Kentucky Women Close to Exoneration

Marianne Salcedo — August 14, 2014 @ 10:07 AM — Comments (0)

In 1998, Kyle “Deanie” Breeden was found bound with electrical cord and shot dead in the Kentucky River. For eight years, the case remained a murder mystery until Kentucky State Detective Todd Harwood announced he had solved it in only three weeks. The accused was a slight, 97-pound, one-legged women who had dated the 190-pound Breeden on-and-off for several months. Susan Jean King maintained her innocence, but was persuaded by Det. Harwood and her public defender to plead to second-degree manslaughter pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford. In other words, King did not admit guilt, but acknowledged there was enough evidence for a jury to find her guilty. She served eight years of a ten-year sentence. She later described herself as being “railroaded” and “set up by a corrupt cop.”

On July 20, 2014, after Richard Jarrell, Jr., who was being questioned by police about an unrelated crime, confessed in great detail to robbing and killing Breeden and throwing him off the Gratz Bridge and into the Kentucky River — and after Louisville Police Department Det. Barron Morgan, who took the Jarrell’s confession, was ordered off the case and summarily demoted to patrolman on the graveyard shift — and after a circuit court judge denied King’s motion for a new trial because she had pleaded guilty — and, finally, after the Kentucky Innocence Project (KIP) got involved, Susan Jean King was granted the hearing that is expected to exonerate her of Breeden’s murder in mid-August 2014.

The millstones of Justice turn slowly, as the saying goes, but this is in order to “grind exceedingly fine.” In other words, no detail should be overlooked to discover the Truth. When Det. Harwood solved the long-cold case, he should have wondered if his pat conclusion was too good to be true. Or as KIP attorneys wondered, if a one-legged, 97-pound woman could realistically heave a 190-pound body off a bridge. Or if Det. Morgan, who took the real killers confession and shared the details with KIP, should have been ordered off the case and demoted. Morgan sued the City of Louisville in 2012 and was awarded $450,000 in taxpayer money when the city settled the suit he filed after being demoted and humiliated. The Kentucky Innocence Project, the Innocence Project of Florida, and all the members of the Innocence Network nationwide work tirelessly to ensure that Justice and its millstones grind solely in the interest of Truth.

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Wrongfully Convicted Texas Man Exonerated

Julian Soto — August 6, 2014 @ 3:58 PM — Comments (0)

Michael Phillips’ 24-year nightmare is finally over. In 1990 in a Dallas motel room, a young white woman was brutally raped by a black man wearing a mask. At the time of the assault, Phillips was sleeping in his own room at the motel, but that fact proved inconsequential. Police dragged him out of bed at gunpoint, he was then“identified” in a police lineup, and  convicted of a crime he did not commit. He then spent the next 12 years of his life paying the price of a crime committed by another man. Worst of all, he was unable to be with his father when he died, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this was just the beginning of his hardships.

Michael Phillips was released from prison in 2002. However, that was hardly an improvement in his life. Yes, he may had been physically freed, but according to the State of Texas, he was still a convicted rapist. Not just any rapist, but a black man who raped a 16-year-old white girl. He was forced to register as a sex offender and to live with the intense social stigma associated with that title. There was now nowhere he could go where he would not be looked upon as a monster. His life was effectively ruined. This is the quiet tragedy of a false conviction: not only was Phillips wrongfully incarcerated in prison for 12 long years that he can never reclaim, but he then had to live as an ex-con/sexual predator once freed. His wrongful conviction did not just rob him of the the time he served, it stole a quarter-century of this innocent person’s life. Whatever possible future Michael Philip was heading toward in 1990, it was destroyed by the very justice system that was supposed to protect him. Phillips life will forever be defined by a series of tragic mistakes, oversights, and possible prejudice.

On July 24th, 2014,  Michael Phillips was at long last exonerated by a Dallas judge. After 24-years of prison, 24-years of shame, and after living decades of injustice, Mr. Phillips’ is finally recognized as the innocent man that he always was. Unfortunately, Phillips is now a 57-year old in a wheelchair slowly dying from Sickle Cell Anemia. He will never get his life back. Yes, the state will give him some money to compensate for their mistake, but money will not buy back one second of Mr. Philips’ life. People are only given one precious life to live in this world. Our legal system cannot continue to play so lightly with human lives. These are not mistakes which can be fixed. Mr. Philips is human being, and while his life may have been broken by an unfortunate series of events, he still has to keep on living it. This is the core reason why the post-conviction innocence movement is so critical. We cannot keep allowing innocent lives to be wrecked because of mistakes.

