Innocence

Isaiah McCoy Exonerated from Delaware Death Row, the 157th Death Row Exoneration Since 1973

Isaiah McCoy (pictured), a former Delaware death row inmate, was exonerated on January 19, 2017, when a judge acquitted him at a retrial. He is the 157th person exonerated from death row in the United States, the first in 2017, and the first in Delaware. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death in 2012, but the Delaware Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2015 as a result of prosecutorial misconduct and ordered a new trial. The Court suspended Deputy Attorney General R. David Favata from practice because of his misconduct at McCoy's trial, which included belittling McCoy for choosing to represent himself, making intimidating comments during a break in proceedings, then lying to the judge about making the comments. McCoy waived his right to a jury for his retrial, leaving the decision in the hands of Kent County Superior Court Judge Robert B. Young. In acquitting McCoy, Judge Young noted that there was no physical evidence against him and that two alleged accomplices had given contradictory testimony. One of the accomplices, Deshaun White, received a sentence reduction for testifying against McCoy. Upon his release, McCoy said, "I just want to say to all those out there going through the same thing I'm going through 'keep faith, keep fighting. Two years ago, I was on death row. At 25, I was given a death sentence – and I am today alive and well and kicking and a free man." McCoy was the second former death row prisoner in a year to be released in Delaware after obtaining a new trial for prosecutorial misconduct. In May 2014, Jermaine Wright won a new trial after 21 years on death row when prosecutors and police withheld exculpatory evidence about possible alternate suspects in a case in which no forensic or eyewitness evidence had linked Wright to the crime. Wright was released in September 2016 after pleading no contest to lesser charges and being resentenced to time already served.

Alabama Faith Leaders Hold Panel on Death Penalty, Spotlight 'Rocky' Myers' Case of Possible Innocence

Inspired by the case of Robin "Rocky" Myers (pictured), an intellectually disabled and possibly innocent Alabama death row prisoner whom an elected state judge sentenced to death despite a 9-3 jury recommendation for life, a panel of faith leaders gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss religious views on the death penalty and the intersection of faith and justice. Before the discussion began, the faith leaders and the audience viewed a screening of a new documentary on Myers' case describing why his lawyers believe he is innocent. The documentary explained that no forensic evidence links Myers to the crime and that the prosecution witness who identified him has since recanted his testimony. Myers' case also highlights other problems in the death penalty system. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Myers diagnosed him with intellectual disability, a condition that would make him ineligible for execution, but courts have not granted him relief. His disability hindered Myers' opportunities to have his appeals heard. His attorney abandoned him without notice, and Myers, who cannot read, did not know his appeal deadlines had expired until a fellow inmate read him a notification letter from the state. Finally, Myers' jury voted 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life, but—in a practice no state other than Alabama still allows— the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Myers to death. After the film presented Myers' story, leaders from a variety of faith traditions led a discussion about justice and capital punishment. The multi-faith panel included representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and featured Rabbi Elliot Stevens, Sister Gilda Marie Bell, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Aya Zaied, a youth leader for the East Montgomery Islamic Society. Zaied summarized Islamic views on the issue, saying, "If you claim Islam, … then justice is your responsibility. We try to teach that to our children really young so they understand if (someone is) hurting, then I’m hurting. We’re all in this together."

INTERNATIONAL: Human Rights Group, Reprieve Issues Report on Global Executions in 2016

Despite a sharp drop in executions, the United States ranked sixth among the world's executioners in 2016 behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to a report by the British-based international human rights group, Reprieve. Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said "[i]t is alarming that countries with close links to the UK and [European Union] continue to occupy the ranks of the world's most prolific executioners in 2016." Questions of innocence, execution of juvenile offenders, and use of the death penalty for non-lethal drug offenses were among the top worldwide problems in the administration of the death penalty cited by Reprieve in the report. "[W]e have found children on death row, innocent people hanged, drugs offences dealt with as capital crimes, and torture used to extract false confessions," Foa said. "Countries that oppose executions must do more in 2017 to ensure that their overseas security assistance does not contribute to others states use of the death penalty.” Reprieve's analysis of global executions in 2016 found that China continues to carry out the most executions of any country, though the exact number is a state secret. Nearly half of the more than 500 prisoners executed in Iran were killed for committing drug offenses. In Saudi Arabia, those executed included juvenile offenders and political protestors. The ongoing armed conflict in Iraq made information on the country's executions difficult to obtain. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in 2014, ostensibly in response to terrorism. But Reprieve found that 94% of those executed had nothing to do with terrorism. The Pakistan Supreme Court found in 2016 that two men who had been hanged were innocent. The Reprieve report also raised concerns about Egypt's high rate of death sentencing -- more than 1,800 people have been sentenced to death in that country in the last three years.

