Questions about ex-Ohio BCI scientist may cast doubt on convictions

The Columbus Dispatch

By Mike Wagner, Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan & Earl Rinehart

Dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal convictions in Ohio could be in jeopardy because a longtime forensic scientist at the state crime lab now stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases.

The credibility of G. Michele Yezzo, who worked at the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for more than three decades, has been challenged in two cases in which men were convicted of aggravated murder. One has been freed from prison because of her now-suspect work.

A review of her personnel records by The Dispatch shows that colleagues and supervisors raised questions about Yezzo time and again while she tested evidence and testified in an uncounted number of murder, rape and other criminal cases in the state.

Their concerns included that she presented evidence in the best light for prosecutors instead of objectively, used suspect methods while examining trace evidence from some crime scenes, and made mistakes that, as one former attorney general put it, “could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.”

Yezzo, 63, of West Jefferson, told The Dispatch that the accusations about her work being biased are wrong and that she approached her work objectively.

“I have never done anything to overstate analysis of evidence, nor have I done anything, for lack of better a word, to taint the evidence,” Yezzo said. “No, I didn’t appease prosecutors and law enforcement. I bent over backwards to try and find out whatever evidence was there, and that’s the best I can tell you.”

But two former attorneys general, defense attorneys, a judge, a former BCI superintendent and a nationally renowned forensic expert from the FBI all say that Yezzo has credibility issues that may have poisoned cases she touched.

Lee Fisher, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1995, and Jim Petro, who served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007, both said they didn’t know of Yezzo when they were in office, but they now have concerns about her work.

“I would call for an investigation into every case where her findings and conclusions were instrumental in the final result of a case,” Fisher said. “We have an obligation to the integrity of the criminal-justice system to investigate every case. We have to determine whether her findings or conclusions were suspect.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Friday that his office was alerted to the concerns about Yezzo in 2015 and has since conducted two separate reviews of her work. One involved examining 100 criminal cases where Yezzo’s evidence analysis played a role in a conviction.

DeWine said they found no issues with her work.

Moving forward, DeWine, who did not serve as attorney general during Yezzo’s tenure, said he has no plans for an internal investigation into Yezzo’s history, but he will have open discussions with defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis if they raise questions.

He said the BCI, which handles about 37,000 cases a year, has a “long history of doing good work” and has received the highest level of accreditation.

More than 800 pages of Yezzo’s personnel records paint a disturbing pattern of behavior that started shortly after she walked in the BCI doors in 1976. The concerns escalated over time until she resigned in 2009.

Over the 32 years that Yezzo worked in the crime lab, her bad behavior intensified to the point that colleagues questioned her mental health.

In the records, colleagues and supervisors described these concerns about Yezzo: She threatened to use a gun to shoot her co-workers and herself. She threw a 6-inch metal plate at one co-worker. She exposed her breasts to BCI agents at a bar, flipped off her boss and acted in a hostile manner to almost every lab employee, according to records. She was accused of calling an African-American scientist a racial slur, something Yezzo denies. She frequently broke into crying spells for no apparent reason.

Forensic scientists quit because of her erratic behavior. At one point her union, the Fraternal Order of Police, refused to back her.

Yezzo admits to the majority of the behavior described in her personnel file.

She attributed her erratic and sometimes abusive actions to intense pressure within the BCI to handle an enormous caseload as its lead forensic analyst.

She said the bureau was usually short-staffed and had difficulty keeping up with the workload. She also said she was having problems in her personal life. Those issues related to the loss of her sister and her mother moving in with her after the death.

She doesn’t believe her behavior affected her work.

Yezzo received numerous verbal reprimands and was suspended in 1993. But her analysis of evidence continued to be used in many high-profile felony cases despite the concerns about her work and behavior inside the state’s crime lab in London, where forensic scientists examine and analyze evidence from crime scenes across Ohio.

Yezzo conducted her analysis of evidence without much oversight. Her reports summarizing findings would be reviewed by her supervisors, but her actual work, methods and conclusions rarely were checked by anyone.

Now, defense attorneys in at least two cases have done their own investigations and believe they have proof that Yezzo’s work is suspect. In one of those cases, a judge already has freed a man from prison because of credibility issues described in Yezzo’s personnel file.

The judge in that case and others familiar with Yezzo’s BCI history say that if defense attorneys had known about her work issues during past trials, they potentially could have discredited her as an expert witness.

