Innocence

Florida Man Exonerated 42 Years After Wrongful Conviction and Death Sentence

Forty-two years after he and his nephew were wrongfully convicted of murder in Florida and he was sentenced to death, Clifford Williams, Jr. (pictured) has been exonerated. Submitting a report from its Conviction Integrity Unit that found “no credible evidence of guilt and … credible evidence of innocence,” Duval County prosecutors asked a Jacksonville trial court to dismiss all charges against Williams, now 76 years old, and his nephew, Nathan Myers, now 61. Williams is the 165th former death-row prisoner to be exonerated in the United States since 1973.

Williams and Myers were tried and convicted in 1976 for the murder of Jeanette Williams and the wounding of her girlfriend, Nina Marshall. Marshall told police that two men had entered their bedroom at night and fired shots from the foot of the bed. She identified Williams and Myers as the shooters. However, the physical evidence — never presented by defense counsel — revealed that the bullets had been fired from outside, through the bedroom window, and had come from a single gun. Defense counsel also ignored forty alibi witnesses whom Williams and Myers had indicated would be able to testify that they had been next door at a birthday party at the time the shooting occurred. The defense presented no witnesses. The first trial resulted in a mistrial. In the second trial, which lasted two days, prosecutors argued, without presenting any supporting evidence, that the men committed the murder because Jeannette Williams supposedly owed them a $50 drug debt. The jury convicted Williams and Myers but recommended that they be sentenced to life. Judge Cliff Shepard — a notoriously harsh trial judge — overrode the jury’s sentencing recommendation for Williams and sentenced him to death. Shepard accepted the life recommendation for 18-year-old Myers.

Prosecutors began reinvestigating the case after newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson created the first Conviction Integrity Unit in the state in 2018. The unit issued its report, authored by Conviction Integrity Review Director Shelley Thibodeau, in February. The report noted that no physical evidence linked Williams or Myers to the shooting and that “the physical and scientific evidence actually contradicts [Marshall’s] testimony about what happened.” The report also found that another man, Nathaniel Lawson, had confessed to several people that he had committed the killings and that a 1976 police report noted his presence near the crime scene around the time of the murder. Thibodeau concluded that "[t]he culmination of all the evidence, most of which the jury never heard or saw, leaves no abiding confidence in the convictions or the guilt of the defendants.”  

Williams had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get anyone interested in the case, and responded emotionally after the hearing. “My mother died while I was on death row,” he told Florida Times-Union reporter Andrew Pantazi. Through tears, he said, “I just wanted to get out and see my kids. There wasn’t nobody but them.”

Twenty-nine wrongfully convicted death-row prisoners have been exonerated in Florida, the most in the nation. In 21 of the 23 Florida exonerations for which the jury’s sentencing vote is known, judges imposed the death penalty by overriding a jury recommendation for life or following a non-unanimous jury recommendation for death. Florida now requires a unanimous jury recommendation before a judge can impose a death sentence.

Florida Man Who Took Plea to Avoid Death Penalty Posthumously Exonerated of 1983 Rape-Murder

Broward County, Florida prosecutors moved to posthumously exonerate Ronald Stewart (pictured) of a rape and murder he did not commit. Stewart pled no contest to the 1983 rape and murder of Regina Harrison after he was threatened with the death penalty. The actual killer, whose guilt has since been confirmed by DNA testing, went on to murder at least two more women after Harrison.

On March 21, 2019, prosecutors released a statement announcing that they were seeking to overturn Stewart’s conviction in Harrison’s rape and murder after the confession of another man, Jack Jones, led them to test DNA evidence from the case. “Although Stewart is now deceased, it is appropriate that the record be corrected at this time to reflect the results of the new information and evidence uncovered since November 2018,” Broward State Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Paula McMahon said in a joint news release with the Hollywood Police Department. “It is also important to try to determine if Jones killed other victims. … We regret that [Stewart] pleaded no contest to a murder he did not commit and that this diverted attention from the real killer.”

Stewart’s no-contest plea was not an admission of guilt. At his sentencing, his lawyer told the court, "Rather than, you know, run the risk of the death penalty, he chose to enter this plea." Counsel pointed out that the evidence of guilt was weak, since fingerprints from the crime scene did not match Stewart and key testimony came from unreliable jailhouse informants. However, Stewart feared that he would be sentenced to death because he had previously been convicted of a series of rapes. He was serving concurrent 50-year sentences for Harrison’s murder and three other rapes when he died in prison in 2008.

