Thursday, March 27, 2008

Speakers Oppose Penalty

Three Anti-Death Penalty Advocates Spoke Last Night for a Panel titled Voice of Hope, Agents of Change.

By Ashley Bressler

The Daily Collegian Online- University Park, PA

As part of an effort to encourage Penn State students and the State College community to rethink major social issues and engage in discussion, anti-death penalty advocates spoke at the panel, Voices of Hope, Agents of Change, last night.

Harold Wilson, Frank Baumgartner and Rev. Walter Everett spoke of the new way the death penalty is being discussed.

Wilson, of Philadelphia, spent more than 16 years on death row in Pennsylvania for crimes he never committed.

After several trials, DNA testing and elimination of the racial disparities that influenced his original trial and sentence, Wilson was released in 2005.

"I'm the 122 person in the U.S. to be exonerated and the sixth person in Pennsylvania. It's a title that many people wouldn't know what it really means," Wilson said. Baumgartner, professor of political science, said there has been a shift in the way Americans discuss capital punishment.

The shift focused more on the faces of people who have been exonerated, the people who were wrongly convicted and were sentenced to years in prison.

Baumgartner said there are 228 people currently on death row in Pennsylvania, but that only three inmates have been executed since 1976.

He said 60 to 70 percent of death sentences are thrown out when reviewed by federal judges and are given a new trial.

"They're not all vicious criminals, some of them just got caught up in the system," Baumgartner said.

Everett, who represents victims' families against the death penalty, said he has been actively advocating against the death penalty throughout his entire adult life.

"I've always been opposed to the death penalty on religious ground, moral ground, and on practical ground, but it all came to home when my son was murdered 20 and a half years ago," Everett said.

Everett said he was angry after his son's death, but that he knew the only way he would find closure was to forgive the person who murdered his son.

He said once he was able to find forgiveness, his healing began.

"Society is out for vengeance, but the vengeance does nothing for the families of the victims," Everett said.

The panel discussed the many racial and economic disparities associated with the death penalty.

Wilson said he was not only wrongly accused, but the wrongful conviction was a direct result from lack of funding during his trial. He said his family hired a lawyer, but his trial was still seriously hindered by lack of funding.

"If you don't have the capital, you'll get the punishment," Wilson said.

He said because Pennsylvania restitution laws have not been changed, all of the six individuals who have been exonerated from death row are still waiting restitution.

"The only thing I've received was a 65 cent bus token," Wilson said.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Innocence Project Event Aims to Help Wrongly Convicted

Leslie Griffy-San Jose Mercury News San Jose, CA

March 26, 2008

The wrongfully convicted, their supporters and members of the legal community will gather at Santa Clara University this weekend for three days of seminars and presentations at an event sponsored by the Northern California Innocence Project.

The weekend event kicks off Thursday with an awards dinner. Among the honorees will Antoine Goff, who was falsely convicted of a murder in 2007; former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp; Innocence Project Advisory board member Frank Quattrone; and Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, who made a documentary film about John Stoll, who spent 20 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit.

Starting Friday, the project will host the Innocence Network Conference, where the wrongly convicted can learn about starting their lives again after years of imprisonment, those wishing to start an innocence project can get advise on how to begin and current innocence project leaders can share stories.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Santa Clara University: Northern California Innocence Project Hosts Inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner

Santa Clara, CA Business Wire Press Release

March 25, 2008

Santa Clara University’s Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) will host its inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner on March 27, honoring individuals for their work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. The awards dinner comes on the eve of the 2008 Innocence Network Conference which will be held at Santa Clara University March 28–30.

“The Justice for All Awards Dinner provides the opportunity for our supporters to meet the exonerees whose lives they have touched, hear their stories, and see firsthand why the Innocence Project fights tirelessly for justice,” said Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, director of the Northern California Innocence Project.

Inaugural Justice for All Awards Dinner, March 27: This event will be held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose on March 27 and will honor five individuals for their work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Award recipients are Frank Quattrone, NCIP’s Advisory Board Chair; John Van de Kamp, chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice; exoneree Antoine Goff; and Dana Nachman and Don Hardy, local documentary filmmakers who worked closely with the NCIP on their film “An American Witch Hunt.” Attorney Barry Scheck will give the keynote address.

2008 Innocence Network Conference, March 28–30: The national conference will take place this year at Santa Clara University, home base of the NCIP. The three-day conference brings together hundreds of people who work against wrongful convictions.

