Michigan Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison

Justin Hirsche — September 9, 2014 @ 9:01 AM — Comments (0)

Jaime Lee Peterson was exonerated today after spending 17 years in custody and in a Michigan prison for the rape and murder of a elderly woman that he did not commit. He was serving a life sentence. The cause of his wrongful conviction stems from his false confession during the interrogation process which happened four months after the murder. Despite knowing that DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit excluded Peterson as the rapist, the jury convicted Peterson at a 1998 trial. The prosecutor led the jury to believe that semen found at the crime scene that was, at that time, untestable most likely belonged to Mr. Peterson. Along with his initial confession, this was enough to sentence him to life in prison. New DNA testing was conducted last year at the urging of Mr. Peterson’s new attorneys, the testing sought to prove that the previously untestable DNA belonged to the same person whose DNA was found initially with the rape kit. All of the male DNA  tested in this case was found to match a man named Jason Ryan (who was actually interviewed during the initial investigation).  Ryan was arrested last year for this decades old crime and currently is awaiting trial. Petersen’s case was led by the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

This case is just another one to add to the troubling ever growing list of coerced false confessions. After initially confessing Jaime (who is cognitively impaired) recanted his statements, but that usually does the person in such a situation no good. Roughly a fourth of those exonerated in America falsely confessed to crimes at some point during their interrogation. Jaime is the fourth man in Michigan to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Justin Hirsche — September 3, 2014 @ 4:03 PM — Comments (0)

After spending 30 long years in prison, two brothers in North Carolina were exonerated Tuesday by a North Carolina Judge. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were both released from prison today They had been found guilty of the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. The two African American men were 15 and 19 at the time of the murder are both considered intellectually disabled. After long hours of unethical interrogation with no lawyer present each separately confessed to the crime, by signing statements written for them by police officers. But when they were sent to trial they recanted all of their statements confessing to the crime. Key evidence was left unaccounted for at the time of the trial. A similar murder had been committed in the same town within a month of the brother’s arrest, and a local man, Roscoe Artis, had confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year old. Artis lived just a block from where the victim’s body had been found yet he was not seen as a suspect. A cigarette butt found near the vicitim’s body was tested  to see whose DNA would show up on it — there was not a match for either of the exonerees — but their was a match for Roscoe Artis’s DNA. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for his other rape and murder.

Leon Brown was sent away for life and Henry Lee McCollum received the death penalty with no evidence connecting them to the crime, but because they confessed to it under duress they had a huge chunk of their lives stolen. This just furthers the evidence that just because someone confesses to a crime when they are under immense pressure, that does not mean they are guilty of said crime. Roughly 25 percent of those wrongly convicted of crimes have admitted guilt during their initial interrogation, the only way we can stop this cruel treatment is to change the way we interrogate suspects and make sure all interrogations are videotaped. Over the past 23 years there have been over 2,000 exonerations in the United States and with the great news of today we can add two more to that ever growing list.

McCollum and Brown were defended in their search for the truth by Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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Small Victory For Innocence in Washington State

Justin Hirsche — August 28, 2014 @ 10:44 AM — Comments (0)

Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that DNA testing requests from convicts should be favorably considered. Specifically, judges should presume that the test results would favor the convict in making their decision, instead of denying them the chance to prove there innocence through DNA testing because the chances of exonerative results are remote. This decision spurs from the case of Lindsey Crumpton, who in 1993 was convicted of repeatedly raping a 75-year old woman. He was arrested running from the woman’s house with a bunch of incriminating items, including bedding smeared in blood among other things that the woman all identified as belonging to her. Crumpton is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 2011, he requested to have DNA testing done on the womans’ rape kit, her bedsheets and other pieces of evidence. A superior court rejected his request on the grounds that DNA testing would most likely not show that he was innocent. The case went all the way to the state supreme court and they reversed the ruling on the grounds that judges should presume that DNA testing will be in favor to convicts. Justice Mary Fairhurst when writing for the majority hit the nail on the head with this great statement: “Many innocent individuals have been exonerated through postconviction DNA tests, including some who had overwhelming evidence indicating guilt… and there is no direct evidence showing that labs have in fact been overburdened by an onslaught of postconviction testing.” This ruling is positive news for anyone falsely imprisoned in the State of Washington, because it now means their request for post-conviction DNA testing  cannot be denied just because the chances of them being proven innocent seem “slim” or “bleak”.


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New York Man One Step Closer to Exoneration in Arson-Murder Case

Justin Hirsche — August 26, 2014 @ 11:27 AM — Comments (0)

A New York man, Han Tak Lee (79), has been released on bail after serving 24 years of his life sentence for the crime of “intentionally” setting a fire at a religious retreat that ended up killing his mentally handicapped 20 year old daughter, Ji Yun Lee. He has long maintained that the fire was started accidentally. At the time of this incident investigators were under the impression (and so was the entire scientific community) that if a fire was unusually hot then that meant that said fire was most likely intentionally started, aided by the use of some type of accelerant. These “facts” (junk-science) have put many innocent people in prison for arson when they had nothing to do with the starting of fires they have been charged with.

Their has been a sweeping number of these types of exonerations lately. This is because scientists’ understanding of fires and the many theories about arson and the tell-tale signs that were considered give-aways, in regards to arson, have been debunked. The magistrate judge who reviewed Lees’ case had this to say on the matter: “much of what was presented to Lee’s jury as science is now conceded to be little more than superstition.” This does not mean Lee is in the clear though, prosecutors have been given 120 days to decide whether or not they will re-try Lee. Due to the long passage of time, charges are not expected to be filed and Lees’ supporters expect him to live out the rest of his life in peace in a retirement community. This and many other similar cases show that it is better to get it right then getting it fast, when it comes to finding your suspect to convict (if there even is one, in the case of arson v. accidental fires).


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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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