Innocence Blog

Lake County State’s Attorney Reviewing Illinois Man’s Guilty Plea

Posted: December 5, 2014 5:38 pm

The Lake County State’s Attorney in Illinois has agreed to review whether William Woodard is innocent of a sexual assault he pleaded guilty to as part of a deal with prosecutors in 2003, according to the Chicago Tribune. 

The Tribune reported that former Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller’s Office presented a plea deal to Woodard even though Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Mermel openly acknowledged in court that he did not know whether “the defendant is guilty of the crime or whether he’s innocent.”

Woodard always maintained his innocence and told the Tribune that he agreed to plead guilty after prosecutors told him that he could walk free on probation, and after his attorney reportedly inaccurately told him that he would not have to be listed on the Illinois Sex Offender Registry. After spending 14 months in jail on charges of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in 2003, Woodard pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint.

Woodard is seeking to be officially cleared of the crime because of the immense difficulties to employment, housing and humiliation that registration as a sex offender carries.

Current Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim’s office is reviewing Woodard’s case and many others as part of a reform agenda that he promised to deliver, while running for the office in 2012. 

Read the full article.  

Tags: Illinois, Guilty Pleas



Wrongly convicted couple detained in Qatar return to California

Posted: December 4, 2014 3:27 pm

Matthew and Grace Huang are en route back to California today after an appeals court cleared them of all charges in the 2013 death of their adopted daughter Gloria.

The couple attempted to leave Qatar on Sunday but was blocked from boarding their flight by local officials, who said another appeal had been filed. A spokesperson for the State Department later said paperwork rescinding the travel ban had not yet been processed and caused the delay.

The Huangs were arrested when Gloria, 8, died from severe malnutrition after being rushed to a Doha hospital in a coma. 

According to Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project, who provided the couple with legal council during the trial, Gloria suffered from a parasitic condition which interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. 

“From time to time she would exhibit an eating disorder — common among children with backgrounds similar to hers — where she would refuse food for days at a time and then eat more than an adult,” Brooks said. “Other times she would eat food from the garbage even when she had healthy food available.”

The Huangs were convicted of child endangerment and sentenced to three years in March. During the trial and appeal, the couple’s two remaining adopted children were initially placed in a Qatari orphanage but were eventually allowed to return to the U.S. to live with relatives in California. The couple hasn’t seen their sons since their arrest.

Read the full story here.

Tags: California



North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission to review Joseph Sledge case

Posted: December 3, 2014 4:30 pm

This week, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission began examining the case of Joseph Sledge, a client of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence for over ten years, who was convicted of a double-murder in 1978.
For 38 years, Sledge has denied involvement in the murders of Josephine and Ailene Davis, whose bodies were discovered on September 6, 1976. Earlier that day, Sledge had escaped from a nearby prison after a fellow inmate threatened his life. Police immediately made the connection between the gruesome murders and Sledge’s escape, but in 2012 the Center on Actual Innocence found that evidence including a bloody footprint, a handprint and DNA from hair found on the bodies does not match to Sledge. 
Of the two witnesses who testified during Sledge’s trial, one initially denied Sledge had confessed to him, only changing his story after being offered a deal in his own criminal case. He has since died. The other witness, Herman Baker, recanted shortly after the trial, saying he lied because police offered him early release from prison and a monetary reward. Despite his debilitating health conditions including pancreatitis, Baker is testifying before the Commission this week, telling the members he lied.
The eight-member Commission, founded in 2006, will hear evidence from Sledge’s case, and if they agree it merits further review, a panel of three judges will determine if he should be freed and exonerated. If he is found innocent, Sledge will be the longest-serving wrongfully convicted person in North Carolina history. 
Read the full story here.