“I didn’t know of what occurred with Michele Yezzo when I was in that office, but if I had been made aware, I wouldn’t have allowed her to be involved in criminal-justice proceedings,” Petro said. “I am co-counsel in two cases where her work largely convicted men, and her work was shoddy at best. Any case where she provided forensic evidence that resulted in a conviction now comes into question.”

Grave doubts

Barbara Parsons was in the bedroom of her home in Norwalk, in northern Ohio, when someone brutally attacked her, striking her 15 times in the head with a large, heavy object.

Her husband, James Parsons, told police that he was working at the local auto repair shop when his wife was murdered in 1981. His alibi held up for about 12 years, until he was arrested and charged with his wife’s death in 1993.

Shortly before his arrest, police resubmitted evidence to the BCI, and Yezzo was assigned to the case. It was mainly circumstantial, but Yezzo’s analysis of the crime scene is what led prosecutors to charge James Parsons with his wife’s murder.

Prosecutors used Yezzo’s analysis of blood patterns to determine that a breaker bar, a long socket wrench made of thick metal, was the murder weapon. Prosecutors said the bar belonged to Parsons.

Yezzo performed an experiment on the crime-scene evidence that compared the head of the breaker bar with blood patterns found on Barbara Parsons’ bedsheets and nightgown. Yezzo concluded that the letters N and S, which were imprinted on the head of the breaker bar, “were consistent with” blood impressions left on the bedsheets. She also concluded a halo-like impression from the breaker bar was consistent with a blood pattern left on both the sheets and nightgown.

Defense attorneys rebutted her findings and said Yezzo did not properly document how she got those results, nor did she properly explain her findings to the jury.

Yezzo was working on the case in 1993 and preparing to testify when she was suspended for threatening a co-worker and placed under investigation.

Parsons was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

He remained in prison for 23 years until Donald Caster, an attorney for the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project, played a hunch and asked for Yezzo’s personnel file.

At a hearing this year in Huron County, Caster convinced Judge Thomas Pokorny that Yezzo’s scientific conclusions were suspect and that her troubled BCI history called into question her credibility.

Pokorny didn’t declare Parsons innocent, but the judge dismissed the murder conviction and released him.

“What has weighed most heavily on the court’s mind is the testimony from Ms. Yezzo’s superior that the integrity of her analysis and conclusions may be suspect as she ‘will stretch the truth to satisfy a department,’” Pokorny said in his ruling, referring to a memo written by an assistant BCI superintendent in 1989. “This opinion together with the other evidence of her troubled behavior in the workplace casts grave doubts about her credibility.”

Yezzo defended herself at James Parsons’ hearing when Caster questioned whether her work was biased toward law enforcement.

“There may have been issues between me and my co-workers, but it was not a circumstance where those issues fell to the analysis of evidence,” Yezzo said. “You’re trying to portray me as a prosecution expert. I testified to the results, not to try and make any points with anybody.”

Yezzo’s direct supervisor, Daniel Cappy, defended her work. Cappy testified that Yezzo had some behavioral issues, but he stood behind the quality of her work as a forensic scientist.

Parsons suffers from congestive heart disease and dementia. He requires constant care and was placed in a nursing home after his release in April.

Prosecutors lost their initial appeal and are now asking the appellate court to reconsider Pokorny’s ruling. It’s unlikely prosecutors would attempt to retry Parsons for his wife’s death.

“It was shocking to me — shocking — that you have a forensic scientist being questioned by her own bosses and no one went back to check her work,” Caster said. “That is grossly negligent at best. It’s clear that she became an advocate for prosecutors, and that’s not what a forensic scientist should be.”

A second chance

On Friday, another man convicted of murder asked a judge to grant him a new trial because of Yezzo’s checkered history.

Kevin Keith was once just 13 days away from being executed.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that he walked into a small apartment in Bucyrus, about 60 miles north of Columbus, on Feb. 13, 1994, and riddled it with gunfire. Three people died and three others were wounded.

The key testimony at the trial that ultimately put him on Death Row came from Yezzo.

Her forensic analysis of tire tracks and a license plate imprint left in a snowbank matched what detectives working the case contended — that both came from the car Keith apparently drove that night.

