Category: innocence

Behind bars without proof of guilt: The case of Everton Wagstaffe

Everton Wagstaffe

by Melanie Wilmoth

You can find a NYT update on this story here.

Everton Wagstaffe has been in prison for over 18 years.

Since his arrest, Wagstaffe has unyieldingly claimed his innocence and fought for his release, yet he remains behind bars serving out a 25-year sentence for second degree kidnapping.

Although Wagstaffe completed his minimum sentence several years ago, he remains in prison, refusing to go before the parole board and admit guilt for a crime he did not commit. Several years ago, he qualified for a “conditional release” which would have set him free as long as he followed a strict set of rules and guidelines. Claiming his innocence, Wagstaffe refused to sign the release, not wanting to comply with the guideline requiring him to register as a sex offender.

The case against Wagstaffe began on New Years Day 1992. On this day, 16-year-old Jennifer Negron was kidnapped in Brooklyn, New York. Hours after the kidnapping, her body was discovered dead in the street. (more…)

Michael Morton and the case for Texas criminal justice reforms

Michael Morton

By Melanie Wilmoth

Michael Morton spent 25 years behind bars for the murder of his wife, Christine, before he was released based on DNA evidence that pointed to another suspect.

In Morton’s case, there was a wealth of evidence suggesting Morton was not the murderer, but prosecutors never pursued another suspect. Prosecutors were convinced, despite no clear evidence, that Morton was guilty.

It is a classic case of prosecutorial tunnel vision.

As Texas Sen. Rodney Ellis so aptly points out, “The role of the prosecutor is to discover the truth, but oftentimes there’s more interest in getting a conviction.”

Morton’s case is one of hundreds that highlights flaws within the Texas criminal justice system. However, the question remains: Will Texas actually see this case as a sign that serious criminal justice reforms are necessary to prevent prosecutorial misconduct and the continuance of wrongful convictions?

(Check out a related post over at Grits for Breakfast.)

Morton Case Sparks Calls for Texas Evidence Law Reform

by Brandi Grissom

Not long after his mother was murdered, 3-and-a-half-year-old Eric Morton began to tell his grandmother what he had seen that terrible day.

“Mommy’s crying. She’s — Stop it. Go away,” his grandmother said he told her. She asked why his mother was crying.

“’Cause the monster’s there,” Eric said.

Gingerly, she pressed for more details.

“He hit Mommy. He broke the bed,” her grandson said.

“Is Mommy still crying?”

“No, Mommy stopped.” (more…)

The hardest cases: When children die, justice can be elusive

Ernie Lopez

The following story, produced in collaboration with PBS “Frontline” and NPR, is based on the investigations of dozens of cases in which flimsy evidence was used to wrongfully accuse and convict individuals in cases where children were killed. Child death cases are never easy. Often, the desire to “get to the bottom of the case” and obtain justice for the victim can cloud the judgement of those involved in researching and investigating the case. The stories of the individuals below highlight the need for more thorough investigations and stricter regulations around the use of forensic pathology to ensure a fair and just criminal justice system. MW

The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive

by A.C. Thompson and Chisun Lee, ProPublica, and Joe Shapiro and Sandra Bartlett, NPR

Her name was Isis Charm Vas and at 6 months old she was a slight child — fifth percentile in height and weight.

When the ambulance sped her to Northwest Texas Hospital on a Saturday morning in October 2000, doctors and nurses feared that someone had done something awful to her delicate little body.

A constellation of bruises stretched across her pale skin. CT scans showed blood pooling on her brain and swelling. Her vagina was bleeding, as well. The damage was so severe that her body’s vital organs were shutting down.

Less than 24 hours later, Isis died.

An autopsy bolstered the initial suspicions that she’d been abused. Dr. Joni McClain, a forensic pathologist, ruled Isis’ death a homicide and said the baby had been sexually violated. McClain would later describe it as a “classic” case of blunt force trauma, the type of damage often done by a beating.

The police investigation that followed was constructed almost entirely from medical evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted one of the child’s babysitters: Ernie Lopez.

Today, Lopez is serving a 60-year prison term for sexual assault and is still facing capital murder charges.

