Murder Conviction Vacated for Louisiana Death Row Inmate
Posted: March 12, 2014 5:20 pm
A Louisiana man was exonerated and released from prison Tuesday afternoon after spending the past three decades on death row for a murder he did not commit. In a new column in The Atlantic, contributing editor Andrew Cohen recounts what led to the wrongful conviction of Glenn Ford and ultimately what freed him.
Ford, who is black, was convicted of the murder of Isadore Rozeman by an all-white jury in Louisiana in 1984 following a trial riddled with unreliable testimony. Witnesses included a coroner who did not actually examine the victim’s body testified about the time of death and a police officer who is not a fingerprint expert testified that a print matched to Ford.
Because Ford had done yard work for Rozeman, several witnesses placed him near the scene of the crime on the day of the murder. He willingly went to the police station and cooperated with the investigation for the months while maintaining his innocence from the beginning. Cohen writes:
Any exoneration is remarkable, of course. Any act of justice after decades of injustice is laudable. It is never too late to put to right a wrong. But what also is striking about this case is how weak it always was, how frequently Ford’s constitutional rights were denied, and yet how determined Louisiana’s judges were over decades to defend an indefensible result.
A pair of brothers, the Robinsons, were soon believed to be the real perpetrators and police even suspected one of them of being in possession of the murder weapon. One of them approached Ford and asked him to pawn jewelry that police later realized was similar to merchandise taken from Rozeman’s store.
Three months after Rozeman’s death, all three were charged with his murder after the girlfriend of one of the brothers incriminated Ford by saying he was not only with the Robinsons on the day of the murder, but that he still had the murder weapon. But a murder weapon was never found.
Besides the flawed testimony, Ford’s was represented by two o inexperienced and unprepared attorneys who were selected from an alphabetical listing of lawyers at the local bar association. To make matters worse, prosecutors tried and succeeded in keeping blacks off the jury.
But Ford’s attorney’s finally got the prosecutor’s to see the truth. Cohen writes:
This is a sad story with a happy ending. But it’s a story I’ve written before. And it raises the inescapable question of how many other condemned men and woman are sitting on death row in the nation’s prisons, after sham trials like this, after feckless appellate review, waiting for lightning to strike them the way it has Glenn Ford. How many men, that is, who have not yet been executed despite being innocent of murder.
Until the very end what happened here was neither law nor order. It was instead something arbitrary and capricious, like the application of the death penalty itself. For Glenn Ford, the man Louisiana now says is innocent of murder, once faced a death warrant—on February 28, 1991. Had that warrant been executed who exactly would have known of the injustice of that act? Twenty-six other Louisiana death row inmates were killed during his decades on death row—eight by lethal injection, 18 by the electric chair.
What a waste—of a man’s life, of millions of dollars in prison costs, of thousands upon thousands of hours of work by lawyers and judges and investigators and experts, all because the criminal justice system failed 30 years ago to provide to Ford with even a remotely fair trial. Soon it will be the first day of the rest of Glenn Ford’s life. He’ll try to make the best of it. Which is about all you can say, too, about the men and women responsible for Louisiana’s justice system.
Read the full article.
Tags: Louisiana, Death Penalty
South Carolina Man Requests Post-Conviction DNA Testing
Posted: March 11, 2014 5:15 pm
Lawyers for a South Carolina man who was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Bessie Kate Alexander, an elderly woman from western York County, South Carolina, have requested DNA testing on crime scene evidence saying that there are similarities between the murder of which their client was convicted and two other murders of elderly woman around the same time in the same area.
The Herald reported that William “Johnny” Hullett’s attorneys at the Wisconsin Innocence Project think the same person committed all three murders and that DNA could point toward a yet to be discovered serial killer.
University of Wisconsin law professor Byron Lichstein is the lead attorney on the case. He wants evidence slides from the three murders and said that if results reveal Hullet’s DNA, he would drop the appeal.
Even if Hullett’s DNA is not found on evidence connected to Alexander’s murder, Sixth Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said that would not mean he didn’t kill her. ”What they are looking for is someone else’s DNA, and then they can say, ‘Aha! This must be the real killer,’ ”Bracket said to the Herald.
To date, 314 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
Lichstein told the Herald, “Do the testing and address what the results show… . DNA testing has proven innocence. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and pretend they don’t exist.”
Read the full article.
Tags: South Carolina
Watch: CNN Premieres ‘Death Row Stories’
Posted: March 10, 2014 3:55 pm
Last night, CNN premiered its new six episode documentary series “Death Row Stories.” Executive produced by Alex Gibney and Robert Redford and narrated by Susan Sarandon, each episode chronicles the events of a death row case and uncovers shortcomings of the nation’s justice system.
