"Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted"

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City Announces Settlement On Wrongful Conviction Case

November 2, 2012

by: Shomial Ahmad

Mayor Annise Parker announced today a $3 million dollar settlement with the city and George Rodriguez. He's the man that was wrongfully convicted in 1987 based on testimony from the city's crime lab.

George Rodriguez spent more than 17 years behind bars for a rape and kidnapping that he didn't commit. For the first time city officials  offered Rodriguez a formal apology for his wrongful conviction. Mayor Annise Parker turned to Rodriguez to say that the city's sorry.

"I want to formally apologize to you for all that you had to endure, as an inmate, as a prisoner in the system."

It was an emotional press conference. Rodriguez stood behind the podium with members of his family—some who's heads were bowed, others with tears in their eyes. After some reluctance Rodriguez spoke and accepted the apology, with long pauses between his words.

"Just like the mayor said, I just want to get on with my life — and go on and live it, and try to do what I can for my family and everything.  But it's kind of hard, because, really, I've been through a whole lot, you know. Seventeen years, my family, but I'll get over it."

Rodriguez was freed in 2004. For six years, the city and Rodriguez have been involved in litigation. Parker apologized for the unjust conviction, but not for the time that it took to reach a settlement. 

Alex Kaplan is one of the  lawyers that's been representing Rodriguez.  Kaplan said both parties believed the settlement was the right thing to do.

"As we said the debt that George paid to society can't be repaid. He paid someone else's debt to society, but it's some small measure of compensation for him, and for that we're obviously happy."

In addition to the money Rodriguez will receive from the city,  he is eligible for compensation from the state, for the time that he served in prison  He became eligible for that money last year when exonerated, when Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos declared him "actually innocent."

Serial killer's lone survivor torn by conscience

 

Rose Steward woke up, certain someone else was in her bedroom. She saw a man, a red bandanna over his face and a knife in his hand, illuminated by a street light. She began to shake violently.

For the next five hours, the man raped and choked her, twice to the point she lost consciousness. She was certain she would die. She grieved she was too young, only 22, and that her murder would destroy her mother.

She struggled against panic and fought with her wits, pretending to like her attacker, cajoling him and sympathizing with him. When he finally left at dawn, she kissed him goodbye — then ran for help.

After leaving Steward, Dean Carter went on a killing rampage, strangling, raping and stacking bodies in closets. Police say he murdered five women, from San Diego to Oakland, within 18 days. Steward's testimony helped prosecutors win two death sentences against Carter.

VOTER GUIDE: 2012 California Propositions

Twenty-eight years after the murders, Carter remains on death row, writing a blog and pressing his appeals. That he continues to live frustrates and angers families of some of his victims. They want to watch him die.

Steward, 50, sees it differently. She has endorsed the November ballot measure — Proposition 34 — to replace the death penalty with life without parole. She said she is tired of dreading the call that will inform her of the day he's to receive his lethal injection, and she's weary of seeing people who worked for his execution die before him.

She has long opposed the death penalty but kept her views to herself during Carter's murder trials. The wait for Carter's execution — and with no immediate end in sight for the appeal process — has merely reinforced her sentiments. Shesaid she wants to move on.

But the wishes of Carter's other victims tug at her. During one of the murder trials, George Cullins, father of one of the murder victims, asked Steward for a favor. Cullins was approaching 70 and knew that Carter's appeals would drag on for decades.

Would she take his place at Carter's execution if he could not be there?

Steward was stunned and did not know how to respond.

"I will try," she said.

After her assault, which took place in Ventura on March 29, 1984, Steward started sleeping on her living room floor. She kept a loaded gun under her pillow — even after Carter was arrested during a traffic stop a month later with his victims' belongings in his  car.

Prosecutors decided to try him first for her rape and then call her to testify against him in the murder trials, scheduled for Los Angeles and San Diego.

During their first courtroom encounter months later in Ventura, Steward said she managed to stare down Carter and felt stronger as a result. But she couldn't put the attack behind her because she would have to testify about it at the murder trials.

