Author Archives: Emily Lurie

Illinois Man Given Another Chance to Prove His Freedom

The Chicago Tribune featured an editorial today about the case of Daniel Taylor, a man sentenced to life without parole for a double homicide that took place in 1992 when he was just 17-years-old.

His conviction was largely the result of a 25-page confession he signed two weeks after the murders. No DNA evidence or fingerprints linked Taylor to the scene, and no weapon was recovered. Furthermore, shortly after he signed the confession, Taylor recalled and an arrest report confirmed that he had been locked up for disorderly conduct on the night of the murder from 6:45 PM to 10:00 PM. The crimes took place at 8:45. In order to dispute his alibi, police officers asserted that they had seen Taylor on the streets that night and that the arrest record was incorrect. Taylor later revealed that police yelled and hit him with a flashlight, telling him that he would be let go if he confessed to the crime.

Seven others were arrested and charged for the same murders that Taylor has been serving a life sentence for. All but one have maintained their innocence, and the individual who admits involvement also says that Taylor was not there.

Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit granted Daniel Taylor permission to file a new appeal. Much of the evidence they relied on to reach this decision was available before the original trial, but it was not disclosed to Taylor’s attorneys by prosecutors. This evidence includes notes from the officers running the lockup on the night of the murders and police reports containing the name of another man who was locked up at the same time, both of which could have been used to corroborate Taylor’s alibi.

The recent review of Daniel Taylor’s conviction comes nearly a decade after Cook County prosecutors reexamined the case and concluded that they had it right the first time. According to the Tribune editorial, the 2002 reinvestigation “focused more on supporting Taylor”s conviction than on exploring evidence of his innocence… They were only two-thirds of the way through the investigation when they announced their conclusion that Taylor”s conviction was solid.” Fast forward to the 7th Circuit decision, which held that the newly disclosed evidence offered “strong proof” of Taylor’s innocence and that his original confession was “suspect.”

As we have seen in countless wrongful conviction cases, innocent men and women have to endure years and years behind bars before the truth can finally come out. In Daniel Taylor’s case, he has spent more than half his life in prison and only now is being given the opportunity to prove his innocence, which rests on evidence that has been in place since before his original trial.

If Taylor is, in fact, innocent, who is going to hold the prosecutors accountable for withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense team? What will happen to the police officers who lied about Taylor’s whereabouts on the night of the murders? As we all know, prosecutorial immunity clauses lead to significant hurdles for those wanting to file civil lawsuits, and it can take years and years for a police misconduct case to get pushed through the system.

Fortunately for Daniel Taylor, he has the Chicago news media on his side willing to fight for him, but he still has a long road ahead navigating through our criminal ‘justice’ system.

To learn more about another juvenile case, please visit Erik Jensen’s website. Erik was wrongfully convicted of murder in Colorado and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole at age 17. His conviction was largely the result of false statements made by another teenager who was present at the crime scene. In prison since 1999, Erik continues to fight for his freedom.

Exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic Launches Foundation for Justice

On Friday, I had the privilege of attending the launch of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice right here in New York City. Jeffrey Deskovic, who is featured on our site, served nearly 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit before he was exonerated through DNA testing in 2006. Unlike many other innocence organizations around the country, Deskovic”s Foundation will accept cases in which DNA evidence is not available, and there will be a strong emphasis on reintegration and reentry services for exonerees. The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation, which is just beginning its work, already has six active cases, and has already assisted in the case of former NYPD Officer Richard Diguglielmo.

Friday”s launch and press conference were well attended, and included a number of recent exonerees including, Fernando Bermudez, Jabbar Collins, Kian Khatibi and Raymond Santana of the Central Park Jogger case. The event was featured on FOX News Good Day New York, CBS News, the CBS New York website and in The Journal News, and News TV 12. The Wall Street Journal published a feature article on the foundation as well.

Deskovic has put $1.5 million of the compensation he received for his wrongful conviction toward the Foundation, but as he stated during the press conference, this money will not sustain the organization forever. He is counting on individual donations as well as invitations to speak at schools and universities, and all of the money raised will go towards helping to free other men and women still imprisoned and working to pass legislation that will prevent future miscarriages of justice.

