MOst books built around convictions of innocent defendants end with exoneration. In “The Injustice System,” the alleged innocent is still locked in a prison cell and might never emerge. Any well researched book about a suspected wrongful conviction is by definition shot through with dramatic tension; after all, if the wrong person is serving prison time, the actual murderer or rapist or robber might be at large, continuing to commit horrific crimes. The tension within the pages of “The Injustice System” is relentless.
Author Clive Stafford Smith is a former Atlanta lawyer (now based alternately in New Orleans and his native England) who earned a law degree in the United States so he could work on putting an end to the death penalty in the long run and save individual inmates from execution in the short run.
Driven more by principle than a won-loss record in court or a hefty salary, Stafford Smith is an unconventional professional who dives into high-stakes cases. His previous book, “Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side,” chronicles his experience representing prisoners at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, where alleged terrorists are detained without the usual safeguards that protect individuals from wrongful incarceration.
When he first met Krishna “Kris” Maharaj, the primary subject of “The Injustice System,” Stafford Smith was affiliated with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta and representing prisoners in capital cases. At the request of British diplomatic officials, he took on Maharaj’s case.
Police arrested Maharaj, a Trinidad businessman of Indian heritage, in 1986 for allegedly murdering former business partner Derrick Moo Young and the partner’s son, Duane. The double murder occurred inside the DuPont Plaza hotel in downtown Miami. Maharaj proclaimed his innocence and said he could prove it if given the opportunity. But police, prosecutors and jurors did not believe him. Sentenced to death, Maharaj was jailed in Florida State Prison. Maharaj hoped to find competent legal representation to handle a final appeal, most of his appellate routes already having been exhausted before Stafford Smith learned about the case.
Based on his own investigation, Stafford Smith alleges evidence was cooked by an overzealous homicide detective; prosecutors bent the principles of justice they are sworn to uphold; forensic examiners provided biased readings of evidence; witnesses committed perjury; a trial judge was less than devoted to evenhandedness; and appellate justices dismissed powerful new evidence suggesting Maharaj’s innocence.
Most upsetting of all to an avid defense lawyer such as Stafford Smith, he claims the defense lawyer hired by Maharaj for the trial was grossly incompetent. In truth, Stafford Smith worried the defense lawyer lost the trial intentionally because of threats aimed at his family by South American drug dealers, whom Stafford Smith suspected was involved in the murders.
As in so many alleged wrongful conviction cases — and in so many documented exonerations — it is puzzling to calculate how a dozen jurors all failed to find “reasonable doubt.” Stafford Smith wants to believe he can find a way to prove Maharaj’s innocence. The reality is, however, that Stafford Smith will likely go to his own death without winning freedom for his client. That knowledge is especially painful to Stafford Smith, because he believes his independent investigation has identified the actual killer of Moo Young and his son.
October 13, 2012 http://www.nola.com/
Three stories — or, more accurately, two stories and a column — have led to thoughts about that ever contentious issue, the death penalty.
The first was a justice corkscrew at Tulane and Broad detailed by reporter John Simerman, a tale of shifting heroes and villains. In it, a rapist was briefly represented by the Innocence Project, a prominent arm of the anti-death penalty movement that has a strong case — namely, not every person on death row is guilty. Yet for reasons I can’t fully understand, I don’t find that reason to dispose of the death penalty. In part, this view may be colored by the Innocence Project’s paladin, Gary Scheck, who proclaims DNA evidence infallible. Which it may be, unless the blood of two murder victims is splattered all over O.J. Simpson’s car and house, in which case the DNA was planted or contaminated, as Scheck argued while springing The Juice.
I could have sworn O.J. did it, but that’s what high-priced defense lawyers do, I suppose, and it’s true Scheck’s work elsewhere has freed some innocent men from a living hell on death row.
In fact, the column in question is just that sort of case. Damon Thibodeaux was sent to Angola’s death row for raping and murdering a 14-year-old girl under the Huey P. Long Bridge in 1996. Problem was, Thibodeaux didn’t do the crime and the Innocence Project helped prove it. Consequently, Thibodeaux was freed last month, and Denny LeBoeuf, formerly of the Death Penalty Resource Center in New Orleans, penned an op-ed about it for The Times-Picayune.
Thibodeaux’s case hinged on a bogus confession, a thing LeBoeuf pointed out talented law enforcement officers constantly guard against. Yet here we have a man — not guilty — dreading the lethal needles the state planned to plunge into his veins. He has escaped the jaws of death, which is all to the good, and whether one finds that alone reason to halt executions, there is no gainsaying the argument in favor of them is now diminished.
Thibodeaux can’t be made whole any more than the family of the girl who was killed, but does the death penalty’s existence mean similar tragedies won’t be visited on others? Here we turn to the death penalty’s supposed deterrent properties.
And here we turn to the other recent story, reporter Claire Galofaro’s magisterial three-part tale of the men accused of gunning down two St. John the Baptist Parish sheriff’s deputies and wounding two more. These alleged warped souls floated across the landscape from Nebraska to Louisiana like modern Charles Starkweathers, apparently willing, even eager, to kill.
