Innocence

Ex-Virginia Death-Row Prisoner With Strong Claim of Innocence Get Parole After 38 Years

Joseph M. Giarratano (pictured), a former Virginia death-row prisoner who came within two days of execution, has been been granted parole after 38 years in jail for a rape and double murder that lawyers and supporters have long said he did not commit. On November 20, twenty-six years after Governor L. Douglas Wilder commuted Giarratano's death sentence to life, the Virginia State Parole Board voted to grant him parole. Giarratano was convicted and sentenced to death in Norfolk, Virginia in 1979 for the rape and capital murder of a fifteen-year-old girl and the murder of her mother. Giarratano had lived in their apartment—which was known as a "party house" with a free flow of visitors—in the month before the murder and was there the night of the murders, but because of drug use, he says, he has no recollection of what happened. He said he woke up on the couch, discovered the bodies, and because no one else was in the apartment, he assumed he had committed the killings. He fled to Florida, where he turned himself in to a sheriff at a Jacksonville bus station and confessed to the murders. Over the course of time, Giarratano gave a total of five confessions, which were inconsistent with one another and conflicted with the evidence at the crime scene. Footprints, fingerprints, and pubic hairs were recovered at the crime scene and did not match either Giarratano or the victims. Experts indicated that the killer was right-handed, but Giarratano is left-handed. Giarratano's confessions were so inconsistent that detectives told him they did not believe him and, he said, provided him with detailed information that he then parroted back to them in his fifth confession. Gerald Zerkin, one of Giarratano’s lawyers, said "[t]here is nothing in the physical evidence that links Joe to the murders.... The prosecution’s whole case hinged on Joe’s confessions, which were total nonsense.” Leading experts on false confessions concluded in 2001 that there was "not a shred of significant or credible physical evidence supporting the conclusion that Joseph Giarratano’s contradictory and inconsistent confessions are reliable" and that considerable evidence led to "the conclusion that his confessions are false." While on death row, Giarratano became an avid reader and an advocate for other condemned prisoners, assisting in the exoneration of Earl Washington, a wrongfully convicted intellectually disabled man who came within eight days of execution. Giarranto was also the named party in a U.S. Supreme Court case, Murray v. Giarratano, in which Giarratano and others challenged Virginia's failure to provide post-conviction attorneys for condemned prisoners. The Court ruled 5-4 against the prisoners. Following his transfer off death row to the Augusta Correctional Center, Giarratano helped found the Center for Teaching Peace, a peace education program for prisoners. The state parole board's decision marks the first time in modern Virginia history that a defendant whose death sentence was commuted was granted parole. Richmond lawyer Stephen A. Northup represented Giarratano before the parole board and said, “For all the reasons that caused Governor Wilder to give Joe a conditional pardon more than 26 years ago, I believe Joe is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.”

Nevada Pardons Man Imprisoned 21 Years as a Result of Wrongful Capital Murder Prosecution

