Additional Innocence Information
Other defendants, though not exonerated completely, were released from death row having been cleared of their capital offense. Generally, the defendants' convictions were overturned and then they reluctantly entered a guilty or no-contest plea to a lesser charge because of the continuing risk of receiving another death sentence or lengthy imprisonment and the length of time they would remain imprisoned before retrial even if they were acquitted. Unlike those on the exoneration list, the law considers them technically guilty of some lesser offense related to the original crime, even if they may be factually innocent. This list is not inclusive of all such cases.
Ha'im Al Matin Sharif (AKA Charles Robins) Nevada Conviction 1988 Released 2017
Ha'im Al Matin Sharif (AKA Charles Robins) was released from prison on June 7, 2017 after spending more than 28 years on Nevada's death row. He had been convicted and sentenced to death in December 1988 on charges that he had murdered his girlfriend's 11-month-old daughter, Britany Smith, in April 1988. The conviction was based upon the testimony of a local medical examiner that Britinary had been physically abused and murdered, and was supported by the testimony of the victim's mother and other relatives who claimed to have seen Mr. Sharif abuse the baby. The jury determined that Mr. Sharif had physically abused Britany over a several-month period, including breaking her leg, and that the murder had been committed by means of torture.
Mr. Sharif's conviction and sentence had been upheld by the state courts on direct appeal and in initial state post-conviction proceedings. Because of a conflict of interest in the Nevada Federal Defender's office, the Federal Public Defender for the District of Arizona was appointed in 2012 to handle Mr. Sharif's federal court habeas corpus petition, and for the first time in the case, his lawyers conducted a forensic investigation of the medical evidence relating to the cause of Britany's death and the physical injuries she had sustained in the preceding months. That investigation produced evidence that that the baby had not been murdered at all, but had died from Barlow's disease (infantile scurvy), that Mr. Sharif had not been present at the time Britany sustained certain other injuries, and that the other physical injuries—including her broken leg—were also caused by scurvy.
As the forensic investigation was proceeding, Britany's mother, Lovell McDowell, and her brother revealed for the first time that Las Vegas police and prosecutors had threatened to imprison her and take away her children unless they testified against Mr. Sharif. They also said that when they told authorities that the testimony was not true, they were instructed to testify that way to ensure that Mr. Sharif would be sentenced to death. Ms. McDowell specifically recanted her testimony that Mr. Sharif had abused Britany, saying her testimony about abuse had been a product of threats and coercion. The federal court ruled that Mr. Sharif had made a sufficient showing that he was “actually innocent” and that “his death penalty was improperly imposed,” and held the federal court proceedings in abeyance to permit him to present the new evidence to the state courts.
The state trial court refused to hear the evidence, dismissing Mr. Sharif's claims on procedural grounds. On September 22, 2016, the Nevada Supreme Court unanimously decided that Mr. Sharif "ha[d] presented specific factual allegations, that if true, would show that it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted him of first-degree murder and child abuse beyond a reasonable doubt or found the single aggravating circumstance used to make him death eligible.” It ordered the lower court to conduct an evidentiary hearing on his innocence claim and on the claims of police and prosecutorial misconduct. Subsequently a doctor retained by the Clark County District Attorney’s office agreed that Britany had suffered from scurvy. Although prosecutors would not agree to a complete exoneration, they offered to vacate Mr. Sharif's conviction and death sentence for first-degree murder and amend the judgment to second-degree murder with a sentence of time served, which would result in Mr. Sharif's immediate release.
(C. Ryan, "Court orders hearing on new evidence for death row inmate," Las Vegas Sun, September 26, 2016. Mr. Sharif's Opening Brief to the Nevada Supreme Court and the Amicus Curiae Brief of the Innocence Network in support of Mr. Sharif describe the legal and factual issues relating to his innocence in more detail. Read the decision of the Supreme Court of Nevada in Robins a/k/a Sharif v. Nevada here.)
