"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

City to award $3.4 million to man cleared of murder after spending eight years in prison

Maurice Patterson never got the apology he wanted from the judge who sentenced him to 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. But, he’s about to get something more valuable from Chicago taxpayers: a $3.4 million settlement.

On Tuesday, the City Council’s Finance Committee will be asked to sign off on the payment, culminating a legal odyssey that saw Patterson spend eight years behind bars only to be released in October, 2010 after DNA evidence cleared him of the murder.

Before being sentenced, Patterson told a judge he was innocent and asked the judge whether, if he was ultimately cleared of the crime, “Are you going to be here to apologize to me?”

Patterson never got that apology — even after DNA evidence cleared him of the murder.

The evidence was taken from a knife that Cook County prosecutors originally claimed had no connection to the crime. As the DNA test showed years later, the knife had the victim’s blood on it with the blood of another man, a convicted offender, who lived near the crime scene.

Patterson’s case was championed by Rob Warden of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, but the process that ultimately freed him two years ago was set in motion by Patterson himself.

Louisiana Man Exonerated After 15 Years on Death Row for Murder

DNA and Other Evidence Proves ACLU Client Damon Thibodeaux Was Wrongly Convicted Based Upon a False Confession

NEW ORLEANS -- Damon A. Thibodeaux, who has been on death row in Louisiana since 1997, was exonerated today of the murder and rape of a young relative, after DNA and other evidence proved he had not committed the crime.

Thibodeaux walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary today after the court dismissed the indictment against him. Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Innocence Project, and other counsel in agreeing to overturn Thibodeaux’s conviction and death sentence.

“The death penalty is a human rights violation in any case, for anyone.  But, there can be no stronger argument against capital punishment than the condemnation of a truly innocent man,” said Denise LeBoeuf, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, who has represented Thibodeaux since 1998.  “The people of Louisiana should demand a moratorium on executions until they can be assured there are no more miscarriages of justice like the one that occurred in this case.”

Thibodeaux was tried in the killing of his 14-year old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. Her body was found on July 20, 1996, a day after she had left her apartment to go to a nearby supermarket. Several witnesses were interviewed, including Thibodeaux.  After some nine hours of interrogation, he provided an apparent confession to raping and murdering the victim.  That confession was virtually the sole basis for his conviction and death sentence in October 1997.

Ten years later, Thibodeaux’s legal team presented Connick with evidence that Thibodeaux was innocent. Both sides then began a rigorous investigation involving DNA and forensic evidence and numerous interviews. The probe confirmed that Thibodeaux’s confession was false in every significant aspect.

In addition, the investigation included a thorough examination of the reasons why Thibodeaux had falsely confessed.

“I’m grateful to my legal team and to Mr. Connick and his people for studying my case and for their commitment to justice,” Thibodeaux said.  "I’m looking forward to life as a free man again, but I have great sympathy for the Champagne family that lost their daughter and sister.  I sincerely hope that the person who murdered her is found and tried.”

Since 2000, six people have been exonerated from Louisiana’s death row, versus just three executions.

“There’s no question that Mr. Thibodeaux has suffered terribly because of faults in the criminal justice system,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.  “Hopefully this case can serve as a model to other district attorneys around the country who are interested in developing conviction integrity units to review old cases.” 

Thibodeaux’s legal team included LeBoeuf and Caroline Tillman, currently with the Capital Appeals Project in New Orleans, Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, and Steve Kaplan and Richard H. Kyle, Jr., of the Fredrikson & Byron law firm in Minneapolis.  Assisted by several DNA and world-class forensic scientists, homicide and police interrogation methods experts and private investigators, they obtained evidence demonstrating Thibodeaux was not the murderer, that the victim had not been raped, and that she had also not been murdered in the manner Thibodeaux had described. 

“This is a tragic illustration of why law enforcement must record the entire interrogation of any witness or potential suspect in any investigation involving a serious crime,” Kaplan said. “When juries learn that the accused has apparently confessed, they invariably have a difficult time questioning the reliability and truthfulness of the confession.”

Tillman said: “The solitary conditions that Mr. Thibodeaux was forced to live under as a death row inmate were almost more than he could bear at times, but he never gave up hope that one day he would be free.”

Michael Keenan freed, murder charge from 24 years ago dismissed by Cuyahoga County judge (photo gallery)

CLEVELAND, Ohio --  A Cuyahoga County judge this morning dismissed a 24-year-old murder charge against Michael Keenan, who had spent about two decades on death row with co-defendant Joe D'Ambrosio.

The decision was a dramatic change of events from Wednesday, when it appeared that Keenan was prepared to plead to involuntary manslaughter charges in order to be released from prison right away.

Judge John Russo set bond at $5,000 today, essentially allowing Keenan to be freed immediately.

Keenan was prepared to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter Wednesday for the 1988 slaying of Tony Klann if he could walk out of the Justice Center a free man.

But the proposed plea deal with county prosecutors hit a snag when Keenan balked at the prospect of spending five years under supervised release with regular visits to a parole officer.

So prosecutors and defense lawyers resumed their negotiations.

Keenan, 62, was twice convicted of killing Klann in 1988 in Cleveland's Rockefeller Park. D'Ambrosio, who also was convicted of killing Klann, was freed in 2009 after a federal judge determined that evidence that could have exonerated him had been withheld from his trial attorneys.