The re-examination of the case came as a result of a letter written by Arkansas death-row prisoner Jack Jones, prior to his 2017 execution. Jones sent his sister the letter with instructions not to read it for a year after his death. In that letter, Jones confessed to Harrison’s murder, writing, "So, you just let [Harrison’s family] know that I am deeply sorry, that I couldn’t rest easy until they knew the truth. Let them know that in the end I became a better person, and I did the best I could to be as much as I could for others, out of respect for the ones I’ve harmed." His sister gave the letter to detective John Curcio, who reopened the investigation and had DNA evidence tested. In 1991, Jones killed Lori Barrett, a tourist who was visiting Fort Lauderdale. Four years later, he murdered Mary Phillips in Arkansas.

The case is one of a growing number of exonerations in which the threat of the death penalty has induced false confessions or caused innocent defendants to enter guilty or no-contest pleas to crimes they did not commit. Recent high-profile examples of this phenomenon include the Beatrice Six in Nebraska and the Norfolk Four in Virginia.

Despite Possible Innocence and Intellectual Disability, Alabama Intends to Execute Rocky Myers

Robin “Rocky” Myers (pictured) may be innocent and intellectually disabled. His jury did not think he should be sentenced to die. Alabama intends to execute him anyway. Myers’ case is rife with legal issues, but he received no federal court review because his appellate lawyer abandoned him without notice, letting the filing deadline for challenging Myers’ conviction and death sentence expire. In a recent feature story in The Nation, reporter Ashoka Mukpo tells the story of how the intellectually-disabled Myers was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of his neighbor, Ludie Mae Tucker, even after his jury recommended 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life.

Mukpo reports that the prosecution evidence against Myers was problematic. Two informants initially told police that, on the night of the murder, another man—Anthony “Cool Breeze” Ballentine— had traded a VCR stolen from Tucker’s house for crack cocaine. Another witness corroborated their story, informing police that she had seen Ballentine, wearing a white shirt stained with blood, run into an alley near Tucker’s house. Weeks later, another man, Marzell Ewing, who had known Ballentine for 30 years, came forward to claim a reward for information about the murder. He told police he’d seen a short, stocky man near the crime scene, carrying the stolen VCR. After his statement, the original informants changed their stories, naming Myers as the man who had traded the VCR for drugs. Myers later admitted that he had found the VCR in an alley next to his house—a common drop spot for stolen goods. Because of his intellectual disability, Myers was unable to tell police when he had found the VCR, leading police to conclude he was lying. In 2004, Ewing recanted his story. In a signed statement, he revealed that a detective had offered to eliminate the record of a prior arrest if Ewing testified against Myers. Ewing’s statement admitted that his testimony was “not truthful. I did not see who brought the VCR to the shot house that night.”

Other evidence also suggested Myers is innocent. Before she died, Tucker was able to describe her assailant to the police and the clothing he was wearing. Although Tucker knew Myers, she did not identify him as her attacker. Multiple witnesses testified at Myers’ s trial that he had been wearing a dark shirt the night of the murder, not the light shirt described by Tucker. No physical evidence linked Myers to the murder and none of the fingerprints found at the crime scene matched his. Mae Puckett, one of the jurors in Myers’ case, said she and a few other jurors were not convinced of his guilt but felt pressured by the majority of the jury to vote for guilt. One white juror later spoke to Myers’ defense team, referring to him as a “thug” and describing him with a racial slur. “I never thought for a moment that he did it,” Puckett said, but she and the other jurors who doubted his guilt agreed to vote for convict if the jury would recommend a life sentence. Nonetheless, exercising a since-repealed power to override a jury’s vote for life, the trial judge sentenced Myers to death.