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News Roundup From Around The Nation 7/18/14

Julian Soto — July 24, 2014 @ 10:23 AM — Comments (0)

Often times, when working in the field of post-conviction justice, it is hard to find the good news amongst the hard realities of innocent men and women being wrongfully convicted. However, this week has proven to be the exception. We are thrilled to have so many positive stories to report from around the country.  From overturned convictions and exoneree compensation to exposure of wrongful conviction issues on national television, this week has been quite positive!

  • (North Carolina): On July 15th Darryl Howard, 52, walked out of a North Carolina prison as a free man. It had been a long and hard journey, but Howard never stopped fighting for this day (with the assistance of the National Innocence Project). He was convicted in 1995 for the murder of Doris Washington and her 13-year old daughter, Nishonda. This conviction was spearhead by disgraced and disbarred DA Mike Nifong (infamous Duke Lacrosse prosecutor). It has later been shown that Nifong withheld critical evidence from the defense.  Howard must still wait and see if the DA’s office will seek to re-try him, but for now he finally has his freedom.
  • (New York): After 16 years in prison and four additional years of waiting, Jabbar Collins will be compensated for his wrongful conviction. Originally convicted in 1995 for the murder of a prominent Rabbi, Collins spent 16 years in prison before justice was finally served. However, complete justice was delayed still further, as he was forced to wade through years of litigation in order to receive the compensation he deserved. Finally, that justice has arrived, in the form of a $3 million settlement from the State of New York. Congratulations to Mr. Collins!
  • (California): Sadly, most people in this country are unaware of the issues of wrongful conviction. It is this lack of awareness which can make it very hard for reforms to be pushed forward. Thankfully, there has been a positive development in the effort to spread awareness of wrongful convictions. Starting on July 16, WE tv has begun airing a brand new show titled “The Divide”–a show which tackles the issues of wrongful conviction. The show centers on a passionate lawyer who works for The Innocence Initiative and is working on overturning the conviction of an infamous killer. It is our hope that the manner in which this nationally broadcast show shines a light on the issues of wrongful conviction will lead to greater awareness amongst its wide audience. “The Divide” airs Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m.

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News Roundup From Around The Nation 7/11/14

Julian Soto — July 11, 2014 @ 6:00 PM — Comments (0)

In this week’s news roundup we are happy to report stories of resilience, redemption, and rebuilding.

  • Resilience: (San Antonio, TX) Sonia Cacy spent just 5 years of her 99 year sentence in prison before she was paroled in 1999. However, the fact that she was released early did not satisfy Cacy. She was determined to be officially exonerated of her crime, which she has always maintained she did not commit. Since the day of her release, she has fought to have justice restored to her life and to be compensated for the years stolen from her. Convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle at the small house they shared in Fort Stockton, she was given 99 years in prison. However, the case against her was primarily the product of an inaccurate reading of an evidence test and the outdated arson investigation techniques of that time. Now, with the several experts refuting the original test reading and the great improvements in arson science, it has become clear that the case against her is one which is weak.  Her case is currently being heard by Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio, who will not rule on the case for a few months, attorneys said. Richardson could recommend that Cacy’s conviction be overturned, though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would make any final determination on her case
  • Redemption: (Lowell, MA) For the 32 years Victor Rosario has been behind bars, the entirety of which he steadfastly denied setting the 1982 Lowell fire that killed eight people, five of them children. Rosario, 57, was convicted in 1983 after confessing that he and two other men had used Molotov cocktails to set the fire, the deadliest in Lowell’s history. However, changes in how fire investigators determine arson, as well as the fact that Rosario’s confession is now thought to have been coerced, has cast serious doubts about the legitimacy of his conviction. While 32 years in prison had certainly taken a toll on Rosario, he never stopped fighting for his innocence. Therefore, it was an incredible relief when Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman overturned the murder convictions last Monday, ruling that new evidence cast “real doubt on the justice of the conviction.” The next day Rosario posted his $25,000 bail and was finally able to walk out of prison as a free man. His battle may not be over, as the D.A.’s office plans to retry Rosario, but at this moment in his life; justice has prevailed.
  • Rebuilding: 25 years is an extremely long amount of time in any person’s life. However, those years must feel even longer when they are spent imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. Sadly, that is the reality in Michael Morton’s life. After being wrongly convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, he spent 25 years in prison (separated from his young son) before justice finally prevailed. Today, he is trying to rebuild his life and further the cause of the wrongfully convicted with his new book: “Getting Life”. His book recounts the tragic events in his life and how he dealt with the horrible burden of false imprisonment. The book has just hit shelves and can be found on Amazon.com and many other book retailers.

