Author Archives: Nancy Petro

Ohio and California: Convictions Overturned after Record-Long Wrongful Incarcerations

It has been a remarkable week for Innocence work, and this is only Wednesday.

Yesterday, November 18, Ricky Jackson’s murder conviction was vacated in Ohio after Jackson had spent 39 years in prison. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty acknowledged the case against Jackson had disintegrated when the key witness, who was 12 years old at the time of the crime, recanted. The district attorney does not expect to retry Jackson, 57, who broke into sobs as it became clear that the charges against him were being dropped. He is expected to walk free on Friday. Continue reading

New York Taxpayers to Pay $9 Million in Wrongful Conviction Settlement

New York City, its Housing Authority, and the State of New York have agreed to pay $9 million to Danny Colon, 50, and Anthony Ortiz, 44. Both men spent 16 years in prison before their convictions in a 1989 double murder — a drive-by shooting — were overturned in 2009.

The New York Court of Appeals reversed an earlier Appellate court decision and ordered a new trial for the men after finding that the Manhattan prosecutor had knowingly utilized false testimony from a key witness, a felon and drug dealer. The prosecutor denied in her final argument to the jury that the witness had been compensated for his testimony, but he subsequently received a Continue reading

Open Records Policies Shine Light on Misconduct, Injustice

Dallas County (TX) District Judge Mark Stoltz issued findings of fact and conclusions of law last week before recommending that the murder convictions of Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee be overturned. The two men were subsequently released after each had served 15 years in prison. The judge’s findings will now go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for review. ABC News WFAA 8 reported (here) that the two are expected to be exonerated.

Allen and Mozee were convicted of the 1999 murder of Reverend Jesse Borns Jr., who was found stabbed outside his workplace, a retail store. No physical evidence linked the men to the crime. The conviction was won on the unrecorded confession of Mozee — who immediately recanted and claimed he was coerced into signing the police-written statement — and the testimony of two jailhouse informants. The informants denied under oath at trial that they were promised compensation for their testimony. Continue reading

David McCallum and the late William Stuckey exonerated of murder

After 29 years in prison, David McCallum was exonerated yesterday  of a murder he did not commit. Kings County (NY) Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic also exonerated William Stuckey who died in prison in 2001. It took an army of advocates over many years — including the late Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had also been wrongfully conviction of murder — to finally overturn this miscarriage.

As teenagers McCallum and Stuckey falsely confessed to the murder of  Nathan Blenner, who died of a single gunshot wound to the head. McCallum and Stuckey quickly recanted the confessions. Although the confessions were filled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, the men were convicted and lost all appeals. Over the years, McCallum refused parole rather than admit guilt to a crime he did not commit. His struggle was recorded in a recently released documentary, “David & me.”

Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, whose Conviction Review Unit investigated the case, recommended this exoneration, and has now cleared convictions in ten cases, said in a Wall Street Journal Report (here), “I think the people of Brooklyn deserve better, and I think we should not have a national reputation as a place where people have been railroaded into confessing to crimes they did not commit.”

Congratulations to Mr. McCallum and to the family of William Stuckey. The nation should be grateful for the persistence and hard work of all who contributed to this reversal including Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions (Chicago), Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Ken Klonsky, Innocence International (Toronto), Oscar Michelen of the New York law firm of Cuomo, LLC, Professor Laura Cohen of the Rutgers-Newark Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, and King’s County District Attorney Kenneth Thompson  and his Conviction Review Unit team.

 

Adding Balance and Transparency to the Plea Bargaining Process

The Hon. Jed Rakoff — U.S. District Judge, Federal District Court in Manhattan — has expressed concern over the fairness and accuracy of outcomes resulting from plea bargaining. In the United States, plea agreement negotiations have become the resolution mechanism for the vast majority—more than 95 percent—of federal and state criminal cases. The judge believes that the process contributes to an unacceptable number of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.

“We have hundreds, or thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty,” Judge Rakoff said at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s annual Neiman Sieroty Lecture earlier this year. Read an article in USCNews on his comments (here).

The judge noted in an article in the New York Daily News (here), “The current Continue reading

A Case for Mercy and Discretion in Criminal Justice

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln

So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.

While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.

These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).

When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.

His attorney was wrong. Continue reading

New Developments in Willingham Case, Ten Years After Execution

The Innocence Project has asked the State Bar of Texas to investigate former Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson relating to the arson case of Todd Willingham. Convicted of setting a fire on Dec. 23, 1991, that resulted in the death of his three young children — Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1 — Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

Expert forensic testimony provided at the Willingham trial that equated burn patterns to the use of accelerants has been debunked by contemporary forensic science. Now, an article by Maurice Possley for The Marshall Project published in The Washington Post, details new evidence that undermines the second significant evidence that supported the conviction of Willingham, testimony from a jailhouse informant. Continue reading