Jimmy Dennis Pennsylvania Conviction 1992 Released 2017
Jimmy Dennis was released from prison on May 13, 2017, after 26 years in prison, 25 years of which were spent in solitary confinement on death row. On December 22, 2016, Dennis entered a no-contest plea to charges of third-degree murder arising out of the robbery and murder of a woman at a transportation terminal in Philadelphia. A federal judge had overturned his conviction in 2013 as a result of multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct, including suppressing evidence supporting Dennis' alibit and evidence hat pointed to an alternate suspect who was a high school classmate of the victim. The district 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." On August 23, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed, voting 9-4 that Dennis was entitled to a new trial. Writing for the majority, Judge Marjorie O. Rendell said, "Evidence suppressed by the prosecution—a receipt corroborating Dennis' alibi, an inconsistent statement by the Commonwealth's key eyewitness, and documents indicating that another individual committed the murder—effectively gutted the Commonwealth's case against Dennis. The withholding of these pieces of evidence denied Dennis a fair trial in state court."
Dennis' case was investigated by two Philadelphia homicide detectives—Manuel Santiago and Frank Jastrzembski—who were also implicated in two other wrongful capital prosecutions Anthony Wright was convicted and received a life sentence in his first trial when the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict on life or death. He was acquitted at retrial after DNA evidence showed that the detectives had manufactured a false confession and likely planted evidence implicating Wright. In the case of Percy St. George, Philadelphia prosecutors were forced to drop all charges when Santiago and Jastrembski invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in response to questioning about misconduct in their investigation.
At the time of Dennis' plea, his lawyer 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 had to obtain parole on an unrelated robbery conviction before he was eligible for release, which delayed his release by an additional 5 months. (J. Schuppe, "To End Decades on Death Row, Inmate Makes an Agonizing Choice," NBC News, December 24, 2016; R. Moran, "Federal appeals court orders a new trial in 1991 murder of 17-year-old girl killed for her earrings," The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 2016; M. Bookman, "Three Murders in Philadelphia," Slate, May 12, 2017. Read the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Dennis v. Secy, Pa. Dept of Corrections upholding the district court's grant of a new trial.)
Tyrone Moore Pennsylvania Conviction 1982 Released 2016
On December 22, 2016, Tyrone Moore entered a no-contest plea to charges of third-degree murder arising out of a murder during the course of a robbery at a veterinary office, averting retrial on the charges that had initially sent him to death row. A Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, judge sentenced Moore to 20 years and released him from prison for time served following his plea. Moore had already served 34 years, 22 of them on death row. His death sentence had been overturned in the Pennsylvania courts in 2000 as a result of his lawyer's failure to investigate and present availble mitigating evidence. However, the state courts denied relief on his guilt claims. A federal judge granted Moore a new trial for his lawyer's ineffective assistance in the guilt stage, including the failure to interview 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. (T. Kellar, "Man convicted in deadly 1982 shooting in Forty Fort to be released from prison," Times Leader, December 22, 2016. Read the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Moore v. Secy, Pa. Dept of Corrections, upholding the district court's grant of a new trial.)
Montez Spradley Alabama Conviction 2008 Released 2015
On July 19, 2013, Montez Spradley, a 31-year-old man who was sentenced to death for a 2004 murder, entered a plea in his retrial hearing that allowed him to be released from prison on September 4, 2015. Spradley has always maintained his innocence. In the fall of 2011, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial for Spradley after reversing his conviction and death sentence on four separate grounds. The court recognized that multiple errors in his trial resulted in a "miscarriage of justice.” At risk of another wrongful conviction during this new trial, Spradley chose to enter an Alford plea, which will allow him to leave prison without admitting guilt. The ACLU began representing Spradley at direct appeal, after his first trial, conviction, and sentence of death. More information about the Spradley case can be read here: R. Balko, The outrageous conviction of Montez Spradley, The Washington Post, September 21, 2015; ACLU Capital Punishment Project, aclu.org/capital-punishment/spradley-v-state-alabama, Press Release, July 19, 2013.
Manuel Velez Texas Conviction 2008 Released 2014
On October 8, 2014, former death row inmate Manuel Velez (pictured with his son before his arrest) was freed from a Texas prison, following a "no contest" plea to a lesser charge on August 25. Velez had been convicted of killing his girlfriend's one-year-old son but consistently maintained his complete innocence. Velez's conviction was overturned in 2013 because his attorney failed to present evidence that the injuries leading to the child's death were sustained while Velez was 1,000 miles away. Medical records indicated the child's head ballooned in size in the months prior to his death in a manner that could only have been caused by head injuries. During that time, the child's mother was the only adult living with him. Velez's trial was also tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution presented a witness who claimed that if Velez were not executed, he would be imprisoned under lax conditions with a risk for escape, making him a "future danger." The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said this testimony was false and contrary to known prison regulations, which the prosecution knew. Velez agreed to the no-contest plea so he could rejoin his family without the delay of a retrial, even though a retrial might have fully exonerated him.).
