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5th Cir. Affirms $14 Million Award to Former Death Row Inmate

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed an award of $14 million to former death row inmate John Thompson for prosecutorial misconduct. The court was evenly divided, which means the lower court's verdict is affirmed.

Judge Edward Prado, who wrote the court's order to uphold the $14 million verdict, said that the appellate court must give deference to the jury's verdict. He added that the Thompson verdict will not subject other cities to "widespread liability" because it is such an extraordinary case.

"The dissent is merely quibbling with the jury's factual findings," wrote Prado. "This oversteps our bounds as an appellate court. The dissent presents nothing more than a skewed version of the facts in favor of the District Attorney's Office...these factual disputes were for the jury to resolve."

Here's what caused the verdict. [More...]

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DNA Frees Another TX Man - This One After 23 Years

Ernest Sonnier served 23 years of a life sentence for rape. Yesterday, he was released from prison after DNA testing and his lawyers from the Innocence Project established his innocence.

Over the last 18 months, genetic testing of evidence found on the victim’s clothing and at the scene of the attack had yielded no trace of Mr. Sonnier, the Harris County district attorney’s office said. Instead, it has implicated two other men. Both are felons and known associates. One is awaiting trial for a different rape.

Prosecutors are not conceding Sonnier's innocence, "though prosecutors acknowledge that the new DNA tests cast strong doubt on the conviction." Now they want to do more investigation. Why didn't they do it when the claims of innocence were first raised?

Texas leads the nation in exonerations of the wrongfully convicted: [More...]

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NY to Create Permanent Innocence Task Force

New York's top judge, Jonathan Lippman (chief judge of the NY Court of Appeals) has announced the creation of a permanent task force to study wrongful convictions and how to minimize their occurrence. The plan is receiving wide praise.

Members of the task force, who are being selected by Judge Lippman, will include prosecutors, defense lawyers, scientists and lawmakers. They will have a broad mandate to examine police procedures, court rules and other issues involved in wrongful convictions.

“We’re going to take the raw material from all the cases here in New York and, for that matter, around the country, and see what we need to do to change the criminal justice system so this doesn’t happen,” Judge Lippman said in an interview on Wednesday.

This is something that Innocence Project co-founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld called for in their 2002 book, Actual Innocence, and in detail here.[More...]

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Supreme Court to Decide If Prosecutors Can Be Sued For Wrongful Conviction

The Supreme Court accepted cert today in Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, 08-1065, an Iowa case in which two men wrongfully convicted of murder sued the prosecutors. Curtis W. McGhee Jr., and Terry Harrington served 25 years of a life sentence for killing a retired police officer before being freed when it turned out prosecutors had withheld evidence about another suspect and presented false testimony from witnesses.

[Prosecutors]Richter and Hrvol argued that they were immune from lawsuits because they were acting within the scope of their job. Federal courts, however, rejected their motions to dismiss the lawsuits, saying the immunity did not extend to them.

The lower courts found immunity on the withholding evidence claim but said the prosecutors can be sued for procuring false testimony during the investigation and using it against the defendants at trial. Scotus Blog has the pleadings in the case.

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NY Pays $2.6 Mil to Innocent Palladium Murder Defendant

Olmedo Hildago was one of two men wrongfully convicted in the notorious Palladium night club murder of a bouncer in New York. He served 14 years in prison. There were years of twists and turns and much resistance by DA Morganthau's office before his vindication.

The New York Times reports New York City and State have settled lawsuits with Hildago, who now lives in the Dominican Republic, for $2.6 million.[Hat tip to Blogger Mike.]

The lawsuits of the second defendant, David Lemus, who was retried and acquitted in 1997, are still pending.

The two men had some help establishing their innocence, from unlikely sources: A former prosecutor, a former detective and the jury forewoman.

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Supreme Court Hears Arguments in DNA Innocence Case

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the William Osborne case. Osborne was convicted of rape in Alaska and alleges new DNA technology would prove he is factually innocent.

Alaska is one of several states that refuses to allow inmates to obtain DNA testing to prove innocence.

The Obama administration has taken Alaska’s side in arguing that Osborne has no right to access the biological evidence obtained in 1994, even if he pays for it. Today’s advanced tests could establish a match with a certainty of one in a billion. Former FBI Director William Sessions explains why Obama is wrong on this one. [More...]

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Dallas Inmate Freed After 25 Years, DNA Proves Innocence

Johnnie Earl Lindsey, age 56, became the 20th Dallas, TX inmate to be cleared by DNA testing and today was freed from prison.

Lindsay served 25 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. His letters over the years requesting DNA testing were ignored.

Then District Attorney Craig Watkins was elected.

Lindsey, his lawyers and the judge repeatedly praised Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who since taking office in January 2007 has examined wrongful convictions and not opposed attempts by prisoners seeking DNA testing. Mitchell said the job of a prosecutor is "not to convict but to see justice is done. We're fortunate to have a district attorney with the courage, dignity and honor to fulfill this duty."

Lindsey was at work when the crime was committed. At his trial, he produced his time cards and his employer testified for him. How did he get convicted? Erroneous eye-witness identification and faulty police lineup procedures. [More...]

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L.A. Murder Case Dismissed, Cop Gave False Testimony

For the seocnd time in three months, a case was dropped in LA due to false tesimony by a police officer. The latest, dismissed yesterday, involved a detective. Saul Edy, the defendnat, spent three years in jail.

Det. David Friedrich, with Los Angeles Police Department radio recordings that contradicted Friedrich's account of a stakeout.