After Myers was sentenced to death, a Tennessee attorney, Earle J. Schwarz, agreed to represent him pro bono in his post-conviction appeals. But when the state courts denied Myers’ appeal, Schwarz never told Myers and never filed a federal habeas corpus petition, causing Myers to miss the federal filing deadline. “Mr. Schwarz decided that he could no longer represent Rocky, but unfortunately he just sat in a room and said that quietly to himself,” said Kacey Keeton, who now represented Myers. “He didn’t tell Rocky, he didn’t call the courts and let them know, he didn’t tell the prosecutors, he just quit doing anything.” On behalf of Myers, Keeton is now seeking clemency from Governor Kay Ivey, Myers’ last chance to avoid execution. “The fact that we are potentially executing a man who did not have his day in court because an attorney screwed up should give everybody pause,” Keeton said.

Alfred Dewayne Brown Declared Actually Innocent

Death-row exoneree Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured) was declared “actually innocent” by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg on March 1, 2019, making Brown eligible for state compensation for the time he spent wrongfully imprisoned on Texas’ death row. “My obligation as an advocate is not to tell people what they want to hear but to tell them the truth,” Ogg said at a press conference. “Alfred Brown was wrongfully convicted through prosecutorial misconduct.” Brown was freed in 2015, ten years after he was convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of a Houston police officer and a store clerk during a robbery. Until the declaration by Ogg, Brown was ineligible for compensation because Texas law requires that, if a prisoner is exonerated by the dismissal of charges against them, they cannot receive compensation unless the prosecutor says in an affidavit that he or she “believes that the defendant is actually innocent of the crime for which the person was sentenced.”

Brown’s exoneration gained momentum following the discovery of exculpatory phone records in the garage of a Houston police officer in 2013 that corroborated Brown’s claim that he was at his girlfriend’s apartment just minutes before the killings took place and could not possibly have been at murder scene at the time of the killings. Prosecutor Daniel Rizzo claimed that the records had been accidentally misplaced, rather than intentionally withheld. But in 2018, Ogg’s office discovered an email showing that Rizzo knew about the records well before Brown’s trial. A timeline of the case showed that Rizzo’s investigator had sought out the records in an attempt to rebut grand jury testimony by Brown’s girlfriend that he spoke to her by phone from her apartment shortly before the murders. Rizzo then threatened her with prosecution and jailed her until she changed her testimony. “It is impossible to examine the conviction of Alfred Dewayne Brown without confronting prosecutorial misconduct,” wrote special prosecutor John Raley, who conducted more than 1,000 hours of investigation into Brown’s case and produced the report that led to Ogg’s actual innocence declaration. “ADA Daniel Rizzo presided over a Grand Jury that abusively manipulated witnesses to supply evidence for a chosen narrative. He was provided notice of the existence and meaning of exculpatory evidence, failed to produce it to the defense and avoided it during trial. Further investigation of his conduct is warranted.” In his report, Raley concluded, “By clear and convincing evidence, no reasonable juror would fail to have a reasonable doubt about whether Brown is guilty of murder. Therefore his case meets the legal definition of ‘actual innocence.’”

Lawyers who had worked on Brown’s appeals lauded the announcement. Attorney Casey Kaplan said, “The consonant bell of justice rings loudly today and shares what Alfred Brown’s family, supporters and attorneys have known for over a decade — that he is actually innocent. It is a good day.” Brian Stolarz, the lead attorney who secured Brown’s exoneration, said, “We are heartened that he found what we have known all along: Dewayne Brown is actually innocent and was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. We commend the District Attorney’s commitment to the truth and ensuring that miscarriages of justice like this never happen again in Harris County.” Houston’s police union expressed anger at the decision, holding a separate press conference immediately after Ogg’s. Union president Joe Gamaldi urged the police department to bring the case back to a grand jury.

After More Than Three Decades, Two Death-Row Prisoners Freed in California

Two former California death-row prisoners who had spent a combined 70 years in prison are now free men, after federal courts overturned their convictions and local prosecutors agreed to plea deals on non-capital charges. James Hardy (pictured, left) was freed on February 14, 2019 after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a suspended sentence and release on probation. Freddie Lee Taylor (pictured, right) was released on February 20 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and a sentence of time served. Both men have claims of innocence, but their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List. Each spent more than 30 years on death row.