 

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The Central Park 5: The Truth Concerning Confessions

Julian Soto — June 30, 2014 @ 2:39 PM — Comments (0)

On the night of April 19, 1989 a vicious and horrifying crime was perpetrated in Central Park New York. On that night 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili (who has publicly released her identity) was violently assaulted and raped while jogging in the park. She was raped and beaten almost to the point of death. When found, about four hours later at 1:30 am, she was suffering from severe hypothermia and blood loss from multiple lacerations and internal bleeding, and her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye was removed from the socket. This crime came at a time when crime rates in New York were at an all-time high and race relations were at a low point. The rape of an affluent white woman, in an area that had been reporting a crime spree by minority youths, was enough to set the city afire with outrage. There were calls for immediate justice coming from all levels of the political and social sphere; the NYPD could feel the fire building under their feet. They immediately threw their investigation into full throttle. In a short time they had rounded up a very convincing group of suspects. This group consisted of 5 Black and Hispanic youths who admitted to being in the park that evening engaging in (various forms of) criminal mischief of a far lesser severity. They ranged in age from 14-16. They confessed to the rape and assault of the jogger. By December 1990, all of the 5 young men were convicted of charges related to the rape. They would proceed to spend a combined 40 years in prison.  All convictions were affirmed on appeal.

On December 19, 2002 the five defendants’ convictions were vacated by New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada. Another man, a career violent criminal named Matias Reyes, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crime. He claimed that he assaulted the victim on that fateful night, and he did it alone. His DNA was tested against the DNA which was found on the victim’s body. The test results came back with a match, something which had never happened to the Central Park 5 (as they came to be known). They had already been released from incarceration for several years, but the confirmation of their innocence was a long awaited relief. Twelve years later, the City of New York finally agreed to a $40 million settlement and the Central Park Five were finally able to feel a sense of justice which had eluded them for the past 25 years. The question still remained: how could justice become so derailed?

A confession, or admission of guilt, while being interrogated by the police seems like a very straight forward concept. A guilty party (if so persuaded) would admit to a crime which they had committed, and an innocent person would not. Therefore, the common assumption would be, only guilty people admit to being guilty. Sadly, this is not always the case. In roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty. These are men and women who have been scientifically proven to be innocent of their charges, yet they still confessed to those crimes. This is the issue with confessions; they give the impression of infallibility, while in reality being far from it.

The case of the Central Park Five is the perfect embodiment of this issue. Five teenagers were picked up by the police, their names were released to the press (before they were arraigned), and then they were intensely questioned by the police, which certainly must have been one of the most frightening experiences of their young lives.  They were questioned, prodded, threatened with addition jail time, and fed lies about the investigation (they were told by detectives that they had found their fingerprints on the victims). They were pushed and pushed, until they broke down and admitted to a crime of which they have scientifically been proven to be innocent. There was no physical evidence in the case and there were no eye witnesses. The case rested solely on those confessions. That was enough to rob these five young men of their youth and put them in prison for a combined 40 years.

This is the danger of a conviction based solely on a confession. A confession is not infallible evidence, and yet is continued to be treated as such. This is quite troublesome, due to there being an incredible amount of factors which could contaminate a confession, rendering it false. Whether it be incompetence/malice on the part interrogators, pressure/fear on the part of the suspect, or a combination of the both, it is far too easy for a miscarriage of justice to occur. Yet, situations similar to the Central Park Five are far from rare. There are currently countless people incarcerated due to convictions based solely on confessions. Surely, many of these people may actually be guilty of their crimes. However, as the Central Park Five have shown, it is incredibly possible that a large number of those prisoners may very well be innocent. They could simply be victims of being pushed into saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

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A Positive Week in Innocence News

Julian Soto — June 24, 2014 @ 3:24 PM — Comments (0)

This past week has proved to be one with many high points for the mission of innocence. There have been several positive stories concerning cases in various stages of the post-conviction journey to justice. From retrial acquittals to granted motions to use DNA evidence for the purpose of arguing innocence, there has been much positivity in the news for those who are wrongfully convicted.