Among those attending the conference are attorneys, educators, civic and business leaders, and exonerated individuals who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. John Van de Kamp, former state attorney general, will participate in the conference, along with speakers representing Innocence Projects from Hawaii, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, New York, and New Orleans, including the co-founders of the first Innocence Project, professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld of Cardozo School of Law. Conference sessions are closed to the media. Photos will be available following the conference. For more information about the conference or photos, please contact Amy Kennedy at 408-551-3000 x6189 or

Hearing on the Death Penalty, March 28: The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice will be holding its third and final public hearing at Santa Clara University from 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. The hearing will address the fair administration of the death penalty in California. Visit the commission’s Web site at for more information.

About Santa Clara University Santa Clara University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic university located 40 miles south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley, offers its 8,685 students rigorous undergraduate curricula in arts and sciences, business, and engineering, plus master’s and law degrees and engineering Ph.D.s. Distinguished nationally by one of the highest graduation rates among all U.S. master’s universities, California’s oldest operating higher-education institution demonstrates faith-inspired values of ethics and social justice. For more information, see

Monday, March 24, 2008

Last Chance for Bills On Videotaped Questioning, Photo Lineups by Police

By Zach Lowe-Stamford Advocate Stamford, Connecticut

March 24, 2008

Legislators on the Judiciary Committee today will consider bills that would require police to videotape interrogations and change the way officers conduct photo lineups.

Versions of the two bills have failed for half a dozen years, in part because of opposition from law enforcement. But lawmakers hope they can pass a compromise version of each bill, and that, if passed, the changes would prevent the conviction of innocent people.

To be considered by the full assembly, the bills must be voted out of the Judiciary Committee by 5 p.m. today, said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the committee.

They may get lost in the shuffle amid debate over Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed sanctions for sex offenders and a proposal to take DNA samples from more offenders, McDonald said.

The first bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, would require police to videotape interrogations of suspects in serious felony cases.

The passage of such a sweeping bill is unlikely despite support from the state's public defender and advocates for the mentally ill, said state Rep. Mike Lawlor, D-East Haven, a former prosecutor and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Officials with the state Division of Criminal Justice oppose the bill because they want decisions on interrogation left to each department, according to testimony submitted last week.

"Absent a pattern of abuse or false confessions, law enforcement techniques should be left to law enforcement," officials testified.

Advocates for mentally ill people said jurors should be able to see whether police coaxed a vulnerable suspect into confessing after hours of questioning.

"I am sure I could get most people with an intellectual disability to sign a confession to a crime they didn't commit," said Lynn Warner, executive director of the Arc Connecticut, an organization that supports people with mental disabilities.

But police officials said jurors may overlook a defendant's obvious guilt if they find they don't like something about a taped interrogation.

Law enforcement officials said two state police divisions and four police departments will start taping interrogations this year for a pilot program.

Further action is unlikely, partly because it would cost a lot to buy videotaping equipment for all police departments, Lawlor said.

But the committee could pass a bill mandating that the state Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions continue studying the issue for future legislation, Lawlor said.

"This is not something you want to do overnight," he said.

The second bill would force police to conduct photo lineups by showing a witness the photos one at a time instead of all at once. To avoid influencing the witness's choice, the lineup would have to be done by an officer who does not know which photo shows the suspect.

The bill has the partial backing of the Innocence Project, a New York group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. Judges have overturned 214 convictions in the United States, said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project. A faulty eyewitness identification played a role in 75 percent of those cases, Saloom testified.

There is debate over whether showing a witness photos one by one leads to more accurate identifications.

Studies seemed to favor the sequential approach until 2006, when police in Chicago issued a report showing that method might produce more mistaken identifications.

Many experts, including those at the Innocence Project, have rejected the Chicago report, but it stoked so much controversy that states are reluctant to enact the sequential procedure, experts testified last week.

Law enforcement officials also testified that it is "impractical" to require that the lineup supervisor know nothing about the case.

"The majority, if not all, detectives are well aware of major investigations," said John Danaher, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety.

The bill would require the so-called "blind" supervisor only when "practicable" because smaller departments may have trouble finding an officer with no knowledge of the case, Lawlor said.

Police statewide have adjusted witness lineup protocols since 2005, when the state Supreme Court ruled judges could tell jurors about some irregularities, Lawlor said.

