Author Archives: Nancy Petro

Rape Conviction Vacated with Support of Prosecutor

Quentin Carter, 40, maintained his innocence throughout nearly 17 years in prison following his conviction of the 1991 rape of a 10-year old child. He was likely denied parole numerous times because he would not express remorse for a crime he didn’t commit.

Carter was 16 when convicted. He was released in 2008 but was registered as a sex offender with all the restrictions this designation carries.

Kent County (MI) Prosecutor William Forsyth was instrumental in vacating Carter’s wrongful conviction, which occurred by order of a judge last Thursday. Continue reading

1,600 U.S. Exonerations Highlight Unacceptable Error in Criminal Justice

The National Registry of Exonerations has announced a chilling milestone, the 1,600th known exoneration in the United States since 1989. The tally of persons known to have been convicted of crimes they did not commit has grown rapidly from the Registry’s launch three years ago. The 1600th exoneration, that of Michael McAlister, occurred last week.

Maurice Possley’s Registry report on Michael McAlister (here) provides the telling details — case unique and yet familiar — of a tragic miscarriage. Police and prosecutors would come to doubt McAlister’s guilt and subsequently joined a long effort to correct this stubborn error. Continue reading

New Research Elevates Concerns over Snitch Testimony

Testimony from jailhouse informants has been a known factor in wrongful convictions, and new data indicates the use of this risky evidence has been more frequent in the worst crimes, according to the May 2015  report of The National Registry of Exonerations. While snitch testimony has been a factor in 8% of exonerations across all crimes, it has been a contributor to wrongful conviction in 15% of murder exonerations and in 23% of death penalty exonerations.

Snitch testimony is compelling to a jury but often unreliable because it can be compromised by incentives for the informant to lie. A factor in 119 of 1,567 known exonerations (tallied from 1989 up to March 17, 2015), the new data reveals the risk not only of convicting the innocent but also of enabling the guilty to escape justice and continue perpetrating the most heinous of crimes. An accompanying consideration: Jailed snitches have been compensated for their testimony with reduced sentences, another risky practice.

Access The National Registry of Exonerations May newsletter (here).

Death Row Inmate Anthony Ray Hinton Freed after 30 Years in Alabama Prison

Yesterday, April 3, 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, emerged from a Jefferson County Jail (AL) after serving thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit. Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, author of the national bestseller “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption,” had represented Hinton for the past 16 years.

One could make a strong argument that Hinton should never have been indicted for two 1985 murders at Alabama fast-food restaurants. The evidence presented against Hinton, who had no history of violent crime and who always proclaimed his innocence, was scanty. Perhaps even worse, when authorities — prosecutors Continue reading

Juan Rivera to receive $20 million for 20 years of wrongful imprisonment

Juan Rivera, 42, who endured three trials and twenty years of wrongful imprisonment before being exonerated of a vicious crime, has reached a $20 million settlement agreement with Lake County (IL) authorities. His $1 million award for each year in prison will enable him to pursue his education and assist his family, but, as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times (here), Rivera said, “I still would prefer my 20 years back [over] the $20 million.”

The settlement cost will be shared by the county and several municipalities that contributed police work in the investigation of the brutal crime. The largest amount will be paid by the city of Waukegan where the crime occurred.

Rivera was convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. His conviction was based primarily on a confession that occurred over four days Continue reading

$9.2 Million Awarded in Wrongful Conviction that Underscores FBI Forensic Problems

February 28, 2015 – Yesterday Washington D.C. Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz ordered $9.2 million be paid by the District to Kirk L. Odom, 52, in compensation for more than 21 years of imprisonment after he was wrongfully convicted of a 1981 Capital Hill rape and burglary. The Washington Post reported (here) that “Odom is one of five D.C. men convicted of rape or murder whose charges have been vacated since 2009 because they were based on erroneous forensics and testimony by an elite unit of FBI hair experts.”

