Archive for the ‘exoneration’ Category


Charges Dropped Against Two Wrongfully Convicted Chicago Men

Kate Mathis — July 26, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Last week, prosecutors dropped charges against two men who have spent the past 23 years wrongfully incarcerated. Jose Montanez and Armando Serrano were convicted in 1993 for the murder of Rodrigo Vargas and were sentenced to 55 years in prison. Their convictions were based largely on the testimony of a star witness and the work of a Chicago police officer whose investigative methods have since come under fire.

That witness was Francisco Vicente, a heroin addict who was facing several felony charges at the time of Vargas’ murder. Vicente claimed that Montanez and Serrano had confessed to the killing, which he told Detective Reynaldo Guevara, the officer who has received a number of misconduct allegations over the last several years. Vicente later recanted his testimony to students at the Medill Innocence Project, stating that he lied in order to receive a lighter sentence. He also told them that Guevara bribed and coerced him to falsely testify with cash, cigarettes, threats, intimidation, and physical abuse.

A number of cases involving Guevara, who retired in 2005, have been reviewed by Cook County State Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office after several allegations were made claiming that the detective framed or beat suspects. In addition to Montanez and Serrano’s cases, two other murder convictions that were linked to Guevara have been overturned. According to a report released last year, reviewing, litigating, and settling misconduct cases involving the detective has cost Chicago more than $20 million.

A state appellate court approved the Cook County State Attorney’s office’s request to have the convictions overturned, ruling that misconduct during the investigation and prosecution resulted in Montanez and Serrano’s convictions. The move by the prosecutor’s office came as a surprise because Alvarez rejected former federal prosecutor Scott Lassar’s recommendation last year that she reopen six cases investigated by Guevara, including Montanez and Serrano’s.

An attorney with the Exoneration Project, which represented the two recent exonerees, commended Alvarez for her actions but lamented that many innocent people that Guevara helped imprison still remain behind bars and vowed that they would not rest until all of them are freed.

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Davontae Sanford Exonerated After Eight Years in Prison

Kate Mathis — June 17, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Davontae Sanford, who went to prison when he was only 15 years old, finally walked out of a prison a free man on Thursday, June 9. Now 23, Sanford was convicted for the 2007 killing of four people at a drug house in Detroit in a case that was riddled with the makings of a wrongful conviction. The teenager, who lived in the neighborhood, was standing near the crime scene in his pajamas following the fatal shooting, where witnesses told police that his voice resembled one of the shooter’s.

After several hours of questioning over the course of two days, Sanford, who did not completely understand what was going on and was told that he could go home if he admitted to committing the crime, confessed to police and they charged him. Sanford later claimed that he tried recanting his confession. Despite the teen telling police that he used a gun for which no shell casings matching it were found at the crime scene and a murder weapon never having been located, gunshot residue on his clothing and a tracking dog that led authorities to his home also helped them charge Sanford with the murders.

In the middle of his trial, Sanford concluded that his public defender, Robert Slameka, was not going to defend him, so he pleaded guilty. Slameka has received criticism for his failure to challenge his client’s court confession, and his law license is also currently under review due to numerous accusations of misconduct. Despite being developmentally impaired and blind in one eye, a judge at a bench trial convicted the then 15-year-old to 37 to 90 years in prison.

Two weeks later, a hit man confessed to the crime and led police to a gun for which ballistic tests confirmed that it was the weapon used to kill the four victims. The assassin, Vincent Smothers, also told police that Sanford had nothing to do with the crime. This information, however, was never disclosed to Sanford’s defense team, who had difficulty obtaining the information. Despite Smothers’ confession, Sanford would remain in prison for a total of eight years before his exoneration.

When the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth accepted Sanford as their client in 2014, they urged Michigan State Police to reinvestigate the case. That reinvestigation brought into the spotlight former Flint police chief James Tolbert’s role in Sanford’s conviction. Tolbert had originally stated that Sanford drew the picture of the crime scene, which was a critical piece of evidence used to convict him. Upon reinvestigation into the case, however, the former police chief admitted that he himself drew the diagram of the crime scene. A warrant is currently under review, and Tolbert may face criminal charges for his part in Sanford’s wrongful conviction.