Was the death penalty any sort of deterrent to these seething misfits? Has the fear of the death penalty — a sentence quite real in New Orleans and Louisiana — in any way crimped the appalling violence that sends so many New Orleanians to an early grave?
Well, it may have — that’s a hard one to gauge — but if it has, the impact has been marginal at best. The argument in favor of execution shrinks again.
So we appear to have but one plank left in favor of executions: the succor it may provide crime victims’ survivors. Here most of us, thankfully, are at sea because thus far we’ve been spared that nightmare.
That’s always seemed one of the best arguments in favor of execution while simultaneously the most disquieting. Where does the state — why does the state — become an instrument of retribution? There are Biblical passages supporting the death penalty as a legal recourse, but are these life and death matters not better left in God’s hands? Doesn’t the death penalty then skirt dangerously close to revenge killing, a thing civilized society should shun?
I don’t presume to speak for victims’ families, but years of covering capital cases and witnessing two executions at Angola have shown me that seeking a death for a death is not uniform among them. The quality of their mercy is an awesome, humbling thing, and one it seems to me should be embraced.
So what do we have: Guilty? Not always. Deterrent? Unlikely. Morally? Dubious. LeBoeuf is correct: the death penalty should be abolished.
James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana death-row inmate convicted of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin in 1996 on Friday became the 300th person exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence in the United States — and the 18th death-row inmate saved from execution by DNA.
Damon Thibodeaux, now 38, confessed to the brutal attack on his cousin after a nine-hour interrogation in 1996 by detectives from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. He recanted a few hours later and has maintained since that his confession was coerced. Despite his recantation, Thibodeaux was indicted four days after his arrest. In 1997, a jury found him guilty of murder and rape, largely on the basis of his confession. He was sentenced to death.
In an interview minutes after he left the prison, Thibodeaux said he struggled to control his emotions during the years he waited for exoneration.
“For the first couple of years, it takes a lot of getting used to. Sometimes, it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. You think, they’re going to kill you and just accept it,” he said. “But as things started to accumulate, you start, you know, gaining hope.”
He said the detectives who questioned him in 1996 took advantage of his exhaustion and fed him details of the crime to include in his confession.
“They look for vulnerable points where they can manipulate you, and if you’re sleep-deprived or panicked, or you’re on something or drunk, it makes it that much easier to accomplish what they want to accomplish,” Thibodeaux said. “At that point, I was tired. I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.”
Thibodeaux said that he hoped his case could help lead police agencies to be more careful not to induce false confessions.
The detectives involved in Thibodeaux’s interrogation could not be reached Friday. Earlier, a spokesman for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office declined to comment on the agency’s handling of the case and said the investigators would not be made available.
Thibodeaux’s exoneration came after an unusual five-year joint reinvestigation of the case by the office of Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick, which brought the charges, and a team of defense lawyers and investigators, including the New York-based Innocence Project.
During the reexamination of the case, during which Thibodeaux put his formal appeals on hold, investigators concluded that his confession was riddled with glaring errors, such as the manner and time of death and the identification of the murder weapon, and did not match the crime scene and other evidence. Most remarkable, the investigation found that the sexual assault to which Thibodeaux also confessed — making him eligible under Louisiana law for the death penalty — never occurred.
New DNA testing conducted during the inquiry on the clothing worn by Thibodeaux on the night of the murder and virtually every other piece of evidence collected by police established no links to the crime — so the absence of DNA became a powerful element of evidence itself. A DNA profile was also obtained from a tiny sample of blood on a piece of the wire used to strangle the victim. It did not match Thibodeaux.
The dismissal of Thibodeaux’s case comes amid a flurry of such exonerations across the country and at a time when doubts about the reliability of American courts in determining guilt and innocence appear to be growing.
Early this week, John Edward Smith was released from a Los Angeles jail nearly two decades after being wrongly imprisoned for a 1993 gang-related drive-by shooting. Prosecutors in Chicago moved to dismiss murder charges against Alprentiss Nash in August, 17 years after he was convicted of a murder that new DNA analysis indicates he did not commit. In Texas last month, David Lee Wiggins was released after DNA testing cleared him of a rape conviction for which he had served 24 years.
In July, a D.C. judge declared Kirk L. Odom innocent of a 1981 rape and robbery for which he had served more than 22 years in prison. The same week, the Justice Department and FBI announced they would reexamine thousands of cases after The Washington Post reported widespread problems in its forensic examination of hair fibers over several decades. That came on the heels of a conclusion by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan that five people convicted in the 1995 murder of a taxi driver and imprisoned since are innocent.
September 19, 2012 http://www.cbn.com
NEW ORLEANS – When a criminal leaves prison, there are often social programs to help him return to society. But that is not the case for the 140 death row inmates whose convictions have been overturned.
John Thompson is number 108. The Louisiana man spent 14 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.
He is now using lessons he learned first-hand to help others who have been exonerated.
Death Row Tales
In an interview with CBN News, Thompson recounted the nights of executions at Angola, Louisiana State Penitentiary.