Police now routinely remind witnesses that the suspect may not be in the lineup.

Lawlor said it might be possible to pass the bill without the sequential provision. It would be another step toward cutting the number of wrongful convictions, he said.

"We have to keep the momentum going," Lawlor said.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Condemned Inmate's Lawyers Say New Evidence Should Mean New Trial

By Michael Graczyk Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN — With about a dozen relatives and supporters of condemned inmate Rodney Reed crowded into a packed courtroom, the convicted killer's lawyers asked the state's highest criminal court Wednesday to grant him a new trial for the rape-slaying of a Central Texas woman 12 years ago.

"Mr. Reed has proclaimed his innocence since Day 1," Morris Overstreet, one of his lawyers, told the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, where he served a term as a judge in the 1990s. "Even though he now stands convicted, he maintains he is innocent of this offense."

Reed, who is black, is awaiting execution for the abduction, rape and strangling of a 19-year-old white woman, Stacey Stites, in Bastrop County, about 30 miles southeast of Austin. Reed has contended the two were having a secret affair, even though Stites was engaged to soon marry a police officer when she was killed.

Stites' sister said after the nearly hourlong hearing that the right man was in prison.

"The evidence that shows he is guilty is so overwhelming compared to the circumstantial evidence disproving his guilt," Debra Oliver said. "This man is guilty."

In filings with the court, Reed's attorneys described the racial aspects of the case as explosive. On Wednesday, they accused prosecutors of withholding evidence and said they have new evidence to prove Reed's innocence, specifically DNA results from a beer can found near the murder scene. That can failed to exclude a friend of Stites' fiance and a fellow police officer as possible participants in the killing, they said.

A review by experts they selected to look at forensic evidence presented at trial concluded it was flawed and unreliable, and that a videotape by crime-scene investigators showed the murder site compromised by shoddy techniques.

Prosecutors denied wrongdoing or withholding evidence and said evidence Reed's attorneys want considered isn't new and was available at the time of Reed's trial. They scoffed at Reed's insistence the sex was consensual because he and the victim had a secret relationship.

"There is absolutely no credible evidence it ever existed," Tina Miranda, an assistant attorney general, told the court. "There's no reliable witness testimony that can attest to this secret affair."

Reed's attorneys argued the actual killer was Stites' fiance, Jimmy Fennell Jr., a Giddings police officer at the time. Fennell recently resigned as a sergeant on the Georgetown police force after he was charged last year in a rape case.

Fennell was investigated but ruled out as a suspect in Stites' slaying. He said he was home and asleep when Stites was killed in the early morning hours of April 23, 1996, as she headed to work at a supermarket in Bastrop. Her body was discovered later that day along a rural road.

"What happened was very tragic for Stacey, but I don't think any family member would want the wrong person punished for the offense," Overstreet said. "I would think they'd want the true murderer of their daughter brought to justice.

"What we're saying is, it's not really Rodney Reed."

Reed was arrested nearly a year later, after his DNA surfaced during investigation of an unrelated sexual assault case.

Reed, now 40, was acquitted in a previous sexual assault case and had charges dismissed in another, Overstreet acknowledged. But at least two witnesses testifying during the punishment phase of his capital murder trial identified him as the person who raped them.

"They've got the right man," Oliver said, adding that she spoke with women who said they had been raped by Reed. "There's many cases against him."

Miranda said prosecutors linked Reed to five rapes and one attempted rape, the last one six months after Stites was killed.

"That's how his name was even connected with this case in the first place," Miranda said, adding that Reed's DNA was tied to at least two unsolved rape cases.

Sandra Reed, the convict's mother, accused prosecutors of railroading her son.

"My son had no motive to kill her," she said, insisting she's not even considered the court, which upheld the conviction and death sentence in 2000, could reject this latest appeal. "I refuse to think negative."

Overstreet said there's no timetable for a decision, which could come anywhere from two to six months from now. Although each side was allowed 20 minutes to present its arguments, the judges — seven members of the nine-judge court were present — extended the time considerably as they peppered attorneys with questions about the legal issues in the case.

"The most they can do is to order a new trial," Overstreet said. "Our position is if the jury at the time of the trial had an opportunity to view all of the evidence we know now exists, they would have made a different decision."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SC Lawmakers to Consider Easier DNA Testing for Convicts

By Meg Kinnard, The Associated Press

The Orangeburg Times Democrat-Orangeburg, SC

COLUMBIA, S.C. - DNA tests would be available to South Carolina prisoners who claim they have been wrongly convicted under a bill a Senate panel was to discuss Wednesday.

