Wrongfully convicted

A Final Farewell to Greg Wilhoit, Who Survived Oklahoma’s Death Row, wrongfully convicted

february 20, 2014 (huffington)

America’s community of death row survivors bids a farewell to another one of its own. Gregory R. Wilhoit, who had spent five years on Oklahoma’s death row after being wrongfully convicted for the brutal murder of his wife, died in his sleep on February 13.

Greg had suffered. Suffered a whole lot. He was convicted of killing his wife Kathy — the mother of his two little daughters, then 4 months and 14 months old — on June 1, 1985. The case rested on the testimony of dental experts, one of them barely out of dental school, who said the bite mark found on Kathy’s body matched Greg’s teeth.

But that wasn’t all. Greg was a victim of bad lawyering. He hired two lawyers who were incompetent and did not defend him. In fact, Greg’s defense counsel came to court drunk and threw up in the judge’s chambers. And Greg was convicted in 1987 and sent to Death Row, because after all, somebody had to pay.

“All they wanted me to do was enter a guilty plea, despite the fact that I had pleaded not guilty,” Greg said in an interview over a decade ago. “I felt helpless and defeated. I felt I was going to be convicted and there was nothing I could do about it. The experts against me were very convincing. If I had been on the jury, I wouldn’t have hesitated to find me guilty.”

The jury took merely two hours to return with a guilty verdict for Greg. “I was sentenced to be executed by lethal injection, but I was shaken even more when the judge told me that I might be electrocuted, hung or shot if necessary,” Greg recalled. This would prove to be the most sobering moment of my life.

In 1991, Greg’s conviction was overturned when 11 forensic experts testified that the bite mark found on his wife was not his, and an appeals court ruled that Greg had ineffective counsel at trial. He was released, and ultimately acquitted on retrial in 1993.

Still a death penalty supporter in his third year on Death Row, Greg would become a strong opponent of capital punishment. Along with his sister Nancy Vollertsen, he became a member of Witness to Innocence, the national organization of death row survivors and their loved ones.

Like many innocent people who are released from prison, Greg Wilhoit never received a penny for his troubles, not as much as an apology for the suffering he endured, and for what they took from him. That would surprise those people who assume that the wrongfully convicted all receive ample compensation, set for life, with riches lavished upon them. Although the Oklahoma legislature had passed a compensation law allowing up to $200,000 for the wrongfully imprisoned, officials told Greg that he wasn’t eligible because he needed a pardon, but was ineligible because he was innocent.

The tortuous conditions of death row — in which prisoners await their own homicide in solitary confinement — took an emotional and psychological toll on Greg Wilhoit. He had to grapple with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and deteriorating physical health challenges.

“Greg was one of those men who suffered the greatest because of his death row conviction. He not only lost his wife but his kids as well as he sat on death row for a crime he did not commit,” said Ron Keine, assistant director of membership and training at Witness to Innocence, himself an exonerated death row survivor who had spent two years on New Mexico’s death row. “Even after his release he never fully connected with his kids. This bothered him greatly. We almost lost him a few times in the past where he pulled through like a trooper. I mean like the man walked out of hospice, where he was near death, and got married to a sweet lady and began life again,” Keine added.

In spite of his deteriorating frame, the man had a strength about him that could not be denied, and allowed us to draw strength. “Greg’s style of speaking was unique. He could make the audience cry and laugh at the same time,” Keine reflected. And despite his pain and suffering and all he had seen and lost, Greg was able to crack a joke and make us laugh.

It is not funny that Greg Wilhoit never received a penny for his troubles. We will miss him.


After decades in prison over murders, DNA evidence frees 2 New York men

february 7, 2014

(CNN) — Two men behind bars for more than half their lives over a triple murder walked free this week after DNA evidence tore holes in their convictions.

Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson were teenagers when prison doors clanked shut behind them.

Now, in their late 30s, they can hardly believe they’re out.

What does freedom feel like? “I’m still going through it right now,” Yarbough said Friday.”I haven’t slept yet. I’ve been up for two days now. I have no words for it right now.”

