Innocence

STUDY: Worst Crimes Carry Highest Risk of Bad Evidence, Wrongful Convictions

Two professors of sociology and criminology who reviewed more than 1500 cases in which convicted prisoners were later exonerated have found a direct relationship between the seriousness of the crime and miscarriages of justice: "the 'worst of the worst crimes,'” they say, "produce the 'worst of the worst evidence.'" In their research—reported in the law review article, The Worst of the Worst: Heinous Crimes and Erroneous Evidence—University of Denver professors Scott Phillips (pictured) and Jamie Richardson found that "as the seriousness of a crime increases, so too does the chance of a wrongful conviction." Prosecutions for the most serious crimes tend to involve the most inaccurate and unreliable evidence, they said, and the risks are greatest in cases producing murder convictions and death sentences. "The types of vile crimes in which the state is most apt to seek the death penalty are the same crimes in which the state is most apt to participate in the production of erroneous evidence..., from false confession to untruthful snitches, government misconduct, and bad science." Delving into the phenomenon of false confessions, the professors found that "[a]s the seriousness of a particular crime increases, or the seriousness of the general crime problem increases, police interrogation becomes more aggressive. In turn, aggressive interrogation produces more true confessions and more false confessions." They say police officers are under institutional pressures to solve high-profile cases and the "most heinous" and serious crimes, which leads them to use more aggressive tactics to obtain a confession. Phillips and Richardson divided cases with false confessions into two categories: general-population exonerees convicted in murder and other cases; and the cases of death-row exonerees, examined by the level of heinousness of the murder. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 234 of those 1535 exonerated from 1989 through 2014 falsely confessed, 22 of whom were sentenced to death. The sociologists found that 21% of those convicted of murder falsely confessed, as compared with only 7% of those convicted of less serious crimes. In exoneration cases in which DNA evidence bolstered claims of innocence, 41% of those wrongly convicted of murder had confessed, a false confessions rate that was seven times higher than those convicted of crimes other than murder. As for death-row exonerees, 39% of people who were convicted of the most heinous murders confessed, five times the false confession rate (7%) of those who convicted of murders the researchers had determined were less heinous. Phillips and Richardson also found that the heinousness of the murder predicts "the government's reliance on an untruthful snitch, government misconduct, and bad science." Of the death-row exonerations, the state committed misconduct in 86% percent of high-heinous murders, compared to 66% percent of low-heinous murders; the state used prison informant testimony implicating the wrong suspect in 42% of high-heinous murders, as compared to 15% of low-heinous murders; and bad science was presented in 39% of high heinous murders, compared to 23% of low heinous murders. 

Three Years Later, Report Explores Lessons From Two North Carolina Death-Penalty Exonerations

On the third anniversary of their groundbreaking exoneration, a new report by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) reviews in-depth the long path from wrongful convictions and death sentences to freedom traveled by former North Carolina death-row prisoners Henry McCollum and Leon Brown. By the time DNA evidence exonerated the brothers of the 1983 rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie, McCollum had spent 30 years on death row and Brown was serving a life sentence for Buie's rape, after his murder conviction and death sentence had been overturned. Justice Antonin Scalia had singled out the case as epitomizing why there should be a death penalty. According to the report, if not for a single cigarette butt, “Henry and Leon would likely have remained in prison for the rest of their lives. Henry might have been executed.” Although no physical evidence connected the brothers to the murder, the 19-year-old McCollum had signed a written confession that asserted he and three others had raped Buie and murdered her by stuffing her panties down her throat. His younger brother, Leon Brown, then 15 years old, also confessed to the crime. However, the CDPL report, Saved From Execution: The Unlikely Exoneration of Henry McCollum, notes that the two intellectually disabled teenagers had been "naive, powerless, and intimidated by a cadre of law enforcement officers ... into signing false confessions. Every gory detail in those confessions," the report recounts, "was provided by investigators ..., but law enforcement never followed up on clues that might have led to the real killer. An overzealous prosecutor with a flair for courtroom theatrics hyped the manufactured evidence. And the state illegally withheld facts that might have allowed Henry and Leon’s attorneys to prove their innocence." The CDPL represented McCollum for two decades. Gretchen Engel, the Center's Executive Director, said the case “shows us the power that law enforcement and prosecutors have in our system, and how that power can be abused. It shows us how hard it is to uncover a wrongful conviction. It shows us that even cases we think are airtight can get the facts entirely wrong.” In 2005, testing on the cigarette butt had produced DNA that did not match either McCollum or Brown, but their convictions remained unaffected. Then, in 2009, Brown—having exhausted his appeals in his non-capital case—sought review from the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, one of the few such commissions in existence in the country. In 2014, the Inquiry Commission ordered more advanced DNA testing of the cigarette butt, and the results matched another man who had lived around the corner from the Buies in 1983 and who raped and killed another young woman later that year. In 2015, Gov. Pat McCrory granted McCollum and Brown pardons based on innocence. Since being freed from 30 years of incarceration (including 10 years in solitary confinement and numerous sexual assaults at the hands of other prisoners), Brown has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and repeatedly hospitalized for mental health problems, including hallucinations and depression.