The co-founder of a group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted prisoners said he will urge South Carolina senators to bring the state in line with much of the rest of the country.

“This kind of legislation has demonstrated again and again that it doesn’t just protect the innocent, it helps law enforcement identify the person who really committed the crime — often somebody who is a serial rapist or a serial murderer,” said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, which is based in New York. “South Carolina knows this law is long overdue.”

South Carolina and six other states — Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota — don’t have a DNA testing law for convicts. A few of those states are considering legislation similar to South Carolina’s bill, and a law recently signed by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal goes into effect July 1.

The sponsor of the South Carolina bill said the measure would give the convicts’ greater access to evidence.

“What we’re trying to do is bring South Carolina up to where the rest of the country is,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Hartsville Democrat and attorney. “The great fear that most of us have is that we incarcerate someone unlawfully.”

Under Malloy’s bill, the state would pay for the DNA tests, which can cost thousands of dollars, if the convict can’t afford it. That could lead to annual costs of up to $10 million, said Mark Plowden, a spokesman for state Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Federal funding could defray some of those costs. The Innocence Protection Act, signed by President Bush in 2004, authorized $25 million over five years to help states pay for post-conviction DNA testing.

DNA evidence already has been used to exonerate at least one South Carolina man. Perry Mitchell, who had served nearly half of a 30-year-rape sentence, was released in 1998 after court-ordered DNA tests proved he didn’t rape a 17-year-old girl.

Mitchell, who lived in Lexington at the time, is one of 214 people across the nation who have been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, according to the Innocence Project.

If Malloy’s bill is adopted, more people could be freed from South Carolina’s prisons, said Scheck, a former defense attorney for O.J. Simpson.

“How can anybody sanction an innocent person spending decades in prison or being executed?” said Scheck. “We really do need the opportunity to prove them innocent, and without this kind of post-conviction statute, they just can’t get into court and they can’t get access to the evidence.”

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony from Scheck on Wednesday. The panel is scheduled to consider legislation that would create an eight-member commission to evaluate claims by convicts who say that they are innocent.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Piling on Injustice

March 18, 2008

The Daytona Beach News-Journal Daytona Beach, FL

Restitution proposal mocks the wrongly imprisoned

It took Florida many years to admit that it had mistakenly incarcerated several men for crimes they didn't commit. The advent of DNA evidence forced the state to face that reality, and they finally approved a law that gives inmates access to scientific testing that might help establish innocence. But the state is still dragging its heels on the issue of restitution, forcing each exonoree to go hat in hand to the Legislature. Wilton Dedge, who spent 22 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, had to make the rounds in 2005. Allen Crotzer, exonerated in 2006 after being cleared of two rapes and an armed robbery, did the same in 2006 and 2007 -- and still hasn't been compensated.

It's a humiliating display, not as much for the men who were unjustly convicted -- but for Floridians, whose officials close their ears to legitimate cries for justice.

Other states have put an end to this mockery by establishing a simple, nearly automatic process that compensates people who are wrongfully convicted. Most use a formula that multiplies the number of years spent behind bars with a specified sum, ranging between $20,000 to $100,000. Some add benefits such as university tuition, counseling or health care.

This year, the Legislature had a shot at setting up a similarly easy, fair and evenhanded process. But as bills work their way through House and Senate committees, something has gone badly wrong.

Instead of making compensation automatic, HB 1025 (as amended last week by the House Safety and Security Council) now calls for a laborious hearing process in which a judge must determine the innocent person's "earning capacity" and the need for mental health or substance abuse counseling.

These calculations would be highly speculative (and complex, requiring far more than the $1,000 in legal fees the bill would allow in a restitution case). Such a proceeding would be cruel and intrusive, forcing an innocent person to recount years behind bars, deprived of family contact, subject to assault and governed by the myriad small humiliations that constitute daily life in a state prison. There's nothing of restitution in this bill; lawmakers are attempting to convert simple justice into grudging dismissal.

But there's a far worse provision -- one that would prevent many exonorees from claiming any justice at all. The bill would deny compensation to anyone with another felony conviction -- any felony conviction, no matter how minor or unrelated.