Nearly 22 years of hard time

Imagine more than two decades in a maximum security prison. Add to that the fact that you’re accused of killing your mother, your sister and your cousin.

As if that’s not enough, you were the one who discovered their lifeless, bloodied bodies when you opened the door to your home one night.

If it’s hard to imagine what that’s like, Yarbough will tell you.

After years in Attica’s maximum security prison among New York’s toughest criminals, he left its high, gray walls behind him Thursday.

“It was a nightmare,” Yarbough told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an exclusive interview. “Twenty-one years and seven months was more like 42 years and seven months, when you know you’re in prison for something you didn’t do.”

After reviewing DNA evidence, District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson said the previous convictions for the 1992 murders in Brooklyn would most likely not stand up in court again and agreed the two men should be freed.

“Anybody looking at this evidence with an open mind would see that there is no chance in the world that Tony murdered his mother and these two little girls,” his lawyer Zachary Margulis-Ohuma said.

And that goes beyond the DNA evidence alone. Margulis-Ohuma was convinced Yarbough was innocent years before.

At least one false confession detectives coerced out of a scared teenage boy over 20 years ago led to the convictions.

A night out

After a night of partying, Yarbough, 18 at the time, and Wilson, 15, went home to Coney Island. Wilson was staying with friends, they said.

When Yarbough got home, he opened the door to find his mother, sister and a close family friend lying stabbed and strangled to death. The two girls were partially undressed.

Police came.

“I was asked to come down to the precinct,” he said. Officers said they wanted him to tell them who might have killed his family, he said.

“Before you know it, I had this photograph shoved in my face, and I was being threatened and slapped around, and they wanted me to sign a false confession. And I wouldn’t,” Yarbough said.

Police also took in Wilson and questioned him separately from Yarbough. But he got similar treatment, he said.

“I was scared, afraid; I was lied to, manipulated into believing that I was going to go home, if I do tell … what they said happened.” Wilson said.

Faced with a life behind bars, the young boy cooperated for the promise of lighter treatment.

Life in prison

The two were convicted in separate trials. Yarbough was sentenced to 75 years to life. Wilson got a lower sentence of nine years to life.

They sat behind bars for about 12 years, then something important arrived by mail.

“Out of the blue, I got a letter from his (Yarbough’s) aunt,” Wilson said. “And she asked me, did we really do it. And I had to tell the truth.”

He wrote back to her: “I was wrong for turning on him, but I was scared and pressured into it.” We’re innocent, he told her.

“For many years I felt horrible that I had to do that and that I actually did it knowing that we weren’t guilty for a crime we didn’t commit,” Wilson said.

“I still feel horrible now,” he said, sitting next to Yarbough.

Wilson’s letter led lawyer Margulis-Ohuma and the district attorney Thompson to review their cases in 2010 — five years after he sent it.

Wrongful convictions

Thompson came into office in January with promises to restore justice to the wrongfully convicted. This case is part of a review of Brooklyn killings from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Then, last year, the right shred of evidence came along in the form of a DNA sample from a rape-murder committed in 1999.

It matched DNA found under the fingernails of Yarbough’s mother, indicating that the same killer probably committed both crimes. In 1999, Yarbough and Wilson were in prison and couldn’t have committed the second murder.

Margulis-Ohuma called Yarbough in prison to tell him that he was going to be free.

“When I heard about it, I was extremely overwhelmed,” Yarbough said. “I was happy.”

And the DNA was not the only thing that matched. The m.o. was the same, Yarbough said. The victim was stabbed and strangled.

“Hope had finally started to sink in,” he said.

Free at last

Wilson and Yarbough had not seen each other for more than two decades, when they met in court Thursday.

Wilson approached the man he had testified against. “I just wanted to apologize to him for all I put him through, all I went through.”

Yarbough is still in pain over it, but he faults someone other than Wilson.

“I know what they did to him, because I know what they did to me,” he said.

As to finding his relatives’ killer decades later, Yarbough said, “It’s in God’s hand’s now.” He teared up.

Both men celebrated freedom by fulfilling some longings they had for two decades.

Wilson filled his mouth with a hot slice of New York pizza.

Yarbough filled his lungs with New York air.

