Anthony Ray Hinton is free at last after 30 years on death row

April 4, 2015

Anthony Ray Hinton is free at last after 30 years on death row. The Washington Post reports,

Anthony Ray Hinton was one of Alabama’s longest-serving death row inmates, having spent more than half his life incarcerated. Now, after three decades of insisting that he is innocent in the 1985 murders of two men, the 58-year-old Hinton is finally a free man.

“The sun does shine,” Hinton said just after his release from jail on Friday, according to AL.com.

His freedom came down to the same four bullets that put him in jail to begin with.

“I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years,” he told reporters according to CNN. “All they had to do was to test the gun.”

He added: “Everybody that played a part in sending me to death row, you will answer to God.”

Hinton was convicted of two separate killings of restaurant workers — the Feb. 25, 1985, slaying of John Davidson, and the July 2, 1985, killing of Thomas Vason — even though there were no eyewitnesses linking Hinton to the crimes, no fingerprints linking him to the scene, and no other physical evidence except for the questionable link between a set of bullets and a gun found in Hinton’s home.

Subsequent tests of the only physical evidence in the case raised serious doubts about whether the weapon in Hinton’s home had fired those bullets — and it even called into question whether the bullets were all fired from the same gun.

Why was he convicted, you ask? His lawyer thought he was limited to spending $1,000 to hire an expert, so he hired a civil engineer who was blind in one eye, could not handle a microscope and did not know much about ballistics. Needless to say, he did not fare well on cross examination.

The United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) unanimously vacated his conviction and death sentence last year and remanded the case to the trial court to hold a hearing to determine if his lawyer’s failure to provide effective assistance of counsel prejudiced his defense. He was granted a new trial and on Wednesday prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the case on the ground that three ballistics experts could not link the bullets to the gun.

Thanks to one of my heroes, Bryan Stevenson, Anthony Ray Hinton is free at last.


Wrongful convictions of three innocent men 39 years ago in Ohio set aside

November 21, 2014

Friday, November 21, 2014

Good morning:

Good news today.

Professor Mark Godsey, Director of the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, writes in today’s Huffington Post,

This morning, Ricky Jackson walked out of the Cuyahoga County courtroom in downtown Cleveland a free man after 39 years in prison–several of those on death row–for a murder he didn’t commit. The last time he tasted freedom was in 1975 when a postage stamp cost 10 cents, Gerald Ford was president, Pete Rose was the World Series MVP, Billie Jean King won Wimbledon, and Saturday Night Live had just premiered.

Jackson and his codefendants, Wiley and Ronnie Bridgeman, are black. They were convicted of murdering a white businessman named Harry Franks and sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1975. Their sentences were commuted to life in prison after the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared a similar Georgia death penalty statute unconstitutional.

Police misconduct caused their wrongful convictions. They terrified a 12-year-old boy, Ed Vernon, who initially lied to police claiming he witnessed the shooting when, in fact, he was a passenger in a school bus a couple of blocks away and did not see it. When he attempted to recant his statement, they screamed, threw objects at him and threatened to send his parents to prison for attempting to get him to change his story. He capitulated, testified in court and identified them as the killers.

Vernon recanted his story under oath in court last week and two witnesses who had been riding on the bus with Vernon that day testified that no one on the bus could have witnessed the murder because the location where it happened was not visible.

I suspect ineffective assistance of counsel played a role in the wrongful convictions because defense counsel should have assigned an investigator to check-out the scene and interview the school bus driver and all of the students on the bus before trial. If that had been done, defense counsel would have been able to impeach Vernon’s credibility and save their clients from death sentences and 39 years in prison.

For more information, go here.


Yet another egregious example to justify revoking the rule that prosecutors are immune from liability

November 11, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Good afternoon:

Today I write about an egregious miscarriage of justice that provides yet another reason to revoke the rule that prosecutors are absolutely immune from liability.

