Category: innocence

The Claude Jones saga: Did Texas execute an(other) innocent man?

Claude Jones

By Alan Bean

Note: Dave Mann has written a well-researched feature story on this case for the Texas Observer.

Not that most Americans would care, but it appears that Texas executed another innocent man in 2000.  This story from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram relates the sad fate of Claude Jones, a St. Jacinto man convicted of killing a liquor store clerk in the course of an armed robbery in 1989. 

Prosecutors showed the jury a single hair that they claimed belonged to Jones.  They couldn’t be sure, mind you, and no DNA test was conducted, but they were pretty sure. 

But that wasn’t enough for a conviction, corroborating testimony was required.  Enter Timothy Jordan.  In exchange for a lenient sentence, he testified that he had served as an accomplice and that Jones was the trigger man.

Three years after Jones was executed, Jordan recanted his testimony. Need you ask why?  He was threatened with dire consequences if he refused to cooperate with prosecutors.  We’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?

George W. Bush was fixin’ to leave the governor’s mansion for bigger and better things when he gave Jones’ execution the thumbs up.  No one on his staff mentioned that the hair that so impressed jurors had not been tested.

Now it has and we know for a fact that the hair did not belong to Jones. (more…)

Anthony Graves freed after eighteen years in prison

Anthony Graves

By Alan Bean

Anthony Graves is back in the free world after eighteen years of hell. 

Charles Sebesta, the prosecutor who sent Graves to death row, still thinks he nailed the right man.  If you asked the Texas Rangers who conducted the “investigation” they would probably agree with Sebesta.
According to the state’s theory of the crime, Graves teamed up with Robert Earl Carter to brutally murder Bobbie Davis, 45; her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole; and four of Davis’ grandchildren in August of 1992.  The victims died from hammer blows, repeated stabbings, and bullet wounds.   Their house was then torched in a clumsy attempt to conceal evidence.  It was the most brutal crime in the history of Burleson County. (more…)

Frontline’s “Death by Fire” is superb television

The Frontline treatment of the Cameron Todd Willingham saga is gripping, balanced and provocative.  Don’t worry if you missed it; you can watch the entire program online.

Hour-long documentaries are frequently crammed with fluff and filler, but the Willingham case demands in-depth treatment to be understood and “Death by Fire” delivers.  Here are some of the conclusions: (more…)

“Death by Fire”: Frontline tackles the Willingham Case

Cameron Todd Willingham and Governor Rick Perry

The PBS program Frontline will be airing a program on the Cameron Todd Willingham story, “Death by Fire“, beginning October 19.  Click on the link to watch a 30 second promo.  I have pasted the text version of the teaser below.

Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Several controversial death penalty cases are currently under examination in Texas and in other states, but it’s the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham — convicted for the arson deaths of his three young children — that’s now at the center of the national debate.

In Death by Fire, FRONTLINE’s season premiere, airing Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings), FRONTLINE gains unique access to those closest to the Willingham case — meticulously examining the evidence used to convict Willingham, offering an in-depth portrait of those most impacted by the case, and exploring the explosive implications of the execution of a possibly innocent man. (more…)

Legal nightmare ends for the Richardson family

Mark and Vergil Richardson

District Judge Robert Mohoney has dropped all criminal charges against Mark Richardson, Vergil Richardson, Jermichole Richardson and Xavier Richardson, bringing a three-year legal nightmare to an end. 

This ruling comes as no surprise.  Once Judge John McCraw Jr. forced the presiding judge, John Miller, to recuse himself, the outcome was virtually automatic.  Judge Mahoney was appointed to replace Miller and it didn’t take him long to make the only sensible call available to him.

The big surprise in this case is that charges were filed against these defendants in the first place.  No one has ever accused the Texas Attorney General’s office of being soft on drug crime, but when Nicole Habersang reviewed the facts she knew what she had to do.  That’s when things got really strange.   When Ms. habersang filed a motion requesting that charges against all but one defendant be dropped, Judge Miller refused to cooperate.  (more…)

Willingham review is put on hold

Cameron Todd Willingham with one of his daughters

A three-judge pane representing the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin has ordered Judge Charlie Baird to put an immediate stop to a hearing into the case of Cameron Todd Willingham. 