James Hardy was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1984 for the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan. Hardy was tried along with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly and Clifford Morgan, the husband and father of the victims. Clifford was convicted of hiring Reilly and Hardy to kill his family so he could collect insurance money. Prosecutors argued that Hardy was the actual killer and Reilly the middleman in the conspiracy. On appeal, Hardy argued that his trial attorney had been ineffective because he had failed to investigate or present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness was actually the killer. The California Supreme Court overturned Hardy’s death sentence, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later overturned his conviction, writing, “Hardy’s attorney failed him, and the State of California failed Hardy by putting a man on the stand that it should have known committed the crime.” The court said, “there is a substantial likelihood that the jury would not have convicted Hardy had [his trial lawyer] performed effectively.” Rather than retry Hardy, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal.

Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death in Contra Costa County in 1986. Taylor had experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, started using drugs by the age of 10, and was housed from age 13 to 17 in a juvenile detention center that was described in court records as a “gruesome, dehumanizing and frightening world where rape, beatings and fear were constant.” He was arrested in 1984 during a “family dispute” and was sent to a mental institution, where he attempted suicide. Despite doctors’ recommendations that he be placed in a mental hospital because he was a danger to himself or others, he was released by hospital staff. He burglarized the home of 84-year-old Carmen Vasquez, leaving fingerprints in her home. When she was murdered days later, he was identified as a suspect because his fingerprints were at the crime scene. Taylor’s long history of mental illness was ignored at his trial, where his lawyer never requested and the court did not independently order a competency evaluation. His appeal lawyers argued that his conviction was invalid because he was not competent to stand trial. A federal judge reversed Taylor’s conviction in 2016 and the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision in 2018, saying there was insufficient evidence to accurately assess Taylor’s mental health at the time of the crime and his trial. The federal court gave Contra Costa County prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him, but they instead agreed to the plea deal. “Had he not had the benefit of zealous appellate lawyers dedicated to his cause, Freddie Lee Taylor may well have been executed,” Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said. “His is but one case. Others like him who have meritorious claims may not be so fortunate. There are over 700 more people on death row — many waiting for an attorney to be appointed to their case and others still waiting for their cases to be finally resolved by the courts.”

42 Years After Death Sentence, Federal Appeals Court Says Charles Ray Finch ‘Actually Innocent’

A federal appeals court has found 80-year-old Charles Ray Finch (pictured) “actually innocent” of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina 42 years ago. The pronouncement came in a unanimous ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 25, 2019. In that decision, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized innocence alone as grounds to overturn a conviction, so the appeals court could not set Finch free. Instead, the panel reversed a lower court’s denial of relief and sent the case back for adjudication of constitutional violations relating to Finch’s innocence claim. Jim Coleman, Finch’s lawyer and the co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said he now hopes to convince North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to “remedy the miscarriage of justice in joining us in a motion to overturn Ray’s conviction and release him without any further proceedings in court.”

Finch was convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman during a failed robbery attempt, but he has consistently maintained his innocence. In 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the state’s then-mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit identified significant problems with the evidence used to convict Finch. He was subjected to “suggestive lineups,” in which he was the only suspect dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, the same style of clothing that the eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, said the perpetrator was wearing. Such lineups have since been declared unconstitutional. “These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Judge Gregory wrote. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.” The court also noted that Jones, who the court said “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” told police that the killer was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and had never mentioned to the police that the shooter had any facial hair. At the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and distinctive sideburns. A new review of the autopsy evidence decades after the crime disclosed that Holloman had been killed with a pistol, not a shotgun and new ballistics evidence contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. “This new evidence,” the court said, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.”

Citing Evidence of Innocence, Race Discrimination, Georgia Court Grants New Trial to Former Death-Row Prisoner

A Georgia judge has granted a new trial to Johnny Lee Gates (pictured recently, right, and at the time of trial, left) based on new evidence that excludes him as the source of DNA on implements used by the killer during the 1976 rape and murder for which Gates was sentenced to death. DNA testing disclosed that Gates’s DNA was not found on a necktie and the bathrobe belt the prosecution said were used by the killer to bind Kathrina Wright, the 19-year-old wife of a soldier stationed at Fort Benning during the murder. In a January 10, 2019, decision overturning Gates’s conviction, Senior Muscogee County Superior Court Judge John Allen credited the analysis of defense DNA expert Mark Perlin that Gates’s DNA was not present on the evidence. Judge Allen noted that Perline had trained the two Georgia Bureau of Investigation scientists the prosecution relied upon in the most recent court proceedings in the case and that the testimony of the GBI witnesses supported Perlin's conclusions. Judge Allen wrote that “[t]he exclusion of Gates’ profile to the DNA on the two items is material and may be considered exculpatory” and entitled Gates to a new trial.

