Jean Nichols, a crime for which McCormick spent 16 years on death row. In his first trial, the prosecution introduced hair evidence from Nichols’ car that the FBI said matched McCormick. DNA testing later found that the hair did not match McCormick and this evidence was not permitted in the new trial. His original conviction was overturned in McCormick v. Tennessee (Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, CCA no 03C01-9802-Cr-00052), when the court found that his original defense counsel was inadequate.
Two years after his conviction, evidence surfaced that an undercover officer had secretly recorded Mr. McCormick’s confession during a fake car theft. In his closing statement, Mr. McCormick’s attorney emphasized the prosecution’s reliance on a recorded confession by a man who “they knew to be an alcoholic and a notorious liar.” A juror, Anita Jinette admitted after the trial that McCormick’s reputation as a liar was important due to the fact that “we basically had nothing except his confession.”
McCormick’s attorney, Karla Gothard said after the trial, "We have been living with this case for years, and we are immensely relieved. I can't imagine what Michael McCormick is feeling." Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood commented, "The way this case has lingered on, there has not been closure for Michael McCormick for 20 years. This system is not perfect, but somehow it works itself out."
(“Jury Finds McCormick Not Guilty Of Killing Jeannie Nichols: Man Who Spent Years On Death Row To Go Free,” The Chattanoogan, December 5, 2007).
124. Jonathon Hoffman North Carolina Conviction: 1995, Charges Dismissed: 2007
Prosecutors in North Carolina on December 11, 2007 dropped all charges against Jonathon Hoffman, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 murder of a jewelry storeowner. Hoffman won a new trial in 2004 (Order of the General Court of Justice Superior Court Division: 95-CRS-15695-97) because information favorable to Hoffman was withheld from the defense. During Hoffman’s first trial, the state's key witness, Johnell Porter, received immunity from federal charges for testifying against his cousin. In fact, Porter received thousands of dollars for his testimony. Neither the defense attorney nor the judge knew of this deal—an omission that resulted in the criminal investigation of Ken Honeycutt and Scott Brewer, the prosecutors in the original trial.
Porter has since recanted his testimony, stating that he lied in order to get back at his cousin for stealing money from him. Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire stated, "I think in the last five to six years, there's a fairly well-demonstrated pattern of wrongful convictions in North Carolina that are only now coming to light because of our new open discovery law."
Hoffman, a black man charged with killing a white man, was tried and convicted by an all-white jury despite the fact that no physical evidence connected him to the murder of Danny Cook. He has been waiting for his new trial since in 2004, when allegations of prosecutorial misconduct first arose. Charges were finally dismissed in 2007 when the new District Attorney, John Snyder dropped the case due to “insufficient admissible evidence.” Jonathon Hoffman spent 12 years on death row.
(“Prosecutor Drops Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate,” by Martha Waggoner, Associated Press, December 11, 2007).
125. Kennedy Brewer Mississippi Conviction: 1995, Charges Dismissed: 2008 (released on bail in 2007)
Kennedy Brewer, who spent 12 years on Mississippi’s death row for the 1992 murder and rape of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter, has been exonerated of the charges, and another man, Justin Johnson, has been arrested for the same crime. A 2001 investigation by the Innocence Project found that the semen on the victim’s body did not match Brewer’s DNA, but did match Johnson’s. Johnson was a suspect early in the case, and his blood was collected and preserved in the Mississippi State Crime Laboratory for more than 10 years. In 2007, Brewer was released on bond, pending a new trial after the Innocence Project and his attorney pushed for an appeal based upon the DNA test results. Despite the results of the 2001 DNA testing, the Mississippi Supreme Court denied Brewer’s request for a new trial in 2002. Brewer eventually won a retrial from a Lowndes County judge. According to the New York Times, District Attorney Ben Creekmore of Oxford, Mississippi, who took over the case when the previous D.A. recused himself, "is preparing to file a motion dismissing all charges against Mr. Brewer." Brewer’s attorney, Carrie Jourdan, said that Brewer is trying to get back into a normal life. She said, “He's gainfully employed. He's working and he's living with his elderly, disabled mother, who he assists in taking care of. He has had no problems from a criminal legal standpoint" since he was released.