But in 2010, a retired FBI forensic expert said Yezzo’s conclusions were baseless and her methods were shoddy in Keith’s case. Keith’s legal team, led by Assistant Ohio Public Defender Rachel Troutman, also produced evidence that they say implicates another man, challenges the credibility of eyewitness accounts and shows that police mishandled the case.

All of that prompted then-Gov. Ted Strickland to spare Keith’s life by commuting his sentence to life without parole. Keith remains in the Marion Correctional Institution.

“I can’t thank the governor for giving me life in prison,” Keith told The Dispatch in 2010. “When I found out his decision, it felt like the poison was going through me right then. But the governor gave me some hope by leaving the door open in my case.”

Keith’s attorneys now think he has more reason to hope, and a better chance of proving his innocence. They filed a motion late Friday in Crawford County Common Pleas Court, asking for a new trial based on the problems with Yezzo’s work and her behavioral history.

“Every case she has touched is tainted,” said Zach Swisher, a member of Keith’s legal team who also reviewed Keith’s case in 2010 as legal counsel for Strickland. “The fact that she is considered an expert is a joke. She gave the detectives what they wanted in a capital case, and that is just unconscionable.”

William Bodziak, a forensic expert for 43 years, including 29 of them for the FBI, said Yezzo’s work in the Keith case was below standards for even scientists in training — and Yezzo had decades of experience.

Bodziak said the evidence problems started with the “unprofessional” recovery and documentation of tire-track and license-plate imprints. The lack of photographs and the inability to show dimensions at the crime scene made it nearly impossible to draw conclusions, said the expert, who provided an independent analysis as part of Keith’s case for a pardon.

For the license plate imprint, Bodziak said Yezzo concluded that the numbers “043” could be seen in the snow, and those numbers matched the plate from the car prosecutors said Keith was driving. But Bodziak found multiple problems: He could barely see the 0 or the 4 in the imprint; the license plate was mounted flat, making it unlikely to leave such an impression; and the snow surrounding those numbers remained untouched.

Bodziak said Yezzo’s tire-track conclusions lack even more credibility because she made them by comparing a photograph to a commercial brochure a detective provided. She didn’t inspect the actual tires. Bodziak said the tires on that car were among the most common and popular used on the road.

“There is nothing to support the conclusions she made, nothing at all,” said Bodziak, who remains a consultant on forensic cases for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“If I had been working on that case, I would have pointed out all those discrepancies and would not have made any conclusions. But it appears she was giving investigators the conclusions they wanted, and that’s the really bad part of this case,” he said.

Yezzo was unaware that her work was challenged by Bodziak in 2010 and disputes that she made conclusions in the case. She says she never stated that the “043” impression came from the vehicle prosecutors claim Keith was driving, just that she could see those numbers.

She also says she compared the tire tracks to photos the BCI had of the tires on the vehicle Keith used, and she only said the tracks “were consistent with” the treadmarks left at the crime scene.

Yezzo said she couldn’t help it if prosecutors or defense attorneys in her cases overstated or twisted her analysis to help make their arguments in court.

“Attorneys on both sides are going to slant things in the way they want a jury to think about them,” Yezzo said. “I don’t like it when people take what analysts do and stretch the truth. I can only be responsible for my analysis.”

Update for Taiwan Association for Innocence

The success of Taiwan’s developing Innocence Movement was recently celebrated at the Taiwan Association for Innocence‘s annual conference, held August 27-28. TAFI sent out the following announcement about the event, also providing case updates. We here at the Wrongful Convictions Blog wanted to share the information to highlight the great work being done over in Taiwan.
The annual conference of  Taiwan Association for Innocence took place on August 27-28 in Taipei, Taiwan. About 200 people participated in the conference, including Mr. Cheng Hsing-Tse, who was a death roll inmate recently released from prison awaiting for retrial. Unlike most of our cases, Mr. Cheng’s successful retrial petition was filed by the prosecutor’s office. The court granted retrial in May and set him free after 14 years of imprisonment. The success of this case echoes with one of the themes of the Innocence Network conference in San Antonio this past April. It reminds us that prosecutors should be involved in the innocence movement. To promote this idea, we invited Ms. Inger Chandler from Harris County DA Office to share how the conviction integrity unit operates. Ms. Chandler gave two speeches at our annual conference, and was also invited to talk about CIUs at the Ministry of Justice with local prosecutors.
In addition to Ms. Chandler, another highlight of the conference was a speech by a prosecutor in Taiwan who requested a retrial for Mr. Lu Chieh-Min. Mr. Lu was convicted of murder and sentenced to 13 years of prison. He was exonerated by new DNA evidence last December.
The cases of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Lu show us the possibility of working with prosecutors to exonerate the innocent. Despite the difficulties, we will continue to help those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Best regards,
Shih-Hsiang
Yu-Ning
Taiwan Association for Innocence