Congratulations to Jeffrey Deskovic and all of the individuals who helped to launch the Foundation and make Friday”s event a big success!

Possible False Confession Case Faces Setback in Michigan

A Michigan teenager remains in prison after a judge ruled last week that a confession pointing to another man as the actual perpetrator was not enough to exonerate him. Davontae Sanford, now 19, was charged with murder for the 2007 shooting of four people in a Detroit drug house. During his trial, Sanford struck a deal where he agreed to plea to second-degree murder that carries a sentence of 37-90 years.

His attorney has been trying to overturn the conviction for several years, noting that another man, Vincent Smothers, admitted to police that he was the true gunman and is now willing to testify in court. Appellate attorney Kim McGinnis also argued that Sanford has a low IQ and was trying to please the police after the murders. She pointed out that her client’s confession was never recorded and claims that police fed him details about the crime. Additionally, McGinnis argued that William Rice, a retired Detroit homicide investigator, insisted that he was with Sanford at the time of the shootings.

Although Judge Brian Sullivan noted in his ruling that a gun with ties to the murders was found at the home used by a Smothers ally, he said Vincent Smother’s confession was not enough to exonerate Sanford. Sullivan also said that Rice’s cell phone records make it unlikely that Sanford was actually with him at the time of the crime.

Sanford and his attorney plan to appeal the judge’s decision.

Cases like this show the importance of enacting reforms that seek to minimize the occurrence of false confessions. We have seen numerous instances of children, teenagers and mentally ill individuals confessing or pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. A year ago, we shared the story of Douglas Warney, a man with an IQ of 68, who spent nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit after he was coerced into falsely confessing to Rochester (NY) police. In November, we told you about the Illinois judge that overturned the convictions of the Englewood Four, whose rape and murder convictions were largely the result of false confessions they made as teenagers.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) at Northwestern University has drafted model legislation that seeks to prevent the wrongful conviction of minors. These reforms include a requirement for all minors to have an attorney present during custodial interrogations and the electronic recording of all interrogations and police questioning involving minors. The CWCY website provides information on more than 100 cases of youth wrongful convictions.

New Website on Wrongful Convictions in the US and Abroad

Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project and Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati, has just launched a new blog today called the Wrongful Convictions Blog.

The web address is www.wrongfulconvictionsblog.org, or you can just click the link above.

The purposes of the blog are to (1) provide one place where you can go to get all the news and info about wrongful convictions, and (2) foster discussion, debate, and learning.  You will see that Mark has contributing editors from all over the world, and the tagline is:  “Addressing Wrongful Conviction and Actual Innocence Issues in an International Forum.” There is a place for comments and debate on each post.

If you are interested in following the blog for email updates, click “follow” in the lower right corner of your screen.

The blog will involve more than just news and links.  There will also be frequent commentaries/editorials on various topics, such as the commentaries up now about forensic odontologists attempting to validate their “science,” the state of junk science generally, reacting to prosecutorial misconduct, and conviction integrity units at prosecutor”s offices.

Congratulations to Mark and the other members of the Innocence Network team for getting this started! We encourage you to check it out.

Sister of Troy Davis Dies

Just a few days ago, I learned that Martina Davis-Correia, sister of Troy Davis, passed away on December 1 after a long and courageous battle with breast cancer. She was 44 years old. Despite her illness, Martina fought tirelessly for her brother Troy, who was killed by the State of Georgia by lethal injection on September 21, 2011. She was a champion for justice and traveled the globe to share the story of her brother’s case and spread the message that the death penalty must be abolished. Martina taught us that it takes a collective effort to fight for the freedom of an innocent person, but this effort often starts with one person, like herself. Unfortunately, we don”t always succeed, and Martina and so many advocates around the world witnessed the tragedy and ultimate injustice of her brother”s execution.

Martina garnered support from and was an inspiration to so many people around the world. We must continue her fight to eliminate capital punishment and to clear Troy’s name once and for all. We cannot let his death be in vain.

First Taste of Freedom for Englewood Four

The Englewood Four finally had something to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, November 16, a Cook County (IL) judge overturned the convictions of the four African American men – Vincent Thames, Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson and Michael Saunders – who were convicted of raping and murdering a prostitute as teenagers in 1995. Their convictions were largely the result of false confessions, and advanced DNA testing revealed last May that the real perpetrator was a man that police had interviewed at the crime scene.