Following Sanford’s exoneration, Kym Worthy, the top prosecutor in the case, defended her office’s handling of the case. She claimed that Tolbert’s contradicting statements, rather than Smothers’ confession, were the reason they dropped the charges against Sanford. Worthy stated that Sanford, who was determined competent to stand trial by a licensed medical professional, had a number of opportunities to speak with his lawyers and family, and that Smothers could have testified for the defense during the appeals process. She went on to say that her office thoroughly followed up on allegations, that they had good reason to charge Sanford at the time, and that she does not know how she would have prosecuted the case differently.

After his release from prison, Sanford’s first meal as a free man was Chinese food. He wants to put it all behind him and move forward, and hopes to attend college, learn how to drive and get his driver’s license, and share his experience with at-risk youth and juvenile delinquents. Unsurprisingly, his family is happy to have him home, including his sister, who shared her excitement on social media. Sanford’s defense attorneys also plan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the officials responsible for his conviction in the hopes of obtaining compensation for the eight years Sanford spent wrongfully incarcerated.

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Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter Mark First Successful Exoneration for Oklahoma Innocence Project

Kate Mathis — June 13, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

After spending two decades behind bars for a crime they did not commit, a judge finally granted two Tulsa County men post-conviction relief. Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter were convicted over 20 years ago for the 1994 murder of Karen Summers. The 19-year-old was standing among a group of people outside a house party in September of that year when she was killed in a drive-by shooting. The men, both 18-years-old at the time, were convicted of first-degree murder, along with other charges in relation to the crime, and were sentenced to life and an additional 170 years in prison.

Their findings of actual innocence were largely based on the work of Eric Cullen, a Tulsa-based private investigator who started working on the case in 2006. Cullen discovered new evidence supporting Scott and Carpenter’s claims of innocence, including the confessions of three men who admitted to Summers’ murder and recantations from eyewitnesses who has testified against the pair during trial.

At a preliminary hearing, a man named Michael Wilson, who was charged with murder in the Summers case, testified that he had held the gun for Carpenter after the shooting. That testimony resulted in Wilson’s murder charge being reduced to accessory after the fact. Wilson was later convicted for a 1995 murder, and was sentenced to death. Billy Don Alverson and Richard Harjo, who was 16 at the time, were convicted as his co-defendants. Harjo was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and Alverson received the death penalty and was executed in 2011. At a hearing in January, Harjo testified that Wilson had shot at a crowd of people in retaliation to being shot days before by a member of the Hoover Crips, whose gang members were among the crowd, and that police investigating the murder of Summers never contacted him.

In February and March of 2014, Scott and Carpenter submitted applications for post-conviction relief, claiming that after their trials, witnesses disclosed new evidence that proves they were not involved in the 1994 murder. That evidence includes video and confessions from Wilson’s execution-bed, where he claimed to be the actual shooter in the Summers case. After the Oklahoma Innocence Project accepted the case in 2011, they recorded a video interview with Wilson, in which he told a lawyer that he fired the shots that killed Summers. Wilson also admitted that Alverson and Harjo accompanied him in a vehicle. The video was played during a January hearing regarding the relief applications. During the hearing, attorneys representing Scott and Carpenter also argued that their clients’ trials were based heavily on two eyewitnesses’ testimonies that they later recanted in signed affidavits.

That hearing was held on January 29, in which District Judge Sharon Holmes scheduled a ruling for her decision regarding Scott and Carpenter’s post-conviction relief applications. She stated that by March 1, after she received proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law, she would reach a ruling and scheduled it for Wednesday, April 13. During that hearing, however, Holmes postponed the ruling and rescheduled it for May 4. But after years of waiting and several postponements, Holmes finally set Scott and Carpenter free on Monday, May 9.

