"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

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A mother fights in the war on wrongful convictions

Mary Mitchell: Writer

Chicago Sun Times

I don’t know where black mothers get their strength.

During slavery, young black mothers had to watch their children being sold off to distant plantations never to be heard from again.

Today, too many young black mothers are seeing their sons get killed in the street, while others are watching black youth get locked away for the rest of their lives for pulling the trigger.

But there’s another group of black mothers who are seldom heard from.

They are the mothers who have watched their sons go to prisons for crimes they did not commit.

Their voices are dismissed like noise, especially in the aftermath of a heinous crime.

These mothers are left alone to tend to the wounds of a family caught up in the ruthless assault of the criminal justice system.

Carleane Swift, 53, is the mother of Terrill Swift, one of the so-called “Englewood 4.” Swift, along with Harold Richardson, Michael Saunders and Vincent Thames, spent most of his youth locked in Illinois prisons for the 1994 rape and murder of Nina Glover.

Glover’s body was found in a dumpster in the Englewood neighborhood. The four teens were picked up and were allegedly coerced and intimidated into giving false confessions.

DNA evidence exonerated the men after they had spent more than a dozen years behind bars. A judge overturned their convictions last year.

All four men have filed lawsuits against the City of Chicago, a Cook County prosecutor and police detectives who they said ignored evidence that linked a career criminal to the murder.

“It is almost more painful for me than when he was locked up,” said Carleane Swift, on Friday.

This is her first interview about her family’s ordeal. The events are still so painful; Swift becomes emotional when she has to recall them. Several times during the phone interview, Swift broke down in tears.

“There are deep wounds,” she said. “I’m just trying to find a way for my family to be happy.”

The mother said she is now confronting the “discrimination” that her son has to deal with because of the incarceration.

“Had he not been incarcerated, I knew he would have had a better life than what we are going through now,” she said.

She was about the same age her son is now when police officers took him away. The arrest didn’t just change Terrill’s life. It changed the blueprint for the entire family.

Terrill’s sister grew up. Family members passed on. Friends moved on. Over those years, the mother believed in her son’s innocence.

“I put it in God’s hands. I had another child and I focused on her and tried to give Terrill what he needed to sustain him. It’s been a heartbreaking nightmare,” she said.

She thought the nightmare was over when her son was exonerated. But the aftershocks of the wrongful conviction are still deeply felt by her family.

“It is like they shipped him off, then gave him back to me with all these restrictions and pressures. It is overwhelming. He couldn’t get an apartment. He couldn’t find a job,” she said.

“I thought his vindication would be like a load lifted, but it isn’t. Every time I look at him, it is a constant reminder that this was brought upon my family and it is still existing today,” she said her voice breaking.

“It is still happening as I sit here.”

Until their day of exoneration, the wrongfully convicted are as forgotten as the soldiers of an undeclared war.

But mothers like Carleane are quietly serving on the frontlines of a war most of us don’t even know is being fought.

“I didn’t know it until I came home, but my mother put her life on hold to make sure I was O.K., to make sure I had food; to make sure I could call home; to make sure she could come and see me. She was behind me 110 percent.” Terrill told me.

No one can give this mother back the years that were literally stolen from her.

But law enforcement could stop ignoring the systemic flaws that lead to wrongful convictions. Maybe then, black families won’t feel like they are living with a new kind of slavery.

Northwestern puts focus on wrongful convictions of women

Julie Rea's 10-year-old son was murdered in their southern Illinois home in 1997.

Rea said she couldn't imagine living through anything more painful. Then she was accused of committing the murder, convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions represented Rea at her retrial in 2006. The jury heard a taped confession from convicted killer Tommy Lynn Sells, and despite the prosecution's contention that his confession was false, Rea was found not guilty.

Being falsely accused "hurt so much more than anything I could have ever imagined," Rea said. "It makes you feel really alone in the world."

Rea is among a group of women, all exonerated of serious crimes, who are backing the Northwestern center's newest endeavor — a Women's Project, which launches Thursday as the first of its kind in the country.

The initiative will examine cases of wrongfully convicted women and focus on the obstacles they face as their cases make their way through the criminal justice system, said Karen Daniel, an attorney at the center, who serves as the project's co-director.

The path to freedom by those who are wrongfully convicted can be more daunting for women for a number of reasons, she said. For one, compared with male defendants, crimes for which women are accused more often lack DNA evidence — meaning DNA cannot be used to exonerate them.

