Wrongfully convicted

Wrongly Imprisoned for Killing His Infant Daughter, a Father Could Go Free This Week

December 5,2017

The science on shaken baby syndrome, it turns out, was not actually sound and should not have been used for putting this father behind bars.

This story was originally published by The Chronicle of Social Change, a nonprofit news publication that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth and their families, and has been republished here with permission.

There was no doubt about the horror of the situation: A 4-month-old baby girl was dead.

The question facing the jurors was less clear-cut: Was the tiny girl’s death accidental, or had she been murdered by her own father?

On the afternoon of Nov. 24, 2001, in Sacramento, California, 18-year-old Zavion Johnson had called an ambulance. His baby daughter Nadia had been sleepy all day and then had stopped breathing.

Responding paramedics gave her CPR, pushed a breathing tube down her throat, and rushed her to the hospital. There, doctors discovered Nadia had terrible internal head injuries, including a fractured skull. Suspecting abuse, they called the police.

ohnson would later tell his family that earlier that morning, he had accidentally dropped Nadia while showering with her. The girl had hit her head on the back of the cast-iron bathtub but had seemed to recover. Questioned by police, the frightened teenager at first didn’t say anything about the accident. That impulse backfired horribly on him.

Nadia died two days later. On the day of her funeral, Johnson was arrested and charged with her murder.

At trial, Johnson’s lawyer told the court about the fall in the shower, and more than a dozen people testified that he was a gentle and loving father who had never mistreated the baby.

None of the prosecution’s witnesses said anything to the contrary. Instead, the deputy district attorney held up Johnson’s inconsistent statements as evidence of his guilt. The clincher, however, was the testimony of three medical experts, who all declared that the nature and pattern of Nadia’s injuries could not have been caused by a short fall, but only by violent shaking.

“This is a classic case of shaken baby syndrome,” Deputy District Attorney Chris Cosca told the jury. “We know that this little girl lost her life because of a brutally violent shaking, the violent acceleration-deceleration, the rotational injury, and the impact against a hard surface. That’s the only way it can be explained. And there is no way on earth that she suffered these injuries by virtue of a simple drop in the tub. No way.”

Johnson was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Sixteen years later, he is still in prison.

But it turns out Cosca was wrong.

In the past year, two of the key medical witnesses who supported the shaken baby diagnosis at Johnson’s trial have disavowed their testimony, and the district attorney’s office now supports Johnson’s attempt to have his conviction overturned. On Dec. 8, Johnson and his legal team are hoping to learn whether he’ll now be able to go home.

There used to something close to a medical consensus that certain patterns of injuries can only be caused by shaking. In particular, a “triad”—swelling of the brain, bleeding on the brain’s surface, and bleeding behind the retinas—was believed to be solid proof that a baby had been abused in this way. The theory was put forward in the early 1970s by doctors trying to explain the deaths of infants and children with no outward signs of abuse. The diagnosis soon became accepted as scientific fact and has since been used to convict hundreds of people of harming or killing children.

But over the past 20 years, a body of new research has shown how diseases, genetic conditions and accidents—including short falls—can produce the same constellation of injuries. As a result, faith in shaken baby syndrome is unraveling.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2009 that doctors stop using the term. A 2015 investigation by the Washington Post found at least 16 shaken baby syndrome murder convictions that have been overturned.

Scores of other cases that collapsed before trial because of the doubts around the “triad” as evidence. One of those cases was another Sacramento County father convicted of killing his 4-month-old son.

Dr. Norman Guthkelch, a pediatric neurosurgeon who was one of the first to advance the hypothesis behind shaken baby syndrome, recently stated that it is “high time every case of a parent in [prison] for this had his or her case reviewed” because “we went badly off the rails … on this matter.”

“Our decision … was not a difficult one,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi wrote in an email. “Had the information currently available on the topic been available then, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial could have been different.”

That doesn’t mean Johnson goes free automatically; the DA could still ask for a retrial, though that seems unlikely. Johnson is now awaiting a judge’s order to let him go. After spending nearly half his life behind bars, he is hoping to be back with his family in time for Christmas.

There is no definitive accounting of how many people are prosecuted and incarcerated on the basis of this questionable science, but the number is certainly substantial.

database maintained by the Northwestern University’s Medill Justice Project, last updated in 2015, includes more than 3,000 shaken baby syndrome criminal cases in the United States over the past 20 years, though not all of them are still current. The Washington Post’s investigation estimated hundreds of parents and caregivers were being prosecuted each year, and tallied 1,600 convictions since 2001. At least three such convictions have landed people on death row, according to a recent New Scientist article.

The Innocence Project, a national network of advocates for prisoners who are wrongfully convicted, is reviewing about 100 cases involving shaken baby syndrome.

