Category Archives: Exonerations

DNA convicts killer of 1976 murder previously ‘solved’ by police coerced confession that sent wrong man to prison.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailA man has been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for the 1976 rape and manslaughter of Janet Commins, a 15 year old girl, a crime that made national news at the time. Stephen Hough was interviewed along with all local men aged 17-22, but was ruled out after claiming to have been stealing petrol at the time. Instead, another local young man, Noel Jones, a barely literate 18-year-old traveller who had been picked up by police the day Janet’s body was discovered, was interviewed for days without legal assistance. He denied all knowledge of the crime but later his girlfriend told police he had confessed to killing Janet and had asked her to provide him with an alibi. After two days of questioning, he signed two detailed confession statements. On the second day of his murder trial in June 1976, he admitted manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Noel Jones spent 6 years in prison for the murder.

(Picture l-r: Stephen Hough, Janet Commins and Noel Jones)

 

At the time of the investigation, police suspected Jones had an accomplice, and in 2006 they undertook a ‘cold case review’ to try and secure forensic evidence against their second suspect. This did not match, and was uploaded to the National DNA Database. A decade later, Stephen Hough was arrested after sexually assaulting another 15 year old girl. When DNA was taken, this was also uploaded to the National DNA Database where it matched the crime scene DNA from the 1976 murder.

Noel Jones described the six years he spent in prison as a “nightmare” which “absolutely destroyed my life”. He has never challenged his conviction, but says he is innocent and only confessed because police had pressured and coerced him.

The original investigation is now being re-examined. The police officer in charge of the investigation rose through the ranks to become Deputy Chief-Constable. At Hough’s trial he gave evidence that nobody thought to offer Noel Jones a solicitor during the initial stages of his questioning because he wanted to investigate “properly and thoroughly”. Police could be “impeded” by solicitors representing clients, he said, adding that “there was no requirement in those days for a person to be advised that he could have a solicitor”.

Yet another miscarriage of justice from the era prior to mandatory police recording of interviews, where police practice was to aim to secure confessions at all costs. One wonders how many more are laying dormant, with no DNA to reveal the truth after all these years.

Read more here:

Janet Commins: How police caught her killer after 41 years

Stephen Hough jailed for 12 years for Janet Commins killing

Janet Commins: Killer’s confession ‘made up by police’

 

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Breaking News: Exoneration in Michigan

From an email sent by Dave Moran:

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is thrilled to announce the exoneration and release today of our client, Marwin McHenry, who served more than four years for a shooting he did not commit.

Mr. McHenry’s conviction of assault with intent to murder and other charges arose from an incident that occurred in Detroit in July 2012 as two groups of young women (the Bohanens and the Woodwards) prepared to fight in the street. Just as the two groups approached each other, a man stepped out from a car and opened fire, wounding one of the Bohanens. The victim told the police that she believed the shooter was the brother of one of the Woodwards, but the police showed her instead a photo of Marwin McHenry, and she picked him as the shooter. Two other Bohanens also picked Mr. McHenry’s photo. There was no evidence against Mr. McHenry other than these eyewitness identifications.
At trial in 2013, the defense presented one of the Woodwards, who testified that her brother (Bosley) was the shooter, but Mr. McHenry was convicted and sentenced to 16-27 years. At a post-verdict motion for new trial, the defense presented Bosley’s mother and another sister, who also swore that Bosley was the shooter, but the judge found them not credible.
Finally, Bosley himself went to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, spoke to an investigator, and swore under oath that he was the shooter. The prosecutor’s investigator interviewed other witnesses, including some on the other side of the Bohanen-Woodward feud, who confirmed that Bosley was the shooter and had repeatedly admitted the shooting to others. The prosecutor’s investigator also arranged for the key witnesses, including Mr. McHenry, to take polygraphs.
In light of all of this evidence, Kym Worthy, the Wayne County Prosecutor, agreed that Mr. McHenry’s conviction should be vacated and the charges dismissed. The judge signed the order this morning, and Mr. McHenry was released and picked up by his family about 1:00 p.m.
In addition to the prosecutor’s investigators, two of our students, Sarah Precup and Brooke Theodora (both of whom will graduate on Friday), did terrific work on this case speaking with witnesses, drafting pleadings, and counseling the client.
Dave Moran
Michigan Innocence Clinic