(“Man charged in child slaying for which another sentenced to death,” by Holbrook Mohr, Associated Press, February 7, 2008, "New Suspect Is Arrested in Mississippi Killings," New York Times, February 8, 2008, Innocence Project's Press Release, February 15, 2008)
126. Glen Edward Chapman North Carolina Conviction: 1994, Charges Dismissed: 2008
Glen Edward Chapman, a North Carolina man who was sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of Betty Jean Ramseur and Tenene Yvette Conley, was released from death row on April 2, 2008 after prosecutors dropped all charges against him. In 2007, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Robert C. Ervin granted Chapman a new trial, citing withheld evidence, “lost, misplaced or destroyed” documents, the use of weak, circumstantial evidence, false testimony by the lead investigator, and ineffective assistance of defense counsel. There was also new information from a forensic pathologist that raised doubts as to whether Conley’s death was a homicide or caused by an overdose of drugs.
Chapman’s lawyers, Frank Goldsmith and Jessica Leaven, were pleased with their client’s release. “Edward has always maintained, and we have always believed in, his innocence,” said Goldsmith. “Justice has not been served for the families of Ms. Ramseur and Ms. Conley, and we hope their deaths will be reinvestigated.” The state has also called for a re-opening of the investigation.
Judge Ervin found fault with Chapman’s defense attorneys at the original trial in 1994, one of whom has been disciplined by the North Carolina State Bar. The other defense attorney, Thomas Portwood, admitted drinking 12 shots of alcohol per day during a different death penalty trial. The defendant in that case, Ronald Frye, was executed in 2001.
(“Death Row Inmate Freed After 15 Years,” WRAL.com, April 2, 2008; also Press Release from attorneys Goldsmith and Leaven, April 2, 2008).
127. Levon "Bo" Jones North Carolina Conviction: 1993, Charges Dismissed: 2008
The state of North Carolina dropped all charges against Levon Jones, and he was freed May 2, 2008 after spending 13 years on death row. U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle overturned Jones's conviction two years ago, but he was held in prison awaiting a possible retrial until prosecutors announced that they were dismissing all charges. Judge Boyle criticized Jones's defense attorneys for "constitutionally deficient" performance, noting their failure to research the history and credibility of Lovely Lorden, the prosecution's star witness. The judge noted, "Given the weakness of the prosecution's case and its heavy reliance on the testimony of Lovely Lorden, there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different."
In April, Jones's new defense team filed an affidavit in which Lorden said, "Much of what I testified to was simply not true." She also stated that a detective coached her on what to say. Additionally, she collected $4,000 from the governor's office for offering the clues that led to the arrest of Jones.
Jones's retrial was set to begin May 12th, 2008. Duplin County District Attorney Dewey Hudson decided to ask the judge in the case to drop all charges. Jones was originally convicted of robbing and shooting a bootlegger named Leamon Grady.
(Mandy Locke, "Death Row Inmate to go Free." The News and Observer, May 2, 2008; see also J. Temple, "The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates," Univ. Press of Mississippi 2009).
Michael Blair was sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of 7-year old Ashley Estell. In May 2008, following a re-investigation of the case by the Collin County prosecutor's office, District Attorney John Roach announced that in light of the results of advanced DNA testing and the absence of any other evidence linking him to the crime, Mr. Blair's conviction could no longer be upheld.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the decision of the Collin County trial court that:
"The post conviction DNA results and the evidence discovered in the State's new investigation have substantially eroded the State's trial case against [applicant]. This new evidence in light of the remaining inculpatory evidence in the record, has established by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have convicted [applicant] in light of newly discovered evidence."
