Former North Carolina Death-Row Prisoner Charles Ray Finch Freed After 43 Years

A North Carolina man wrongly convicted and sentenced to death based upon false forensic testimony and an eyewitness identification manipulated by police misconduct has been freed from prison after 43 years. On May 23, 2019, federal district court judge Terrence Boyle ordered North Carolina to release former death-row prisoner Charles Ray Finch (pictured with his members of his legal team) from custody, five months after a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found Finch “actually innocent” of the murder. Finch, now 81 years old, was freed from Greene Correctional Institution in Maura, North Carolina, that afternoon. Finch’s daughter, Katherine Jones-Bailey, was two years old when he was convicted and sentenced to death. “I knew the miracle was going to happen,” she said about her father’s release. “I just didn’t know when.”

Following the appeals court ruling, Finch’s lawyers from the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic filed a motion in federal district court seeking his immediate release. The North Carolina Attorney General’s office joined in the motion. The district court formally overturned Finch’s conviction and gave Wilson County prosecutors 30 days to decide whether to retry him. With no credible evidence of guilt, a retrial is considered unlikely. If charges are not refiled, Finch will become the 166th former U.S. death-row prisoner to have been exonerated since 1973. He will be the second death-sentenced prisoner to have waited more than four decades to be exonerated. In March 2019, Clifford Williams, Jr. was exonerated in Florida 42 years after his wrongful conviction and death sentence. 

Finch was convicted in 1976 of murdering a grocery store clerk during an attempted robbery. He was sentenced to death under the mandatory death-sentencing statute then in effect in North Carolina. A state forensic witness testified at the trial that the victim had died from two shotgun wounds, and a shotgun shell was found in Finch’s car. A store employee who saw the killer flee the scene told police that the killer had been wearing a three-quarter length jacket. An eyewitness later identified Finch in three different lineups. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the sentencing statute and, in 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated Finch’s death sentence and resentenced him to life in prison.

In 2013, testimony by Dr. John Butts, then North Carolina's Chief Medical Examiner, revealed that the victim had been killed by a pistol, not a shotgun and North Carolina State Crime Laboratory Special Agent Peter Ware, the forensic scientist manager for the lab’s firearm toolmark section, testified that the bullet found at the scene and the shell found in Finch’s car did not come from the same firearm. Finch also presented testimony that the eyewitness identification procedures had been unduly suggestive. In an interview, Finch told WNCN-TV, “[w]hen I was picked up, they didn't question me or nothing. They put me there in a line-up. Straight in a line-up. And they put me in a line-up with a black leather coat on.” Chief Deputy Tony Owens claimed that he had put the jacket on another man in the lineup, but photos the defense had discovered showed that Finch was the only person in the three lineups wearing a coat. “That’s one of the highlights at the evidentiary hearing,” said Jim Coleman, Finch’s long-time lawyer and the director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic. “[W]e were able to expose that [Owens] had lied about the line-up and he had dressed Ray in a coat and he was the only one wearing a coat in the line-up.”

Coleman and the clinic have represented Finch for fifteen years, and Finch was the clinic’s first client. “We have students who work their hearts out on these cases,” Coleman said. “We feel an enormous sense of vindication.”

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New Podcast: Emmy- and Oscar-Award Winning Director Edward Zwick on His New Film, Trial By Fire

In the latest episode of the Discussions with DPIC podcast, Emmy- and Oscar-winner Edward Zwick speaks about his new movie, Trial By Fire. The film, which Zwick co-produced and directed, tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992 for the deaths of his three children in a house fire that prosecutors wrongly claimed had been intentionally set. As Willingham’s execution approached in 2004, evidence came to light that arson investigators had relied on flawed and outdated methods. The trial prosecutor also withheld evidence that a jailhouse informant who claimed that Willingham had confessed to him had been provided favorable treatment in exchange for implicating Willingham.

Willingham’s case featured what Zwick called a “catalog” of problems: “it had the withholding of exculpatory evidence, it had junk science, it had jailhouse snitches who would testify in exchange for reduced sentences, [and] it had a piss-poor public defender.” In an interview with DPIC’s Managing Director, Anne Holsinger, Zwick describes why he decided to tell Willingham’s story, what he learned from the experience, and how he hopes the film will affect audiences. Trial By Fire opens on May 17, 2019.

