Innocence

Television Documentary Chronicles Innocence Claims of Two Death-Row Prisoners

A new documentary airing on ABC tells the stories of Darlie Lynn Routier and Julius Jones, two death-row prisoners who have long argued they were wrongfully convicted. The Last Defense, produced by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis and her husband Julius Tennon, focuses its first four episodes on Routier, a Texas woman convicted of killing her young son, then highlights Jones, a Black man who was a 19-year-old college student when he was arrested for the murder of a White businessman. Routier says an intruder broke into her home, killed her 5- and 6-year-old sons, and stabbed her while her husband and youngest son slept upstairs. Police concluded that Routier had staged the break-in and quickly named her as the suspect in her sons' murders. Her trial in the death of the younger child began only seven months after the murders and lasted only two days. Her attorneys say she did not receive adequate representation at trial, and that her trial attorney failed to counter forensic evidence against her because he had a conflict of interest, having previously represented Routier's husband in an unrelated case. Though a court has ordered DNA testing that could verify Routier's burglary story, bureaucratic delays have kept her waiting on death row. A June 19, 2017 status report on the testing said, “In May 2017, counsel in the Dallas County District Attorney (office) learned the materials that were supposed to have been transported to the Department of Public Safety for DNA testing, as the state trial court’s testing order had required, had never been transported to DPS.” Jones, who is on death row in Oklahoma, had been a high school athlete and honor student who did not fit the description of the shooter. Like Routier, he is seeking DNA testing that he believes will prove his innocence. Jones's case raises claims of ineffective counsel, and the series explores the role of race in his trial, as a young Black man accused of killing a White man in a suburban neighborhood. Jones has an appeal pending in the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to review the race discrimination in his case. Data from a 2017 study of race and the death penalty shows that, in Oklahoma, defendants convicted of killing White victims are more than twice as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing victims of color, and that among these White-victim cases, defendants of color were then nearly twice as likely as White defendants to be sentenced to death. The Last Defense airs Tuesdays on ABC.

New Podcast: Columnist Nicholas Kristof on "The Framing of Kevin Cooper"

In his May 20 column in the Sunday New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Nicholas Kristof (pictured, left) focused national attention on the troubling case of California death-row prisoner, Kevin Cooper (pictured, right) and the disturbing evidence suggesting that San Bernardino police planted blood and other evidence to frame him for murder. Kristof joined DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham for a Discussions with DPIC podcast to talk about his recent column, Was Kevin Cooper Framed for Murder?, and how police came to focus on a 155-pound Black man as the sole suspect in a grizzly quadruple murder, despite physical and eyewitness evidence pointing to three white men, including one already convicted murderer, as the perpetrators. Kristof explained how an opinion by a federal judge led him to write about the case: "What really struck me about [Cooper's case] was that you had a number of federal judges who not only argued that there was doubt about his innocence, but simply argued that, look, he is innocent, he is framed by the sheriff's office. And one very well respected Ninth Circuit judge, William Fletcher, came out and said he is framed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Office, and wrote a hundred-page judicial opinion about that, and that just doesn't happen in the law." He says that his piece on Cooper, the longest column in New York Times history, was also inspired by his own failure, and that of the news media at large, to adequately cover the possible innocence of Texas prisoner Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004. Willingham's case garnered a great deal of media attention only after he was executed. "I think Kevin Cooper is innocent," Kristof said, and "I want to write while there's still time to affect the outcome." As he does in his column, Kristof describes the rampant irregularities in Cooper's case that led him to conclude that Cooper had been framed, but he also talks in the podcast about the broader systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, especially in cases involving defendants of color. Kristof pointed to the lack of accountability for official misconduct as one of most important systemic issues. "There have to be consequences for police or prosecutors when they engage in this kind of misconduct," he said. "Too often, there are no consequences. We understand that there have to be consequences for bank robbery or murder, but there also have to be consequences for police officers who perjure themselves or sheriff's deputies who plant evidence." Finally, he explains how Cooper's case is emblematic of other problems: "The reason I wrote about the Cooper case is not just because of the injustice, I believe, to one man, but more broadly, because it's a window into the way the criminal justice system is periodically just plain broken, especially with regard to defendants of color or indigent defendants in really sensational cases. Sometimes the system works and sometimes it doesn't, but it shouldn't be a game of lottery when people are arrested and charged with capital offenses."