Despite prosecutors saying that they plan to appeal Holmes’ ruling, Scott and Carpenter’s overturned convictions are a victory for all. Not only are the men now free after wrongfully spending 20 years behind bars, but Cullen can also celebrate the win after working on the case for 10 years at no cost. It was one of the first cases he and his company accepted, and also the longest. Both men, unbeknownst to each other, responded to pamphlets that Cullen sent to Oklahoma prisons in 2006 that advertised his post-conviction relief work. Believing in their innocence, Cullen was intrigued by their case, stating that both men gave detailed descriptions of their innocence and even included information such as who he could talk to that would confirm their stories. In addition, Scott and Carpenter’s case is the first successful exoneration for the Oklahoma Innocence Project.

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Two Men Cleared of Rape by DNA, But Exonerations Uncertain

Kate Mathis — June 10, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

DNA results have cleared Darryl Adams of the rape for which he was convicted of 24 years ago, but it is unclear whether he will be exonerated or will be eligible to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction. Adams case was riddled with problems, which his lawyers say could and should have prevented his conviction from the start.

In 1992, after a witness reported seeing a rape, police were called to the scene near a Salvation Army and found Adams, another man, and a woman along with her two young children sleeping on the sidewalk. When officers woke them to ask what happened, the woman initially claimed that nothing occurred. After the officers moved her away from Adams and the other man, Ronald Eubanks, the victim told them that Adams had sexually assaulted her and Eubanks had tried to, but was unable. She told police that the men threatened to hurt her children, which is why she denied the rape at first. Adams and Eubanks were both arrested.

Despite DNA results later clearing both men of the rape, officials are still unsure whether the witness’ identification of Adams and Eubanks was a case of mistaken identification, which can be attributed to a large number of wrongful convictions, or if she lied. The Innocence Project of Texas now represents Adams. The project’s president, Gary Udashen, said although he is unsure, he believes the victim lied and that she made up a story because she was scared that police would take her children away from her. In addition, the caller who reported the rape gave a fake name, so the district attorney’s office was unable to locate him/her.

Both Adams and Eubanks accepted plea bargains offered by the DA’s office while they were in jail, entailing “deferred adjudication” probation in which they would not be convicted so long as they carried out all the requirements of the deal. According to Udashen, Adams accepted the plea bargain to get out of jail quickly. He went on to say that the DA’s office would have dismissed the case because Adams’ situation is an example in which people take probation for a case that a jury would not have convicted them of in the first place.

Shortly after accepting the plea deals, however, Adams burglarized a building and did not pay required fees, and Eubanks did not provide a urine sample drug test, was found to have marijuana in his system, did not pay fees or fines, and missed meetings with his probation officer. They were sent to prison for violating their probation, and Eubanks received 10 years for sexual assault and Adams was sentenced to 25 years for sexual assault in addition to 20 years for the burglary charge.

In March, the highest criminal court in Texas—the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—granted Adams a new trial. It is now up to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether they will retry Adams or dismiss the case. The case can be dismissed in two ways—one would exonerate him and grant him compensation, and the other would free him without declaring him innocent. Udashen called the case weird and weak, to which Patricia Cummings, the Dallas County prosecutor that supervises the conviction integrity unit, agreed. The DA’s office has not ruled out retrying the case, and agrees that Adams should be granted a new trial. Adams’ attorneys plan to ask the office to declare him innocent. Udashen stated that because of the DNA results and the fact that the victim in the case died about 15 years ago, it is unlikely that the case will be retried.

In August 2014, Adams was released on bond, but was charged with misdemeanor DWI while he was out. He now lives with family, however, and also has a job.

Eubanks is also seeking to be exonerated for the rape charge, but there has yet to be a ruling handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Although the case has been decided, it is unclear why it is taking so long for the appellate court to write the ruling. The delay could be due to the fact that there is no DNA available for testing since Eubanks was never accused of leaving any, so DNA test results may not help his case. Another possible reason is because Eubanks presented a different legal argument than Adams. While Adams asked for and was granted a new trial based on new scientific DNA evidence that was unavailable at the time of the original handling of his case, Eubanks asked to be declared “actually innocent” in his case by the appellate court.