Under the provisions of this bill, Crotzer would receive nothing -- because while in prison, he was convicted of a drug offense. But Crotzer spent 24 years behind bars, not the single year and a day the drug offense would have merited. He missed the chance to see his children grow up, or to say goodbye to his mother, who died while he was imprisoned.

Is that not a mistake, in the state's eyes? Is it not a miscarriage of justice?

"In no other context do we treat victims like this," says Jennifer Greenberg, policy director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

Today the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss SB 756, that chamber's version of the compensation bill. Senators should resist any change to comform to the deeply flawed House bill. Meanwhile, House leaders should work to restore balance to HB 1025, also scheduled for a hearing today in the powerful Policy and Budget Council.

A compensation bill should put justice first, not drive the innocent into the darkness of a bureaucratic court process -- where their plight can't embarrass lawmakers. Instead, lawmakers are considering legislation that compounds the wounds of injustice, in the name of healing them. They should say no to such hypocrisy.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Miss. Man Cleared in 1990s Child Murder Case

By The Natchez Democrat- Jackson, MS

March 17, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Levon Brooks, who spent 16 years in Mississippi's prison system for a crime he didn't commit, was exonerated Thursday, receiving an apology from a prosecutor.

"I can't give you your life back, but I want you to know I believed in what I was doing. For whatever part I played in your prosecution, I'm truly sorry," District Attorney Forrest Allgood told Brooks during a hearing in Macon to dismiss rape and capital murder charges.

Brooks, 44, was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 3-year-old Courtney Smith, the child of his former girlfriend. Last month, Justin Albert Johnson allegedly confessed to the child's 1990 murder and a second child killing that occurred two years later.

Brooks, of Brooksville, had little to say after the hearing in Noxubee County Circuit Court before Judge Lee Howard. When asked about Allgood's apology, he responded, "I accept it."

As for his future, Brooks said he's focused on caring for his elderly mother.

Evidence against Brooks included an eyewitness, who has since said she's not certain if Brooks was the man who abducted her sister, and the testimony of Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist who has come under intense criticism for his testimony in criminal cases. West testified that bite marks on the victim's body were caused by Brooks.

State Pathologist Steven Hayne initially identified the bite marks during his autopsy of the girl, but defense attorneys in the case say the marks couldn't have been caused by human teeth as they occurred after the child had drowned in the creek where she was discarded.

An assistant who answered the phone at Hayne's Rankin County office said he wasn't available. West didn't return a call made to his Hattiesburg office on Thursday.

About 50 people gathered at the courthouse in Macon, including lawyers from the Innocence Project, which takes on the cases of inmates believed to be wrongly imprisoned.

Brooks' exoneration comes weeks after another Brooksville man, Kennedy Brewer, was cleared in the 1992 murder of Christine Jackson. Brewer had been sentenced to death for the slaying. However, DNA evidence proved that he didn't rape the child and he was eventually removed from death row and released from prison last year.

A panel of experts, at the request of the Innocence Project, reviewed the evidence in Brewer's case and concluded the marks on Christine's body were likely caused by insects or animals nibbling on the decomposing body which was left in a pond.

Authorities say the semen found on Christine's body matched Johnson's DNA. Johnson allegedly confessed to the murder after authorities confronted him with the DNA evidence. He's only been charged in Christine's death. Allgood has said a grand jury will decide whether to indict Johnson in Courtney's murder.

Innocence Project co-director Peter Neufeld again criticized Hayne and West about the misidentified bite marks.

"They'll say anything you want them to say," Neufeld said.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Trial in Bromgard's Suit Against County Will Wait a Year

March 13, 2008

By Clair Johnson

The Billings Gazette- Billings, Montana

Former Billings resident Jimmy Bromgard, who spent more than 15 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, has a new trial date: March 2, 2009.

The jury trial this time is to hear Bromgard's claim against Yellowstone County. Bromgard is suing the county in federal court, claiming that it violated his constitutional rights to effective legal representation at his rape trial 21 years ago.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull this week set the trial date and scheduled seven days for the case. A panel of eight jurors, including two alternates, will hear the case, according to a scheduling order filed Tuesday. A civil trial does not require 12 jurors, but a verdict must be unanimous.

This is the first trial date in the civil rights case that was filed in 2004. Bromgard sued the county, along with Commissioners John Ostlund, Bill Kennedy and Jim Reno; the state of Montana; Mike Greely, former attorney general; and Arnold Melnikoff, former state crime lab director, alleging violations of his constitutional rights.

