Inmates With Severe Mental Illness Underscore Broader Death Penalty Problems

In his final article for 2006, columnist Richard Cohen chose to highlight the "madness of the death penalty" and to draw attention to the execution of those with mental illness. Cohen used the case of Gregory Thompson, a severely mentally ill Tennessee death row inmate, to illustrate some of the broader problems with the death penalty.

Thompson is delusional, paranoid, schizophrenic, and depressed. He takes 12 pills every day and receives twice-monthly anti-psychotic injections. Cohen notes that although there is no doubt about his guilt, there is grave doubt "about the constitutionality, not to mention the decency, of executing an insane man. . . . The idea, according to a recent account of his case in the Wall Street Journal, is to make him sane enough to be put to death." Cohen voices concern about a broad range of uncertainties with the death penalty, including the danger of convicting innocent people. He notes that Americans are growing more skeptical of capital punishment and that they may be "beginning to understand that we just don't need the death penalty, that it makes us no safer and demeans us as a people."

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'The stigma is always there' By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times
 July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

Twenty-six years after Dave Roby Keaton escaped death, he is still trying to rebuild a life.

In his hometown of Quincy in the Florida Panhandle, Keaton, 47, earns $6.95 an hour as a tree trimmer, feeding oak and sweet gum branches into a wood chipper. He never misses a day.

But he has trouble choosing from a restaurant menu. He can’t utter the name of his grandmother, who died while he was on death row, without tears. He drinks too much gin when he is tense. And when he passes the town theater, he flashes back to Jan. 10, 1971, the night police hauled him in for questioning shortly after he had returned home from a movie.

An off-duty deputy sheriff named Khomas Revels had been shot to death during a convenience store robbery. Witnesses saw no more than four black men, but authorities arrested five, including Keaton, 18.

So began the case Florida newspapers called the "Quincy Five."

Using threats and lies, sheriff’s deputies coerced confessions out of Keaton after three days of relentless interrogation. The details of those confessions differed sharply from the state’s evidence -- including the number of participants, the weapons used and the parking place of the getaway car. But an all-white jury convicted Keaton and Johnny Frederick. Frederick got life, and Keaton was sentenced to death. A third defendant was acquitted, and charges against the other two were dropped.

In his death row cell, Keaton prayed for sunshine during yard time and dreamed about his grandmother. He read books about Jewish mysticism, wrote poems for his mother and slept "as much as I could." The cell was so narrow that the 6-foot-2 Keaton could walk up the wall by stretching his arms and legs to both sides of the cell.

Meanwhile, the case against him quickly unraveled. Newspapers disclosed that the polygraph operator who extracted the confessions had a history of obtaining false confessions from frightened suspects without lawyers.

Four months after his conviction, a grand jury indicted three more men for the same murder, based on fingerprints at the scene after a tip from an informant. All three were eventually convicted.

Evidence in those cases prompted the courts to order a new trial for Keaton and Frederick, and in July 1973 the state decided not to try them again, claiming witnesses were too ill.

Keaton was serving time for an unrelated robbery case and had six years to go. He was not released until 1979.

He got a job cleaning cars, then a better one cleaning offices. But at times, Keaton preferred locking himself in his apartment. "People would say, ‘What are you doing, Dave? You’re free.’ "

By 1983, he says, he was bouncing from woman to woman, losing weight and bingeing on crack cocaine. When he woke up in a panic one night, thinking he was going to die, he backed away from the drugs. But the restlessness continued. "The stigma is always there," he says.

For five years, Keaton has spent his workdays turning trees into mulch -- "a tedious little job where you don’t have to think too much."

He doesn’t talk about death row, not even with his family. Listening in on parts of the interview recently, Rutha Mae Keaton heard details about her son’s prison ordeal for the first time.

Last year, he moved into a four-room house his mother built. Supportive relatives visit him, but Keaton says he’s basically alone with his dog, Waleza, a mix of Rottweiler and pit bullterrier. He enjoys meditating in the piney woods nearby.

Keaton says the rent gets paid and the laundry done, but since death row, he doesn’t stop thinking about what he wants most — a woman and a challenging job. He gets mad at himself for not getting into the Christmas spirit or buying presents for his family.

"Prison changed me," he says. "You build a wall to keep from being hurt, and it’s hard to break down. . . . Sometimes I feel like an outcast, like prison turned me into an island."

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The 13 other survivors and their stories By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times
July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

Wilbert Lee, 64, and Freddie Pitts, 55
Convicted 1963; RELEASED 1975

THE CRIME: Juries twice convicted Lee and Pitts of killing two gas station attendants at Port St. Joe in the Florida Panhandle. The case was built on confessions, which Pitts and Lee said were beaten out of them. No physical evidence linked them to the crime. Joe Townsend, the polygraph operator who extracted the confessions, later came under fire for coercing confessions from suspects in other cases.
HOW THEY GOT OUT: Another man — sentenced to life for another homicide — confessed to the murders. Polygraph operator Warren Holmes reported the confession to Miami Herald reporter Gene Miller, whose stories helped prompt a second trial. Again, the jury convicted Pitts and Lee. In 1975, then-Gov. Reubin Askew pardoned the two. “I am sufficiently convinced that they are innocent,” Askew said.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Lee and Pitts, who met at a moonshine party at Lee’s house the night of the crime, became like brothers. After moving to Miami, they found a network of friends and lawyers to help them adjust. “When you step into a free society, it’s like stepping on a merry-go-round,” says Lee, whose family left him while he was on death row. He started working for the state, counseling troubled juveniles, a job he later lost because of his felony conviction. He was then hired to counsel inmates in Miami-Dade’s jails. Pitts, who hasn’t seen his two daughters since prison, worked for a while in security but preferred the outdoors. Now a truck driver, he is married and lives in Miami Shores. Last year, the Legislature awarded each man $500,000 — the first time it has ordered restitution for persons wrongly sentenced to death. Both men, frequent lecturers against the death penalty, say the money won’t buy back the lost time. “It’s like giving the monkey some peanuts,” Lee scoffs.

Delbert Lee Tibbs, 58
Convicted 1974; released (on bond) 1977, released (from charges) 1982

THE CRIME: A Lee County jury convicted Tibbs of shooting to death hitchhiker Terry Milroy, 27, and raping his 16-year-old traveling companion, Cynthia Nadeau, near Fort Myers. Tibbs, a onetime theology student, was arrested in Mississippi after Nadeau picked him out of a lineup, despite discrepancies between him and her original description of the killer. Her testimony was enough to convict him. Tibbs testified that he was in Daytona Beach when the crimes occurred.
HOW HE GOT OUT: In 1976, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a retrial, saying the victim was an unreliable witness and expressing “considerable doubt” that Tibbs was the killer. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said that retrying Tibbs would not constitute double jeopardy. Still, the state decided to drop the charges in 1982, and the prosecutor who convicted Tibbs later expressed doubts about his guilt.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Tibbs became a cause celebre, attracting supporters such as Joan Baez, Angela Davis and Pete Seeger, who wrote a ballad entitled Ode to Delbert Tibbs. Tibbs lives alone in a studio apartment in Chicago, works in a packaging warehouse and is active in campaigns against the death penalty. “The jobs I’ve gotten have been out of the benevolence of friends,” he says. “Jobs in mainstream America I don’t even try for anymore.” Off death row for years, Tibbs remembers waking up one night after a friend was electrocuted and “feeling as if someone stabbed me in the rear.” Tibbs has written several poems about executed buddies and is working on a book. “I should have lost hope,” he says, “but I didn’t.”