Some medical experts still support the use of the diagnosis, now more commonly called “abusive head trauma,” as at least one form of evidence that can help determine whether a child’s death was accidental or the result of violence. Nobody disputes that violently shaking a baby can injure or kill; the tricky part is figuring out whether that actually happened. And once someone has been convicted of lethal child abuse, convincing a court to undertake that task again is not easy.

The collateral damage for mistaking an accident for maltreatment can extend beyond a jail term. Parents accused of contributing to a child’s death can face the removal of all children from the home.

2010 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect notes that “little data are available about what happens to these siblings after the victim’s death.” Using records from Oklahoma’s child fatality review, the study concluded that the presence of young siblings, previous maltreatment reports and the nature of the fatal incident were predictors of removal after a death.

In an essay published in the in the American Academy of Pediatrics News, two physicians argued that the recent controversy over shaken baby syndrome should not take away from correctly diagnosing cases of child abuse.

“Like the back-and-forth over childhood immunizations, this is a false debate,” Howard Dubowitz and Errol Alden wrote in the 2015 piece. “The truth is that child abuse, including abusive head trauma, is a real problem that terribly injures and sometimes kills children.”

From his cell in a state prison in central California, Johnson struggled for years to get judges to take another look at his case, filing appeal after appeal, to no effect. Finally, in 2014, he got in touch with the Northern California Innocence Project, where attorney Paige Kaneb took the case.

“I’d been on another shaken baby case, so I’m a bit obsessed with the issue,” she said.

Over the next couple of years, she gathered materials and got in touch with the experts whose testimony had sent Johnson to prison. In early 2017, two of them came declared they could no longer stand behind that testimony.

“I was following my training and experience, in conjunction with the consensus opinions at the time, in classifying Nadia’s death as having resulted from abuse,” wrote Dr. Gregory Reiber, the forensic pathologist who performed Nadia’s autopsy, in a letter to the court. “However … because of the significant changes in the understanding of childhood head injury that have developed since trial, my opinion about the cause of Nadia’s injuries has also changed.”

Nadia’s injuries, he now concluded, “are consistent with the accidental fall in the bathtub described by Zavion Johnson.”

University of California–Davis neuropathologist Claudia Greco also walked back her testimony, writing that the damage she focused on “does not prove that Nadia Johnson was violently shaken or that her injuries were intentionally inflicted.” A third expert who didn’t testify at trial but reviewed the case later also stated that Nadia’s injuries could have been caused by the fall Johnson described.

Kaneb and her colleagues filed a petition to have his conviction struck down. On Oct. 31, the district attorney’s office threw their support behind it.

Johnson is still in occasional touch with Nadia’s mother, but she now has two other kids and a fiancée, Johnson told me via a letter from prison. He’s gotten training as an electrician while locked up and wants to do community advocacy when he gets out.

“I’m excited and nervous, but scared of failing,” Johnson writes. “All the people that have helped me, I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”

He still thinks often about Nadia, whose picture he has tattooed on his chest.

“I can’t wait to visit her grave,” he writes. “I haven’t been able to do that yet.”


Shreveport man freed from death row files suit in hopes ‘injustice never happens again’

December 5, 2017

SHREVEPORT — The lawsuit filed by former death row inmate Rodricus Crawford is about more than justice for Crawford; it’s about getting Caddo Parish officials to change their death-penalty-dealing ways, one of the now-freed man’s attorneys said during a recent interview.

“Rodricus seeks justice not only for himself and for all that he lost, but also for people who might – God forbid – face similar circumstances,” Crawford’s attorney David J. Utter, counsel with The Claiborne Firm in Savannah, Georgia, said during a Louisiana Record email interview. “This lawsuit provides parish and city officials do the right thing by examining what went wrong in Rodricus’ case, and instituting checks and balances to ensure such an injustice never happens again.”

Those checks and balances were severely lacking when a Caddo District Court jury handed down the capital punishment sentence the following year against the Shreveport man in the 2012 death of his 1-year-old son Roderius “Bobo” Lott, according to Crawford’s lawsuit.

“Mr. Crawford was convicted and sentenced to death based upon false evidence as a result of the failure of Defendants to conduct an unbiased autopsy based on professional standards of practice, and to properly train and supervise prosecutors in Caddo Parish,” said the lawsuit filed Nov. 16 in U.S. District Court for Louisiana’s Western District.

“Because of the lack of training and supervision and adherence to professional standards, the prosecution was illegally based upon both race and religion, and a complete indifference to the evidence. In addition, Mr. Crawford raises state law negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims; but for the reckless and willful conduct of defendants, Mr. Crawford would not have been prosecuted let alone convicted of capital murder.”

In his lawsuit filed on behalf of himself and his minor daughter, Crawford claims he did not receive his constitutionally guaranteed right to a fair trial. Named defendants in the case include Caddo Parish Coroner’s Office, Caddo Parish District Attorney’s Office, Caddo Parish District Attorney James Stewart, former Caddo Parish District Attorney Dale Cox, Shreveport Fire Department and Coroner James Traylor. Crawford’s lawsuit asks for a jury trial.