Although the court recommended that a new trial be granted, the prosecution, in light of the evidence, chose not to pursue a retrial. In a dismissal motion filed in August 2008, prosecutors determined that "this case should be dismissed in the interest of justice so that the offense charged in the indictment can be further investigated." All charges against Mr. Blair in this case were dismissed in August 2008. He remains in prison serving out life sentences for other crimes.
"Court Dismisses Ashley's Killer, cites DNA Test," Associated Press, The Houston Chronicle, September 17, 2008; Ex Parte Michael Nawee Blair, Nos. AP-75,954 & AP-75,955, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, June 25, 2008 at 3.
Nathson Fields, 55, and a co-defendant were sentenced to death for the 1984 murders of two rival gang members. The original trial, however, was marred by corruption, as the the judge in the case, Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney, accepted a $10,000 bribe during the trial. Thomas Maloney, who died in 2008, was ultimately convicted and spent 13 years in prison for fixing murder trials.
As a result, Fields and co-defendant Earl Hawkins were granted new trials in 1998. Hawkins, who had admitted to killing 15 to 20 people, testified against Fields in exchange for a lesser sentence. However, at Fields' retrial, Judge Vincent Gaughan found Hawkins "incredible," saying that "If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?"
Fields spent almost twenty years in prison, including 11.5 years on death row. He was released on bond in 2003 while awaiting retrial and has been residing outside of Chicago. This is the 19th exoneration from death row in Illinois since 1973, which is second only to Florida in the number of exonerations. Following the not guilty verdict handed down by Judge Gaughan, Fields said, "I feel like my prayers have been answered...It's been 24 years of this ordeal for my family and my friends, and now with it coming to an end, it's like a dream come true."
(M. Walberg, “23 years after judicial misconduct, ex-gang leader freed," Chicago Tribune, April 9, 2009). (R. Hussain, Man formerly on death row acquitted in retrial,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 8, 2009). See also People v. Hawkins, et al., 181 Ill.2d 41 (January 29, 1998) (upholding a circuit court's reversal of Fields' and Hawkins' convictions).
130. Paul House Tennessee Conviction: 1986, Charges Dismissed: 2009
The state of Tennessee dropped all charges against House, who was charged with the 1985 murder of Carolyn Muncey. The state alleged kidnapping or rape as aggravating factors, and House was sentenced to death. Biological evidence from the victim's clothes used against him at trial was later found through DNA testing to belong to Muncey's husband. In House v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court considered new DNA testing and questions about the victim's blood stains on House's clothes. In 2006, the Court held that no reasonable juror would have found House guilty based on this new evidence, thus entitling him to raise constitutional issues that then led to a reversal of his conviction. The case was remanded to the District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, where Judge Harry Mattice vacated House's conviction and sentence, but allowed Tennessee to pursue a new trial against him. In 2008, a Tennessee judge ordered House released from prison, pending a new trial. The state dismissed all charges on May 12, 2009 while expressing reservations about House's complete innocence.
(See House v. Bell, No. 04-8990 U.S. (June 12, 2006); House v. Bell, E.D. Tenn. (December 20, 2007); see also J. Satterfield, "Prosecutor drops murder charges against ex-death row inmate House," Knoxville News Sentinel, May 12, 2009).
131. Daniel Wade Moore Alabama Conviction: 2002, Acquitted: 2009
Daniel Wade Moore was acquitted of all charges by a jury in Alabama on May 14. Moore was originally found guilty of the murder and sexual assault of Karen Tipton in 2002. The judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead sentenced him to death in January 2003, calling the murder one of the worst ever in the county. A new trial was ordered in 2003 because of evidence withheld by the prosecution. (See State V. Moore, No. CR-04--0805, Ala. Ct. of Crim. App. (2206) (providing procedural summary at pp.2-3; the circuit judge's order for a new trial was upheld by the Ala. Supreme Court, State v. Moore, No. Ms. 1030218, Nov. 6, 2003)). A second trial in 2008 ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked at 8-4 for acquittal.