Anibal Jaramillo-Restrepo, deceased
Convicted 1981; released from death row 1982

THE CRIME: A Dade County jury convicted Jaramillo, an illegal Colombian immigrant, for the murders of Gilberto Caicedo and Candellario Castellanos in their southwest Dade townhouse. Each was shot three times in the head. Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Morphonios-Gable overruled the jury’s recommendation of life in prison. The prosecution’s case hinged on Jaramillo’s fingerprints, which were found on a knife casing, a table and a grocery bag in the victims’ home. The murder weapon, a machine gun equipped with a silencer, was never found. At the trial, evidence emerged that tended to incriminate the victims’ roommate. Jaramillo, 26 at the time of his arrest, testified he had been in the home earlier that day and helped the victims’ nephew clean out the garage. He said he used the knife, rope and paper during the cleanup.
HOW HE GOT OUT: In 1982 the Florida Supreme Court freed Jaramillo because of insufficient evidence. “The proof is not inconsistent with Jaramillo’s reasonable explanation as to how his fingerprints came to be on these items at the victim’s home,” the court said.
AFTER HE GOT OUT: Jaramillo “literally jumped for joy” when he learned he would be freed, says his lawyer, Louis Casuso. But the day Jaramillo left death row, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms arrested him for lying on a form when he bought a .45-caliber pistol from a gun shop in 1980. In 1983, a federal judge sentenced him to four years in prison. According to his lawyer, Jaramillo was eventually deported to Colombia, where he was murdered in Medellin.

Anthony S. Brown, 43
Convicted 1983; released 1986

THE CRIME: An Escambia County jury convicted Brown of the 1982 shotgun murder of James Dasinger, a gas company delivery man, north of Pensacola. Wydell D. Rogers, who claimed to be an accomplice, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and testified that he and Brown plotted the entire incident. Circuit Judge Joseph Q. Tarbuck rejected the jury’s recommended life sentence and imposed the death penalty.
HOW HE GOT OUT: The Florida Supreme Court overturned Brown’s conviction in 1985, ruling the prosecution erred when it took a pretrial deposition from a sheriff’s deputy without notifying Brown. At the retrial in 1986, Rogers, the state’s star witness, said he lied at the first trial. Brown, a tattooed high-school dropout with a 14-page rap sheet, was acquitted.
WHERE HE IS NOW: After a year of freedom, Brown was arrested on robbery charges, which prosecutors eventually dropped. Hoping to start over, Brown moved to Detroit and got a job in a nursing home. Soon he was back in Escambia County and in trouble. “You just don’t walk off death row and pick up,” says Brown. In February 1990, he squared off with a man wielding a bottle in a bar and stabbed him with a pocketknife. Brown was arrested and pleaded guilty. The same judge who sentenced him to death in 1983 sentenced him to 30 years for aggravated battery. Brown, a father of two, says 100 years at Union Correctional Institution, where he is now, is better than death row. “I tried to do everything differently,” he says, getting emotional. Still, “I feel safe here, safer than the street. I could have been killed in a drive-by. If I hadn’t have been on death row, who knows if I’d be dead or alive?”

Anthony Ray Peek, 41
Convicted 1978; released from death row 1987

THE CRIME: Polk County juries twice convicted Peek, a New York drifter on probation for burglary, of beating and strangling Erma Carlson, a 65-year-old nurse, in her Winter Haven home. Just before the murder trial, Peek was convicted and sentenced to life for an unrelated rape. The murder conviction hinged on Peek’s fingerprint, which was found on the dead woman’s car. Peek testified that on the night of the murder he never left the Winter Haven halfway house where he was serving his burglary probation. He said he was at a park the next day when he saw the unlocked car and opened the door.
HOW HE GOT OUT: Polk Circuit Judge John Dewell overturned the first conviction in 1983, ruling that a hair analyst gave erroneous testimony. The Florida Supreme Court overturned his second conviction in 1986 because the judge inappropriately allowed evidence about the unrelated rape. Acquittal at a third trial in 1987 brought an end to Peek’s 10-year death row ordeal.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Peek sweeps the prison grounds at Everglades Correctional Institution, where he is serving a life sentence for rape. In 1993, his death row marriage to a Tennessee pen pal fell apart. Two years later, Peek, then 37, exchanged wedding vows with another prison visitor, Helen Hope. A 52-year-old British emigre, she left her homeland, husband and children and moved to Gainesville to be near Peek. “All he’s got is God and me,” she says. The parole board recently tacked five years onto Peek’s release date, now scheduled for 2010. But a decade on death row has taught him to handle anything. He points to a garbage bin in the prison visiting area. “If you put a human being in there,” he says, “he’s gonna find a way to survive.”

Willie Albert Brown, 49, and Larry Troy, 48
Convicted 1983; released from death row 1988

THE CRIME: Brown and Troy were already in prison when they were convicted of the 1981 stabbing death of Earl Owens, a fellow inmate at Union Correctional Institution. Prison officials held the pair in solitary for 17 months before arresting them. Their conviction rested largely on the testimony of Frank Wise, a fellow inmate who said he saw Brown and Troy leave the homicide scene.
HOW THEY GOT OUT: In 1987, the Florida Supreme Court reversed the convictions. The court said prosecutors flubbed the case by not giving defense lawyers statements of prison interviews with the defendants. On death row, Brown fell in love with Esther Lichtenfels, a prison visitor who ended up helping to free the pair. Wearing a legally authorized hidden tape recorder, she recorded Wise, the prosecution’s key witness, saying he had lied and offering to tell the truth for $2,000. Prosecutors dismissed the charges against Brown and Troy.
WHERE THEY ARE NOW: Brown, a Clearwater resident who had been serving 20 years for a Pinellas County robbery, left prison in 1988. About an hour later, he married Lichtenfels at the Clay County Courthouse. Troy, serving a 25-year sentence for murder, left in 1990. Both are back in prison. Troy, arrested for selling cocaine seven months after his release, is serving time at Charlotte Correctional Institution. Brown’s life has been a cycle of drugs and robberies. He went to prison for robbing a bank in Springfield, Mass. Then, in April, Pinellas sheriff’s deputies arrested him after he allegedly robbed a bank in Dunedin with a broken broom stick, stole a car and led police on a high-speed chase. Brown says prosecutors are holding his time on death row against him. “In their eyes, I was never exonerated,” he says from the Pinellas County Jail. “There’s enough pain in this stuff to last a lifetime.”

James Joseph Richardson, 63
Convicted 1968; released 1989

THE CRIME: A DeSoto County jury convicted Richardson, an Arcadia migrant worker with no criminal record, of poisoning his stepdaughter, Betty Jean. She died along with five sisters and one brother in 1967 after eating a lunch laced with a pesticide. Prosecutors said he killed them to collect on $7,000 in life insurance. Richardson denied it. He said the children’s babysitter, Betsy Reese, poisoned their last meal of rice and beans with pesticide.
HOW HE GOT OUT: Washington lawyer Mark Lane, who gained attention because of his John F. Kennedy conspiracy theory, wrote a book about the case, Arcadia. Among other things, he said Richardson never bought insurance. After the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment in 1972, Richardson’s sentence was commuted to life. In 1989, the governor named then-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno to re-examine the case. She concluded that prosecutors convicted Richardson with perjured testimony and ignored the babysitter as a possible suspect. Based on her report, DeSoto Circuit Judge Clifton Kelly ordered Richardson freed. “The enormity of the crime,” the judge said, “is matched only by the enormity of the injustice to this man.” The babysitter died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1992.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Richardson, who learned to read and write in prison and was ordained a minister, became an instant celebrity. Hollywood producers talked about a movie deal, and comedian Dick Gregory offered him a $100,000-a-year job at a nutrition clinic. The job didn’t pan out, the movie hasn’t materialized and Richardson suffered a series of setbacks. The less than $20,000 he got for the rights to his story was gone after four or five years. His heart problems — which he attributes to prison food, poor medical care and constant stress — worsened. He and his wife, who stuck by him throughout his imprisonment, were divorced. And most of the $150,000 Richardson got in an out-of-court settlement with DeSoto County went to his lawyers. Richardson, who spent too much of his life in prison to be entitled to Social Security, now lives at the ranch of his cardiologist in Wichita, Kan., and does light work to pay for room and board. His lasting memory of death row is the sound of keys rattling. “When I hear a bunch of keys shaking, I think they are coming to get me and put me in the electric chair,” he says. “I’m trying to get over it, but it’s something a man can never forget.”