The Caddo Parish District Attorney’s office did not respond to a Louisiana Record request for comment.

“Defendants knowingly participated in the investigation, arrest and capital prosecution driven by Caddo Parish, Louisiana’s well-known history of racism and the arbitrary application of the death penalty,” Crawford’s lawsuit said. “But for Defendants’ actions, no prosecution and conviction of Mr. Crawford would have occurred.”

Crawford was taken into custody after bruises and other injuries were discovered on the child’s body. Crawford reportedly told police his son had fallen in the bathroom and Crawford consistently maintained that he had never harmed his son.

His attorneys also consistently maintained that the jury relied on bad forensic science, and pointed to strong medical evidence that the child was suffering from pneumonia and died of sepsis.

“The conduct of the officials in this case, particularly the coroner Dr. Traylor and the prosecutor, were particularly egregious, outside the norm of a mistake or error,” Utter said. “There was intentional misconduct.”

By the time Crawford’s conviction was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court in November 2016, Caddo Parish juries were widely noted for having sentenced five people to death in six years, 38 percent of the state’s total death sentences.

The state’s highest court ordered a new trial for Crawford after finding serious issues with the case, including unconstitutional exclusion of black jurors. Louisiana prosecutors dropped charges against Crawford this past April and he was freed soon after that.

“As the result of Defendants’ unconstitutional, negligent and intentional acts, Mr. Crawford spent 4 years, 9 months, and 6 days illegally in custody,” Crawford’s lawsuit said.

Utter credited Baton Rouge lawyer Cecilia Trenticosta Kappel, his co-counsel in Crawford’s lawsuit who is active with the Capital Appeals Project and the Promise of Justice Initiative, for much of the work done to exonerate Crawford.

“Cecelia is the real hero amongst the lawyers on the case,” Utter said.

Crawford’s lawsuit is necessary to get defendants and others to do the right thing, Utter said.

“Unfortunately, many innocent people who spent time in jail or prison have to file a lawsuit before officials will do what is right,” Utter said, referring to the overturned murder conviction of Sabein Burgess in Maryland.

“Rodricus only filed because the officials responsible for this miscarriage of justice failed to apologize and offer to discuss a settlement that provided justice to him, his family and ensure something like this never happens again in Shreveport,” Utter said.

Former Virginia death row prisoner to go free – Joseph M. Giarratano

A convicted double murderer who came within two days of sitting in Virginia’s electric chair will soon be a free man.

Joseph M. Giarratano, who won support from around the world fighting his 1979 conviction in the Norfolk slayings, was granted parole Monday.

“I’m confident there’s no other prisoner like him in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said lawyer Stephen A. Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board.

Giarratano was a 21-year-old scallop boat worker when he confessed to killing his roommates, 44-year-0ld Barbara Kline and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle. But his confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence, which did not tie him to the crime. He later said that after waking up from a drug-induced stupor and finding the bodies, he simply assumed he was the killer.

His attempts to win freedom attracted the support of actor Jack Lemmon, singer Joan Baez and conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick, among others. In 1991, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder granted Giarratano a commutation, changing his sentence from death to life and making him eligible for parole after serving 25 years.

However, Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry declined to grant Giarratano a new trial, saying she was still convinced of his guilt.

n prison, the uneducated Giarratano taught himself the law and advocated for fellow prisoners. He helped secure representation for Earl Washington Jr., another death row inmate, who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Giarratano sought to have similar evidence tested in his case, but it had been destroyed by the time he was allowed to file such a request.

Adrianne L. Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia State Parole Board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the parole decision should not be read as confirming Giarratano’s innocence. While Northup is confident that his client did not commit the murders, he said he believes the Monday decision has more to do with a parole board that is more open than in the past to freeing prisoners who have behaved admirably behind bars.

Now, Northup said, Giarratano plans to move to Charlottesville and work as a paralegal with lawyer Steven D. Rosenfield. He also hopes to work with the University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project.