Trial By Fire is largely based on an investigative article of the same name written by David Grann and published in The New Yorker in 2009. Zwick called Grann’s account of the case a “categorical denunciation of everything that was wrong with the prosecutions in death-penalty cases.” The movie focuses on the relationship between Willingham (Jack O’Connell) and his penpal, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern). Gilbert worked with the filmmakers and offered them access to her correspondence with Willingham. Zwick said he chose to portray that relationship because it was a “beautiful juxtaposition to the horrors of the case.” He expressed gratitude to Gilbert for sharing the letters, which he said showed the “internal workings and the value of a man’s life, so he was more than just a statistic.” He also said that the friendship between Willingham and Gilbert humanized the story and helped the film avoid being didactic. “People go to the movies because they want to invest in the characters and in the relationships. They don’t go to the movies to learn about issues, but that doesn’t say that they can’t have both.”

Zwick characterized Willingham’s story as embodying the systemic problems in the way the death penalty is carried out in the United States. “In a system that cannot be guaranteed to be infallible, if a single innocent person has been put to death, that more than justifies getting rid of the death penalty,” he said. Capital punishment, he said, is emblematic of the inequities in the criminal justice system at large: “The death penalty sits on top of the pyramid of charging and sentencing and trials, and that if it is so flawed and revealed to be unjust and if its absurdities can be so accepted, how then can we reform the rest of the system, before dealing with it?” The interview concluded with a discussion of the filmmaker’s hopes for how the audience will respond to the movie. “I know that it’s a Pollyanna-ish notion that a single film can do anything that affects policy itself. What it can do is add a set of images and a warm-bloodedness and a personal understanding of something that an audience might have only understood in more philosophical or political terms.” Storytelling can be part of cultural “paradigm shifts,” he said, noting that pop culture depictions of same-sex relationships helped shape public opinion on same-sex marriage. “Change happens," Zwick said, "but how it happens and when it happens, and the rate at which it happens is unpredictable, and all that one can do in any kind of activist cause is to keep your head down and keep doing the work that you do because you are committed to that change.”

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Judge Declares Texas Death-Row Exoneree Alfred Dewayne Brown “Actually Innocent”

A Texas trial court judge has formally declared Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured) “actually innocent” of the murder charges that led to his wrongful conviction and death sentence in 2005. The order, issued on May 3, 2019 by Harris County District Court Judge George Powell, paves the way for Brown to receive compensation from the state for the ten years he was wrongfully incarcerated on death row for the killing of a Houston police officer.

Brown was exonerated in 2015 after evidence showed that Harris County prosecutors had manipulated the grand jury system, jailed a witness until she agreed to falsely implicate Brown, and suppressed phone records showing that Brown could not have been at the crime scene when the murder occurred. At that time, then-District Attorney Devon Anderson dismissed all charges against Brown, but refused to provide a statement that he was “actually innocent,” which is a prerequisite for a wrongfully convicted person to receive compensation from the state. Anderson’s successor, Kim Ogg, appointed John Raley to serve as special prosecutor to reinvestigate the case and make a recommendation regarding compensation. Following a ten-month investigation, Raley produced an extensive report detailing the prosecutor’s manipulation of witnesses to testify against Brown and suppression of the phone records that corroborated his alibi. The report concluded, “By clear and convincing evidence, no reasonable juror would fail to have a reasonable doubt about whether Brown is guilty of murder. Therefore his case meets the legal definition of ‘actual innocence.’” In March 2019, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg signed an affidavit declaring Brown “actually innocent.”

After Ogg’s declaration, Judge Powell assessed the legal question of whether he had jurisdiction to formally declare Brown innocent. Based on the declaration, Brown could be eligible for nearly $2 million in compensation for the decade he was wrongfully confined on death row. Texas law generally requires that an actual innocence finding be issued as part of the appeals process, specifically through a writ of habeas corpus, but that process was not available to Brown, whose legal case was already closed. The court considered, but rejected, the possibility of prosecutors bringing new charges against Brown and dismissing the case anew, saying that would be an “absurd result” and a “second injustice.” Instead, Judge Powell rescinded his previous order that had formally dismissed the charges against Brown and issued a new one-page order specifically stating that “the criminal DISMISSED due to Alfred Dewayne Brown’s actual innocence.”

Outside the courtroom, Ogg reiterated that Brown is innocent. "Alfred Brown was wrongfully convicted,” she said. “Given the state of the evidence today and the law as it’s applied we don’t believe that any reasonable juror would find Alfred Brown guilty under the evidence as it exists now.” Attorney Neal Manne said, “[t]he law of the state of Texas entitles [Brown] to compensation but it can never fully compensate him for spending 12 years in prison for a crime that he had no involvement in. But he’s entitled to the compensation and I hope that he can now lead a peaceful and happy life.” Despite the declaration, and the report explaining Brown’s innocence, Houston’s police union continues to assert that Brown is guilty of killing Officer Charles Clark. The union president said it plans to fight Brown’s compensation. Brian Stolarz, one of the attorneys who helped free Brown, responded, saying, “Dewayne was peaceful and graceful today. He thanks his lawyers and supporters and thanks the district attorney and special counsel for their thorough investigation. Clearing his name has been the goal since he was released almost four years ago, and to those who seek otherwise, he meets hatred with love.” 