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New Zealand Supreme Court Judge calls for Criminal Review Body

supportnationNew Zealand has seen a few high profile miscarriages of justice in recent years, yet successive governments have ruled out the possibility of setting up a body – similar to the Criminal Cases Review Commision in the UK – to investigate potential miscarriages of justice. Justice William Young said courts could benefit from having a Criminal Cases Review Commission, like that established in the UK – an idea backed by the Police Association and most political parties. In a rare interview –  which you can listen to here: Supreme Court Judge interview – the Justice discusses welcoming the introduction of such a body – despite being recently dismissed by the Ministry of Justice.  There is also a handy guide to the New Zealand post-conviction relief here: Reviewing Criminal Cases. While in  2012 – Malcolm David Birdling published a PhD thesis examining the two systems (available here): Corrections of Miscarriages of Justice in New Zealand and England and Wales (PhD Thesis).

 

 

Ireland’s Ministry for Justice compensates man for wrongful conviction

connemaraMichael Hannon was accused of sexual assault by a 10 year old neighbour, in 1997. He was convicted and yet in 2006, his accuser came forward and retracted her statement, confessing that she had made a false allegation. Despite this, the Ministry of Justice ‘lost’ Hannon’s case files. It was not until 2009 that he was able to have his case certified as a miscarriage of justice. The Ministry and Hannon have now reached an out-of-court settlement after his claim for compensation went to the High Court. The case is a stark example of what can happen when police pursue allegations in spite of a total lack of evidence. This failure was compounded by incompetence on behalf of the prosecutors and Ministry of Justice staff who not only ‘lost’ his file for 15 months, but continued to protest against his case being declared a miscarriage of justice.

Mr Hannon has thanked his family and supporters but spoke of the need for an inquiry into the actions of the Ministry, and why the retraction by the complainant was not forwarded to him or his legal team. He said that it is ‘impossible to summarise the impact of a wrongful conviction upon a person.”

Read more here:

Two Decades On…. Closure for Connemarra Neighbour falsely convicted of child sex abuse

 

Four Lesbians Were Wrongly Convicted of Child Abuse. Why Haven’t They Been Exonerated?

Originally published on Slate.com

By June Thomas

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 15, every LGBTQ person and ally—and anyone who wants to see unequivocal proof of how messed up the American criminal justice system is—should plant themselves in front of a TV set and watch Southwest of Salem. The documentary, which airs on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m., tells the story of the San Antonio Four—a group of Latina lesbians who were wrongly convicted of gang-raping two girls in the mid-’90s. Each served more than a decade in prison.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez, all now in their early 40s, were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault on a child after two of Ramirez’s nieces, then 7 and 9, claimed the four women had raped them with various objects while they were staying in Ramirez and Mayhugh’s home. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explained in a 2013 Slate piece, the case was a product of “a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.” Despite inconsistencies in the girls’ stories; the fact that their father was angry at Ramirez, his former sister-in-law, for rejecting his romantic advances and coming out as a lesbian; and evidence of overt and coded homophobia in the women’s trials, all four ended up behind bars.

More than 16 years later, one of the accusers recanted her story, claiming that both she and her sister were pressured by their father into making the claims. The scientific expert, who had testified that physical evidence proved the girls had been abused, also recanted. And after the Innocence Project of Texas got involved, the women received early releases—though the crimes are still on their records.

Thanks to the national media, the story of the San Antonio Four finally became known outside of south and central Texas earlier this decade. And while Deborah S. Esquenazi’s film doesn’t bring new facts to light, it communicates the sting of injustice with the immediacy of a slap to the face. There is a bracing contrast between the four women we first meet in prison visits—where they seem calm and centered, despite having been robbed of an average of 14 years of their lives—and the teenage lesbians we glimpse in home movies and candid photos. Those young women in love look happy and ready to take on the world: Vasquez and Rivera were raising Rivera’s two children together, and we see the whole group celebrating at a baby shower for Ramirez. A few scenes later, they’re in a courtroom, shocked to see that the accusations they considered ridiculous have landed them before a judge. They didn’t even consult an attorney at first, believing their innocence would be obvious. “That turned out to be a mistake,” Vasquez later observes.

