"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

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A Steadfast Denial of Guilt, Backed by Victim’s Kin

Richard LaFuente has had plenty of opportunities to leave federal prison and go back to Plainview, Tex. All he had to do was confess to a murder on the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, for which he was convicted in 1986, and show a little remorse.

Richard LaFuente, convicted in the 1983 killing of a police officer, could get out of prison if he showed remorse and confessed.
 
The first time he refused was at a 1994 court hearing. “I can’t show remorse,” he told his lawyer. “I won’t ask forgiveness for something I didn’t do.” He went back to his cell. For the next 17 years, at six parole hearings (the latest in June 2011), Mr. LaFuente refused to confess and show remorse, and each time he was sent back to his cell.

Julie Jonas has had plenty of opportunities to walk away from Mr. LaFuente’s case. Ms. Jonas is the managing attorney for the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which has been working on behalf of Mr. LaFuente. She has represented Mr. LaFuente, 54, since 2004, along with hundreds of other prisoners who have claimed they were innocent. Mr. LaFuente, she said, is different.

“I don’t think I have met one who would turn down a deal to get out of prison after eight years in a federal penitentiary, much less one who would continue to deny his guilt even though it meant his parole would be denied after serving 25 years in prison,” Ms. Jonas said. “The system keeps asking him to apologize for something he did not do, and his conscience won’t let him do that.”

Lawyers who work for innocence projects are a particular breed of optimist, and Ms. Jonas has tried a number of ways to get relief for her client. Her latest effort is a second petition for executive clemency, which she will be able to file on Nov. 19, one year after the first (which was filed in 2008) was denied. Clemency, in the form of a commutation of sentence, is extremely difficult to obtain. President Obama has granted one in four years in office. (George W. Bush granted 11 and Bill Clinton 61.)

Ms. Jonas plans to emphasize that Mr. LaFuente, who is half Mexican-American, half Sioux, has been a model prisoner with no disciplinary infractions. He is a father and grandfather. He has a job and a home waiting for him. “He’s worthy,” Ms. Jonas said. “Beside all that, he’s innocent.”

Mr. LaFuente was 25 in the summer of 1983 when he and his brother-in-law, John Perez, left Plainview to visit relatives on the Devils Lake reservation. During that time, a former police officer named Eddie Peltier was found dead on a rural highway, apparently the victim of a hit and run.

In 1985, Mr. LaFuente and Mr. Perez, who had returned to Texas, as well as nine local American Indians, were arrested in Officer Peltier’s murder after four witnesses said they had seen a mob beat him at a party. One swore she had seen Mr. LaFuente, with Mr. Perez’s help, run the officer over with his El Camino. There was no physical evidence, and every defendant but one had an alibi. Nonetheless, all 11 were found guilty. The two Texans were given the longest sentences: 20 years for Mr. Perez and life for Mr. LaFuente.

Soon, though, details began to emerge that conflicted with court testimony. Stories about the party and the fight turned out to be fabrications. Two witnesses recanted and said they had been threatened by James Yankton, a police officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By 1989, the convictions of nine of the defendants had been overturned for insufficient evidence. Mr. Perez was paroled in 1999. Only Mr. LaFuente remains in prison, steadfastly maintaining his innocence.

Twice a federal court has ruled that Mr. LaFuente should be given a new trial because the first one was unfair; both decisions were overruled. The victim’s own mother, brother and sister have told parole officials that they believe Mr. LaFuente is innocent. “I have never worked on a case where the victim’s family was certain the wrong man was in prison,” Ms. Jonas said.

Hollywood has taken notice. This year the story came to the attention of Todd Trotter, a Los Angeles television writer and documentary filmmaker. He began tracking down police and F.B.I. files and found a recording of a woman who claimed she had witnessed Mr. Peltier’s murder. The closer Mr. Trotter looked, the more Mr. LaFuente’s story seemed to be a classic tale of wrongful conviction.

Mr. Trotter talked with two dozen people involved in the case, asking them to agree to be interviewed on camera. He was granted permission to use the Robbie Robertson song “Coyote Dance” in the promotional video. He came up with a title, “Incident at Devils Lake.” All he needed was money to start filming. So in September he started a campaign at Kickstarter.com to raise start-up financing for the documentary. If he is successful — he is aiming for $50,000 in pledges by Wednesday — he hopes to start production early next year.