She met Carter when he was staying at a neighbor's house. He was tall, handsome, quiet and "a little odd." Carter, then 28, tried to befriend her, but she went out of her way to avoid him.

Late one night, two weeks after meeting him, she found him in her bedroom. He sexually assaulted her throughout the night, his hand clutching her throat. When she showed fear, he became more violent. So she feigned casualness, telling him she had been attracted to him but had feared rejection.

When the sun came up, she told him she needed to go to work or her boss would come looking for her. Her voice was hoarse and gravelly from the choking. After walking him to the front door, she made him promise to call her.

Once alone, she ran to a neighbor, who summoned police. By the time they arrived, Carter had vanished.

Heading to a Santa Monica courtroom for Carter's first murder trial in 1989, Steward worried about how the victims' families would regard her.

She had come to view the slain women — Jillette Leonora Mills, 25, Susan Lynn Knoll, 25, Bonnie Ann Guthrie, 34, Janette Anne Cullins, 24, and Tok Chum Kim, 42 — as "sisters" and saw herself as their voice.

Would their families resent her for living while their loved ones died? Could she have prevented their murders by doing something differently? Did he kill because he realized she had tricked him and decided to leave no more witnesses?

The loved ones of the other victims did not blame her. They were kind and warm. She especially "bonded" with George and Helen Cullins, the parents of Janette. The Cullinses attended the Santa Monica trial while awaiting their daughter's case in San Diego.

Steward remembered the couple telling her during the trial that she looked like their daughter. "Look honey," Helen said to George one day at court, touching Steward's hand. "Her hair is even the same color."

Once on the stand, Steward captivated the courtroom. The prosecutor considered her the state's best witness against Carter. Jennifer Bollman, a sister of victim Jillette Mills, recalled that Steward was gutsy on the stand, describing her assault in detail even as defense lawyers tried to make "it look like it was her fault."

During the penalty phase, Bollman and other family members of the victims testified they wanted Carter executed. Helen Cullins told a reporter that she wanted to see him strangled, as her daughter was strangled.

When the jury recommended the death penalty, Steward said, the other victims' vehemence muted her reaction. Though she opposed the death penalty, she was happy for the families of the dead women. She did not feel it was her place to express an opinion.

At Carter's second murder trial in San Diego, George Cullins approached her with his request.

Struggling to put the crimes behind her, Steward moved to Colorado. She noticed that people seemed to recoil when they learned of her night with a serial killer.

"I was associated with such horror, and it was on me in a way," she said. "I felt people draw away."

She watched from afar as George Cullins became a victims' rights activist, publicly deploring the sluggish pace of the justice system. Determined that Carter's execution remain a priority, he regularly faxed a photograph of his daughter to a deputy attorney general.

Steward shared his outrage when she discovered that Carter was writing a blog — "Deadman Talking" — with the help of someone on the outside. In his writings, Carter professed his innocence, though he never mentioned the crimes, focusing more on life on death row and offering opinions on current events. Steward called the man who was posting Carter's musings and complained.

For a while, she and the Cullinses exchanged notes. She said she grieved when she read last year that George had died after a car accident. He was 88.

"George never got to see the end of this," said Steward, who is now a parent and owner of a painting business.

When she read during the summer that Californians would be voting on a proposition to replace the death penalty, she wrote a note of support to the campaign, which enlisted her to join other crime victims at two news conferences.

Steward has no sympathy for Carter — she regards him as "a shell," a man without a soul — and wants him placed in the general prison population "so he can feel fear." In her mind, death row has given him celebrity status, a podium, and she wants that taken away.

Still, she is worried that expressing her views might offend the families of Carter's other victims, and it has.

Bollman, 55, describes Steward's position as a betrayal. Bollman is furious that Carter, now 56, has been in prison longer than her sister, Jillette, lived. She wants to attend Carter's execution, look him in the eye and say, "Now you are getting yours."

Steward respects those feelings, but for her, a commutation to life without possibility of parole would close the chapter. She knows she will never be able to honor Cullins' request to attend Carter's execution.