Robert Craig Cox, 39
Convicted 1988; released from death row 1990

THE CRIME: An Orange County jury convicted Cox, a onetime Army Ranger, of the 1978 beating death of Sharon Zellers, 19, a Walt Disney World clerk. The case was weak, and Cox was not charged until eight years after the murder. Cox and his family were staying at a motel in Orlando where the victim’s body was found. He had a cut on his tongue, and hair and blood samples found near the victim were compatible with his. Cox testified he bit through his tongue during a fight.
HOW HE GOT OUT: The Florida Supreme Court reversed Cox’s conviction, ruling that, at best, the evidence created “only a suspicion” of guilt. The court ordered his acquittal and release.
WHERE HE IS NOW: For Cox, there was no celebration. He was immediately taken into custody to complete a prison sentence in California for an unrelated 1985 kidnapping. Then he returned to his boyhood home of Springfield, Mo., where he came under suspicion — but was never charged — in the 1992 disappearance of a mother and two teenage girls. Texas police also questioned him about an abduction in Plano. In 1995, Cox was arrested for holding a gun on a 12-year-old girl during a robbery in Decatur, Texas. He is serving a life sentence for that robbery and is not eligible for parole until 2025. He declines to comment.

Andrew Lee Golden, 55
Convicted in 1989; released in 1993

THE CRIME: A Polk County jury convicted Golden, a onetime high school teacher, of drowning his wife, Ardelle, in a lake near the family’s home in Winter Haven. Her body was found floating near a boat dock, just a few feet from a partially submerged Pontiac Grand Am that her husband had rented. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident and said there were no signs of foul play. But the jury believed the prosecutor’s version — that Golden, facing debts of more than $200,000, pushed his wife off the boat dock and then drove the car into the lake to make the drowning look accidental. He hoped to collect on more than $350,000 in life insurance policies taken out in the year before her death, prosecutors said.
HOW HE GOT OUT: The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction and ordered Golden’s release, saying the prosecution failed to prove Ardelle Golden’s death was anything but an accident. It may have occurred after she drove down the unmarked, unlit boat dock at night.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Golden lived for a while with his oldest son, Darin, then with son Chip, who was 13 when his father was arrested. Chip noticed his father had changed. “He was more easily agitated,” Chip says. “He had a worse temper. He had a hard time adjusting to the idea that you got to get a job ... got to pay bills.” Unable to stay in one place, Golden moved to Texas, where he was arrested in 1996 for molesting two girls, ages 8 and 9. Then in April he pleaded guilty in neighboring Denton County to a new charge of indecency with a child. His lawyer, John Giofreddi, says the death of Golden’s wife, coupled with “the trauma of death row,” contributed to his transformation into a “regressed pedophile.” Golden pleaded guilty and began a 15-year prison term in May.

Robert Hayes, 35
Convicted 1991; released 1997

THE CRIME: A Broward County jury convicted Hayes, a groom at the Pompano Harness Track, of the 1990 rape and strangling death of fellow groom Pamela Albertson. Prosecutors introduced DNA evidence that they said linked him to the homicide. Hayes’ lawyers presented expert testimony suggesting the DNA results were contaminated.
HOW HE GOT OUT: The Florida Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of faulty DNA analysis. “The record contains evidence suggesting that Hayes committed the homicide,” the court said, but it “also contains objective physical evidence suggesting that someone other than Hayes was responsible.” At a retrial, Hayes’ lawyers showed that hairs used to convict him the first time most likely came from a white person. Hayes, who is black, was acquitted.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Hayes, who is nicknamed “Mississippi,” left prison with a plastic bag of socks and sneakers but no money. His lawyer paid for a bus ticket to his hometown of Canton, Miss., where he moved in with his grandmother. Hayes tried to get a job as a janitor but was rejected because of the seven-year gap on his resume. Eventually, the town hired him to drive dump trucks and clean sewers. Hayes also helps care for horses at an amusement park owned by his uncle. Recently, he married Georgia Brown, 22, a nursing home employee. “I’m trying to build my life back up,” says Hayes, a two-pack-a-day smoker. He says he gets angry easily and has mood swings and nightmares. “I might get 30 minutes of sleep every hour every night,” he says. “I don’t know who’s gonna come down the hallway.”

Joseph Robert Spaziano, 53
Convicted 1976; released from death row 1998

THE CRIME: A Seminole County jury convicted Spaziano, an Outlaws motorcycle gang member from Rochester, N.Y., of the 1973 murder of Laura Harberts, an Orlando hospital clerk. The verdict hinged on the testimony of a teenage drug user, Anthony DiLisio, who remembered key facts about the murder only after he was hypnotized. Circuit Judge Robert McGregor overrode the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Spaziano to death.
HOW HE GOT OUT: Spaziano, who got the nickname “Crazy Joe” after a truck ran over his head, survived five death warrants. In 1995, 16 days before his scheduled execution, the state’s star witness recanted his testimony, which prompted an order for a new trial. On the eve of the retrial, in November 1998, Spaziano pleaded no contest to second-degree murder while swearing he did not kill Laura Harberts. Under the plea agreement, he did not have to admit guilt, was sentenced to time served and released from death row.
WHERE HE IS NOW: Spaziano is in prison, serving a life sentence for the 1974 rape of a 16-year-old Orlando girl. He says he is innocent and is appealing. For Spaziano, the decision to accept the plea deal in the murder case was “stark reality. . . . I have come within days of being electrocuted . . . never knowing when I would be put to death by electrocution,” he wrote in an affidavit. “I do not want my daughter and three grandchildren to live under the threat and fear (and) . . . experience the hurt and damage of my death in the electric chair.” These days, Spaziano moves around without handcuffs at Florida State Prison, joking with robbers, rapists and killers in the general population. Some cheer and call his name. Still, Spaziano feels low sometimes. “I’m tired of everybody,” he said recently. “I want people to go away.”

SOURCES: Michael L. Radelet, co-author of In Spite of Innocence and chairman of the University of Florida Department of Sociology; Death Penalty Information Center; National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty.
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Read More 48,880 reads
'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed' By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times
July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

When Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs went to prison for murder in 1976, her son was 9. Her daughter, 10 months old, was still nursing.

When she was freed in 1992, her son was married with a child of his own and her daughter was a 16-year-old stranger.

"Getting back family is the hardest part," says Jacobs, now 51, who teaches yoga and lives in Los Angeles. "They live with embarrassment for so long: You say you didn't (commit the murder), but everyone says you did."

Fresh out of prison, Jacobs made her first non-collect telephone call in 16 years to son Eric, and then headed to North Carolina to see him, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.

"Grandma, were you lost?" the girl asked when they met.

