NEW VOICES: Texas Prosecutors Address Concerns About Innocence

In an article about the approaching 1,000th execution in the U.S., Tarrant County prosecutor Alan Levy and Harris County District Attorney Charles Rosenthal addressed the current state of the death penalty and the impact of growing concerns about the issue of innocence:

Levy, who heads the criminal division of the Tarrant County D.A.'s office, said that he often wonders whether the executions that have taken place have been worth the expense, controversy, and time: "It's a pretty clumsy mechanism." When the penalty isn't paid until "eight or 10 or 15 years later, it's difficult to think of it being very useful." Levy added that prosecutors in his office are encountering prospective jurors who are concerned about sentencing an innocent person to death. According to Levy, these prospective jurors are "absolutely convinced that innocent people are being executed," and believe that they might "wake up in the middle of the night and find out they've sentenced an innocent man to death row."

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DOCUMENTARY: "After Innocence" Tells the Stories of the Wrongfully Convicted Following Their Release

A new documentary, "After Innocence," by Jessica Sanders and Marc Simon, is opening in cities around the country.  This award-winning film (Sundance and other film festivals) tells the stories of wrongfully convicted defendants who were exonerated through DNA evidence, and about what happens to them after their release as they attempt to rebuild their lives.  The film opens in Washington, D.C. at the Landmark's E St. Cinema, 555 11th St. NW, on Friday, Nov. 4.   A discussion will follow the film and bulk discounts are available. 

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Arizona Man Freed From Death Row

Clarence David Hill (pictured) has been freed after spending nearly 16 years on Arizona's death row. Hill, who is terminally ill, recently had his 1st-degree murder conviction and death sentence overturned. Though he maintains his innocence in the 1989 murder of his landlord, Hill chose to avoid the prospect of a new trial by accepting an agreement that allowed him to plead guilty to 2nd-degree murder and be sentenced to time already served. Hill's attorney noted that his client only took the plea agreement so that he could be with his family.

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NEW RESOURCE: "Justice Denied" Features News on the Wrongly Convicted

The latest edition of the magazine Justice Denied features stories of those who have been wrongly convicted in the United States and internationally, including several death penalty cases.  One article is about Lena Baker, who was posthumously pardoned 50 years after Georgia executed her for the murder Ernest B. Knight. The magainze also features a story about the innocence claims raised by Frances Newton, who was recently executed in Texas. Other articles discuss the Streamlined Procedures Act (legislation before Congress that seeks to limit capital appeals), inadequate representation, and compensation for the wrongfully convicted. (Justice Denied, Issue 29, Summer 2005). View this magazine on the Web. See Innocence and Resources.

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Former Death Row Inmate Acquitted at Re-Trial

A jury in Arizona acquitted Christopher Huerstel of first-degree murder and of attempted armed robbery of a Tucson pizzeria in which 3 people were killed.  Huerstel, who was 17-years-old at the time the crime was committed, was orignally convicted along with a co-defendant and both were sentenced to death in 2001.  His conviction was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court because of errors by the trial judge.  The jury at the re-trial was unable to reach a verdict on second-degree murder, and Huerstel may face another trial on that charge.   The defense claims that the prosecution had argued that there was no evidence of second-degree murder.  The prosecution was not able to seek the death penalty at Huerstel's re-trial because he had been a juvenile. 

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Supreme Court Agrees to Consider Third Death Penalty Case Involving Issues of Innocence

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review the case of a death row inmate from South Carolina who was denied the opportunity at trial to present evidence of the possible guilt of another person.  In Holmes v. South Carolina, No. 04-1327, the Court will consider whether the state's rules regarding such evidence deprived Holmes of his due process rights to present a complete defense.  In 2004, the South Carolina Supreme Court had ruled that the state's evidence against Holmes was so strong that he should not be allowed to present evidence that another person had been seen near the scene of the crime and had confessed to the murder that Holmes was charged with.  One judge dissented, saying that Holmes should have been allowed to put on evidence of third-party guilt because Holmes had sufficiently challenged the state's evidence against him.  See the South Carolina decision in State v. Holmes.