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Estate of Executed Tennessee Prisoner Seeks DNA Testing to Establish His Innocence

Tennessee executed Sedley Alley in 2006 for the brutal rape and murder of Marine Lance Corporal Suzanne Collins, after having denied him DNA testing that his lawyers believed could have established his innocence. Now, after new evidence suggests that another man may have committed the murder, the Innocence Project has filed a petition in Shelby County (Memphis) Criminal Court on behalf of Alley’s estate renewing Alley’s request for DNA testing. Local counsel also sent a letter to Governor Bill Lee asking him to exercise his clemency power to order DNA testing and, if the evidence exonerates Alley, to issue a posthumous pardon. 

Innocence Project co-founder and special counsel Barry Scheck announced the filings at a May 1, 2019, news conference in Memphis. “There has never been a full and fair hearing on Mr. Alley’s guilt or innocence,” Scheck said. “This case has all the tell-tale signs of a wrongful conviction – a confession that has been demonstrated to be false by objective forensic evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification, and, most disturbing, the refusal to test DNA evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Alley or removed the doubts about his guilt.” Alley was convicted and sentenced to death after the lawyers appointed to represent him at trial failed to investigate glaring inconsistencies between the physical evidence and a confession Alley consistently said had been coerced. Instead, with no prior history of mental illness, his lawyers argued that he suffered from a multiple-personality disorder and was not guilty by reason of insanity. In 2003, after Alley had lost his appeals, new lawyers, including assistant federal defender Kelly Henry (pictured, at the news conference), were appointed to represent Alley in clemency proceedings. “When I started looking at the evidence, I immediately realized that this was a case of innocence, and that nobody — nobody — had realized it,” Henry said.

Alley’s clemency lawyers found numerous inconsistencies in the state’s evidence, unearthed evidence that pointed to another suspect who fit the eyewitness descriptions of the murderer and had a car that matched descriptions of the murderer’s car, and discovered that Alley had been at home under police surveillance at the time Collins was raped and killed. Based on these discoveries, they asked for DNA testing of clothing and the murder weapon. The evidence persuaded the Tennessee Board of Parole to recommend that then-Governor Phil Bredesen stay Mr. Alley’s execution and order DNA testing. Instead, Bredesen directed the lawyers to present their request for testing to the Tennessee courts, which refused to allow the testing to occur. Five years later, the Tennessee Supreme Court disavowed its decision in Alley’s case, saying they had misapplied Tennessee’s post-conviction DNA testing act. “The courts got it wrong in 2006 when they allowed Mr. Alley to be executed before testing the DNA,” Scheck said. “If Mr. Alley were alive today, he would be entitled to DNA testing under the … statute. We now have a chance to learn the truth in this case.”

Scheck was joined at the conference by Alley’s daughter April, who is executor of her father’s estate; members of the DNA litigation team; and death-row exonerees Ray Krone and Sabrina Butler-Smith, who both now live in Tennessee. The Innocence Project renewed efforts to obtain DNA testing last year, after receiving a tip from law enforcement that a suspected serial killer arrested in an unrelated murder in Missouri attended classes with Lance Corporal Collins near the time of the murder. Speaking at the press conference, Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project’s Director of Post-Conviction Litigation said, “It's never too late to find the truth. ... We have an opportunity to get to the truth today, and that's what we're asking for.”

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Federal Court Overturns Ohio Shaken-Baby Conviction and Death Sentence Based on Withheld Evidence

A federal district court has overturned the conviction of Genesis Hill (pictured), who was sentenced to death in Ohio in 1991 for the death of his six-month-old daughter, Domika, based upon a questionable shaken-baby diagnosis. On April 24, 2019, Chief Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio found that Ohio prosecutors had unconstitutionally withheld exculpatory evidence that called into question the credibility of a key witness and the testimony of the state’s forensic expert at trial. That evidence and several new affidavits produced by the defense, Chief Judge Sargus said, demonstrate that Domika’s death was most likely accidental and that no reasonable juror exposed to all the evidence would have found Hill guilty.