  • New York: Adrian Thomas was found not guilty on Thursday of killing his infant son, ending a saga that began nearly six years ago. After spending nearly six years in prison for murder, Mr. Thomas will finally be able to go home as a free man. Originally convicted in 2009, for second-degree murder, Thomas’ conviction rested mainly on a confession he made while being interrogated by police. In this interrogation, detectives told Thomas that his son could be saved if he told detectives how he sustained his “injuries” (his son was already deceased at this point). After 10 hours of this type of strong armed interrogation, Thomas told them that he had thrown his son down on the bed in frustration.  This interrogation was thrown out by the New York Court of Appeals due to the nature of the tactics used to obtain it. This was the first step in the journey to Mr. Thomas’ acquittal. While the prosecution continued to argue that the child died of trauma, many experts testified at the trial that the child most likely died of a bacterial infection. Due to the removal of the faulty confession from evidence and the addition of the expert testimony stating that the child died of an infection, Mr. Thomas was finally granted the innocence he deserved.
  • Pennsylvania: Prosecutors announced Wednesday that they will not seek to retry two former defendants in the robbery and murder of a Philadelphia businessman almost two decades ago.  Charges were withdrawn against Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office said. Both were 16 when they were arrested in the 1995 slaying of Thomas Keal, 52, a popular north Philadelphia businessman who owned a bar and seafood store.  They were later released after 15 years of imprisonment when their conviction were thrown out last year due to new evidence and confessions. After examining the evidence, the district attorney’s office has determined that there is simply was not enough to attempt the re-trial of the two men.
  •  Rhode Island: A Superior Court judge is allowing Raymond D. “Beaver” Tempest Jr. to pursue claims that his murder conviction should be overturned based on newly discovered DNA evidence that shows that the hair clutched in the victim’s hand didn’t belong to Tempest. Tempest is currently convicted of second-degree murder in the 1982 bludgeoning and strangling death of 22-year-old Doreen Picard in Woonsocket. He has always maintained his innocence and approached the New England Innocence Project for assistance nearly ten years ago. With their assistance, he was able to obtain DNA testing that proved that the hair found in the victims hand did not belong to him. This evidence would seem to indicate his innocence. The State has argued that Tempest pursuing his claim of innocence would be severely prejudiced due to one of the key trial witness having passed away. In response, Judge Daniel A. Procaccini stated “Defendant Tempest’s claim is that of actual innocence and rests upon newly discovered evidence”.Tempest, 61, has served 22 years of an 85-year sentence in state prison.

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The Imperfect Machine: How One Broken Part Led to 101 Years of False Imprisonment

Julian Soto — June 9, 2014 @ 2:08 PM — Comments (0)

In a recent blog, we discussed how Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office will re-examine 90 murder convictions. 57 of the 90 cases are associated with one man, increasingly infamous man: former NYPD Detective Louis ScarcellaFive men exonerated due to issues concerning Det. Scarcella’s detective work. These men suffered a combined 101 years of imprisonment for crimes they did not commit.

These men spent decades of their lives behind bars, separated from their loved ones, and treated like criminals because of Det. Scarella’s actions. Whether or not these actions were a result of incompetence or malice has yet to be determined. However, when one looks at the details of his cases it is difficult not to associate the term “dirty cop” with Det. Scarella. The details of his actions seem almost too disturbing to even have transpired in our modern justice system. Such actions include: intentional failure to follow up on credible leads, coaching of witnesses on who to pick out of a line up, the use of one (severely drug addicted) witness in no less than six murder trials, and a general disregard for the ethical standards of detective work.

However, despite how incriminating it may look, there is the possibility that there was no malicious intent behind Det. Scarcella’s actions. After all, these cases took place in Brooklyn during the Crack Epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. The crime rate had sky rocketed and the criminal justice system was overwhelmed. There were areas of the city that were turning into saturated centers of crime.

People make mistakes, even NYPD detectives. However, our criminal justice system is supposed to have enough checks and balances to prevent the mistakes of one man from destroying the lives of countless people. Yet, it is clear that our system has failed in that accord. People want to believe that the criminal justice system is an infallible machine, something that will continuously produce the same, perfect result each time it is put to use.  Clearly, that is not the case. A perfect machine would not falter to the incompetence/agenda of one part. No, the criminal justice system is not a perfect machine. It is a fairly well-designed, usually competent machine which the public puts far too much trust in.

This blog is not meant to be overly critical of the criminal justice system. After all, the same system which put these innocent men away has now setup a task force to fix past mistakes. The point of this blog is to point out how easy it is for the system to become derailed and for justice to be denied. This is the reason why the mission of each innocence project and clinic is so critical. No matter how good we may believe the machine is, it only takes one broken part to destroy innocent lives.