First-Degree Murder Charges Dropped Against Two Former Pennsylvania Death Row Prisoners With Innocence Claims

On December 22, Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped first-degree murder charges against two former Pennsylvania death row prisoners who have asserted their innocence for decades. In courtrooms 100 miles apart, Tyrone Moore and James Dennis entered no-contest pleas to charges of third-degree murder, avoiding retrials on the charges that had initially sent the men to death row and paving the way for their release. A Luzerne County judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his no contest plea. He had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row for a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office. A federal judge had granted Moore a new trial after he presented evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel, including his lawyer's failure to interview a co-defendant who testified in his own trial that Moore was not present at or involved in the robbery or killing. Before entering the plea, Moore reiterated that he is "wholeheartedly innocent" of the crime, and told the court, "I want to be home with my family." The victim's family supported the plea deal. In the second case, Dennis had spent 25 years on death row for the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence pointing to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim and other evidence supporting Dennis' alibi. The court called the conviction "a grave miscarriage of justice," saying that Dennis had been convicted and sentenced to death "for a crime in all probability he did not commit." His attorney, Karl Schwartz, told the court, "James Dennis entered a no-contest plea, not a guilty plea, because he maintains the same position that he has maintained for 25 years: that he is innocent of this crime. He and his family have made this incredibly difficult decision based on his and their strong desire to have him home and free, [in] lieu of potentially years of continuing litigation." Dennis faces parole for an unrelated robbery conviction before he can be released.

Federal Jury Awards Illinois Death Row Exoneree $22 Million in Damages

A federal jury awarded $22 million in damages to Nathson Fields (pictured), who was wrongfully convicted of a gang-related murder and sentenced to death in 1986. Fields was exonerated in 2009. The jury found that two Chicago police detectives violated Fields' civil rights by hiding critical evidence that suggested he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted. For many years, the Chicago police department maintained a practice of keeping secret "street files" on potential suspects. That policy was officially terminated in 1983, after exposure by a whistleblower. The secret files were hidden in a storage basement where they would not be subject to subpoena. Despite the department's claims that it was no longer keeping such files, the jury found that at the time Fields was arrested and charged, the city had a pattern and practice of keeping the secret street files in homicide investigations even though it had officially disavowed the practice. Hundreds of street files were discovered in 2011, including one relating to Fields. Fields' file contained handwritten notes on alternate suspects and lineup cards that had been withheld from his attorneys at his trial. In addition to the $22 million award for which the city of Chicago is liable, the jury also assessed a total of $40,000 in punitive damages against Sgt. David O'Callaghan and Lt. Joseph Murphy personally, which the men may be required to pay themselves. At a press conference after the ruling, Fields described the despair he had felt during his time on death row, especially as he saw other prisoners taken to their executions. "I had times that I was under so much stress I didn't think I could take any more, so this day is very humbling, and I'm so happy," he said.

Louisiana Supreme Court Orders New Trial for Rodricus Crawford in Controversial Caddo Parish Death Penalty Case

The Louisiana Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of Rodricus Crawford (pictured) and ordered that he be given a new trial in a controversial death penalty case that attracted national attention amid evidence of race discrimination, prosecutorial excess, and actual innocence. Crawford was convicted of murdering his young son based upon the testimony of a local doctor who claimed the boy had been suffocated, although autopsy results showed pervasive bronchopneumonia in the boy's lungs and sepsis in his blood, indicating that he may have died of pneumonia. After the trial, Crawford's lawyers presented additional evidence from experts in the fields of pediatric pathology, pediatric neuropathology, and pediatric infectious disease that the child died of natural causes from pneumonia and sepsis. The court did not overturn the conviction on those grounds, however, ruling that the local doctor's testimony had provided a sufficient evidentiary basis from which jurors could have convicted Crawford. Instead, it ruled that prosecutor Dale Cox -- who gained notoriety for telling the Shreveport Times that Louisiana needs to "kill more people" with the death penalty -- had violated the constitutional prohibition against striking jurors on the basis of race when he exercised peremptory challenges to exclude five African Americans from serving on the jury. A 2015 study of jury selection in 332 criminal trials in Caddo Parish between January 2003 and December 2012 by the human rights organization Reprieve Australia showed that, historically, Caddo prosecutors were three times as likely to strike an African-American from jury service than a prospective white juror. Crawford's lawyer, Cecelia Kappel, praised the Court's decision, saying “I am so thankful that they did the right thing in this case. It was a terrible tragedy since Day 1, and his conviction was a total injustice and the court really stepped up and fixed it, and I am looking forward to continuing to work with the DA’s office in order to reach a just outcome.” James E. Stewart, who was elected as the parish’s first black district attorney in 2015, said he would reassign the case to a new assistant district attorney for "re-evaluation ... to make a determination of a proper course of action to proceed forward in this matter.” Caddo Parish is one of the 2% of counties that is responsible for 56% of all death row inmates in the U.S. and was the subject of a recent report by Harvard University's Fair Punishment Project on outlier death penalty practices. Cox -- who in 2014 wrote a memo saying that Crawford "deserves as much physical suffering as it is humanly possible to endure before he dies" and told the the jury that Jesus Christ would have imposed the death penalty in this case -- along with one other Caddo Parish prosecutor, was responsible for 3/4 of all death sentences imposed in Louisiana over a recent five-year period.