Nevada has pardoned Fred Steese (pictured), who spent 21 years in prison after Las Vegas prosecutors wrongly sought the death penalty against him while witholding evidence that he was not even in the state at the time the murder occurred. In what news reports described as "a clear rebuke to the Las Vegas prosecutors," the Nevada Board of Pardons Commissioners voted 8-1 on November 8 to grant Steese a full pardon. “I’m a new man now,” Steese said. “It’s lifted a black cloud over me.” The seven justices of the Nevada Supreme Court and Governor Brian Sandoval voted in favor of clearing Steese's name; only Adam Laxalt, the state's attorney general and a current candidate for governor, voted against the pardon. Steese was charged with capital murder in the high-profile 1992 killing of Las Vegas circus performer, Gerard Soules. He was prosecuted by Bill Kephart and Doug Herndon, who both went on to become district judges in Las Vegas. Steese was in Idaho at the time of Soules's death, but signed a false confession after a five-hour interrogation and 35 hours without sleep. At trial he presented numerous alibi witness who testified that he was in Idaho at the time. Kephart—who also committed misconduct in several other capital trials before being elected as a judge in 2014—argued to the jury (with no supporting evidence) that the witnesses had seen Steese's brother in Idaho and that Steese had manufactured the alibi. After Steese was convicted in 1995, prosecutors withdrew the death penalty and Sreese was sentenced to two life sentences. He spent two decades in prison before federal public defenders proved that his brother, estranged since childhood, couldn’t have helped with Steese’s alibi. The federal defenders' investigation also unearthed phone records in the prosecution’s files that proved Steese was in Idaho at the time of the murder. In 2012, a Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court judge issued an Order of Actual Innocence, declaring that Steese didn’t kill anyone. But the Clark County District Attorney’s Office refused to admit it had convicted an innocent man. In 2013, Assistant District Attorney Pamela Weckerly told Steese she’d agree to release him from prison only if he entered an Alford plea, in which, while maintaining his innocence, he admitted there was sufficient evidence on which he could be convicted. After gaining his freedom, Steese—still with a murer conviction on his record— struggled to find employment and experienced periods of homelessness before finding work as a cross-country trucker. At the pardon hearing, Steese’s pro-bono attorney lawyer, Lisa Rasmussen, said that from the time of his interrogation through the time of his release from prison, his constitutional rights had been “violated in a huge way.” Rasmussen condemned the prosecutorial misconduct in the case as “an embarrassment and a black mark on Clark County and the state of Nevada." After Steese himself testified, the board heard from Kathy Nasrey, the sister of Gerard Soules, who demanded that Kephart, Herndon, and others be held accountable for knowingly convicting an innocent man while her brother’s killer remained on the loose. “Now that it was clear that certain lawyers and detectives helped convict an innocent man,” she said, “will they be held accountable for taking away 20 years of his life?”

Former Florida Death-Row Doctor: Experience of Veterans Highlights Death Penalty's Failures

A former Florida death-row doctor says the experience of U.S. military veterans who have been sentenced to death provides a lens through which the public can better understand some of the failures of the state's death penalty and identify opportunities for meaningful reform of the criminal justice system. In a Veterans Day guest column in Florida Politics, psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Thornton (pictured) writes that "18-percent of Florida’s death row is made up of veterans of our military services." Their backgrounds of "childhood trauma, drug use and more," he says, is typical of the experiences of "almost all" of the prisoners on the state's death row. In conjunction with Veterans Day 2015, DPIC released a report, Battle Scars: Military Veterans and the Death Penalty, that estimated at least 300 veterans were on state and federal death rows across the country, representing approximately ten percent of the nation’s death row population. The report highlighted the plight of veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the lack of effective mental health intervention and support services, and the failures of defense counsel to investigate and present critical evidence to spare the veterans' lives. Dr. Thornton—whose more than 30-years of clinical experience includes three years overseeing medical and psychiatric care on Florida's death row—noted that two men whom Florida executed in 2017 were military veterans. Michael Lambrix, who was executed on October 5, was honorably discharged from the Army after becoming disabled in a training accident and subsequently developed a serious problem with drugs. Patrick Hannon, executed November 8, already suffered from drug abuse while in the military. "Neither," Dr. Thornton writes, "had the benefit of current intervention tactics deployed by the Veteran’s Administration to care for veterans with a history of trauma and drug abuse." Dr. Thornton advocates that Florida reallocate the money it spends on the death penalty for "more mental health treatment services, especially for military veterans, who deserve better treatment after sacrificing so much for our country." The state, he writes, should "place a moratorium on executions, and not just those of veterans, but everyone on Florida’s death row." Four veterans were executed in the United States in 2016: Georgia executed Brandon Jones and William Sallie, who had served in the Army, and Travis Hittson, who had served in the Navy; Alabama executed former Army reservist. Ronald Smith. Two men who served in the military have been exonerated in 2017: Air Force veteran Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr. was exonerated in Florida in May and Rickey Dale Newman, a mentally ill former Marine suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder who was homeless at the time he was charged with capital murder in Arkansas.

