In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times has called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California to commute Kevin Cooper's death sentence before leaving office in early January 2011. The Times noted that considerable doubt has been cast upon the evidence used to convict Cooper of four murders that occurred in San Bernadino County in 1983. In particular, they cite the analysis offered by federal Judge William Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who dissented from the court's refusal to review Cooper's case. According to the editorial, "Fletcher wrote that Cooper 'is probably innocent of the crimes for which the state of California is about to execute him.' Whether or not that's true, the judge makes a compelling argument that sheriff's office investigators planted evidence in order to convict Cooper and discarded or disregarded other evidence pointing to other killers — creating not just reasonable but serious doubt about his guilt." The editorial concluded, "This newspaper opposes the death penalty under any circumstances, and we wouldn't object if the governor commuted the sentences of all 697 people on California's death row. But execution is especially outrageous when the prisoner may be innocent. Gov. Schwarzenegger should commute Cooper's sentence." Read the full editorial below.
On December 22, attorneys for John Green filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asking that a pre-trial hearing concerning the constitutionality of the state's death penalty be allowed to continue. An amicus brief in support of continuing the hearing was also filed by former governors, legislators, former judges and prosecutors, victim family members and freed death row inmates, all of whom shared a concern over the risk of wrongful executions in Texas. The brief stated, "[U]nless Texas addresses the proven causes of wrongful convictions, including eyewitness misidentification, faulty forensics, unreliable informant evidence, among other documented factors, the state runs the grave risk of executing an innocent person.” The signatories included: three former governors, including Gov. Mark White (TX), Gov. Parris Glendening (MD) and Gov. Joe Kernan (IN); former Dallas Assistant District Attorney James A. Fry; legislators, including Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis; and death row exonerees including Anthony Graves, who was freed from Texas’ death row in October after new evidence proved his innocence.
More information has emerged about the wrongful conviction of Anthony Graves (pictured), who was exonerated from Texas's death row in 2010. Prosecutor Kelly Siegler, who had tried many capital murder cases and sent 19 people to death row as a Harris County assistant district attorney, and Otto Hanak, a state trooper and Texas Ranger for 28 years, were brought into the case after an appeals court found that the original prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, had withheld statements from the defense and elicited false testimony. It was originally thought that Siegler would retry the case against Graves. According to prosecutor Siegler, Sebesta used ethically questionable tactics to persuade a co-defendant to testify against Graves. Sebesta also violated the rules of evidence by introducing only a partial transcript of a taped interview of the co-defendant and not introducing the actual tape. During her investigations, Siegler was never able to find the tape of the interview. When the co-defendant faced execution in 2000, he admitted that he lied about Graves’s involvement in the crime. After reviewing 19 boxes of evidence and interviewing more than 50 witnesses, Siegler and Hanak independently concluded that Graves was not guilty. Siegler said, "There came a time I believed he was innocent, but I wanted Otto to arrive at that on his own. One morning he came in and said, 'I don't think he did it.’” Hanak added, “In all these years I've been in this business, I never thought I would be party to saving someone who was on death row.” The original prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, plans to take out full page ads explaining his side of the story. "We've got some things on Siegler that when push comes to shove, we've got things that are going to sink her ship," he said.
A recent op-ed by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured) of the New York Times focuses on the possible innocence of Kevin Cooper, a black defendant on California's death row. Kristof writes, “This case is a travesty. It underscores the central pitfall of capital punishment: no system is fail-safe. How can we be about to execute a man when even some of America’s leading judges believe he has been framed?” Cooper faces execution for a 1983 quadruple-murder of a white family. According to Kristof, numerous anomalies in the case suggest that evidence used to implicate Cooper in the murders may have been corrupted. For example, a beige T-shirt was offered as evidence because it had a trace of Cooper’s blood, but the blood sample contained preservatives used by the police when they keep blood in test tubes. Later, a forensic scientist found that a sample from the test tube that contained Cooper’s blood held by the police contained blood from more than one person, suggesting that someone removed blood from the test tube and later filled the tube back to the top with another person’s blood. Police also failed to investigate other suspects. A woman reported that one of her housemates had shown up with several other people on the night of the murders wearing blood-spattered overalls and driving a vehicle similar to the one stolen from the murdered family. The witnesses said the man was no longer wearing a beige T-shirt he had on earlier in the evening and his hatchet, now missing from his tool area, resembled the one found in the crime scene. The witnesses gave the bloody overalls to the police for testing, but because of the police's focus on Cooper as the suspect, they threw the overalls in the trash. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit refused to rehear the case, but five of its federal judges concluded, “California may be about to execute an innocent man.” Six other judges dissented from the decision not to review the case. Read full op-ed below.
A recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, highlighs flaws in Texas’s death penalty system that led to the execution of Claude Jones (pictured). Then-governor George Bush rejected Jones’s application for a reprieve. Bush was not informed that the reprieve would allow time for DNA tests to be performed on a strand of hair that was found at the crime scene. This hair had been attributed to Jones at his trial and was the only piece of evidence tying him to the crime scene. Following six years of litigation, DNA testing was finally performed on the hair, and results showed it belonged to the victim, not Jones. Scheck asserts that if this test had been done in 2000, when Jones was facing execution, Jones would have likely been spared and the conviction reversed. The hair “match” was the key evidence cited in a 3-2 decision made by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upholding Jones’s death sentence. Scheck calls for a critical look into the death penalty in America, quoting George Will that “capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.” Democrat and Republican Senators are introducing a bill, already approved by the House, that would establish a National Criminal Justice Reform Commission to help prevent wrongful convictions like the case of Claude Jones. Read full op-ed below.
Thanks to additional research by Prof. Samuel Gross of the University of Michigan, DPIC has learned that one of the individuals on its list of exonerated death row inmates had conceded his guilt to a lesser offense in connection with the crime that originally sent him to death row. He was, however, acquitted on the murder charge. James Bo Cochran was originally found guilty of a 1976 murder in Alabama in connection with a robbery at a grocery store. His first trial resulted in a mistrial and the convictions from his second and third trials were overturned. When he was retried in 1997, a jury acquitted him of murdering the grocery store's assistant manager. However, in an agreement made with prosecutors prior to his release, it now appears that Cochran accepted guilt to a robbery charge. Earlier research had indicated that he had been acquitted of all charges. Since inclusion on DPIC's list requires not only the removal of the capital conviction but also of all convictions related to the original offense, we can no longer include Cochran's case on our list of exonerations. The number of exonerations from death row since 1973 now stands at 138. Accurate research occasionally requires revisions based on new information, and we are grateful to Prof. Gross, one of the nation's leading experts on the reversal of convictions, for this research. We regret any inconvenience.
Kenneth Jost of Congressional Quarterly has prepared a comprehensive review of the death penalty in the U.S. for the recent edition of the CQ Researcher. The overview looks at death penalty trends in the past 10 years, public opinion, and arguments for and against repealing the death penalty. Jost quotes many experts, including DPIC's Executive Director concerning the recent direction of capital punishment in the U.S. "'The decline in the use of the death penalty is the continuing story,' says Richard Dieter, the [Death Penalty Information] center's Executive Director. 'Death sentences, executions, the number of states that have the death penalty, and the size of the population on death row have all declined in the last decade.' The Center's statistics bear out Dieter's claims," Jost writes. The report is accompanied by charts and graphs illustrating important trends, and contains a bibliography, chronology, and places to go for more information. The significance of the innocence issue, including the large number of exonerations from death row in recent years, is highlighted in the review. The volume concludes with a debate on whether the death penalty deserves to be retained between DPIC's Richard Dieter and Kent Scheidegger of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.
Recent DNA tests raise serious doubts about the conviction of a man executed in Texas in 2000. The tests revealed that a strand of hair found at the scene of a liquor-store shooting did not belong to Claude Jones, as was originally implied by the prosecution. Instead, the hair belonged to the victim. Jones was executed for the murder of the store's owner. The strand of hair was the only piece of physical evidence that placed Jones at the scene of the crime, and this revelation raises the question of whether Texas executed the wrong person for the murder. Before his execution in 2000, Jones’s lawyers filed petitions for a stay with both a district court and with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, requesting that the strand of hair be submitted for DNA testing. The necessary DNA technology had not been developed at the time the crime in 1989, but was available in 2000. Both courts, along with then-Governor George W. Bush, denied Jones a stay of execution. Apparently, Gov. Bush was not even informed by his clemency advisors about the request for the DNA test. Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said “The DNA results prove that testimony about the hair sample on which this entire case rests was just wrong. Unreliable forensic science and a completely inadequate post-conviction review process cost Claude Jones his life.”
On November 4, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered evidentiary hearings to consider whether newly analyzed DNA evidence should result in a new trial for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, who were convicted of the 1993 murders of three West Memphis Cub Scouts. Echols was sentenced to death and the other defendants received life. The results of the DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene excluded Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the sources. The high court also ordered an examination of claims of misconduct by the jurors. According to defense lawyers, Misskelley’s confession was not introduced at Echols' trial, but the jurors considered it anyway. The state Supreme Court had previously upheld Echols' conviction in 1996, when DNA testing was not available because of technical limitations. The case of the "West Memphis Three," a name used by their supporters, has attracted attention from the national media and celebrities. In August, a rally in Little Rock to support Echols featured actor Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
Frontline’s documentary, The Confessions, investigates the conviction of four Navy sailors for the rape and murder of a woman in Norfolk, Virginia in 1997. The documentary highlights some of the high-pressure police interrogation techniques, including the threat of the death penalty, sleep deprivation, and intimidation, that led each of the “Norfolk Four” defendants to confess, despite a lack of evidence linking them to the crime. The case raises significant questions about the actions of state officials, who relied primarily on the sailors’ contradictory confessions for their convictions, and disregarded DNA evidence that pointed to a lone assailant. The four sailors are now out of prison (one has served his sentence and the other three were granted conditional pardons by former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine), and the person who probably committed the murder has since confessed to the crime while serving prison time for another rape. The Confession is scheduled to air on Tuesday, November 9.