Judge Glenn Thompson, who originally sentenced Moore to death, ordered a retrial upon discovery that the prosecution had withheld important evidence. "Orders were entered in any capital case, that whatever the state has, whatever the prosecutor has, whatever the investigation has they should provide that to the defendant," said Judge Thompson. The evidence missing was a 256-page F.B.I. report. "The prosecution, Mr. Valeska specifically, looked me in the eye and said, quote, 'there ain't no such thing as an F.B.I. report.' Well, there probably wasn't a report, but there were 256 pages of information collected by Decatur police officers that were sent to the F.B.I.," said Judge Thompson. According to Judge Thompson, Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska later came to him confessing there was withheld information. "Mr. Valeska came forward with the information after the conviction," said Judge Thompson. “Clearly, the only remedy was to grant him a new trial and I did," he said. "It frustrated and angered me that he would be willing to lie to the court," he continued. Meanwhile, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Judge Thompson to stand down from the trial and continued to let Valeska prosecute Moore.
Upon hearing the jury’s not guilty verdict, Judge Thompson responded, "I felt like it was the only conclusion that a jury could reach if they actually followed the law." Thompson also said that the problems with the prosecution withholding evidence continued throughout the 10 years of the case. Just days before the current trial started, the prosecution called the defense saying they had just found new evidence from the victim's home computer.
(See A. Stuart, “Judge in Moore’s first trial discusses case,” WHNT (Alabama), May 18, 2009).
On July 7, 2009 Ronald Kitchen was exonerated and released from Illinois prison after spending twenty-one years in prison, including thirteen on death row. His death sentence had been commuted to life without parole by former Illinois Governor George Ryan in 2003 as part of a blanket clemency grant.
Kitchen and a co-defendant were found guilty of the murders of two women and three children in 1988. His conviction was based primarily on a confession he gave to detectives under the command of discredited former Police Commander Jon Burge after hours of beating and threats by police. Prosecutors also relied on the testimony of a friend of the defendants who was in prison for burglary. This witness later recanted his testimony, and the prosecutors withheld from the defense that they released this witness from prison early in return for his testimony.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that "Illinois Assistant Attorney General Richard Schwind told Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel that after an exhaustive review of both cases, the office determined it could not 'sustain its burden of proof.'" The Attoney General’s office further said, "In this case it became extraordinarily clear that justice required the release of these two men.''
Kitchen was reunited with his sons, one of whom was born while he was in prison, and his family. He was represented by attorneys from the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University School of Law.
(See R. Hussain, "Charges dropped in 20 year-old murder case," Chicago Sun-Times, July 7, 2009; M. Walberg and C. Sadovi, "2 inmates convicted in '88 slayings to go free," Chicago BreakingNews Center, July 7, 2009; and M. Walberg, "Burge-linked cases: 2 men freed for five 1988 murders as prosecutors find insufficient evidence for retrial," Chicago Tribune, July 8, 2009).
133. Herman Lindsey Florida Conviction: 2006, Acquitted: 2009
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Florida rendered a judgment of acquittal for Herman Lindsey who was convicted in 2006 of the murder of the clerk at the Big Dollar Pawn Shop, a murder that happened 12 years earlier. Since his conviction, Lindsey has been on Florida’s death row.
The Court held that the evidence in the case was not sufficient to convict Lindsey. They noted that the case was based completely on circumstantial evidence and that a special standard of review applies. "[T]he State failed to produce any evidence in this case placing Lindsey at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. . . .Indeed, we find that the evidence here is equally consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence." Lindsey v. State, No. SC 07-1167 (Fla. 2009). The Court also found that the trial court had erred in denying Lindsey’s motion for a judgment of acquittal at the conclusion of the presentation of evidence.