Tags: North Carolina



Exoneree Gerard Richardson’s First Year of Freedom

Posted: December 2, 2014 4:40 pm

Innocence Project client Gerard Richardson, who was exonerated last December, was recently featured in a segment on New Jersey TV.  Gerard talks about his first year of freedom after serving 19 years for a murder that he didn’t commit.  DNA testing of a swab from a bite mark on the victims’ body excluded Gerard and pointed to an unknown male.  New Jersey law made it impossible to upload the DNA profile to the federal CODIS DNA database, which may have identified the real perpetrator.  Gerard has been working with the Innocence Project to get New Jersey lawmakers to amend the law to expand access to the DNA database.  In the video, Gerard explains how access to the database could help him put this injustice behind him:

Tags: New Jersey, Gerard Richardson



Texas Judge Opposes Death Penalty, Cites Risk of Wrongful Execution

Posted: December 1, 2014 7:30 pm

A Republican judge on Texas’ highest court came out against the death penalty on Wednesday after voting to stay the execution of Scott Panetti, a death row inmate who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals released a 6-page writ of dissent after he was out-voted by his peers 6-3 and Panetti’s stay was rejected.
Price wrote that the execution of a mentally-ill person violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. He also held that capital punishment should be done away with completely as long as there exists the remote possibility that an innocent person be put to death.
“I have voted to grant numerous applications for writs of habeas corpus that have resulted in the release of dozens of people who were wrongfully convicted,” he wrote, “and I conclude that it is wishful thinking to believe that this state will never execute an innocent person for capital murder.”
Price cited the National Registry of Exonerations and noted that his state ranked highest in 2013.
“These individuals who were exonerated proved that their convictions were erroneous based on DNA evidence that established their innocence, on the use of false evidence, or on other errors that occurred at their trials. I am convinced that, because the criminal justice system is run by humans, it is naturally subject to human error.”
Price went on to say that capital punishment is becoming obsolete since it was created to make sure dangerous criminals would never re-enter society. Now that the life without parole option is available, he wrote, capital punishment is not necessary to protect society from the offender.
Read the full story here.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



Update: Motion for testing in Rodney Reed case denied by visiting judge

Posted: November 26, 2014 1:45 pm

Judge Doug Shaver denied the Innocence Project’s motion for testing of evidence which could exclude Rodney Reed from involvement in the 1996 murder of 19-year-old Stacey Stites for which he is scheduled to be executed in January.
Staff Attorney Bryce Benjet appeared before the court Tuesday to request permission to test the victim’s clothing and the belt used to strangle her. Testing of beer cans found near Stites’ body have already revealed a potential match to a friend of her fiancé Jimmy Fennell, a former police sergeant who is now in prison on an unrelated sexual assault charge.
“DNA testing should be done in this case. It can prove who committed this crime. It can give the kind of certainty that we have to have, especially when we’re trying to put a man to death,” Benjet told the court.
Judge Shaver ruled that the motion was made to unreasonably delay the execution of Reed’s sentence. The court approved a separate motion to postpone Reed’s execution date until March 5.
Read the full story here.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



Innocence Project Seeks DNA Testing for Death Row Inmate

Posted: November 25, 2014 3:20 pm

Innocence Project staff attorney Bryce Benjet appeared before a Texas court today seeking DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could prove that Rodney Reed is innocent of the 1996 rape and murder of Stacey Stites. Reed, who is scheduled to be executed on January 14, 2015, has always maintained that he is innocent of the crime.
Stites was 19 years old and weeks away from wedding Jimmy Fennell, a former Georgetown police sergeant who is now in prison for a sexual assault of a woman while on the job. Fennell has become an alternative suspect in the case.
The victim’s body was found in the early morning hours after she was scheduled to start her shift at a local grocery store. Her car was found ten miles away. Although her mother testified that Fennell was set to take her to work that morning, he later claimed that the plan changed and that he was still asleep when she left. Officials never questioned Fennell about the timeline leading up to her disappearance and he got rid of the abandoned car shortly after.
Police tested semen found inside the victim and matched it to Rodney, who then revealed that he had a secret relationship with the victim and that he had been previously scared to admit to the affair since he was black and she was a white woman engaged to a police officer in a small Texas community. Several witnesses have confirmed knowledge of the affair.
Prosecutors have so far refused to allow the Innocence Project to conduct testing of a belt that was used to strangle Stites and her clothing. Significantly, DNA testing of two empty beer cans that were recovered near Stites’ body revealed a potential match to a good friend, neighbor and colleague of Fennell’s. The Innocence Project is hopeful that the court will grant testing which could decide once and for all who is responsible for Stites’ murder.
KEYE TV interviewed a cousin of Stites, Heather Stobbs, who is urging the state to grant Reed a new trial. Stobbs told KEYE TV, “If there’s this many questions about a case then you don’t kill someone over it. You find out what the truth is, and even if you have to offend people that are in positions of power than you offend them.”
Watch the full interview.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



