Category Archives: Capital punishment

The Innocent on Death Row – NY Times Editorial

We (Martin Yant) recently reported here on the WCB about the North Carolina exoneration of death row inmate Henry Lee McCollum.  McCollum’s exoneration has prompted a highly compelling editorial by the The NY Times editorial board.  That editorial with active links appears here.  It appears below without embedded links (bolding emphasis is mine):

The Innocent on Death Row, by THE (NY Times) EDITORIAL BOARD, September 3, 2014

The exoneration of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — provides a textbook example of so much that is broken in the American justice system. And it is further evidence (as though more were needed) that the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral.

In late September 1983, an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie was found murdered in a soybean field in Robeson County. She had been raped, beaten with sticks and suffocated with her own underwear.

Within days, police got confessions from two local teenagers, Henry Lee McCollum, 19 at the time, and his half brother, Leon Brown, who was 15. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

The crime was so horrific that it has echoed for decades through North Carolina politics and beyond. In 1994, after Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court announced that he opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the Buie murder as a case where it was clearly warranted. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he wrote.

On Tuesday, a state judge ordered both men freed after multiple pieces of evidence, some of which had never been turned over to defense lawyers, proved that neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown was responsible for the crime. DNA taken from a cigarette found at the crime scene matched a different man, Roscoe Artis, who is already serving life in prison for a similar murder committed just weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.

Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.

No physical evidence linked either man to the crime, so their false confessions, given under duress, were the heart of the case the prosecutors mounted against them. Both men’s confessions were handwritten by police after hours of intense questioning without a lawyer or parent present. Neither was recorded, and both men have maintained their innocence ever since.

Equally disturbing, Mr. Artis was a suspect from the start. Three days before the murder trial began, police requested that a fingerprint from the crime scene be tested for a match with Mr. Artis, who had a long history of sexual assaults against women. The test was never done, and prosecutors never revealed the request to the defense.

It was not until 2011 that the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that had taken on the men’s case, discovered the old fingerprint request. The commission also found that multiple statements in the two confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the facts of the crime. In July, the commission finally got the full case file and matched the DNA to Mr. Artis.

None of these pieces mattered to the prosecution in 1984. The prosecutor on the case, Joe Freeman Britt, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor” for the nearly 50 death sentences he won during his tenure. Almost all have since been overturned.

Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, who are now middle-aged, have a hard road ahead. In addition to the difficulties of adapting to life after three decades behind bars, both are intellectually disabled. (Since their conviction, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for both juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities.)

Cases of capital prosecutions based on flimsy evidence or marred by prosecutorial misconduct, not to mention racial bias, are distressingly common. Yet, even as death-penalty supporters insist that only guilty people are sent to their death, it is now clear that Justice Scalia was prepared 20 years ago to allow the execution of a man who, it turns out, was innocent.

How many more remain on death row today? Can the American people be assured that none will be killed by the state? For this reason alone, the death penalty must end.

A version of this editorial appears in print on September 4, 2014, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Innocent on Death Row.

Research project issues report on wrongful arson convictions

The Arson Research Project says that 30 men and women have been exonerated from wrongful arson convictions since 1991. More than half of them were exonerated from life sentences or from death row. In the case of one Texas inmate, Cameron Todd Willingham, the research project says, such forensic error led to the execution of an innocent man.

To help prevent such tragedies in the future, the Arson Research Project, which is affiliated at Monterey College of Law, has published an excellent report, Anatomy of a Wrongful Arson Conviction, which you can download here.

The center’s director, Paul Bieber, presents a good video summary on wrongful arson convictions and the difficulty reversing them, here.

Scalia once touted exoneree’s death sentence as example of capital punishment’s worth

“A North Carolina death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence on Tuesday was once held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of someone who deserved to die,” the Huffington Post reports. You can read the details here.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

More on Hakamada Case…

Previous posts on Hakamada case here and here.

From the Japan Times:

Prosecutors concealed evidence that could have cleared Hakamada, lawyers allege

Kyodo, Aug 6, 2014

Prosecutors have apologized for concealing critical evidence that might have cleared Iwao Hakamada, the former professional boxer who spent more than 40 years on death row before being released from prison in March, according to his lawyers.

The head of Hakamada’s legal team, Katsuhiko Nishijima, alleged at a news conference on Tuesday that prosecutors had admitted making incorrect claims, concealing the existence of photographic negatives showing bloodstained clothes said to have been worn by the culprit.

Hakamada, 78, was a live-in employee at a soybean processing company when he was arrested in August 1966 on robbery, murder and arson charges. The Shizuoka District Court sentenced him to death in 1968 for allegedly slaying an executive of the company, his wife and their two children in Shizuoka Prefecture.

Five pieces of bloodstained clothing, including a shirt, were found at the company’s plant more than a year later, and became decisive evidence at his trial. But the Shizuoka District Court decided to reopen the case, judging based on DNA tests of the bloodstains that the clothing was not Hakamada’s and had not been worn by the culprit at the time of the murder.

The photographs were reportedly taken soon after the bloodstained clothes were discovered inside one of tanks used for soybean fermentation, 14 months after the slayings.

The Shizuoka District Court’s decision suggested the evidence could have been fabricated by investigating officers, as the color of the clothes did not look like they had been soaked in miso paste for over a year.

“The negatives may be crucial in judging whether the evidence has been tainted,” one of Hakamada’s attorneys said.

According to the lawyers, as many as 111 negatives have been found and some of them have already been analyzed by the prosecution.

“The evidence was intentionally concealed and we’re not going to leave it like this,” Nishijima said, adding that the information was discovered in a statement that prosecutors issued on July 17.

The statement said police were in possession of the negatives and that prosecutors found them after the Shizuoka District Court reopened the case, which led to Hakamada’s release.

During the first meeting held between Hakamada’s lawyers, prosecutors and the court on Tuesday at the Tokyo High Court to review his conviction and sentence, the prosecution issued an apology for failing to disclose the evidence, saying they will provide further explanation in a written statement.

“We don’t know what else beside the five pieces of clothing we may find in the photographs, but we believe that some of the photographs have probably never been disclosed,” Hakamada’s attorneys said during the press conference.

The next meeting between the prosecutors, Hakamada’s lawyers and the court is scheduled for Oct. 23. His lawyers said they plan to respond to the prosecution’s statements by the end of October.

Presiding Judge Takaaki Oshima has not specified when the court will issue a final decision.

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