The Innocence Project Online - March 2011
In This Issue
U.S. Supreme Court: Inmate Can Seek DNA Testing
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on March 7 that inmates seeking post conviction DNA testing can bring claims under a federal civil rights law. The court issued the decision in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner, who has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for 10 years in hopes of proving his innocence of the 1993 murder of his live-in girlfriend and her two sons.
Last March, Skinner came within 45 minutes of being executed by the State of Texas before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened and took up his case. The case now gets sent back down for still more litigation unless the Gray County prosecutor, Lynn Switzer, agrees to the testing.
Cornelius Dupree Fully Exonerated
On March 2, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion fully exonerating Cornelius Dupree who served 30 years for a Dallas rape and robbery that he did not commit. The ruling was in response to a motion by the Innocence Project, which, with the support of the Dallas Country District Attorney’s office, conducted DNA testing of crime scene evidence that proved Dupree could not have been involved in the crime. Dupree became the 267th convicted person exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.
Join the Innocence Partners Team
For the first time ever, the Innocence Project is asking our online community to help us raise money to free the innocent by joining the Innocence Partners team.
Innocence Partners create their own fundraising page and commit to raising $100 or more from friends and family. In recognition of their efforts, exonerees will acknowledge the Innocence Partners team in a special video at the 2011 Innocence Network Conference in Cincinnati this April.
Our goal is to sign up 200 people to raise $100 each, collectively raising $20,000 by the start of the conference on April 7. We’re well on the way of meeting our goal -- so far we’ve signed up 180 people and raised over $8,000 -- but we have just two weeks to make our goal and could still use your help.
Watch this video and see how easy it is to fundraise and then click here to start your own Innocence Partner page.
What You’re Saying
Here are some of our favorite comments from social networks this month:
"Of course they should be entitled to post-conviction DNA testing!!! Technology doesn't stop when someone gets convicted and thrown in jail."
— Anne (from Facebook)
"One of the reasons I support the Innocence Project - California man freed after 20 years behind bars.."
— @KeishaSisi (from Twitter)
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On his 46th birthday, Virginia inmate Thomas Haynesworth was released on parole after serving 27 years for three rapes that DNA and other evidence now show were committed by a serial rapist. His release on March 21 was made possible by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
While DNA and other evidence proves that Haynesworth is innocent, his conviction can only be overturned by either the Virginia Court of Appeals or by a pardon. Earlier this year, the Innocence Project, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Hogan Lovells US LLP filed a motion before the Court of Appeals requesting that Haynesworth be exonerated.
Although Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring and Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Wade Kizer have joined the Innocence Project’s motion calling for Haynesworth’s exoneration, the court will hear oral arguments for the case on March 30th.
Read more about the Haynesworth case.
In the photo above, Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Thomas Haynesworth, Olga Akselrod, Staff Attorney for the Innocence Project and Thomas Widor, Associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP.
In June 1993, Pennsylvanian Anthony Wright was convicted of robbery, rape and murder based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who may have been involved in the crime and a confession that he said police coerced him to sign.
Twenty years later, several key pieces of evidence from the crime scene have not been subjected to DNA testing. They include multiple semen stains, blood stains and evidence collected in the rape kit during the victim’s autopsy.
Despite a 2002 law that approved post-conviction DNA testing for people convicted before 1995, four judges and the former Philadelphia District Attorney have blocked testing in Wright’s case for more than five years.
On February 23, Wright finally got some good news when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled the lower courts. The high court held that a confession to a crime does not bar someone from seeking post conviction DNA testing. After noting that the state legislature was motivated to pass the DNA testing law because of the exoneration of a man who had falsely confessed to the crime, the court said, "We need not be reminded of the countless situations where persons confess to crimes of which they are innocent, either out of desire to cover up for the guilty person or because of a psychological urge to do so."
In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants gave false confessions or admissions implicating themselves to law enforcement officials.
The case has now been sent back to the trial court to determine if Wright meets all of the requirements of the DNA testing law. According to the briefs that have been filed by the Innocence Project in the case, Wright meets these requirements and is urging the District Attorney to consent to the testing. For the last five years, the Innocence Project has agreed to pay for all DNA testing in the case.
Connecticut Also Considering a Death Penalty Repeal
Eleven years after Illinois passed a moratorium on capital punishment, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill abolishing the death penalty on March 9.
Back in January, Illinois lawmakers voted to do away with capital punishment. The governor then spent the following two months speaking with prosecutors, victims' families, death penalty opponents and religious leaders before making a decision, according to the Associated Press. "I think if you abolish the death penalty in Illinois, we should abolish it for everyone," the governor said.
The ban takes effect on July 1 and makes Illinois the fourth state in the past two years, following New York, New Jersey and New Mexico, to abolish capital punishment. Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 inmates remaining on Illinois’ death row.
"History will record that the modern movement to halt the use of capital punishment in America began with the Illinois moratorium in 2000 after thirteen men were exonerated off death row and the risk of executing the innocent became undeniable and intolerable," said Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project. "Gov. Quinn eliminates that risk forever in Illinois; others, recognizing this supremely unjust risk, will surely follow."
On March 8, Connecticut legislators also debated a repeal of the death penalty, where Scheck was featured at the hearing.
Scheck said he will leave the moral and religious arguments against the death penalty to others. His opposition is based primarily on two factors: Innocent people can wind up on death row, and the enormous resources it costs to implement the death penalty would be far better spent on better forensics testing and other law enforcement tools.
Aquatic Ecologist, Department of Natural Resources
When I was in graduate school in Virginia in the 1990s, I served on a jury in the case of a migrant worker who was accused of shooting and killing someone in his migrant housing complex. I remember I was appalled at the whole criminal procedure. When they were selecting the jury, they disqualified all the people of color because the migrant worker was Latino. The evidence against him consisted of a jailhouse informant who claimed that the defendant had told him everything that happened, an ex-girlfriend who testified that he was guilty and some ballistics evidence.
Previously, I had believed that if you went through the justice system and weren’t guilty, the truth would come out. But the jury was almost hung. One other juror and I were able to convince the jurors that there was too much doubt about what happened to convict him, but it was a very emotional process for me.
After that, I started reading a lot about the criminal justice system and about the death penalty. Virginia had one of the highest rates of execution at that time. That’s when I started realizing the problem of wrongful convictions and learned about the Innocence Project.
I have four boys now who are all elementary school age, and they are of color. I think about when they get older and how they might be at a disadvantage in some places just because of who they are. I can’t sit and let that happen.
I feel like I’m just a regular person who has, like everyone, struggled to find some kind of meaning in life. I have my job and I have my family and some kind of legacy. And I think about the people that are falsely accused and how they don’t have that opportunity to find themselves in prison. What does that say about us as a society that we have ripped those opportunities away from them? I read about these people that are exonerated, and they’re so generous. I cannot abide the fact that there are innocent people in prison. I feel like there’s no way that I could not give.
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