Florida man struggles to build life after death row exoneration

Seth Penalver dropped to the floor and wept into his chair when a Florida jury declared him not guilty in the shooting deaths of three people during a 1994 home invasion.
After 3 trials and 18 years in prison – including 13 on death row – a Broward County jury in 2012 found Penalver not guilty of capital murder in the 1994 slayings of Casmir Sucharski, 48, Marie Rogers, 25, and Sharon Anderson, 25.
Little did he know about the struggles that lay ahead. His release from prison marked a new chapter, one that’s been filled with ups and downs, given his prolonged absence from society. Despite his acquittal, he says he struggles to find work because of his background, which includes 2 prior nonviolent felonies.
“You Google my name and it lights up the screen. I’m 20 years minus a resume, so it’s hard,” he said.
Experts say Penalver’s struggles with reintegration are typical for death row exonerees or people found to be wrongly convicted. On paper, they’re no longer offenders, but they’re not quite free of the stigma or psychological impact of their incarceration. The duration of their incarceration can strain personal relationships, creating a void in support systems after their release. Additionally, they often lack access to the same career or counseling services available to parolees because technically, they’re not on parole.
“The media attention tends to focus on how people got wrongly convicted, what in the system led to these cases, and those are important stories worthy of attention,” said University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Saundra Westervelt, author of “Life After Death Row: Exonerees’ Search for Community and Identity.”
“But the story doesn’t end there. There’s a slew of practical problems they have to figure out how to manage.”
The state could help improve prospects for exonerees by providing monetary compensation and reintegration services, said Westervelt, a board member of Witness to Innocence, which works to abolish the death penalty and provide support to former death row inmates.
Only 30 states have laws that provide monetary compensation to wrongly convicted people, which can include death row exonerees. And in many states, including Florida, they come with limits. In some states, access to monetary compensation is available only for people exonerated by DNA evidence, who receive an official gubernatorial pardon or who don’t have prior felonies.
A crime unfolds on video
Local media dubbed the triple slayings the “Casey’s Nickelodeon murders” because Sucharski was an owner of Casey’s Nickelodeon, a Miramar nightclub where he met aspiring models Rogers and Anderson. The 3 were shot dead in Sucharski’s home in Miramar, Florida, early in the morning of June 26, 1994.
Penalver and co-defendant Pablo Ibar were charged in the crime after witnesses identified them in grainy home surveillance video showing 2 men breaking into Sucharski’s home. Penalver surrendered to law enforcement in August 1994 after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
Penalver stood trial three times for the murders. His first trial with Ibar in 1997 ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of guilt. The cases were severed, and Penalver was tried again in 1999 and sentenced to death on charges of murder, attempted robbery and burglary.
The Florida Supreme Court overturned Penalver’s verdict in 2006 based on a series of evidentiary and constitutional errors related to witness testimony and identification. Given the absence of physical evidence connecting Penalver to the crime and questions about the identification of the men in the surveillance video, “the witnesses’ statements presented at trial were of paramount importance,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
An expert witness who viewed the tape said that he couldn’t identify anyone from it, but that the person in the video had facial characteristics inconsistent with Penalver’s facial structure. Some people who knew Penalver said the video wasn’t him or they couldn’t tell. One said she couldn’t tell from the face, but the subject’s gait was like Penalver’s. Another told the police that it was Penalver, but then testified in court that she couldn’t say whether it was him or not.
With respect to this last witness, the prosecution argued that she changed her testimony after meeting with the defense, improperly suggesting — with no evidence to support it — that the defense had tampered with her, the court found. The court also found that the prosecution improperly admitted hearsay testimony that an alternate suspect was out of state, when there was no evidence that the suspect was out of state. The prosecution also presented evidence implying that Penalver had been suicidal and wrongly used that suggestion to imply consciousness of guilt, the court said.
“In light of the scant evidence connecting Penalver to this murder and the consequent importance of identifying the individual depicted on the videotape in sunglasses and hat, we conclude that the improperly admitted evidence and the State’s suggestion that the defense tampered with or suborned perjury by an identification witness meet the cumulative error requirements outlined above and require reversal,” the court said in its opinion.
The video magnified the uncertainty, making the strength of the remaining evidence all the more important, said Temple University law professor Jules Epstein, who specializes in forensics. Appellate courts assess error based on the magnitude of the mistakes and their cumulative impact.
“The weaker the rest of the evidence, the more significant the mistakes are. Conversely, the stronger the remaining evidence, the impact of mistake goes down,” Epstein said.
Stepping up for the wrongfully convicted
Penalver says he gets by on odd jobs and government assistance in the form of food stamps. He would like to attend school or learn a trade, but living hand to mouth makes it impossible to find time or money for education, he said.
Compensation from the state would help, but under the “clean hands” provision of Florida’s Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act, Penalver is ineligible because of his 2 prior nonviolent felonies, which are unrelated to the triple slayings he was accused of.
“Just because I had prior felonies in the past, that shouldn’t mean I can’t be compensated for what was done to me,” he said. “It’s hard getting back on your feet; anything would help.”
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 1, 2015

LIFE AFTER DEATH ROW The resurrection of Damon Thibodeaux

The executioner haunts Damon Thibodeaux.

Nightmares yank him back to the 8-by-10-foot cell that confines him to solitary 23 hours a day. Loneliness overwhelms him; despair crushes his spirit. He wants to scream: “I’m innocent.” He knows it won’t matter.

The guards come for him, strap him to the table and push a needle into his arm. A lethal serum flows into his veins. Soon it will be over.