The first episode highlighted the case of Edward Lee Elmore, who spent more than half of his life in prison before he was freed in 2012 after his legal team uncovered information suggesting that evidence was planted or hidden from defense attorneys at trial.
The show airs Sundays on CNN at 9:00 p.m. (EST)
Read more about the series and Elmore’s case.
Tags: Dispatches, Death Penalty
Maryland Lawmakers Call for Police Lineup Reform
Posted: March 7, 2014 4:15 pm
Tags: Maryland, Eyewitness Misidentification
‘Timely Justice’ and Cameron Todd Willingham
Posted: March 6, 2014 5:45 pm
by Hannah Riley
In June of 2013, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the “Timely Justice Act” into law. The legislation was initially proposed by death penalty proponents who argued that the process from conviction to execution took far too long, with the average length of stay on Florida’s death row hovering at almost 15 years. Despite the fact that the state holds the dubious distinction of the most death-row exonerations in the country — Florida has released 24 prisoners previously sentenced to death — the new law significantly accelerates the pace of the capital punishment process, requiring the governor to issue an execution warrant within just 30 days of death row inmates exhausting their legal remedies. Once the death warrant is signed, the execution must be carried out within 180 days.
According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, nationally, for every 10 people that have been executed, one person has been exonerated and released from death row (after having spent an average of 10 years in solitary confinement). In Florida, for every three people that have been executed, one has been released from death row. These grim statistics reflect just how broken the institution of capital punishment is, and, if anything, they support a moratorium on the death penalty, not a sped-up version of the same fundamentally flawed system. No one can guarantee that justice will never miscarry, and when an irreversible sentence — death — is handed down, it should not be done so without certainty. But how can we ever be certain when it’s commonplace for new, exculpatory evidence to surface years — sometimes decades — after the crime?
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the state of Texas on February 17, 2004. He had been on death row for 13 years for allegedly killing his three young daughters in a house fire. He always maintained his innocence. Prosecutors relied on two pieces of evidence to convict Willingham at his 1992 trial: expert testimony from two fire officials and a jailhouse informant’s assertion that Willingham had confessed to him. Both have since been proven to be false, but it took more than a decade for the truth to surface.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission, formed a year after Willingham was killed, unanimously recognized the problems with the arson investigators’ opinions in the case, and multiple leaders in the field of fire investigation have since concluded that there was absolutely no sign of foul play in the fire. Gerald Hurst, a renowned arson expert, submitted a report days before the execution date stating that Willingham’s conviction was based on erroneous forensic analysis. Despite the fact that state officials received the report, Willingham was executed.
In 2000, Johnny Webb (the jailhouse informant who had implicated Willingham) submitted a written recantation of his testimony to Judge Joe Jackson, who had been the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case. Inexplicably, the Motion to Recant Testimony was not filed in Willingham’s case file, meaning no one representing Willingham was informed of the recantation.
Although a decade has passed since Willingham’s execution, more new evidence pointing to his innocence continues to surface. At the 1992 trial, both Webb and then-prosecutor Jackson testified that Webb would receive no favorable treatment or sentencing for his implication of Willingham. However, a newly discovered note found in Webb’s case file states that Webb’s charges should be listed as robbery in the second degree, as opposed to the more serious first-degree robbery charge he had originally been convicted of, “based on coop in Willingham.”
The discovery of this note strongly suggests that Jackson deceived the Navarro County District Attorney’s office as well as the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles about the existence of the deal. In fact, when the district attorney’s office opposed granting Willingham a stay of execution, it was on the basis that any assertions of faulty science were irrelevant given Webb’s testimony implicating Willingham. Had Webb’s deal been public knowledge, Willingham’s life almost certainly would have been spared.
The Timely Justice Act has already passed in Florida. In Missouri, last week, the Senate heard about a similar bill which would limit extensions for appeals and set strict deadlines for the Missouri Supreme Court to schedule executions for people sentenced to death on kidnapping and murder convictions. Exculpatory evidence is continuing to come to light 22 years after the fire that took the lives of Willingham’s daughters, underscoring the fact that each death row case is unique and incredibly complicated. The system must allow ample time for the truth to emerge. As Willingham’s tragic legacy reminds us, you can’t free an executed man.
Tags: Texas, Death Penalty, Cameron Todd Willingham
Watch: Barry Scheck Talk about the Work of the Innocence Project
Posted: March 6, 2014 4:20 pm
As part of leading global banking management firm Goldman Sachs’ ongoing efforts to communicate with the broader public, it launched the Talks@GS speaker series. The series, which features leading thinkers and influencers from a broad range of sectors, recently invited Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck to its New York office for a session. Scheck spoke about the creation of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and how using DNA in criminal investigations has transformed the justice system. Highlights from that talk can now be viewed on the Talks@GS page.