Mr. Trotter has had some fund-raising help from an unlikely source: the victim’s sister, Andrea Peltier. Nearly every day since Oct. 19, Andrea has stood outside the Devils Lake Walmart, holding a large sign bearing the word “fund-raising” and photos of her brother and Mr. LaFuente. She asks shoppers to donate to the film, and has collected more than $1,000.

“I stand out here no matter how cold it is,” Ms. Peltier said by cellphone. “I want justice for my brother. It’s been too long. Eddie’s spirit won’t be able to cross over until the right ones are caught. And I want to get Richard out of prison. He didn’t do it. He had nothing to do with it.”

Justice Delayed: Lacy Clay Jumps Into George Allen Fray With Attorney General

The congressman asks Attorney General Chris Koster to "no longer stand in the way of justice," and to "allow this innocent man to return to his family."

Clay wrote:

“I am deeply troubled by your decision to appeal Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green’s decision to void the convictions of George Allen. As you know, Mr. Allen is a mentally ill black man who was wrongfully convicted in 1982 and has spent the last thirty years incarcerated for crimes of which he is actually innocent.

“I am astonished by your decision to appeal and to ask for a stay of Mr. Allen’s release.”

Allen, of University City, was convicted in 1983 of the rape and murder of Mary Bell in the LaSalle neighborhood in St. Louis. Allen’s attorneys with the Innocence Project and the St. Louis-based Bryan Cave law firm uncovered evidence they said that convinced them of Allen's innocence, despite the man's taped confession. Allen has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Green overturned the rape and murder conviction on Nov. 2, ruling that Allen did not receive a fair trial. He said police investigators hid or suppressed evidence, including DNA testing and a fingerprint, which may have prevented Allen from being convicted.

City of St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced she would not seek to re-try the case.

But Koster's office appealed the decision Thursday. Allen's attorneys said that could mean Allen will spend several more months in prison.

Clay wrote, “I ask that you no longer stand in the way of justice being carried out for this innocent man, and allow George Allen to be returned to his family and his community immediately.”

‘Injustice System’ uncovers doubt in death row conviction

By Steve Weinberg

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.

Man charged after high-profile Morton exoneration now indicted in separate 1988 Texas killing

AUSTIN, Texas — A dishwasher charged with killing an Austin woman whose husband wrongly spent nearly 25 years in prison for the crime was indicted Friday in a separate 1988 slaying, which occurred blocks away from the first.

The capital murder charge against Mark Norwood, 58, handed up by a Travis County jury was not entirely unexpected. For more than a year, authorities have said DNA evidence implicated him in the death of Debra Masters Baker and the 1986 killing of Christine Morton.

Norwood was indicted last year in Morton's death and is scheduled to stand trial in January. He has pleaded not guilty.

Michael Morton was exonerated in his wife's killing after serving 24 years in prison — making his among the most high-profile of the dozens of wrongful convictions cases in Texas. He was freed in October 2011 based on DNA evidence that wasn't available during his 1987 trial.

The fact that Baker was killed two years after the wrong person was arrested in Christine Morton's death has led the Baker family and groups like the Innocence Project to consider the what-ifs. Baker lived just blocks away from the Mortons.

"We all need to remember that when an innocent person is convicted of a murder, the real murderer goes free," said John Raley, Michael Morton's attorney. "The tragic consequences of a wrongful conviction can affect many families."

Norwood's attorney, Russell Hunt, said they were disappointed in Friday's indictment and wanted to see the evidence prosecutors presented.

"We don't have that, whatever it is," Hunt said.

Caitlin Baker, Debra's daughter, did not immediately return a phone message Friday. She has previously said she partially blames her mother's death on prosecutors and investigators who focused so intently on Michael Morton.

Morton was awarded nearly $2 million under the state's compensation law for the wrongfully convicted. He and his attorney believe evidence in his 1987 trial was knowingly withheld by then-prosecutor Ken Anderson, now a state district judge who was sued last month by the State Bar of Texas for his conduct in the Morton case.

Anderson's attorney has said he and his client "respectfully disagree" with the state bar's claims.

Morton was freed after DNA revealed that his wife's blood and DNA from another man was found on a bloody bandanna near the Mortons' house around the time of the killing.