Exoneration and Freedom for Evin King in Ohio

Today, prosecutors in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)  vacated the conviction of long-time Ohio Innocence Project client Evin King.  King was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend despite no direct evidence of guilt (eyewitness or forensic).  He always maintained his innocence, from arrest and trial and then throughout his 23 years of incarceration.

When he is released, which will hopefully be later this week, King will be the 25th person the OIP has freed on grounds of innocence since its founding in 2003.  Together the 25 innocent Ohioans spent more than 470 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

unnamed

Evin King prison photo

DNA testing confirmed that the semen found in the victim’s vaginal cavity after the attacked matched male skin cells found under her fingernails (a hand-to-hand struggle appeared to have taken place during the attack, as the victim was strangled).  This male DNA in both locations did NOT match Evin King, but rather, an unknown male.
[Watch this moving video of Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer Bergeron informing Evin King, in prison, that he is about to regain his freedom after 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit…]
Prosecutors had for years failed to respond to King’s motions for relief, even after the exclusionary DNA test results were obtained.  And the trial court sat on King’s post-conviction motions for nearly a year-and-a-half before denying relief.  Fortunately, the 8th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision last year and sent the case back to the trial court for a hearing, while specifically observing that the DNA evidence supports King’s innocence claim.  On Friday, the OIP learned that after newly-elected prosecutor Michael O’Malley took office in January, he put new prosecutors on the case to look into it with a fresh eye.  When O’Malley was later informed of the details of King’s case from these prosecutors, he ordered that King’s conviction be overturned and that he be released.
OIP Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer Bergeron has represented King for many years, as did OIP staff attorney and Ohio Public Defender attorney Carrie Wood (now at the Cincinnati Public Defender’s Office).  OIP student fellows on the case include Taylor Freed, Katie Wilkin, Mallorie Thomas, Joe Wambaugh, Bryant Stayer, Steve Kelly, Morgan Keilholz, Jon Walker, Scott Leaman, Thomas Styslinger, John Markus, and Julie Payne.  The Ohio Public Defenders Office, particularly Kris Haines, worked on King’s case as well for many years.  King’s case is another example of the importance of determination and perseverance, as Bergeron, Wood, Haines, and the students never gave up even though at times King’s prospects appeared bleak given the initial stiff resistance of the trial court and the prosecutors.
OIP co-founder and director Mark Godsey said, “While the initial delay in obtaining justice for Mr. King is disturbing, Michael O’Malley and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office deserve credit for turning this case around and correcting an injustice.  As we have seen in other counties with other cases, prosecutors far too often fight back hard against an exoneration even when the evidence of innocence is strong.  But in several past cases in Cuyahoga County, and today with Evin King’s case, the prosecutors in Cleveland put justice above winning.  O’Malley’s involvement in the case since his recent election, along with his decision to put new prosecutors on the case, may have been the pivotal factor that secured freedom for an innocent man, and we are thankful for his heroic intervention.”

Jack McCullough, Exonerated, Sues Prosecutors for “Pervasive Misconduct”

We’ve reported about Jack McCullough on this blog several times previously. See here, here, here, and here.

Prior to having his conviction overturned and being exonerated, this case was touted as the “oldest cold case ever solved.”

It will be interesting to see where this suit goes, since prosecutors are supposed to have absolute immunity to civil suit for actions taken while pursuing their duties as prosecutor. They can, however, be held responsible for criminal actions.

See the CNN story here.