But in the years since Lopez was sent to the penitentiary, a growing body of evidence has emerged suggesting that McClain and the hospital staffers were wrong about what happened to Isis — and that her death was not the result of a criminal attack. (more…)

Troy Davis and the growing case against eyewitness ID

by Melanie Wilmoth

The case against Troy Davis hinged on the eyewitness testimony of several individuals who claimed that Davis shot police officer Mark MacPhail. Many began to have serious doubts about Davis’ guilt, however, after several witnesses recanted their original testimony. Despite witness recantations, hundreds of thousands of petitions, and international protests against Troy’s execution, the state of Georgia remained steadfast in its belief that Davis was guilty and, ultimately, executed him.

In a recent Associated Press article, Michael Tarm and Eric Tucker highlight how the controversy around Troy Davis’ execution has sparked debate about the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.

Davis’ execution came at a time in which the reliability of eyewitness identifications was increasingly questioned. Studies on the fallibility of human memory as well as a host of recent DNA exonerations have contributed to the doubt surrounding the accuracy of eyewitness ID, and increased concerns that these identifications may lead to wrongful convictions.

Just last month, we reported that the New Jersey Supreme Court decided to reform rules around eyewitness ID, requiring more rigorous evaluations of eyewitness identifications and making it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness testimony. Several other states have recently attempted to reduce the reliance on eyewitness identification as well.

As Tarm and Tucker point out, the doubt surrounding Davis’ conviction and subsequent execution will likely “fuel the eyewitness ID debate” and will hopefully lead to more sound rules and regulations regarding the use of eyewitness identification. Check out what they have to say in their article below.

You may also want to check out a related article published by Time Magazine.

Troy Davis execution fuels eyewitness ID debate

(AP)  SAVANNAH, Ga. — When Georgia executed Troy Davis last week, it brushed aside international protests that too many witnesses had recanted trial testimony that he was the gunman who killed a police officer in 1989.

The issue raised in Davis’s case, however, is getting harder to ignore. With scientific studies showing the human memory can be surprisingly faulty, the once-damning weight of eyewitness testimony has come under question in courts and state legislatures. (more…)

Rick Perry’s Texas: 234 executions and counting

by Melanie Wilmoth

Under Governor Rick Perry’s leadership, the state of Texas has executed a shocking number of individuals (234 to be exact). When this fact was mentioned at the GOP debate on Wednesday evening, it was welcomed with cheerful applause.

Perry went on to defend his record of executions stating:

“Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.”

Although the death penalty was mentioned in the debate, no meaningful discussion occurred. For example, nothing was said about the moral issues surrounding capital punishment. Nor was there mention of the fact that the death penalty disproportionately affects poor people of color, or that research suggests that capital punishment does little (if anything) to deter crime. Moreover, there was no talk of the number of individuals who are wrongfully convicted and even wrongfully executed by the dysfunctional Texas justice system. (more…)

Eyewitness Identification and Wrongful Convictions

By Melanie Wilmoth

I recently had the opportunity to attend a book club hosted by CitySquare in Dallas. At this event, we discussed the book, Tested: How Twelve Wrongly Imprisoned Men Held onto Hope by Peyton and Dorothy Budd. Their book tells the stories of twelve men who were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. As a result of DNA testing and the introduction of new evidence, these men were recently exonerated. Unfortunately, by the time of exoneration, many of these men had spent 5, 10, or even 20 years in prison.

Although Dallas leads the nation in DNA exonerations, wrongful convictions are a problem throughout the US.

It was simply a fluke that over the decades Dallas happened to save and store the evidence needed to run DNA tests. In most cities, such physical evidence was destroyed long ago…This is not just a Dallas problem…Across the nation thousands upon thousands of innocent people are in prison for crimes they did not commit.” – Dorothy Budd

The majority of these wrongful convictions are a result of faulty eyewitness identification. Despite the fact that this type of testimony is unreliable, prosecutors across the nation continue to rely on eyewitnesses.

However, new rules issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court will affect how eyewitness testimony is used in the courts. These rules require more rigorous evaluation of eyewitness identifications and make it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness testimony. Criminal justice reform advocates are hopeful that these new rules will significantly reduce the number of wrongful convictions and that other states will soon follow in New Jersey’s lead.

In New Jersey, Rules Are Changed on Witness IDs

By Benjamin Weiser

The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” issued sweeping new rules on Wednesday making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases.

The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness’s identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification. (more…)

What happens when “guilt or innocence was never on the table”?

