Posts Tagged ‘exoneration’

Reasons For Exoneration: Inadequate Legal Defense

Victoria Inzana — October 27, 2017 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

On October 14th, 2016, Jules Letemps was exonerated from prison. He had been charged with sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial, his defense attorney failed to analyze the deposition of the forensic expert during the trial. This deposition contained details of the testing of semen which was found not to have belonged to Letemps, although the forensic expert could not be sure due to the amount of dilution the semen had undergone. During his incarceration, Letemps obtained the help of Centurion Ministries who fully examined this deposition, where experts in serology concluded that the forensic expert had applied an incorrect standard of testing the dilution of the semen. The experts employed by Centurion also excluded Letemps as the source of the semen- which was supposed to have been obtained by the attacker. The new evidence found by Centurion Ministries, combined with Letemps’ original alibi created so much doubt around his conviction that two days before Letemps’ retrial, he was exonerated.

A large problem that defendants have when at trial is obtaining an adequate defense. This post in the blog series Reasons for Exoneration, will focus on the inability of defense lawyers to properly represent their clients. Often states employ inexperienced, overworked, and sometimes incompetent defense lawyers due to a lack of funds to compensate lawyers for their work.

Should a defendant be convicted of a charge and request post-conviction help on the grounds of inadequate defense, and if an Innocence Project representative has the ability to prove inadequate defense (failure to investigate or sins of omission, for example), then the exoneree has not received a fair trial, has had their rights violated, and it is possible that they will be granted a new trial or the charges against them could be dropped altogether, as in the case of Jules Letemps.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has just recently completed an investigation into the Louisiana Public Defender system in February of 2017. During this investigation, the “Delphi Method” was used to determine the number of hours a defense lawyer should be spending on cases in order to present an adequate defense in court. This method consists of expert panels of public defenders and private defense lawyers estimating the amount of time that should be spent on a case. For a low-level felony case, lawyers should be spending an estimated 21.99 hours to investigate. For a felony case carrying a sentence of life without parole, the consensus was that a defense lawyer should be investigating the case for 200.67 hours. At their current rate, Louisiana state Public Defenders only have the capacity to be handling 21 percent of their workload effectively.

Due to this serious issue of inadequate defense, states such as Louisiana and Utah are currently being sued for a failure to meet the constitutional rights of their low-income defendants.  For example, in Louisiana Orleans Parish Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton and Lousiana State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr. are being sued after the creation of a waiting list for cases, since there are not enough public defenders to “ethically, constitutionally, or within standers handle those cases” which fall beyond the limited number set by Bunton. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana are suing on the grounds that this waiting list violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection of the laws. In the past, other states have been sued such as New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Idaho, California, and Missouri on similar grounds. Should the problem of inadequate defense remain unresolved, there will likely be more states to be sued in the coming future.

Some proposals to reform this broken system include increased funding for Public Defender’s offices and court-appointed attorneys, and to enact and abide by standards set for workload limits, professional independence, and training requirements. In 2004, Virginia led the nation in the number of executions per capita. Reform was passed after a study completed by a law professor tied the decline of death penalty cases to lack of defense lawyers. This prompted the state legislature to create a system of regional defense offices to handle trial-level capital cases. Since 2005, the average sentencing for a death penalty case doubled from one to two days, to four days. On top of that, Virginia hasn’t executed anyone since 2011. The “new” Virginia death penalty is never imposed, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises constitutional concerns. The reform in Virginia and other evidence presented in this article reinforces the words of Stephen Bright, “[The death penalty is] not imposed upon those who commit the worst crimes, but upon those who have the misfortune to be assigned to the worst lawyers.”


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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: December 14th

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 14, 2016 @ 11:11 AM — Comments (1)


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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Wrongfully Convicted Man Released after 24 Years in Prison

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 06, 2016 @ 3:16 PM — Comments (0)


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 03, 2016 @ 1:23 PM — Comments (0)


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)


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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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: September 28th

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 28, 2016 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary to Damon Thibodeaux.

Damon was 22 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his step-cousin in Lousiana. He spent 15 years on death row, in solitary confinement, before his exoneration through DNA testing on September 28th, 2012 with the help of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project.

Following his release, Damon moved to Minnesota and works for Fredrikson & Byron, the law firm that helped facilitate his exoneration. He remains an active speak for wrongful conviction and criminal justice reform.