"I think the whole DNA revolution leaves women behind because their cases tend to not be those type of cases," Daniel said. "If you don't have it in your case, it can be harder to defend."

In more than 60 percent of cases where women were exonerated, no crime actually occurred, according to statistics provided by the center. Research has shown that women are often convicted in cases where accidental or natural deaths and even deaths resulting from medical disorders were mistaken for murders, organizers said. In many cases, they said, women accused of harming their children or other loved ones are often convicted on largely circumstantial evidence.

For example, Patricia Stallings was convicted in 1991 of murdering her son, who was taken to a Missouri hospital with high levels of ethylene glycol — a key ingredient of antifreeze — in his blood. She was set free when tests confirmed he died of a genetic disorder that produces false positives for ethylene glycol.

In another case involving a woman accused of killing her child, Chicago mother Nicole Harris was convicted in Cook County in the 2005 death of her son, which had been deemed an accident by the medical examiner. A federal appeals court last month vacated her conviction; prosecutors are appealing.

Experts agree that cases involving the death of a child are among the most difficult to defend. Women in particular have to combat what Daniel calls "the mother myth," the notion that mothers should be able to walk through a wall of fire to save their children.

It's a perception Daniel said played out in the case of Tabitha Pollock, who was convicted of first-degree murder on the theory that she should have known that her boyfriend, who had confessed to killing her daughter, was dangerous. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed Pollock's conviction in 2002.

Gender bias also has a way of creeping into cases, experts say. Rea's ex-husband falsely testified that she had contemplated aborting her son, which she said convinced the conservative jury that she was already a murderer.

In addition, Daniel said, research has also shown that women tend to communicate in more tentative and indirect ways than men, which does not line up with law enforcement views of how an innocent person should act.

"For (center attorneys) to spread their wings and launch this new project can only enhance the quality of criminal justice," said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project. "It means that these women who are innocent are going to get much more attention than they've gotten before. It's good for everybody."

Joyce Ann Brown spent more than nine years in prison for a 1980 robbery and murder in Texas before charges were dropped.

"I think the (Women's Project) is the best thing that could happen at this point of time," she said. "I think that when women see that other women have been exonerated, they will begin to stand up and believe there is an opportunity to open the door that has been shut in their face."

Organizers said few of the factors they're looking at are limited to women, but many disproportionately affect them.

"We all know that all wrongfully convicted people, men and women, are very traumatized by the experience," said Judy Royal, the Women's Project's other director, "but some of the cases we've had with women … it seems it makes them even more vulnerable and traumatized."

Gloria Killian, a California woman convicted of being the mastermind in a 1981 robbery and murder, had her conviction overturned after more than 17 years in prison. She said she remembers being the only woman at a national innocence conference not too long ago.

"A piece of this is about our own healing," she said of the project. "It's hard to stand there by yourself, even when you're backed by rows and rows of men."

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Kenneth Boyd Jr, Innocent Texan Wrongfully Convicted of Three Murders Exonerated and Soon Heading Home a Free Man

 

 

Here is a Thanksgiving story to make your day.

Kenneth Boyd Jr of Center Texas learned before Thanksgiving that he finally has something to be thankful for after 15 years in prison for three murders he did not commit. He will likely be released Monday. He was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him or any of his co-defendants to the murders.

In June, Shelby County 273rd District Court Judge Charles Mitchell found that former Shelby County District Attorney Karren Price had suppressed evidence. Boyd’s mother suffered a heart attack Thursday, said Boyd’s lawyer Gena Bunn. His mother is in stable condition in a Tyler hospital.

From the CCA ruling: “in light of the newly discovered and newly available evidence presented by Applicant and its probable impact on the State’s case as a whole, the trial court concludes that Applicant has proven by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable juror would have voted to convict him.”

After more than 15 years behind bars, an East Texas man is set to be released from prison following the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that he was wrongfully convicted of a triple homicide in Shelby County.
Gena Bunn, an attorney with the Holmes and Moore law firm of Longview, represented Kenneth Boyd Jr., of Center in his appeal, overturning a life sentence that was handed to him in 1999. He spent two years before then, after being charged in the 1997 homicides.

“He was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison despite the fact that there was no physical evidence linking him or any of his co-defendants to the murders,” Bunn said.