Missouri Governor Stays Execution of Marcellus Williams to Consider Evidence of Innocence

Calling a sentence of death "the ultimate, permanent punishment," Missouri Governor Eric Greitens (pictured) has stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams “in light of new information" that Williams's lawyers say demonstrate he is innocent of the murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felisha Gayle. Hours before Williams's scheduled August 22 execution, Greitens issued an executive order that granted Williams a stay and created a Board of Inquiry to review “newly discovered DNA evidence” and “any other relevant evidence not available to the jury” and to make recommendations on Williams's application for executive clemency. In a statement posted on the Governor's webpage, Greitens said "To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt." Williams's lawyers had presented the governor and Missouri's state and federal courts with the results of new DNA testing of the knife used in the killing, which a defense expert said excluded Williams and implicated an unknown man as the killer. No physical evidence links Williams to the murder, and neither footprints from the murder scene nor DNA from the victim's clothing and under her fingernails match Williams. The courts had denied Williams an evidentiary hearing on his new evidence and declined to stay his execution, and his lawyers' motions to stay his execution were pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when Greitens issued the stay. Kent Gibson, one of Williams's lawyers, said at the time, “They’re never going to ever confront an actual innocence cause more persuading than this involving exonerating DNA evidence. I’ve seen a lot of miscarriages of justice, but this one would take the cake.” Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, which assisted Williams's lawyers in their request to the governor, praised Greitens's decision. "We are relieved and grateful that Gov. Greitens halted Missouri's rush to execution and appointed a Board of Inquiry to hear the new DNA and other evidence supporting Mr. Williams' innocence," she said. "While many Americans hold different views on the death penalty, there is an overwhelming consensus that those sentenced to death should be given due process and a full hearing on all their claims before an execution, and the governor's action honors that principle." NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund litigation director, Sam Spital, called the governor’s action "significant" because it reflected the recognition that "when you have capital punishment as an issue, the people of Missouri, like the people of many states, need to have absolute confidence that the conviction is sound.” The case, he said, was “marred by racial discrimination,” with prosecutors striking all but one black juror from a case with a black male defendant and white female victim. Following the governor’s decision, Gipson said he was “looking forward to" the opportunity to present the evidence of Williams's innocence. “I’m confident that we’re going to get a favorable recommendation.”

Merck CEO Ken Frazier: Application of Death Penalty Not "Fair and Consistent"

Merck Chief Executive Officer Kenneth C. Frazier (pictured) resigned from the president’s American Manufacturing Council on August 14, saying “[a]s CEO of Merck and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” In a statement posted on Merck’s Twitter account, Frazier said: "Our country's strength stems from its diversity and the contributions made by men and women of different faiths, races, sexual orientations and political beliefs. America's leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal." It was not the first time that Frazier, the only African-American CEO of a major pharmaceutical company, has spoken out on matters of social justice. Following his successful pro bono representation of James Willie "Bo" Cochran, a black, Alabama death-row prisoner wrongly convicted of the murder of a white grocery store manager, Frazier wrote that the case showed him that "there can be no fair and consistent application of the death penalty under the current system." Frazier undertook Cochran's representation while a partner at the Philadelphia law firm, Drinker, Biddle & Reath, and remained on the case after joining Merck. Cochran won a new trial after Frazier and his team showed that, in two prior trials, the prosecutor had systematically removed 31 of the 35 potential black jurors because he believed they were less "reliable" and more likely to acquit black defendants. Frazier initially doubted Cochran's proclamation of innocence: witnesses inside the store described the suspect as a black man and, as police converged on the scene, heard a gunshot coming from a nearby trailer park, less than one mile from where Cochran was found with a gun and cash. But Frazier discovered during the post-conviction proceedings that there was no physical evidence against his client, the only bullet recovered near the scene did not match Cochran's gun, and the fatal bullet could not be tested because police had cut it out of the victim's body and removed it before delivering the body to the medical examiner. "He was convicted," explains Frazier, "despite evidence suggesting an accidental police shooting and cover-up." Even though the state only had circumstantial evidence against him, Cochran was tried three separate times for the killing (the first time, there was a mistrial, and the second time his conviction was reversed on appeal). "Although some maintain the criminal justice system is color-blind," Frazier wrote, "the reality is that race plays a substantial role in the judicial process." In Cochran's retrial, a jury that Frazier says "was not selected primarily on the basis of race" acquitted him in less than an hour. 