OUTLIER COUNTIES: Alabama's Leading Death Sentencing County Elects Prosecutors Who Oppose Capital Punishment

Jefferson County, Alabama is among both the 2% of counties that account for more than half of all executions in the U.S. and are responsible for more than half of all prisoners on death row across the country. It led the state in new death sentences from 2010-2015, putting more people on death row than 99.5% of U.S. counties. All five of the defendants sentenced to death in those cases were Black. But the county may soon see a decline in death sentences as voters appear to have ousted the county's two elected district attorneys in favor of prosecutors who say they are "personally opposed" to the death penalty and plan to use it rarely. Charles Todd Henderson was elected as district attorney of Jefferson's Birmingham division, and Lynneice Washington leads a tight race in the Bessemer division, where votes will be recounted on November 21. Henderson has criticized Alabama's judicial override policy, which allows judges to impose a death sentence even when a jury recommends life, saying "We serve at the will of the people .... We should honor what the people say." Alabama is the only state to permit such overrides and Jefferson County judges overrode jury's recommendations for life in 44% of the 18 death penalty cases from the county that were decided on direct appeal between 2006-2015. All 18 cases involved a non-unanimous jury, an outlier practice that was struck down by state courts in Delaware and Florida this year, leaving Alabama as the last state to allow it, and in every one of those cases, defense lawyers presented less than one day’s worth of mitigation evidence. Henderson also said he supports reviewing current Jefferson County death penalty cases for possible wrongful convictions, citing the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, who was released in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row. Hinton's trial was tainted by racial bias, inadequate representation, and junk science. Washington echoed Henderson's concerns, saying, "I am personally opposed to the death penalty because there have been so many people who were put on death row who were later found to be innocent." In addition to Hinton, two other wrongfully convicted death row prisoners from Jefferson County also have been released. Wesley Quick, who was just 18 years old at the time of the murder for which he was twice wrongly sentenced to death, was acquitted of all charges in his third trial in 2003. Montez Spradley was sentenced to death by a judge who overrode a 10-2 jury recommendation for life. It was later discovered that a star witnesses for the prosecution—Spradley's disgrunted ex-girlfriend—had been paid $10,000 for her testimony, and although the judge had personally approved half of that payment, neither she nor the prosecution disclosed it to the defense. Spradley entered a no-contest plea in exchange for his freedom in 2015.  

OUTLIER COUNTIES: A Pledge of Change After Years of Error and Racial Bias in Hillsborough County Death Sentences

Change may be in the offing in Hillsborough County, Florida after voters ousted incumbent State Attorney Mark Ober on November 8 and replaced him with a reform candidate, Andrew Warren (pictured). Hillsborough ranks among the 2% of U.S. counties that are responsible for a majority of the prisoners currently on death rows across the country. The five death sentences imposed in Hillsborough from 2010 to 2015 under Ober's tenure placed the county among the 16 counties that had imposed the highest number of death sentences in the U.S.—more than 99.5% of other counties. Hillsborough's aggressive use of the death penalty has been plagued by error—three prisoners sentenced to death in Hillsborough have later been exonerated—and reflects a legacy of racial bias and exclusion. Tampa, the largest city in Hillsborough County, was among the four cities with the nation's largest Ku Klux Klan populations after the Great Depression. The Hillsborough County Bar Association did not update their charter to allow Black lawyers to join until 1972. The legacy of discrimination is evident in the recent death sentences imposed in the county: two-thirds have been imposed on Black defendants; and although a significant majority of murder victims in the county are Black, 60% of the victims in the cases in which death sentences were returned were White. Incoming state attorney Warren has vowed to address both the overzealous pursuit of the death penalty in the county and the problem of wrongful convictions. After Hillsborough was included in the Fair Punishment Project's report on outlier counties, Warren said, "That we are an extreme outlier in such a critical area is disturbing.... Our use of the death penalty needs to be fair, consistent, and rare. Unfortunately, for many years, it hasn’t been." Warren has also proposed the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit to identify and redress wrongful convictions.

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