In its coming term starting on October 3, the U.S. Supreme Court will also hear House v. Bell, concerning the standard of evidence needed for a new claim of innocence, and Oregon v. Guzek, concerning the right to put on evidence of innocence during the penalty phase of a capital trial.

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INNOCENCE: It Happens in China, Too

Qin Yanhong was convicted of rape and murder in China in 1999.  A panel of judges sentenced him to death.  His conviction was the result of a confession that followed days of torture and interrorgation by police, despite the fact that such tactics are forbidden under Chinese law.  The senior detective on the case expressed absolute confidence in the conviction and even offered to accept the punishment if it was proven wrong.  In 2001, another man walked into a nearby police station and confessed to a spate of killings and described the murder that Mr. Qin had been accused of in perfect detail.  Even then, officials tried to cover up the new revelations and keep Mr. Qin on death row until a reporter heard about the confession by the serial killer.  Qin was finally freed in 2002.  In 2005 alone, there have been about 12 similar reversals of convictions, including a number for murder. 

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Postal Inspector Voices Doubts About Ohio Defendant's Guilt

U.S. Postal Inspector Gregory Duerr of Cleveland has called for a delay in an upcoming Ohio execution because he said official testimony given in the case of John Spirko was unreliable.  Spirko's November 15 execution date should be "delayed until the serious issues indicating innocence (are) truly resolved," Duerr noted.   In an open letter to Chief Inspector Leroy Heath, Duerr questioned the character of a key state's witness, retired postal inspector Paul Hartman. Hartman had interrogated Spirko numerous times about the 1982 kidnapping and murder of Elgin postmaster Betty Jane Mottinger.  Duerr stated that the postal service's support of Hartman's statements in the case has put the group "on the side of injustice" because Hartman had a reputation for unprofessional conduct and was forced to retire early after several inspectors complained about him.  Duerr said he was threatened by his superiors after he raised questions about Hartman's role in Spirko's conviction. Duerr wrote: "it appears an individual who did not commit the crime is going to be executed." The Ohio Attorney General's Office has received a copy of the letter and has sent it to the state parole board and to Spirko's attorneys. The parole board has set a second clemency hearing for Spirko on October 12.

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State and National Leaders Urge Closer Examination Before Scheduled Ohio Execution

John Spirko is scheduled for execution on September 20 in Ohio but the state's Attorney General, Jim Petro, has recommended further review of the case because his senior deputy misrepresented evidence to the Parole Board.  The Board voted 6-3 against leniency for Spirko, who received a death sentence for a 1982 murder.  Other national leaders, such as former FBI Director William S. Sessions, have also urged the state to investigate the case more closely.  In a letter to Ohio Governor Bob Taft, Sessions asked that Spirko's sentence be commuted, noting, "I believe that John Spirko may have been unjustly convicted."  Sessions is one of four retired federal judges who have questioned Spirko's conviction.  Defense attorneys assert that Spirko's conviction was based on faulty eyewitness identification and the testimony of jailhouse informants who received leniency and later recanted.

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NEW RESOURCE: "Victims of Justice Revisited" Explores the Extraordinary Case of Rolando Cruz

Victims of Justice Revisited, a new book by Thomas Frisbie and Randy Garrett, details the innocence case of Rolando Cruz, an Illinois man who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row for the 1983 murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. The book tells the story of Cruz and his two co-defendants, Alejandro Hernandez and Stephen Buckley, from the day of the crime to the groundbreaking trial of seven law enforcement officers accused of conspiring to deny Cruz a fair trial. Cruz's case was one of several innocence cases that led then-Governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on executions in Illinois. In this book, the authors use Cruz's case to provide readers with a detailed study of the death penalty in the United States. Author Scott Turow notes, "This is the first comprehensive account of the most extraordinary criminal case I know - the infamous Nicarico murder -and the 12-year crusade for justice which it inspired. The two men who were on the scene the longest, and who probably know more about this case than anyone else, have written a gripping, provocative, often moving account of how great evil -and good-came to take place." (Northwestern University Press, May 2005). See Innocence and Books.

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