Bromgard, 39, who now lives in Kalispell, sought $16.5 million in damages. Bromgard was 19 in 1987 when a jury convicted him a raping an 8-year-old girl in her bedroom. A judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison. But in 2002, Bromgard was cleared and was released after DNA testing, which was not available at the time of his trial, found that he did not commit the crime.

The DNA testing was done by the Innocence Project, a New York advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongfully convicted criminal defendants.

In January, Bromgard settled with the state defendants for $3.5 million, which was the largest amount the state has ever paid to settle a civil rights case.

Bromgard and the county defendants have been unable to reach a settlement after several mediation sessions. He claims that the county failed to properly hire and supervise lawyers appointed to represent indigent defendants. Bromgard was represented by John Adams, a court-appointed attorney who has since died. Adams failed to file an appeal, gave no opening statement and called few witnesses.

Yellowstone County maintains that under the system at the time, state district judges hired and supervised attorneys for indigent defendants. The county's only role was to pay the attorneys.

Bromgard's lawyers, Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project and Helena attorney Ron Waterman, and the county's attorneys had been gearing up for a trial, possibly in May. But a heavy criminal calendar and scheduling conflicts pushed back the trial until next year, they said. The parties met with the judge in a scheduling conference last Friday.

Although disappointed with having a trial date so far away, Waterman said he understood the difficulty facing the judge.

"The trial setting is really a reflection of how busy the courts are," he said. "You have to accept the reality. He was very generous in giving us seven days of trial time. We're comfortable with seven days."

The Speedy Trial Act requires that criminal defendants to go to trial within 70 days of their first appearance. Days can be excluded from the speedy trial clock with the defendant's consent and the judge's approval. Civil cases do not fall under the speedy trial deadlines.

Deputy County Attorney Kevin Gillen said the March 2009 date gives the county more time to prepare.

"Absent something strange happening in the criminal world, yeah, we will go," he said. "I think we can all live with it."

Although the case appears to be headed to trial, neither side ruled out a settlement.

"Certainly, there's always going to be opportunity," Waterman said. But, he added, there's "no active settlement discussion going on."

Gillen said, "Peter (Neufeld) hasn't invited me to the Catskills to talk about it, but I wouldn't hang down the phone."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Noxubee DA Moves to Dismiss Capital Murder Indictment

March 12, 2008

Jerry Mitchell – The Clarion Ledger Jackson, MS

District Attorney Forrest Allgood is asking a judge to dismiss the capital murder indictment against Levon Brooks, who spent 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

A hearing is set for 11:30 a.m. Thursday in Noxubee County Circuit Court for Brooks, 48, now free on bond. He was convicted and sentenced to life in the 1990 killing of 3-year-old Courtney Smith. The Mississippi Supreme Court threw out that conviction.

Brooks is expected to be the second man exonerated in this county in less than a month.

On Feb. 15, Circuit Judge J. Lee Howard dismissed a similar indictment against Kennedy Brewer, 37, who was sentenced to die in 1995 for raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl until DNA testing confirmed in 2001 he wasn’t the rapist.

Justin Albert Johnson, 51, of Brooksville, stands charged with capital murder and sexual battery in the crime Brewer was convicted of committing. Johnson allegedly also has confessed to the one Brooks was convicted of.

In his motion filed in court, Allgood wrote that, during Brooks’ trial, Brooks was positively identified by the sister of the victim, Courtney Smith. Now that sister is unsure of the identity of that individual, Allgood said. Courtney's mother, Sonya Smith, had dated Brooks in the past. The child was abducted from her grandmother's home, raped and killed and her body tossed in a nearby pond. After two years in prison awaiting trial, Brooks was convicted in 1992.

"Without the positive identification of the victim’s sister, the state would be unable to sustain its burden of proof," he wrote. "Further circumstances are indicative of actual innocence; and the state does not feel that the ends of justice would be served in pursuing the indictment."

Neither Brewer nor Brooks are getting compensation from Mississippi for the years they wrongly spent behind bars, but they can bring lawsuits.

The Innocence Project, a prisoner-advocacy group, helped push both cases. They are now asking state officials to review all the cases involving Dr. Steven Hayne, who testified in the cases.