The DA’s office is waiting to take action in Adams’ case until Eubanks’ case has been ruled on, so they will keep the cases tied together for the time being since they have been intertwined from the get-go, even though nothing requires them to do so. Cummings stated that the office could change its plan should Eubanks’ case continue to remain at the appellate court, which has no deadline to reach a ruling. She went on to say that if the cases are dismissed based on actual innocence, then Adams and Eubanks could both be exonerated.

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Former Navy Sailor Released After Spending 33 Years Wrongfully Incarcerated

Kate Mathis — May 18, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Last month, less than 24 hours after Virginia’s highest court exonerated him, Keith Allen Harward walked out of state prison as a free man after spending the last 33 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

One night in September 1982 in Newport News, Virginia, a man in a sailor’s uniform carrying a crowbar entered the home of a sleeping young couple and their three children. He bludgeoned the husband to death, then raped the wife and told her several times that if she did not cooperate, he would “get” the children. The woman described to police the stripe on the attacker’s Navy uniform, which led them to focus on several E-3 ranked enlisted sailors on the USS Carl Vinson—an aircraft carrier at the nearby Newport News Shipbuilding. A shipyard security guard also told police later that he saw a sailor who appeared to have blood spattering on his uniform. Investigators then obtained a number of USS Carl Vinson sailors’ dental records in order to compare them with bite marks that were left on the rape victim.

Harward was ultimately convicted of the rape and murder in 1983, but avoided receiving the death penalty. The testimony of dental experts who claimed that an impression of Harward’s teeth matched the bite marks on the wife was the primary evidence used to convict Harward, who was a former Navy sailor on the USS Carl Vinson. Bite mark testimony, which was considered credible by some courts at the time of Harward’s trial, has been called into question in recent years, however, and is a science that many now consider to be greatly flawed. Because of the importance of the bite mark testimony in the case, it drew the attention of the Innocence Project, which eventually helped achieve Harward’s exoneration.

Since crime scene evidence from the case still existed, new DNA tests were performed in which the semen collected in 1982 was run through the national DNA databank. The results generated a match to Jerry L. Crotty, who was one of Harward’s shipmates on the USS Carl Vinson. Crotty was a career criminal who passed away in 2006 while serving time for an abduction conviction in an Ohio prison.

Following the DNA results matching Crotty, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office gave their support to Harward’s petition of innocence, and in a rare occurrence, the Virginia Supreme Court expedited that petition and ordered Harward to be freed immediately.

Upon his release, Harward was critical of the people who helped convict him, even calling them criminals. He stated that they fabricated a lie and tried to make the story fit to sell to a jury, and that investigators were more concerned with getting a conviction than getting to the truth.

Despite bite mark evidence not having been widely discredited at the time of Harward’s trial, Olga Akselrod, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, claimed that there were other pieces of exculpatory evidence that were supposed to be shared with his trial attorneys, but were never disclosed to them. That evidence, which was found in Newport News police files, Naval Criminal Investigative Service files, and state forensics technicians files, included information about Harward’s blood type and the fact that one of the key trial witnesses had been hypnotized. Although it is unclear whether prosecutors actually knew about the state’s evidence, not sharing it violated the constitutional right to a fair trial. According to Akselrod, if Harward’s lawyers had been given that information from the start, it is highly unlikely that he would have ever been convicted.

Harward is the 338th DNA exoneree, and will not be the last, according to Akselrod. M. Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project’s director of strategic litigation, added that Harward is the 25th person found to have been wrongfully convicted due to bite mark analysis, and that courts need to forever ban it from being used in prosecutions. Fabricant went on to say that authorities need to look at all convictions based on the discredited bite mark science, and that Harward’s life would not have been ruined 33 years ago had courts and judges regulated junk science such as this in the first place.

After walking out of prison with lawyers and several family members, Harward said he would keep in touch with some of his fellow inmates that he befriended over the years. He also stated that some of the most evil and sadistic people were in that prison.