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Indiana Governor Mike Pence Passes on Pardon to Wrongfully Convicted Man

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 23, 2016 @ 1:04 PM — Comments (1)


Chicago native Keith Cooper was arrested in 1997 after officers falsely identified him as the perpetrator of an armed robbery in Elkhart, Indiana. After nearly a decade spent in prison, the case that had been built against Cooper began to crumble. A jailhouse informant recanted his statement and new DNA evidence pointed to a man already convicted on murder charges in Michigan.

However, in 2005, Cooper was given an ultimatum that many of the wrongfully convicted are faced with: if he wanted to retry his case, despite the possibility it may go south and he end up in prison again, or be granted immediate release with a felony conviction still on his record. Cooper chose the latter and now is fighting the consequences of it.

Despite being free, Cooper realized that keeping his false conviction on his record did him more harm than good.

“I still live with the stigma of a convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a promotion, it’s hard for me to find jobs and every time I look around the corner, the police stop me and go through a background check,” Cooper told 21Alive. While he had taken the immediate release to take care of his family, he found that while the people he loved welcome him back in, the world did not.

It seemed the only way to wipe the slate clean was to ask the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, for a pardon. While there has been a long line of people who’ve recommended to Governor Pence that Cooper be pardoned of his conviction, including the deputy prosecutor who helped send Cooper to prison and the Indiana Parole Board, Pence’s administration has decided to pass on his request.

After waiting years to hear back from Governor Pence and an exoneration petition with over 100,000 signatures, the governor’s general counsel told Cooper’s attorney that they “first must exhaust all possible judicial options for appeal,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Currently, Cooper’s attorney Elliot Solsar says the letter is not an outright denial. However, it is also unclear if Cooper will even be allowed to file a post-conviction petition after the original was withdrawn back in 2005. Therefore, Cooper and his supporters must continue to fight to overturn the conviction ruling that never should have been his in the first place.

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New DNA Testing Reopens Michigan Serial Killer Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 16, 2016 @ 11:22 AM — Comments (0)


The Michigan State Police have opened an investigation into the DNA testing conducted for 53-year-old Michael Darnell Harris’ case in 1981. Harris was convicted of killing 77-year-old Ula Curdy of Lansing, Michigan. Now he is serving life sentences for the murder of three other women as well in 1981 and 1982 in Lansang. However, Harris has maintained his innocence for all four crimes.

In 2015, Harris gained permission from Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to conduct DNA testing on semen found on Curdy’s girdle. What came back was DNA that did not match Harris but another man already in the database of convicted offenders and arrestees. A spokesman for the Lansing Police Department said that this claim is currently being reviewed.

Now, the MSP is reopening the case to investigate how the crime lab handled the DNA testing. According to the Detriot Free Press, “records show a former MSP crime lab supervisor who testified against Harris in both the Ingham and Washtenaw county cases was forced to retire in 2004 after officials learned he had a subordinate complete his DNA proficiency test and fraudulently submitted it as his own.” This calls into question the legitimacy of Harris’ convictions where this supervisor was used as an expert witness.

Only time will tell if both of these claims are enough to overturn a conviction, especially when he is serving multiple life sentences. However, his court-appointed attorney Edward Zeineh hopes that if the Curdy murder conviction is overturned, the domino effect could occur in reverse, clearing his name from the three other murders for which he has been convicted.

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Kerry Max Cook Gets One Step Closer to Full Exoneration

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 15, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Kerry Max Cook, who has been fighting for his exoneration since his wrongful conviction decades ago, got one step closer to that goal when a judge dismissed the charges against him on Monday, June 6. Cook was convicted of the 1977 murder of a 21-year-old East Texas woman and sentenced to death in 1978, but has always insisted he was innocent of killing Linda Jo Edwards. He was released from prison in 1999 after he accepted a plea deal that prosecutors offered him, which entailed a sentence of time served—meaning he would not have to return to prison—as long as he plead no contest. Despite his freedom, Cook remained a convicted felon, and has continued fighting for his full exoneration.

Cook’s attorneys argued in court recently that from 1999 to 2015, after six rounds of DNA testing were performed, results determined that no evidence was identified proving Cook was at the scene of the murder. The testing did, however, confirm that semen present in the victim’s underwear belonged to James Mayfield, Edwards’ boss and ex-lover. According to Cook’s attorneys, the extramarital affair that Mayfield had with his employee did not end well. Mayfield, who has denied any involvement in Edwards’ murder, has never been charged in relation to the crime, despite authorities considering him a longtime suspect. According to several interviews with authorities and his original testimony, Mayfield claimed that his affair with Edwards ended three weeks before she was killed. In April, however, he admitted that they had sex the day before her murder after authorities re-interviewed him and granted him immunity from prosecution. That April confession suggested that Mayfield’s original testimony was false.