He jolts awake, his heart pounding.

The prison chains are gone and he’s lying in his one-room Minneapolis apartment, 1,200 miles from the Louisiana penitentiary where he waited to die for a murder he didn’t commit.Video (02:15): Thibodeaux begins again and finds freedom on the road.

Thibodeaux is free from death row. Now, after more than 15 years in prison, will he be able to find his place in a world that raced ahead without him? Can he break free of a past that for so long kept him in chains?

A girl goes missing

It was a hot Louisiana summer day on Thursday, July 18, 1996, and Thibodeaux was a 22-year-old deckhand on a Mississippi River barge. After work that day, he went to visit relatives — Dawn and C.J. Champagne. He had come to New Orleans three weeks earlier for a wedding, then stayed to be closer to his mother and his sister and to work on the river.

After drinking late into the night, Thibodeaux slept at the Champagnes’ apartment. He was still there at 5:15 Friday afternoon when their 14-year-old daughter, Crystal Champagne, left to walk to a nearby Winn-Dixie supermarket.

She never returned.

Thibodeaux and the family scoured the neighborhood through that night and into the next day while the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office launched an investigation. Thibodeaux had returned to his mother’s home to sleep when sheriff’s deputies knocked on his door, searching for answers.

Thibodeaux wanted to find Crystal, his step-cousin, as much as anyone and agreed to go with them and answer questions.

Minutes later, the missing-person case became a murder investigation. A former neighbor of the Champagnes found the girl’s body in a wooded area along the Mississippi River beneath the Huey P. Long Bridge, about 5 miles from the family’s home in Westwego.

Thibodeaux, whose only previous run-ins with the law were for two misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions, waived his right to an attorney and spent the next 2½ hours sitting alone in a room, anxious and exhausted. He hadn’t eaten or slept much over the past 30 hours.

Court records and interviews reveal what happened next. The investigators hammered him about the girl’s death. When he said he knew nothing about it, they accused him of lying. They told him that Crystal’s family didn’t corroborate his whereabouts or his story. They said the evidence showed he raped and murdered the girl. They suggested he might not remember, that sometimes people black out and kill their victims without even knowing it.

And the polygraph test that he took at 1 a.m.? They told him he failed it.

Thibodeaux fell to the floor, spent and afraid.

Investigators told him he would be labeled a child rapist and murderer in prison. They graphically described a three-drug execution cocktail that would drip into his veins and burn. Confess, they said, and he might get leniency.

“They were never going to let me out until I gave them what they wanted,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s not about what you believe you did, it’s about trying to get away.”

No evidence, but a confession

At 4:40 a.m. Sunday, after nine hours of interrogation, Thibodeaux confessed, stitching together a story with details he gleaned from his interrogators.

“I didn’t — I didn’t know that I had done it,” he told investigators. “I would say that I got scared, so I killed her.”

He passed out on the way to jail. “When I woke up, I knew the damage was done,” he said. “You can scream as loud as you want, but no one is hearing.”

Within 36 hours, new facts about the crime emerged — details that didn’t match Thibodeaux’s confession.

He confessed to rape; the autopsy showed no sexual contact. He said he used his hands to choke her; the autopsy showed she wasn’t choked by hand. He said he hit her with his hand; the autopsy showed she was bludgeoned with a heavy object, her skull fractured. He said he left her lying face down; she was left face up.

Six weeks later, forensic results on 86 pieces of physical evidence confirmed there was no rape, no sexual contact and nothing that connected Thibodeaux to the girl, her body, clothing or crime scene.

But prosecutors had his confession to rape and murder.

“A confession is the most powerful, incriminating evidence law enforcement can obtain,” said Steve Kaplan, a Minneapolis lawyer who later became one of Thibodeaux’s lead post-conviction attorneys. “Once the jury hears that confession, you’re 95 percent on your way to conviction. The average juror can’t believe anyone would give a false confession, especially to a heinous crime.”

But since 1989, the Innocence Project has found that 31 percent of 330 DNA exonerees were convicted based on false confessions, admissions or guilty pleas.

Many who falsely confess said they did so thinking it would put a stop to a grueling interrogation. They believed the truth would come out later.

Thibodeaux’s trial began on a Monday — Sept. 29, 1997, a little more than a year after his arrest. That Friday, the jury deliberated an hour and returned with its verdict: guilty of first degree murder.

The words numbed Thibodeaux.

The next day, the jury found him guilty of aggravated rape while murdering the 14-year-old. He was sentenced to die.

Shackled and riding in the back of a squad car to Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola., he kept his eyes on the night sky. He never expected to see stars again.

Making peace with death

Amid the monotony and isolation of death row, Thibodeaux spiraled into a void he couldn’t escape. Like a zoo animal, he paced. Five steps each way around the cell — one, two, three, four, five, turn. When the sweltering summer heat pushed the temperature past 100, he sat motionless for hours.