Joseph Ard South Carolina Conviction 1996 Released 2012
Joseph Ard, who spent 11 years on South Carolina's death row and a total of 19 years in confinement, was freed from prison on July 31. Ard was sentenced to death for the 1993 shooting of his pregnant girlfriend. After his conviction, new lawyers unearthed evidence that corroborated Ard’s claim that the shooting was accidental, resulting from a struggle with his girlfriend over a gun. Ard was granted a re-trial in 2007, and his lawyers presented scientific testimony that his girlfriend had gunshot residue on her hands, supporting Ard’s account of a struggle. The jury found Ard guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to time served. Aimee Zmroczek, one of Ard’s lawyers, said, “The state Supreme Court once upheld his death sentence, so if that decision hadn’t been overturned, he might have been put to death by now.” Ard was the first person in South Carolina to be sentenced to death for murder involving an unborn child. The prosecution did not seek the death penalty in the re-trial. (J. Monk, "Inmate goes from Death Row to freedom," The State, July 31, 2012).
Ndume Olatushani Tennessee Conviction 1985 Released 2012
In December 2011, Ndume Olatushani (formerly Erskine Johnson) was granted a new trial by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals due to faulty witness testimony. His original death sentence for the 1983 murder of a Memphis grocery store manager, Joe Belenchia, during a robbery was thrown out in 1999 after an appeals court found that police reports and evidence had been withheld. He was later re-sentenced to life in prison. Since the December 2011 ruling, Ndume has been incarcerated awaiting a new trial.
On June 1, 2012, however, Ndume was released, after serving nearly 27 years in prison (19 of which were on death row) when he took an Alford plea. To avoid potentially serving several more years in the Shelby County jail awaiting a new trial and taking his chances with another jury, Ndume took the plea deal. This deal required that he plead guilty to second-degree murder, while, at the same time, allowed him to maintain his innocence. In exchange, he was sentenced to time served and was released. (Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty Newsletter, June 6, 2012; see "Cleary Team One Step Closer to Winning Ex-Death Row Inmate's Freedom," AmLaw Daily, Dec. 15, 2011).
Larry Smith Alabama Conviction 1995 Released 2012
Mr. Smith was sentenced to death in 1995 for a murder related to a robbery. His conviction hinged on a statement he made after 4 hours of interrogation. In violation of police guidelines, his interrogation was not recorded, and Mr. Smith later said his admission of involvement in the crime was coerced and influenced by threats made to prosecute his wife. No physical evidence or eyewitness account linked Mr. Smith to the murder, and a witness, who said Smith hatched a plan to rob the victim, was later implicated in planning the crime himself. In 2007, an Alabama Circuit Court ordered a retrial, and a plea deal was reached in April 2012 that allowed Mr. Smith to be released after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery. The murder charges against him were dropped. Listen to a podcast interview with Jennifer Whitfield of Covington & Burling, who worked on Mr. Smith's case. Brian White of the law firm of White & Oakes LLC in Decatur, Alabama, was also part of the legal team that led to Mr. Smith's recent release. In the podcast interview, Ms. Whitfield discusses the failures that led to Mr. Smith's conviction and how some of those problems, including inadequate representation and coerced confessions, affect the death penalty system at large.
(DPIC Podcast #20: Jennifer Whitfield Interview, posted May 24, 2012; " Covington Secures Release of Death Row Inmate," Press Release, April 12, 2012; Smith v. Alabama, No. CC95-200104, Jan. 12, 2007 (Marshall County Circuit Court) (Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law); see also S. Michels, "Death Penalty Appeal Without a Lawyer," ABC News, June 11, 2007).