Missouri Court Denies Condemned Prisoner Stay of Execution, Review of Case Despite Exonerating DNA Evidence

After having previously granted Marcellus Williams (pictured) a stay of execution in 2015 to permit DNA testing in his case, the Missouri Supreme Court on August 15 summarily denied him a new execution stay, despite recently obtained results of that testing that support his innocence claim. Williams—who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001 by a nearly all-white St. Louis County jury in the highly publicized stabbing death of a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter—presented scientific evidence that excluded him as a contributor to DNA on the knife used to kill Felicia Gayle. Williams had filed a motion in the state court to stay his scheduled August 22 execution, along with a petition seeking the appointment of a Special Master to hold hearings on his innocence claim. His petition was supported by reports from two DNA experts who had determined that DNA evidence on the knife did not match Williams or Gayle, but came from an unknown third person. One expert concluded that Williams "could not have contributed to the detected [DNA] profile" and the other found "a clear exclusion of Marcellus Williams from the knife handle." The petition alleged that the "physical evidence collected from the crime scene”—which included fingernail scrapings from the victim, who had been stabbed more than 40 times—“did not match and could not be linked to" Williams. Williams was convicted and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a prostitute who was an admitted crack addict. He has never been provided an evidentiary hearing on the DNA results. The Missouri Supreme Court denied his petition without any written opinion within one day of its filing, and before Williams had an opportunity to respond to the State's opposition. Kent Gipson, one of Williams's lawyers, said the defense plans to seek review in the U.S. Supreme Court. "It certainly would give most reasonable people pause to say, 'Should you be executing somebody when you've got reasonable evidence suggesting another man did it?,'" Gibson said. Williams also has a case pending in federal court arguing that he should be permitted to re-open his habeas proceedings because he can show he is innocent; he was denied relief in the federal district court and is currently appealing that denial to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In earlier federal habeas corpus proceedings, the district court had overturned Williams’s death sentence, finding that his trial lawyer had failed to investigate and present significant mitigating evidence relating to Williams’s history of mental deficiencies and chronic abuse throughout his childhood. That decision, however, was reversed by the Eighth Circuit in a split 2-1 decision. Williams had also previously raised a claim alleging that St. Louis County prosecutors had a pattern and practice of striking black prospective jurors, including 6 of the 7 African Americans it had the opportunity to empanel in his case.

Taken Off Death Row in 2014, Intellectually Disabled South Carolina Man Now Gets New Trial

South Carolina prosecutors announced on July 25 that they would not appeal a trial court ruling, granting a new, non-capital trial to former death-row prisoner Kenneth Simmons (pictured). Finding that prosecutors had presented false DNA testimony that "severely deprived" Simmons of his due process rights, a Dorchester County Circuit Judge overturned Simmons's conviction. Simmons had been sentenced to death for the 1996 sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman based on false and misleading DNA testimony that purported to link him to the murder and a confession obtained under questionable circumstances. Simmons's death sentence was vacated in 2014 and replaced with a life sentence after the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that he has Intellectual Disability. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Atkins vVirginia that applying the death penalty to persons with Intellectual Disability violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments. Prosecutors had initially asked Judge Doyet A. Early III to alter his 2016 decision granting Simmons a new trial. On June 23, he declined, reaffirming his finding that the prosecution's "misrepresentation of the strength of the DNA evidence to the jury" was "overwhelming," given that the confession had been extracted from "an intellectually disabled man, after multiple non-recorded interrogations, [who] had falsely confessed to other crimes before confessing to the murder." Judge Early wrote that the prosecution had presented the jury with "confusing, misleading, and inaccurate" information about the DNA evidence, including showing the jury a chart that contained fabricated DNA results, using the chart to make additional incorrect claims about the DNA evidence during closing arguments, and falsely arguing that Simmons was the only possible source of the DNA. During state post-conviction proceedings, the state's forensic witness recanted her testimony about the DNA, and the court found that her trial testimony "had no evidentiary value in identifying" Simmons. Simmons's efforts to obtain a new trial drew support from The Innocence Network and advocacy groups for people with disabilities, which stressed the increased risk of false confessions and wrongful conviction in cases with intellectually disabled defendants. In 2000, Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentence imposed on another intellectually disabled death-row prisoner, Earl Washington, who had falsely confessed to a rape and murder after DNA testing suggested he had not committed the offenses. Governor Jim Gilmore later granted Wahington a complete pardon after additional DNA testing excluded him as the rapist. In 2014, two intellectually disabled brothers, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were freed because of evidence uncovered by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, three decades after having been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. Both had been subjected to coercive interrogations and said they were unaware they were signing a confession.