US – Prosecutors help set record number of exonerations in 2013

February 4, 2014 (dallasnews)

ST. LOUIS — A nationwide push by prosecutors and police to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.

The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 “group exonerations” involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.

The new report shows that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors’ cooperation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.

“Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction,” said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. “We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them.”

Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.

District attorneys in the counties containing Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Santa Clara, Calif., are among those to recently create “conviction integrity” units. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association’s recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.

Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.

The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year’s total.

“It’s extremely valuable to use,” Gross said. “But most crimes don’t involve DNA evidence. … DNA hastaught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we’ve made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA.”

In Illinois, Nicole Harris and Daniel Taylor each received certificates of innocence from a Cook County judge in January after their respective murder convictions were tossed out in 2013 — a designation that allows both to receive financial compensation from the state. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of strangling her 4-year-old son, who had an elastic band wrapped around his neck. Taylor was released after spending more than 20 years in prison for a fatal robbery that occurred while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident.

In Missouri, former death row inmate Reginald Griffin went free in October 2013 after a small-town prosecutor declined to refile murder charges in connection with a 1983 prison stabbing for which Griffin spent nearly three decades behind bars. Griffin denied his involvement but was convicted after two inmates claimed to have seen him stab the prisoner. One of those inmates later recanted, saying he had not seen the attack. An appellate attorney also discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he was attempting to leave the area where the attack took place.

Ryan Ferguson, convicted in 2005 in the beating death of a Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune sports editor, was freed in November 2013 after a state appeals court panel ruled prosecutors had withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn’t get a fair trial. The state attorney general’s office decided not to retry Ferguson, who had received a 25-year prison sentence.

Like their counterparts across the country, Missouri prosecutors are reviewing not just questionable individual convictions but also the broader issues that lead to exonerations, from coerced confessions to contaminated crime labs.

“It’s the duty of police and prosecutors to protect everyone in the community, including victims and defendants,” said Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight. “We want the process to be as fair and transparent as possible.”


Wrongly imprisoned Tulsa man declared innocent, eligible to seek compensation from state

A man who spent some 16 years behind bars on now-nullified burglary and robbery convictions has made a sufficient showing of “actual innocence” that he can seek to recover financially from the state of Oklahoma, a Tulsa County judge determined Tuesday.

Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough found that Sedrick Courtney “has made a prima facie showing of actual innocence for the purpose of initiating a claim pursuant to the Oklahoma Governmental Tort Claim Act.”

The most Courtney could recover through the state’s compensation process for wrongfully convicted people is $175,000, lawyers say.

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court ruled that Kellough had erred previously in denying Courtney a “threshold determination of actual innocence” in a post-conviction relief proceeding.

Sedrick Courtney: He served 16 years in prison for crimes he didn’t commit.

Kellough also erred in ruling that Courtney did not present “clear and convincing evidence of his actual innocence in the face of the exonerating scientific evidence that supported the vacation of the criminal conviction,” according to the high court’s order.

Courtney, now 41, had been found guilty in a 1995 case in which two masked intruders robbed a woman at her Tulsa apartment. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The victim identified Courtney – who denied being one of the intruders, denied any involvement and had alibi witnesses.

Results from DNA testing available at the time were inconclusive, but more recent DNA tests of numerous hairs found in ski masks excluded Courtney as a possible donor of the hairs, court filings show.

The Innocence Project, an organization that uses DNA evidence in an effort to get wrongfully convicted people exonerated, took on the case while Courtney was in prison.

Courtney, now 41, was released from prison on parole in 2011.

In July 2012, Kellough granted post-conviction relief based on the newly discovered evidence – the new DNA testing results. The judge vacated Courtney’s convictions for robbery and burglary, with the agreement of District Attorney Tim Harris.

Kellough declined then to make any finding of actual innocence and indicated that Courtney did not establish by “clear and convincing” evidence that he did not commit the crime.

In September, Kellough ordered the dismissal of the robbery-burglary charges.

An appeal challenging Kellough’s ruling on the actual innocence issue was initiated in the state Supreme Court in October.