Another federal judge ruled in April that Keenan had to be tried again or have his verdict set aside.

Both Keenan and D'Ambrosio spent many years on death row, always professing their innocence.

A Catholic priest who befriended D'Ambrosio in prison and was convinced of his innocence worked with lawyers to uncover evidence favorable to both defendants that had been withheld by county prosecutors at trial.

That evidence included police statements that concluded Klann could not have been killed at Doan Brook, as the prosecutors' only eyewitness to the killing claimed.

Eddie Espinoza, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in connection with Klann's death and was given a reduced sentence, claimed that Keenan slit Klann's throat and D'Ambrosio stabbed him in the chest.

The withheld evidence also included information that the man who led police to Keenan, D'Ambrosio and Espinoza, had a possible motive for killing Klann.

Keenan's new trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 31, but he's now a free man.


Judge Compounds Murder Case Injustice

On April 1, 2010, Judge Stanley T. Fuger Jr. threw out the convictions of George Gould and Ronald Taylor for the murder of Eugenio Vega in his New Haven bodega in 1993. Outraged by the "manifest injustice" that had occurred, Fuger also threw out the arrest warrants and finding of probable cause and released the men. For Gould, it must now seem like the cruelest April Fool's joke.

Gould and Taylor were convicted and sentenced to 80 years solely based on testimony by Doreen Stiles, a heroin-addicted prostitute who claimed she was near the store, saw Gould enter it, heard a gunshot and saw both men leave. In 2009 — rehabilitated — she recanted. She said she wasn't at the scene and made up the story during a lengthy police interrogation.

The state appealed Fuger's decision. The Supreme Court ruled the recantation was not convincing evidence the men were innocent. It ordered a new habeas trial. In August 2011, after 16 months of freedom, Gould was returned to prison. Taylor, suffering from cancer, was allowed to remain at home. He died in October.

Last Wednesday, Judge Samuel J. Sferrazza rejected Gould's petition for a new trial, concluding he hadn't proved his innocence. For good measure, and despite not having seen or heard Stiles' recantation, he said her original testimony was truthful and the recantation was not.

Gould, however, did present evidence he and Taylor didn't murder Vega. They were convicted of robbing the store. Yet the police found cash neatly arranged in the unlocked cash register and a wad of $1,800 in Vega's pocket. There was no evidence, aside from Stiles' fabricated identification, that they entered the store or took anything.

The habeas trial established that Vega's son, Carlos DeLeon, made all the store's bank deposits. He wrote a number of checks against the account without his father's knowledge, causing a $50,000 check Vega wrote for the purchase of a property to bounce. The bank told Vega it wouldn't reimburse him unless he authorized it to prosecute DeLeon.

The first police officer at the murder scene saw a large, ledger-sized checkbook near an open safe. DeLeon appeared soon afterward. Before the police photographed the scene, DeLeon and the checkbook disappeared. After the murder, he attempted to withdraw funds from the account.

Vega's wrists were tied with an electrical extension cord. There was DNA on the cord. But it didn't come from Gould or Taylor. Sferrazza suggested they could have worn gloves. But he didn't mention that the cord was tied with an unusually intricate knot that would've been difficult to tie with gloves on. And he didn't mention that the DNA came from a woman.

Pam Youmans, a prostitute with whom Vega had frequent sexual encounters, was at the store when Vega opened it. She went inside for 15 to 20 minutes. In 2009, Gerald O'Donnell, a former state inspector and private investigator, recorded two conversations with Youmans. The Supreme Court noted that, although the first was consistent with Youmans' original testimony that Vega was alive when she left the store, the second "provided some support" for the theory that she was still in the store when DeLeon came in and shot his father.

During the second conversation, in which she was distraught, crying and fearful that DeLeon would harm her, Youmans acknowledged she was with Vega when DeLeon shot him and that she touched the cord. Sferrazza noted the woman in the second conversation "obliquely acknowledged being a witness to the victim's murder by his son." But he concluded, bizarrely, that, as Youmans claimed, it was not her voice on the tape.

Vega was shot in the head with a .380 handgun. DeLeon once owned an AMT .380. The state found the gun and determined it wasn't the gun that fired the bullet that killed Vega. A firearms expert testified that in all likelihood the bullet came from a Colt .380. The murder weapon was never found. But DeLeon did possess a Colt .380 magazine.

Gould will appeal. But in the meantime, the state should, with the assistance of the Innocence Project, reopen the investigation. To do otherwise would be to perpetuate what Judge Fuger rightly called a "manifest injustice."


Murder charges being dismissed after 17 years

After reviewing DNA tests, prosecutors say they are dismissing charges against a man who has been in prison since 1997 for a murder that occurred during a home invasion on the South Side.

Alprentiss Nash, 37, was sentenced to 80 years for the death of Lion Stroud. According to prosecutors, Nash was wearing a black ski mask when he broke into Stroud's home in 1995. The mask was found near the crime scene, they said.


Cook County prosecutors opposed Nash's request for DNA testing on the ski mask, but the Illinois Appellate Court later ordered it. Testing was done on skin cells found on the mask, and the genetic profile was matched to an inmate who recently was paroled from prison after serving time for a drug conviction.

Nash's attorney, Kathleen Zellner, requested additional testing and the state's attorney's office agreed.

In an interview at Menard Correctional Center earlier this year, Nash said he hoped the DNA results would lead to his release. "I'm tired of doing time," he said.

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