Mid-Year Review: Executions, New Death Sentences Remain Near Historic Lows in First Half of 2017

As we reach the mid-point of the year, executions and new death sentences are on pace to remain near historic lows in 2017, continuing the long-term historic decline in capital punishment across the United States. As of June 30, six states have carried out 13 executions, with 30 other executions that had been scheduled for that period halted by judicial stays or injunctions, gubernatorial reprieves or commutation, or rescheduled. By contrast, at the midpoint of 2016, five states had carried out 14 executions, and 25 other executions had been halted. 12 executions are currently scheduled for the rest of 2017, with 8 others already halted, and several more death warrants are expected to be issued. Depending on whether Ohio carries out the five executions pending between now and December, DPIC anticipates a slight increase in executions in the U.S. from 2016's 26-year low. However, even with the spate of four executions carried out in Arkansas from April 20-27—that state's first executions since 2005—there will likely be fewer executions in 2017 than in any other year since 1990. New death sentences also remain near historically low levels. DPIC has confirmed at least 16 new death sentences so far in 2017, a pace very close to the record-low 31 new death sentences imposed in 2016. Florida's abandonment of non-unanimous jury recommendations of death and Alabama's repeal of judicial override of jury recommendations for life are expected to substantially reduce the number of new death sentences in those states. The death sentences of nearly 100 Florida death-row prisoners have been overturned as a result of the state supreme court's declaration than non-unanimous death sentences are unconstitutional, and courts in Delaware and Connecticut have continued emptying those state's death rows after their death penalty statutes were declared unconstitutional. Three people have been exonerated from death row in 2017—Isaiah McCoy in Delaware, Rodricus Crawford in Louisiana, and Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. in Florida—bringing the number of death-row exonerations in the U.S. since 1973 to 159. There have also been three grants of clemency in the first half of 2017, bringing the national total since 1976 to 283. President Barack Obama granted clemency to federal death-row prisoner Abelardo Arboleda Ortiz and military death-row prisoner Dwight Loving, and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe granted clemency to Ivan Teleguz. All three are now serving sentences of life without parole. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued three significant decisions in 2017 in favor of death-row prisoners. On February 22, in Buck v. Davis, the Court granted relief to Duane Buck due to racially biased testimony on the issue of future dangerousness. A month later, in Moore v. Texas, the Court unanimously struck down Texas' outlier practice for determining intellectual disability in capital cases. In McWilliams v. Dunn, the Court found on June 19 that James McWilliams' constitutional rights were violated when Alabama failed to provide him assistance of an independent mental-health expert. The Court ruled against Texas death-row prisoner Erick Davila on June 26.

Nevada Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Deal After Medical Evidence Suggests No Crime Occurred

Ha'im Al Matin Sharif (pictured), formerly known as Charles Robins, has been released from Nevada's death row, nearly 30 years after he was convicted of killing his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, after medical evidence revealed that the baby died from infantile scurvy, rather than from physical abuse. Prosecutors agreed to amend the charges against Sharif and release him on time served after a prosecution doctor confirmed that Brittany Smith actually died of Barlow's disease, a form of scurvy affecting infants. The child's autopsy showed broken bones and hemorrhages, a local medical examiner listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma, and Las Vegas police accused Sharif of torturing her. “I was confused as to the nature of the injuries they described, because I had done nothing,” Sharif said. The child's mother initially told police that Sharif was not abusive, but then testified against him. She later recanted her testimony and told Sharif's appellate attorney that police had coerced her into providing false testimony implicating Sharif by threatening to take her other children away. During Sharif's appeals, medical experts who reviewed the baby's X-rays to rule out disease as the cause of death said the injuries were likely caused by scurvy. The Nevada Supreme Court ordered that the case be sent back to the trial court, writing, "We are satisfied that Robins has presented specific factual allegations that, if true, would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of first-degree murder and child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt or found the single aggravating circumstance used to make him death eligible." Prosecutors agreed to a deal in which Sharif would plead guilty to second-degree murder and be sentenced to time served. Although Sharif continues to maintain his innocence, he agreed to the reduction in charges to obtain his immediate release. Sharif's case is the latest in a growing number of cases in which men and women have been wrongly sentenced to death based upon erroneous forensic testimony that they had murdered a child, when the children had actually died from natural or accidental causes. Rodricus Crawford was exonerated in Louisiana in 2017 on evidence that his one-year-old son died of pneumonia and sepsis, not suffocation. Sabrina Butler was just 17 years old when her infant son died. She spent five years on death row in Mississippi before she was acquitted at a retrial, where she presented evidence that her child died of a hereditary kidney condition. Others have been condemned for the deaths of their children in cases that junk-science testimony misattributed to arson:  Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004 based on faulty fire testimony; in 2006, after more than 15 years on Pennsylvania's death row, Dennis Counterman agreed to enter a no-contest plea to third-degree murder and was released. 

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