Innocence Blog

Inside Look on Freeing the Innocent

Posted: September 30, 2014 4:20 pm

Nearly a month after two North Carolina half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released from prison based on DNA evidence that implicated another man, two people who played pivotal roles in overturning their convictions spoke about the case to North Carolina’s Public Radio.

Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who spent 30 years on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, were convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl and languished behind bars until the North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission started an investigation into their case. Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, the Commission’s executive director, and Sharon Stalleto, the chief investigator, reviewed the brothers’ case and uncovered evidence that revealed both men were wrongly convicted.

Listen to Montgomery-Blinn and Stalleto describe their experience working on the case and read more about it.

Tags: North Carolina



Washington Man Compensated for Ten Years Behind Bars

Posted: September 29, 2014 5:15 pm

An Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) client was awarded nearly a half a million dollars in compensation at a hearing on Friday. Brandon Olebar spent 10 years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of robbery and burglary based solely on eyewitness identification.
The Seattle Times reported that Olebar is the organization’s first client to receive compensation under a law passed last year. He was granted $546,690 — $49,671 of which will go toward covering attorney fees.
Olebar, who was joined at the hearing by his wife and newborn daughter, told the Times he plans to use the money to get an apartment, buy a car and go back to school.
The victim in the case said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes and that they had tattoos of feathers on their faces. Two days after the attack, Olebar was identified from a photo montage despite the fact that he did not have a facial tattoo and had an alibi. In light of the new evidence, two IPNW law students tracked down and interviewed three of the assailants, who signed sworn statements admitting their involvement and denying that Olebar was present during the attack. The evidence was ultimately presented to the chief criminal deputy prosecutor. The district attorney’s office moved to vacate Olebar’s conviction in December.
Under the law that was passed in 2013, people who were wrongfully convicted in Washington are now able to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state and receive up to $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial. Prior to the passage of the law, the wrongly convicted in Washington could only sue based on something other than their wrongful conviction, such as police or prosecutorial misconduct.
Read the full article.

Tags: Washington, Exoneree Compensation



Innocence Project Applauds Outgoing Attorney General

Posted: September 26, 2014 5:25 am

Following the announcement on Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder that he will be stepping down as the nation’s attorney general, the Innocence Project commends his tremendous leadership in helping to uncover and prevent wrongful convictions. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld had the following to say about his service:

Attorney General Holder has been an outstanding advocate for justice in many ways, but under his tenure several things stand out in his leadership to protect the innocent. He took a critical first step in validating and developing scientific standards for forensic practices by helping to establish the first ever National Commission on Forensic Science. Similarly, when it was learned that FBI analysis may have given improper testimony in cases involving hair analysis, he agreed to an unprecedented review of thousands of cases and has steadfastly kept to that promise. And breaking a 20-year stalemate, he has initiated a policy where for the first time government law enforcement officers are required to electronically record interrogations in most instances. His tenure will be unquestionably remembered for his unwavering commitment to fairness and justice.

In addition to his work to protect the innocent, Holder should be commended for his work to improve the criminal justice system more broadly. Just this week, he appeared at a forum hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice where he called for sweeping changes to end over- incarceration. He has been a staunch advocated for fairer sentencing, seeking to end mandatory minimums. Additionally, he has often spoken out about the racial problems that plague the criminal justice system, most recently addressing the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.



Star-Ledger Says Fix DNA Testing Law

Posted: September 25, 2014 4:10 pm

A recent editorial in New Jersey’s Star-Ledger called on the state’s legislators to fix the current DNA testing law in two important ways: 1) allowing people who have already been released from prison access to testing to prove their innocence; and 2) allowing greater access to the federal DNA database, which could help identify the real perpetrators of crimes.
New Jersey exoneree Gerard Richardson, who served nearly two decades in prison for a murder he did not commit before DNA testing exonerated him, testified at the state’s capital in favor of a bill to fix both problems. Richardson was convicted based largely on the testimony of a forensic dentist who testified that his teeth matched a bite mark found on the victim’s body. Even after DNA testing of a swab taken from the bite mark excluded Richardson as the source and pointed to another male perpetrator, he remained behind bars because the law prevented the profile from being run through the DNA database. The Star-Ledger writes:

This is not only a problem for the wrongly imprisoned, it’s a threat to public safety. In 153 of the nation’s 316 DNA exonerations, the true perpetrator was later identified, many times through this database — and in most cases, that person had gone on to commit other crimes, including more than 30 murders and 70 sexual assaults.
We’ve got to catch guilty people immediately. This bill proposed in the Senate would help do that, by making it easier to enter DNA test results from private laboratories into the national DNA databank, to settle claims of innocence and reveal the true perpetrator of the crime.
The same bill would also fix the second serious problem with our state’s DNA law — that it prohibits testing for anyone who is not currently in custody. This means that if you’ve already done your prison time, you have no way to prove your innocence, even if you offer to pay for DNA testing yourself.

Lawmakers should vote yes on this bill, because the costs of both fixes is minimal. If an in-person site inspection is necessary for a private laboratory, the defendant can pay the travel costs. And allowing ex-cons to get DNA testing affects only a small number of people — after all, if you’re no longer in custody, you have little incentive to seek DNA testing if you’re guilty.

Read the full editorial.
Read more about Richardson’s case.

Tags: New Jersey, Gerard Richardson



Tony Goldwyn Inspired by Innocence Project

Posted: September 24, 2014 4:30 pm

Innocence Project Artists’ Committee Co-Chair Tony Goldwyn recently sat down with Mother Jones magazine to promote the fourth season of the ABC hit drama Scandal. In addition to speaking about his starring role as the leader of the free world, Goldwyn also discussed his inspiration for creating WEtv’s first scripted drama, The Divide, about a powerful district attorney whose career is jeopardized by an investigation conducted by a fictional innocence clinic. He says:

I directed and produced Conviction, a movie about a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. I got to know Innocence Project Co-Founder Barry Scheck very well — he’s a character in the movie — and I got very passionate about the cause. It’s just so inherently dramatic. My co-producer said, “There’s a TV series in this.” Then Richard LaGravenese and I came up with the idea of a prosecutor who gets it wrong. I never wanted to do a polemic. What interested me was the moral divide: In trying to do the right thing, where’s the line you cross?

Read the full article.

Tags: Dispatches



Delays in Compensation Hurt Exonerees, Benefit the State

Posted: September 23, 2014 3:05 pm

In the wake of the passing of New York exoneree William Lopez on Saturday, Radley Balko wrote a column in the Washington Post about the need to improve the way the wrongly convicted are compensated. Lopez, who was freed from prison in January 2013 after serving 23 years for a murder he did not commit, died from a tragic asthma attack days before his multi-million dollar civil suit for false imprisonment was set to start. Innocence Project client and fellow New York exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic, who was exonerated by DNA in 2006, helped to secure Lopez’s freedom and told the New York Post that Lopez was looking forward to being compensated.
Lopez isn’t the first exoneree to suffer with medical issues while waiting to be compensated. Balko writes about Paul House in Tennessee, who, like Lopez, wasn’t exonerated by DNA evidence, which means that even if he is awarded compensation, the state can stop paying once he dies. House developed multiple sclerosis while behind bars and left prison in a wheelchair. According to Balko, the stalling of the compensation process proves how the system falls short. Lopez’s family plans to pursue his lawsuit. Balko writes:

… [C]onsider the Tennessee case of Paul House, who served 22 years in prison before his conviction was overturned and he was released in 2008. While he was in prison, House developed multiple sclerosis. House’s doctors believe the state prison system was late diagnosing him, then under-treated him once he had been diagnosed. While in prison, House wasted away. He left prison a ghoulish, wheelchair-bound residuum of his former self. But because House wasn’t exonerated by DNA evidence, he is ineligible to take advantage of Tennessee’s law to compensate the wrongly convicted. His best hope now lies with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, making House’s compensation more of a political question than a legal one. What’s more, even if he is eventually compensated, the state gets to stop paying once House dies. Which means every year that prosecutors fought House’s release in spite of growing evidence of his innocence, every year that the state kept in prison and under-treated his disease, and every year that Tennessee governors fail to act in his case is one less year Tennessee has to send checks to Paul House.
On top of all of that, unless he is granted some sort of exemption, it could end up making more financial sense for House to refuse compensation even if it’s offered to him. House’s extensive medical bills are currently covered under Tennessee Medicare. But if he is exonerated and eligible for compensation, the new income could make him ineligible for Medicare. For someone in House’s condition, that could end up being a net loss.

Read the article.
Learn more about Paul House.
Learn more about Jeff Deskovic.

Tags: New York, Jeff Deskovic



Twenty Years Later, Convictions Overturned for Philadelphia Man

Posted: September 22, 2014 3:20 pm

Photo: Anthony Wright’s family and legal team celebrate his victory outside the courthouse in Philadelphia.
With the consent of the Philadelphia district attorney, a Court of Common Pleas judge today granted Anthony Wright’s motion to overturn his convictions. Wright served 23 years for a rape and murder that new DNA testing reveals was committed by another man with a long criminal history. In addition, DNA testing of clothing alleged by police to have been worn by Wright to commit the crime, now shows that the clothes were not, in fact, his.
“You are now presumed innocent until proven guilty,” said Judge D. Webster. Wright wiped away his tears as the judge announced his ruling.
Police claimed that after merely 14 minutes in custody, Wright voluntarily gave a full and complete signed confession of the 1991 rape and murder of 77-year-old North Philadelphia resident Louise Talley. Wright, however, who was just 20 years old when he was arrested, has always maintained his innocence and testified that he only signed the alleged confession, which the police wrote out, after the interrogating detectives threatened him with bodily harm. Subsequent to securing the confession, police also claimed that they recovered from Wright’s home the bloody clothes that Wright wore on the night of the crime. DNA testing now proves that the clothing actually belonged to the victim, which raises serious questions about where the police actually recovered the clothing.
Wright obtained the help of the Innocence Project, which sought to conduct DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. The former Philadelphia district attorney objected to the testing for more than five years, and the case eventually went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court for a new hearing on DNA testing in 2011. At that point, new District Attorney Seth Williams agreed to permit testing.
The testing of the rape kit identified spermatozoa recovered from the victim’s vagina and rectum that excluded Wright as the source and identified Ronnie Byrd, as the real perpetrator. Byrd was twice the age of Wright and almost half the age of the victim at the time of the crime and had a long criminal record, which included crimes in and around Philadelphia. Byrd died in South Carolina in early 2013 and was never able to be questioned about the crime or prosecuted for it.
Wright was surrounded by his relatives when he received the news in court today that his conviction was reversed. The case was adjourned to give the district attorney’s office time to conduct further investigation and decide whether it intends to retry Wright for the crime.
In addition to the Innocence Project, Wright is represented by Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP.
Read more from today’s press release.

Tags: Pennsylvania, Anthony Wright



Philadelphia District Attorney Agrees to New Trial for Man Who Served 22 Years for a Murder DNA Proves Was Committed by Another Man

Posted: September 19, 2014 6:05 pm

After initially denying requests for a new trial, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office today announced that it will agree to a new trial for Anthony Wright. New DNA testing of the rape kit identified a man with a lengthy criminal record as the real perpetrator.
Wright, of Pennsylvania, was convicted of the rape and murder of an elderly woman. Today, post-conviction DNA testing excludes him as the source and points to another suspect.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Wright, who has been serving a life sentence since 1993, has maintained his innocence since 1991 and said he was working a construction job when the crime was committed. He also maintains that his confession was coerced by a police officer who threatened him while he was handcuffed to a chair.
During the investigation, a rape kit was taken of the victim’s corpse and police claim to have collected blood stained clothes from Wright’s house. Recent DNA testing of the rape kit has revealed that Ronnie Byrd, a career criminal and crack user who was living in an abandoned house next door to the victim’s was the real perpetrator. DNA testing of the pants reveals that they did not belong to Wright but rather had been worn by the victim. Wright will appear in court on Monday before Common Pleas Court Judge D. Webster Keogh who, given the prosecution’s consent, is expected to vacate the conviction and grant Wright a new trial.
Read the Inquirer’s coverage here:
and here:

Tags: Pennsylvania, False Confessions, Eyewitness Misidentification



Brooklyn Convictions Overturned, Charges Dismissed

Posted: September 18, 2014 6:20 pm

On Wednesday, a panel of New York state appeals court judges unanimously reversed the convictions and dismissed the indictments against Everton Wagstaffe and Reginald Conner, two Brooklyn men who were found guilty of murder and kidnapping more than two decades ago.
The Innocence Project has been consulting on the case since2006, working with lawyers at Bedlock Levine & Hoffman who represented of Everton and lawyers at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP who represented Conner.
Post-conviction DNA testing revealed foreign hairs on the victim’s body that did not come from Wagstaffe or Conner. But as the New York Times reported, yesterday’s ruling was based primarily on the fact that prosecutors violated the defendant’s constitutional rights by burying documents that might have shown that detectives and the prime witness, Brunilda Capella, who has serious substance abuse problems, had lied.
“Given the lack of any other evidence tying the defendants to the crime, the credibility of Capella and the investigating detectives was of primary importance in this case, so that the burying of the subject documents by the prosecution” was significant, the court ruled, according to the New York Times.
Connor, now 46, served 15 years and works for a film production company while Wagstaffe, 45, remains in state prison where he has been in custody since his arrest in January 1992. He refused to be released on parole or probation if it meant he had to admit to guilt. They have maintained their innocence since the very beginning.
Read the full article.

Tags: New York



The Oklahoman Praises Innocence Project Efforts

Posted: September 17, 2014 5:15 pm

Less than a week after Michelle Murphy was exonerated of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence and other previously undisclosed evidence pointing to her innocence, the Oklahoman underscored the importance of Innocence Project efforts in an editorial that was published today. Just one day after Murphy’s exoneration, the newspaper published an op-ed written by Oklahoma Innocence Project Executive Director Lawrence Hellman that questioned how many other innocent people like Murphy were sitting behind bars across the state.
Twenty years ago, Murphy, 17 at the time, awoke in the apartment she shared with her 15-week-old son and other child to find the infant brutally stabbed to death on the kitchen floor. She immediately went to a neighbor and called the police. After hours of interrogation, Murphy was coerced into claiming that she accidentally killed her baby when she knelt down to pick up a knife following a confrontation with a neighbor. At trial, the prosecution falsely implied to the jury that blood recovered from the scene matched Murphy’s blood type. She was convicted based largely on what evidence now proves was a false confession.
Although Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough found Murphy innocent and formally dismissed the case on Friday, District Attorney Tim Harris, wasn’t willing to say Murphy had been exonerated and pointed to legal red tape which prevents him from retrying the case. The Oklahoman writes:

Instead it seems clear from a distance that the conviction was flawed from the outset — a young woman was overwhelmed by a legal system that’s the fairest in the world, a system that gets it right the overwhelming majority of the time, but erred badly this time.
Murphy had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now she’s free and looking to begin anew at age 37. Her plans? “Live a life. Try to find a job. I’ve always known I’m innocent.”
Cases like this are rare, thank goodness. As Hellman noted, there have been fewer than 30 exonerations in Oklahoma in the past quarter century. But cases like Murphy’s demonstrate the importance of what Hellman and his staff on the campus of Oklahoma City University do. One innocent person in prison is one too many.

Read the full editorial.

Tags: Oklahoma



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