“It’s about as lonely as it gets. You miss the sense of touch,” he said. “The walls start to close in on you. You watch friends walk away to be executed. One day they would come for me.”

Not wanting to prolong the misery, Thibodeaux decided against launching a string of appeals that likely would keep him languishing on death row for decades.

“The grave is the only way out,” he said.

Then Denise LeBoeuf, an attorney working for the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, walked into his life.

She sat in the prison visiting room, looking at a man who seemed more like a boy behind large wire-rimmed glasses. He was thin, depressed, fragile-looking, she said. She was convinced Thibodeaux was innocent and wanted a chance to prove it.

He decided to let her try.

Even after Thibodeaux’s routine appeals were denied, LeBoeuf refused to give up. Others joined forces with her and colleague Caroline Tillman. The Minneapolis law firm Fredrikson & Byron, having recently lost a death-row case in Louisiana, dedicated its resources to the fight on a pro bono basis. The Innocence Project and its co-founder, New York lawyer Barry Scheck, also signed on.

For the first time in Thibodeaux’s life there were people who believed in him, and were ready to fight to save him.

Thibodeaux got up one morning and sat on the edge of his prison cot, staring at the cigarette in one hand, the lighter in the other.

“Man, I’m tired of this,” he thought, and tossed the cigarettes. He began exercising.

He counted out push-ups, jumping jacks, squats and situps. He threw his trial transcript and some magazines in a laundry bag and lifted the weight. During the three hours a week he was allowed in the yard, he ran within the confines of the fence.

Read the Bible. Make coffee using a handkerchief for a filter. Clean the cell. Brush teeth. Wash face. Exercise. Read. Do puzzles. Exercise. Shower. Clean the cell again. Listen to the radio. Read.

Routine gave him focus; religion and faith in his legal team gave him the will to survive another day. “We all have to have something to believe in,” he said.


Critics of Solitary Confinement Buoyed as Obama Embraces Cause

July 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010, Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.

Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Mr. Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said in an interview.

An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, leaders are rethinking the practice. President Obama last week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.

“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked in a speech at a convention of the N.A.A.C.P. in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”


Anthony Graves, left, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement in 2012. Mr. Graves spent 16 of his 18 years in a Texas prison in solitary confinement before being exonerated in 2010. CreditJonathan Ernst for The New York Times

While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons. In his N.A.A.C.P. speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few, if any, of his predecessors have shown.

“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”

The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”

Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm, or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.”

Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”

Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.

“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental health professionals considered credible.

Mr. Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence. “There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”

Memorial For The Youngest Teen Executed

July 13, 2015

Alcolu, SC (WLTX)- On Saturday the young boy, executed without a fair trial was honored with a memorial.

George Stinney Jr. was 14-years-old when he was electrocuted in the connection of the death of two young white girls in Alcolu.

George Stinney Jr. was convicted of killing 11-year-old Betty Binnicker and 7-year-old Mary Emma Thames in Alcolu. Three months after his trial he was executed in the electric chair.

His name was cleared last year after almost 70 years. Now the family seeks closure.

The memorial was organized by ‘A New Day’ or A.N.D.

“It was three families touched by this death, we were hurt and so were the two little girls families” says Irene Lawson-Hill the second cousin to George Stinney Jr.

She along with about 20 other family members were at the memorial. She says she’s happy to see new things added to the stone because it keeps his memory alive.

“They added this face, the picture wasn’t there. They had the execution date, they had his name and birthday” says Lawson-Hill. “I hope that no other kid in America, no matter what state they live in will not through this again. That there will be physical evidence before they execute another person”.

To fully heal, she says their family needs a public apology.

“We know we have to forgive the state for what happened, we can’t bring him back from what happened. But we feel that an apology would help mend our hearts to let us know that the state is behind us, that they didn’t just ignore this case” she says.

At the memorial, students from Ridge View High School sang the National Anthem. This group dedicated a full school project to his memory in 2013.

“His conviction was mostly due to racial profiling and because of his race so we feel that keeping his memory alive is kind of like showing south Carolina has made a mistake and that these mistakes are still being made and we have to realize them and go back and look at how people are convicted and profiled” says Kiana Sweatt a student at Ridge View.

Exonerated convict Glenn Ford succumbs to lung cancer at 65

June 29, 2015

Glenn Ford, who spent nearly 30 years on Angola’s death row for a murder that prosecutors eventually conceded he did not commit, died in New Orleans early Monday (June 29), supporters announced. He was 65.

Ford learned he had lung cancer shortly after his release from Angola on March 11, 2014. A news release from Ford’s supporters said he died at 2:11 a.m., having been “surrounded by friends, loved ones and family in recent days.”

