"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

The Life After Exoneration Program

Philly DA Scored for Defending Prosecutorial Misconduct Wed, 10/03/2012 -

The recent outrage in Pennsylvania over the scheduled October 3 execution of a man who killed two men who had sexually abused him during his childhood has tarnished the reformer image of Philadelphia DA Seth Williams, exposing him as just another prosecutor willing to trample justice to preserve a death penalty.

When Seth Williams successfully campaigned to become Philadelphia’s top prosecutor a few years ago he used a catchy phrase: “A New Day/A New DA.”

But based on Williams’ recent posturing and positions taken by him, evidence indicates this new DA continues operating in the same old way as his predecessors.

Instead of running his office in accordance with that ‘New Day’ many expected, DA Williams is defending death penalty cases that are stained by prosecutorial misconduct and is pursuing factually bogus charges against victims of police brutality, including one involving a blind man charged with attacking the police who beat him.

The most pronounced example of Williams’ old wine/new bottle stance is his vigorous --and intellectually dishonest -- public relations campaign backing the execution of child-sex abuse victim-turned-murderer Terrance Williams.

A week before the scheduled execution (which was halted by a Philadelphia judge just days before it took place), DA Williams wrote an op-ed article in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which the DA denounced death row inmate Williams for never mentioning his sexual abuse during trial. But putting aside the obvious point that a sex abuse victim might not dare to report such a violation, in his op-ed the DA himself declined to report that prosecutors during that trial had withheld evidence of that very sexual abuse, in the form of police reports about it, from the defense, the court and the jury, in order to enhance the the chances of winning a sentence of death.

The DA’s failure to mention that the prosecution had withheld important mitigating evidence is journalistic misconduct of the same nature as the prosecutorial misconduct he was hiding from readers.
The Philadelphia DA’s Office took a spanking later when, during the same week, a Philadelphia city court judge set aside the death penalty on Terrance Williams and Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, which had earlier met and denied Williams’ request for clemency, reconvened a clemency hearing in his case.

Terrance Williams was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on October 3 for killing one of his abusers. His death warrant had been signed in September by Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican former state attorney general who ignored an avalanche of clemency pleas including pleas from former prosecutors, judges, clergy, jurors who convicted Williams and even the wife of one of Williams’ victims, who had informed prosecutors at the time of the trial that her husband had indeed earlier sexually abused his killer.

Corbett, it should be noted, had received criticism for foot-dragging a probe into the Penn State child predator scandal involving now convicted Jerry Sandusky when Corbett served as the state’s attorney general.

The actions by the judge and pardons board in the Terrance Williams case both resulted largely from more evidence of disturbing misconduct by Philly prosecutors -- misconduct which violates ethical rules and court rulings.

The prosecutorial misconduct cited by the judge as the basis for her halting of the execution of inmate Williams occurred over two decades before DA Seth Williams assumed control of that office in January 2010.

However, the prosecutorial misconduct that led to a second Pardons Board hearing occurred during DA Williams’ watch.

The Pardons Board, though, learned there had been a misrepresentation by one of DA Williams’ prosecutors, who reportedly assured Board members considering Williams’ most recent clemency petition that Philly prosecutors had not made a plea deal with Terrance Williams’ co-defendant during Williams’ 1986 murder trial.

But the DA’s office knew, in fact, that just such a deal had been made, because documents in DA files detailed it.

In the legal world, “misrepresentation” is as an assertion “not in accordance” with facts.
In the world of laypersons, “misrepresentation” of this sort is generally called, more bluntly, a lie.
Laypersons and lawyers both understand the often damaging consequences of lies, especially in death penalty cases.

That op-ed article authored by DA Williams mentioned poignently how the daughter of the man whose murder landed inmate Williams on death row opposed clemency, but he omitted all references to a recent campaign by police and prosecutors to force that man’s wife to withdraw her support for clemency -- a campaign which included unannounced evening visits by police to her front door to pressure her.
Prosecutorial misconduct is perhaps the most grievous yet least publicly examined element of systemic lawlessness by law enforcers.

This willful lawbreaking by prosecutors leads to wrongful convictions, imprisonment of innocent people, the failure to pursue real criminals and in the worst instances, executions of the innocent or of those who should never have faced a death penalty.

Jurors in the Terrance Williams case, contacted by his current defense team, have said they would never have sentenced him to death if they had been aware of his earlier sexual abuse by the victim – information prosecutors withheld from jurors, according to defense representations and to the latest judge’s ruling halting the execution.