The proseuctor's explanation:

I believe this officer did the best he could, but unfortunately mistakes were made and we lacked confidence in the persuasiveness of our case," Yglecias said. "We still have a belief in Eady's guilt, which made for an agonizing decision."

The defense lawyer's explanation: [More...]

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TX Commission to Investigate Whether Innocent Man Was Executed

This is really big news. For the first time in U.S. history, a state commission will investigate whether an innocent man was executed.

A Texas panel will investigate whether a man executed for setting a fire that killed his three daughters actually started the blaze.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed Friday to review conclusions that Cameron Todd Willingham set the fire in 1991. He was executed in 2004.... The Innocence Project, a legal group that works to overturn wrongful convictions, says experts in a report it commissioned concluded the fire was not intentionally set.

You can read JR's diary about it on Daily Kos . One of the experts who co-authored the Innocence Project report is his father, John Lentini, who has written extensively on fire science and errors made during investigations.

The executed inmate was Cameron Todd Willingham #999041. Read the results of a 2004 exhaustive investigation into the case by award-winning Chicago Tribune investigative reporters Maurice Possley and Steve Mills. [More...]

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"At the Death House Door" Airs Tonight

At the Death House Door airs tonight at 9:00 pm ET on IFC, the Independent Film Channel: It is the story of a minister to death row inmates in Texas, who became convinced that the risk that even one innocent person will be executed justifies abandoning capital punishment.

One person who shares such a conviction is Carroll Pickett, minister to death row inmates at a penitentiary in Texas; for 15 years, Pickett had no reservations about presiding over executions, until that fateful day when his path crossed with that of a Hispanic man named Carlos de Luna, unjustly accused of homicide.

Shortly before this - his 96th official execution - was to occur, Pickett tape recorded much of his last day with de Luna. Listening to it, he became unshakably convinced of the man's innocence, and used his inner conviction as an impetus to team up with crime reporters from the Chicago Tribune and delve into the facts surrounding De Luna's highly questionable arraignment. With their documentary At the Death House Door, James and Gilbert both tell Pickett's heart-rending story and use it as a springboard into broader penetrative issues about capital punishment.

[More...]

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"60 Minutes" Tonight Features Innocence Project and Wrongfully Convicted

Don't miss "60 Minutes" tonight. It features the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, where in Dallas alone, 17 men have been freed after DNA proved them innocent. It includes an interview with several freed inmates, concentrating on James Woodward, freed last week after serving 27 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. The Texas Senate will be holding a summit on the wrongfully convicted on May 8.

Update: This was one of the most moving segments "60 Minutes" has ever done. It ends by telling viewers another 250 cases in Dallas County alone are under investigation. Watch it online if you missed it on TV.

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N.C. Death Row Inmate Freed

Levon "Bo" Jones leaves a North Carolina penitentiary today after serving 13 years on death row.

This is not a DNA reversal.

Levon "Bo" Jones of Duplin County spent 13 years on death row, convicted of robbing and shooting a well-liked bootlegger. In 2006, a federal judge ordered Jones off death row and overturned his conviction, declaring his attorney's performance so poor that his constitutional rights had been violated.

Today, Jones will become the eighth North Carolina man spared execution after charges against him were dropped. Judges turned the inmates loose after discovering a variety of problems in their cases, ranging from hidden evidence to inadequate defense attorneys.

Jones had been awaiting a retrial. The prosectuor intended to go for a life sentence this time around. Then, "his case collapsed" when a key witness recanted. [More...]

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Dallas County Sets Wrongful Conviction Records

Dallas County just set two records. James Lee Woodard is the latest of 17 wrongfully convicted defendants in Dallas County who have been released as the result of new DNA analysis, the most DNA exonerations of any county. Dallas County also kept Woodard behind bars for more time than any other inmate who has been exonerated by DNA.

Mr. Woodard, 55, was sentenced to life in prison in 1981 for the strangulation and rape of his 21-year-old girlfriend, Beverly Ann Jones. But information that Ms. Jones was with three men – including two later convicted of unrelated sexual assaults – around the time of her death was not disclosed to the defense nor was it thoroughly investigated, said prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the Dallas County district attorney's office conviction integrity unit.

Rodney Ellis, a member of the Texas Senate, has been trying to get the state to fund an Innocence Commission. He's organized a forum to be held next week that will focus on the prevention of wrongful convictions. Jeralyn has more here.

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TX Plans Summit on Wrongfully Convicted as Another Inmate Freed

James Lee Woodford was released from a Texas prison today after serving 27 years for a murder that DNA evidence now shows he didn't commit.

Woodward is the 18th Dallas County inmate, and the 31sth in Texas, to be exonerated by DNA testing.

Also today, State Senator Rodney Ellis announced that Texas will hold a summit on wrongful convictions on May 8 at the state capitol. [More...]

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Innocent Texas Man to Be Freed After 23 Years

At a hearing in Texas today, Thomas McGowan will be freed from a Dallas prison after serving 23 years for a rape and burglary DNA has proven he didn't commit.

McGowan will be the 25th person in Texas to have been convicted of a crime based on faulty eyewitness testimony and later exonerated by DNA testing.

Thomas McGowan was in his mid-20s when he was arrested, and he’ll turn 50 later this year. He has lost nearly his entire adult life to a wrongful conviction that could have – and should have – been prevented,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This is the 25th case in Texas where DNA proved that eyewitness identification was incorrect. How many more people need to lose years or decades of their lives before the state implements simple reforms that are proven to make eyewitness identification more accurate?”

The Innocence Project has much more on the case.

In Michigan, 29 year old Nathanial Hackett has been freed after serving 12 years for a rape DNA testing as shown he did not commit. His conviction was based in part upon a coerced false confession.

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