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South Carolina Vacates the Conviction of 14-Year-Old Executed in 1944

On December 16, a South Carolina judge vacated the conviction of George Stinney, Jr., the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the last century. Judge Carmen Mullen wrote: “I can think of no greater injustice than the violation of one’s Constitutional rights which has been proven to me in this case.” Stinney, a black, 14-year-old boy, was convicted by an all-white jury of killing two young white girls. Police said Stinney confessed to the crime, but no confession was ever produced. His sister said in an affidavit in 2009 that she was with Stinney on the day of the murders and he could not have committed them, but she was not called to testify at his trial. The Stinney family was forced to leave town because of danger of violence. His trial lasted just 3 hours, and the jury deliberated for only ten minutes before finding him guilty. He was sentenced to die by electrocution. His attorneys did not file an appeal, and he was put to death less than three months after the offense.


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POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Arizona Court Dismisses Charges Against Former Death Row Inmate

Debra Jean MilkeOn December 11, an Arizona appeals court dismissed charges against Debra Jean Milke and barred retrial. Milke spent 22 years on death row for arranging the 1989 murder of her 4-year-old son. She was the first woman sentenced to death in Arizona since 1932. In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned Milke's conviction because the prosecution had withheld evidence about misconduct committed by their primary witness, Phoenix Detective Armando Saldate, who testified that Milke had confessed to the murder. Saldate had previously been implicated of lying under oath, among other misconduct. There was no recording of a confession, and Milke insisted she was innocent and had never confessed. In its ruling on Thursday, the state court said it granted Milke's request for dismissal, “because of the state’s severe, egregious prosecutorial misconduct in failing to disclose impeachment evidence.” Maricopa County prosecutors said they plan to appeal the decision to the Arizona Supreme Court. The two men who were convicted of carrying out the murder are still on death row.


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INNOCENCE: Kwame Ajamu Officially Exonerated, Becomes 150th Death Row Exoneree

At a hearing on December 9, Kwame Ajamu (formerly Ronnie Bridgeman) was formally exonerated of the 1975 murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Ajamu joins his brother, Wiley Bridgeman, and co-defendant, Ricky Jackson, on DPIC's Exoneration List, becoming the 150th death row exoneree since 1973. Ajamu, Bridgeman, and Jackson were convicted based on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recently admitted that he never saw the killing. Ajamu's death sentence was reduced in 1978 when Ohio's death penalty statute was found unconstitutional. He was released from prison in 2003. Upon his exoneration, Ajamu said, "The important part is that we have been united while we are standing forward and upward and that we are not looking at each other in the graveyard," adding, "I feel vindicated. I feel free." The three men are expected to file for compensation for their many years of wrongful imprisonment. Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they will not object to efforts to obtain compensation, saying that the men were "victims of a terrible injustice."


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FORMER DEATH ROW INMATES FREED IN NORTH CAROLINA

On September 2, 2014, Leon Brown (left) and Henry McCollum (right) were exonerated and released from prison in North Carolina.

The two men, who are half brothers, had been convicted of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl and sentenced to death in 1984. Brown was 15 at the time of the crime and McCollum was 19. Both men have intellectual disabilities and were interrogated under duress until they confessed to the crime. In 2010, Brown turned to the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission for help. The Commission tested DNA evidence from the crime scene, which implicated a man who was convicted of a similar crime. Robeson County Judge Douglas Sasser vacated the men's convictions and said the evidence indicated their innocence. District Attorney Johnson Britt supported their release and said no further charges will be brought against them.

“It’s terrifying that our justice system allowed two intellectually disabled children to go to prison for a crime they had nothing to do with, and then to suffer there for 30 years,” said Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, who has represented McCollum for 20 years. “Henry watched dozens of people be hauled away for execution. He would become so distraught he had to be put in isolation. It’s impossible to put into words what these men have been through and how much they have lost.”

Brown's sentence had previously been reduced to life in prison, but McCollum remained on death row for more than 30 years. Before his release, he was the longest-serving inmate on North Carolina's death row.

(All photos by Jenny Warburg)

 

 

(Left) Observers applaud as Henry McCollum is exonerated. Behind Mr. McCollum is I. Beverly Lake, former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and founder of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. (Right) Henry McCollum is embraced as he leaves Central Prison after spending 30 years on death row.

Leon Brown smiles with his attorneys as he is exonerated.

Related resources:

DPIC's List of Exonerees

Press Release from DPIC on McCollum and Brown's exonerations

Press Release from attorneys for McCollum and Brown

Judge's Order for Relief

J. Katz, "North Carolina Men Are Released After Convictions Are Overturned," New York Times, September 3, 2014.

 


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INNOCENCE: Prosecutors Drop Charges Against Former Death Row Inmates

UPDATE (11/24): A judge formally dropped the charges against Wiley Bridgeman (pictured), making him the 149th person exonerated from death row since 1973. Previously: Cuyahoga County, Ohio prosecutors have filed a motion to drop murder charges against Ricky Jackson and his co-defendants, Wiley Bridgeman and Kwame Ajamu (formerly known as Ronnie Bridgeman). The three men were convicted of murder in 1975 on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who has since recanted and said he did not witness the crime. All three were sentenced to death. Bridgeman once came within three weeks of execution, but his and Ajamu's death sentences were struck down when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. Ajamu had been released from prison in 2003, but Jackson and Bridgeman had spent 39 years in prison. Both were released after a judge officially dismissed their charges on November 21. When he was released, Jackson said, "The English language doesn’t even fit what I’m feeling. I’m on an emotional high. You sit in prison for so long and think about this day but when it actually comes you don’t know what you’re going to do, you just want to do something.” Judge Richard McMonagle, who dismissed the charges against Jackson, said, “Life is filled with small victories, and this is a big one.”