Mississippi, Pennsylvania Courts Grant New Trials to Wrongly Condemned Prisoners

Appeals courts in Mississippi and Pennsylvania have granted new trials to two men who have long asserted their innocence of charges that had sent them to their states' death rows. On October 26, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Sherwood Brown (pictured, left), after reviewing exculpatory results of DNA testing and evidence that Brown's triple-murder conviction and death sentence had been obtained as a result of misleading forensic testimony. On October 31, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted a third trial to former death-row prisoner Daniel Dougherty (pictured, right), who had been wrongly convicted of setting a fire in which his two sons died, ruling that Philadelphia prosecutors improperly presented the same questionable arson testimony in his retrial that had caused his first conviction to be overturned in 2013. Brown was sentenced to death in 1995 for the sexual assault and murder of a 13-year-old girl and received life sentences for the murder of the girl's mother and grandmother. Prosecutors had argued that blood on Brown's shoes came from the victims, and a forensic bitemark expert had claimed that a bitemark on Brown's wrist matched the girl's bite pattern. In 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Brown's motion for DNA testing. The results showed that the blood on Brown's shoe could not have come from any of the victims because it was male DNA and a saliva sample taken from the victim who had allegedly bitten Brown showed no evidence of Brown's DNA. In their motion for a new trial, Brown's lawyers, including lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project, argued that "the two pieces of physical evidence that the state alleged at the 1995 trial, linked petitioner to the crime scene—and upon which the state relied to gain a conviction and sentence in this matter—do not in fact link the petitioner to the crime scene, and are not what the state purported them to be." In an act it described as “extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave to pursue post-conviction collateral relief,” the court overturned Brown's convictions without need for an evidentiary hearing on the DNA evidence and returned the case to the DeSoto County Circuit Court for a new trial. The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed Dougherty's conviction for a second time, ruling that the trial court had improperly permitted prosecutors to use the same testimony an assistant fire marshal had presented in Dougherty's first trial in 2000, even though Dougherty's 2000 conviction and death sentence had been overturned because of his trial lawyer's failure to retain a fire science expert to explain the scientific invalidity of that testimony and the lawyer's resulting inadequate cross-examination of the fire marshal. The court ruled that Philadelphia prosecutors also improperly presented the testimony of another former Philadelphia fire marshal that relied on and prejudicially bolstered the initial questionable arson testimony. At the time of the retrial, Pennsylvania Innocence Project legal director Marissa Boyers Bluestine had said the case against Dougherty "should never have been allowed to go to trial." Boyers had criticized the testimony of the prosecution's experts as having "no scientific validity." She said "To be able to put that in front of a jury today, in 2016, was a travesty." Dougherty's jury in 2016 acquitted him of first-degree murder, determining that he had not intended to kill his children, but convicted him of arson and two counts of second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania. Dougherty's current lawyer, David Fryman, expressed gratitude "that the Superior Court righted the errors committed by this trial judge.... We’re hopeful the District Attorney’s office will finally put an end to the pursuit of a case that never should have been brought in the first place," he said.

New Report Documents “Dramatic Rise” in Republican Support for Death-Penalty Repeal