Johnny Douglas was interviewed by police at the time of the murder because he lived in the neighborhood where the body of Nina Glover was found. Douglas, however, was soon let go after he denied knowing the victim. When he was later linked to the murder through DNA, it was discovered that Douglas had a rap sheet containing 38 convictions, including for murder and sexual assault. In 2008, he was shot to death.

And it turns out that Douglas was not the only one with a rap sheet. According to the Huffington Post, Detective James Cassidy, who always maintained that the four teenagers voluntarily confessed to the crime, had a history of taking false confessions. In 1994, he took a confession from an 11-year-old African American boy who was eventually convicted of murder, but a federal judge concluded that the confession was coerced and threw out the conviction. Additionally, in 1998, Cassidy took confessions from two African American boys, ages seven and eight, but these charges were later dropped after new evidence was discovered in the case.

According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, of the 76 wrongful convictions in Cook County that have been uncovered through DNA testing, 25 were the result of suspects admitting to crimes they did not commit. Even more disturbing is that despite these numbers, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez vehemently opposed the release of the Englewood Four, stating that DNA testing is not always the ‘silver bullet’ it appears to be. Unfortunately, Alvarez’s attitude towards the men is not unique among other wrongful conviction cases. Reluctance to admit mistakes is a common trait among police and prosecutors involved in other miscarriages of justice.

By continuing to cover up mistakes, even with strong evidence of innocence, members of law enforcement are seriously undermining the administration of justice in our criminal ‘justice’ system. Each day that a prosecutor fights against the release of a clearly innocent individual is another day that the actual perpetrator could be walking free. It is time for our elected officials to start doing the right thing, and we as constituents must hold them accountable for failing to do so.

*************

December 7 – We reached out to Laura Nirider, Staff Attorney at Northwestern University”s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, to get her thoughts on this post and the case of the Englewood Four. She said:

“The only responsible position for Cook County State’s Attorney Alvarez to take is to drop all charges against the Englewood Four and give them a long-overdue opportunity to reconstruct their lives.  As a prosecutor who is ethically bound to do justice, State’s Attorney Alvarez must acknowledge and rectify the previous administration’s mistakes, rather than struggling to explain away the DNA.  Thanks to Andrew Martin’s recent article in the New York Times Magazine, we’ve seen that the public has reacted with horror to the attempts of prosecutors in Lake County, Illinois (Cook County’s neighbor to the north) to ignore exonerating post-conviction DNA evidence in other cases.  The same reaction would be warranted if Cook County State’s Attorney Alvarez decides to retry the Englewood Four despite the fact that DNA proves their innocence.”

Douglas Warney Awarded $3.75 Million

Last February, we brought you the story of Douglas Warney, a mentally challenged man who spent nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit after he was coerced into falsely confessing to Rochester (NY) police. He was exonerated in 2006 through DNA testing but was unable to seek compensation because New York’s Court of Claims Act (see section 8B) barred recovery for those whose own “misconduct,” including false confessions and guilty pleas, caused their conviction. Then, in April, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Warney could sue the state, going against prior court decisions that had refused to allow him to seek compensation due to the existing law.

Today, the Innocence Project announced that Douglas Warney has been awarded $3.75 million by the city of Rochester for his wrongful imprisonment. According to Warney’s attorney, Rochester Mayor Tom Richards agreed to the negotiated settlement, but the City Council must give final approval at its meeting on December 13.

New York is not the only state that has prohibited exonerees from seeking compensation if they falsely confessed or offered a guilty plea. Under California’s statute, for example, the claimant must prove “that he did not, by any act or omission on his part, either intentionally or negligently, contribute to the bringing about of his arrest or conviction.” According to the Innocence Project, however, in 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, defendants falsely confessed, pled guilty or made incriminating statements. Evidence that these confessions and guilty pleas often occur as the result of outside influences – such as duress and coercion – should raise questions about statutes that disqualify those exonerees from receiving compensation.