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INNOCENCE: Former Death Row Inmate to be Exonerated in Ohio After 39 Years

Former death row inmate Ricky Jackson will be formally exonerated on November 21 in Ohio, after spending 39 years in prison. A judge in Cleveland will dismiss all charges against Jackson, with the prosecution in agreement. Jackson is one of three men convicted of the 1975 murder of Harold Franks. The other two defendants, Ronnie and Wiley Bridgeman, were also sentenced to death and have filed a petition for a new trial, but that petition has not yet been resolved. Jackson's death sentence was vacated earlier, and the Bridgeman brothers' sentences were overturned when Ohio's death penalty was found unconstitutional in 1978. The men were convicted on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted his testimony, and who now has said he did not witness the crime at all. Several people confirmed the boy was on a school bus at the time of the crime. No other evidence linked the men to the murder. A gun and car seen at the crime scene were linked to a man who was arrested in 1978 for another murder, but he was never charged in Franks' murder. In dropping the charges against Jackson, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said, "The state is conceding the obvious." Ricky Jackson will be the 148th person exonerated from death row in the U.S. since 1973, the fifth in 2014, and the seventh in Ohio since 1973.


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NEW VOICES: Federal Judge Underscores the "Heavy Price" of the Death Penalty

In a recent interview, Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who presided over the first federal death penalty trial in Massachusetts in over 50 years, warned that the death penalty comes with a "heavy price" - the risk of executing innocent people: "A legal regime permitting capital punishment comes with a fairly heavy price....where there’s a death penalty innocent people will die. Sooner or later—we hope not too often—someone who didn’t commit the crime will be executed." In 2001, Judge Ponsor oversaw the capital trial of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who was charged with killing some of her patients. Gilbert was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. The judge said the trial made him question the whole process of death sentencing: "The most profound realization I took from Gilbert was that human beings getting together to decide whether someone should be executed, even when they are supervised by a judge, will make mistakes."


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Texas Court Orders New Trial Because of Withheld Evidence

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, vacated the conviction and death sentence of Alfred Brown, who has been on death row for murder since 2005. Brown has maintained his innocence and has said that a landline phone call he made from his girlfriend's apartment the morning of the murder would prove it. At his trial, Brown's attorneys presented no evidence of his alibi, and his girlfriend changed her testimony after she was threatened with prosecution. In 2013, a homicide detective found a box of records in his garage containing phone records that indicated Brown made a call exactly when he claimed. The file was never shared with Brown's defense team at his original trial. District Attorney Devon Anderson said, "As a result of this review, our office agreed that Mr. Brown should receive relief in his case so that justice could be served. Following our office's agreement that relief should be granted, today the Court of Criminal Appeals sent Mr. Brown's case back to the trial court for a new trial." Anderson said she will now review the case to determine whether to retry Brown or drop the charges.


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INNOCENCE: Another Florida Inmate Added to Exoneration List

Carl Dausch, a former death row inmate in Florida, has been added to DPIC's list of exonerations from death row, bringing the national total to 147 and Florida's total to 25, the most of any state in the country. On June 12, 2014, the Florida Supreme Court directed the acquittal of Dausch because there was insufficient evidence of his guilt. The Court stated, "We do not take lightly the result that will flow from our decision today. We have reviewed the entire record in this case with the utmost seriousness and care. Yet, our comprehensive review of this case leaves us with the inescapable conclusion that the evidence is simply insufficient to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Dausch was the person responsible for murdering Mobley. At best, the evidence presented by the State creates a suspicion of guilt." Dausch's is the fourth death penalty exoneration in 2014. Glenn Ford was exonerated in Louisiana in March, and Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated in North Carolina in September. All three men had been imprisoned for 30 years.


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North Carolina Innocence Commission Frees Another Inmate, 38 Years Late

The same Commission that freed former death row inmates Henry McCollum and Leon Brown in September exonerated another man who had been convicted of murder, Willie Womble (l.). The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission freed Womble on October 17, dismissing his 1976 first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. Womble had been convicted of acting as a lookout while another man, Joseph Perry, robbed a convenience store and killed the cashier. Both Perry and Womble received life sentences. Though Womble had always said he was innocent, he never filed a motion to challenge his conviction, perhaps because of his diminished mental capacity (a disability also present in McCollum and Brown). In 2013, Perry wrote a letter to the Innocence Commission stating that Womble was innocent. When Perry learned that his actual accomplice had died, he decided he could reveal Womble's innocence without putting the other man in prison. The Commission investigated Womble's case and found that his confession had been possibly coerced and written by a detective working on the case. Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, said, “In 2008, the legislature passed a law requiring the recording of interrogations. This is another case showing how important that is.” Granville County District Attorney Sam Currin supported Womble's exoneration, saying, “I apologized to Mr. Womble and to the family of Mr. Roy Bullock, who was the victim. I just felt it was right. The system and the state of North Carolina failed them for 39 years.” Although not sentenced to death, Womble's case shows the risks of capital punishment and the difficulty in discovering innocence.


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