Edward Lee Elmore South Carolina Conviction: 1982, Released: 2012
Edward Lee Elmore was released on March 2, 2012, after spending 30 years in prison, 28 of them on death row. He had been tried and convicted three times for the murder of Dorothy Edwards, but all three convictions were overturned on appeal. In 2010, his sentence was reduced to life in prison because his mental disabilities and low IQ exempted him from the death penalty. Elmore’s appellate lawyers discovered evidence that prosecutors had withheld that pointed to his possible innocence. State officials had repeatedly claimed the evidence had been lost. The evidence included a hair sample collected from the crime scene. After being tested for DNA, the evidence suggested that an unknown Caucasian man may have been the killer. In November 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted him a new trial because of the prosecutorial misconduct in handling the evidence. The court found there was “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit.” Elmore's case is the subject of a recent book, Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong by Raymond Bonner. (R. Bonner, "When Innocence Isn't Enough," New York Times, March 2, 2012; R. Shiro, "Ex-death row inmate in SC walks out a free man," Associated Press, March 2, 2012; C. Peters, "Judge spares longest-serving death row inmate," Spartanburg Herald Journal, February 5, 2010).
Damien Echols Arkansas Conviction 1994, Released 2011
Echols was freed from death row and two co-defendants were freed from prison in Arkansas on August 19 after almost two decades of maintaining their innocence for the murder of three children in 1993. Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were granted an opportunity to enter a special plea in which they continued to assert their innocence but acknowledged that the state could likely convict them again in a retrial. DNA evidence that emerged after their trial did not match them to the scene of the crime. The defendants, who came to be known as the West Memphis Three (pictured) were convicted of the 1993 murders of three 8-year old Cub Scouts. Misskelley is borderline "mentally retarded," and confessed to the crimes after a nearly 12-hour interrogation. Misskelley implicated Echols and Baldwin, though portions of his confession did not match details of the case. Echols was sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences. All three were credited with time served and released.
The disturbing nature of the murders led investigators to believe that it was related to a satanic ritual. Investigators subsequently focused their attention on Damien Echols who was at the time a troubled teenager who practiced Wicca. Learn more about the case here. (J. Nuss, "Arkansas judge accepts plea deal, frees Memphis 3," The Associated Press, August 19, 2011; C. Robertson, "Deal May Free 'West Memphis Three'," The New York Times, August 19, 2011).
Dennis Counterman Pennsylvania Conviction: 1990, Released: 2006
Dennis Counterman was freed from a Pennsylvania courtroom on October 18, 2006 after serving many years on the state's death row. Counterman had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1990 for allegedly setting a fire in his own house that resulted in the death of his three children. That conviction was overturned in 2001 because prosecutors had withheld evidence from the defense indicating that the oldest child had a history of fire-setting. At Counterman's orignial trial, the prosecution witnesses said that a burn pattern was discovered that indicated an accelerant was used, even though no accelerant was found. At later hearings, however, an expert hired by the prosecution said that the prosecution's theory of how the fire started "is not properly supported by today's standards."Rather than face the uncertainty of another trial, Counterman agreed to enter an Alford plea, that is one in which the defendant does not admit guilt but agrees that the prosecution might have been able to convince a jury of his guilt. The plea was to a charge of third-degree murder and carried a maximum term of 18 years in prison. Since Counterman had already served the maximum time, he was released immediately by Lehigh County Judge Lawrence Brenner. After his release, Counterman said, "I am more frustrated than angry. I spent all this time for something I didn't even do."(The Morning Call (PA), Oct. 19, 2006).
Read "Death Row to Freedom" by Debbie Garlicki, The Morning Call, October 19, 2006
See "Sentence Thrown Out Over Withheld Evidence" by Raymond Bonner, The New York Times, August 30, 2001
See also Maurice Possley's article in the Oct. 18, 2006 edition of the Chicago Tribune about faulty arson investigations in other cases.
