Innocence

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."

Powerful New Documentaries Explore Death-Penalty Issues

Three powerful new documentaries that explore the modern death penalty in the United States are set to premiere this April. Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis and Julius Tennon are executive producers of The Last Defense, a new documentary series premiering for the first time at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival on April 27. The seven-episode documentary series exposes flaws in the U.S. justice system through the personal narratives of death row prisoners Darlie Routier and Julius Jones, both whom maintain their innocence, and premieres June 12 on ABC. On April 30, PBS will air the television premiere of Jamie Meltzer's documentary True Conviction, which follows the detective agency started by Christopher Scott, the late Johnnie Lindsey, and Steven Phill—three wrongly convicted Dallas men who were exonerated after spending a combined 60 years in prison—as they work to attempt to free death-sentenced Max Soffar and other wrongly convicted prisoners. Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, co-founders and co-directors of the Innocence Project have hailed the film as "unprecedented" in its approach, "focusing on the experiences of a group of exonerees who are themselves learning to investigate" and "highlight[ing] the challenges and roadblocks of investigating and proving another man’s innocence." The film premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and was awarded a Special Jury Mention in the Best Documentary Category. On April 11, the American University School of Communications premiered excerpts of another documentary film, In the Executioner's Shadow, produced by AU professors Maggie Burnette Stogner and Richard Stack. That documentary weaves the intersecting stories of Vicki and Syl Scheiber, whose daughter was murdered, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Karen Brassard, and former Virginia state executioner Jerry Givens, who had carried out 62 executions, as they grapple with moral and personal issues arising from their involvement in capital punishment. In a panel discussion moderated by the producers, Diann Rust-Tierney, Executive Director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, joined the film's protagonists in discussing those issues. Stack is a former public defender and author of two books on the death penalty Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment and Grave Injustice: Unearthing Wrongful Executions. He said he hopes the film will spark dialogue on the complex subject. "We've discovered through our various interviews that one side talks past the other. It's a mutual predicament. And we're trying to get people to talk to each other," Stack said. Following a screening of the first hour of the Julius Jones case in The Last Defense, the producers will lead a panel discussion with death-penalty lawyer Dale Baich.

Vicente Benavides, Sentenced to Death by False Forensics, to Be Freed After 26 Years on Death Row

Mexican national Vicente Figueroa Benavides (pictured), wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in Kern County, California for supposedly raping, sodomizing, and murdering his girlfriend’s 21-month-old daughter, will soon be freed after nearly 26 years on death row. He will be the 162nd person and fifth foreign national exonerated from a U.S. death row since 1973. In a media advisory on April 17, 2018, Kern District Attorney Lisa Green announced on April 17, 2018 that her office would be dropping all charges against Benavides, one month after the California Supreme Court vacated the former farmworker’s convictions for sexually assaulting and murdering Consuelo Verdugo, which the court called a product of “extensive,” “pervasive,” “impactful,” and “false” forensic testimony. The girl, the court said, had never been sexually assaulted and may actually have died from being hit by a car. At trial, the prosecution presented testimony from forensic pathologist Dr. James Diblin, who told the jury that Consuelo had died from “blunt force penetrating injury of the anus” and claimed that many of her internal injuries were the result of rape. He further testified that arm injuries, other internal trauma, dilated pupils, and compression rib fractures she had sustained had been “caused by tight squeezing during a sexual assault.” During post-conviction proceedings, Benavides’s lawyers presented evidence from Dr. Astrid Heger, one of the country’s leading experts on child abuse, debunking Diblin’s false testimony. Dr. Heger described Diblin’s assertion that Consuelo’s injuries had been the product of sexual assault as “so unlikely to the point of being absurd. … No such mechanism of injury has ever been reported in any literature of child abuse or child assault.” Rather, she said, the internal injuries Consuelo sustained were commonly seen in victims of automobile accidents. Hospital records and witness statements obtained by Benavides’s appeal lawyers also undermined Diblin’s false testimony. Records showed that the examining physicians from Consuelo’s initial hospitalization had not seen any signs of bleeding when she was brought to the emergency room, and a nurse who helped treat Consuelo reported that neither she nor any of her colleagues had seen evidence of anal or vaginal trauma when the child arrived. Indeed, the court said, the medical records showed that the injuries to Consuelo’s genitalia and anus that Diblin had claimed were evidence of sexual assault were actually “attribut[able] to medical intervention,” including repeated failed efforts to insert a catheter and the improper use of an adult-sized catheter on the small child. Associate Justice Carol Corrigan—a former prosecutor—described the forensic testimony that Benavides had brutally raped and anally sodomized Consuelo as “among the most hair-raising false evidence that I’ve encountered in all the time that I’ve been looking at criminal cases.” On appeal, prosecutors admitted that the forensic evidence they used to convict Benavides was false, but asked the state court to sustain a conviction for second-degree murder. Even after agreeing on April 17, 2018 to drop all charges, District Attorney Green refused to concede that Benavides was innocent of murder. “[I]t doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the physical child abuse,” she said. “My decision not to retry the case is not the same as a finding of factual innocence[.] I'm not stating in any way that he’s factually innocent of the death of the child.” At least ten men and women have been exonerated from death rows across the United States after having been wrongly convicted for killing a child. In the cases of Rodricus Crawford and Sabrina Butler, the medical evidence also showed that no crime had occurred, but the defendants were convicted based on false forensic testimony. Benavides is the fourth person exonerated from California’s death row since 1980. A California prison spokesperson said he is expected the be freed “within a few days,” as soon as the Kern County court orders his release. [UPDATE: The court formally dismissed all charges against Mr. Benavides and he was released on April 19, 2018.]