While Mayor Richards certainly did the right thing in awarding financial compensation to Mr. Warney, it is important to remember that exonerees need additional support beyond money to help them get back on their feet. In Mr. Warney’s case, for example, assistance with medical care and mental health care are likely very important. In addition to his mental disability and intellectual deficiency (Warney has an IQ of 68), he has also been diagnosed with AIDS and AIDS dementia. For other exonerees, additional forms of social services are needed, including tuition reimbursement, job placement services, and housing assistance. Individuals like Douglas Warney need help facing the freedom that exoneration provides, a freedom that cannot be fully realized without the provision of adequate compensation and social services.

In another New York wrongful conviction case, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have vehemently opposed compensation awards for the five defendants from the Central Park Jogger case, who were also coerced into giving false confessions. Click here to learn more about their fight for compensation.

Derek Tice One Step Closer to Full Freedom

Last Wednesday, a federal court upheld a lower court’s decision to clear the criminal record of Derek Tice, one of the “Norfolk Four” defendants who were wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in 1997. The lower court’s ruling was based on the belief that had Tice’s defense lawyers asked for his coerced confession to be deemed inadmissible in the original trial, a different verdict likely would have been reached.

Although three of the Norfolk Four received a conditional pardon by former Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine in 2009 and were released from prison (the fourth had already completed his prison sentence), the former sailors remained on probation and their classification as sex offenders did not disappear.

Unfortunately, for most wrongfully convicted individuals, exoneration does not necessarily equate to full freedom. Even though they are no longer behind bars, many exonerees have to spend additional time fighting to have their criminal records expunged.

Arthur Lee Whitfield, for example, spent more than 22 years behind bars for two rapes he did not commit before DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator. Although he was released in 2004, Whitfield was put on probation had to wait nearly five years before he was officially pardoned by Kaine in 2009. As a result, under Virginia law, Whitfield was not eligible to receive compensation for the years he was wrongfully imprisoned until then. Additionally, Whitfield remained on the registered sex offender list, burdening him with the stigma of being a convicted criminal and making it extremely difficult to find and sustain employment.

Some states have included provisions to clear the records of exonerees within statutes providing compensation to wrongfully convicted individuals. California’s compensation law, for example, states that a judge must order case records to be sealed when a conviction has been set aside. That being said, the statute requires the wrongfully convicted individual to prove factual innocence, — typically established through DNA evidence — an extremely high standard of proof. Florida’s compensation statute includes a similar provision.

Although the federal courts made the right call in the Derek Tice case, it is time for states to recognize that exonerees should not have to continue to struggle for freedom post release. Aren’t the years they spent behind bars enough? Why should they have to devote more time, and almost always more money, to expunge records of crimes they did not commit? Including a criminal record clearing provision within a state compensation statute makes sense, as this should certainly be considered an essential component of any piece of legislation offering holistic or restorative assistance to the wrongfully convicted. Still, only 27 states have passed statutes to provide compensation and other forms of assistance to exonerees; most of these statutes are extremely inadequate and few even mention criminal records.

Individuals like Derek Tice and Arthur Lee Whitfield need help facing the freedom that exoneration provides, a freedom that cannot come to fruition without the provision of adequate compensation, social services and a cleared name. Last week’s ruling should be viewed as a sign that significant gaps in our ‘justice’ system still exist.

Illinois Death Penalty Ban Should Spark National Conversation

Last Wednesday, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed legislation (Ill. S.B. 3539) abolishing capital punishment in the state, and commuted the sentences of 15 death row prisoners to life without parole.

This move comes more than a decade after Illinois’ last execution in 1999. In 2000, then-Governor George Ryan placed a moratorium on capital punishment in the state after the convictions of 13 death row inmates were overturned due to reexamination of evidence. Citing the “demon of error” in the criminal justice system, Ryan commuted all death sentences in Illinois just two days before leaving office in 2003.

The new law banning the death penalty is particularly important given the number of individuals who have been wrongfully convicted in Illinois. According to the Innocence Project, there have been 31 DNA exonerations in Illinois; only Texas has had more with 42. Furthermore, of the now 267 individuals who have proven their innocence through DNA, 17 served time on death row. Beyond just DNA cases, the Death Penalty Information Center notes that a total of 138 people sentenced to death have been subsequently exonerated since 1973.