Cook’s attorneys and prosecutors came to an agreement to dismiss the charges against him, which a judge approved on June 6. The judge’s order claimed that in addition to a witness’ false testimony, the prosecution failed to disclose a taped interview with a manager of the apartment complex where the murder took place that would have bolstered Cook’s defense, both of which contributed to a violation of Cook’s rights.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will now hear the case. If the court grants Cook a full exoneration, he could be eligible to receive more than $3 million from the state of Texas, along with additional benefits, in compensation for the almost 20 years he spent wrongfully incarcerated on death row.

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Exoneration Sought in Groveland Four Case to be brought to Governor Rick Scott

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 09, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Those who have been pushing for the exoneration of the “Groveland Four,” including Mayor Tim Loucks and Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks, are hoping to meet with Governor Rick Scott within the next several weeks. Loucks, who vowed to continue pursuing justice for the men of the Groveland Four, believes that Scott is interested in reviewing the case.

The Groveland Four consists of Charles Greenlee, Walter Irvin, Samuel Shepherd, and Ernest Thomas, who were all accused and convicted of raping Norma Padgett, a white woman, in 1949. On the morning following the alleged rape, after Thomas fled Lake County, he was tracked down, shot, and killed by then-Sheriff Willis McCall and other members of a deputized posse. In addition, Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten in the county jail’s basement. Although there was no physical evidence in the case, Greenlee, who was a juvenile, was sentenced to life in prison, and Shepherd and Irvin received the death penalty.

While Shepherd and Irvin were being transported from the Florida State Prison to the Lake County Jail, McCall claimed that he was jumped by the two handcuffed men and shot them three times. Shepherd died immediately and according to Irvin, he survived by playing dead. Following the incident, despite Irvin accusing the sheriff and his deputy of attempted murder, no charges were ever filed.

NAACP special counsel Thurgood Marshall petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the death penalty verdicts in November 1951. Irvin was retried and sentenced to death after being convicted a second time, but in 1954 the sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1962, after serving 12 years in prison, Greenlee was paroled. Irvin was paroled in 1968. He was found dead in his car, however, while visiting Lake County, and there were doubts about the circumstances surrounding his death. Greenlee died in April 2012 at the age of 78.

Despite a Florida Senate resolution asking for the exoneration of the Groveland Four failing to pass during this legislative session, Lake County formally gave its support to an exoneration effort for the group on March 15, calling the men’s 1949 rape convictions a travesty and an injustice. During the city of Groveland’s council meeting on February 16, Loucks issued a similar proclamation.

The families of Greenlee, Irvin, Shepherd, and Thomas not only say that exoneration would bring closure to what has been a difficult part of their history, but also that the evidence in the case does not add up. Loucks commented on the uncertain circumstances of the case, stating that there was no doubt the men were beaten and tortured and that the shooting that occurred was very questionable.

Vivian Shepherd, Samuel Shepherd’s niece, stated that although she is not angry about what happened to her uncle, it has been difficult to find closure, which would only come if the Groveland Four’s names were cleared. She believes in the men’s innocence and wants justice, but also wishes to speak with Padgett so she can forgive her, ask her why, and share with her the families of the Groveland Four’s side of the story.

Gilbert King, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the Groveland Four and Marshall, Devil in the Grove, also wrote that there was no physical evidence that a rape took place. He cited multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct and a few inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s timeline of events, stating that all the physical evidence looked like it had been faked and that Padgett’s testimony was sufficient enough for the jury to hand down the convictions. He also wrote about a doctor who was supposed to testify in the case that found no evidence that Padgett was raped in the medical report, but was never called by the prosecution.

Ric Ridgway, chief assistant state attorney for the 5th Circuit, could not comment on the case’s specific details, but he did say that a case is not as strong if there is no physical evidence of a sexual assault, and that other evidence would be needed to compensate for it. A criminal defense attorney running for Lake County judge, Benjamin Boylston, agreed with Ridgway, stating that a case can be weakened due to a lack of physical evidence if the situation is expected to have that kind of evidence available, such as if a rape is reported immediately after it allegedly occurred. He added that even if the victim is telling the truth, a number of factors could make it less likely that there would be physical evidence.

Ridgway stated that the court system is extremely different today than it was in 1949, citing multiple changes, including DNA, an appeal process for reviewing defense counsel’s effectiveness, and more sophisticated jurors.

Although Scott’s office has declined repeated attempts to issue any new comments on the Groveland Four case, they referenced their comments made on March 1, which declared that they would follow the clemency process and review any case brought in front of them.

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