The movie doesn’t linger on the women’s trials, but it effectively exposes the raw homophobia that the prosecution exploited relentlessly. It also explains how the case fit into the Satanic abuse panic that infected America in the 1980s and ’90s. After the juries convict all four women, they’re sent to prison—locked up and without the financial wherewithal or connections to bring attention to their case.

Then Darrell Otto, an academic from Yukon College in Canada, becomes aware of the case, decides that “it just didn’t make sense,” and begins corresponding with Ramirez. Before long, the National Center for Reason and Justice and the Innocence Project of Texas are involved—and, largely unmentioned in the film, the San Antonio News-Express tackles the story. Witnesses recant, junk science is debunked, and eventually the women are given early release.

And that’s where things get really heartbreaking. Vasquez, released first, in 2012, is placed on the sex offender registry and subjected to all manner of restrictions. We see her driving to the grocery store on a route provided by her probation officer in order to avoid schools, parks, and any other places children might be found. The next year, the others leave prison, and the reunions are emotional. Ramirez and Rivera are reunited with the children—now teenagers—they haven’t seen in more than a decade. (Because of the nature of their convictions, they weren’t allowed contact visits with their kids.) “I’m your grandma, baby,” Rivera says, meeting her granddaughter for the first time in the moments after she leaves jail.

For me, the most affecting line in the whole movie is Vasquez’s observation that “Inmates can’t write to one another.” Isolated during their years behind bars, the women later discovered that they had all been writing letters to try to bring attention to the case—and like Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh had also refused to participate in their prisons’ sex-offender program, even though it cost them privileges and even a chance of freedom. There was, in addition, a personal dimension: Vasquez and Rivera had been a couple for seven years when they were locked up. “Cass and I, we never broke up,” Vasquez told me when I met the four women in New York in September. “We were forced to separate for many years. We’re both in committed relationships, and our partners know that there’s nothing that could ever come between us. We still have that love and respect. I don’t think that will ever change.”

In person, and in the film, the women are astonishingly free of bitterness. All acknowledged that they had experienced moments of anger—“I had a lot of anger because I was taken from my children,” Ramirez told me. But none are mad at the girls who falsely accused them. “There were six victims, not four,” Ramirez added. The film includes an emotional scene in which the recanted accuser, then 27, meets her Aunt Liz for the first time since her release. Amid many tears, the two embrace. How, I asked Ramirez, was that reconciliation possible?

“They didn’t know any better,” she told me. “I don’t think they really understood the impact it was going to have. They were victims themselves—of this father, the charges, and having to go through everything.”

In what might be the most enraging scenes in the documentary, Judge Pat Priest, who presided over the initial trials, refuses to exonerate the women—even after a key witness has said that she lied under oath and evidence that was used against them has been proved false. In a telling interaction, the judge skeptically questions a polygraph expert who has declared that there is no evidence of the women indulging in “deviant sexual behavior”—clearly signaling that he believes lesbianism itself is deviant.

The women’s fate is now in the hands of the nine judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Vasquez is no longer subject to sex offender restrictions, but the convictions are on all the women’s records and their lives are in limbo. “It’s hard to plan for the future,” Mayhugh told me. “I hesitate to get into a relationship, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to go back to prison? I don’t want to put somebody through that. You want to purchase a vehicle, and you’re going to leave the bill with your family or leave it unpaid and come out to trouble with that.”

For Vasquez, the current situation is eerily familiar, an echo of the period between the seemingly absurd accusations and their eventual imprisonment.

“We’re hopeful,” she told me, “but it still doesn’t change the fact that I could go back. Look what happened in the beginning. We never thought that we would go to prison.”