In 1995, a Noxubee County jury convicted Brewer of capital murder and sentenced him to death in the May 1992 slaying of Christine Jackson, the daughter of his then girlfriend.

He was moved off death row in 2002 when the DNA test showed his semen did not match the semen found on the victim, but he remained jailed in Noxubee County five more years because Allgood was seeking the death penalty in the retrial. Brewer was released on bond last September pending a new trial when the new district attorney dropped the death penalty.

Christine was taken from her home near Brooksville in the middle of the night, beaten, raped and strangled.

Last week, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a post-conviction petition for Brooks.

That post-conviction petition allowed him to state he has discovered new evidence that might win him a new trial. Brooks' case goes back to Circuit Court.

Both Brooks and Brewer were convicted in part on the testimony of Dr. Michael West, a Hattiesburg dentist who identified bite marks on Christine's body and testified several of them were made by Brewer.

At the time of the trial, West had been suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology and had resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Science and the International Association of Identification, pending expulsion.

A defense expert testified the wounds were not human bite marks — a conclusion backed by a panel of worldwide experts.

Renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden concluded the injuries took place after death.

West has defended his conclusion in the Brewer case: "I never testified he killed her. I never testified he raped her."

But despite the DNA matching someone else, West stuck to his claim the wounds on Christine were human bite marks and that Brewer made them. "Somewhere prior to death, he bit the girl on the arm, leg and face," West said.

Innocence Project executive director Peter Neufeld has derided West's claims as fiction that nearly led to Brewer's execution.

Because the girl's body was left in water, the marks could have come from branches, aquatic life or other sources, Neufeld has said. "There is now overwhelming evidence Michael West fabricated evidence and made up the conclusion that these were bite marks that Brewer left."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Cleared Man May Get Paid in Nick of Time

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

By Emily Minor Palm Beach Post-Florida

This time around, Alan Crotzer might get his money.

"From Al's perspective, finally having a glimmer of hope - to me, that's a hallelujah," said Michael Olenick, Crotzer's attorney.

Crotzer spent 24 years, six months, 13 days and four hours in prison for violent crimes he did not commit, and now Olenick is trying to get him compensated through a special bill in the Florida Legislature. These kinds of "oops, we're sorry" compensation votes are always touch-and-go, filled with emotion and politics and finger-crossing.

But this time, Olenick is pretty sure his client will see some money. They're asking for $1.25 million, and there seems to be the right support.

Initially represented by the Innocence Project of Florida, Crotzer got out of prison in 2006 after DNA showed he could not have committed the crimes. Then from St. Petersburg, Crotzer, 47, was in prison for the 1981 kidnapping and rape of a Tampa woman and a 12-year-old girl. He was 20 years old.

"When I think about Al, I swear, I could break down and cry," Olenick said Monday.

Crotzer's compensation case is being argued on its own because Florida does not have a law setting uniform paybacks for DNA exonerees. Each one has to be argued on its own.

And there are more of them than you'd think.

First, and maybe last, to get paid

The national Innocence Project has helped free 214 people since 1989. The average age at the time of incarceration was 26.

Collectively, those 214 people served 2,640 years in prison.

Jenny Greenberg, policy director for the Innocence Project of Florida, takes all that dirty data and makes good use of her outrage.

"They were given absolutely nothing ... not a hundred dollars, not a bus ticket, nothing," she said.

Crotzer, who today is married and works as a landscaper, is one of nine Florida men who spent time in prison and later were found innocent based on DNA evidence. The others are Larry Bostic, Orlando Boquete, Cody Davis, Wilton Dedge, Luis Diaz, Chad Heins, Frank Lee Smith and Jerry Frank Townsend.

So far, Dedge is the only man to get money from the legislature.

Now - as it seems likely that Crotzer will get paid this year - Greenberg is livid about a separate "global" proposal before the legislature that would set a $50,000-a-year compensation rate for Florida's DNA exonerees.

Some bill better than no bill?

It sounds good, in theory, but there's a catch in House Bill 1025.

A big one, from her standpoint.

"It's absolutely draconian," Greenberg said.

If the DNA exoneree had any kind of felony record - any kind of felony past at all - the state would not pay the money. This language is called the "clean-hands provision."

And guess what?

Of the nine men on Florida's exoneree list, all of them have a felony record. Every single one.

"It's just despicable," said Greenberg, who said none of the 22 states with this kind of law has a clean-hands provision.