Donald Paradis Idaho Conviction: 1981, Released: 2001
After spending 14 years on death row, Donald Paradis was released from prison when his 1981 murder conviction was overturned. Judge Gary Haman, who originally sentenced Paradis to death, came out of retirement to accept Paradis' plea to moving the body after the murder. Paradis, who always maintained that he was not involved in the slaying of Kimberly Anne Palmer, was sentenced to 5 years and released for time already served. The deal came after a federal court of appeals ruling that Paradis was denied a fair trial because prosecutors withheld potentially exculpatory evidence. Paradis was scheduled for execution three times before his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1996 by then-Governor Phil Blatt who had doubts about Paradis' guilt. Paradis' trial lawyer, William Brown, never studied criminal law, never tried a felony case, and never tried a case before a jury. While representing Paradis, Brown also worked as a police officer. His defense lasted only three hours. In addition, Dr. Brady, the pathologist who performed the autopsy of Ms. Palmer, testified that Palmer had been killed in Idaho, not in Washington where Paradis had already been acquitted of the murder. Dr. Brady was fired as a medical examiner soon after the Paradis trial when it was discovered that he had sold human tissue for profit and saved human blood, collected during autopsies, for use in his garden (Associated Press, 4/11/01 and New York Times, 4/12/01).
Read "Death Row Survivor" by Bob Herbert, The New York Times, April 12, 2001
Lee Perry Farmer California Conviction: 1992, Released: 1999
Farmer was acquitted at a re-trial in California of capital murder. He had spent 9 years on death row. He was, however, convicted of burglary and being an accessory to murder. He was credited with time already served and was subsequently released. A federal court had overturned his first conviction because of incompetent counsel. Another man confessed to the murder (Sacramento Bee, 1/18/99).
Read "Life After Death Row" by Mike Kataoka, The Press-Enterprise, January 22, 1999
Andrew Mitchell Texas Conviction: 1981, Released: 1993, Returned to prison and then re-released: 1999
Mitchell was awarded $40,000 from Smith County, Texas for withholding evidence at his trial which led to his death sentence in 1981. He spent 13 years on death row before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction. Mitchell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder and was given a 31 year sentence. (Dallas Morning News, 1/ 19/99) He was then released to a halfway house in early 1999 after being given credit for time served.
See "Former Death-Row Inmate Awaits Trial" Lubbock Avalanche - Journal, September 14, 1997
Paris Carriger Arizona Conviction: 1978, Released: 1999
Carriger was scheduled to die on December 6, 1995 for a murder he steadfastly maintains he did not commit. Another man, Robert Dunbar, twice confessed that he lied at Carriger's trial, and that it was he who committed the murder. As a result of his original trial testimony against Carriger, Dunbar was given immunity for other charges. Dunbar has since died. A three judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Carriger's death sentence, noting that while his case raised doubts, he must prove by clear and convincing evidence that "he is unquestionably innocent." Review of the case by the entire 9th Circuit was granted in February 1997. Carriger was granted a new trial by the 9th Circuit in December 1997 because of the new evidence. In January 1999, he accepted a plea to a lesser offense and was immediately released from prison.
Read "The Wrong Man" by Beth Hawkins and Kristin Solheim, Tuscon Weekly, December 1993
Victor Jimenez Nevada Conviction: 1987, Released: 1999
Jimenez's first trial in 1987 ended in a hung jury. A second trial convicted him and sentenced him to death for the stabbing death of two men in a North Las Vegas bar. The Nevada Supreme Court unanimously granted him a new trial in 1996 because of police misconduct including false testimony bordering on perjury. Rather than face the risk of a new trial, Jimenez reluctantly entered a special plea, without admitting his guilt, on June 9, 1998 to second degree murder. He will be required to serve an additional 18 months in prison and has agreed not to sue those responsible for putting him on death row.
Read "Death Row Tenant for 10 Years Preparing to Taste Freedom Again" by Caren Benjamin, Las Vegas Review Journal, June 10, 1998
Charles Munsey North Carolina Conviction: 1996, Died in prison: 1999
In May, 1999, Superior Court Judge Thomas Ross threw out Munsey's murder conviction and ordered a new trial for the 1993 beating death of Shirley Weaver. The judge cited evidence that the state's key witness had lied, that prosecutors had withheld exculpatory evidence, and that another man's confession to the crime was probably true. The state decided not to appeal Judge Ross's ruling and plans to indict the man who confessed to the murder. Munsey may have been re-tried, perhaps for a lesser charge involving the sale of the gun used in the murder. Munsey died in prison before an official decision was made on dropping the charges against him or retrying his case.