Former Louisiana Death-Row Prisoner Released on Plea Agreement, Amid Evidence of Innocence, Misconduct

More than twenty years after being convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he has long said he did not commit, Corey Williams (pictured, center, with his defense team) walked free from prison in Louisiana on May 22, 2018. The deal was bittersweet for Williams, for despite the evidence of innocence, he had to agree to plead guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter and obstruction of justice to obtain his freedom. In a statement released to the media, Amir Ali (pictured, left), Williams' lead counsel in his U.S. Supreme Court proceedings, said: “Imagine your child leaving to hang out with friends, and then losing him or her for twenty years. No one can give Corey back the time that he wrongfully spent behind bars, away from his family and friends. Today, we ensure this tragedy ends here—Corey can finally go home." Williams, who is intellectually disabled, was just sixteen years old when he was arrested for the murder of a pizza deliveryman in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Police interrogated him overnight, eventually leading him to confess, despite knowing that he was intellectually disabled and therefore more susceptible to confessing falsely. Williams' attorneys said, "His confession was brief, devoid of corroborating details. Having just assumed responsibility for a homicide, Corey told the officers, 'I'm tired. I'm ready to go home and lay down.'" Witnesses reported seeing several older men rob the victim. Fingerprints from one of those men were found on the murder weapon, and the victim's blood was found on the clothing of another man. A third possible suspect, Chris Moore, nicknamed “Rapist,” was the only witness who testified against Williams. Prosecutors withheld recordings of witness interviews that supported Williams' innocence claims. Those recordings showed that police suspected Moore and the two other men were trying to frame Williams. Williams was sentenced to death, but his death sentence was vacated six years later after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the use of the death penalty against people with intellectual disability to be unconstitutional. Hugo Holland, who along with Dale Cox, is responsible for 75% of death sentences imposed in Louisiana from 2010-2015, prosecuted Williams' case. He was later investigated for withholding evidence in a separate case, and had to resign his post due to other misconduct. At the time the plea deal was made, Williams had an appeal pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking review of his case based upon the prosecution's improper withholding of exculpatory evidence. Forty-four former state and federal prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey—filed a brief in support of Williams' claim, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to grant him a new trial. The plea deal ends the litigation of that case. Ali said, “The District Attorney’s decision not to defend the tragic decisions of his predecessors is commendable. Corey’s release is vindication that he was wrongfully targeted years ago by prosecutors who had no regard for truth or justice.”

New York Times Columnist Says Kevin Cooper May Have Been Framed, Urges DNA Testing That Could Prove His Innocence

Citing extensive evidence that California death-row prisoner Kevin Cooper (pictured) may have been framed, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has urged Governor Jerry Brown to permit advanced DNA testing of evidence that could potentially prove Cooper's innocence. In a column electronically posted by the Times on May 17, 2018 and scheduled to appear in the paper's May 20 Sunday print edition, Kristof joins a former FBI agent, the American Bar Association, and Judge William A. Fletcher of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in calling for closer review of the case. In his column, Kristof calls Cooper's case "a failure at every level," and says that he believes Cooper was framed by the San Bernardino's sheriff's office, which had a history of planting and mishandling evidence. Cooper, who is Black, became the lead suspect in the 1983 killings of Doug and Peggy Ryen, their 10-year-old daughter Jessica Ryen, and 11-year-old neighbor Chris Hughes, in spite of statements by 8-year-old Josh Ryen, the sole survivor of the attack, who twice told investigators that three White men had committed the murders. The four victims had been stabbed or slashed a combined 140 times with an ice pick, a hatchet, and at least one knife—an assault, Kristof said, that a single perpetrator, much less the 155-pound Cooper, was unlikely to have been able to carry out. Multiple witnesses saw three White men driving a vehicle fitting the description of the Ryens' car—which had been stolen from their home—near the time of the murders. Other witnesses reported three White men in bloody clothes acting strangely at a nearby bar the night of the crime. When the car was found 30 miles away, Kristof writes, it "inconveniently had blood on the driver’s seat, the front passenger seat and the back seat—suggesting at least three killers." Cooper came under suspicion because he had escaped from a local prison, where he had been incarcerated for robbery, and had hidden in an empty house near the Ryen family's home. An initial police search of Cooper's hideout turned up no evidence, but the day after they identified him as a suspect, police "found" the sheath of a hatchet and a bloody prison-uniform button in a room they claimed—falsely, Kristof says—to have not previously searched. The hatchet itself was found in a different direction, near the path the Ryens' vehicle took the night of the murder, and the button later turned out to be a different color from the uniform Cooper had been wearing. Numerous leads pointed to an alternative suspect, a recently released convicted murderer whom Kristof identifies only as "Lee," but police destroyed key evidence—a pair of bloody coveralls given to police by Lee's girlfriend—before any testing took place. In 2004, Cooper was allowed to test a blood sample from a tan T-shirt that was found near the murder scene. The shirt was the same color, size, and brand as a T-shirt Lee's girlfriend said she had recently bought for him and that he had been wearing earlier on the day of the murders. The testing found Cooper's blood on the shirt, but his blood was contaminated with a chemical used in preserving blood samples, indicating that it had likely been planted on the shirt. The lab then tested the sample of Cooper's blood held by the sheriff's office and found multiple blood types, suggesting that Cooper's sample had been topped off with someone else's blood. Testing of other evidence, including the murder weapon and strands of hair found at the scene, could prove Cooper's claim that he is innocent. Kristof said, "[I]f we execute a man in so flawed a case without even bothering to test the evidence rigorously, then a piece of our justice system dies along with Kevin Cooper." [UPDATE: U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who as California's Attorney General had opposed Cooper's requests for DNA testing and had initially declined to comment for the story, joined in Kristof's request for DNA testing. On May 18, she posted on Facebook: "As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper."]  