Former Prosecutors Say Intellectually Disabled Louisiana Man Entitled to New Trial After Exculpatory Evidence Withheld

Forty-four former state and federal prosecutors and Department of Justice officials—including former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey—have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant a new trial to Corey Williams (pictured), saying that Caddo Parish, Louisiana prosecutors violated their duty to ensure that “justice shall be done” by withholding exculpatory evidence in a murder case that sent an intellectually disabled teenager to death row. Williams’s petition alleges that police and prosecutors knew that Williams had been framed by the actual killers, that police coerced him to falsely confess, and that the prosecution deliberately withheld witness statements given to police that could have helped Williams prove he had been framed. No physical evidence linked Williams to the 1998 robbery and murder of Jarvis Griffin, who was delivering a pizza to a Shreveport home. Several witnesses said they saw Gabriel Logan, Nathan Logan, and Chris Moore (nicknamed “Rapist”) steal money and pizza from Griffin, while the sixteen-year-old Williams was simply standing outside at the time. The victim’s blood was found on Gabriel Logan’s sweatshirt; Nathan Logan’s fingerprints were found on the empty clip of the murder weapon; and Moore was in possession of some of the proceeds of the robbery. Only Moore claimed to have seen Williams commit the killing. Williams, who had intellectual disability caused by severe lead poisoning from regularly eating dirt and paint chips as a young child and who as a teenager still repeatedly urinated himself, initially told police he had nothing to do with the killing. But after six hours of police interrogation, Williams confessed to the murder. After detectives presented the older men with Williams’s confession, their stories changed to corroborate it. At trial, Caddo Parish prosecutor Hugo Holland presented the confession and Moore’s testimony as evidence of WIlliams’s guilt. Then, having withheld from the defense police statements that implicated his witnesses in framing Williams, Holland ridiculed the defense claim that Williams had been framed, calling it “the biggest set of circumstances concerning a conspiracy since John Kennedy was killed in 1963.” The prosecutors’ amicus brief in support of Williams states that “[t]he prosecutor’s goal is not only to strive for a fair trial, but also to protect public safety by ensuring that innocent persons are not convicted while the guilty remain free.” It stresses that this is a case in which, “[h]ad the statements not been withheld, there is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been different.” Ben Cohen, Williams’s longtime lawyer, said that “[w]hat the prosecutor and the police did is outrageous. They knew Williams was innocent and they just went forward anyway.... They don’t think his life matters.” Eleven men have been exonerated from Louisiana's death row since the 1970s, including the Caddo Parish exonerations of Glen Ford and Rodricus Crawford. All eleven cases involved police and/or prosecutorial misconduct. Holland himself has been implicated in withholding witness statements in another capital prosecution showing the defendant had not participated in the killing. Holland was forced to resign his position as an assistant district attorney for Caddo Parish in 2012 after he and another prosecutor were caught falsifying federal forms in an attempt to obtain a cache of M-16 rifles for themselves through a Pentagon program that offers surplus military gear to police departments. Williams was released from death row after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Atkins v. Virginia, barring the death penalty for persons with intellectual disability, and is currently serving a life sentence.