"The death penalty is dying in the United States, and Republicans are contributing to its demise," concludes a new report, The Right Way, released on October 25 by the advocacy group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The report traces "the dramatic rise in Republican sponsorship of bills to end the death penalty" and the trends that it says helped contribute to this rise. Based on this data, the report says "[m]ore Republican lawmakers are recognizing that the death penalty is a broken policy and taking an active role in efforts to end it." The data in the report reflect both the emergence of Republican leadership in bills to repeal the death penalty and increased bi-partisanship in the sponsorship of these bills. Forty Republican legislators sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty in 2016, the report says, "ten times as many [who] sponsored repeal bills ... in 2000." It also reports that the percentage of repeal-bill sponsors who are Republicans has risen to 31%, a six-fold increase since 2007. The report highlights grassroots, party-level, and religious shifts in Republican views about and activism against the death penalty. In addition to the national Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, conservative anti-death-penalty advocacy groups have formed in eleven predominently Republican "red states." In Kansas, the state Republican Party "removed its death penalty support from the Party’s platform in 2014" in favor of a neutral position and voted down an attempt to restore a pro-death penalty stance in 2016. The report also says Evangelicals are increasingly "forsak[ing] the death penalty," pointing to the public involvolvement of prominent Evangelical leaders opposing state efforts to carry out executions in a number of recent cases and the new policy of position the National Association of Evangelicals, expressing neutrality on the death penalty and acknowledging its flaws. Recent national polls confirm the report's observations. The October 2017 Gallup poll on the death penalty indicated that death-penalty support among Republicans fell by ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%, in the last year, and the Pew Research Center reported a seven percentage-point decline in support for capital punishment between 2011 and 2015 among respondents who described themselves as conservative Republicans. The Right Way highlights the actions of five Republican state legislators' efforts to repeal capital punishment in predominantly Republican states, and addresses the substantive concerns that have given rise to Republican death-penalty opposition. "Plagued by wrongful convictions, high costs, and delays," the report says, "the death penalty has proven to be ineffective and incompatible with a number of core conservative principles. It runs afoul of conservative commitments to limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a culture of life." As renewed pushes to abolish the death penalty move forward in states like Utah and New Hampshire, the Gallup organization suggests that the actions of Republicans may be critical in determining the death penalty's future. It's analysis of this year's poll states: "Thirty-one states, primarily in Republican-leaning regions, allow the death penalty. The likelihood of many of those states changing their laws hinges on whether rank-and-file Republican support for capital punishment remains high or declines in the future."

Federal Court Rules to Protect the Interest of Incompetent North Carolina Death-Row Exoneree

A federal judge has voided a contract that had provided Orlando-based attorney Patrick Megaro hundreds of thousands of dollars of compensation at the expense of Henry McCollum (pictured left, with his brother Leon Brown), an intellectually disabled former death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 2014 after DNA testing by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission showed that he had not committed the brutal rape and murder of a young girl for which he had been wrongly convicted and condemned. McCollum and Brown—who both have IQs measured in the 50s and 60s—had been convicted in 1983 based on coerced false confessions that the brothers (aged 19 and 15 at the time) provided to interrogating officers. At the time of his exoneration, McCollum had spent 30 years on death row and was the state's longest serving death-row prisoner. Megaro became McCollum's and Brown's lawyer in March 2015, after two women who claimed to be advocating on behalf of the brothers persuaded them to fire the lawyers who had been representing them in their efforts to obtain compensation and to hire Megaro's firm. McCollum was awarded $750,000 in compensation from North Carolina in October 2015, at least half of which appears to have been paid to Megaro. Within seven months, McCollum was out of money and taking out high-interest loans that had been arranged and approved by Megaro. Megaro also negotiated a proposed settlement of the brothers' wrongful prosecution lawsuit in which he was to receive $400,000 of a $1 million payment to the brothers. Defense lawyer Ken Rose, who represented McCollum for 20 years and helped win McCollum's release from prison, provided testimony that two mental experts had previously found that McCollum was "not competent to provide a confession" and that McCollum remained "vulnerable to manipulation and control by others." After hearing additional evidence from experts and other witnesses, U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle determined that, as a result of his intellectual disability, McCollum lacked knowledge and understanding of financial issues, "remains easily manipulated," and was "unable to make important decisions about his person and property." As a result, the court voided the contract between McCollum and Megano, including the fee arrangements. Raymond Tarlton, whom Judge Boyle appointed to serve as McCollum's guardian ad litem, said the decision "made clear that the same disabilities that led to Henry McCollum giving a false confession in 1983 made him vulnerable to be manipulated and controlled after release.” The court also has appointed a guardian to protect the interests of Leon Brown. Judge Boyle ordered further briefing pending receipt of the guardian's report to assist in determining the status of the contract between Megaro and Brown.