"It doesn't matter if you get arrested at age 18 for a nonviolent crime," she said.

Olenick said the House bill is flawed, but at least it's movement on a subject he's seen from a very intimate perch.

"Pass something, for God's sake, and then let's work on the changes," he said.

I guess in Tallahassee, something's better than nothing. But Greenberg's indignity - not to mention her legal work on this cause - strikes a nerve.

Wouldn't it be better to button up the lip service and pass a law that actually helps these men?

You know, the men we put in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

The men set free without a single dime in their pocket.

I guess I thought that was the whole point.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Documentary Play Features the Voices of Innocence

Wrongly convicted tell of prison's toll

Monday, March 10, 2008

Katy Reckdahl-The Times-Picayune New Orleans, LA

The four men combined served more than 61 years of prison time for murder convictions that were later tossed. Yet they somehow have faith in the U.S. justice system.

"Ain't nothing wrong with the system," said Gregory Bright, who served more than 27 years of a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Instead, he faulted overly ambitious and shortsighted individuals within the system, who he said sometimes use it to advance their own careers or to push forward easy but unjust convictions.

On Sunday, Bright and three other "exonerated" inmates recounted their experiences at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts in the premiere of "Voices of the Innocent," a documentary play written by the men with NOCCA teacher Lara Naughton. Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, introduced the work by saying that their voices are especially important in Louisiana, which has a high rate of inmates whose convictions have been tossed out.

Since 1991, Maw and other defense attorneys have helped to free 25 Louisiana inmates, including 7 sentenced to death and 17 sentenced to life without parole. Some of those former prisoners have formed a group called "Resurrection After Exoneration," to ease the transition from prison to "the outside."

But freedom didn't come without scars.

"I'm just starting to be able to show emotions to my daughter," said Ryan Matthews, sentenced to death as a teenager for the shooting death of a popular Bridge City convenience-store grocer, despite DNA evidence that matched neither Matthews nor his co-defendant Travis Hayes. Like the others, Matthews, who is now in college, said he has had trouble finding a job, since no one wants to hire someone who's served time for murder, even if the conviction was mistaken.

Lasting effects

Prison keeps its hold, even years later, said Dan Bright, who's now a counselor for the city's at-risk youth but still rises daily at the crack of dawn -- wake-up time at the Angola penitentiary. After his arrest in 1995, Bright's mother was left to raise his twin girls, who were only 4 months old when he was arrested. They now see him as a brother, not a father, he said.

After his release, Bright, who is no relation to Gregory Bright, said he compulsively walked in front of surveillance cameras and kept every receipt for every purchase he made. "I never wanted to be anywhere that I couldn't document," he said.

In 1996, he was sentenced to death for a Lower 9th Ward bar murder. But that conviction was tossed out in 2004 after the courts questioned the state's lone eyewitness and pre-trial FBI reports indicating that Bright was innocent.

Sometimes John Thompson still calls his living room "the day room," a prison term, he said. But his time left other, deeper wounds, said Thompson, who endured 18 years on death row and seven different execution dates before an investigator found hidden blood evidence that led to a 2003 retrial and a not-guilty verdict.

"When you're in prison, you put on a suit of armor on, a suit of protection," Thompson said. Sometimes, he still catches himself reacting to someone from that self-protective stance, he said.

Feeling doomed

Three of the men -- Dan Bright, Ryan Matthews, and John Thompson -- dealt drugs as young men, thinking sometimes that prison time would be inevitable.

Thompson remembered walking onto death row the first time, in shackles. "I felt like I was walking into hell," he said. Thompson was escorted to a cell that held someone else's stuff. "It belonged to a man they'd just executed," he said.

Still, even after experiencing the filth and terror of prison, freedom seemed scary, some said.

"When I first stepped foot on the outside, I had the overwhelming desire to throw up," Gregory Bright said.

Plus, people kept asking, "Are you angry?" he said. "Yes, I was angry, bitter and mad, just to name a few," he said.

In 1976, Bright and co-defendant Earl Truvia were convicted of fatally shooting a teenager. But in 2002, a judge threw out the convictions after an evidentiary hearing raised questions about the credibility of the state's lone eyewitness.

A few years later, Bright said, he ran into that eyewitness in his neighborhood. They hugged, he said.

"I don't share this experience with vengeance in my heart," Bright said. "Because this experience is not about me; it's about the next man. I am a voice of innocence."