Texas Executes Juan Castillo Without a Hearing on His Claims of Innocence and Ineffective Representation

Texas executed Juan Castillo (pictured) on May 16, 2018, after its state courts stayed his execution to address whether his conviction and death sentence for a botched robbery and murder had been a product of false testimony, but then denied him an evidentiary hearing necessary to prove that claim. No physical evidence implicated Castillo in the murder, and he consistently asserted his innocence. To convict him, Bexar County prosecutors presented testimony from several admitted perpetrators who had been given favorable plea deals, corroborated by the testimony of prison informant, Gerardo Gutierrez, who claimed that Castillo had confessed to him. But in 2013, Gutierrez recanted, admitting in a sworn affidavit that he had lied "to try to help myself." With Castillo facing a December 2017 execution date, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted him a stay on November 28, and directed the trial court to resolve his claim that prosecutors had violated his rights by presenting false or perjured testimony from Gutierrez. Two days later, on November 30, the Bexar County District Attorney's office submitted proposed findings of fact and a proposed order to deny Castillo's petition without a hearing. The next day, on December 1, Judge Maria Teresa Herr adopted the prosecution's proposed findings and order verbatim—changing only the signature line on the order—without permitting Castillo's lawyers to submit proposed findings or to respond to the prosecution's submission. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the ruling, and with Texas prosecutors arguing that defects in the state-court process were not a basis for federal review because prisoners "ha[ve] no due process right to collateral proceedings," the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. Castillo also asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Greg Abbott to stop his execution. Greg Zlotnick, who represented Castillo in his clemency proceedings, argued that the treatment of Castillo's case by the courts "had been marked by unfair and arbitrary decisions" and the courts had "rubber-stamped" the denial of Castillo's latest petition "with no regard for his opportunity to be heard." Zlotnick argued that Castillo’s trial lawyers "failed to actively investigate the case, speak with witnesses, question police, request additional evidence from law enforcement and district attorney offices, and properly plead legal claims in the courts" and that the post-conviction courts had denied without a hearing Castillo's "common-sense request for DNA testing on physical evidence that could have pointed to another perpetrator." Trial counsel's performance was so bad, Zlotnick said, that "Mr. Castillo even felt compelled to represent himself at sentencing." After the pardons board denied the clemency application, the Texas Defender Service (TDS)—which became involved in the case close to the execution date—sought a 30-day reprieve from Governor Abbott to further develop evidence in the case. In a May 15 letter to the governor, executive director Amanda Marzullo wrote that TDS had discovered additional evidence that contradicted the testimony given at Castillo’s trial, including a video of a woman telling police—contrary to her prior statements—that Castillo had never told her he was the triggerman. Abbott did not act on that request. Castillo was the eleventh person executed in the United States in 2018, and the sixth in Texas.

NEW PODCAST—Culture of Conviction: Brian Stolarz on How Houston Prosecutors Convicted His Innocent Client

In 2005, Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured left) was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a Houston, Texas police officer based on false testimony Harris County prosecutors obtained through coercion and threats. After spending a decade on death row for a crime he did not commit, Brown was finally released with the help of his attorney Brian Stolarz (pictured right), who is the guest on DPIC's latest podcast and author of Grace and Justice on Death Row, a book about Brown's case. Stolarz, who represented Brown in post-conviction proceedings, tells the story of his "decade-plus long journey to help out this one man." In the discussion, Stolarz describes how he and his team realized upon investigation that every witness had been "pressured and frightened" by the prosecutor—who used tactics such as threatening to charge witnesses with crimes—in order to secure Brown's conviction. Stolarz calls this Harris County's "culture of conviction." Brown's girlfriend, Erica Dockery, who had initially testified before the grand jury that Brown was at her apartment at the time of the crime, became a critical witness against Brown. As Stolarz explains, Dockery's choice to "abandon the truth," commit perjury, and testify against Brown came only after the prosecutor brought a baseless perjury charge against her for her truthful grand jury testimony and jailed her with a bond so high she couldn't pay it. In what Stolarz describes as "luck," the retired case detective found a box from the case while "spring cleaning his garage," and the box contained phone records that supported Dockery's initial testimony and consequently Brown's alibi. This evidence, along with other witness recantations, helped win Brown's release in June 2015. Although Brown has been free for almost three years, Stolarz explains that his fight for justice is still ongoing, as he seeks compensation for his unjust conviction. Before Brown can be compensated under Texas state law, the District Attorney must sign a formal declaration finding him innocent and prosecutors had opposed such a declaration. The podcast was recorded in April 2018, several weeks after recent revelations that Dan Rizzo, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Brown, had received an email informing him that the phone records proved Dockery was telling the truth about Brown's alibi before he charged her with perjury and prosecuted Brown for murder based on false testimony. Since the time of podcast recording, the current Harris County District Attorney, Kim Ogg, has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Brown's innocence. Ogg said the recent discovery of the email showing Rizzo knew years before trial that Brown's alibi checked out "brought clarity to a very hotly contested allegation as to whether or not [suppressing that evidence from the defense] was intentionally done, whether it was done to obtain a guilty verdict at any cost." Ogg said she believed the email "tended to show Brown's innocence, and not just his lack of guilt." 