Former Arkansas Death-Row Prisoner Rickey Dale Newman Exonerated After Nearly 17 Years in Prison

An Arkansas trial judge has dismissed all charges against former death-row prisoner, Rickey Dale Newman (pictured), setting him free on October 11 after having spent nearly 17 years in custody following the February 2001 murder of a transient woman in a "hobo park" on the outskirts of Van Buren, Arkansas. Newman became the 160th person since 1973 to be exonerated after having having been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. Newman, a former Marine with major depression, chronic posttraumatic stress disorder from childhood abuse, and an IQ in the intellectually disabled range, was seriously mentally ill and homeless at the time he was charged with murdering Marie Cholette. He was convicted and sentenced to death in June 2002 after a one-day trial in which the court permitted him to represent himself. No physical evidence linked Newman to the murder, but at trial a prosecution expert falsely testified that hair found on Newman's clothing came from the victim. Newman also told the jury he had committed the murder and asked them to impose the death penalty. He subsequently sought to waive his appeals and be executed. The Arkansas Supreme Court initially held that Newman had been mentally competent and granted his request to drop his appeals. However, four days before his scheduled execution on July 26, 2005, Newman permitted federal public defenders, including his current counsel, Julie Brain, to seek a stay of execution. DNA evidence on the blanket on which the victim was found excluded Newman, and the federal defenders obtained DNA testing of the hair evidence that disproved the prosecution's trial testimony. They also discovered that prosecutors had withheld from the defense evidence from the murder scene that contradicted what Newman had described in his confession. A federal court hearing disclosed that the state mental health doctor had made significant errors in administering and scoring tests he had relied upon for his testimony that Newman had been competent to stand trial. The Arkansas Supreme Court subsequently ordered new hearings on Newman's competency and on the evidence the prosecution had withheld from the defense. After those hearings, it wrote that "the record overwhelmingly illustrates that Newman’s cognitive deficits and mental illnesses interfered with his ability to effectively and rationally assist counsel" and overturned Newman's conviction. In September, it issued another ruling barring the use of Newman's incompetent confessions in any retrial. On October 2, Brain submitted a letter to the court saying that “Mr. Newman has now been incarcerated for over 16 years for a murder that he did not commit” and that the Arkansas Supreme Court had found that the invalid statements he had given while mentally incompetent were "the only meaningful evidence against him." In response, special prosecutor Ron Fields submitted letter to the court asking that charges be dismissed. Fields wrote that, without the confessions, prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction and "it would be a waste of tax payers money to retry [Newman]."

Texas Set to Execute Robert Pruett for Prison Murder Despite Corruption and Lack of Physical Evidence

Though no physical evidence links him to the crime, Texas is set to execute Robert Pruett (pictured) on October 12 for the 1999 stabbing death of a state correctional officer who was at the center of a prison corruption investigation. Results of a DNA test of the murder weapon in 2015 found DNA that matched neither Pruett nor the victim, Officer Daniel Nagle. According to Pruett’s pending clemency petition, Officer Nagle was working to identify corrupt correctional officers who had been helping prison gangs launder drug money, and his name was discovered on a secret note from an inmate saying that a prison gang wanted him dead. The unidentified DNA, Pruett’s lawyers suggest, may belong “to the person [who] killed Nagle” and that Pruett was framed for the murder. Earlier on the day he was killed, Officer Nagle had given Pruett a disciplinary write-up for eating a sandwich in an unauthorized area. A bloody shank and a torn-up copy of the disciplinary report were found next to the officer’s body. The prosecution's case turned on dubious testimony from prison informants and the testimony of a forensic analyst that linked the tape wrapped around the handle of the shank used to kill Nagle to the prison craft shop in which Pruett’s cellmate worked. The forensic testimony has since been debunked and, according to the clemency petition, a state investigator’s notes disclosed that a key prison witness—Harold Mitchell—had been promised a transfer to a prison close to his family’s home in Virginia if he testified against Pruett and threatened with being charged with Nagle’s murder if he did not. This is the sixth time Pruett has faced an execution warrant. In April 2015, he received a stay of execution to permit DNA testing and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a stay in August 2016 so the state courts could have more time to review Pruett's new claims relating to the DNA evidence. However, in April 2017, the Texas appeals court ruled that the DNA test results would not have changed the outcome of his trial. The U.S Supreme Court declined to review Pruett’s case on October 2, permitting the execution to proceed. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has presided over 25 executions since taking office in January 2015, has yet to commute any death sentence.

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