"Yes," Jacobs replied. "I was."

The reunion with her daughter didn't go as smoothly. Jacobs found her at a high school in Maine, but Tina kept her distance.

The wounds began to heal a few months later. Tina accepted her mother's invitation to attend an anti-death-penalty rally in Pittsburgh. The crowd applauded Jacobs, then cheered non-stop when Tina was introduced. Mother and daughter hugged. Eventually, they began living together, got their first drivers' licenses and climbed mountains.

By then, Jacobs and her children had grown accustomed to overcoming obstacles.

In 1976, they were all in the back seat of a green Camaro when Jacobs was arrested with her boyfriend, an ex-con named Jesse Tafero, and his prison pal, Walter Rhodes. They were charged with murdering Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Phillip Black and a visiting Canadian policeman named Donald Irwin a few minutes earlier at an Interstate 95 rest stop.

Rhodes was the only one who tested positive for gunpowder residue. But after he agreed to testify against Jacobs and Tafero, he got a life sentence. They were sentenced to die.

Jacobs spent the next five years in solitary confinement, her vocal cords becoming atrophied because of non-use and denied even her photos of Eric, a son by her first marriage, and Tina, her baby by Tafero. She meditated and practiced yoga. "I figured if people could survive the concentration camps, then surely I could survive this," she says.

In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court commuted Jacobs' sentence to life in prison after her lawyers uncovered a polygraph test suggesting that Rhodes, the prosecution's chief witness, might have lied. The next year, Rhodes recanted, saying he -- not Jacobs or Tafero -- pulled the trigger. (He later changed his story again and again.) The case grew even more wobbly when a jailhouse snitch said she, too, had lied against Jacobs at trial.

Tafero was not so lucky. He remained on death row while his appeals slipped away. In May 1990, he was executed.

By then, a childhood friend of Jacobs, filmmaker Micki Dickoff, had become interested in her case. Using court transcripts, affidavits and old newspaper stories, Dickoff found discrepancies in testimony and put together a color-coded brief for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was enough to overturn Jacobs' conviction.

Rather than risk an acquittal at retrial, the Broward State Attorney's Office offered a plea to second-degree murder in which Jacobs, then 45, did not have to admit guilt. On Oct. 9, 1992, she was released.

She remembers seeing the sun and the moon as she left the Broward County Courthouse.

"I felt like an alien at first," Jacobs says, adding that in prison at least she had stature. "Outside, I had nothing: no money, no place to go. The world I left no longer existed."

For a time, Jacobs had flashbacks and a recurring dream: "I'm madly dashing up and down the corridors trying to find my cell. I couldn't and I was gonna get in trouble. . . . So I ran to the lobby -- it looked like a hotel lobby -- and I asked the desk to call and say I was really here, but I just couldn't find my cell."

The nightmares have ended. The bad feelings come and go. Whenever things get too bad, Jacobs takes long walks along the beach, runs her fingers through the sand and listens to the ocean. "I let the sea take me away," she says.

She lives with her daughter and the mutt she laughingly calls her "grand-dog-ter," and runs a growing yoga business in Los Angeles. She dabbles in filmmaking with Dickoff and in her spare time writes a memoir of death row and life after. She also keeps in touch with old prison friends -- "a little group from the lost planet."

"We're all a little reclusive," Jacobs says of death row survivors. "We all struggle a little to find a life and fit in." Return to Cases of Innocence
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'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated' By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times
July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

"You got to realize," says Joseph Green Brown, now known to almost everyone as Shabaka, "you put a man in a cage and treat him like a dog, talk to him like a dog, feed him like a dog . . . there’s gonna come a time he wants to bite like a dog."

For Shabaka, that time came 16 years ago when technicians in Florida’s death house made him listen as they tested the electric chair in which they were about to kill him.

Twice a day, he heard the lightning-like noise from his death watch cell, 30 feet away. When a prison tailor came to measure him for his burial suit, he was put back into his cell kicking and screaming. He refused to order the traditional last meal.

The long wait for his death date, the thought of his grieving mother, the senses and sounds of more than 12 years on death row — they rub Shabaka, now 49, almost as raw today as they did on Oct. 17, 1983, when he came within 15 hours of execution.

"Yes, I’m angry," says Shabaka, who will never forget the stench that hung over the cellblock after an execution. There were 16 executions while he was at Florida State Prison, and he could have been No. 17. "Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated. The state of Florida didn’t give me nothing. They didn’t give me an apology. When they released me, they didn’t even give me bus fare home."

Twelve years later, Shabaka -- Swahili for uncompromising -- puts his outrage to work trying to solve the problems of poor people. At a Washington, D.C., drop-in center, he feeds homeless drug addicts, counsels alcoholics and helps people with mental problems.

Shabaka supplements his income working at a drive-in convenience store and lecturing on capital punishment. His ordeal makes him a cause celebre on the anti-death-penalty circuit.

"It can be stressful," he says of post-prison life. "But it’s rewarding."

In 1974, a Hillsborough County jury convicted him of raping and murdering Earlene Treva Barksdale, a clothing store owner and wife of a prominent Tampa lawyer. The case hinged on Ronald Floyd, a man who held a grudge against Shabaka because Shabaka once turned him in for a robbery. The jury also got to see a purported smoking gun — a .38-caliber handgun that prosecutor Robert Bonanno said was the murder weapon.

An FBI ballistics expert said the handgun could not possibly have fired the fatal bullet -- a witness the jury never heard from -- and several months later, Floyd admitted that he lied.

Florida courts granted no relief, however, and in the fall of 1983, Gov. Bob Graham signed a death warrant. Shabaka’s mother suffered a stroke.

Death watch cells are larger but more narrow than cells on death row, and guards are positioned outside to hand the condemned their belongings, turn on their TVs and make sure they don’t commit suicide. Shabaka says he felt like a "walled animal."

He was within 15 hours of death when a federal judge in Tampa issued a stay. Two and a half years later, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction, ruling the prosecution knowingly allowed false testimony from the states’s star witness. One year later, Shabaka was released after the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office decided not to retry him.

Despite the appellate court’s stinging rebuke, Bonanno, now a Hillsborough circuit judge, remains convinced Shabaka is guilty. "He’s very fortunate," Bonanno says. "He should have been executed."

Shabaka says he has not forgotten -- or forgiven -- Bonanno, Graham or the "sick guards" he suspects were taking bets on whether he would get a stay.

There "ain’t no worse place" than death row, he says. "America ain’t no civilized place."

After so many years trying to keep Florida from strapping him in a chair, Shabaka feels uneasy when he puts on a seat belt. When he walks into a room and closes the door, he reopens it to make sure it isn’t locked.

It’s too painful for Shabaka to talk about friends he lost while on death row, or those he might have gained. He frequently changes his telephone number because of harassment. He doesn’t want to be photographed, declines to let reporters into his home and reveals nothing about the woman he married after his release.

In prison, Shabaka became a jailhouse lawyer so he could, belatedly, defend himself. Today, as he looks down the road for new challenges, he only half-mockingly suggests he might become a death row lawyer.

His biggest victory to date? "I’m alive. . . . That’s good enough for me."
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'We don't look back' By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

When Bradley Scott returned home after 31/2 years on death row, his clothes were in the closet just as he had left them. But there was a stranger in the house -- his son Jonathan, who had just celebrated his 5th birthday.

"I was scared of him," says Jonathan, now 13.

Jonathan was 2 days old when his father was arrested for an 8-year-old murder despite a seemingly strong alibi. Someone had killed Linda Pikuritz, 12, and left her burned corpse in a field in Port Charlotte. Scott, a lawn-sprinkler installer, was a convenient suspect: He had done time for slapping a hitchhiker who refused his sexual advances after a night of beer.