The State of Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, an innocent man, on February 17, 2004 for murdering his three daughters on December 23, 1991 by setting his house on fire. This wrongful conviction was caused by prosecutorial misconduct, forensic incompetence, ineffective assistance of counsel and jailhouse snitch testimony.

Wikipedia summarizes the forensic issue.

Willingham’s case gained renewed attention in 2009 when an investigative report by David Grann in The New Yorker, drawing upon arson investigation experts and advances in fire science since the 1992 investigation, suggested that the evidence for arson was unconvincing and, had this information been available at the time of trial, would have provided grounds for Willingham’s acquittal.

According to an August 2009 investigative report by an expert hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, the original claims of arson were doubtful. The Corsicana Fire Department disputes the findings, stating that the report overlooked several key points in the record. The case has been further complicated by allegations that Texas Governor Rick Perry impeded the investigation by replacing three of the nine commission members in an attempt to change the commission’s findings; Perry denies the allegations.

(footnotes omitted)

The arson investigators testified that the fire was set by someone who used an accelerant to spread the fire. The alleged motive was that he had sexually molested his daughhters and murdered them to prevent them from accusing him. However, there was no evidence that he had molested. His wife and mother of the three girls, Stacy Kuykendall, told prosecutors that he loved them and would never have harmed them.

Wikipedia describes what happened after Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death.

Long after the original conviction, in 2004 Gerald Hurst, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry, examined the arson evidence compiled by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal. Hurst said that Vasquez was incorrect when he said that the extreme heat of the fire (as evidenced by a melted aluminum threshold) indicated that an accelerant was used, and said that experiments prove that wood and liquid accelerant fires can burn with equal heat. Hurst’s own experiments showed that burning with an accelerant does not leave the kind of brown stains that Vasquez claimed were created that way. Hurst also said that the crazed glass that Vasquez said was caused by a liquid accelerant had been found as a result of brush fires elsewhere. Experiments showed that crazed glass was caused not by rapid heating but by cooling, and that glass cooled by water from a fire hose was more likely to have a crazed or cracked pattern. A $20,000 experimental house fire set without an accelerant created the same pour patterns and V shaped pattern that Vasquez attributed to the use of a liquid accelerant. Vasquez thought that Willingham lied when he said he escaped without burning his feet, because he thought that an accelerant was used that would spread fire along the floor. However, since no accelerant was needed to create the results found, Willingham could well have been telling the truth when he said that he ran out without burning his feet, presuming he left before the fire achieved flashover.

According to Hurst, when a fire reaches the flashover threshold, it is impossible to visually identify accelerant patterns. While the prosecutor thought that the “bizarre” path of the flame indicated that an accelerant was used, Hurst said that the path of the fire followed a post-flashover pattern of going in the direction of ventilation. Although Willingham was accused of using an accelerant in three different places, the front porch was the only place where an accelerant was verified by laboratory tests, and a photograph taken of the house before the fire showed that a charcoal grill was there. The family confirmed that lighter fluid was by the grill used for family barbecues. Water sprayed by firefighters likely spread the lighter fluid from the melted container. All twenty of the indications listed by Vasquez of an accelerant being used were rebutted by Hurst.


(footnotes omitted)

On July 25, 2014 a group of Texas lawyers and the Innocence Project in New York City filed a bar complaint against John Jackson, the lead prosecutor in Willinghams’s trial. The Open File describes the complaint.

It alleges that a “pillar” of Jackson’s case against Willingham was disingenuously built on the incentivized testimony of a jailhouse informant.

Jackson, who later became a state district judge, allegedly covered up a deal he struck with a key witness in the case, Johnny Webb. Jackson allegedly told Webb he would reduce the charges in a pending robbery case against Webb in exchange for his testimony in the Willingham case. Webb testified at trial that while he and Willingham were housed in the same jail, Willingham confessed to setting the fire that killed his children. Jackson used this confession to prop up the arson evidence in the case (which has since been widely discredited by experts in forensic science. Read submissions from experts to the Texas Forensic Science Commission here.)