Here’s the good news: Judge Baird’s hearing concluded just before the order arrived.

Now the bad news: Judge Baird will not be able to hand down a formal ruling until the stay is lifted. (more…)

Supreme Court agrees to hear Skinner case

Hank Skinner

As this excellent article from the Texas Tribune makes clear, the Hank Skinner case is a head-on collision between two interest groups: inmates looking to have DNA evidence tested, and overworked state officials who fear they will be buried in frivolous requests for DNA testing.

As this summary shows, the state’s case against Hank Skinner looks pretty damning: (more…)

Blackburn: Stop using ‘junk science’ in the courtroom

Jeff Blackburn


This opinion piece was published in the Houston Chronicle under the names of several authors, but the Amarillo Globe-News version simply mentions Jeff Blackburn, so I am assuming he is the author.   “Stop presenting ‘junk science’ in capital trials” Blackburn says.  You can find the heart of his argument pasted at the end of my remarks. 

The focus here is on Texas, but the problem is nationwide.  In the most recent Curtis Flowers trial, one ballistics expert testified that he could say with 100% certainty that the gun stolen from Doyle Simpson’s car was the murder weapon.  A second expert restricted himself to the obvious: the evidence didn’t lend itself to 100% certainty about anything.  All any competent ballistics expert could say for sure was that the evidence found at the crime scene was consistent with the .380 pistol allegedly stolen from Mr. Simpson’s car, but the shell casings could also have come from a similar weapon. 

Blackburn concentrates on expert witnesses who don’t know what they are talking about; but a lot of expert testimony is biased in favor of the prosecution because that’s where the money is.  Indigent defendants rarely have the money to hire their own experts and most capital defendants are indigent.  

In Blackburn’s opinion, the Cameron Todd Willingham case isn’t primarily about the execution of an innocent man; it’s about junk science. 

Do we really have to choose here? (more…)

Balko on prosecutorial misconduct

Radley Balko

In his most recent column, Radley Balko discusses prosecutorial misconduct in the federal criminal justice system.  Abuse is rampant, he says, and prosecutors who break the rules rarely face consequences.  You can find the first two paragraphs below:

Misbehaving Federal Prosecutors

A USA Today investigation finds egregious misconduct at the Department of Justice, with few consequences.

Radley Balko, September 27, 2010

Last week, USA Today published the results of a six-month investigation into misconduct by America’s federal prosecutors. The investigation turned up what Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman called a pattern of “serious, glaring misconduct.” Reporters Brad Heath and Kevin McCoy documented 201 cases in which federal prosecutors were chastised by federal judges for serious ethical breaches, ranging from withholding important exculpatory evidence to lying in court to making incriminating but improper remarks in front of juries.

The list is by no means comprehensive, and doesn’t claim to be. I checked the paper’s website for examples of egregious misconduct reported here at Reason: U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan’s politically-charged prosecution of Pennsylvania doctor Bernard Rottschaefer; Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Grayson’s outrageous persecution of the Colomb family in Louisiana; and the bogus Mann Act charges brought against Mississippi heart surgeon, Dr. Roger Wiener. None are among the cases in USA Today’s database. The paper should be lauded for its groundbreaking investigation, but as the reporters themselves acknowledge, they’ve really only scratched the surface. (The investigation also only looked at federal cases, which comprise just a tiny portion of the country’s total criminal prosecutions.)  You can find the rest of Balko’s column here.

Standing up for guilty defendants

Michelle Alexander says the criminal justice reform movement should shed its fixation with innocence.  In her groundbreaking book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander suggests that reformers start focusing on normal defendants.  Since most criminal defendants done the deed, that means going to bat for guilty people.  Why would we want to do that? (more…)