News from the Innocence movement around the country this month.
To see what's happening in your state, view our interactive reform map.
Tim Masters served nine years in Colorado prison before he was released yesterday due to DNA evidence pointing to an alternate suspect in a 1987 murder.
Masters was 15 when the victim was found dead near his house; he was questioned at the time but not charged and convicted until 12 years later. He was convicted partly because of his violent drawings from high school.
In a letter to the Illinois Governor last week, hundreds of civic, religious and business leaders along with dozens of people exonerated by DNA testing called for DNA testing in the case of Johnnie Savory, who spent 30 years in prison for two murders he has always said he didn’t commit. Savory was convicted at age 14 and DNA testing in the case could show the identity of the real perpetrator.
Marty Tankleff was cleared early this month of murdering his parents nearly two decades ago on Long Island. He was released from prison after serving 17 years, and prosecutors announced that they were dropping the charges on Jan. 2.
Tankleff allegedly made false admissions of guilt after hours of interrogation. The New York Times last week called for mandatory recording of interrogations nationwide to prevent false confessions and admissions.
Hundreds of people are continuing to send emails to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley through our website demanding that he grant DNA testing to death row inmate Tommy Arthur. The tests could show Arthur’s innocence or guilt, but Riley refuses to allow them.
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Rickey Johnson exonerated in Louisiana; Archie Williams still can't get a DNA test
Innocence Project client Rickey Johnson (above, with his sister) was released last week after serving 25 years in a Louisiana prison for a rape DNA proves he didn’t commit. He rejoined a large family and reconnected with his brothers, sisters and children, hugging them for the first time in a quarter century.
While Johnson’s supportive family will surely help him get on his feet, it is unclear whether he will receive state compensation to rebuild his life. Louisiana is one of 22 states with a compensation law — but the amount, at $15,000 per year of incarceration with a maximum of $150,000, is well below the federal standard of $50,000 per year. In addition, the process to receive compensation is cumbersome, and only two of the other nine Louisiana exonerees have been compensated. Luckily for Johnson, Sabine Parish District Attorney Don Burkett, who quickly agreed to DNA testing in the case and worked closely with Innocence Project lawyers to streamline the exoneration process, said he will help Johnson apply for compensation.
An editorial in Sunday’s Shreveport Times praises Burkett and asks why another District Attorney in the state — East Baton Rouge DA Doug Moreau — refuses to conduct DNA testing in similar cases. Moreau has fought against testing for 13 years in the case of Innocence Project client Archie Williams. The Times along with Johnson and dozens of legal experts and officials have called for testing in Williams’ case.
This morning, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld told members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that serious flaws in the oversight of crime labs have compromised our criminal justice system.
"This has to be fixed," Neufeld told the committee about the oversight problem. "And until it's fixed, there will continue to be wrongful convictions and there will still be instances where the real perpetrator of these crimes is out committing additional crimes."
Neufeld was joined in Washington, D.C., by exonerees Marvin Anderson, Kirk Bloodsworth and Charles Chatman, who together served 42 years in prison for crimes DNA later proved they did not commit.
Today’s testimony comes after the Department of Justice Inspector General released a report last week pointing to major problems in the way allegations of misconduct at crime labs are handled. In 2004, Congress passed the Justice for All Act, which calls for states receiving federal money for forensic testing to have an independent entity in place to investigate allegations of misconduct. This is the second time in three years that the DOJ Inspector General has called attention to the lack of independent oversight.
In 1995, Ronnie Taylor and Jeanette Brown (left)were living in Houston and making plans to get married. Then, all of a sudden, their lives were torn apart when Taylor was arrested for a rape he didn’t commit.
Investigations and reports in recent years have revealed serious problems in the Houston Police Department Crime Lab during the 1990s, and evidence on a sheet that could have cleared Taylor before trial was missed by lab analysts. He was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Although Brown moved to Atlanta during Taylor’s 12 years in prison, she stood by him. They wrote letters back and forth and she took the bus to visit him in Texas. In October, Innocence Project attorneys secured DNA testing for Taylor. The results from the same sheet that was tested before Taylor’s trial proved his innocence and he was released.
Within days of walking out of prison, Taylor was on a plane to join Brown in Atlanta. Just before New Year's Eve, Taylor and Brown were married in a family ceremony. At the wedding, Taylor told a reporter: "This day has been a long, long time coming … Jeannette, she has been loyal to me throughout all of this, and I want to make her happy. That is what I want to do with my freedom."
And last week, Taylor’s exoneration finally became official, making him the 30th Texan exonerated by DNA evidence.
I have experienced extreme poverty in my life and I know how hopeless a person can feel when there seems to be nobody on their side and nowhere to turn. Every time I hear about an exoneration, I’m moved and inspired by the strength of people who overcome the worst kind of injustice to clear their name. The stories of the 212 DNA exonerees have happy endings, but there must be thousands of innocent people still behind bars in this country. I support the Innocence Project because they are working hard not only to free the innocent, but also to pass policy reforms that will prevent future wrongful convictions.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, I moved to New Zealand, and found a society substantially different from ours. When it comes to criminal justice, I’ve learned that many systems around the world are much more humane than ours. I believe the American people support the transition to a more humane criminal justice system. The reforms supported by the Innocence Project like eyewitness identification reform and recording of interrogations will help our system treat everyone equally.
I’m not rich, but I feel wealthy now compared to the time of my life when I had nothing. Wealth is relative, and I believe that if I have a little extra after paying for my modest needs, I should use that extra to help those who need it. I started donating $50 a month to the Innocence Project last year, and I believe that if everyone in our country who cares about this issue gave a few dollars, we could create a more fair and compassionate justice system. It’s not the size of a donation that makes a difference in our society, it is the commitment to doing what is right for the less fortunate.