Shelby County District Attorney Ken Florence agreed to allow Boyd out of jail on a personal recognizance bond. He was expected to be released late Monday afternoon.

Florence reopened the investigation after Bunn filed the appeal in April. Bunn said it is possible the case against Boyd could be dropped completely.

Boyd was convicted in 1999 of the April 1997, murders of Keith Moore, 25, Christy Calhoun, 13, and Brian Keith Brooks, 26.

Bunn said none of the weapons linked to Boyd matched evidence found at the scene; none of the fingerprints recovered at the crime scene matched Boyd; a search of his car did not reveal any evidence tying him to the crime; there was no eyewitness testimony identifying him as the shooter; and Boyd passed a polygraph exam conducted after he became a suspect in the case.

The state’s case in 1999 consisted “essentially of a pair of jailhouse snitches who testified that Boyd confessed to them,” Bunn said. Both of those people have since recanted their testimony, she said. A few other witnesses — “many, if not all of whom, were high on crack cocaine or other substances” — also testified they saw Boyd about two and a half miles from the crime scene on the night of the murders, she added.

Bunn was appointed to the case two years ago.

“Seeing it and getting more and more involved in the case, it was striking and troubling to me what a grave injustice this was,” Bunn said.

In June, Shelby County 273rd District Court Judge Charles Mitchell found that former Shelby County District Attorney Karren Price had suppressed evidence.

She said other suppressed evidence included letters sent from witnesses to Price contradicting their trial testimony, offense reports indicating a different person was responsible for the murders, and information that another witness had failed a polygraph exam regarding his involvement in the murders and was then offered a deal with the state for his testimony against Boyd.

“He also found that Price had knowingly presented false testimony against Boyd,” she said.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday that Boyd should be released back to Shelby County.

“The opinion that came out last week gave me a better view of the system,” Bunn said. “Even though justice was delayed, he is getting released now. Better late than never.”

Boyd’s mother suffered a heart attack Thursday, Bunn said. She is in stable condition in a Tyler hospital.

“I worked very hard on this case for the last couple of years but that woman has really stayed on it throughout,” Bunn said. “She insisted that Kenny get a lawyer to handle the appeal, and she made sure he did get a lawyer. If it hadn’t been for her, these injustices still might not have come to light.”
Bunn said when Boyd, who is now in his late 30s, heard the news, he was almost speechless.

“He said, ‘I just don’t know what to say,’” Bunn said.
Florence was cooperative and expedited the release process, Bunn said.

“He has shown a lot of class in the way he handled the case until now,” she said.

Bunn said she hopes the community will be supportive and help Boyd transition smoothly from prison back into society.

“I think for somebody who’s been in prison for 15 years for a crime that I believe he did not commit, then to come out into free world, he’s going to have a lot of challenges,” Bunn said. “I hope the community can help him.”

Federal Judge Unsettled by D.A.’s Apparent Indifference in Wrongful Conviction

THE WRONGFUL CONVICTION BLOG:

According to The Wall Street Journal (here), Federal Court Judge Frederic Block expressed frustration with the apparent indifference Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney Charles Hynes has shown in response to the “aberrational behavior” of one of his top prosecutors in a case that led to the wrongful conviction of Jabbar Collins in the 1994 murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack.

Collins, a 10th grade drop-out with high school equivalency and some college, proclaimed his innocence and dedicated himself in prison to utilizing state and federal records laws to obtain information about his case. He bumped into denials but eventually received the requested materials including previously undisclosed information, enough to gain his exoneration after he’d served 16 years in prison.

Collins and his lawyer are now suing the City of Brooklyn including Brooklyn’s District Attorney Charles Hynes and one of his top prosecutors, chief of the Rackets Bureau, Michael Vecchione.

Referencing Vecchione’s alleged tactics, the lawsuit includes, “Jailing a potential witness for more that two weeks and threatening to hit him with a table if he didn’t cooperate; failing to disclose that another witness recanted before the trial; and lying about the existence of documents” that Mr. Collins had requested.

Three witnesses in the case against Collins later recanted.

According to The Wall Street Journal article, Judge Block indicated his frustration with Hynes’s failure to address the behavior or the alleged contributing office culture that led to the wrongful conviction. “Name one thing he’s done in light of Vecchione’s aberrational behavior?” the judge asked the attorney representing the city.