‘Beatrice Six’ Allowed to Appeal Judge’s Decision
Posted: March 5, 2014 4:45 pm
Two months after a group of Nebraskans dubbed the “Beatrice Six” brought a civil suit against Gage County and various law enforcement officials involved in their wrongful convictions, a federal judge said the group’s lawyers can proceed with an appeal of his decision to dismiss Gage County from their wrongful prosecution lawsuit.
The Associated Press reported that such appeals are usually allowed only after a final decision has been reached in a lawsuit, but in this case, the lawsuit ended in a mistrial in late January when the jury failed to reach a verdict after three days.
In 1985, Helen Wilson, a 65-year-old woman from Beatrice, Nebraska, was raped and murdered in her home. Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Debra Shelden, James Dean and Kathy Gonzalez were convicted of the crime four years later based on faulty forensics and false confessions. They served a combined 77 years in prison. The group claims authorities conducted a reckless investigation, manufactured evidence against them and failed to properly train the sheriff’s officials who conducted the investigation. But U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf said that the exonerees failed to present any real evidence that Gage County failed to train the sheriff’s investigators, and he dismissed the county from the lawsuit.
The estate of White, who died in 2011, and the surviving five were seeking at least $14 million in damages, saying their civil rights were violated and they were coerced into making damaging statements. Three of the six confessed and implicated the others.
The Associated Press reports:
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Kopf said the plaintiffs should not have to wait until the end of the second trial before being allowed to appeal the dismissal of the county.
“If the plaintiffs were successful on appeal, a third trial would then be necessary,” Kopf wrote in his order. “This would not be an efficient use of judicial resources, and it would subject all parties to unnecessary expense and other burdens of trial.”
Read the full article.
In Support of the Innocence Project
Posted: March 5, 2014 4:10 pm
The Virginia-based metal band Lamb of God is donating $10 from every “As the Places Burn” package to the Innocence Project. Randy Blythe, one of the band’s vocalists, was wrongly accused of murder in the Czech Republic in 2010. Blythe was acquitted of all charges in 2013. Lamb of God’s generous collection will help raise awareness and funds to free the innocent and reform the criminal justice system.
Oklahoma Murder Case Gets a Second Look
Posted: March 4, 2014 2:15 pm
Nearly twenty years after an Oklahoma woman was convicted of the murder of her infant son, biological and blood evidence from the case is being given a second look. Michelle Murphy was a teenage mother when a Tulsa County jury found her guilty of first-degree murder in the fatal slashing of her baby, Travis Wood, and imposed a no-parole life prison sentence.
Tulsa World reported that Murphy made a statement to the police saying that she accidentally cut the baby when she picked him up after a confrontation with a neighbor. At a preliminary hearing in 1994, Murphy’s defense pointed blame on her teenage neighbor, William Lee, who testified that he looked through a window and saw Wood in a pool of blood with his throat cut.
At trial, Murphy said she was coerced into confessing and wanted the questioning to end. She told the jury that someone had entered her home and murdered her son while she was asleep. Lee died in an accidental asphyxiation before Murphy’s trial so jurors heard Lee’s tape-recorded testimony.
Last year, Murphy’s legal team filed an application for post-conviction relief on her behalf and filed court papers asserting that Murphy and her son were excluded as the source of blood from the crime scene. Police and medics found the baby dead on the kitchen floor surrounded by blood.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Staff Attorney Karen Thompson will appear in court on behalf of Murphy at a hearing set for March 25 before Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough.
Read the full article.
Wyoming Introduces Compensation Bill
Posted: March 3, 2014 6:15 pm
Eight months after Wyoming saw its first DNA exoneration, the state is considering legislation that would compensate the wrongly convicted. Andrew Johnson, who spent 23 years behind bars before being cleared of a rape he did not commit, is poised to become the first beneficiary of the legislation.
The Casper Star-Tribune reported that the bill passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate last week and is now being considered in the House. Statutes providing for some form of compensation for the wrongly convicted are already in place in 29 states plus Washington, D.C.
The bill meets the federal standard of providing $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with a maximum of up to $500,000. For Johnson, 63, who served nearly 24 years, the payout would equate to $21,739 for every full year in jail.
Read the full article.
Read about compensation for the Wrongly Convicted and see what the statute is in your state.
Tags: Wyoming, Exoneree Compensation