Three of the justices concurred with the Court, but went further and stated that the State’s line of questioning of the defendant during the penalty phase improperly exceeded the permitted scope of cross-examination. "The prosecution‘s comments were not only improper, but were also prejudicial and made with the apparent goal of inflaming the jury." These Justices found that the inflamatory statements made during cross-examination would have affected the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty.
Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the Broward County State Attorney's Office, said the prosecution will not appeal the unanimous decision.
(See P. McMahon, "Broward death row inmate ordered set free," Sun-Sentinel (FL), July 10, 2009; M. Caputo, "Florida Supreme Court frees Derath Row Inmate in 1994 Broward murder," Miami Herald , July 8, 2009).
134. Michael Toney, Texas Conviction: 1999, Charges Dismissed: 2009
Toney was released from jail on September 2, 2009 after the state dropped all charges against him for a 1985 bombing that killed three people. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Toney’s conviction on December 17, 2008 because the prosecution had suppressed evidence relating to the credibility of its only two witnesses. (Ex parte Toney, AP-76,056 (Tex. Crim. App. December 17, 2008)).
The Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office subsequently withdrew from the case based on the misconduct findings. In September 2009, the Attorney General's Office, which had been specially appointed to the case in the wake of Tarrant County’s withdrawal, dismissed the indictment against Toney. He had consistently maintained his innocence. The case had gone unsolved for 14 years until a jail inmate told authorities that Toney had confessed to the crime. The inmate later recanted his story, saying he had hoped to win early release. The state said it is continuing its investigation into the murders. Toney was killed in an automobile accident one month after his release. The state said it is continuing its investigation into the murders.
(A. Branch, "Man convicted in bombing dies in wreck 1 month after his release," Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Oct. 4, 2009 (including picture); also email from J. Tyler, Texas Defender Service, Oct. 4, 2009)
Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater dropped charges against Yancy Douglas (left),35, and Paris Powell (right), 36, after deciding the state's key witness was unreliable. "Ethically, and on my duty, I could not proceed in this case and had to dismiss it," Prater said. Derrick Smith, a rival gang member to the defendants and the state's main witness, was one of the apparent targets in the shooting. A federal appeals court in 2006 found that Smith had received a deal from the prosecutors that was not revealed to the defense and overturned the conviction of Powell but denied relief to Douglas. Smith testified against Powell and Douglas in their separate trials, but later admitted he never saw who shot him, that he was drunk and high that night, and that he testified only because prosecutors had threatened him with more prison time.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit reviewed the District Court's findings in 2009. With respect to Mr. Powell, the Circuit Court affirmed the lower court, stating, "we agree with the district court that Mr. Powell’s trial did not yield a verdict worthy of confidence." (Slip opin. at 39, citation below). With respect to Mr. Douglas, the Circuit Court held, "Assessing the prosecutor’s egregious conduct in light of the trial record leaves us with grave doubt about the validity of the jury’s verdict and persuades us that Mr. Douglas is entitled to habeas relief from his capital murder conviction." (Slip opin. at 83).
At the time of their release, the District Attorney added, “We all came to the opinion that without Derrick Smith, we did not have a case we could prove beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jack Fisher, Powell’s attorney, said his client has always maintained his innocence and that Powell’s release is “bittersweet. It should have happened a long time ago. It’s unfortunate that he had to spend 16 years of his life in jail. What it boils down to is they had no evidence he was guilty. The testimony that they used to convict him was false.”
(S. Murphy, "Two ex-death row inmates released from Oklahoma prison," Associated Press, October 5, 2009; R. Surette, "Why 2 Death Row Inmates Were Set Free," News9.com, Oct. 6, 2009). See YANCY LYNDELL DOUGLAS v. RANDALL G. WORKMAN, Warden, and PARIS LAPRIEST POWELL v. WORKMAN, Nos. 01-6094 & 06-6091, and Nos. 06-6093 & 06-6102 (10th Cir. Mar. 26, 2009) (per curiam).