Arkansas Woman Seeks Clemency From Governor Beebe

Posted: November 24, 2014 5:40 pm

On June 12, 1994, Belynda Goff walked out of her bedroom, where she had been sleeping with her three-year old son, to find her husband, Stephen, lying unconscious just inside the doorway of their apartment. She immediately called to request emergency medical assistance. The paramedics arrived ten minutes later. Despite the quick response by both Belynda and the paramedics, they were unable to find a pulse.
An autopsy revealed that Stephen’s cause of death was blunt force trauma to his head. A neighbor told police she had seen two men with baseball bats parked outside the Goff’s apartment the evening before Stephen’s murder. Belynda’s brother told police that Stephen had become involved in an arson scheme and was afraid that the other men involved might want to kill him. Despite this, Belynda became the target of police investigation, even though no murder weapon had been found inside the apartment, no witness claimed she was the killer, and no physical evidence has linked her to the murder.
Belynda has always maintained her innocence, and we have been working on her behalf to obtain DNA testing in her case. We recently won an order for testing, but during the time we were in court, crucial pieces of evidence were lost. While we are moving forward with DNA testing on the remaining evidence, it may not be able to provide the results we need to fully vindicate Belynda.
In order to guarantee justice for Belynda, we’re calling on the Arkansas Parole Board to vet Belynda’s petition for clemency and for Governor of Arkansas Mike Beebe to grant her clemency. We want to bring Belynda home for the holidays, and we need your help to make that happen.
Write to Governor Beebe here, and ask him to grant Belynda clemency so she can spend the holidays with her family this year.

Tags: Arkansas



California Man Expected to be Set Free After 36 Years

Posted: November 21, 2014 5:45 pm

After more than three decades behind bars, a California man who has served the state’s longest sentence for a wrongful conviction, is expected to be released next week.
Michael Ray Hanline was convicted of the 1978 murder of a Ventura man and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1980. The Los Angeles Times reported that despite being cleared by DNA evidence, prosecutors have not ruled out the possibility of a new trial for California Innocence Project client Hanline. DNA of crime scene evidence did not match to Hanline or his alleged accomplice.
In addition to the DNA evidence, sealed reports were uncovered that reveal that prosecutors failed to inform the defense that Hanline’s then girlfriend, Mry Bishoff, who served as a key witness in Hanline’s trial, was granted immunity for her testimony. Recent interviews over the last few months familiar with the trio suggest several other individuals had motives and the means to commit the crime.
In 2010, a federal judge recommended that Hanline’s conviction be set aside and that he be retried. But a U.S. district judge refused the recommendation. All of that changed last week when a Ventura County superior court judge set aside the conviction and sentence, scheduling a hearing for Monday where his bail and new trial date could be set.

“It’s amazing that Mike will finally be released after 36 years of wrongful incarceration,” said Justin Brooks, the director of the project at California Western School of Law, in a statement. “It’s time for him to get back to his family and his life.”

Read the full article.

Tags: California



Watch Now: Ebony Magazine’s ‘Race Still Matters’

Posted: November 20, 2014 10:50 am

In conjunction with its November issue, Ebony magazine produced a social justice and action video about race in America. “Race Still Matters: Protection Under the Law” features interviews with civil rights leaders, activists and the Innocence Project’s own Case Analyst, Edwin Grimsley, in an intimate conversation on the role race plays within the criminal justice system.
Watch the video.

Tags: Racial Bias



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