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Prosecution service pay damages to wrongfully convicted man after disclosure failure.

conrad-jonesA man who spent six years in prison has successfully sued the England and Wales Crown Prosecution Service after their failure to disclose police surveillance tapes that proved his innocence. Wrongly convicted of perverting the course of justice in 2007 (after 2 failed trials), Conrad Jones was freed in 2014 when he won an appeal. He was on trial for bribing a witness in a murder trial, but police surveillance tapes proved he could not have been present. While the Judge at his appeal called the failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence ‘lamentable’, Jones’s solicitor said: “It is clear that the CPS and prosecution counsel had in their possession, both while my client remained on remand in prison awaiting trial and at the time of my client’s trial, surveillance material which showed he could not realistically have met with and bribed [the witness] not to give evidence. They knew it was relevant, they knew it undermined the prosecution case and strengthened Mr Jones’s defence and they knew that the law required them to disclose it. To discover years after the event that the CPS, on the advice of highly experienced lawyers, has knowingly and repeatedly failed to comply with the criminal law on disclosure is shocking, and raises very serious questions which go right to the heart of public confidence in the criminal justice system and the legal profession.”

It is interesting however to note that Jones had to sue the CPS for their failure through the civil courts for ‘damages’, rather than attempt to win ‘compensation’ through the Government scheme that compensates miscarriage of justice victims. This scheme has proven almost impossible to win any compensation through – and the settlement reached – of over £100,000 – is far more than he would have been eligible for through the compensation scheme. While the CPS have remained silent and said the terms of the settlement are ‘confidential’, they have not admitted liability despite paying the damages. Could this perhaps be an interesting route for victims of miscarriages of justice who can pinpoint failures on the part of the CPS that saw them wrongly convicted? Could victims try suing the police? With the compensation scheme set up to prevent almost all claims succeeding, perhaps we should pursue this alternative route?

Read more here:

CPS to pay six-figure sum to man over wrongful conviction

CPS pays ‘significant sum’ over ‘lamentable’ failures to disclose critical evidence

 

 

Trump’s Insistence that Central Park 5 are Guilty Reveals Frightening Ignorance and Worse

Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge wrongful convictions proven by DNA and by the credible, delayed confession of a convicted murderer and rapist. Insisting on Friday that the Central Park 5 are guilty of the 1989 high-profile horrific attack and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park, he revealed he knows nothing about DNA, the dynamics of false confessions, or contemporary understandings relating to criminal justice and wrongful convictions.

Shortly after the crime occurred Trump paid thousands to run full-page ads in newspapers calling for reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. The ads fueled a fever pitch of outrage over a crime that had already stunned the nation. His insistence on inserting his opinion could only exacerbate tempers in a difficult time of race relations.

In his statement Friday, Trump revealed he is woefully uneducated in the realities of criminal justice miscarriages. This is frightening when the need for criminal justice reform has reached an awareness level great enough to find a place in both the Republican and Democrat national political platforms.

For those who study wrongful convictions and even for the informed everyday citizen, Continue reading

The Exoneree Band Is Free to Rock, and Rightly So

From: The New York Times

CLEVELAND — A few hours before William Michael Dillon and his bandmates took the stage for their headline gig at the House of Blues here last week, this singer and guitarist took a moment to listen to his own grim ballad, “Black Robes and Lawyers.” A self-taught musician, Mr. Dillon wrote the tune in 1985 on strips of prison toilet paper while serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Sitting now in his lake-view room in a boutique hotel, he softly sang along with the recording, lost in a fog of distance.

“All I ever wanted was for somebody to hear me,” he gently said when the track came to an end. “The truth is, you could hear my story and forget it two days later. But hopefully you won’t forget the music.”

Mr. Dillon’s music — taut, piercing and haunted by his memories of the cellblock — was the driving force of the show on Thursday night by an unusual ensemble, the Exoneree Band, a touring group of prisoners-turned-musicians, each of whom was wrongfully convicted of another person’s crime. Collectively, the band’s five members spent more than a century as unjust captives of the state. Imagine the inmates at San Quentin getting up to play for Johnny Cash, but with the sickening twist that none of them should have been there to begin with.

“We do our music and share our stories basically to stay sane,” said the bassist, Eddie Lowery, a former soldier who in 1982 was locked up for almost a decade for a rape in Kansas that someone else committed. “Each of us comes from somewhere different culturally and musically, but we all do songs that talk about what happened in our lives.”

Continue reading the main story

As exonerations of the wrongfully convicted have steadily increased in courts across the country — last year, experts say, there was a record number, 149 — so, too, has their presence in the larger media culture. Whether it means TV shows like “The Night Of” or documentary films like “The Central Park Five,” journalists and artists are paying more attention now than ever to men like Mr. Lowery and their lives.

