Twenty Years Later, Six Nebraskans are Cleared
Five people were exonerated Monday in Nebraska, nearly two decades after they were convicted of a murder they didn't commit.
In 1989, Joseph White was convicted of murder after four of his five co-defendants were coerced into falsely admitting to involvement in the crime and testifying against him. White spent 18 years in prison before he was released last year when DNA testing proved his innocence and pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator.
On Monday, White's five co-defendants were fully pardoned, clearing their names completely. Including these new cases, 232 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing.
Clyde Charles, who served nearly 20 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, died January 7 at age 55 at his Louma, Louisiana, home. He was freed in 1999 after DNA testing obtained with the help of the Innocence Project proved his innocence. He had only enjoyed nine years after his release before he passed away.
"He was blessed," his sister told the Daily Comet. "He was dealt a very bad hand in life, but he didn’t let that stop him. … He didn’t hold animosity toward anyone."
A More Accurate Lineup
The Dallas Police Department announced on January 15 that it will change the way its officers conduct eyewitness identification procedures, employing the “sequential double-blind” lineup method that is proven to reduce misidentification.
After a study of the effectiveness of these procedures was delayed for two years, Police Chief David Kunkle said the department couldn’t wait any longer to make this critical improvement.
On Friday, Innocence Project client Steven Barnes gathered with family and friends to celebrate the two decades of birthdays that passed by while he was in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Barnes, who was 23 years old when arrested, turned 43 on January 25. He was freed in November and officially exonerated earlier this month in Upstate New York.
"Words really can't express how wonderful it is to have my brother back and be able to have a birthday party, and birthday cake and celebrate. We have a lot to celebrate this year," Barnes' sister Lisa Pawloski told WKTV.
DNA Testing Moves Forward
Prosecutors have approved DNA testing in the case of Charles Dumas, an Ohio man who has spent a decade in prison for a rape he says he didn’t commit. Franklin County District Attorney Ron O’Brien said the exoneration of Robert McClendon in his county last year has inspired him to give a closer look to requests for DNA testing.
The Innocence Project at the U.S. Supreme Court
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an Innocence Project case seeking DNA testing for a client in Alaska who was convicted of rape and attempted murder 15 years ago.
The Innocence Project filed its brief with the Supreme Court this week, arguing that the U.S. Constitution allows prisoners access to DNA testing that could prove their innocence. In the vast majority of cases, prisoners are granted DNA testing under state law or because prosecutors consent to DNA testing without a court order — but Alaska is the exception. It is one of only six states without a law granting access to DNA testing, and it is the only state in the nation with no known cases of prisoners receiving DNA testing, either through a court order or a prosecutor’s consent.
Suing in federal court is the only option for Innocence Project client William Osborne to get the DNA testing he says will prove his innocence. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that Osborne had the right to testing, but the state of Alaska appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will argue the case on March 2.
In 1993, an Alaska woman was raped, robbed and beaten by two men. One of the men was arrested days after the crime with items belonging to the woman in his possession; he confessed to the crime and allegedly implicated William Osborne as the other perpetrator. The victim then viewed a lineup including Osborne, saying he looked “most familiar” and “most likely” to be the perpetrator. Both men were convicted and Osborne was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Before trial, the state conducted an early form of DNA testing on semen on the condom used in the rape. The results showed that the semen could possibly have come from Osborne — and about 15% of African-American men.
It is this same evidence that Osborne is seeking to test today, using more advanced DNA testing. Although DNA testing could conclusively prove his innocence or guilt and could lead to the identification of the actual perpetrator, prosecutors have repeatedly refused to grant testing. In oral arguments at the federal appeals court, judges asked attorneys for the state several times why they refused to allow DNA testing. The attorneys said they were not “willing or able” to answer such questions “at this time.” In filings with the U.S. Supreme Court, the state concedes that DNA testing could "conclusively establish [Osborne’s] innocence," but they say the U.S. Constitution does not give people a right to testing. The Innocence Project points to a long history of legal precedent giving prisoners access to evidence and protecting people’s ability to prove their innocence under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
One week ago yesterday, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States, pledging to act quickly in addressing some of the most critical challenges facing our nation. Preventing wrongful convictions nationwide should be a bipartisan priority for our federal government, and the Innocence Project is working to ensure that pressing criminal justice reforms are addressed by Congress and the new Administration.
Above, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2008. Seated behind him are exonerees Charles Chatman and Kirk Bloodsworth.
Developing and enforcing standards for forensic science is at the center of the reforms called for by the Innocence Project. The National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a report in the coming months evaluating the state of forensic science nationwide and making recommendations for improvement. The Innocence Project is hopeful that the report will call for additional research to validate forensic disciplines, clear standards for using various forensic disciplines in the criminal justice system and nationwide enforcement of those standards.
Among the other federal reforms proposed by the Innocence Project:
Rickie Johnson served 26 years in Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence. He was freed in January 2008, and he didn’t wait long to start his new life. Earlier this month, on the one-year anniversary of his exoneration, Johnson opened a store selling his own handmade leather clothing, shoes and accessories.
Johnson learned to be a skilled leatherworker while serving at Angola. Since his release, he has received $150,000 in compensation from the state. Although he acknowledges that no amount of money can truly compensate him for half of his life, he says the money helped him begin to get on his feet.
He told the Shreveport Times:
"I'm just the same person. I never changed. I didn't let prison get to me," Johnson said. "That's because I wasn't a criminal; I was innocent. That's why I'm doing well. I feel real good about myself. And to accomplish what I have in this small amount of time, I thank the Lord for that."
Photo: Vickie Wellborn, Shreveport Times
Why I Give: Catherine Eloranto
Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the criminal justice system from many perspectives. I have worked as a prosecutor in Arizona and New York and as a criminal court judge. Today I teach criminal procedure and other courses at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, New York.
I have known for a long time that our criminal justice system is flawed — it’s a human system and only as good as the people at the reins in a given courtroom on a given day. But even my knowledge of the system didn’t prepare me for Kirk Bloodsworth’s book, which I read several years ago. I was simply astounded at how bad the system can be; it was frightening to learn that an innocent man could be sentenced to death despite such strong evidence of his innocence.
After reading the book I followed the work of the Innocence Project closely, receiving email updates and watching as the number of exonerations steadily grew larger. When an email came last year asking for support, I clicked and made a donation. It’s a worthy cause and one in which I believe deeply.
The Innocence Project is an effective nonprofit because it lays out a clear plan for reform based on the lessons learned from wrongful convictions. We can always point to horrible things that happen, but unless there’s a plan to fix things the criminal justice system will just go back to its old ways. I teach my students each semester about wrongful convictions and I see how it changes their view of the system and its flaws. Through these lessons I aim to show them that the system isn’t always fair, it relies on each of us to make it fair. The Innocence Project’s work is going a long way across the country to make the system fair, but there’s more work to be done.