Charges Dropped After Nearly Three Decades
William Dillon spent 27 years in Florida prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit before DNA testing led to his release last month. On Wednesday, prosecutors officially dropped all charges against him.
His public defender, Mike Pirolo (who worked on the case with the Innocence Project of Florida), described his release as bittersweet:
"Sweet that justice was done and he's a free man," he said. "Bitter that 27 years of his life was taken away that he'll never get back."
Although police, prosecutors and Rachell’s defense attorney knew of biological evidence at the time of trial, no DNA testing was conducted.
Barnes Case Prompts Call for Reform
Innocence Project client Steven Barnes was freed last month in upstate New York after spending nearly two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. His case has sparked calls for criminal justice reforms in the state, and Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom wrote in Sunday’s Utica Post-Dispatch:
“The only thing worse than the injustice the Barnes family as well as the victim’s family and the community has endured would be a failure to learn the lessons of this miscarriage of justice and prevent it from happening again.”
Still Behind Bars
Although another man was charged last week in the 1988 murder for which Miguel Roman was convicted, Roman remains behind bars today. Roman, a client of the Connecticut Innocence Project, has been in prison for nearly 20 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit.
A hearing in Roman’s case is scheduled for January 5.
Although paid informants have been shown to lie on the stand and cause wrongful convictions, law enforcement agencies continue to seek snitches to help solve cases. Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, published an ad recently in a local newspaper offering to pay informants for information.
2009 May Be Watershed Year for Forensics
Nearly 20 years after DNA testing first revolutionized forensic science, we still have no national standards for many forensic disciplines and techniques that law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries rely on every day.
In the last week alone, two men were cleared by DNA testing — in Florida and Texas — and their cases highlight the need for reliable science in our courtrooms. With a major report expected from the federal government and reforms under consideration in several states, 2009 could be the year that forensic standards become reality.
Early next year, the National Academy of Sciences is expected to release a special report on the state of forensic science in the United States. The report, from a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by Congress, will outline findings and recommendations for ensuring that the criminal justice system relies on sound science. 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 court and nationwide enforcement of those standards.
Among the forensic practices in need of review is the use of search dogs by law enforcement agencies. Last week, Florida prosecutors dropped all charges against William Dillon, a client of the Innocence Project of Florida who served 27 years in prison for a murder he he has always said he didn't commit. Dog handler John Preston, who helped agents investigate Dillon and testified at his trial, has since been discredited in several states. Preston’s false testimony also contributed to the wrongful conviction of Innocence Project client Wilton Dedge in the same Florida county.
When the National Academy of Sciences report is released in early 2009, we will be calling on you to help us improve forensics nationwide. Stay tuned.
So far this year, 13 people around the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing after serving more than 200 combined years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. At least 10 more people have been cleared by DNA but are waiting for their exonerations to become official.
Here are the stories of those exonerated so far in 2008:
Michael Blair was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas based on improper forensic testimony and several eyewitness misidentifications. He served nearly 14 years on Texas death row for a murder he didn’t commit.
Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in 1995 for a child murder he didn’t commit. He was freed when DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project led to the identity of the real perpetrator. His exoneration also led to critical reforms on handling evidence and state oversight for autopsies.
Dean Cage was exonerated by DNA testing in Chicago after spending 12 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
Charles Chatman served 27 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project of Texas set him free.
Nathaniel Hatchett was 17 years old when he was arrested for a carjacking and rape he didn’t commit. He served 10 years in Michigan before he was cleared.
Arthur Johnson spent 16 years in Mississippi prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing won by the Innocence Project New Orleans led to his release.
Rickey Johnson served 25 years in Louisiana prison for a rape he didn’t commit before the Innocence Project secured DNA testing that proved his innocence. The test results pointed to the identity of a Louisiana inmate who was convicted of committing another rape in the same neighborhood after Johnson was convicted.
Robert McClendon was exonerated by DNA in August in a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch. He spent 17 years in Ohio prison for a crime he didn’t commit before he was cleared.
Thomas McGowan served 23 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence. He was convicted based on a faulty identification procedure.
Steven Phillips was exonerated in October after serving more than two decades in Texas prison for a series of rapes he didn’t commit. DNA testing obtained on Phillips’ behalf by the Innocence Project pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator of the crime.
Ronnie Taylor was convicted in 1993 of a rape he didn’t commit based on faulty forensic tests at the troubled Houston crime lab. His exoneration became official in January, just days after he married his longtime fiancee Jeanette Brown. The couple now lives in Atlanta.
Patrick Waller served more than 15 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He is the 21st person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County.
Joseph White, exonerated in November, was the first person cleared by DNA testing in Nebraska history. His five co-defendants are awaiting pardons from the governor in order to be fully exonerated.
This week, the JEHT Foundation announced that it is closing its doors as a result of the financial scandal involving Bernard Madoff. Madoff managed the finances of the family who funded JEHT, so the family no longer has money for the foundation to distribute. The JEHT Foundation has been a strong supporter of the Innocence Project and many other vital organizations for the last several years. The JEHT Foundation’s closing is a loss for everyone who is committed to fairness and justice.
While this unexpected loss of income will affect the Innocence Project beginning in the next fiscal year (which starts in July), we feel confident that the impact will be offset by the support of our growing base of individual donors, foundations, law firms and corporations. The JEHT Foundation’s great legacy is that it helped us build a more diverse base of supporters, including our rapidly growing online community. As we honor the JEHT Foundation for its contributions over the last several years, we are particularly grateful to our individual donors whose commitment to our work will help us free more innocent people and implement more reforms in 2009.
Why I Give: Tom Collimore
Last Thursday, when I received an email from Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck announcing that donations in December would be matched dollar-for-dollar, I immediately clicked and gave $100. My wife, Beverly, and I support the Innocence Project because we can’t bear the thought of sending an innocent person to prison — or, especially, to death row — for a crime he or she didn’t commit. I donated last week because the opportunity to double my gift means that the Innocence Project can reach even further into our prisons to help those who don’t have a voice.
I'm politically conservative and a former Republican politician. I argue with my liberal friends about many issues, but the one place we find common ground is on the movement to free the innocent from prison. I can’t begin to imagine why a person would not support DNA testing when it can prove innocence. Science is science, and if DNA testing is available in a case, we need to do the testing and learn the truth.
The Innocence Project is a vibrant and viable nonprofit. I see Barry Scheck in the media often, and I’m confident that his group is making significant inroads in pursuing justice across the U.S. The DNA exonerations we seem to hear about every few weeks are having an impact on the criminal justice system and the public. I consider it a personal responsibility to bring this issue up frequently in conversations with friends and acquaintances, because face-to-face interaction is the strongest way to raise awareness. It always surprises me to learn that there are people out there who still don’t know about this important work.
This issue affects us all — if the 225 DNA exonerees could be wrongfully convicted, it could happen to me or my children or grandchildren. If we all chip in, we can move closer to the end of wrongful convictions.