Scott, now 48, contended he had been in Sarasota, 50 miles away, the night of the murder, and even bought a suede jacket there. But records to support his alibi were lost over the years, and he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1988.

Looking back, Scott says he had something that many on death row don't have -- a family to cling to. "A lot of guys on death row have no one, nothing," he says. "I used to take my family for granted, but no more. Without them, I'd be dead."

Scott's arrest, conviction and absence were a huge strain on his wife, daughter and son. His wife, April, went on welfare. Seeing no end in sight and feeling pushed to the limit by seven-hour treks to Florida State Prison, patdowns and diaper searches, she decided to "grow up." She completed a degree in criminal justice and began a career as a professional investigator.

"It's embarrassing," says April Scott, the daughter of Christian missionaries. "Even if a person is innocent, you have to justify yourself. People say, "Of course, she's gonna say that; that's his wife.' "

On death row, Scott spent his days drawing with crayons and writing cheerful letters home. Christmastime was especially lonely, and he occasionally thought of suicide. One of his grimmest memories is the time he was shackled to a chair in the tiny infirmary cell so a dentist could pull 24 teeth -- 14 one day, 10 the next. "Why," he wondered, "are they giving me new teeth when they want to kill me?"

In May 1991, to his surprise, the Florida Supreme Court not only overturned his conviction, but also ordered him acquitted.

His alibi, which authorities had accepted at the time of the murder, could no longer be corroborated when he went to trial almost 10 years later, the court found. Witnesses had died; other evidence favorable to Scott had been lost. "Suspicions cannot be the basis for a criminal conviction," the court said.

Suddenly, Scott, 40, was free. When he came out of prison in 1991, he had only a brown grocery bag with two pairs of underwear.

He also had his family.

With the help of April's parents, Scott hit the ground running. The day after his release, he was at work as a property manager and beginning to rebuild shattered relationships. He shared household chores with April -- cooking, cleaning, driving the children to appointments. "Movies, pizza, canoeing -- we do everything all together," he says.

Scott eventually landed two better-paying jobs, as a limo driver and an independent contractor for a courier firm. A few years ago, the Scotts bought their "dream house" in Palm Beach County, a three-bedroom ranch with french doors and a swimming pool. They also added two dogs -- a Yorkshire terrier for Jonathan and a Bichon Frice for Stormy, now 15.

These days, Scott cruises the Internet with Jonathan and watches closely over Stormy as she approaches "dating mode."

Death row still haunts them. April Scott, who worries what her bosses think, doesn't want it known where she works. Scott can't bear to watch movies with scenes of prison life. And questions about the five-year gap on his resume won't go away. "What are you going to say? I've been on death row, but I didn't do it?"
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'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do' By SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG

© St. Petersburg Times
July 4, 1999

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

Off death row for 11 years, Earnest Lee Miller, the tall and quiet one, and William Riley Jent, his short and happy-go-lucky half-brother, have taken different paths to build something from the ashes.

Miller, 43, is a roofer in his native Dayton, Ohio. He embraces the past, sharing his eight-year ordeal with new neighbors and new family.

Jent, 48, a ranch owner in Arizona, keeps it hidden. He lives incognito, refusing to discuss the past.

In separate trials, Pasco County juries convicted Jent and Miller of raping and bludgeoning to death a woman known only as "Tammy" in 1979. She was later identified as Linda Gale Bradshaw, 20. The case was built largely on the testimony of witnesses who said that after a party near Dade City, the two men bashed the woman's head with a stick, raped her and set fire to her as she struggled to get up.

Jent and Miller came within 16 hours of execution in 1983, and Miller says they were "ready to go. . . . We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do."

A federal judge issued a stay. Two of the three supposed witnesses to the killing had recanted their testimony. And defense lawyers had uncovered evidence that the victim's boyfriend, who moved away after the murder, started dating another woman whose burned body was found in a field. He was never charged.

In 1987, a federal district court threw out the convictions. Prosecutors had withheld evidence and acted with a "callous and deliberate disregard of the fundamental principles of truth and fairness," the court said.

In January 1988, then-State Attorney James T. Russell allowed Jent and Miller to go free on time served -- in exchange for guilty pleas to second-degree murder.

Miller says he isn't sorry he took the deal. "I can't own a gun," he says. "But I was free, I'm free, after 81/2 years of torment."

Neither man's re-entry was smooth. Both were angry. A year after going free, Jent, once a tattooed member of a motorcycle gang, was arrested in Ohio on a misdemeanor marijuana charge.

Miller, a former Marine, says he died a little when his ex-wife wouldn't let him see his two children. He'd stand inside a friend's house three doors down and watch them through a window.

In 1991, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office paid the pair $65,000 to settle a wrongful-arrest lawsuit. Most of the money went toward lawyers' fees and expenses incurred by the victim's father, who testified that he didn't think Miller and Jent committed the murder. "The $14,000 I got bought me a nice Harley-Davidson," Miller says.

Eventually, Jent moved to Arizona, where his wife, Patricia, boosted his spirits and helped him find God. She put all of their assets in her name and persuaded him to sweep the memories under the rug. Together they closely guard the secret of his past.

"We have a good life," says Patricia. "We don't want to relive this. Nobody knows about Bill's past. We don't talk about it. We've turned it over to the Lord."

Miller, meanwhile, started to put his life back together when he met his wife, Tamara Farmer, in Dayton seven years ago. A divorcee with four children, she says "it took a lot of love and a lot of work" to "break down the walls" of Miller's tough exterior. "He looked scary," she says. "He didn't trust anyone. He never laughed."

The couple owns a '99 Ford Explorer and a four-bedroom house in a middle-class neighborhood of Dayton. Tamara's four children and Earnest's nephew live with them, along with a Rottweiler and two small dogs. The two children lost to him while on death row are planning to visit soon.

Miller says he is haunted by suspicion. It doesn't happen often, but "when I get pulled over for a ticket, I automatically stick my hands out and put them on the car or keep them some place where the police can see them. It's something I never did before and now I have to do."

Miller and Jent sometimes talk by telephone, though they rarely discuss death row or compare notes about how it affects their thinking and living.

They have a lot in common: After years of being locked in cages, both work by themselves outdoors. After years of lost love and relationships, both have found supportive wives. And after years of fearing life and death on death row, both sometimes bolt awake in the middle of the night.

A few weeks ago, Miller was a pallbearer at a funeral for his wife's grandfather. She says he was nervous about being inside in the church with a crowd. "He wanted out of there," she says, "but he stayed for me."
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Freed from Death Row
In his wallet, Juan Florencio Ramos carries a pre-prison photograph of himself. Because of a five-year ordeal too painful to forget, Ramos now says: "That person is not me.'' [Times photo: Pam Royal]
Florida leads the nation in wrongful death sentences with 20. What has become of these survivors?


© St. Petersburg Times
July 4, 1999

Twelve years after he left Florida's death row, Juan Florencio Ramos still paces like a prisoner locked in a tiny cell.

From the porch of his mother's house near Miami, he gazes at strange cars. He puffs on Marlboros. And when he climbs into his red Trans Am, he hits the gas and races down the street as if the guards are coming to drag him back to prison.

Ramos, a 41-year-old truck driver, is a member of a small but growing club that prosecutors don't like to talk about. Since 197 photo Ramos, released from death row 12 years ago, feels less numb now, "much calmer." He lives in a mobile home next to his mother's house near Miami. [Times photo: Pam Royal] 2, 78 men and two women in the United States have been sentenced to death and then freed from death row -- in some cases more than a decade later -- when it became clear they were innocent, or at least wrongly convicted because of flawed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct or other problems.