Authorities discovered a connection in Morton's and Baker's cases after Morton's attorney teamed up with the Innocence Project and spent years battling for additional testing of the bandanna. DNA from that bandanna allegedly matched that of a hair discovered at the scene of the Baker slaying.

Exonerated of Murder, Chicagoan's First Vote for President

 

Chicago Huff Post

Tuesday, Nov. 6

The ring tone on his cell phone blared the '60s hit, "Hold On, I'm Comin'." Recognizing his girlfriend's number, Eric Caine anxiously took the call.

"It's OK," Tina reassured him. "You're on the voter rolls."

Caine breathed a sigh of relief. Having been denied the right to vote for 25 years, he had asked Tina to check for his name when she went to the polls this morning. After everything he had been through, something else was bound to go wrong.

In 1987, Caine had cast his first vote from the Cook County jail, where he was awaiting trial for a double murder he did not commit. Caine proudly voted for Harold Washington, Chicago's first black mayor who was running for a second term.

Washington won. Caine did not. A jury convicted him based on a confession he had made to cops working under the command of Jon Burge, the notorious South Side lieutenant responsible for the torture of more than 100 suspects in the 1980s. Caine's lawyer argued that Burge's men had thrown his client down a flight of stairs and beaten him so badly that his eardrum ruptured. But the jury believed the cops, and Caine was sentenced to life.

Six presidential elections later, Caine was still behind bars when lawyers with the Exoneration Project convinced special prosecutors and a judge to order a new trial. Since there was no evidence against Caine besides the tortured confession, he was finally freed in 2011 -- on the same day that Burge went to prison for perjury and obstruction of justice in the police torture scandal.

After his release, Caine failed at first to convince a Cook County judge to issue a certificate of innocence, a prerequisite for getting state compensation for his 25 lost years. He ultimately prevailed, receiving the amount allowed under Illinois law -- $199,150, roughly $8,000 for each year of unjust imprisonment.

Yesterday, another judge expunged the murder conviction from his record. At age 47, Caine was ready to take the next step to reclaiming his life by exercising his right to vote.

A few minutes after 2 p.m., Caine headed to his polling place at Dominican College in west suburban River Forest. Thanks to Tina's advance work, the election judges were expecting him. A young blonde-haired woman greeted Caine, asking him to sign the voter registry. Tears welled as he scrawled his name on a document that had long been denied his African-American ancestors.

Now he was faced with a choice: paper or electronic ballot. "Paper please," he said. Keep it simple and stick with what he knew, Caine figured. Besides, he was more confident that the paper ballot would be counted. Who knows what will happen to votes cast on a computer touch screen? "I didn't want a Bush-Gore thing going on," he later said.

Inside the voting booth, the choice was equally clear. Caine's eyes scanned the ballot until he saw the name of the candidate he had long dreamed about voting for: Barack Obama. Caine's mind flashed to his years in prison, where he had participated in debates with other inmates about presidential elections. "The one thing we all agreed on was that this country would never elect a black president," he recalled. "But here we are."

He took a moment to study Obama's name, as if to be sure it was real. "Oh, man," he whispered. "This is history. Re-electing a black president. I'm personally involved in making history," he said repeatedly to himself. He carefully took the black marker he had been given by the election judge and slowly connected the broken arrow that led to Obama's name. He checked and double-checked to be sure he had done it right.

Then he quickly voted for other candidates and, his hand shaking, handed the ballot to an African-American election judge. "Excuse me. I'm kind of nervous," Caine told her, explaining some of the painful events that had led to this day. "But I didn't miss out on it," he added with a measure of disbelief. "Congratulations," she replied with a broad smile.

Caine firmly pressed the "I voted!" sticker above the pocket of his navy blue shirt and left the polling place, oblivious to the blustery wind and rain on this early November day.

"I feel brand new," he said. "I feel free."

On the way home, he stopped at a gas station to buy a lottery ticket. "This is my lucky day," he explained. Asked if he could choose between winning the lottery and an Obama victory, he said: "That's easy. Obama. This election is about my people, not just me."

At 10:15 p.m., the music on Eric Caine's phone rang out again. Ohio had just given Obama the election, and Caine's tears of joy flowed freely. More than half a lifetime ago, he had helped to re-elect Harold Washington, and now he had done the same for Barack Obama.

The "I voted!" sticker was still pressed tightly to his broad chest. No one would ever take that from him.

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