Harward recalled all that he had lost during his time spent wrongfully incarcerated, stating that he missed out on the small things, such as getting married, having children, and even playing the lottery. He also missed out on some important things too, like his parents passing away in the 1990s while their youngest child was locked up for the rest of his life. Harward got choked up talking about his parents, saying that although being released was the best day of his life, it would have been overwhelming if they had been there. He said his parents believed in his innocence, and that the situation killed and devastated them, and broke their hearts. He blamed the people who convicted him for robbing him of the chance for his parents to see him walk free.

To put into perspective how long 33 years is, when Harward was first sent to prison, Ronald Reagan was president, the country was fighting in the Cold War, and Michael Jackson was at the top of the pop charts. In addition, Harward took home from prison with him a Panasonic cassette player—a memento from his earlier years. He told reporters that some of his brother’s grandchildren would now teach him about computers and the Internet.

As for what happens next for him, Harward said he is not too concerned about it. He said that his release did not seem real and would not hit him until he was driving down the road and could look out the window unobstructed, comparing his incarceration to being in a dog cage. Harward and his family immediately got in a minivan and headed to his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where he will stay with his brothers and start a new life. Harward said he is going to relax, hug a tree, and indulge in some fried oysters as soon as possible.

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Andre Hatchett Exonerated for Wrongful Murder Conviction After Spending 25 Years in Prison

Kate Mathis — March 21, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Andre Hatchett was recently exonerated after spending almost 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 1991, Neda Mae Carter’s body was found in a Brooklyn park with her face and neck battered, and her extremities arranged resembling a crucifixion pose. Hatchett and Carter had interacted hours prior to her murder when Hatchett gave her money to buy crack cocaine. Gerard Williams was arrested for an unrelated crime about a week later, and claimed that he saw Hatchett in the park that night from 30-40 feet away, striking a body on the ground. Despite having an IQ of 63, having to use crutches after being shot in the throat and leg as a bystander in a shooting the year before, and cooperating with police and giving them an alibi, Hatchett was arrested and convicted of second-degree murder.

At the time of his arrest, Hatchett was a new father, working as an ice deliveryman and living in his mother’s apartment. During the 25 years he spent in prison, both of his parents and one of his sons passed away.

Hatchett’s road to exoneration was a long and rocky one. An amalgam of unfortunate circumstances were involved in his case; including bad defense counsel, an unreliable witness, and critical evidence that the prosecution never disclosed to the defense. In his first trial, the judge declared a mistrial because Hatchett’s attorneys were so incompetent. At his second trial, his lawyer neglected to present evidence about his intellectual disabilities and that with his injuries, he would not have been able to hit Carter and drag her body across with park, as Williams described, while on crutches. Prosecutors also failed to inform the defense that Williams had initially identified a different suspect as the killer.

After accepting Hatchett’s case, lawyers at the Innocence Project worked with prosecutors from the Brooklyn District Attorney Conviction Review Unit to submit a joint request to a judge, who ultimately vacated the conviction and dismissed the indictment. A founder of the Innocence Project, Barry C. Scheck, was thankful for the district attorney’s office’s help in working with his team, and even stated that Hatchett may still be incarcerated had the two offices not collaborated. Senior Staff Attorney, Seema Safee was lead counsel from the Innocence Project.

Despite the hardships Hatchett has faced since his wrongful conviction, he is confident that better things are in store for him in the future. Upon his release, he indulged in a steak dinner and made plans to move to a house in Pennsylvania with his sister.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: March 7

Kate Mathis — March 07, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Gene Bibbins!

Gene was exonerated in Louisiana in 2003 with help from the Innocence Project.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: March 6

Kate Mathis — March 06, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Cedric Willis, Samuel Lawson, and Cathy Woods!

Cedric was exonerated in Mississippi in 2006 with help from the Innocence Project New Orleans.

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Samuel was exonerated in Oregon in 2014.

Cathy was exonerated in Nevada last year with help from the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: February 28

Kate Mathis — February 28, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Hien Juan Mai!

Hien was exonerated in Texas in 2014.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: February 27

Kate Mathis — February 27, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary Glen Nobles!

Glen was exonerated in Texas last year.

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