On October 28, 2009, Travis County, Texas, prosecutors moved to dismiss all charges against Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen, who had been convicted of the murder of four teens in an Austin yogurt shop in 1991. (Springsteen was convicted in 2001; Scott in 2002.) Springsteen had been sentenced to death and Scott was sentenced to life in prison. The convictions of both men were overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because they had not been adequately allowed to cross examine each other. (See Springsteen v. Texas, No. AP-74,223 (May 24, 2006)). State District Judge Mike Lynch had released the defendants on bond in June, pending a possible retrial by the state. However, sophisticated DNA analysis of evidence from the crime scene did not match either defendant and the prosecution announced it was not prepared to go to trial. The judge accepted the state's motion to dismiss all charges. Prosecutors are still trying to match the DNA from crime with a new defendant.
"This has been a long time coming," said Scott, once charges were dropped, "and I'm happy to be here." Both Scott and Springsteen implicated themselves at the time of their arrest, 8 years after the crime. However, both claimed that their statements had been coerced by police. The police investigation had been compromised from the start because the building had been set on fire, and thousands of gallons of water were poured on the crime scene before an investigation was carried out. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg issued a statement that said in part: "Make no mistake, this is a difficult decision and one I would rather not have to make."
(S. Kreytak, "Charges dismissed in yogurt shop case," Austin American-Statesman, October 28, 2009; see also J. Vertuno, "Murder counts tossed in Texas yogurt shop slayings," Associated Press, Oct. 29, 2009).
Anthony Graves (pictured) was released from a Texas prison on October 27 after Washington-Burleson County District Attorney Bill Parham filed a motion to dismiss all charges that had resulted in Graves being sent to death row 16 years ago. Graves was convicted in 1994 of assisting Robert Carter in multiple murders in 1992. There was no physical evidence linking Graves to the crime, and his conviction relied primarily on Carter’s testimony that Graves was his accomplice. Two weeks before Carter was scheduled to be executed in 2000, he provided a statement saying he lied about Graves’s involvement in the crime. He repeated that statement minutes before his execution. In 2006, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned Graves’s conviction and ordered a new trial after finding that prosecutors elicited false statements and withheld testimony that could have influenced the jurors. (Graves v. Dretke, No. 05-70011, U.S. 5th Cir. Mar. 6, 2006). After D.A. Parham began to reassemble the case and review the evidence, he hired former Harris County assistant district attorney Kelly Siegler as a special prosecutor. Siegler soon realized that making a case against Graves would be impossible: "After months of investigation and talking to every witness who's ever been involved in this case, and people who've never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder. This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn't make the case anymore. He is an innocent man," Siegler said.
(B. Rogers, "Prisoner ordered free from Texas' death row," Houston Chronicle, October 28, 2010).
Vann was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for a sexual assault and murder of his own daughter, Necia Vann, in 1992. However, in 2008 following state post-conviction review, Circuit Court Senior Judge Donald P. Harris held that Vann was entitled to a new trial because his defense attorneys failed to hire forensic experts to challenge the state’s allegations of sexual abuse. (Vann v. State, Order, Post-conviction No. 99-312, 10th Judicial Dist., McMinn Cty., May 28, 2008). Judge Harris wrote that this failure led to Vann being convicted on “inaccurate, exaggerated and speculative medical testimony." (Id. Memorandum, at 23). At the post-conviction hearing, forensic experts contradicted the state’s earlier testimony and said there were no signs of recent sexual abuse on the victim. Judge Harris described the failings of Vann’s original attorneys as “not only prejudicial, but disastrous.” (Id.) The state elected not to appeal this ruling, though it did try to find grounds for a conviction on a lesser offense. Ultimately all charges were dropped by the state on September 22, 2011.