Ford, who was born in Shreveport on Oct. 22, 1949, was convicted of the 1983 murder of 56-year-old Isadore Rozeman, a Shreveport jeweler and watchmaker for whom Ford had done occasional yard work. Ford had always denied killing Rozeman, and on March 10, 2014, he was exonerated of the crime when the state vacated his conviction.

State District Judge Ramona Emanuel voided Ford’s conviction and sentence based on new information corroborating his claim that he was not present or involved in Rozeman’s death, Ford’s attorneys said.

Ford was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1984 and sentenced to death. He spent 29 years, three months and five days in solitary confinement on Angola’s death row. At the time of his release, Ford was the longest-serving death row inmate in the United States, supporters said.

The final 15 months of Ford’s life were spent outside prison walls but not without challenges.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office filed a petition to deny Ford state-mandated compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, arguing  Ford failed to meet the law’s “factually innocent” clause. The provision requires petitioners to have not committed the crime for which they were originally convicted as well as “any crime based upon the same set of facts” used in the original conviction.

First Judicial District Court Judge Katherine Clark Dorroh sided with Caldwell in a ruling three months ago, deciding Ford was aware of the plan to rob Rozeman and failed to stop it, and took and sold items stolen during the robbery. The judge also ruled Ford tried to find buyers for the weapon used in Rozeman’s murder, and that he tried to hinder the police investigation by initially giving a false name for the man he later identified as Rozeman’s killer.

Ford died while awaiting the outcome of separate federal lawsuits aimed at securing compensation for his imprisonment and failing health, which he claimed resulted from insufficient medical treatment while in prison. Supporters said all he had received from the state before his death was $20 for a bus ride home from prison.

Supporters said Ford is survived by “several children” who live in California, and “more than 10 grandchildren.”

A memorial service will be held at the Charbonnet Funeral Home at 1615 St. Philip St., but a date and time had not been immediately determined, supporters said. They asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Ford’s name to Resurrection After Exoneration at www.r-a-e.org.

Ex-death row inmate Anthony Porter angry, feels ‘cheated’ out of money

April 20, 2014

Anthony Porter is angry.

He’s come within hours of being executed after he was convicted of killing two people.

He was freed from Death Row after another man, Alstory Simon, confessed to the murders.

He got a pardon, but he didn’t get a dime when he sued the city and the cops for framing him.

And now, there’s a serious push to strip away what little Porter has left: his claim of innocence.

Attorneys pushing for Simon’s release from prison say the justice system got it right the first time — that the evidence points to Porter all along in the notorious double murder in 1982 at a South Side park.

Porters’ friends and supporters argue that a racist conspiracy is trying to rewrite history and make a victim, Porter, into a villain once again.

“Yeah, I’m innocent, man,” Porter said in an interview that was sometimes tense and combative.

“They keep on bringing the same old stuff up,” Porter told the Chicago Sun-Times, as he was surrounded by supporters.

“I ain’t got no peace of mind,” he said. “I’m suffering. I’m tired.”

The questions about Porter’s innocence have been coming up more frequently as the attorneys for Simon argue he was set up.

Those lawyers accuse Richard Devine, the Cook County state’s attorney at the time, of bowing to political pressure and accepting a guilty plea from Simon despite strong evidence pointing to Porter. Devine has said politics had nothing to do with his decision.

Last fall, Devine’s successor, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, agreed to review the circumstances of Simon’s confession and imprisonment.

And that makes Porter furious.

He and his supporters say the review of Simon’s case is part of a conspiracy to discredit the anti-death penalty movement that embraced Porter as a symbol of a broken justice system. Former Gov. George Ryan, who pardoned Porter, has said the case factored heavily in his decision to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

“They’re trying to destroy me and Gov. Ryan at the same time,” Porter said.

Porter, 59, said he can’t walk on the street without people pointing at him because of the renewed questions about the murders of Jerry Hillard and Marilyn Green.

In an interview last week, Porter gave a rambling but impassioned defense of his innocence. A longtime supporter, Maurice Perkins, president of the Bronzeville-based Inner City Youth and Adult Foundation Inc., was at his side, helping him respond to questions because — Perkins said — of Porter’s low IQ. Tests have shown Porter has an IQ of 51, which was a factor in his getting “railroaded,” Perkins said.

Porter wore a beige suit and suede shoes during an interview in the historic Swift mansion at 45th and Michigan, the headquarters of the foundation.

The stress from the renewed questions about his innocence have made him sick, Porter said. He needs surgery for a gall bladder ailment, he said.

Porter also said he lost his former wife, two children and a grandchild in a fire in Alabama a few years ago.

He does odd jobs for the foundation and speaks to youth groups, but the stigma of the case prevents him from landing a full-time job, he said.

“They damaged my name. I’ve been cheated out of my money,” he said.

Porter did receive about $145,000 in restitution from Illinois in 2000, but in a court deposition, he said he didn’t keep much of it, spending a large chunk on a Lincoln Navigator SUV and giving money to churches and supporters.