Failing to disclose a deal with a witness in a criminal case has long been held to be a violation of a defendant’s right to due process. In Giglio v. United States (1972) the Supreme Court ruled that the state is obligated to disclose to the defense any promise or expectation of leniency it offered to a witness. In Napue v. Illinois (1959) the Court made clear that a prosecutor’s failure to correct the testimony of a witness who falsely testifies that they have no expectation of leniency from the state is also a violation of due process.

But the allegations in the bar complaint against Jackson go much further than even these serious violations: the complainants suggest that Jackson has actively covered up the deal he made with Webb “to this day”, going so far as to “deceive” the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Governor, and submitting false evidence in the form of an affidavit to a 2010 Court of Inquiry.

Webb has since denied that Willingham confessed to him in jail.

The matter is pending.


Susan Mellen is free today after spending 17 years in prison for a murder she did not commit

October 11, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Good morning:

Free at last!

After serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, Susan Mellen is free at last.

Corrina Knoll of the Los Angeles Times reports:

Superior Court Judge Mark S. Arnold said the trial had hinged on a single witness who was a “habitual liar” and claimed Mellen had confessed involvement in the crime. But jurors never learned that the witness’ sister, a Torrance police officer, believed she was a pathological liar or that Torrance police had several years earlier deemed the witness an “unreliable informant.”

The judge said Mellen had received “subpar representation” from a trial attorney who should have conducted a thorough investigation of the witness’ credibility.

“I believe that not only is Ms. Mellen not guilty, I believe based on what I’ve read, she’s innocent, and for that reason I believe the criminal justice system failed,” Arnold said.

“Thank you, your honor, thank you so much,” Mellen, 59, said in a small voice.

“Good luck,” the judge replied.

Mellen was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1998 for soliciting the murder of a homeless man, Richard Daly, at a home in Lawndale, California where she and others were living at the time. Three gang members were subsequently linked to the murder and one of them was convicted of beating Daly to death. One of the others later passed a polygraph in which he admitted that he was present during the murder, but Susan Mellen was not there.

The three causes of this wrongful conviction are:

1) Jailhouse informant perjury;

2) Police and prosecutorial misconduct; and

3) Ineffective assistance of counsel.

The jailhouse informant or ‘snitch’ in this case was a woman named June Patti. People who work in the criminal justice system all know that jailhouse snitch testimony is inherently unreliable because they have powerful motives to lie in order to receive beneficial consequences lightening their load in return for their cooperation and testimony against a defendant. For this reason, I believe no conviction based solely on jailhouse snitch testimony should ever stand.

Mellen’s case is a perfect example of what can go wrong, if jailhouse snitch testimony is admitted to shore up a weak prosecution case.

June Patti testified that Susan Mellen admitted her guilt in the Daly murder while they were together in jail before Mellen’s trial. The lead investigator, LAPD Detective Marcella Winn, and the prosecutor who tried Susan Mellen should have known and likely knew that June Patti was an unreliable witness because she had a long history of providing false tips to law enforcement. For example, Patti’s sister, the Torrance police officer to whom Judge Arnold referred in his comment, now claims that she warned Detective Winn that June Patti was a pathological liar and several years before the murder a narcotics detective for the Torrance Police Department wrote a report in which he said Patti had provided a series of tips that turned out to false.

Police and prosecutors have a duty to investigate the reliability of an informant before putting her on the stand and risk convicting a potentially innocent defendant.

This information was exculpatory evidence that should have been obtained and disclosed to defense counsel before trial pursuant to Brady v. Maryland, and Giglio v. United States. Their failure to obtain and disclose this information to defense counsel was misconduct.

Finally, Mellen’s defense attorney compounded their misconduct by failing to investigate June Patti’s credibility. Her failure constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.

I have often referred to defense counsel as liberty’s last guardian and that statement is certainly true in this case because Susan Mellen is free today due to the efforts of Deirdre O’Connor, an attorney who runs Innocence Matters, a nonprofit organization that represents wrongfully convicted innocent people.

