Author Archives: Phil Locke

Johnson, Wheatt, Glover – All Charges Dismissed – After 20 Years

Johnson, Wheatt, Glover – this was the very first case I worked on with the Ohio Innocence Project eight and a half years ago. At the time, it was a GSR case (gunshot residue). The GSR evidence was always highly questionable, but it was a major factor in their conviction. As it turns out, not only was the GSR evidence bogus, but the case is also an example of egregious prosecutorial misconduct.

Please see the story by Maurice Possley on the National Registry of Exonerations website here.

 

Post Exoneraton Developments in the Debra Milke Case

I hope that by now, everybody knows that Debra Milke, previously convicted and inprisoned in Maricopa County, AZ, for contracting the murder of her young son, has been exonerated.

We’ve posted about the Debra Milke case on this blog several times previously. In chronological order –  here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here(The red link is particularly germane to the subject of this post.)

Pursuant to her wrongful conviction, wrongful imprisonment (22 years on death row), and eventual exoneration, Debra filed suit with five claims against four defendants, including two former Phoenix police officers and the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (Bill Montgomery), stating that that she was denied a fair trial and due process of law. The two police officers and the Maricopa County Attorney filed a motion with the court to dismiss the suit. Judge Roslyn O. Silver of the United States District Court for the District of Arizona has denied the motion to dismiss, and is allowing the suit to go forward.

See the story from azcentral here.

You can read the decision by Senior United States District Judge Roslyn O. Silver here:  97-OrderreMotionstoDismiss

 

Jack McCullough Exoneration. Case Not “Yet” Closed.

We have previously written about the Jack McCullough case here, here, and here.

Jack was convicted in 2012 of the 1957 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL. Jack was a neighbor of the Ridulph’s at the time. This used to be called the coldest case ever “solved.”

The current DeKalb County prosecutor, Richard Schmack, felt ethically compelled to review the case, and determined that evidence proved Jack could not be guilty.  Consequently, he filed a motion with the court to dismiss charges. Just this past April, Judge William Brady did dismiss the charges, but declined to do so “with prejudice.” This now leaves Jack vulnerable to being re-charged and re-tried. Maria Ridulph’s brother is continuing to seek appointment of a special prosecutor to re-open the case against Jack.

Now, a witness for the prosecution, who was incentivized to testify at Jack’s trial, has come forward to claim the the state did not live up to its part of the deal they made with him.

Well, if you’ve ever doubted the politically-driven and self-serving nature of the justice system, please see the recent CNN story HERE.

Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor

“Culture and law conspire to make prosecutors hostile to constitutional rights.”

Ken White is a former prosecutor who now practices criminal defense law. Consequently, he has unique insight into what causes prosecutors to act the way they do. As we have posited on this blog before, it’s not because prosecutors are inherently unethical or evil people (although the position does tend to attract people who seek power). It is the inescapable end result of how the justice system is set up and administered, and how the motivational incentives of the position are structured.

Mr. White has authored an article titled “Confessions of an Ex-Prosecutor,” and you can see that article by Ken White on reason.com here.

This quote from the early section of the article:

“…. nobody taught me to think that way, and nobody had to. I learned it by watching how the system ground up clients indifferently and mercilessly. I learned it by watching prosecutors make the sorts of arguments and decisions I had made, and seeing how they actually impacted human lives. I learned it by watching prosecutorial suspicion—and even paranoia—from the wrong end. I learned it by watching how the system crushed indigent clients, and by how it could destroy the lives of even wealthy clients with minimal effort or cause.”

Until the day that prosecutors are rendered subject to meaningful oversight and sanctions for wrongdoing, and until the day that state-level prosecutors are no longer politically elected, we’re going to be stuck with this problem.

Exonerated Eight Years After REAL Killer Confesses

 

“Complete and Utter Failure of the Criminal Justice System.” Michigan Radio

Davontae Sanford was 14 years old when he confessed to a quadruple murder after a police interrogation that lasted two days. His parents were not contacted. He attempted to recant, but was convicted and sent to prison. It didn’t help that he had a do-nothing, incompetent defense attorney. (In my experience, bad defense attorneys are responsible for as many wrongful convictions as anything else.)

Eight years ago the real killer not only confessed, and said Davontae had nothing to do with it, but he also led police to the gun that was confirmed to be the murder weapon.

Finally, after eight years, the state of Michigan has overturned his conviction, and he has been released from prison.

See the CNN story here.

What the hell happened (or didn’t happen) here?! We have yet to hear an explanation from the state of Michigan. I can only sit here slack-jawed, shaking my head in disbelief.

Furthermore, I’ll make a prediction. We’ll hear some kind of non-specific boilerplate excuses from authorities, but nothing substantive or fundamental will change in the system as a result of this. A few people may get a “wrist slap,” but then the whole thing will sink into the murky political-bureaucratic swamp and disappear.