 

Indigenous Injustice Again – Conviction Overturned in Australia

imagesI’ve written before about the many injustices that the Indigenous people of Australia face when caught up in the criminal justice system (for example see here…. and here…. and here ). I’ve also had occasion to write about the flawed investigative techniques of Australian police officers (see here… ). Both issues combined to see the wrongful conviction of a young Aboriginal man, convicted of the 2010 manslaughter of 21 yr old Josh Warnecke. However, justice has finally been done with his wrongful conviction overturned after over four years in prison.

Gene Gibson had given police a confession – induced by false evidence – when he was intellectually incapable of understanding the legal process. Gibson had been interviewed without an interpreter (despite having little English language) and no lawyer present. Gibson retracted his confession but was still convicted. He was supported in his efforts to win his freedom by the mother of the victim (who claims to feel ‘hoodwinked’ by the police), and some of Australia’s best legal professionals, working for free.

The Police Commissioner is planning to meet with Gibson after his release to personally apologise. In an earlier investigation into the police handling of the case, a scathing report found the problems with the case were a symptom of wider “failures and weaknesses” in the Western Australian Police handling of major cases. A total of eleven police officers face disciplinary action over their handling of the case.

Read more here:

WA Court of Appeal overturns Gene Gibson conviction for manslaughter of Josh Warneke

Gene Gibson’s manslaughter conviction for Josh Warneke killing thrown out

and earlier reports from 2015 on the police disciplinary action:

WA police stood aside over arrest of Aboriginal man charged with murder

‘Home and Away’: differential reporting on miscarriages of justice in the UK?

_40085152_justicefigure203Miscarriages of justice (as wrongful convictions are more commonly referred to in the UK) rarely feature in the national media in the UK. This has been noted for many years now. If a case is sufficiently high-profile or has some peculiarity (i.e. involves a footballer or other ‘celebrity’), then it may merit a short piece in a national newspaper. Most will only make a paragraph or two in a regional newspaper if lucky supporters can provoke the interest of a local journalist. The overwhelming majority get no media coverage at all. This is not because of a lack of miscarriages of justice (our Criminal Court of Appeal is as over-run with work as ever, as is our Criminal Cases Review Commission), but a perceived lack of public interest. Perhaps domestic miscarriages lack the ‘drama’ of an exoneration in the US (we lack the ridiculously lengthy sentences for a start). The contrast is becoming increasingly stark, with ‘Making a Murderer’ lawyers ‘on tour’ in the UK speaking to rapturous crowds, while campaigners for domestic cases struggle to be heard. In just one example: a leading national newspaper this week has a major splash on an exoneration in the US, that has a small ‘home’ angle that can be exploited:

“Innocent man jailed for 24 years after being framed over British tourist’s murder in New Orleans is freed by two lawyers who exposed a jaw-dropping fit-up that shames the US legal system.”

Yet look at the coverage of a shocking (but all too common) miscarriage of justice in the UK – a story in a local paper: Exclusive: Sheffield milkshake shop owner’s three-year nightmare in fight to clear name over child sex attack

While clearly anecdotal, yet again today I have had to correct a law student who is interested in studing miscarriages of justice after watching US TV shows, who thought that they were an “American thing”. Students seem astonished when I point out that we have our own miscarriages of justice they could study. Perhaps the media could play their part in actually reporting on ‘home’ miscarriages of justice rather than just seeking those instances we can revel in shaming the US for ‘away’ cases.

Mystery and thriller writers tell the stories of the wrongfully convicted in new book

From The ABA Journal

They’ve confessed to murders they didn’t commit, were mistakenly identified by unreliable witnesses, and have been convicted on phony evidence and false testimony. Many endured decades in prison before the truth would set them free.

Every one of the wrongfully convicted has a compelling story, and a group of top-notch mystery and thriller writers was recruited to help tell some of those tales in a new book, Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted.

The book was developed by author and Loyola University Chicago law professor Laura Caldwell and Los Angeles author and tax attorney Leslie Klinger. They wanted to illuminate the fear, the frustration and, ultimately, the faith that these people experienced before they were eventually exonerated.

