Innocence Blog

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

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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: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20140919_DNA_tests_from_1991_rape-murder_point_to_a_new_suspect.html
 
and here: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20140920_New_trial_for_lifer_after_DNA_raises_questions_about_murder_conviction.html



Tags: Pennsylvania, False Confessions, Eyewitness Misidentification

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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

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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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Dallas Morning News Says Innocence Claim Shows Flawed Justice System

Posted: September 16, 2014 4:30 am

An editorial in Saturday’s Dallas Morning News pointed out the cracks in Texas’ criminal justice system in the wake of prosecutorial misconduct and new DNA evidence pointing to the innocence of Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee.
 
Days after the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas joined local counsel to file legal papers urging a Dallas County court to overturn Allen and Mozee’s murder convictions, which were based largely on false confessions, the editorial stressed the need to pass legislation for mandatory recording of interrogations. The Dallas Morning News writes:


Key to the prosecutions is what transpired between Mozee and a detective in the interrogation room. The detective said the suspect was well-rested and lucid for the last session. Mozee said he was strung out on drugs and alcohol and was off his psychiatric medication. Moreover, he said the detective threatened him with these words: “Somebody’s going to get the needle, and it’s going to be you if you don’t come up with something.” That last interrogation ended with Mozee signing a statement depicted by prosecutors as a confession but later disputed by the suspect himself. Further, it was at odds with other evidence in the case, the Innocence Project brief says.
 

 
The phenomenon of false or coerced confessions has been established in recent years as contributing to an alarming percentage of convictions later overturned by DNA tests. It would be foolish for state lawmakers to ignore the chance to build in a common-sense safeguard and require police to start a recording when they formally question a suspect. Jurors would be thankful for eliminating the guesswork.

Read the full editorial.



Tags: Texas

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New DNA Evidence and Improper Bite Mark Analysis Point to Mississippi Death Row Inmate’s Innocence

Posted: September 15, 2014 5:20 pm

The Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project filed a motion in the Mississippi Supreme Court today urging the court to vacate the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Eddie Lee Howard, Jr., based on new DNA evidence and improper bite mark analysis. Dr. Michael West, the forensic dentist who provided the only physical evidence linking Howard to the crime and who served as an expert in four other cases where the defendants were later found to be innocent, now maintains that the identification of suspects through bite mark analysis is entirely unreliable. Similarly, the American Board of Forensic Odontology, the certifying board for forensic dentists, now concedes that it is impossible to identify a defendant from bite mark analysis where the universe of potential suspects is unknown. Male DNA recovered from the murder weapon excludes Howard as the source, and other testing undermines West’s assertions that the victim was bitten.
 
The New York Times reported that in the more than 30years since forensic dentistry was popularized during the televised trial of serial murderer Ted Bundy, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable.
 
Howard, who has been on death row for the past two decades, could join the 18 people across the country that have already been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing after serving time on death row.
 
The Times reports: “Still, without glaring new proof of innocence, courts have been reluctant to reopen cases based on even the most dubious of dental claims, leaving scores more defendants with questionable convictions to languish in prison or on death row, said Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project’s director of strategic litigation.”
 
Howard was twice convicted of the 1992 murder of Georgia Kemp, who was murdered in her home. His first conviction was reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which found that the trial court erred in allowing Howard to represent himself at his own death penalty trial. But in both the first and second trials, the prosecution was based on West’s testimony and statements allegedly made by Howard to law enforcement. Howard, who has struggled with severe mental health issues, never confessed to the crime, but allegedly told a detective after his arrest that “the case was solved.” He told police to investigate a handful of other people but, instead, the medical examiner had the victim’s body exhumed so West could look for bite marks. Without showing any evidence of his findings, West testified “to a reasonable medical certainty” that Howard was the biter.
 
Throughout his three-decade career, West investigated more than 5,200 deaths and more than 300 bite marks. Two years ago, his thinking shifted drastically and he indicated in a 2012 deposition that bite mark analysis was open to error, and that with the availability of DNA testing it should not be used in court.
 
In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Howard the right to conduct DNA testing on crime scene evidence, which included several swab sticks, most likely from the rape kits, as well as external, vaginal and oral/anal swabs; a butcher knife suspected to be the murder weapon; a random box of matches, knee-high nylons; a pair of house slippers; a nightgown belonging to the victim; the telephone severed telephone cord and the sheets from the victim’s bed. The analysts were unable to find male DNA on any of the evidence except the knife, which contained a small amount of male DNA on the blade that did not belong to Howard.
 
Howard’s lawyers argue in the motion that given the new revelations regarding bite mark analysis as well as the new DNA evidence excluding Howard as the source of DNA recovered on the knife used in the murder, Howard’s conviction should be overturned.
 
A copy of the legal papers filed today is available here. Howard is represented by Tucker Carrington and Will McIntosh of the Mississippi Innocence Project, as well as Vanessa Potkin, senior staff Attorney, and Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation, of the Innocence Project.
 
Read more in the press release.
 
Read the full article.



Tags: Mississippi, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Bitemark Evidence, Death Penalty

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Oklahoma Woman Exonerated of Infant Son’s Death Based on DNA and Other Evidence

Posted: September 15, 2014 3:30 pm

With the consent of Tulsa District Attorney Tim Harris, a Tulsa court exonerated Michelle Murphy on Friday of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence and other previously undisclosed evidence pointing to her innocence. Recent DNA testing of crime scene evidence points to an unknown male as the real perpetrator. In the course of representing Murphy, lawyers also uncovered other evidence pointing to Murphy’s innocence that was known to the prosecution at the time of trial but never disclosed to the defense.
 