By Lisa D’Souza

Eighteen years ago, three teenaged boys were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys.  These three teens were suspected because they were weird.  The way they dressed and what they believed were not the norm for the Arkansas town of West Memphis.  And when the bodies of three young children were found mutilated and hogtied, the police and prosecutors were convinced it was the work of a Satanic cult.  Police suspected then-18-year-old Damien Echols, a goth kid who wore all black and called himself a Wiccan.  After an interrogation lasting some 12 hours, police got Echols’ friend, then-17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, Jr., to confess and implicate both Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin.   Never mind that the specifics of his confession did not match the evidence collected from the crime scene.  The state was convinced it had apprehended the murderers.  The teens were arrested and became known as the West Memphis Three.

Not much later, Misskelley recanted.  The trial judge decided, based on the circumstances under which he confessed, that Misskelley’s confession could not be admitted as proof of their guilt at trial.  So the West Memphis Three were tried for murder.  There was no reliable confession.  There was no physical evidence that tied them to the crime scene.  No forensic evidence was discovered that linked them either.  The state’s proof was statements of people who said that they heard or overheard the three teens discussing the murders.  That was it.  That and the certainty of the police and prosecutors that they were right. The West Memphis Three were convicted.  Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley and Baldwin to life.   (more…)

Speak Out: Join the Campaign to End Forced Confessions

By Melanie Wilmoth

Take a moment to check out the campaign to end forced confessions and wrongful convictions launched by our friends at ColorOfChange.org.

Their campaign centers on the cases of ten Black men (known as the Dixmoor Five and the Englewood Five) in Cook County, Illinois who were convicted of murder in the 1990s based solely on forced confessions. Some of the men, who were merely teenagers at the time of conviction, have been behind bars for almost 20 years.

Despite recent DNA evidence that proves the men were wrongfully convicted, six of the ten men remain in prison and the Cook County State’s Attorney refuses to overturn their convictions.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Illinois. The state is plagued with a history of police coercion and forced confessions. From 1972 to 1991, Chicago Police Department Lieutenant Jon Burge and officers under his supervision used torture tactics such as beating, suffocation, and electric shock to force hundreds of suspects to confess to crimes.

Although Burge was fired in 1993 and is currently serving a 4.5-year sentence for lying about witnessing and participating in the torture of suspects, he has never been charged with abuse.

As history tells us, it is all too common for cases involving coercion and forced confessions to go unquestioned. Please consider speaking out about the wrongful convictions of the Dixmoor and Englewood Five by signing ColorOfChange.org’s petition.

To learn more about these cases, click here.

Reflections on the Casey Anthony Trial

By Charles Kiker

“We need to start talking about a nation of broken people where broken people can be redeemed” (Alan Bean, Friends of Justice blog “Royal Visit . . .” July 8, 2011).

Amen, Alan.

I didn’t follow the Casey Anthony trial closely. I did watch some of the closing arguments. I fully expected that she would be convicted of at least a lesser charge than the first degree murder, and would not have been surprised if she had been convicted on all counts. After all, that’s what juries do 95% of the time. So I was mildly surprised, but not shocked and outraged, when she was acquitted of all felony charges. I was not at all surprised that she was convicted of four charges of lying to the investigators, nor was I outraged at the punishment meted out by the court for those misdemeanors.

I was not at all prepared for the vitriol directed toward the jury for the verdict. (more…)

When proof isn’t possible

By Chaka Holley

“Innocent until proven guilty is the old mantra”; but a convicted defendant is “guilty until proven innocent.” James Legate and his wife, Yolanda, are attempting to prove his innocence as he sits behind bars in Texas.

Legate was convicted of the murder of Eddie Garcia, a San Antonio businessman. Garcia, known as the “Bingo King” owned a home-health care business, tons of real estate and managed prize fighters. He is also known for giving a $35,000 bribe to former Congressman Albert Bustamante. The two of them were under FBI investigation. A federal jury found Bustamante guilty of racketeering but Garcia was never indicted. Friends of Garcia have also alluded to Garcia being involved in other illegal practices.

Legate, on the other hand, was the man on trial. His job repossessing cars landed Legate in the middle of a murder scene. It was like a scene from a television crime show. After having drinks at a sports bar, Legate reports going to Garcia’s office in search of Marilyn Maddox, a woman who had recently worked for Garcia and was behind on her car payments. Legate explained that he visited the office in an attempt to repossess her car. (more…)