“They’re just heart-wrenching, every one of these stories,” Klinger says. “It’s amazing to see the strength of these survivors.”

“It shows that it can happen to anyone,” Caldwell adds.

Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil mystery novel series, also is the founder of Life After Innocence, a Loyola law school course that helps exonerees navigate through some of the legal and social challenges they face after release. A portion of the book proceeds will benefit the program. Klinger is the editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, among other books.

Caldwell and Klinger came up with the idea for the book while chatting at a mystery writers’ conference. Because each wrongful conviction story was long and often convoluted, they decided to ask writers to cover different phases of the experiences, from arrest to exoneration to readjusting to life after prison.

“We thought: Let’s have these masters of storytelling, who already have a deep understanding of criminal procedure and know how to drive a plot, and give them a snapshot of the story to cover and write about,” Caldwell says.

Caldwell and Klinger ran the idea by some of their mystery-writing colleagues. “When we explained the project, people jumped on board,” Klinger says. “No arm-twisting was necessary.”

The resulting stories are chilling and heartbreaking. They evoke the feeling of helplessness that many of the wrongly convicted experienced while also celebrating persistence and endurance. In the opening chapter, S.J. Rozan tells the story of California law student Gloria Killian, who thought she was being helpful by talking to detectives about an acquaintance’s murder and wound up charged and jailed for the crime.

At the end of the book, Caldwell writes about how Illinois exoneree Juan Rivera, who served about 20 years for a murder and rape he did not commit, savors being the father of a baby girl and watching the sun rise each morning.

Lee Child is among the big-name authors. He writes about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person exonerated based on DNA evidence. Child was a natural choice to chronicle Bloodsworth because a fictional character from Child’s books, Jack Reacher, comes from a military background like Bloodsworth does, Caldwell says.

Chicago novelist Sara Paretsky writes about David Bates, who was 18 when police picked him up on suspicion of murder, handcuffed him to a wall and put a typewriter cover over his head. Bates confessed out of desperation, hoping to straighten it all out later. It was 11 years before he was exonerated. “The powerlessness he felt at his torturers’ hands sweeps through his body, paralyzing him,” Paretsky writes.

The book also includes a never-before-published essay by playwright Arthur Miller, who had taken up the cause of a wrongfully convicted man from Connecticut named Peter Reilly. At 18, Reilly confessed under pressure to murdering his mother in 1973.

All these stories shed light on the unthinkable—going to prison for a crime you didn’t commit.

“We are not trying to indict the American justice system,” Klinger says. “This is a human system. I hope this will bring it more attention.”


This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Tales of Innocence: Mystery and thriller writers tell the stories of the wrongfully convicted.”

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Precedent-setting hair case drags on

Today marks one year of freedom for George D. Perrot, who served 30 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in a nationally significant case involving flawed FBI forensics and one strand of hair. But Perrot continues to feel “tortured” by Massachusetts prosecutors, who are dragging their feet on an appeal of the decision that set him free. The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism updates the case here.

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A Case for Justice Reform in 2017

The year 2016 will go down as a good one for Freddie Peacock. But because it was so long in coming, it surely must be bittersweet. His story illustrates the slow pace and enormous hurdles in correcting criminal justice miscarriages post-conviction. It also calls on our individual and national conscience to make 2017 the year responsible citizens send the message loud and clear to all public and criminal justice professionals that this nation must replace the mantra of “tough on crime” with “smart on crime.” In the Peacock case we learn many lessons about wrongful conviction rarely delivered so clearly by a federal judge.

In August 2016 U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca awarded Freddie Peacock nearly $6.2 million long after Peacock’s conviction of and imprisonment for a 1976 Rochester (NY) rape he didn’t commit. Peacock had sued the city of Rochester and Rochester police. Judge Telesca’s decisions in May (here) enabling Peacock to pursue civil damages and in August (here) determining his damages are instructional for those who believe wrongful convictions are the inevitable rare result of innocent human error. Continue reading

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