Justice System Procedure Frequently Ignores Innocence

If you were able to read my recent article, Comment on the Nature and State of the (US) Justice System, you’ll know that I bemoaned the fact that the justice system has become an end unto itself, and gets itself (and defendants) endlessly tangled up in “procedure,” ignoring actual guilt or innocence. And if you’re an actually innocent, wrongfully convicted defendant, the situation gets ten times worse.

Interestingly, here is a recent article from InjusticeWatch that underscores much of what I had to say.

http://www.injusticewatch.org/news/2016/finally-free-years-after-judge-first-ruled-her-guilt-was-dubious/#

Alaska Legislature Passes Common Sense Criminal Justice Reform

Over the decades, driven by political expediency, “the law” has become ever more complex, restrictive, and punitive. U.S. Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski stated, “We need to repeal three felonies a day for three years.”

In Alaska, they haven’t repealed any felonies, but the state legislature has enacted a law to bring a higher level of common sense and fair treatment to the Alaska criminal justice system – Alaska Senate Bill 91. With a recidivism rate in excess of 60% in Alaska, they finally figured out that continuing to put people in prison with long sentences for just about any offense is not working.

The bill incorporates recommendations of the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission to adopt data-driven and research-based criminal justice reforms. These reforms include:

  • A new risk-based system for release of defendants from jail pretrial, and supervision of those defendants in the community;
  • Sentencing reforms that focus prison beds for serious violent offenders;
  • And evidence-based practices to strengthen probation and parole supervision.

See the Alaska Dispatch News story here.

Last report was that the bill was awaiting transmittal to the governor.

It’s long, long past time that the legislators around the country started actually looking at the DATA and RESEARCH on criminal issues before they go passing knee-jerk, blatantly political criminal justice legislation. Hats off to Alaska for this. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

Comment on the Nature and State of the (US) Justice System

While writing the latest post about Jack McCullough‘s exoneration, and while reading Courtney Bisbee‘s latest filing with the US District Court for Arizona, I got to reflecting on my experiences with the justice system over the past eight years, and I thought I would share some of my (unvarnished) observations. Clearly, this will be very editorial. It will probably help to understand my comments to know that I am not an attorney. I am an engineer by training, and that’s what I did for my entire working career – until I started doing innocence work pro bono. So I see the justice system with the naivete’ of someone who is an “outsider” and is not a functionary of the system; but I do see the system as someone who has spent his entire life founded in objective truth and logic and fact. Again, this article will be editorial in nature, and represents my views and only my views. It will also be pretty bleak; however, I see no viable path to fixing the monster we’ve created over the course of multiple decades of politics and the frailties of human nature. This has been bottled up inside me for some time, and the cork has finally popped. And just for reference, my definition of the justice system includes the law, legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police.

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Jack McCullough Exoneration – The Continuing Update

We’ve been posting here about the exoneration of Jack McCullough in the 1957 abduction and murder of then 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL. The current DeKalb County prosecutor, Richard Schmack, felt ethically compelled to review the case, and determined that evidence proved Jack could not be guilty.  Consequently, he filed a motion with the court to dismiss charges with prejudice; meaning that Jack could not be charged and tried for the crime again. For previous posts, please see here, here, here, and here.

Judge William Brady did dismiss the charges, but declined to do so “with prejudice.” This now leaves Jack vulnerable to being re-charged and re-tried. See the latest CNN story here.

And so grinds the justice system. And now with the decision by the judge not to dismiss with prejudice, there is a petition going around Sycamore, IL calling for the appointment of a “special prosecutor.” Despite facts, logic, and reason, people will just not give up their biases, beliefs, and prejudices. And just as an aside, prosecutor Schmack can probably ‘kiss goodbye’ to any chance of being re-elected – all because he did the right thing. Such is politics, and such is the justice system. And we can only speculate about how politics in this ultra-high-profile case may have influenced the decision of the judge.

 

“The Culture of Conviction” (aka – The Culture of Prosecutors .. or .. The Culture of ‘Winning’)

In our recent post about the exoneration of Jack McCullough (see here), we made special note of the fact that a prosecution is not supposed to be just about ‘winning’ for the prosecutor. It’s supposed to be about seeing that true justice is done. A new article by Radley Balko in the Washington Post is an excellent follow-on to that post.

Please see the recent piece by Radley Balko in the Washington Post here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2016/04/18/the-culture-of-conviction/

 

Colorado Prosecutors Practice ‘Spin’ and Deceit

I have long been dismayed by the state of ethics within the prosecutorial community. Here is just one more example of why. This one stretches the limits of credibility to the point of being sadly laughable.