Illinois, which has freed at least 12 condemned inmates, the latest on May 17, has attracted most of the national publicity lately. But it is Florida -- with 20 death row survivors -- that leads the nation in wrongful death sentences.

Three of the 20 came within 16 hours of the electric chair. Their last meals had been ordered, their $150 burial suits measured, tailored and waiting.

What has become of Florida's wrongly condemned?

One is dead, murdered on the streets of Medellin, Colombia, a few years after his release.

Two never left state custody. They are serving out sentences for other crimes.

Main story

'We'd rather have died than to stay in that place for something we didn't do'

'I had nothing . . . The world I left no longer existed'

'We don't look back'

'Yes, I’m angry. . . . Yes, I’m bitter. I’m frustrated'

'The stigma is always there'

The 13 other survivors and their stories

Four got a taste of freedom. They are back behind bars for offenses they committed after they were released.

The remaining 13 are back in society, free from death row but not from its shadows.

Many of those 13 live on the edge, modestly and anonymously, fearful that word of their past will get out, struggling to get back some of what they lost: marriages, self-respect, jobs, health, mental stability.

Outwardly, three or four of the survivors seem perfectly normal, with families, nice homes and good jobs. But every day, they must deal with the memories, the bitterness, the anger and fear.

Consider Juan Ramos. From his wallet, he pulls out a pre-prison photograph of a fresh-faced young man with a hard body and smiling eyes. Now that body is scarred from prison fights, those eyes sometimes glazed in anger.

"That person," he says, choking back tears, "is not me."

Experts say wrongful death sentences are built on similar circumstances: police who use coerced confessions or questionable eyewitness identifications; prosecutors who exploit false testimony or inaccurate scientific evidence; jurors who are tainted by prejudice; judges who are out for headlines; and suspects who are easy marks -- because of their race, criminal background or inability to afford a good lawyer.

Only five of Florida's wrongly condemned have received compensation from the state, and they say the money can't replace what they lost.

There's an irony in the stories of death row survivors: It took a death sentence to free them. If they had received a life sentence, they probably never would have gotten out.

Michael L. Radelet, a University of Florida sociology professor who documents wrongful executions, says death row survivors are the lucky ones because only through good fortune and careful scrutiny of their cases were they vindicated before a fatal error. "As long as we have the death penalty," Radelet says, "innocent people will be executed."

With more capital punishment cases and shrinking legal resources, the danger of wrongful convictions and wrongful executions is "getting worse," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.

Most prosecutors, judges and Florida officials won't admit an innocent person has ever been executed here or convicted in error.

But Gerald Kogan, who recently retired after 11 years on the Florida Supreme Court, told the Associated Press in December that he wasn't convinced of guilt in "two or three" of the 25 state executions while he was on the court.

"There are several cases where I had grave doubts as to the guilt of a particular person, (and) other cases where I just felt they were treated unfairly in the system," Kogan said.

Kogan, a former prosecutor, refuses to elaborate on which cases he had in mind. "I've said what I'm going to say on that. I don't want to talk about that any more."

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has signed death warrants to send two convicted killers to the electric chair this week, declined to comment for this story. In meetings, Bush has voiced concern about people on death row who may be innocent, according to Carol Licko, his general counsel.

She says the governor signed the warrants only after a careful review of the cases to eliminate any possibility of a wrongful execution.

Life on death row

Each of the cells is 6 feet wide, 9 feet long and 91/2 feet high, with concrete walls on three sides and steel bars in front that look out over a 3-foot-wide catwalk. Each cell has a steel toilet, a steel sink, a steel footlocker and a steel bunk with a mattress 4 inches thick. Each cell also is equipped with a 13-inch black-and-white television. Meals, mail and Bibles are passed to the condemned through a slot in the bars

Inmates can't see into other cells, but they can look down the corridor by angling a piece of a mirror. They communicate with one another by talking down the corridor -- called "getting on the bars" -- or yelling through a vent or the plumbing pipes. Or throwing a long stick with a note attached to the person in the next cell.

Twice a week, they are let out for a two-hour trip to an exercise yard. Three times a week, they are escorted to the shower stall, where the water runs for five minutes. Occasionally, guards jerk open a cell door to search an inmate's belongings or body for drugs or shanks (crude, homemade knives).

Death row survivors remember the numbing cold in winter, the hellish heat in summer and the non-stop din of hundreds of voices and noises, relieved only by an eerie quiet on execution days.

Alone with nothing but time, they did almost anything to keep their minds occupied.

They counted every dent in the walls, every crevice on the floor. They learned the heavy footsteps of their favorite nighttime guard. They prayed for life and sometimes hoped for death.

They slept and wrote poetry, usually at night when there was less noise. They read and argued about things such as whether to go to the execution chamber kicking and screaming or "like a man."

Anthony Peek, who survived a decade on the row, paced so much -- five steps back and forth -- that his knees are weak. Dave Keaton, released from death row 26 years ago, could catch a glimpse of the afternoon sun if he stood at the right angle. Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, who for a time was the only woman in the country on death row, painted by dipping strands of her hair in beet juice.

One rule of survival: be buddies with everyone but close friends with no one. That's because it hurts too much when a friend is executed.

Anthony Brown, who watched and listened 12 times as guards prepared for executions, tears up when he remembers his final hours with Marvin Francois. Francois, 39, was executed in 1985 for killing six people during a robbery of a Miami drug house.

"We wanted to send him out on a high," says Brown, 43, recounting how they shared a cigarette and fantasized it was a joint. "It took a little out of me when they killed him. I'd grown real attached to him."

No matter how they passed the time, they had one thing in common: a date with death in Florida's electric chair.

Too painful to forget

"No matter how hard he screams," Ramos says, "no one hears him.

Ramos grew up in Cuba, served three years in the Cuban military and came to Florida in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Within a year, he was married, living in Cocoa and making $11 an hour in a steel factory.

His new world collapsed in June 1982 when police arrested him for raping, beating, strangling and stabbing Sue Cobb, 27, an acquaintance who lived a block away. No physical evidence linked Ramos to the homicide, but there was seemingly damning evidence provided by a police dog named Harass II.

After sniffing an empty pack of Ramos' cigarettes, the dog was put in a room with five knives and five blouses. Harass stopped at blouse No. 5, the victim's bloody blouse, then licked knife No. 3, the bloodstained knife that had been embedded in her chest.

These were the only knife and blouse with blood on them -- which seemed to prove only that Harass was attracted to blood. But that was enough for a Seminole County jury to convict Ramos, who spoke little English, and for a judge to overrule its recommendation of life and sentence him to death.

Norman Wolfinger, who was Ramos' public defender and now is state attorney for Seminole and Brevard counties, cited another factor in what he called "the weakest murder case I've ever seen" -- racism. "Absolutely no attempt was made from Day One to pin the murder on anyone but the sap, the Cuban," Wolfinger said at the time.

Isolated from the world, Ramos remained defiant in his cell on death row. "I thought about my last meal," he says. "I was gonna tell them, "Just feed me the same s---. It's disgusting of you to offer me the best food when I'm gonna puke it back in your face.' "

Before he talked to the Times, Ramos, who learned English on death row, had never spoken about his ordeal to the media. His 61-year-old mother, Ena Garcia, tells him not to talk now. "You know it upsets you," she says in Spanish. "Why start trouble?"