After 22 Years, District Attorney’s Office to Examine Possible Innocence of Philadelphia Death-Row Prisoner

Twenty-two years after Walter Ogrod (pictured) was sentenced to death for a murder he insists he did not commit, a new Philadelphia District Attorney’s administration has dropped the office’s long-time opposition to Ogrod’s request for DNA testing and has referred the case for review by a revitalized Conviction Integrity Unit. As that review proceeds, an hour-long documentary on the case—aired April 8 as part of CNN’s Headline News Network series Death Row Stories—presents what Philadelphia Daily News columnist Will Bunch describes as “compelling evidence that the snitch testimony that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office used to convict Ogrod was fabricated” and that the confession the intellectually impaired man gave to Philadelphia police was coerced. Ogrod was sentenced to death in 1996 for the high-profile 1988 murder of 4-year-old Barbara Jean Horn, whose body was found discarded in a television box on a Northeast Philadelphia street. No physical evidence linked Ogrod to the murder, but four years after the murder, police questioned the 25-year-old truck driver—variously described as “slow,” possibly autistic, and lacking “common sense”—for 14 hours, telling him he was repressing memories of the murder. In the documentary, a friend of Ogrod’s recounts that Ogrod signed a confession after police told him that if he didn’t, he would have to wait for a lawyer in a holding area with other prisoners and “you know what they do to child molesters down there.” Author Tom Lowenstein, who investigated the case and wrote the 2017 book The Trials of Walter Ogrod, says in the documentary that the 16-page confession, hand written by the detective, “is a flowing monologue of thought and process and description that Walter Ogrod is not capable of…. He could not have given the confession.” Ogrod was tried twice for the murder. In 1993, the jury in his first trial appeared to have acquitted him, filling out “not guilty” on the verdict sheet. But as the verdict was being read, one juror said he had changed his mind, resulting in a mistrial. Following the mistrial, Ogrod was celled with John Hall, a notorious (and later discredited) jailhouse informant nicknamed “The Monsignor” for his proclivity in producing confessions. Hall’s widow, Phyllis Hall, explains in the documentary that Hall introduced Ogrod to another prisoner, Jay Wolchansky, and worked with police and prosecutors to feed Wolchansky information to implicate Ogrod in the murder. Wolchansky then testified against Ogrod in his second trial, claiming that Ogrod had confessed. Phyllis Hall says her husband “would get some of the truth and he would sit in his cell and make up stories—and he was darned good at it.” For years, Philadelphia's district attorneys—first Lynne Abraham, who oversaw Ogrod’s prosecution, and later her successor, Seth Williams—fought requests from Ogrod’s lawyers to test DNA evidence that might prove his innocence. While campaigning for District Attorney in 2017, Krasner told Bunch “it is clear that for decades the practice and policy of the District Attorney’s Office has been to win convictions at any cost, too often at the cost of justice itself.” When he took office in January 2018, Krasner rankled many entrenched prosecutors by emphasizing a reform agenda that included a willingness to take a look at questionably obtained past convictions. Krasner has not spoken about the specifics of the Ogrod case, but told Bunch, “Four-year-old Barbara Jean Horn was murdered. If the wrong person went to death row for it—and I specify that I am saying if—then the person who did murder her walked free.”

