Time Magazine Special Edition: The Fight Against Wrongful Convictions

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 17, 2017 @ 5:06 PM — Comments (0)

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To commemorate the Innocence Project’s 25th anniversary, Time magazine’s special edition issue Innocent: The Fight Against Wrongful Conviction is officially out to the public.

The issue focuses on Innocence Project Co-Founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck’s road to reform America’s criminal justice system as advances in DNA technology opened the door for wrongfully convicted individuals across the country. The magazine includes profiles on Innocence Project clients such as Anthony Wright and Lewis Fogle as well as articles by California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks, Jon Eldan from After Innocence, Innocence Project New Orleans Executive Director Emily Maw, and more!

This special edition issue is a huge milestone in the movement to raise awareness of the Innocence Network’s fight for the wrongfully convicted and criminal justice reform. Although the plight of the wrongfully convicted has gained widespread media attention through shows such as Making a Murderer and podcasts like Undisclosed, there are still many individuals who are unaware of the injustices occurring within our criminal justice system.

If you see an edition out in the wild, please tweet us a picture with the hashtag #IPspecialedition!

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: February 9th

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 9, 2017 @ 1:53 PM — Comments (0)

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Today is the exoneration anniversary of Tim Atkins from Los Angeles, California.

In 1987, Tim Atkins went to trial for the armed robbery of Vincente and Maria Gonzalez that resulted in the murder of Vincente. He and Ricky Evans were arrested and charged with murder and armed robbery after a woman named Denise Powell told police she heard the two street gang members bragging about the crime.

While Evans was assaulted and killed in jail in 1985, Atkins waited two years for his trial. Once it began, Powell could not be located to testify. Despite this, her testimony from the preliminary hearing was presented to the jury as a confession. Maria also identified Atkins as the man who stole her necklace at the scene of the crime. Due to this, Atkins was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.

In 2001, Atkins wrote to the California Innocence Project where a law student found Powell at a drug rehabilitation center. When approached, Powell admitted her testimony was false. Not only did she confess to lying about overhearing a confession, Powell said police threatened to charge her with a narcotics offense if she didn’t provide information about the two suspects.

In 2007, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan granted Atkins’ a new trial and on February 9th, he was released. While he was cleared of all charges, the state did not grant Atkin’s compensation as they felt he did not wholly prove his innocence.

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#GuiltyPleaProblem: Why Do Innocent People Plead Guilty?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 9, 2017 @ 4:08 PM — Comments (0)

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26-year-old Jerry Frank Townsend suffers from a mental disability. Despite having the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, Jerry pled guilty to the rape of a pregnant woman in Miami in 1979. Police began to take Jerry to different crime scenes around the state, resulting in six different confessions for various murders in South Florida throughout the seventies. This resulted in seven concurrent life sentences, guaranteeing Jerry would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Jerry was in prison for nearly 22 years before DNA evidence cleared him of two murders in Broward County and eventually exonerated him of all the crimes. He was released at the age of forty-nine on June 15th, 2001. Now we know that his confessions were the result of his intellectual disability which encouraged him to give the police the answers they wanted to hear, a common adaptive practice for someone with his mental capacities.

Innocent people are pleading guilty to crimes they did not at an alarming rate. Nearly 10% of the nation’s 347 DNA exonerations are innocent people who entered guilty pleas and didn’t go to trial. This is why we are teaming up with the Innocence Project in New York and Actual Innocence to bring awareness to the issue with the launch of their new site Guilty Plea Problem on January 23rd.

Jerry Frank Townsend is not an outlier. Sometimes, it can feel like a guilty plea is the only thing standing between you and the death penalty. Ordinary people are faced with an extraordinary choice every day: confess to a crime you did not commit or receive a harsher sentence in court. Through this campaign, we hope to address the growing issue of a criminal justice system that puts pressure on people to plead guilty.

To help spread the message, be sure to check out GuiltyPleaProblem.Org and sign up for their updates. We will also be posting more information and facts about the reality of guilty pleas on our Facebook and Twitter.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: December 14th

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 14, 2016 @ 11:11 AM — Comments (0)

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Today is the exoneration anniversary of Philip Bivens, Larry Ruffin, and Bobby Ray Dixon.

In 1979, all three men were wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Forrest County, Mississippi. All three gave confessions to the police under the threat of the death penalty. Despite the inconsistencies in their confessions with each other and with the evidence in the case, they were sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, the Innocence Project New Orleans and co-counsel Rob McDuff obtained DNA testing that effectively excluded all three of the men convicted and instead pointed towards a different man altogether.

Sadly, Ruffin died in prison in 2002 and Dixon passed away from lung cancer in November of 2010. Neither got to witness their official exoneration on December 14th, 2010 when a Forrest Count Grand Jury declined to indict the three men.