Gates, who is African American, was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a racially charged case. His death sentence was overturned in 2003 based upon evidence that he is intellectually disabled, and he was resentenced to life. Heightening the racial tensions of a black man accused of raping and murdering a young white woman, prosecutors deliberately excluded African American jurors from the case. Lawyers from the Georgia Innocence Project and Southern Center for Human Rights filed a motion in March 2018 arguing that Columbus, Georgia prosecutors engaged in a pattern and practice of systematically striking black prospective jurors because of their race in Gates’s case and six other capital cases with black defendants, discriminatorily empanelling all- or nearly-all-white juries in those cases. The prosecutors’ jury selection notes in those seven capital trials showed that the state attorneys in his case had carefully tracked the race of jurors, struck every black juror they could, and repeatedly wrote derogatory comments about blacks and black prospective jurors. A Georgia Tech mathematics professor provided expert testimony that the probability that black jurors were removed for race-neutral reasons was infinitesimally small – 0.000000000000000000000000000004 percent. In an opinion that excoriated local prosecutors for “undeniable ... systematic race discrimination during jury selection,” Judge Allen found that the prosecutors “identified the black prospective jurors by race in their jury selection notes, singled them out … and struck them to try Gates before an all-white jury.” However, the court said the race discrimination against Gates was not grounds to grant him a new trial because he had not shown that the lawyers who previously represented him did not have access to the evidence of systematic discrimination.

With Backing of New Governor, Florida Clemency Board Posthumously Pardons the “Groveland Four”

On January 11, 2019, the Florida Clemency Board unanimously granted posthumous pardons to the “Groveland Four,” four young African-American men falsely accused of raping a young white woman in Lake County, Florida in 1949. During the racist hysteria following the accusation, white mobs burned down black residences, a massive white posse lynched a black suspect, all-white juries condemned two innocent men to death and an innocent teen to a life sentence, and a racist sheriff murdered one of the men and attempted to kill another. Gov. Ron DeSantis, convening the board for the first time since his election, urged it to grant clemency, calling the notorious case a “miscarriage of justice.” The state legislature issued a formal apology to the family members of the men in 2017, but former Gov. Rick Scott had taken no action on a pardon.

The four black men – Charles Greenlee, Ernest Thomas, Walter Irvin and Samuel Shepherd – were accused of the 1949 rape of a 17-year-old white woman, Norma Padgett. Thomas escaped from custody but was hunted down and murdered by an angry mob. He was reportedly shot 400 times. White mobs burned and shot at the homes of black families, many of whom fled and never returned. Greenlee, Irvin, and Shepherd were beaten until they falsely confessed to the crime. All-white juries convicted them, sentencing World War II veterans Irvin and Shepherd (pictured, right) to death and Greenlee (pictured, left), who was only 16 years old, to life in prison. The NAACP took up the men’s case, and they were represented by Thurgood Marshall, among others. In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned Irvin and Shepherd’s convictions. Shortly after the reversal, Lake County Sheriff Willis V. McCall shot the two handcuffed men while he was driving them to a court appearance, and posed for a photo in front of their prone bodies. McCall claimed that he had acted in self-defense. Shepherd died. Irvin, who survived by playing dead until others arrived at the scene, was retried and once again sentenced to death by an all-white jury. He received a last-minute reprieve when the prosecutor expressed doubt as to his guilt and his sentence was commuted to life in prison. Greenlee and Irvin were both eventually paroled, but Irvin died just one year after his release. Greenlee died in 2012.

Carol Greenlee, Charles Greenlee’s daughter, testified in favor of the pardons. In an interview, she said, “I wanted two things to happen. I wanted the world to know the truth, and I wanted my daddy’s name cleared.” Governor DeSantis said, “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that [the] ideals of justice were satisfied. Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.” In addition to the pardon and the legislature’s apology, the Groveland Four also received an apology from the Orlando Sentinel, which inflamed passions with its racist coverage of the case in 1949. In particular, the newspaper apologized for running a political cartoon as the grand jury convened, showing four empty electric chairs with the title “No Compromise!” A Sentinel editorial published the day before the pardons said, “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.”

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