Evidence was presented that Vann suffered from intellectual disabilities. He left school in the third grade and scored 69 on an IQ test in the second grade. The victim’s mother, Bernice Vann, also had intellectual disabilities. At post-conviction, the defense presented evidence that the victim’s death may have been accidental or caused by her mother. (Memorandum from defense attorneys to state attorneys regarding appeal of Judge Harris’s Order, June 24, 2008).
(Vann v. State, No. 99-312, 10th Judicial District, May 28, 2008; see also Amended Judgment, dismissing all counts, signed by Judge Harris, the District Attorney, and Vann’s defense attorney); and “Retrial ordered for death row inmate Vann,” Associated Press, June 3, 2008).
On January 23, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the state of Ohio challenging the unconditional writ of habeas corpus and bar to the re-prosecution of Joe D'Ambrosio (pictured), thus ending the capital case. He has now been freed from death row with all charges dismissed. A federal District Court had first overturned D'Ambrosio's conviction in 2006 because the state had withheld key evidence from the defense. The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more important evidence and requested further delay. Also the state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D'Ambrosio had died. In 2010, the District Court barred D’Ambrosio’s re-prosecution because of the prosecutors’ misconduct. The court concluded that these developments biased D'Ambrosio's chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him. District Court Judge Kathleen O'Malley wrote: “For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court … the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bar to re-prosecution. (D'Ambrosio v. Bagley, No. 10-3247, Aug. 29, 2011). Even the dissent referred to the state's "remarkable inability to competently prosecute D'Ambrosio." The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court mainly on jurisdictional grounds, but was denied certiorari on Jan. 23. (Bagley v. D'Ambrosio, No. 11-672, denying cert.).
D'Ambrosio is 140th former death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973 and the 6th from Ohio. He was first indicted for the offense in 1988.
On September 28 2012, Damon Thibodeaux was freed from death row in Louisiana after an extensive investigation, including DNA testing and the cooperation of Jefferson Parrish District Attorney Paul Connick. Thibodeaux was sentenced to death for the 1996 rape and murder of his cousin. He at first confessed to the attack after a nine-hour interrogation by detectives. He recanted a few hours later and claimed his confession was coerced. In releasing Thibodeaux, Connick said, "I have concluded that the primary evidence in this case, the confession, is unreliable. Without the confession the conviction can't stand, and therefore in the interest of justice, it must be vacated."
Thibodeaux spent 15 years on death row in Angola. The reinvestigation of the case cost more than $500,000, an expense shared by the defense and prosecution. Regarding his early statement to the police, Thibodeaux noted, "They look for vulnerable points where they can manipulate you, and if you’re sleep-deprived or panicked, or you’re on something or drunk, it makes it that much easier to accomplish what they want to accomplish.... I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.”
(D. Blackmon, "Louisiana death-row inmate Damon Thibodeaux exonerated with DNA evidence," Washington Post, September 28, 2012).
On December 21, Seth Penalver was acquitted of all charges and will be freed from Florida's death row, 13 years after being sentenced to death. He was originally charged with a triple murder and armed robbery that occurred in Broward County in 1994. His first trial ended with a deadlocked jury. At his second trial in 1999, he was convicted and sentenced to death. In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court (Penalver v. Florida, No. SC00-1602, Feb. 2, 2006) overturned his conviction because the prosecution had introduced improper evidence at his trial. A co-defendant, Pablo Ibar, was also sentenced to death and remains on death row. A video from the crime scene helped convict Ibar, but images showing another suspect were inconclusive. Penalver has always maintained his innocence. At Penalver's most recent trial, which began 5 months ago, the jury was deadlocked 10-2, and both the prosecution and defense agreed to replace two jurors with alternates who had attended the proceedings. The newly constituted jury began deliberations afresh and found Penalver not guilty of all charges. Penalver is the 142nd person to be exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, and the 24th such person in Florida, the most of any state.
(R. Olmeda, "Jury finds Penalver not guilty in Casey's Nickelodeon triple murder case," Sun Sentinel, Dec. 21, 2012).
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