But what there hasn’t been, at least until this moment, is a rock band devoted to making music from these juridical disasters, which, with their narratives of injustice and redemption, seem to be especially apt for song. While different in their details, each of the bandmates’ stories is an American tragedy that could have been penned by Bruce Springsteen after a night of reading Kafka. In 1981, when he was only 20, Mr. Dillon, for example, pulled into the parking lot of a beach in Central Florida to smoke a joint with his brother, unaware that five days earlier someone had been murdered there. The police approached and questioned him, and four witnesses eventually — and incorrectly — fingered him as the killer. He was tried, convicted and imprisoned, then wasexonerated and released in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence.

Much like combat, unjust incarceration is hard to grasp unless you go through it yourself. And one of the joys of being in the band, its members said, was finding others who not only shared a similar ordeal but who were also seeking healing through their music. “We don’t have to talk about what happened when we’re together,” said Ted Bradford, the rhythm guitarist, who served 10 years in Washington State for a rape he didn’t commit. “It’s like being in a brotherhood. We all just sort of know.”

The idea for the Exonerees first emerged in 2009 at a gathering in Houston hosted by the Innocence Project, a national advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted. After the day’s events, a lawyer, Katie Monroe, found herself at a hotel roof bar having drinks with some former inmates who were having trouble sleeping. “It was 2 or 3 in the morning,” Ms. Monroe recalled, “and next thing you know, the guys started doing this full-blown, harmonized version of ‘Stand by Me.’ I was so moved and struck by how talented they were, I wanted to pursue something formal.”

So in 2010, she said, she and the fiddlerKate MacLeod, who had also worked with the wrongfully convicted, asked the Innocence Project to help them find exonerees with musical inclinations. They discovered Mr. Dillon, who was at that point living free in Southern California and had recently recorded a CD with the Grammy-winning producer Jim Tulio. Not long after, they tracked down other members for the band: Mr. Lowery;Raymond Towler, the lead guitarist, who did 29 years in prison on a murder charge in Cleveland; the drummer,Antoine Day, a Chicago R&B man who served 10 years for murder; andDarby Tillis, a harmonicist and death-row inmate, also from Chicago, who spent nine years in prison (he died of natural causes after his release and was replaced by Mr. Bradford).

The Exonerees’ first show was in 2011, when they performed in Cincinnati for an Innocence Project conference. Since then, they have mostly played the wrongful-conviction circuit, playing gigs at TedX Talks or in hotel ballrooms for bar associations. But Mr. Tulio has big plans for the group: He has been searching for an angel investor to fund a full-scale musical — in the vein, he said, of “Hamilton” — that would feature the musicians and their stories in a multimedia theatrical production.

Before that happens, though, the band may need a bit more time to polish its act; it rarely practices because its members are spread across the country and most have other jobs. The show last week in Cleveland, a fund-raiser for the Ohio Innocence Project, was a welcome, if uncommon, opportunity to jam. They shared the billing with a pair of opening acts: Faith & Whiskeyand the No Name Band, both composed of judges and lawyers.

That led to a strange, cerebral sound check in which, between testing mikes and speakers, the conversation turned to topics like exculpatory evidence and the need to record police interrogations. “These guys’ stories are amazing,” said Michael Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County common pleas judge and the singer for Faith & Whiskey. “Beyond their music, which is pretty good, they make me, as an officer of the court, want to fix the system.”

When they finally took the stage, the Exonerees began their set with “Black Robes and Lawyers.” The song commenced, as always, with Mr. Dillon’s blunt, ironic introduction. It said everything that needed to be said.

“My name,” he told the crowd to loud applause, “is William Michael Dillon. I was arrested for murder on August 25, 1981, for a crime I didn’t commit. I was released on November 18, 2008.”

Then he strummed a chord and took a pause.

“Thank you,” he went on, “to the keepers of justice.”

CA Prosecutors Who Withhold or Tamper with Evidence Now Face Felony Charges

Well ….. it’s about time!

This is a “biggy” – a significant step in establishing prosecutorial accountability and exposure to sanctions.

California has just enacted a law that exposes prosecutors who withhold or tamper with exculpatory evidence to felony charges, with up to three years imprisonment.

Please see the LA Times story here.

Now we just need to have this migrate to all the rest of the states and the Department of Justice.

 

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…