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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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U.S. Supreme Court Orders Reconsideration of “Vindictive Prosecution” in Virginia Capital Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered the Virginia Supreme Court to address a claim brought by former death-row prisoner Justin Wolfe (pictured) that prosecutors had engaged in unconstitutional vindictive prosecution against him after federal courts had found that his conviction and death sentence had been obtained through egregious prosecutorial misconduct. The Virginia Supreme Court had ruled that Wolfe’s guilty plea to the enhanced charges brought against him after his first conviction was overturned barred him from challenging the prosecutors’ conduct. In a two-sentence order on January 7, 2019, the Supreme Court granted Wolfe’s petition to review his case, summarily reversed the state court decision, and directed the Virginia Supreme Court to consider Wolfe’s vindictive prosecution claim.

Wolfe was convicted and sentenced to death in 2002 on charges that he had hired Owen Barber to kill Daniel Petrole, Jr. His conviction was overturned in 2011 when U.S. District Court Judge Raymond A. Jackson found that the prosecution had intentionally withheld exculpatory evidence, threatened a witness with the death penalty if he did not testify against Wolfe, and presented false testimony to the jury. Judge Jackson described the prosecutorial and police misconduct in the case as “abhorrent to the judicial process.” Barber, the admitted triggerman and the state’s key witness against Wolfe, had recanted his testimony in 2005. He said, “The prosecution and my own defense attorney placed me in a position in which I felt that I had to choose between falsely testifying against Justin or dying.” Prosecutors had in their possession, but withheld from the defense, a police report documenting that a detective had suggested to Barber that he implicate Wolfe in the murder or face execution, as well as information that Barber had confessed to his roommate that he had acted alone in committing the murder. The prosecution attempted to justify its conduct by saying it had withheld the evidence to avoid providing Wolfe with information that could be used “to fabricate a defense.”

In 2012, Judge Jackson ordered Virginia to release Wolfe and barred a retrial, saying that a prosecution visit to Barber in 2012 in which it again threatened him with the death penalty if he did not cooperate showed "the same subtle but unmistakable coercion" as earlier efforts to induce his testimony. Six months later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling and allowed the state to retry Wolfe. Prosecutors not only sought to retry Wolfe, but added six new charges. Rather than face the possibility of another death sentence, Wolfe agreed to a plea deal. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 83 years in prison, with 42 years suspended. He attempted to appeal the validity of the plea “in light of the Commonwealth’s vindictive prosecution,” but the Virginia Supreme Court on February 5, 2018 refused his petition for appeal. He sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his appeal should be allowed under its 2018 decision in Class v. United States, which held that “‘a plea of guilty to a charge does not waive a claim that—judged on its face—the charge is one which the State may not constitutionally prosecute.’” The Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling and sent the case back for further consideration in light of Class.


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