In January of 2013, a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit was filed against the Forrest County law enforcement officials for coercing the three men’s confessions. Although Bivens passed away in 2014, the state agreed to pay $500,000 to the estate of Ruffin and $375,000 each to the estates of Bivens and Dixon in 2015. Earlier this year, Forrest County has settled the federal lawsuit for a total of $16.5 million.

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Florida Supreme Court Grants Re-trial for Death Row Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 28, 2016 @ 4:42 PM — Comments (0)

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In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Clemente Aguirre based on DNA evidence that points towards another suspect for the murder of Cheryl and Carol Williams in 2004.

Aguirre was convicted in 2006 for the double homicide after the prosecution found that 64 out of 67 bloody shoe impressions found inside the victims’ residence matched Aguirre’s footwear. In addition, forensic evidence showed that his clothes contained traces of blood that belonged to both Cheryl and Carol Williams. However, Aguirre has maintained his innocence and testified that he had found the bodies while trying to take some beer from his neighbor’s house. He attempted to revive Cheryl Williams and, once he was unsuccessful, ran without calling the police because he is currently an illegal immigrant who could face deportation.

After being denied by a circuit court on his appeal, the Florida Supreme Court has found that they “agree with Aguirre that the cumulative effect of the newly discovered evidence requires a new trial.” At the postconviction evidentiary hearing, Aguirre and his legal team showed that on 150 previously untested bloodstains from the crime scene, his blood was not present. Additionally, it showed that eight of the bloodstains matched someone else entirely: Samantha Williams, Cheryl’s daughter. Samantha had testified at Aguirre’s trial stating that she had found him “standing over her bed” at 2AM months before the murders. In addition, it was her boyfriend who found the bodies and was also her alibi, even though he testified that at the time of the murders he was “dead to the world” asleep.

However, the newly discovered evidence was not simply limited to the presence of Samantha’s blood at the crime scene. There is also proof that Samantha Williams also confessed to the double homicide to four different people.

The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion specifies that Samantha told her friend in 2010 that “demons in her head made her do it.” She also confessed to three of her former neighbors (in three separate instances) to the crime. While the State stated that her confessions were inadmissible as hearsay, the Supreme Court ruled that “the trial court erred by excluding … the testimony of three witnesses that another person had admitted, on three separate occasions, to committing the murder of which the defendant was convicted.”

The Court concluded their decision by stating that “adding the newly discovered evidence to the pictures changes the focus entirely: No longer is Aguirre the creepy figure who appears over Samantha’s bed in the middle of the night; he is now the scapegoat for her crimes.” Because of the reasonable doubt this casts over Aguirre’s culpability, he will receive a re-trial.

To read the Florida Supreme Court’s full opinion, click here.

 

 

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Man Receives 6.42 Million in Wrongful Conviction Lawsuit

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 25, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

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This week we congratulate former Greensboro resident LaMonte Armstrong for being paid 6.42 million dollars by the city of Greensboro, North Carolina because of his wrongful conviction in 1995.

Armstrong was exonerated in 2013 of a murder he did not commit. From the start, the case against Armstrong was shaky. The charges against him rested on testimony from Charles Blackwell, a police informant who later revealed he was paid $200 dollars for his testimony and later threatened with jail time for the murder if he didn’t testify.

In 2010, the case crumbled when Blackwell recanted his testimony and admitted to the detective misconduct rampant in the investigation. The Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic took on the case in 2011 and discovered through DNA testing that a palm print found at the scene of the crime did not match Armstrong but a convicted felon who had briefly been a suspect in 1992.

After Armstrong was exonerated, the state gave him $750,000 in compensation as well as a governor’s pardon from Pat McCrory. However, because of the aforementioned detective misconduct, he filed a lawsuit against the city of Greensboro in 2013. On October 21th of this year, Armstrong and his attorney David Rudolf won the case 5-1.

Armstrong currently works as a peer counselor at a Durham nonprofit that helps substance abuse survivors and people caught up in the criminal justice system. “It seems to me that the more I continue to be of service to my fellow man and help people, the more that God continues to serve me,” Armstrong told N&R Greensboro.

Although money will never be able to give LaMonte Armstrong the years he lost in prison, compensation is an important part of helping victims of wrongful conviction find justice and rebuild their lives after prison. To find out more about Florida’s own compensation laws and how you can help, be sure to follow the link below.

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Florida Supreme Court Sets New Standards for State Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 18, 2016 @ 4:29 PM — Comments (0)

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The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional. The Court has additionally called for death sentences to be determined by a unanimous jury. This news has caused a major shift in Florida’s criminal justice system with a large number of inmates awaiting possible re-sentencing on Death Row.

““We … hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” said the Florida Supreme Court.

Now, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature must return to the drawing board, throwing out their original law which allowed for 10 out of 12 members of a jury to be able to impose a death sentence.