An article in the Summer 2012 edition of the New York Criminal Law Newsletter labeled prosecutorial misconduct as “something which is learned and taught.”

A now infamous training video showing Philadelphia prosecutors receiving instruction from a DA office supervisor on how to illegal stack juries to obtain convictions especially death penalty cases surfaced in 1990s, leading to the reversal of many convictions. The prosecutor in that video, Jack McMahon, now in private practice, regrets his participation and today is an ardent opponent of capital punishment.

Prosecutorial misconduct is one of the “leading” causes of wrongful convictions according to a 2006 Wisconsin Law Review article.

According to the respected Innocence Project, while honest mistakes cause some wrongful convictions, far too many wrongful convictions arise from the “conviction-at-all-costs” policies adopted by too many prosecutor offices nationwide.

The Innocence Project, which specializes in using DNA to expose wrongful convictions, recently secured the death row release of Damon Thibodeaux in Louisiana. Thibodeaux is the 18th person released from death row due to DNA and the 300th person exonerated by DNA evidence.

The core problem with the kind of prosecutorial misconduct in Philadelphia evident in Terrance Williams’ death penalty case and in those police abuse cases ending in acquittals of the (falsely) accused is that this misconduct fits the same old pattern of Philly prosecutors staunchly defending the indefensible – including fighting to retain tainted convictions, even in capital cases.

Since inmate Williams only seeks conversion his death sentence to life in prison without parole, not prison release, DA Williams is wasting DA office resources appealing. Life–without-parole is considered by many to be the harsh punishment of “walking death,” and those given such sentences can pose no further threat to society.

There’s a decades-long legacy of Philadelphia prosecutors playing fast and loose with facts and fairness in prosecutions ranging from cases of simple disorderly conduct to the super-serious death penalty.

Three of the six persons exonerated and released from Pennsylvania’s death row since the mid-1970s were Philadelphia residents.

And mixed into the matrix of injustice endured by each of those three men was misconduct by prosecutors -- misconduct that included the withholding evidence of innocence from defense attorneys, judges and, of course, jurors.

That trio includes Harold Wilson, whom prosecutors wrongfully put on death row in 1988 by citing as evidence of guilt a bloody shoe print and a blood-stained jacket.

The thing is, that shoe-print size was 8 while Wilson wore/wears a size 13 shoe. And, that blood-stained jacket was much smaller than clothing fitting the tall, heavy-set Wilson.

Post-conviction DNA testing also helped secure Wilson’s 2005 release after he had spent nearly 6,000-days on death row. Wilson has blasted Philadelphia prosecutors for trying to withhold that DNA evidence of his innocence from his defense lawyers.

As long ago as 1978, when Philadelphia DA Seth Williams was 11 years old, a federal judge castigated misconduct by Philly prosecutors as “absolutely incredible.”

That judge leveled his criticism at the conclusion of a trial which convicted six Philly police detectives for outrageous brutality during their investigation of a fatal fire-bombing.

One of the acts angering that judge in 1978 was Philly prosecutors giving immunity to a man who confessed to that fire-bombing. He found that those same prosecutors – only days later – had prosecuted another man for the very same fire-bombing, despite their knowing of his innocence due because of the other man’s confession!

Meanwhile, many members of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican community remain angered about prosecutorial misconduct underlying the conviction of an alleged murder-rapist in a 1973 case that took place outside of Philadelphia’s world-famous Art Museum.

Prosecutors, using tainted testimony from one alleged participant, secured six convictions, including those of two men later exonerated based on one’s having been in Puerto Rico at the time of the crime and the other having been at a police station reporting a stab wound he had received earlier that day.

That tainted Art Museum rape-murder case testimony came from a man who said police brutally beat him into falsely confessing after he went to them – while high on LSD – to fraudulently claim a reward offered for information about that rape-murder.

Activists currently are seeking the mercy release of an ill and elderly inmate sentenced for that 1973 crime, but they have reportedly received a cold shoulder from DA Williams’ office.

Yes, Philadelphia DA Seth Williams has initiated commendable reforms of prosecutorial practices including some involving death penalty cases.

Yet DA Williams’ public posturing on the Terrance Williams case echoes that of his widely despised predecessor, Lynne Abraham – an avid execution advocate. Williams had assailed the ardent death penalty advocacy of Abraham while campaigning to replace her.