 

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Special Father’s Day Opportunity

Julian Soto — @ 1:50 PM — Comments (1)

When you go to shop for the special father in your life this week, please keep in mind all the fathers who are wrongfully separated from their families this Father’s Day. By doing your shopping with the AmazonSmile program, you can help bring those fathers home for next Father’s Day.

To celebrate Father’s Day, from now through 6/15/2014, the AmazonSmile Foundation will donate an extra $5 for each customer who makes an eligible purchase at smile.amazon.com in support of the Innocence Project of Florida Inc. This is in addition to the regular donation of 0.5% of the purchase price.

As you may have seen in our recent blog and Facebook posts, the Innocence Project of Florida is happy to promote this incredible opportunity for our friends to support us and our endless efforts to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.

It is because of you that we are able to participate in AmazonSmile. Thank You!

Please keep this wonderful opportunity in mind when shopping this week or any point in the future.

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New York Prosecutor to Re-examine 90 Convictions

Julian Soto — June 3, 2014 @ 11:26 AM — Comments (0)

Wrongly convicted individuals often feel like they are fighting the world in their journey to justice. Very often they feel that state prosecution team fought for their conviction with knowledge of their innocence.  Occasionally this is true, but most often it is not. Therefore, it is always a great step forward when those on the side of prosecution (often seen as the opposition) make extraordinary efforts to ensure justice is served, especially when that justice is post-conviction exoneration.

A great example of such efforts is the recent efforts of  New York District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. Several days ago, Thompson announced that he is re-examining about 90 cases from the 1980s and 1990s. This re-examination project of mostly homicide cases will have a staff of ten and will be headed by a (yet to named) Harvard Law professor. This move has stemmed from several recent exonerations tied to former NYPD Detective Louis Scarcella. Detective Scarella has recently come under extreme scrutiny for alleged unethical investigatory tactics.  In fact, the bulk of the cases – 57 – stem from the investigations of Louis Scarcella.

Thankfully, this new task force will attempt to bring justice to inmates affected by those abuses of the law.

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Round Up: Changing the Way We Find Justice

Julian Soto — May 23, 2014 @ 4:10 PM — Comments (0)

When dealing with the criminal justice system one is often confronted with policies and techniques that would seem to hinder justice as opposed to support it. Thankfully, there have been several recent developments that point to beginning of a change in these troublesome areas or, at the very least, a recognition that there may be a problem.

  • (Washington) In Policy Change, Justice Dept. to Require Recording of Interrogations On May 22nd the U.S. Justice Department took a major step towards the insurance of proper interrogation policy. The Justice Department stated on Thursday “that the F.B.I. and other federal law enforcement agencies would be required to videotape interviews with suspects in most instances, bringing the federal government in line with the practices in many state and local jurisdictions”. With the unsettling number of persons who have been exonerated after previously confessing under the pressure of improper integration techniques, this announcement comes with a great sigh of relief from those who work in the innocence movement.
  • To Catch an Arsonist: Will We Ever Have a Reliable Way to Identify Fire Starters? A recent article in the Pacific Standard (a well-respected science and society magazine) takes an in-depth look into the murky science of arson investigation. Increasingly we are seeing people who have spent decades in prison being exonerated due to the debunking of fire investigation techniques previously believed to be secure science.  Such discredited techniques include “Crazed glass” which was the term for a web of lines formed by fire on windows that used to be cited as arson evidence; it is now understood to be an effect of the quick-changing temperature when a hot window is hit by cold water from a fire hose. Discolored “pour patterns” on the floors and walls of a fire scene—supposedly formed by liquid accelerants—is another example. The debunking of these techniques and the attention which they have drawn has led to a greater scrutiny of Forensic Science, which will hopefully lead to improvements in a field that is often called upon to decide the guilt or innocence of thousands of men and women.
  •  (New York) DNA Analysis Exposes Flaws in an Inexact Forensic Science We live in a world where pop-culture and TV increasingly props up forensic science as the savior of justice. However, more and more scientific research reports are being released which conclude that there are serious flaws in many forensic science techniques. Recently there has been a rapid change in the attitude of the scientific community towards to practice of forensic science (with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis). In this recent NY Times article we are given a complete overview of the issues facing the world of Forensic Science, with a focus on the increasingly criticized practice of FBI hair analysis.

 

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