Read "DA Turned Blind Eye to Evidence Snitch Lied" by Joseph Neff, The News & Observer, January 12, 2006
Kerry Max Cook Texas Conviction: 1978, Released: Nov. 1997, Concluded: 1999
Cook was originally convicted of killing Linda Jo Edwards in 1978. In 1988, he came within 11 days of execution, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Texas Court to review its decision. Cook's conviction was overturned in 1991. He was re-tried in 1992, but the trial ended in a hung jury. In 1993, a state district judge ruled that prosecutors had engaged in systematic misconduct, suppressing key evidence. In 1994, Cook was tried again, and this time found guilty and again sentenced to death. On Nov. 6, 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed his conviction, saying that "prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset." The court ruled that key testimony from the 1994 trial could not be used in any further prosecution. Prior to the start of his fourth trial in February, 1999, Cook pleaded no contest to a reduced murder charge and was released. He continued to maintain his complete innocence, but accepted the deal to avoid the possibility of another wrongful conviction. Recent DNA tests from the victim matched that of an ex-boyfriend, and not that of Cook. This tended to contradict testimony from the ex-boyfriend.
Read "Former Death Row Inmate Kerry Max Cook Freed After 20 Years" by Mark Babineck, Associated Press, November 12, 1997
See "Kerry Max Cook" Frontline, June 17, 2004.
James "Bo" Cochran Alabama Conviction 1976, Acquitted of capital charge: 1997
Bo Cochran was convicted in 1982 of the murder of a Stephen Ganey, the assistant manger of a grocery store. Upon his conviction, Cochran told the judge, "I did not kill Mr. Ganey. . . . When will I get justice in the courtroom?" (Birmingham Post-Herald, December 2001). The 1982 trial was Cochran's third trial. His first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second trial, which resulted in a conviction, was reversed and remanded for a new trial after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Alabama's death penalty statute (Cochran v. Herring, 43 F.3d 1404, 1404 n.1 (11th Cir. 1995). The 1982 conviction was also overturned. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld a District Court's decision to overturn the conviction, stating that "in [Cochran's] 1982 trial race was a determining factor in the prosecution's exercise of its peremptory challenges (Id. at 1411 (internal citations omitted)). Cochran, who is black, was being tried for the murder of a white person, and the Eleventh Circuit found that during Cochran's previous trials, the district attorney's office that prosecuted his case had used an informal practice in peremptory challenges of striking black jurors based on their race. The Eleventh Circuit ordered a new trial for Cochran in 1995. Cochran was retried in 1997 and acquitted by the jury of capital murder. At re-trial, defense attorney Richard Jaffe pointed out to jurors that there were no eyewitnesses to the murder and that it would have been impossible for Cochran to move the victim's body under a trailer in a nearby mobile home park while being chased by police. (Birmingham Post-Herald, December 2001). Cochran was originally listed among the exonerated, but after further research, he was removed (Nov. 2010) from the list since he conceded guilt, against his attorney's advice, to a robbery charge related to the original crime.
Mitchell Blazak Arizona Conviction: 1974, Released: 1994
Blazak was originally convicted of a murder in which a ski-masked gunman killed a bartender and a customer at a bar in Tucson in 1973. The conviction was based largely on the testimony of a small time con man, Kenneth Pease, who was arrested for a number of felonies in New Mexico and Arizona. Pease testified after being granted immunity. A federal court in 1991 termed Pease's testimony to be "a mass of contradictions." The court also ruled that the trial judge had failed to ensure that Blazak was competent to stand trial. Rather than pursue a new trial, the prosecutor offered a no contest plea in September, 1994, which allowed Blazak to be released before the end of the year. There was some evidence that a deputy sheriff named Michael Tucker planted hair evidence in the case. Three days after Blazak walked out of prison, Tucker was arrested for car theft.
Anthony Scire Louisiana Conviction: 1985, Released: 1994
Scire was sentenced to death for hiring Clarence Smith to murder a police informant. The chief witnesses at the trial were members of a motorcycle gang given immunity for this and other crimes in exchange for their testimony. The convictions of both Scire and Smith (see #56 in Innocence Report) were overturned. At retrial, Smith was acquitted. Scire pleaded guilty to manslaughter, while maintaining his innocence. He was immediately released in exchange for time served.