 
KOTV- CBS Tulsa reported that Murphy spent two decades behind bars and that the judge’s ruling Friday also marked the 20th anniversary of her son’s death.
 
“I spent 20 years wrongfully in prison for something I didn’t do, and I’ve been fighting all these years to prove that,” Murphy said, according to KOTV- CBS.
 
Murphy is represented by Richard O’Carroll and Sharisse O’Carroll of O’Carroll & O’Carroll in Tulsa and Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project.
 
Read the full article and watch the news clip.
 
Read more in the press release.



Tags: Oklahoma

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Federal Conviction Integrity Unit to Launch in Washington, D.C.

Posted: September 12, 2014 4:40 pm

The Washington Post reported that the first conviction integrity unit within a U.S. attorney’s office will be launched in Washington, D.C., by federal prosecutors in an effort to identify potential wrongful convictions. The formation of the unit comes in response to a series of exonerations from flawed FBI forensic evidence and testimony.
 
D.C.’s top prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. said he will add resources to his office’s Special Proceedings Division, assign at least two attorneys to investigate cases and be tasked with recommending practices for investigators and prosecutors to help avoid future errors.
 
The Washington Post reports:


Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which has worked with Machen’s office, called the unit an important practical step that could help defendants seeking exoneration avert years-long litigation through cooperation, and she said she hoped that it would allow for some transparency so that the unit was not just “prosecutors reviewing prosecutors.”
 
She added: “It is an important cultural step for the office to officially recognize that there are wrongful convictions in the District of Columbia, and there may be enough of them to necessitate the formation of this unit.”

Read the full article.



Tags: District of Columbia

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Effort to Clear Two Dallas County Men Underway

Posted: September 11, 2014 6:00 pm

The Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas joined local counsel to file legal papers today urging a Dallas County court to overturn the murder convictions of Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee based on prosecutorial misconduct and new DNA evidence pointing to their innocence.
 
The Dallas Morning News reported that the Dallas County District Attorney Office is reviewing the case in which former prosecutor Rick Jackson represented the state against Allen and Mozee, who were convicted in 2000 of the 1999 murder of Reverend Jesse Borns Jr., despite a lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime. Borns was punched repeatedly and stabbed to death outside a store where he worked. According to the district attorney’s office, they have not yet talked to Jackson who is now retired from practicing law.
 
In addition to a lack of evidence linking Allen and Mozee to Borns’ body, there were no witnesses who could place them at the scene of the crime.
 
“There was none then, and there’s none now,” said Innocence Project Senior Attorney Nina Morrison, who represents Mozee.
 
The legal organizations performed DNA testing on a trove of physical evidence recovered from the scene, and none of the items matched to the two defendants. However, DNA from one or more persons that does not match the defendants or the victim was identified on several items including a hammer found next to the victim’s body and a hair underneath the victim’s fingernails, potentially from a close-range struggle in which the victim suffered numerous defensive wounds to his hands.
 
The two men were convicted based on testimony from jailhouse informants and an unrecorded confession from Mozee, who has a history of mental illness. Shortly after he confessed, Mozee recanted and said it was coerced.
 
The legal documents filed today focus on contents discovered in the prosecutor’s original file under the “open file” policy adopted by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2008. Among the contents in Jackson’s file were letters from inmates demanding reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony, which they maintain was promised in return for their testimony. At the trial, they claimed to have heard Allen and Mozee admitting to the murder. These letters were never disclosed during the 2000 trial, and the two inmates have since told defense attorneys their initial testimony was false.
 
Gary Udashen, the Dallas attorney representing Allen, said to the Morning News, he has a “high degree of confidence that the convictions are going to be set aside.”
 
“Whether or not it ultimately results in an actual innocence finding,” he said to the Morning News, “I think a lot of that is going to depend upon what the DA’s office determines in their own independent investigation.”
 
The Morning News reports that Udashen doubts the two men would be convicted today because the case depended so heavily on testimony from jailhouse informants.
 
According to Udashen, the investigation and trial occurred at a time “before people everywhere and particularly in Dallas County were skeptical of things in the criminal justice system. Today I don’t think hardly any jurors in Dallas County would put any weight on that. I think the day of the jailhouse snitch has passed.”
 
Read the full article.



Tags: Texas

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Judge Signs off on $41 Million Settlement with ‘Central Park Five’

Posted: September 10, 2014 4:00 pm

Nearly three months after Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise — known as the “Central Park Five”— agreed to a settlement of $41 million from New York City to finally bring an end to their decade-long civil rights battle, a judge signed off on the settlement last Friday.
 
Then teenagers, the group was wrongfully convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park more than two decades ago. They were exonerated by DNA evidence and freed from prison in 2002 and filed a $250 million civil rights lawsuit the following year.
 
The New York Times reports that under the settlement McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana will each receive $7.125 million, and Wise, who was the oldest when the group was convicted and spent the longest time in prison, will collect $12.25 million. According to the Times, the settlement refutes the city being remotely at fault.
 
Salaam sat down with Huffington Post Live on Monday and called the settlement “a bittersweet type of justice.” Watch the full interview and read more from the Times.
 
Read the entire New York Times article.
 
Watch the Huffington Post Live interview with Yusef Salaam.



Tags: New York, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise

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