Twenty-seven people were exonerated and released from prison this year, including some who had been on death row, according to a new report from The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people. The 27 exonerees served a combined 421 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. The exonerations occurred through the work of the Innocence Project Network, which consists of 54 organizations, including 45 in the U.S. The Innocence Project concentrates on wrongful convictions and uses DNA testing, while also promoting reform of the criminal justice system. (Click on the thumbnail to access full text of the report.) The most recent person exonerated was James Bain, who was imprisoned for 35 years before DNA testing revealed that someone else had committed the crime that led to his conviction.
New evidence in the Troy Davis case in Georgia has recently emerged, further implicating another suspect in the murder of off-duty police officer Mark Allen MacPhail. In 1991, Davis was sentenced to death for officer MacPhail's murder. Davis became the primary suspect after Sylvester "Redd" Coles told the police about Davis's presence at the crime scene. During his 1991 trial, nine prosecution eyewitnesses testified against Davis. All but two of the witnesses (one of whom is Coles) have recanted their testimony. The new testimony was provided by Quiana Glover, who was at a friend's house when she said Coles admitted to killing MacPhail. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quoted her affidavit as stating that Coles knew the murder was being falsely attributed to Davis instead of himself. In August 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an historic order, continuing Davis's stay of execution and instructing a federal District Court judge in Savannah to hold an evidentiary hearing to decide whether Davis's new evidence clearly establishes his innocence.
The Last Lawyer: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmates is a book by John Temple about the courageous work of a death penalty defense attorney in the south. Ken Rose is an attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in North Carolina. He has handled many capital cases, but the focus of this book is his defense of Bo Jones, a mentally handicapped farmhand convicted of a murder that occurred in 1987 and sentenced to death. The case highlights issues such as inadequate defense, mental retardation, mental illness and witness testimony. Based on over four years of behind-the-scenes reporting, The Last Lawyer tells the story of how Rose's work eventually led to the dismissal of all charges against Jones in 2008.
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.
Mark White, a former governor of Texas and strong supporter of the death penalty, recently expressed serious reservations about the practice in Texas. "There is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so we don’t look up one day and determine that we as the State of Texas have executed someone who is in fact innocent," he said. White was responding to concerns about the case of Cameron Willingham who was executed in Texas in 2004 despite new evidence indicating that the arson investigation that led to his conviction was flawed. Texas' present governor, Rick Perry, recently dismissed the chair and two members of a State Forensic Science Commission that was scheduled to hear evidence regarding the case. Former governor White said the case is one example “of why I think the system is so unreliable.”
Two former death row inmates who were charged with murder in a 1993 drive-by shooting were released on October 2 after spending nearly 14 years in prison, including years on Oklahoma’s death row. 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 Powell's conviction. Douglas was denied relief until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit overturned his conviction and affirmed Powell's reversal in 2009. Smith testified against Powell and Douglas in their earlier trials (Douglas, 1995, Powell, 1997), 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.
Michael Toney, who recently became the 136th person exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, died in a car crash on October 3 in East Texas. He had been released from jail one month ago on September 2 after the state dropped all charges against him for a 1985 bombing that killed three people. Toney's conviction was overturned on December 17, 2008 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals because the prosecution suppressed evidence relating to the credibility of its only two witnesses against him. 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.
A recent investigaton by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered a series of mistakes by medical examiners in Texas. “Medical examiners have goofed up eye color and gender. They’ve made mistakes on the locations of scars or tattoos, described gallbladders and appendixes that had long since been removed – even confused one body for another,” noted the story. Webb County Chief Medical Examiner Corinne Stern was criticized for an autopsy she performed on an infant while she was working in Alabama. Her report indicated that the infant was suffocated, but other experts concluded “her finding was based on junk science and that the [baby] was stillborn.” Following the experts' report, the capital murder charge against the baby’s mother was dropped.
In 2007, former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo recanted his original testimony that helped convict Austin baby-sitter Cathy Lynn Henderson of capital murder and placed her on death row for the death of a baby. Twelve years earlier, Dr. Bayardo had testified that the baby’s cause of death was from receiving intentional blows. His new testimony said it was unclear what had happened and Henderson may have accidentally dropped the child. "The work of the medical examiner's office is just so slipshod," said Tommy Turner, the former special prosecutor who put a Lubbock medical examiner behind bars for falsifying autopsies.
On September 30, Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced the chairman and two members of a state commission that is investigating whether inaccurate evidence of arson was presented at the trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004. The state’s Forensic Science Commission was scheduled to conduct a public hearing in two days and receive testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally known expert who called the Willingham investigation “slipshod,” and concluded that “almost all of the evidence presented [w]as based on junk science.” Beyler's report for the Commission concluded that “no credible evidence existed to believe that the fire, that killed three children, was caused by arson.”
On September 22, the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Crime and Homeland Security of the Judiciary Committee held hearings on the re-authorization of the Innocence Protection Act. Among those making presentations were noted defense attorneys Stephen Bright (pictured), President of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, and Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project in New York. Mr. Bright emphasized that the best way to prevent wrongful convictions is to provide defendants with adequate representation: "The best protection against conviction of the innocent is competent representation for those accused of crimes and a properly working adversary system. Unfortunately, a very substantial number of jurisdictions throughout the country do not have either one." He noted that DNA testing is no substitute for good lawyers, especially since such evidence is not available in most cases: "Some people believe that we can rely on DNA testing to protect the innocent, but DNA testing reveals only a few wrongful convictions. In most cases, there is no biological evidence that can be tested. In those cases, we must rely on a properly working adversary system to bring out all the facts and help the courts find the truth."