According to the Supreme Court, a finding of actual innocence is necessary under Oklahoma law for Courtney to recover money damages based on a wrongful conviction.

Individuals who are convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit can apply for as much as $175,000 in compensation from the state under legislation that was signed into law by then-Gov. Brad Henry in 2003.

A year earlier, Arvin McGee was exonerated by DNA evidence in an unrelated Tulsa County kidnapping and rape case.

A Tulsa federal jury awarded McGee $14 million from the city of Tulsa in 2006 – $1 million for each year he served in prison – but a settlement was reached after the verdict for the city to pay a total of $12.5 million.

Courtney’s compensation could be resolved through the state’s risk-management claims process, but it could be taken to trial, one of Courtney’s attorneys, Richard O’Carroll, has said previously.

Man freed by Innocence Project victimized by system

MADISON — A man who was freed this month from prison, where he was serving a 102-year sentence for a 1991 rape he didn’t commit, is living in a Madison homeless shelter and doesn’t have enough money to buy the medication he takes for several serious health problems.

Joseph Frey, 54, was convicted in 1994 of raping a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh student. He was freed this month after new DNA evidence testing linked the attack to a now deceased man who was convicted of sexually assaulting two sisters in Fond du Lac after the attack on the student. At the time he was convicted, Frey was serving a lengthy prison term for an earlier Brown County sexual assault to which he had pleaded no contest.

When he was released July 12, Frey had less than a week’s supply of the dozen or so drugs he needs for a degenerative bone disease, blood clots and other health problems. He can’t afford more or the required follow-up visits to the doctor.

“I’m transient,” said Frey, who is staying at the homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. “I have no health coverage. Nothing.”

Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney Tricia Bushnell, who helped get Frey exonerated, said the state doesn’t provide social services like they would for someone released on a mandatory release date.

“In those cases, they get a social worker, they help provide them transitional housing, they look into helping them look for jobs or education,” she told the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1b4WvQY ).

Frey is now relying on the Innocence Project for help in putting his life back together.

Had he been released in 2005 — after completing his confinement for the Brown County assault — Frey would have gotten some help transitioning beyond prison life, Bushnell said.

Bushnell gave credit to Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney Adam Levin for agreeing to the DNA testing sought by the Innocence Project. It implicated a now-deceased rapist who, his mother told Oshkosh police in April, spent the final months of his life agonizing over an Oshkosh sexual assault he committed that was pinned on another man.

“There’s three victims here, the way I see it,” Frey said. “The victim was victimized repeatedly in this situation. The public was victimized by their representatives of law enforcement in Winnebago County, and I was victimized. And so far, there’s been very little accountability for that.”

If he’s lucky, Frey will qualify for the maximum $25,000 that the state can award to the wrongfully convicted, or $5,000 a year for a maximum of five years. Past efforts to boost that amount and to provide health care, housing and other services for exonerated prisoners have been unsuccessful.

“That’s not even minimum wage for one year,” Frey said. “I mean, look, it’s nothing. Is the injustice that shallow it could be wiped away like that, so nonchalantly? I don’t think so. I just hope that it changes. Because it’s not right.”

Frey insisted he is not bitter about the extra eight years he spent in prison. Self-taught in criminal law, Frey said he hopes for a time when he can “pay it forward” and help other inmates get justice.


Man walks free after serving two decades on wrongful conviction – Daniel Taylor

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) – Jul 23, 2013

A man is beginning his redemption Monday after serving two decades behind bars on a wrongful conviction.

Daniel Taylor endured 20 years of time in a prison cell knowing he didn’t commit the crime that got him there. He was a teenager when he went into the big house, but now, he’s a free 37-year-old who will move to a place he can really call home.

“Well, it feels like I’m finally getting established and stepping out on my own and finally getting a chance to get re-acclimated with society,” Taylor says. “It’s very bittersweet, but I’ll accept this over my alternative, which is an 8 by 2 cuz those are not 8 by 9 cells.”

Taylor spent just over 20 years in that 8-by-2 cell at the Menard Correctional Center. He was 17 years old when he was arrested and charged with double murder at a North Side apartment complex.