Between 2010 and 2014, prosecutors in Colorado conducted what was called the “Justice Review Project,” which was federally funded for $2.6 million. The objective was to review over 5,000 convictions to determine if DNA testing could prove any of the defendants actually innocent.

The “Project” consisted entirely of prosecutorial staff, with the exception of the “Review Board,” which did have representation from the legal defense community. However, there was only one case that ever came before the review board, and that case was imposed upon the “Project” by outside defense counsel, which had already paid for independent DNA testing. This one case was also the only one out of over 5,000 that the “Project” determined was suitable for DNA testing. The “Project’s” selection criteria had been set up to allow off-hand disqualification of essentially every case.

The prosecutors then went on to claim (boast) that the “Project” proved that the Colorado justice system is infallible, and that Colorado prosecutors “get it right the first time” all the time. Not only that, but they also had the unmitigated gall to state in their final report on the “Project” that the one case in which DNA was tested (which they had forced on them), and proved innocence, was their “crowning achievement.”

Now the prosecutors are refusing to release (hiding) records of the “Project.” So, the Exoneration Project is suing in Denver District Court to have the records released.

See the Colorado Independent story here.

 

More on the Jack McCullough Exoneration

Jack

Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

See our recent post on this case here.

An Illinois judge has freed Jack McCullough from prison, and ordered a new trial. Jack was convicted in 2012 of the 1957 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL. Jack was a neighbor of the Ridulph’s at the time. This used to be called the coldest case ever “solved.” And I guess we can now call it an “exoneration,” since the prosecutor has indicated his intention to have the charges against Jack dismissed with prejudice; meaning Jack can never be brought back into court for this crime again.

CNN just published an article that includes an interview with Jack. This very insightful comment from that interview:

“People have to realize, it’s not about winning. It’s about justice. And this brave man — I probably shouldn’t talk about him at all — but he put his career on the line for me,” McCullough said. He thought a moment and carefully chose the words that followed:

“It isn’t about winning a case, it’s about justice. And God bless the man who stood up for justice. He’s probably going to pay a penalty for that because to everyone else it’s about winning. But it’s not about winning. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Let me add the editorial note that this is where politically ambitious, politically elected prosecutors get it wrong. It’s not supposed to be about “winning.” It’s supposed to be about seeing that justice is done. But … winning is much more important for your political record than is providing true justice. The prosecutor in this case is a rare and marvelous exception to that rule.

See the CNN story with the interview here.

The Oldest Cold Case Ever “Solved” is Now Still Unsolved. Jack McCullough’s Conviction Overturned.

We have reported on the case of Jack McCullough here before.  Please see:  https://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2016/03/25/illinois-prosecutor-says-man-convicted-in-oldest-cold-case-is-innocent/

An Illinois judge has recently overturned Jack’s conviction in the 1957 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL.

See the CNN story here.

 

Illinois Prosecutor Says Man Convicted in Oldest Cold Case is Innocent

We reported on this case two years ago.

In September, 2012, Jack McCullough was convicted of a murder committed in 1957.  The conviction was based largely upon an eyewitness identification made 53 years after the crime by a woman who was 8 years old at the time of the crime. Please see: Defendant in Coldest Case Ever “Solved” Appeals His Conviction.

The wrongful conviction litany just repeats and repeats. In this case it includes a false eyewitness identification, a false deathbed accusation, and (surprise) exculpatory evidence withheld from the defense.

See the CNN story here.

Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez Ousted in Primary

Anyone who has followed my stuff on this blog even casually knows that, because of their behavior, deeds, and actions, prosecutors are not my favorite group of people. And topping my list of least favorite prosecutors has always been Anita Alvarez, Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney. There are lots of reasons for this, many of which are detailed below in Chicago Tribune articles by Eric Zorn. I won’t detail my own opinions about her here so as not to become the defendant in a specious libel suit.

Most recently Alvarez came under fire for her handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting by Chicago police, and this seems to have been “the straw” that broke the voters’ backs. However, it’s really about much more than just her handling of that case. It’s about years and years of the blatant abuse of prosecutorial power.

In yesterday’s democratic primary in Cook County, challenger Kim Foxx defeated Alvarez by more than a 2-to-1 vote margin. The people have spoken.

cook vote

See the ThinkProgress story here.

And for more from Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune ……..

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Howard Dudley Freed in North Carolina After 23 Years

DudleyPhoto: Chris Seward – cseward@newsobserver.com

 

After 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted by false accusation and perjury, Howard Dudley has been released from prison in North Carolina.

Dudley: “The only thing I had to fight with was the truth.”

Judge: “This cries out as an injustice to Mr. Dudley.” “The Brady violations are ‘egregious, even outrageous.'”   

 Major congratulations and thanks to the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic for persevering through the discovery and litigation processes on this case for the last three years.