And suing the city got him nothing.

Attorney Walter Jones, who represented the city in the lawsuit, said he supports the review of Simon’s murder case.

“I am like any ex-prosecutor,” Jones said. “I want the truth to come out. I certainly believe I heard the truth come out during the course of the trial. I never met the man, Alstory Simon. All I can tell you is the truth that came out in my trial always said: ‘It is Anthony Porter.’ ”

When Porter was sent to Death Row for the 1982 killings of the couple in the bleachers near a pool in Washington Park, he’d never accused the police of abusing him physically.

Now, he alleges he was tortured in the same way detectives working under former police Cmdr. Jon Burge allegedly coerced confessions from suspects.

“They beat me, stomped me,” Porter said. “They put a plastic bag over my head.”

Porter has never confessed to the murders, though, and has steadfastly denied being in Washington Park when the killings happened.

“I wasn’t in no park,” he angrily repeated last week.

Witnesses at his trial in 1983 said otherwise.

One of the prosecution witnesses, William Taylor, testified at the trial that he saw Porter pull the trigger. Taylor would later modify his testimony and say that while he saw Porter in the park, he did not see the actual murders.

Porter was convicted of the murders and of robbing a man of $2 at gunpoint at the pool just minutes before the shootings in the nearby bleachers.

But the convictions unraveled after Northwestern University professor David Protess, his journalism students and private investigator Paul Ciolino famously reinvestigated the case in 1998.

Ciolino went to Milwaukee and obtained a videotaped confession from Simon, a convicted robber.

Just two days after the explosive video was aired on TV, prosecutors released Porter.

But Simon’s attorneys, Terry Ekl and James Sotos, claim Simon was tricked into confessing. Ciolino played a videotape for Simon of an actor pretending to have witnessed Simon commit the murders.

Simon was sentenced to 37 years in prison. He’s eligible for parole in 2017.

In an interview, Porter insisted all of the witnesses against him have recanted their testimony.

Perkins said those witnesses made up stories about Porter because he was known as a bully in their neighborhood and they wanted to get rid of him.

Indeed, Porter’s lengthy rap sheet includes two other robbery convictions and a conviction for shooting a man in the head during an argument over a dog. The man survived with a graze wound.

Some of the witnesses to the 1982 double murder were threatened by police to identify Porter as the killer, Perkins claimed.

He said the witnesses later decided to tell the truth and recant their statements against Porter.

But several of those witnesses were recently interviewed for a feature-length documentary called “Porter” and have renewed their allegations against him.

The film, due to be released this summer, is directed by Shawn Rech, a Cleveland-area resident who produces the “Crime Stoppers Case Files” show. It’s partially funded by Chicago attorney Andy Hale, who represents police officers in lawsuits claiming misconduct.

In one interview in the documentary, reviewed by the Sun-Times, Taylor said: “I saw Anthony Porter run past down the bleachers right past me out of the south gate.”

“Anthony Porter, I still think in my heart, is guilty,” Taylor said.

Another witness, Kenneth Edwards, said: “I am positive that Anthony Porter killed those two people. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Edwards, now serving a prison term for murder, said he heard a “pow, pow.”

“I saw Porter, I saw Tony Porter, and I saw him do it,” he said.

In the documentary, Jacqueline Green, a sister of murder victim Marilyn Green, also suggests Porter was the culprit. “It makes me angry that a killer could be walking out free when they took someone’s life and changed my life forever,” she said.

Porter, though, said he remains on good terms with the Green family, and notes Marilyn Green’s mother believes Simon did it.

In a strange new twist to an already complex case, meanwhile, Porter and Perkins say they were both recently paid $500 “bribes” in return for Porter appearing on camera for the documentary.

Perkins said he and Porter were offered “thousands” more if Porter would confess.

Simon’s attorneys deny involvement in an offer to pay for Porter to confess.

Rech, the director of the documentary, acknowledges giving Porter and Perkins $500 each at Perkins’ request.

“We thought it would add authenticity to have the real guy [Porter] in the movie saying he didn’t do it,” Rech said.

But Rech denies he or anyone else in his project offered a bonus to Porter to confess.

Perkins insists that racist, pro-law enforcement motivations are driving the renewed questions of Porter’s innocence.

“You’re trying to rewrite history, man,” Perkins said.

Porter added: “I’m an innocent black man in Chicago.”


TEXAS – Willingham Won’t Get Posthumous Pardon

april 3. 2014

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has voted not to recommend a posthumous full pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed a decade ago after being convicted of setting a house fire that killed his three young daughters.

“This whole process is, unfortunately, typical of this board, where they don’t demonstrate that they’ve actually considered the substantial evidence that we’ve put before them,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has led the charge to clearn Willingham’s name in the case.


(texas tribune)