But Ramos needs to talk, and for six hours, at times angry, at times tearful, he pours out details of his five years of wrongful imprisonment: beatings, a stabbing, paralytic asthma attacks and an attempted gang rape.

Once, he tried to commit suicide by making a noose with a bedsheet, tying it to the bars and sticking his head inside the loop. Another time, he fought with a guard and was sent to solitary, now known as "X-wing." The cell doors in "X-wing" are solid steel. To see out, Ramos scrunched his face against a half-inch crack between the steel door and the concrete wall.

And in his regular cell, he steeled himself for "Old Sparky," once shocking himself with the hot wire of his TV. "I wanted to know what it felt like to get cooked," he says.

While Ramos tried to keep a grip on his sanity, his lawyers fought for his life in the courts. In October 1985, they got a boost when the TV newsmagazine 20/20 exposed the unreliability of scent-tracking dogs, including Harass II, the German shepherd that put Ramos behind bars. The dogs and their trainer, 20/20 reported, had several times identified suspects who probably were innocent.

In August 1986, the Florida Supreme Court reversed Ramos' conviction, ruling that the dog-scent evidence was completely untested. At a retrial, Ramos was acquitted, and on April 24, 1987, he drove to his new home in Miami.

He enjoyed long showers and time with his wife, Danette, whom he leaned on to guide him. But he felt "like a time bomb." He had a hard time relating to people, especially women. "They talked only about superficial things," he says. "How can they really understand what it's like to be on death row?"

Ramos went into therapy, but four years ago his marriage fell apart. He moved in with his mother, claiming a mobile home on the property in south Miami-Dade County. He planted avocado, mango and sugar-cane trees, and now cares for four dogs, a cat and 20 roosters that wander around behind the locked front gate.

Every night, Ramos comes home to a hug from his mother and the smell of her cooking. Every morning, she delivers him cafe Cubano in a thimble cup.

Ramos says he feels less numb now, "much calmer." The only time the adrenaline really pumps is when he's tooling around in his red Trans Am or hauling steel in a semitrailer truck. As a truck driver, no one looks over his shoulder or watches what he's doing.

Still, he feels like a prisoner sometimes -- able to face up to death but worried he can't face up to life.

"I came here (to America) for a better life," he says. "In Cuba, I'd be dead. I was found innocent here, but it didn't wipe anything away. You're free, but free for what? The best, best years of my life are gone. . . . I carry this with me until the day I die." Return to Cases of Innocence

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When The Evidence Lies Joyce Gilchrist helped send dozens to death row. The forensic scientist's errors are putting capital punishment under the microscope By BELINDA LUSCOMBE
Time Magazine
Posted Sunday, May. 13, 2001

Vignette StoryServer 5.0 Mon Sep 25 13:41:05 2006 Jim Fowler has been struck twice by lightning. A retired house painter in Oklahoma City, Okla., Fowler lived through his 19-year-old son Mark's arrest in 1985 for murdering three people in a grocery-store holdup. Mark was sentenced to death. A year later Fowler's mother Anne Laura was raped and murdered, and a man named Robert Lee Miller Jr. was sentenced to die for the crime. The same Oklahoma City police department forensic scientist, Joyce Gilchrist, testified at both trials. But DNA evidence later proved she was wrong about Miller. He was released after 10 years on death row, and a man previously cleared by Gilchrist was charged with the crime. Fowler can't help wondering if Gilchrist's testimony was equally inept at the trial of his son Mark, who was executed in January.

Last week gave Fowler even more reason to wonder. A state judge ordered a man named Jeffrey Pierce released after serving 15 years of a 65-year sentence for rape. Gilchrist placed him at the scene of the crime, but DNA evidence proved he was not the rapist. In response, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating launched a review of every one of the thousands of cases Gilchrist touched between 1980 and 1993, starting with 12 in which death sentences were handed down. But in another 11 of her cases, the defendants have already been put to death. The state is giving the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System $725,000 to hire two attorneys and conduct DNA testing of any evidence analyzed by Gilchrist that led to a conviction. A preliminary FBI study of eight cases found that in at least five, she had made outright errors or overstepped "the acceptable limits of forensic science." Gilchrist got convictions by matching hair samples with a certainty other forensic scientists found impossible to achieve. She also appears to have withheld evidence from the defense and failed to perform tests that could have cleared defendants.

It's a bitter convolution of fate that Gilchrist should be based in Oklahoma City, the last place one would expect to find compelling arguments against the death penalty. Her story can't help but give Oklahomans pause about the quality of justice meted out by their courts. Says Gilchrist's lawyer, Melvin Hall: "The criticism of her around here is second only to that of Timothy McVeigh." But the allegations also underscore a national problem: the sometimes dangerously persuasive power of courtroom science. Juries tend to regard forensic evidence more highly than they regard witnesses because it is purportedly more objective. But forensic scientists work so closely with the police and district attorneys that their objectivity cannot be taken for granted.

Gilchrist told TIME in an interview last week that she's bewildered by her predicament. "I'm just one entity within a number of people who testify," she says. "They're keying on the negative and not looking at the good work I did." In her 21-year career with the Oklahoma City police, she had an unbroken string of positive job evaluations and was Civilian Police Employee of the Year in 1985. Her ability to sway juries and win convictions earned her the nickname "Black Magic." In 1994 she was promoted from forensic chemist to supervisor. Until recently, Hall says, she did not have "a bad piece of paper in her file." Now Gilchrist is on paid leave; in June she will face a two-day hearing to decide whether the police department should fire her. Meanwhile, her reputation has been shattered.

The hammer blow came when Pierce, a landscaper who was convicted of rape in 1986, was released last week after DNA testing exonerated him. He had been found guilty despite a clean record and plausible alibi largely because of Gilchrist's analysis of hair at the crime scene. "I'm just the one who opened the door," said Pierce. "There will be a lot more coming out behind me."

Pierce lost 15 years, his marriage and the chance to see his twin boys grow up. But some fear there were others who paid even more dearly: the 11 executed defendants. The Oklahoma attorney general has temporarily shut the gate on execution of the 12 still on death row in whose trials Gilchrist was involved. While the D.A.'s office believes that the convictions will stand, these cases will be the first to be reconsidered. Defense lawyers fear that the innocent who took plea bargains in the face of her expertise will never come to light.

Gilchrist told TIME, "There may be a few differences because of DNA analysis," but she is confident most of her findings will be confirmed. "I worked hard, long and consistently on every case," she says. "I always based my opinion on scientific findings." She insists she didn't overstate those findings to please the D.A.'s office or secure convictions. "I feel comfortable with the conclusions I drew."

But defense lawyers say the Gilchrist investigation is long overdue. Her work has been making colleagues queasy for years. In January 1987, John Wilson, a forensic scientist with the Kansas City police crime lab, filed a complaint about her with the Southwestern Association of Forensic Scientists. (The association declined to take action.) Jack Dempsey Pointer, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, says his group has been fighting for an investigation "almost since the time she went to work" at the lab. "We have been screaming in the wind, and nobody has been listening."

Police Chief M.T. Berry says it wasn't until 1999 that the department had any reason to be suspicious about her work. That's when federal Judge Ralph Thompson lit into her for "untrue" testimony and the "blatant withholding of unquestionably exculpatory evidence" in the rape and murder trial of Alfred Brian Mitchell. (Thompson overturned the rape conviction but let the murder stand.) In March 2000 Gilchrist was put out to pasture at a police equine lab, where she says she had to do "demeaning tasks" like count test tubes.