Hill was convicted of capital murder based on forensic testimony that he had shaken his infant daughter, causing a head injury that killed her. Crucial testimony came from Teresa Dudley, Domika’s mother, and from Dr. Amy Martin, a deputy coroner and forensic pathologist who performed Domika’s autopsy. On appeal, Hill presented a police report that had been withheld from his defense team that suggested Dudley may have been involved in the child’s death. He also submitted three affidavits – two from witnesses who saw what appeared to be Dudley and a friend hiding Domika’s body, and one from Dr. Martin stating that, based on changes in scientific literature, her assessment of Domika’s injuries has changed. The Court found that the new evidence established Hill’s “actual innocence” and overcame procedural roadblocks that would otherwise have required the court to deny his petition as untimely.

The withheld police report contains the account of the first officer who responded to the report of a missing child. The officer said that Dudley ran from police when they arrived at the scene, a fact not presented at Hill’s trial. A day before Domika’s body was found, Dudley repeatedly implored police to check in the location where the girl’s body was eventually discovered. Two new affidavits also support the theory that Dudley was involved in Domika’s death, or at least in hiding her body and blaming the death on Hill. Two witnesses who did not testify at Hill’s trial reported that they had seen Dudley and a friend of hers carrying a brown Similac baby formula box down the street toward the alley in which Domika’s body was later discovered. The baby was found inside a Similac box. One of the witnesses also said in an affidavit that the day before Domika’s body was found, Dudley told her that Domika was dead.

In addition to the withheld police report and supporting affidavits, Hill presented an affidavit from Dr. Martin, recanting her testimony that Domika’s death was a homicide. Dr. Martin said that, “based in part of my experience as a forensic pathologist over the past 25 years, as well as the scientific literature now available that discusses more clearly the characteristics of crushing injuries to the head in children, I believe [the victim's] head injury is much more consistent with a crush injury then with inflicted impacts, and certainly more consistent with a crush injury than with injuries seen in shaking or shaking/impact.” The doctor’s new statement is consistent with Hill’s claim at the time of trial that he had fallen from a retaining wall while holding his daughter and that his knee had landed on her head. Martin’s statement also reflects the change in scientific consensus regarding “shaken baby syndrome,” a diagnosis that has sent hundreds of parents and caregivers to prison, including some to death row, but has now been debunked in medical and legal journals. Two people, Sabrina Butler and Rodricus Crawford, have been exonerated from death row after they were wrongfully convicted of killing their children on the basis of false forensic testimony when the medical evidence showed no crime had occurred.

The district court ordered prosecutors to retry or release Hill within 180 days. The state may appeal the ruling.

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One Month Later, Strong Emotions About California's Execution Moratorium

One month into California’s moratorium on executions, the historic action by Governor Gavin Newsom (pictured) is drawing high praise from exonerees, mixed reviews from victims’ families, and unusually personal condemnation from political adversaries. Kirk Bloodsworth ­— the first former death-row prisoner exonerated by DNA evidence — wrote that he was “thrilled” by the news of the moratorium. Bloodsworth, the interim executive director of the death-row exonerees’ organization, Witness to Innocence, said the moratorium would prevent the “unforgivable and grave mistake” of executing an innocent person. Beth Webb — whose sister and a close friend were killed and whose mother was wounded in the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County history — said she “could not be prouder to have Gov. Gavin Newsom standing with me and other loved ones of victims for whom the death penalty has created years of prolonged pain and suffering rather than any sense of justice.” At the same time, several California district attorneys staged a press conference with family members of other victims to denounce Newsom and the moratorium, and four prosecutors authored a CNN op-ed accusing the governor of ignoring victims and “singlehandedly undermining” California’s democratic government.

At an April 11 press conference in Sacramento the day after prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against Joseph DeAngelo — linked by DNA to at least 13 murders and 50 rapes in the 1970s and 1980s — Orange County District Attorney said “Governor Newsom took a knife and stabbed all the victims and all the victims’ families in the heart.” Ron Harrington — whose brother was murdered and sister-in-law was raped and murdered called the accused Golden State Killer “the worst of the worst of the worst ever. He is the poster child for the death penalty,” Harrington said. In their CNN op-ed, District Attorneys Anne Marie Schubert of Sacramento County, Michael Hestrin of Riverside County, Lisa Smittcamp of Fresno County, and Gilbert Otero of Imperial County derided the moratorium order as “a slap in the face to crime victims and their families” and an “autocratic decree [that was] a disgraceful day for democracy.”