In his District-record award, the judge provided one formula for calculating compensation damages: $1,000 per day for wrongful incarceration, $250 per day for parole time and $200 for each day between his exoneration and trial. The article noted that Judge Kravitz’s opinion comes “as courts are coming to terms Continue reading

Christopher Abernathy Exonerated and Freed after 30 Years in Prison

Christopher Abernathy, 48, was released from prison on Wednesday after Cook County (IL) Judge Frank Zelezinski vacated his 1987 conviction for a rape and murder Cook County (IL) officials now acknowledge he did not commit. Abernathy had served nearly 30 years of a life sentence for the crime.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s Conviction Integrity Unit reviewed DNA evidence from the crime, presented by Abernathy’s attorneys, which Continue reading

Connecticut Awards $6 Million to Wrongfully Convicted Man Now Serving On Parole Board

The state of Connecticut is awarding Kenneth Ireland $6 million after he was wrongfully convicted and served 21 years in prison for the 1986 rape and murder of Barbara Pelkey, a young mother of four.

According to the New Haven Register (here), effective immediately, Ireland will receive “$2.5 million for loss of liberty and enjoyment of life; $1.5 million for loss of earnings and earning capacity; $300,000 for loss of reputation; $1.5 million for physical and mental injuries; and $200,000 for costs and expenses.”

As reported by Phil Locke on this blog (here), this is the state’s first award by the Continue reading

National Registry of Exonerations: 2014 was Record-breaking with 125 Exonerations in U.S.

For the first time, more than 100 exonerations were recorded in the United States in one year. According to The National Registry of Exonerations Report for 2014, 125 exonerations of innocent criminal defendants mark an increase of 34 over the prior record of 91 in 2012 and 91 again in 2013. The report notes the work of Conviction Integrity Units in the increase.

“The big story for the year is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence. And many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit,” said Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and the author of the report.

Both the number of Conviction Integrity Units and the exonerations they produced increased in 2014. There were 49 CIU exonerations in 2014, including Continue reading

Derrick Hamilton exonerated in New York; Alan Beaman pardoned in Illinois

In two separate cases, men who were convicted and imprisoned for murders they did not commit had a very good week as officials recognized their innocence on Friday, January 9. Both had been released after years in prison but had continued to fight to clear their names and reputations.

Derrick Hamilton spent 21 years in prison for the 1991 murder of Nathanial Cash in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. In prison, he steadfastly proclaimed his innocence knowing that this worked against his opportunities for early parole. He remained in prison even after the sole witness — Cash’s girlfriend whose Continue reading

Jane Raley: Tenacious Advocate for the Wrongfully Convicted

All who have followed the accomplished work of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law are saddened by the loss of the Center’s Co-Director, Jane Raley, 57. Surrounded by her loving family, Raley died peacefully at her home on Christmas Day after battling cancer.

Raley had been a member of the legal staff of the Center on Wrongful Convictions since 2000. An exceptional lawyer and teacher, Raley was instrumental in the cases of eleven inmates who were eventually released, according to an obituary in the Chicago Tribune (here). Continue reading

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

The FBI’s Can of Worms: Forensic review stalls, resumes on order of DOJ

The FBI’s massive review of criminal convictions with FBI forensic hair and fiber testimony, initiated in 2012, stalled in the face of widespread errors spanning two decades, but the review has resumed this month on order of the Justice Department. As reported by Spencer S. Hsu, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, “Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.”

Read Hsu’s comprehensive article here. Highlights directly from the article: Continue reading

First-of-its-kind Exoneration Expected in Dallas

Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely convicted of sexual assault, told everyone he was innocent, but after his attorney advised that he would be better off pleading guilty than risking conviction at trial, and after he then served out his 12-year prison term, he never thought his name would be cleared. However, on July 25, 2014, at 9 a.m. Mr. Phillips, 57, in a wheel chair due to sickle cell anemia, is expected to be exonerated in Criminal District Court 3 at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ ongoing initiative to review untested rape kits revealed that Michael Phillips was innocent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred…as a result of a district attorney’s systematic testing without active request by a defendant. Continue reading