BOOK: “Surviving Execution” Chronicles Miscarriages of Justice in the Richard Glossip Case

In his new book Surviving Execution: A Miscarriage of Justice and the Fight to End the Death Penalty, Sky News reporter Ian Woods tells the story of his relationship with condemned Oklahoma prisoner Richard Glossip, whose case gained prominence after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review his challenge to the state’s lethal-injection procedures. Although Glossip’s case is most frequently associated with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Glossip v. Gross and Oklahoma’s dramatic, last-minute recission of his execution warrant when the state’s anonymous drug supplier delivered the wrong execution drug, Surviving Execution focuses more on Glossip’s conviction itself and the author’s belief that Oklahoma is attempting to execute an innocent man. Glossip, who has consistently maintained his innocence, was prosecuted and sentenced to death in Oklahoma County by a prosecuting administration riddled with misconduct in capital cases. The book chronicles the details of Glossip’s conviction, exposing the numerous holes Woods sees in the state’s case. Against the backdrop of multiple execution dates, Woods explains how he developed a friendship with Glossip, and in turn, witnessed the intensive ourpouring of support that Glossip gained as his execution date approached, including the high-profile involvement of Sister Helen Prejean, actress Susan Sarandon, and British businessman Richard Branson. Woods—whom Glossip asked to witness the execution—also discusses his personal struggle over whether to watch a man die at the hands of the state. Glossip's execution, originally scheduled for January 2015, was stayed while the Supreme Court reviewed his lethal-injection case. After his narrow 5-4 loss in that case, Oklahoma rescheduled his execution for September 2015. That execution date was stayed by the Oklahoma courts to consider Glossip's claim of innocence. Ultimately, the state court gave the go-ahead for the execution, and Glossip's execution was rescheduled for later in the month. However, that execution attempt was halted when the state failed to obtain the correct lethal-injection drug and all executions in Oklahoma were put on hold while the state reviewed its execution procedures. Woods’ book attempts to combine journalistic independence with his search for the truth and his conclusion that Glossip was not guilty of the murder of victim Barry Van Trease. In a Sky News podcast just before the aborted execution was to occur, Woods summarized Glossip’s case, saying, “There is no incontrovertible proof that Richard Glossip is guilty of murder. No forensic evidence, no eyewitness account, other than that of the killer, who saved his own skin by blaming Richard. The state of Oklahoma is going to kill him on Wednesday, so I’m not going to sit on the fence any longer. I'm telling you: I think that’s wrong.” In Surviving Execution, Woods explains why.

Ohio Governor Commutes Death Sentence of William Montgomery

Ohio Governor John Kasich has commuted the death sentence of 52-year-old William Montgomery (pictured) to life without the possibility of parole. Montgomery was scheduled to be executed on April 11. The one-page proclamation granting clemency (pictured right, click to enlarge) did not specify the grounds for Kasich's action and was not accompanied by a news release or statement to the media. The order, issued March 26, stated simply, "after consideration of all relevant factors, I ... have concluded that a commutation of the death sentence of William T.  Montgomery is warranted." Faced with issues of prosecutorial misconduct and questionable forensic evidence, the Ohio Parole Board voted 6-4 on March 16, 2018 to recommend that Kasich grant executive clemency to Montgomery, who was convicted and sentence to death in 1986 for two murders he maintains he did not commit. Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates opposed Montgomery's clemency application. An Ohio federal district court, affirmed by a federal appeals court panel, overturned Montgomery's conviction in 2007 because prosecutors had suppressed evidence and witness statements that undermined the state's version of how the crime occurred, but the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reinstated the conviction in 2009, with five judges dissenting. Montgomery's supporters argued to the parole board that there was too much doubt about his guilt to risk executing a potentially innocent man. Prosecutors in the case withheld from the defense evidence that multiple witnesses had seen Debra Ogle, one of the women Montomgery was found guilty of murdering, alive four days after the date prosecutors said Montgomery had killed her and left her body in the woods. An independent review of the autopsy report showed that Ogle's body likely had been discovered within hours of her death. Adding to the doubt in the case, Montgomery's co-defendant, Glover Heard, told police five different stories before settling on a version of events that fit the prosecution's theory, and instead of facing the death penalty, he was sentenced to a term of years with eligibility for parole. The clemency grant was the sixth time Kasich had commuted a death sentence to life without parole. It was the second time a governor commuted a death sentence in 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott commuted Thomas "Bart" Whitaker's sentence on February 22, less than an hour before he was scheduled to be executed. There have been 287 grants of clemency to death-row prisoners in the United States on humanitarian grounds since 1976. Ohio governors have granted clemency to death-row prisoners twenty times in that time period.

Pages