Upon her release yesterday after serving 17 years in prison for a crime that she did not commit, she said,

I always forgave my enemies. Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes thank them because they bring you closer to God.

For more information about June Patti’s pathological lying in Washington State after she left California, please go here.


Glen Ford is free at last after 30 years on death row

March 12, 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2013

Good morning:

Glen Ford, 64, is a free man today after spending 30 years on death row in Louisiana for a murder he did not commit.

This awful case features police and prosecutorial misconduct, forensic fraud, lying witnesses and ineffective assistance of counsel.

The victim was Isadore Rozeman, 56, a watchmaker in Shreveport who was found shot to death behind the counter in his store. Mr. Ford worked for him occasionally doing yard work.

Police arrested Mr. Ford in November 1983 for possession of property stolen from Rozeman’s store. He was charged with the murder the following February together with George Starks, Henry Robinson and Jake Robinson.

The Death Penalty Information Center is reporting,

Prosecutors said they recently received “credible evidence” that Ford “was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder” of which he was convicted in 1984. Ford, who has always maintained his innocence, was tried and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. One of the witnesses against him said at trial that police had helped her make up her story. A state “expert” who testified about the victim’s time of death had not even examined the body. Ford’s lead trial attorney had never tried a jury case before. A second attorney, two years out of law school, worked at an insurance defense firm. They failed to hire any experts to rebut the prosecution’s case because they believed they would have to pay for the experts themselves. The Louisiana Supreme Court earlier said it had “serious questions” about the outcome of the trial, but did not reverse Ford’s conviction. Ford may have been involved in trying to pawn jewelry from the victim that he received from one of the original codefendants.

USA Today is reporting,

Movement in Ford’s decades-old case began last year when Caddo Parish prosecutors began filing motions in federal court indicating someone other than Ford had confessed to being Rozeman’s killer. The court documents indicate a confidential informant questioned in an unrelated homicide identified Jake Robinson, one of four men initially charged in Rozeman’s murder, as the triggerman, not Ford.

Few other details were provided until Thursday, when the motion spurring Ford’s release plainly stated that if the new evidence had been known when Ford went to trial the outcome would have been different. “Indeed, if the information had been within the knowledge of the state, Glenn Ford might not even have been arrested or indicted for this offense,” the motion states

There were no eyewitnesses to the crime and the murder weapon was never found. The prosecution’s most important witness was a woman named Marvella Brown. The Atlantic reports,

With all signs pointing to the Robinsons, and with police under the impression that the one or both of the brothers still possessed the murder weapon, Ford was not immediately charged with Rozeman’s murder. He and the two Robinsons were instead charged three months later—only after Jake Robinson’s girlfriend, Marvella Brown, incriminated them by telling the police that Ford was with the Robinsons, and in the possession of a firearm, on the day of Rozeman’s murder.

/snip/

Under cross-examination, however, she told jurors that the police had helped her make up the story she had told about Ford. When Ford’s attorneys later called her to the witness stand, she told jurors that a bullet left from an old gunshot wound to her head had affected her thinking. “I did lie to the Court… I lied about it all,” she said in court.

The all-white jury took less than 3 hours to convict Mr. Ford and it subsequently recommended a death sentence.

There were no blacks on the jury because the prosecution used a peremptory challenge to strike the only one from the jury, a practice condemned by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986).

Pursuant to Louisiana law, Mr. Ford will receive some financial compensation for being incarcerated for 30 years. The law requires the state to pay $25,000 per year of wrongful incarceration up to a maximum of $250,000 plus up to $80,000 for loss of life opportunities.

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This is our 930th post and donations are lagging. We work hard to keep you informed by filling in the blanks between the lines. After 30 years in the trenches, I am familiar with all of the rules and strategies prosecutors and defense counsel utilize. Experience counts and most of my predictions have been accurate.

Adjusting and fine tuning to dial in the white fear and racist corruption frequencies in the Florida courts took some doing, but I am on track now.

If you appreciate what we do, please make a donation.

We cannot pay our bills without your support.

Fred


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