“On the night of an execution, you can see all these people gathering outside the prison,” Thompson said. “Lighting candles, some doing the candle lighting. On the other side, people saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill.'”
Thompson’s personal death row tale began in 1984 after the robbery and murder of a New Orleans hotel executive.
Author Ronald Gauthier chronicles the case in his book Killing Time.
“New Orleans was a very high crime city. The murder rate was just sky-rocketing at that time,” Gauthier described the time period of the crime.
“Ray Liuzza was from a wealthy family, hotel executive. So it was a high profile case from the very beginning, so the pressure was on the district attorney’s office to get this case solved and solved quickly,” he explained.
New Orleans police quickly arrested a man who pointed the finger at Thompson. Five months later, the 22-year-old father of two sat in jail. A jury convicted of him of murder and an unrelated car-jacking.
“When the judge sentenced me to death, he tells you about how he is going to kill you,” Thompson said. “How much electric volts are going to run through your body.”
“I wasn’t ready for what was ahead of me,” he said.
Thompson spent the first four years of his incarceration at the Orleans Parish Prison. But the true reality of his death sentence didn’t hit him until guards moved him to Angola.
He arrived at his cell to find the clothes of man who had just been executed, still inside.
“That really blew me away,” Thompson recalled. “I started throwing the stuff out in the hallway. They were laughing at me, saying, ‘You better get used to that little brother.'”
However, there was not much laughter during his 14 years of solitary confinement.
“John Thompson, while he was on death row, had seven stays of execution,” said Gauthier, recounting some of his research for the book. “That means he had the death warrant brought to his cell. He was prepared for execution seven times.”
“It’s not about whether you did it or not anymore,” Thompson said. “It’s irrelevant. It is totally irrelevant whether you are innocent or not because they are here to kill you. So you have one common goal and that is to try to stay alive by any means necessary.”
That included finding high-powered Pennsylvania attorneys Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney to take his case. By 2003, they had exhausted every appeal.
Thompson recalled the final days before his scheduled execution.
“They were going to execute me May 20. My son was going to graduate May 21,” he said. “So the next day after I was executed, my son was going to graduate from right around the corner.”
Before Thompson could be executed, a death bed confession from an original prosecutor led investigators to uncovered evidence: blood test results, testimonies, and conflicting eyewitness accounts.
“He was actually re-tried and it took the jury less than 35 minutes to acquit him of the murder,” Gauthier said. “So John was freed.”
Helping the Exonerated
Thompson wouldn’t be alone. The cases of seven inmates he met on death row saw their convictions eventually overturned as well.
“John was on death row for 10 years when a 16-year-old black boy from New Orleans was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to death and placed in a cell directly next door to John Thompson,” Gauthier told CBN News. “And the first thing he said to John was, ‘I didn’t commit this murder.'”
That 16-year-old was Shareef Cousin. His story inspired Thompson to start RAE, Resurrection After Exoneration.
It’s a facility and a program to help exonerees with housing, job training, and medical help. He’s also pulled the community together to support their cause.
“I think we are supposed to have big dreams and big ambitions, but I believe we are supposed to have love and we are supposed to have compassion,” Thompson said. “I think that is what our life is supposed to filled with.”
RAE’s walls are lined with faces of those who’ve experienced that compassion. That includes exoneree number 91, Michael Ray Graham, Jr., who spent 14 years on death row.
Graham shared his story with CBN News in an interview at RAE’s headquarters.
“I believe what my father told me when I was young that the truth will set you free,” Graham said. “But in Louisiana it is a little different. You sweat here.”
A photograph of Derrick Jamison, number 119, is also on the walls. He lost 20 years of his freedom.
Jamison recalled the day he walked out of an Ohio jail.
“The day I came home from death row it felt like, you know how a kid feels that day before Christmas,” he said. “If I could bottle that feeling up and sell it, I’d be a billionaire.”
A Resurrected Life
The justice system dealt Thompson one blow since his 2003 release. A jury had awarded him $14 million in a civil suit against the New Orleans district attorney.
But a divided U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2011, saying while prosecutors admittedly failed to carry out justice, the district attorney was not ultimately responsible.
Thompson is still not bitter.
“When I think about what God has allowed me to do so far with my freedom and the help that He has allowed me to provide for others, I can’t complain, you know,” he told CBN News.
He’s now happily married. And together, he and his wife have seven children and 12 grandchildren.
He often jokes the prosecution may rest, but he won’t. That is, until his work is no longer needed.
June 12, 2012 Source : Execution Watch
NEW ORLEANS — A federal appeals panel Tuesday rejected an appeal by Texas death row prisoner Arthur Brown Jr.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Brown’s assertion that his trial attorneys failed to uncover and present sufficient mitigating evidence at the punishment hearing where he was ordered put to death.
“Brown’s claims are not adequate to proceed further,” the U.S. Fifth District Court of Appeals said in denying Brown’s request for permission to continue in the appeals process.
He was convicted in a 1992 drug-related quadruple homicide in Houston.
The U.S. Fifth Circuit, one of 13 federal court districts, encompasses Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Full text of the ruling is at http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/pub/11/11-70012-CV0.wpd.pdf