Judge Block is urging the city to settle the lawsuit.

More information on this case is available (here), (here), and (here).

Clock Winding Down for Wilmington Ten Pardons

by Cash Michaels
Special to the NNPA from the Wilmington Journal

WILMINGTON, N.C. [NNPA} – Now that the 2012 presidential election is history, supporters for the Wilmington Ten pardons of innocence effort are increasing their efforts to build more overwhelming public support for the cause before North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue leaves office on Dec. 31.

Sources say there is opposition to the proposed pardons, primarily from former law enforcement and state officials who still believe – despite no evidence proving that the Wilmington Ten had anything to do with the 1971 firebombing of a White-owned grocery store, or sniper shots at responding firemen – that they are guilty.

The legal petition to pardon all of 10 – nine African-American males and one White female – of false conspiracy charges they were convicted of in 1972, has been pending in Gov. Perdue’s Executive Clemency office since last May. Perdue, a Democrat, is expected to make her decision in December before she steps down.

Churches, fraternities, sororities, community and civic organizations in North Carolina and beyond are being asked to support the cause by sending letters to Gov. Perdue, or signing the online petition.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP president/CEO, has agreed to send out a mass email nationwide to all NAACP members asking them to sign a special online petition that will be delivered to the North Carolina governor the first week in December. The national NAACP Board of Directors unanimously passed a resolution last May supporting the Wilmington Ten pardon effort, and the state NAACP will be calling a special press conference Nov. 27 in Raleigh to urge Gov. Perdue to grant the pardons.

Thousands of signatures in hard copy and online petitions have been collected, but organizers with the Wilmington Ten Pardons of Innocence Project, an outreach effort the National Newspaper Publishers Association adopted in 2011, say that still many more are needed by December 1.

The next two weeks are critical, they say, toward garnering more petition signatures and letters of support in order to document widespread sentiment across the state and nation that the false prosecutions 40 years ago was wrong, and the state needs to correct it.

Add to that the most recent and explosive revelation that James “Jay” Stroud, the state prosecutor who had the Wilmington Ten falsely convicted and sentenced to 282 years in prison collectively, not only sought to control jury selection in the first June 1972 trial to include “KKK” and “Uncle Tom” types, but also, documented evidence from his own handwritten notes now show, succeeded in having that first trial aborted because it had a jury of 10 Blacks and two Whites.

The second trial, in September 1972, had a Pender County jury of 10 Whites and two Blacks, in addition to a judge that history shows was more favorable to the prosecution.

“The prosecutor’s notes are clear and convincing evidence that race was not just a factor in his selection of the 10 Whites and two Blacks on the Pender jury that convicted the Wilmington Ten,” veteran civil rights attorney Al McSurely says. “Race was the only factor. Forty years later, we know his real motives. I believe when the governor studies this evidence, she will do the right thing and sign the pardons.”

He added, “I can barely contain my outrage at the blatant racism of an officer of the court.”

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law Professor Gene Nichol agreed.

“It is crucial that North Carolina act to admit and concede such a potent and defining abuse of power,” Nichol said. “To allow public servants to behave in such a fashion, without remedy, is literally intolerable.”

Attorneys for the Wilmington Ten pardons effort met with Gov. Perdue’s clemency staff several weeks ago, presenting their case, based on the Dec. 1980 U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling which overturned all 10 of the convictions, based on prosecutorial misconduct, and the fact that not only was exculpatory evidence hidden by the prosecutor, but three witnesses for the state admitted they were enticed to perjure themselves in testimony.

However, the state of North Carolina, in the 32 years hence, has refused to grant pardons of innocence to the Wilmington Ten, thus maintaining their false felony convictions.

In the six months since the pardons effort campaign publicly kicked off, support has come from North Carolina congressmen G. K. Butterfield, David Price and Brad Miller; the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus and state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh.

The 2012 North Carolina Democratic Party platform also adopted a plank supporting the Wilmington Ten pardon effort last summer.

In terms of grassroots support, the North Carolina NAACP has led the way, and most recently, the North Carolina chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has issued a resolution.

In each case, supporters have said that Gov. Perdue, given her progressive record of advocacy to stop racially biased death penalty sentences; push for reparations to the victims of North Carolina’s old forced sterilization program; and her veto of the Republican legislature’s voter ID bill; is well positioned before she leaves office, to add to her progressive legacy pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten.

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