Taylor had an alibi when the murders were committed: he was already in jail for disorderly conduct and being held at another police station. That took a backseat in the investigation when Taylor confessed to the crime.

“I have never heard anyone who had the alibi that I had,” Taylor explains. “You have people who was at a football game—with their girlfriend making love but how many people have said I was actually in your custody and they went and got certain documents from their own police station. I was beaten and tricked.”

Taylor contacted the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwest University, shared his story and six years later, he had another court date.

“He was in custody at the time when the murders were committed. I had to take that case. He had no parents or lawyer with him when he was dealing with the police. people don’t realize that you can admit to something that you didn’t do.”

Now, Daniel and his brother are trying to do what’s right.

David was 16 years old when Chicago police arrested him in the middle of the night. It’s a night his brother David says he’ll never forget. He missed his big brother so much that he committed crimes to get arrested with hopes of getting assigned to the same jail cell as Daniel.

“By him being by my side and letting me know everything was going to be alright…and then, when that was taken away from me, it was like woah,” David says.

Both brothers want to keep at-risk kids out of trouble and out of jail.

“You need to really sit down and talk to your parents because when it’s all said and done, your parents are going to be the only ones you have if you end up in prison,” Daniel says.

While in prison, Daniel Taylor earned his GED and says he read the dictionary from cover to cover. He has now been free for six months, living in the two-bedroom apartment. Many people are rooting for him and a number of people are trying to help him find a job.

Death penalty Focus

Today, in the United States, we celebrate freedom. At DPF, we are celebrating the freedom of exonerees like Obie Anthony, who spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.We also remember that there are thousands of other wrongfully convicted people, still sitting behind bars, trying to prove their innocence. We will keep fighting for their freedom, and for a criminal justice system that is more fair and just.

We hope you have a great Fourth of July, and thank you for joining us in the fight for justice!

First US man released by DNA evidence after being on death row celebrates 20th year

june 28, 2013

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — A man who was on Maryland’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit is celebrating the 20th anniversary of his release.

Kirk Bloodsworth is marking the anniversary on Friday, just months after Maryland banned the death penalty.

Bloodsworth, who recently moved from Maryland to Philadelphia to be director of advocacy for Witness to Innocence, was twice convicted of a girl’s 1984 murder. He spent two years on death row following his first trial. A second trial brought another conviction, although he received a life sentence instead of capital punishment.

Bloodsworth was cleared in 1993, becoming the first American freed because of DNA evidence after being convicted in a death penalty case.

Reflecting on his experience, Bloodsworth says: “If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Death Row exoneree Randy Steidl
 to speak Nov. 27 at NKU

November 13, 2012 http://www.lanereport.com


As part of the Journey of Hope Tour sponsored by the Northern Kentucky University Chase American Constitution Society, the ACLU of Kentucky and the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, NKU will host a free public lecture by death row exoneree Randy Steidl on Tuesday, Nov. 27, at noon in room 302 of the James C. and Rachel M. Votruba Student Union.

Steidl and a co-defendant were convicted for the 1986 murder of newlywed couple Dyke and Karen Rhoads in the small town of Paris, Ill. The two maintained their innocence but it was not until Northwestern University journalism students got involved that Steidl’s case received a proper review.

The entire case against Steidl was based on unreliable eye-witness testimony. Even though their stories conflicted with one another, both witnesses claimed to be present on the night of the attack and both described a gruesome scene. Yet, in spite of the violent stabbing that occurred, there was no physical evidence tying Steidl to the crime.

It was only after the in-depth investigative journalism conducted by Northwestern students that new information was uncovered and old evidence invalidated. With the aid of a local police officer, students were able to present enough evidence of Steidl’s innocence to call for a new trial. Eventually, all charges were dropped and Steidl became the 18th person to be released from the Illinois death row because of a wrongful conviction.

Steidl described his ordeal in a CNN interview. “Torture,” he said. “Actually being innocent and knowing that the state of Illinois wants to kill me for something I did not do.”

His NKU visit comes just weeks after the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights called on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty and less than one year after a team of Kentucky legal experts published a 400-page report alleging serious flaws within the state’s death penalty system.