John Henry Knapp Arizona Conviction: 1974, Released 1992
Knapp was originally sentenced to death for an arson murder of his two children. He was released in 1987 after new evidence about the cause of the fire prompted a judge to order a new trial. In 1991, his third trial resulted in a hung jury. Knapp was again released in 1992 after an agreement with the prosecutors in which he pleaded no contest to second degree murder. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence. See K. Smethurst, "Knapp Update: "Innocent Man," The American Lawyer, April 1987, at 8; P. Manson & B. Whiting, "Knapp to Go Free in Fire Deaths, Sources Say Will Avert 4th Trial in Plea," Ariz. Republic, Nov. 17, 1992, at A1.
Sonia Jacobs Florida Conviction: 1976, Released: 1992
Jacobs and her companion, Jesse Tafero, were sentenced to death for the murder of two policemen at a highway rest stop in 1976. A third co-defendant received a life sentence after pleading guilty and testifying against Jacobs and Tafero. The jury recommended a life sentence for Jacobs, but the judge overruled the jury and imposed death. A childhood friend and filmmaker, Micki Dickoff, then became interested in her case. Jacobs' conviction was overturned on a federal writ of habeas corpus in 1992. Following the discovery that the chief prosecution witness had given contradictory statements, the prosecutor accepted a plea in which Jacobs did not admit guilt, and she was immediately released. Jesse Tafero, whose conviction was based on much of the same highly questionable evidence, had been executed in 1990 before the evidence of innocence had been uncovered.
See "Journey of Hope...From Violence to Healing: Sonia Jacobs"
Read "Women on Death Row" by Claudia Dreifus, Ms. Magazine, Spring 2003
Larry Dean Smith Oklahoma Conviction: 1978, Released: 1984
Smith was convicted of the murder of a man who burned to death in a camper pick-up truck. Although he at first admitted his involvement in the related robbery, he maintained he had nothing to do with the murder. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated his death sentence, and the Oklahoma Attorney General recommended that the murder conviction be set aside. On remand, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals refused to uphold Smith's conviction for the robbery.
Lloyd Schlup Missouri Conviction 1985, Not Released
Schlup was convicted in 1985 of a murder while in prison. However, a prison videotape shows him to be in the cafeteria around the time of the murder at a different location. One prison guard has testified that the tape, along with his observation of Schlup just before he went to the cafeteria, prove he could not have been present at the murder. Twenty other witnesses also swear that he was not at the scene of the crime. The U.S. Supreme Court gave Schlup the opportunity for a hearing concerning his new evidence, despite the fact that he had exhausted his ordinary appeals. Following the hearing in federal District Court in December 1995, the court held that no reasonable juror would have found Schlup guilty. On May 2, 1996, Schlup was granted a writ of habeas corpus on the ground that his original trial attorney failed to adequately represent him. The State of Missouri unsuccessfully attempted to apply the new federal habeas corpus law which was signed on April 24, 1996 to Schlup's case. Under the new law, Schlup probably would have been executed. On the second day of his re-trial, Mar. 23, 1999, Schlup agreed to plead guilty to second degree murder to avoid the danger of another death sentence. Schlup's appellate lawyer, Sean O'Brien, said he remained convinced of Schlup's innocence.
Read "Probably Innocent, Almost Executed" by Stuart Taylor Jr., Court TV: Legal Times, January 1, 1996
See "Invitation to an Execution" by James Willwerth, Time Magazine, November 22, 1993
Joseph Spaziano Florida Conviction: 1976, Not Released
Spaziano was tried for the murder of a young woman which had occurred two years earlier. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. He was convicted primarily on the testimony of a drug-addicted teenager who, after hypnosis and "refreshed-memory" interrogation, thought he recalled Spaziano describing the murder. This witness has recently said that his testimony was totally unreliable and not true. Hypnotically induced testimony is no longer admissible in Florida. Death warrants have been repeatedly signed for Spaziano, even though the jury in his case had recommended a life sentence. In January, 1996, Florida Circuit Court Judge O.H. Eaton granted Spaziano a new trial, and this decision was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court on April 17, 1997. In November, 1998, Spaziano pleaded no contest to second degree murder and was sentenced to time served. He remains incarcerated on another charge.