Then this January, a devastating memo from Byron Boshell, captain of the police department's laboratory-services division, thudded onto Berry's desk. It filled four three-ring binders and noted reversals and reprimands the courts had handed Gilchrist, as well as the issues the professional journals had taken with her work. Under her supervision, it said, evidence was missing in cases in which new trials had been granted or were under review; and rape evidence had been destroyed after two years, long before the statute of limitations had expired. Gilchrist explained last week that she always followed established procedures with evidence and that the memo was simply the department's way of getting rid of her after she reported the sexual harassment of a colleague. "There is no doubt this [memo] is retaliation," says Gilchrist.

How did her career last this long? "She couldn't have got away with this if she weren't supported by prosecutors, ignored by judges and police who did nothing," says Wilson, who filed the original complaint against her 14 years ago. "The police department was asleep at the switch." The D.A.'s office simply says Gilchrist should not be tried in the media. But one prosecutor, who declined to be named, lays blame on the aggressive tactics of D.A. Bob Macy, who's proud to have sent more people to death row than any other active D.A. in the country.

Which raises a more troubling question. How many other Gilchrists are there? In Oklahoma City, Chief Berry has ordered a wholesale review of the serology/DNA lab. And while Governor Keating insists that no one has been executed who shouldn't have been, Pointer and the local defense-lawyers association plan to re-examine the cases of the 11 executed inmates. "Nobody cares about the dead," he says. "The state is not going to spend money to find out that they executed someone who might have been innocent."

Reported By Wendy Cole And Maggie Sieger/Oklahoma City And Amanda Bower/New York City

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Evidence surfaces in Reinert case

Junkman's find could raise questions about murders that riveted nation 
By Laird Leask and Pete Shellem
The Patriot News

    A box removed from the attic of the lead investigator in the famed Susan Reinert murder case has yielded evidence that seems to raise serious questions about the case and could clear convicted killer Jay C. Smith.

   A duplicate of the comb that connected Smith to the crime scene, investigative notes that contradict prosecution testimony and a letter from an author offering an investigator $50,000 before arrests were even made were found in a box that Trooper Jack Holtz was apparently discarding.

   All evidence from Smith 's trial is supposedly sealed by court order and stored by the state attorney general's office.

   William C. Costopoulos, the Lemoyne lawyer representing Smith, a former Upper Merion High School principal who was sentenced to death for Reinert's murder, filed papers in Dauphin County Court late Friday asking Senior Judge Robert L. Walker to put all evidence from the case in the care of a court-appointed custodian.

   Costopoulos also asked that the judge order the prosecution to explain why the evidence was not turned over to the defense, and to allow him to analyze some evidence.

   Smith and William S. Bradfield Jr., Reinert 's fellow English teacher at Upper Merion, were convicted of killing Reinert and her two children in 1979 to collect $750,000 in insurance in a case that evolved into a national best seller and a highly rated CBS miniseries. The bodies of the two children, ages 11 and 10, were never found.

   Wellsville flea marketer Mark A. Hughes said he stumbled across the box in material he collected after being hired by Holtz to clean out the attic and basement of the trooper's Lower Paxton Twp. home.

   Hughes turned the evidence over to Costopoulos on March 17, believing it showed a police cover-up in the case. Hughes was the subject of a brief theft investigation initiated by Holtz after the trooper learned of the box.

   Hughes was questioned for more than two hours by state troopers Thursday, but Dauphin County District Attorney Richard A. Lewis said he will not be charged.

   Chief Deputy Attorney General M.L. "Skip" Ebert Jr., who is handling the Smith case, said he was waiting to see what evidence Costopoulos has before assessing its impact on the case.

   However, he said all the evidence was ordered sealed by the court at the close of the 1986 trial and is supposedly in sealed boxes in the possession of the attorney general's office.

   "The evidence that was presented in the trial in Dauphin County was sealed by the court and those containers are with me," Ebert said. "Once the materials are turned in, then, in the presence of the court, maybe some of these boxes will be opened and we'll find out what's in them."

   State police officials would not return repeated phone calls from The Patriot-News. Holtz was unavailable for comment.

   Smith received three death sentences in the 1979 murders, but was granted a new trial in December 1989 by the state Supreme Court.  Costopoulos is now arguing that a second trial would constitute double jeopardy because of misconduct by prosecutors.

   Hughes' discovery will further strengthen that argument, Costopoulos said.

   He said the most critical piece of evidence found in the box is a comb marked 79th USARCOM  Smith 's reserve unit. During the trial, an identical comb was introduced by prosecutors and alleged to have been found under Reinert 's body when it was discovered in the trunk of her car at a Swatara Twp. motel.

   Sealed in an evidence bag with fingerprint lifters and marked with FBI lab identification numbers, the comb is not the same one that was presented at trial, according to Costopoulos' petition.

   The comb police used to link Smith to the crime scene at the 1986 trial was labeled as a trial exhibit and the comb in the evidence bag is not, Costopoulos said.

   Furthermore, based on Ebert's comments, the comb presented at the trial should be sealed with other evidence in the attorney general's office.

   In addition to the comb, a Jan. 29, 1981, letter from author Joseph Wambaugh - who wrote "Echoes in the Darkness," a best-selling book about the case - shows he offered Holtz's late partner, Sgt. Joseph Van Nort, $50,000 for information before there were any arrests, according to the petition.

   "P.S. Since I would start the leg work immediately we should be very careful about being seen together for the sake of your job," Wambaugh wrote. "As far as witnesses would know, I received all my information from news stories and anonymous tips."

   Efforts to contact Wambaugh for comment were unsuccessful.

   The box also contained 23 numbered and dated notebooks prepared by Holtz, with the exception of number 13. Costopoulos claims the 13th
notebook covers a time period when Holtz was dealing with jailhouse informant Raymond Martray, who testified Smith admitted killing the three.

   Costopoulos has long challenged whether there was a deal with Martray to testify. He alleges in the petition that Holtz wrote in another notebook that Martray quoted Smith as saying he "did not" kill Reinert .

   In an interview with another jailhouse informant, Holtz's notes state that alleged co-conspirator Bradfield admitted that he acted alone in the slayings, according to the petition.

   Further, Holtz's notes show that witnesses told him Reinert's daughter, Karen, wore a blue pin with the letter "P" on it, like one that was found in Reinert 's car, the petition states. One witness testified at Smith 's trial that she wore a green pin like one that was allegedly discovered in Smith 's car a year after the murder while the former principal was incarcerated.

   Costopoulos had little comment about the new twist in the case, saying the petition "speaks for itself."

   "Normally exculpatory evidence comes from the commonwealth," he said. "This is the first time I got it from a junkman on the way to the incinerator."

   Costopoulos' petition blasts what he calls the error-laden prosecution of the case, which has taken new turns nearly every year since Smith 's conviction.

   Costopoulos initially attacked the conviction after it was discovered that rubber evidence lifters containing sand reportedly taken from Reinert 's feet were found in an evidence locker during the final days of the trial. They were not revealed to the defense until more than a year later.

   The lifters support Costopoulos' allegations that Reinert was killed at the New Jersey shore by Bradfield.

   He also notes in the petition that hair and fiber evidence that the prosecution used to link Smith to the slaying was lost from 1983 until the middle of the trial in 1986, receipts that refuted Bradfield's alibi are missing, the 911 tape alerting authorities to the discovery of Reinert 's body was mistakenly destroyed, Reinert 's body was accidentally cremated, and the autopsy audio tape was lost until after the trial.

   "In this case, the commonwealth has consistently concealed or `lost' material," Costopoulos charges in the petition.

   "Until a judge tells me what to do with it, I intend to keep the box I got from the junkman," Costopoulos said.

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