DA Williams is entitled to his dubious opinion that inmate Williams is a brutal murderer who is despicably attempting an orchestrated make-over from villain to victim.

And DA Williams is entitled to his fact-challenged claim that former prosecutor now Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Teresa Sarmina erred in finding prosecutorial misconduct (including suppression of evidence) during that 1986 trial of Terrance Williams when she halted his scheduled execution.

However, DA Williams strains credulity when defending his efforts to have inmate Williams executed as simply an attempt to “preserve the integrity” of the jury’s verdict and sentence. (DA Williams denies “celebrating” the death penalty in his insistence that inmate Williams face execution.)

Where is the integrity in Terrance Williams’ conviction when the reality is that Williams’ inept defense attorney, in a capital case where his client’s life was on the line, only met Williams, then a teen, for the first time one day before the beginning the trial?

A truly “New Day DA” should not be defending the integrity of a conviction arising from lawyer ineffectiveness that constituted an obvious denial of the defendant’s fundamental fair trail rights.
Judge Sarmina found evidence that prosecutorial misconduct had undermined “confidence” in Williams’ guilty verdict.

And where is the “integrity” in DA Williams’ office prosecuting those court-clogging, cost-wasting police abuse cases that recently ended in acquittals?

One of those acquittals involved Darrell Holloway, a legally blind man whom police accused of attacking officers during an August 2011 incident.

Prosecutors did not question the believability of that alleged attack, which police claimed apparently involved Holloway employing super-human radar/sonar through his prosthetic right eye, which enabled him to chase after policemen he couldn’t see.

A cell phone video of that 2011 incident, where eyewitnesses contend police beat Holloway, contains distinctive audio of eyewitnesses telling police that Holloway was blind, including one man who yelled “he’s blind” twenty times during a span of one 71-second interval.

Holloway’s left eye was shot and damaged by the same 2007 shotgun blast to the face that destroyed his right eye.

Holloway, during his trial, removed his prosthetic eye in front of the jury to counter police testimony proclaiming he was not blind, testimony that included sworn assertions from the officer who beat him that he saw Holloway walking without assistance and texting after the 2011 incident.

The other acquittal involved Jeff Hart, a noted Philadelphia radio broadcaster charged by police with disorderly conduct in July 2012 for cursing an officer after that officer ordered Hart to leave the scene of an arrest where Hart said he had seen an officer beat a handcuffed man.

Hart, who denied disobeying the police order, said the arresting officer roughed him up before falsely charging him with using profanity.

Incidentally, federal and state courts have repeatedly held that is it not illegal to verbally abuse a police officer.

Also, courts have repeatedly held that it is illegal for police to use excessive force.

Philadelphia’s Police Department is now rocked by yet another brutality scandal – this one a cell-phone video of a police supervisor viciously punching a woman in the face, knocking her to the ground and then arresting, her despite her appearing to have committed no criminal offense, and posing no threat to the officer.

The major problem with prosecutorial misconduct in Philadelphia and across America is that the offending prosecutors are rarely if ever penalized.

Prosecutors who engage in misconduct endure neither criminal prosecution for their illegal conduct nor even disciplinary proceedings for their unethical activities.

The Pennsylvania court rules on “Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor” bar prosecutors from bringing charges “not supported by probable cause” and those ethical standards require prosecutors to make “timely disclosure” to the defense of all evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense…”

In 2003 Philadelphia authorities paid out $1.9-million to four men wrongfully charged with a mass murder in a case where prosecutors and police had willfully rejected and covered up evidence of the men’s innocence.

In 1996 Philadelphia authorities paid $1.9-million to settle a long-standing prosecution/police misconduct case filed by Neil Ferber, who falsely spent 1,375-days on death row after conviction for a 1981 murder.

Ferber was arrested six month before Mumia Abu-Jamal, the inmate whose internationally-condemned and misconduct-plagued murder conviction is still being strenuously defended by DA Williams, the first black to hold a top prosecutor post in Pennsylvania.

A New Day of prosecutorial integrity, like the one DA Seth Williams pledged while campaigning, demands that prosecutors prosecute illegal acts by prosecutors and police with the same vigor that they prosecute civilian offenders.

Additionally, such a New Day demands that DAs not battle to keep people already convicted in jail or on death row when DAs know that earlier prosecutors have put them there through the use of lies and misconduct.

Evidence is piling up daily that Seth Williams is falling short of being that “New Day/New DA” he promised.

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.”

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."


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.


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