In an op-ed in the Mercury News, Bloodsworth called the moratorium necessary to address California’s “long history of wrongful convictions.” He wrote that, “[s]ince 1989, 191 men and women have been exonerated of serious crimes in California. And since the death penalty was reinstated in the state, five men have been released from death row.” Those wrongful convictions, he said, had been caused by “witness misidentification, the use of junk science, false informant testimony, misconduct by police or prosecutors, and false confessions,” with multiple causes often present in each case. In an April 28, 2019 op-ed in the Orange County Register, Webb described how years of deliberate misconduct by Orange County sheriffs and prosecutors forced local courts to bar the death penalty for convicted mass murderer Scott Dekraai. “From the beginning, it was clear the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office were so focused on pursuing the death penalty that they were willing to cheat, withhold evidence and even lie on the stand” to stonewall the investigation of a multi-decade scandal involving the deliberate misuse of prison informants. “Because of the way some overzealous prosecutors pursue the death penalty at all costs, this case that should have been quickly concluded dragged on for six years, subjecting me, my family and the loved ones of the other victims to unimaginable pain,” Webb said. She also warned of “another, insidious, evil of the death penalty... [, that] it is wielded as a tool to score political points by an increasingly small group of prosecutors.”

Newsom’s moratorium order also drew support from six former governors who had granted clemency, imposed moratoria, or ended the death penalty in their states. In a blog post, Governors Richard Celeste, John Kitzhaber, Martin O’Malley, Bill Richardson, Pat Quinn and Toney Anaya wrote that Newsom’s action “took great courage, and the ability to see that his state’s death row … exemplified just how broken the system is.” The former governors praised Newsom for recognizing that “inaction isn’t an option” and assured Newsom that “he isn’t alone.”

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Wrongful Use or Threat of Capital Prosecutions Implicated in Five Exonerations in 2018

At least five people were exonerated in 2018 after having been wrongfully convicted in cases that involved the misuse or threatened use of the death penalty, a DPIC analysis of data accompanying a new report by the National Registry of Exonerations has shown. The National Registry’s annual report on wrongful convictions, Exonerations in 2018, recorded a record 151 new exonerations across the United States in 2018, including 68 exonerations resulting from wrongful homicide convictions. Two of those exonerations freed death-row prisoners Vicente Benavides and Clemente Aguirre.

A record number of the exonerations in 2018 were the product of wrongful convictions obtained by police and/or prosecutorial misconduct (107) or perjury/false accusation (111), with both often occurring in combination. The two also were the leading factors contributing to wrongful homicide convictions, 79.4% of which involved police and/or prosecutorial misconduct (54 cases) and 76.5% of which involved perjury/false accusation (52 cases). Historically, those two factors are the leading causes of wrongful capital convictions. Both were present in more than two-thirds of the homicide exonerations (47 cases, 69.1%) in 2018, including the wrongful capital convictions of Benavides and Aquirre. DNA evidence helped to exonerate 14 of those wrongfully convicted of homicide in 2018, only 20.1% of homicide exonerations. The prosecution presented perjured testimony or false witness accusations in all of the murder cases involving DNA, and police and/or prosecutorial misconduct was also present in more than 60% of those cases. DNA helped to rebut false or misleading forensic evidence presented by the prosecution in five of the homicide exonerations.

At least three other homicide exonerations in 2018 involved the wrongful use or threat of the death penalty. Bobby Joe Maxwell was capitally prosecuted in Los Angeles, California for a series of ten murders and five robberies attributed to the “Skid Row Stabber” in 1978 and 1979. No physical evidence directly linked Maxwell to the murders and witnesses failed to identify him or his voice in police lineups. He won a new trial in 2010 after new evidence exposed the prosecution’s prison informant as a “serial liar.” The prosecution dropped charges against Maxwell after he suffered a heart attack that left him comatose. Matthew Sopron was convicted of a double murder and sentenced to life without parole in 1998 in Chicago, Illinois after an 18-year-old prosecution witness falsely implicated him after having been threatened with the death penalty. William Bigeck subsequently admitted that Sopron “had absolutely nothing to do with the murders” and testified in post-conviction proceedings in 2018 that he would have done anything to avoid the death penalty and that he had changed his initial statement to obtain a plea deal that took the death penalty off the table. Daniel Villegas was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in El Paso, Texas in August 1995 for a drive-by double murder. The 16-year-old falsely confessed to the murders after a police detective handcuffed him to a chair, threatened to take him to the desert and “beat his ass,” slapped him, and said he would die in the electric chair if he didn’t confess. “[T]errified out of his mind,” Villegas confessed. The Texas state courts overturned the conviction in 2012, citing ineffective assistance of counsel. Presenting evidence of innocence at his third trial, Villegas was acquitted in October 2018.

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Florida Man Exonerated 42 Years After Wrongful Conviction and Death Sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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