Please see The News & Observer story here. I strongly recommend viewing the several videos that are embedded in the article.

Courtney Bisbee Evidentiary Hearing Vacated

Courtney Bisbee was a single mother and school nurse, living and working in Scottsdale, AZ in 2004 when, through a combination of false accusations, police misconduct, prosecutorial railroading, very expensive but incompetent defense, and a judge who “owed one” to the prosecution, she was convicted in a bench trial, and sent to prison for “improperly touching” a teenager. An incident that never happened. You can read our first post about Courtney’s case here. Courtney has been in prison ever since.

I have personally been following this case for almost three years. This past December, we jubilantly posted that Courtney Bisbee had been granted an evidentiary hearing. Please see that report here. AT LAST, we saw a chance for the real truth to come out. However, as you would expect, the prosecution has been fighting against this with great vigor, and it appears, that for the time being, they have succeeded. Those readers who have been following this story should know that Courtney’s evidentiary hearing has been vacated.

No hearing was held, but on February 3, 2016, Senior Federal District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver granted the prosecution’s objections, and vacated Courtney’s evidentiary hearing. You can see US Senior District Judge Roslyn O. Silver’s ruling here.

Let me take some editorial license here and state that this ruling is NOT about justice and truth and doing what’s right. This is about justice system officials desperately trying to prevent disclosure of their misdeeds. And it’s also about a justice system that has elevated “procedure” to the point of being an end unto itself, regardless of actual guilt or innocence.

The legal point at issue here was the subject of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Cullen vs. Pinholster, commonly referred to as just ‘Pinholster.’ Prior to this decision, federal habeas courts had the ability to conduct an evidentiary hearing and do fact finding to get to the truth. The decision in Pinholster limits the habeas court to considering only evidence that was presented at trial. This has been a part of the systematic gutting by the Supreme Court over the past decade of Constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus protection. (If interested, you can download an interesting paper on the subject here.)

It must be noted that in her ruling, Judge Silver did not address the merits of the case. Consequently, there is still hope that Courtney may yet have her evidentiary hearing, and that the truth will come out. It’s just going to take longer.

Courtney has a petition on Change.org. Here is a link to that page: https://www.change.org/p/help-free-an-innocent-mom-courtney-bisbee-maricopa-county-az/u/15702845

 

Anatomy of a Confession – The Debra Milke Case

Gary Stuart, author and Professor of Law at Arizona State University, has just published a book about the Debra Milke case.    See our previous post here:  https://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2015/04/10/interview-with-debra-milkes-attorney/

anatomy of confession

“Anatomy of a Confession is the story of the 1990 murder trial of Debra Milke. Two men—Debra’s boyfriend at the time and a friend of his—murdered Debra’s four year-old son in the Arizona desert. One of them implicated the boy’s mother. Even before Debra was questioned, the police hung a guilty tag on her. Debra Milke spent twenty-three years on death row for the murder of her four year-old son based solely on a confession she never gave. This is also the story of Detective Armando Saldate, his history of extracting forced confessions, and the role the Phoenix Police Department played in the cover-up and misconduct in its handling of the Milke investigation. Anatomy of a Confession is a vivid and shocking reminder of what America’s vaunted presumption of innocence is all about.”

It’s available on Amazon here.

Sex, Lies, and Wrongful Conviction: Kathleen Kane’s Other Scandal

Want to get angry? Just read this article by Lorenzo Johnson, who was found innocent and released from prison after 16 years, and then put back in. He’s still there.

Lorenzo Johnson Article

Texas Disbars Former Prosecutor

Please see the following article by Jonathan Turley.

Texas State Bar Votes To Disbar Former Prosecutor For Role In Conviction Of Innocent Man

gavel2The Board of Disciplinary Appeals (appointed by the Texas Supreme Court) has upheld a state licensing board’s decision to disbar former prosecutor Charles Sebesta for his role in convicting an innocent man. Anthony Graves spent 18 years on death row for setting a fire that killed six people. Sebesta’s conduct was shocking but remains a relatively rare example of prosecutors being held accountable in such cases of prosecutorial abuse.

Sebesta had convicted Robert Carter for the murders and tried to get Carter to say Graves was an accomplice. However, just a day before the trial, Carter told Sebesta he acted alone and Graves was not involved. Sebesta withheld the information from the defense and presented false testimony implicating Graves. Sebesta also blocked an alibi witness by telling the court that the witness was a suspect in the murders and could be indicted. The witness then refused to testify.

After his conviction was reversed, a special prosecutor found in 2010 that there was no credible evidence that Graves was involved in the murders.

Sebesta now insists that he has been treated unfairly.

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Treated unfairly?! Mr. Sebesta is lucky he himself is not now behind bars.