What does this mean for all the inmates on death row? Potentially, over 400 of the prisoners on death row in Florida now have a potential way to seek less severe sentences and be taken off death row altogether. This ruling will also offer greater changes to innocent people who have been given a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. “Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases,” said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

While the way this ruling will affect past cases is unclear, its significance is clear and a sign of the growing doubt being cast on the purpose and justice behind the death penalty in the United States.

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Wrongfully Convicted Man Released after 24 Years in Prison

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 6, 2016 @ 3:16 PM — Comments (0)

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Daryl Holloway, 48, has been released from Green Bay Correctional Facility on October 5th, 2016.

Holloway was convicted in 1993 on two counts of sexual assault and two counts of armed burglary. Now, new DNA testing shows that there were errors in previous DNA testing used during the case “that raised a question whether the results they were getting were reliable,” said Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project to Fox 11 News.  Therefore, Milwaukee County Judge Thomas McAdams signed the court order vacating both the conviction and the sentence on Tuesday.

“This has been a long thing. I lost family members and different things. I’m trying to rebuild my life now. I came in mid-twenties. Man, I’m almost 50 now. My whole life has changed,” said Holloway after he was released. Despite the uphill battle, Holloway is positive about the road ahead and says his long-term plans might involve studying law.

For now, he encourages victims of wrongful conviction to keep pushing forward. “Keep fighting,” he said. “Don’t give up. It’s like my mama told me. If you’re right, stand up. If you’re wrong, lay down.”

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Man Awarded $15 Million in Wrongful Conviction Settlement

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 3, 2016 @ 1:23 PM — Comments (0)

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After spending 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Rodell Sanders has received a 15 million dollar settlement in compensation for his wrongful conviction in the 1993 murder of Philip Atkins in Chicago Heights.

On December 15th, 1994, Atkins and his girlfriend, Stacy Armstrong, were shot and left for dead in Chicago Heights. Due to Armstrong’s eyewitness testimony (despite the attacker being tall and thin and Sanders being 5’8” and 200 pounds) and a jailhouse informant who later revealed he received cash payments for testifying, Rodell Sanders was arrested and convicted to 80 years in prison.

This, however, didn’t stop him from giving up. Sanders spent years sending out Freedom of Information requests to learn more about his own case and review trial transcripts. “I didn’t want to die in prison. I wanted to make it back out to my family, and I wanted to expose the Chicago Heights Police Department for exactly what they were,” Sanders told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sanders’ perseverance, courage, and diligence paid off because, years later, the chief of police in Chicago Heights during the time of the case was convicted, along with six other police officers, of bribery and extortion for taking money from gang leaders and using their position of power to take out the gang’s competitors.

Once this new information reached the public, Sanders dedicated himself to his exoneration and making the state grant him a re-trial. Sanders poured over law books and trial transcripts all to write his own appeal in efforts to get his case back on the court floor. With the help of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Sanders returned home to his family in July of 2014 after two separate re-trials.

“I don’t know if you can really say it makes things right because I can never get back those 20 years they’ve taken from me,” Sanders said to the Chicago Tribune. “There are many, many things that I’ve lost, and they can never be given back, so no, it doesn’t make it right.” However, at the very least, it allows victims of wrongful conviction to be able to rebuild their lives, families and hope in a new and sometimes unfamiliar world. Now, Sanders works for Loevy & Loevy, the very law firm that represented him during his fight for compensation. He dreams of helping other people who have been wrongfully convicted seek justice.

State compensation for wrongful convictions is an up-hill battle and Sanders’ success can be seen as an exception, not the norm, to the trying efforts of many to receive compensation for their decades spent behind bars. Currently, only 13 states provide any services for exonerees after they have been released from prison. If you want to help the efforts of expanding state compensations and encourage the justice system to give back to its victims, follow the link and sign the pledge!

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Man Wrongfully Convicted of Rape and Robbery Denied Exoneration

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 30, 2016 @ 12:24 PM — Comments (0)

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Lawrence McKinney was freed from prison in 2009 after DNA evidence overturning his 1978 conviction in Memphis, Tennessee. He was wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary and sentenced to 100 years for the rape and 10-15 for the burglary. After 31 years in prison, Lawrence finally saw the promise of freedom in the horizon. However, despite being released and having his record expunged, Lawrence was not officially exonerated of his conviction.

Now, Lawrence’s efforts have been tarnished by a Tennessee parole board who claims that the evidence isn’t sufficient for them to recommend the governor formally exonerate him and make him eligible for compensation. The vote was 7-0 against his innocence, reports AP.

Lawrence’s legal team, which includes Lorna McCulsky from the Innocence Project, states that they plan to request the exoneration directly from Gov. Bill Haslam, bypassing the usual (but not required) board recommendation process. If McKinney is exonerated, he would be eligible for compensation up to $1 million dollars due to his wrongful conviction. Tennesee has only paid compensation to two previous exonerated men before and so, Lawrence’s uphill battle continues as he fights after decades of injustice.

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