One exoneree, Anthony Porter, won a reprieve from the Illinois Supreme Court just two days before his scheduled execution. The court’s decision, however, was not based on the belief that Porter was innocent. Rather, he had tested so low on an IQ test that the court was not sure that he was capable of understanding his punishment. The stay of execution gave a group of faculty and students from the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University the time they needed to investigate Porter’s case and prove his innocence. He was released in 1999 after serving more than 16 years behind bars.

The recent conviction of former Chicago police officer Jon Burge also sheds light on the potentially fatal mistakes that could have occurred with the continued use of the death penalty in Illinois. In January, Burge was sentenced to 4½ years in prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torture of more than 100 African American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s. His victims spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, and there are still more than 20 people incarcerated as a result of Burge’s crimes.

There seems to be little question that wrongful convictions do happen, but even with this increased awareness, 34 states still allow capital punishment today.  Beyond the United States, Japan and South Korea are the only other democratic countries that permit executions.

Whether other states will follow in the footsteps of Illinois is yet to be determined. Even Texas, with the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2004, does not appear to have learned from its past mistakes. Willingham, who was convicted in 1992 of murdering his children via arson, was the subject of a 2009 investigative report conducted by The New Yorker. The report debunked all of the evidence used to show that the fire was intentionally set. Even an independent investigation initiated by the Texas Forensic Science Commission produced a similar finding.

The risk of executing an innocent person is not a risk that anyone should be willing to take. Illinois, which has produced more than 30 DNA exonerations, was right to seriously evaluate and overturn its use of the death penalty. While one can live with a guilty prisoner spending his life behind bars, it is impossible to swallow even just one innocent person being put to death.

Only Four Years for Ex-Police Officer Accused of Torture in 100+ Cases

U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow sentenced former Chicago police officer Jon Burge to 4½ years in prison on Friday for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the torture of more than 100 African American suspects in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although he could not be prosecuted for the torture allegations due to the expired statute of limitations, the U.S. Attorneys office charged Burge with perjury in 2008 after he denied the abuse in a 2003 civil lawsuit against the city of Chicago. Madison Hobley, who was sentenced to death and served 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, filed the lawsuit after he was exonerated, later winning $7.5 million dollars in a settlement with the city. Hobley claimed that Burge and his “Midnight Crew” of detectives suffocated him with a typewriter cover during questioning. In June 2010, a federal jury found Burge guilty of lying under oath.

In addition to suffocation, other victims have claimed that Burge’s torture tactics included electrocution, threats with loaded guns and the use of radiators to burn suspects. Former Illinois Governor George Ryan released four men from death row in 2003, believing that they falsely confessed to crimes after being subjected to torture by Burge. Citing the “demon of error” in the criminal justice system, Ryan commuted all death sentences in Illinois to life without parole just two days before leaving office. A bill to abolish the death penalty in Illinois was recently passed in the state’s House and Senate and is currently in the hands of Governor Pat Quinn; there has been a moratorium on capital punishment in the state since 2000.

Many of Burge’s victims were disappointed with the 4½ year sentence, including Mark Clements who was released after 28 years in prison. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clements said in response to the sentence, “This is ridiculous. This is a smack in the face once again to the African American community…This is a complete injustice.” Others, including lawyers of some of the victims, thought that Judge Lefkow’s sentence would send a strong message; the 4½ year sentence was double the sentence called for under federal guidelines.

It is difficult to understand how 4½ years can be considered justice for the hundreds of years Burge’s victims spent in prison for crimes they did not commit, not to mention the years that his victims who are still imprisoned will continue to serve. There are still more than 20 people incarcerated as a result of Burge’s crimes. Although the U.S. Pretrial Service Office’s Presentence Investigation Report recommended 15-21 months in prison for Burge, he could have received a sentence of up to 45 years. Not only did Burge torture more than 100 people during his time at the Chicago Police Department, but also he has failed to admit guilt and has not shown any remorse for his actions.

Burge’s case also raises the question of how it could take so long to prosecute him for his crimes. He was fired from the police department in 1993 due to his record of abuse, but special prosecutors were not appointed to investigate the torture claims until 2002. Following his conviction last June, U.S. Representative Danny Davis from Illinois sponsored a bill to lift the statute of limitations on torture by members of law enforcement, but the legislation has not made it out of the House Judiciary Committee.

It is unclear whether charges will be brought against other members of Burge’s “Midnight Crew.”