Read "Two Newspapers, Two Sides to the Same Story" by David Barstow, The American Editor, September 27, 1996
See "Anatomy of a Death Penalty Case" by Tena Jamison Lee, American Bar Association: Human Rights, Summer 1996
The following former death row inmates had their death sentences commuted to life in prison because of doubts about their guilt:
Kevin Keith Ohio Conviction 1995, Commuted to Life: 2010
Governor Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Kevin Keith to life without parole on September 2. Strickland granted clemency because of doubts that had been raised regarding Keith's guilt, as well as concerns regarding the investigation of the case. The governor said he was open to considering the case further if new evidence emerges: "Should further evidence justify my doing so, I am prepared to review this matter again for possible further action.” (Governor's Statement, September 2, 2010).
Henry Lee Lucas Texas Conviction: 1984, Commuted to Life: 1998
Lucas originally confessed to the murder of an unnamed hitchhiker in Texas in 1979. He also confessed to hundreds of other murders including the murder of Jimmy Hoffa and his fourth grade teacher, who is still alive. Most of his confessions have proved false. Two investigations by successive Attorneys General in Texas have concluded that he almost certainly did not commit the murder for which he faced an execution date of June 30, 1998. Gov. George Bush commuted his sentence to life upon recommendation of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in June, 1998.
Read "Serial Confessor" by Carley Petesch, Columbia University: 801, 2006
See "Henry Lee Lucas" by Katherine Ramsland, Court TV: Crime Library
Joseph Payne Virginia Conviction: 1986, Commuted to Life: 1996
Although the defense knew of 17 witnesses willing to testify on Payne's behalf, they only used one, and Payne was convicted of murder by arson of another inmate at the Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia. While the jury was deliberating, the prosecution offered Payne a plea whereby he would receive a sentence to run concurrently with the sentence he already was serving, but the offer was refused because his lawyers thought an acquittal was likely. Instead, he was sentenced to death and was scheduled to be executed on Nov. 7, 1996. The chief witness against Payne, Robert Smith, received a 15 year reduction in sentence. At one point, Smith admitted that he had lied at Payne's trial. Three hours before his execution, and after Payne agreed not to appeal, Payne's sentence was reduced to life without parole by Governor George Allen.
See "Death Sentence Commuted After Jurors' Pleas" The New York Times, November 8, 1996
Read "Virginia Prisoner Receives Rare Mercy on Death Row" by Mike Allen, The New York Times, November 10, 1996
Herbert Bassette Virginia Conviction: 1979, Commuted to Life: 1992
Bassette was convicted of murdering a gas station attendant in 1979. Doubt later arose about the testimony presented at trial, and a police statement indicated that one of the witnesses had implicated another person in the killing. Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Bassette's sentence to life without parole after expressing doubts about the conviction.
Joseph Giarratano Virginia Convicted: 1979, Commuted to Life: 1991
In 1979, Joseph Giarratano awoke from a drug-induced sleep and found that his roommate Barbara Kline and her daughter had been murdered. With no memory of the previous night, Giarratano assumed he had killed the two. He turned himself into the police and confessed. Later discovered evidence, however, suggests that Giarratano is innocent. His confessions contradict themselves, and physical evidence suggests Giarratano was not the murderer. Footprints and pubic hairs found at the scene did not match Giarratano's and experts assert Kline was stabbed by a right-handed assailant; Giarratano is left-handed. Three days before his scheduled execution in 1991, Governor Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's death sentence to life imprisonment and left open the possibility of a new trial. Virginia's attorney general, however, indicated that she would not re-try the case. Twenty-six years later, the Virginia State Parole Board voted to grant Giarratano parole.
See "Legal Scholar on Death Row Fights to Halt Own Execution" by David Margolick, The New York Times, March 5, 1990
Read "Last Plea by Condemned Inmate Who Has Rare Blend of Defenders" by Drummond Ayres Jr., The New York Times, February 17, 1991
Read "Joseph M. Giarratano, controversial former death row inmate, granted parole" by Frank Green, Richmond Times-Dispatch, November 21, 2017
Ronald S. Monroe Louisiana Conviction: Commuted to Life: 1989
Monroe had been convicted of murdering his next-door neighbor, based mainly on the testimony of the woman's children. Later, the victim's husband was convicted of killing his new wife in a manner similar to the way in which the first woman was killed. While in prison, the husband all but admitted killing his first wife. Governor Buddy Roemer commuted Monroe's death sentence to life because of doubts about his guilt.
Read "Governor of Louisiana To Spare Inmate's Life" by Peter Applebome, The New York Times, August 17, 1989
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