EDITORIAL: California Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

In an April 27 editorial, the Los Angeles Times said the death penalty should come to an end and the recent exoneration of California death-row prisoner Vicente Benavides Figueroa illustrates why. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — spent more than 25 years on death row after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter. His conviction rested on extensive false forensic testimony provided by prosecution medical witnesses who had been given incomplete hospital records and who erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. One California Supreme Court justice described that testimony as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” The Times called Benavides's conviction "an egregious miscarriage of justice" and said "[h]is exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case was prosecuted in Kern County during the administration of long-time District Attorney Ed Jagels. Elected multiple times to head the California District Attorneys Association, Jagels successfully pushed to remove three justices from the California Supreme Court whom he claimed were anti-death-penalty. His official Web page as district attorney touted that Kern had the highest per-capita imprisonment rate of any county in state, and as of January 1, 2013, the county had more people on its death row than were sentenced to death in more than 99% of U.S. counties. The county also has the highest per capita exoneration rate in the state. Benavides is reportedly the 26th innocent person wrongly convicted by Kern County prosecutors, most of whom were wrongly convicted as a result of official misconduct. As of March 2015, 22 of the 24 Kern County exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations had involved official misconduct by police, prosecutors, or other government officials. Benavides's exoneration, the Times said, is also a reminder "of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year that Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." Washington Post columnist Radley Balko put it more starkly: "if Prop 66 had been in place when Mr. Benavides was convicted, he’d almost certainly be dead. He’d never have lived to see his exoneration." Balko notes that "[t]his problem isn’t just limited to California. Even as we learn more about the extent of wrongful convictions, prosecutor misconduct and misuse of forensic evidence, states such as Texas, Alabama and Florida have also moved toward limiting appeals and speeding up executions." He says "[i]t's almost as if some lawmakers and law enforcement officials think that the problem with wrongful convictions isn’t that there are too many of them, but that they’re bad PR for the law-and-order cause. And that the best way to make them go away isn’t to fix the problems that allowed them to happen, but to execute people before we ever get the chance to learn that they’re innocent." But the problems, the Times editors said, may be beyond repair. "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution," the editors conclude, "is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

Los Angeles Times Editorial: Exoneration Shows Why Death Penalty Needs to End

The April 2018 exoneration of Vicente Benavides Figueroa, wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death on charges of raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend's 21-month-old daughter, illustrates why the death penalty should be abolished, the Los Angeles Times said in an April 27, 2018 editorial. Benavides — an intellectually disabled Mexican national who was working as a seasonal farm worker — was sentenced to death after medical witnesses had been provided incomplete hospital records and erroneously testified that the child had been sexually assaulted. His conviction, the paper wrote, "was an egregious miscarriage of justice; he spent a quarter-century on death row for a crime he apparently did not commit. His exoneration serves as a reminder of what ought to be abundantly clear by now: that despite jury trials, appellate reconsideration and years of motions and counter-motions, the justice system is not infallible, and it is possible (or perhaps inevitable) that innocent people will end up facing execution at the hands of the state." Benavides's case, the Times said "ought to remind us of the dangers inherent in California's efforts to speed up the calendar for death penalty appeals under Proposition 66 .... Moving more quickly to execute convicted death row inmates increases the likelihood that due process will be given short shrift and the innocent will be put to death." The records that showed 21-month-old Consuelo Verdugo had not been sexually assaulted — and that cast doubt on whether she had been murdered at all — were not discovered until 7 years after trial. The one year Proposition 66 gives appellate lawyers to investigate cases and file appeals makes it less likely that they will discover such evidence "and thus more likely that innocent people will be put to death." The editorial concluded: "The unfixable problem with the death penalty is that mistakes get made, witnesses lie, confessions get coerced — all factors that can lead to false convictions. It is abjectly immoral to speed things up by limiting due process. The better solution is to get rid of the death penalty altogether."

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