Innocence Blog

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



Charges Dropped Against Ohio Man After Four Decades

Posted: November 19, 2014 5:50 pm

Nearly forty years after an Ohio man was convicted of murder along with two codefendants, he is expected to walk out of prison a free man on Friday. Ricky Jackson and two other men were convicted of killing a money-order collector at a Cleveland grocery store based primarily on the eyewitness testimony of 12-year-old Eddie Vernon who said he saw the crime committed. There was no other evidence linking them to the crime, but they were sentenced to death anyway.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that after a two day hearing, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty told Judge Richard McMonagle that the case against Jackson had fallen apart based on Vernon’s recantation and dismissed the case.

“I can’t believe this is over,” Jackson cried. He thanked his attorneys from the Ohio Innocence Project, Brian Howe and Mark Godsey, and a team of supporters. When someone called Jackson’s family, his eyes, soaked from tears, beamed.
“It’s over,” Jackson yelled into the phone. “I’m coming home. I’m coming home. Be here to get me Friday, please. Let everybody know.”

The Ohio Innocence Project had been seeking a new trial for Jackson for years in an attempt to prove his innocence and correct the injustice that sent the trio to prison in 1975. That all came to an end this week when Vernon told the judge that he lied to police, prosecutors and juries as an attempt to please authorities that spiraled out of control and put Jackson and friends Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman behind bars.

“All the information was fed to me,” Vernon said. “I don’t have any knowledge about what happened at the scene of the crime.”
Later he said, “Everything was a lie. They were all lies.”

Based on Vernon’s recantation, attorneys who represent the brothers are expected to ask the prosecutor to drop the case against them too.
Read the full article.

Tags: Ohio



Listen Now: “All Things Considered” Talks National Academy of Sciences Study on Eyewitness Identification

Posted: November 19, 2014 1:40 pm

A recent episode of NPR’s “All Things Considered” discussed last month’s landmark report by the National Academy of Sciences that evaluated the scientific research on eyewitness identification and how DNA exonerations have proven that memories are imperfect. The discussion included University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett, who was on the committee that produced the report. Garrett noted that the way most police departments perform identification procedures hasn’t caught up to the research, which began over three decades ago. The report makes specific recommendations on how departments can prevent wrongful convictions by adopting best practices, included requiring that they be conducted blindly – meaning the officer who conducts the lineup be unaware of the identity of the suspect.
Listen to the interview and read more about the recent NAS report on memory and eyewitness identification.

Tags: Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



Test DNA Before Executing Texas Man

Posted: November 18, 2014 4:40 pm

Two months ahead of the scheduled execution date for Texas inmate Rodney Reed, The Intercept questions if the state is readying to kill an innocent man. Reed was convicted of the 1996 brutal rape and murder of Stacey Stites and sentenced to death. Now, as his execution date nears, Reed’s supporters and relatives of Stites, who was 19 years old and weeks away from wedding a former police officer, believe Reed was wrongly convicted and that Stites fiancé is responsible for her death.
The Intercept reports that years after Stites was murdered, Stites fiancé, Jimmy Lewis Fennell, Jr., was a police sergeant with the Georgetown, Texas, Police Department when he was arrested and ultimately pleaded guilty to kidnapping and improper sexual contact with a person in custody. Multiple victims came forward with similar stories revealing Fennell as a dangerous man, prompting suspicion into Stites’ case.
Stites’ body was found half dressed on the side of the road 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 Stites would be driving herself and that he was still asleep when she left. Officials never questioned the rookie cop Fennell about the timeline leading up to her disappearance, and he got rid of the abandoned car shortly after. He was dismissed as a suspect and attention shifted to Reed who had been accused of a number of sexual assaults but never convicted.
A year following Stites’ murder, police tested DNA from semen found inside Stites with DNA collected from an unrelated case in which Reed had been accused of assaulting a woman and determined it was a match. After that, authorities put together a story of how Reed kidnapped and assaulted her before dumping her body and getting rid of the car.
Reed eventually  revealed that he had a secret relationship with Stites 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.  
Reed was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. He  has maintained his innocence for the past 18 years with his family members and local activists insisting that Fennell was never sufficiently investigated as a suspect. His legal team claims the state mishandled and potentially contaminated evidence and withheld scientific evidence including two empty beer cans found at the crime scene that revealed DNA belonging to a fellow police officer and friend of Fennell.
Despite Fennell’s history and new evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court announced earlier this month that it will not review Reed’s appeal in which he argued that he deserved a new trial because he received incompetent legal help during his 1998 trial.
In July, Reed was given an execution date of January 14, 2015 and Innocence Project attorney Bryce Benjet is fighting for DNA testing on the belt used to strangle Stites and the tattered clothing she was found in—all of which have never been tested.

“[F]rankly, what we’re asking for is, I think, a pretty conservative thing,” Benjet says, “To do DNA testing of evidence before you execute someone.” A November 25 hearing has been scheduled to consider the request.

Stites’ relatives support the effort for DNA testing and have started a letter writing campaign to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to stop the execution.
Read the full article.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



New York Man to Be Cleared of Murder

Posted: November 17, 2014 5:30 pm

Nearly a year after a New York appellate court granted a hearing on Derrick Hamilton’s actual innocence claim, he is poised to become the next murder defendant to be exonerated by Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson this year.
The Daily News reported that Hamilton, who spent 20 years in prison for a 1991 murder he says he did not commit, was convicted largely based on eyewitness testimony that was recanted right after trail. He was paroled three years ago after the Daily News exposed his story, but his fight to clear his name endured.
Hamilton maintained he was in Connecticut when Nathaniel Cash was killed in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and that he was framed by former detective Louis Scarcella. Last year, Scarcella — a detective who handled some of Brooklyn’s most notorious crimes in the 1980s and 1990s – became the focus of a review conducted by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit. According to the Daily News, Hamilton was the first defendant to make a public allegation against Scarcella.
In January, the appeals court reinstated a motion to vacate his conviction, ruling that actual innocence claims should be heard regardless of procedural barriers. Hamilton has been waiting since then for the Conviction Integrity Unit to finish its review of the case, which mostly consisted of interviewing witnesses who backed Hamilton’s alibi.
Hamilton has taken up work as a paralegal since he was paroled and has helped with other wrongful conviction cases.
Read the full article

Tags: New York



The Marshall Project Officially Launches Site

Posted: November 17, 2014 3:50 pm

Three months after The Marshall Project broke a story in the Washington Post revealing new allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that likely caused Texas to wrongly execute Cameron Todd Willingham, the newly formed criminal justice journalism group officially launched its site with another feature story in the Post.  “Lethal mix: Lawyers’ mistakes, unforgiving law,” is an investigation of how a 1996 law that created a one-year statute of limitations caused many inmates to lose access to a final appeal.  According to the article, the deadline has been missed at least 80 times in capital cases, including sixteen who have since been executed.
Check out the site and read the full article

Tags: Dispatches, Cameron Todd Willingham



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