"That would bring it all back," she said.

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Woman fighting for exoneration released on parole

November 2, 2012

By Michelle Mondo

GATESVILLE — Anna Vasquez, one of four San Antonio women fighting to clear their names in a bizarre and brutal sexual assault of two girls in the mid-1990s, was released today on  parole

Her mother, brother and sister-in-law were at the Crain Unit in Gatesville to pick her up as soon as she was free after 12 years in prison.

Also there to greet her — and have a quick consultation — was her attorney, Mike Ware. Ware, of Fort Worth, is working with the Innocence Project of Texas to help Vasquez and her friends in their exoneration efforts.

Vasquez, 37, and her girlfriend, Cassandra Rivera, 37, along with their friends Kristie Mayhugh, 39, and Elizabeth Ramirez, 38, were accused in the fall of 1994 of sexually assaulting Ramirez's two nieces, who were then 7 and 9.

Ramirez was tried separately, convicted and sentenced to 37 1/2 years, more than double that of her three friends who were tried together.

Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh were each sentenced to 15 years and started their time in 2000 after they lost their one and only appeal.

Rivera and Mayhugh have been up for parole previously but were denied. They refused to  participate in the required pre-release program for sex offenders that includes group therapy sessions that entail describing the crime committed.

Vasquez also declined to participate but her attorney speculates polygraph test results he submitted to the board's general counsel that showed she was not lying when she said she didn't commit any crime could have swayed the board.

The ruling also came after the youngest accuser, now 25, recanted the accusations publicly in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News and to Deborah Esquenazi, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the case.

In the days leading up to her daughter's release, Maria Vasquez said she and her family had been preparing Anna's room, buying a new bedroom suite, mattress, TV and blankets.

They also planned to get whatever groceries they needed for Saturday morning.

“I'm going to cook her a big breakfast just like she asked for,” Maria Vasquez said in a previous story. “She hasn't had a good breakfast in 13 years.”

 

 

Mo. judge throws out 1983 murder conviction

The Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — 

A Missouri judge has thrown out the 1983 rape and murder convictions of a St. Louis-area man who case was taken up by nonprofit group that specializes in using DNA evidence to overturn wrongful convictions.

Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green on Friday ordered 56-year-old George Allen Jr. released from prison within 10 days unless the St. Louis circuit attorney decides to retry him. That office was closed Friday night, but Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce worked with the Innocence Project on the DNA testing.

The judge's written findings of fact in the case were not available Friday night.

Allen, a diagnosed schizophrenic who is 29 years into a 95-year sentence, was accused of raping and killing 31-year-old Mary Bell after breaking into her St. Louis home. The crime occurred about 10 miles from Allen's University City home during a historic snowstorm on Feb. 4, 1982.

Lawyers with The Innocence Project took up Allen's case in 2010, arguing that police coached Allen into confessing. They said Allen was cleared by the results of  by DNA tests not available in the early 1980s and other forensic evidence not shared with Allen's trial lawyers.

Allen was arrested about a month after Bell's murder, when officers mistook him for a convicted sex offender who police had suspected and took him in for questioning. Police said he confessed, and lab tests done then could not exclude Allen as the source of semen found on Bell's robe.

But police and lab documents that weren't disclosed at trial showed that police found semen samples from two different men on the robe, and more sophisticated DNA tests  completed last year ruled out Allen as the source of either, according to Olga Akselrod, an attorney for the New York-based Innocence Project.

"What we've documented is powerful proof that George Allen did not commit this crime," Akselrod told The Associated Press in an interview last year.

Along with filing a petition for habeus corpus on Allen's behalf, attorneys asked Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster to review the new information. But Koster said in a filing earlier this year that the new evidence was not enough to prove Allen's innocence.

Allen's supporters had argued it would have been impossible for him to walk 10 miles in a blinding snowstorm to a stranger's home, then rape and kill her. Allen's mother, Lonzetta Taylor, said last year he was home with her when Bell was killed.

Allen said in the recorded confession that he was under the influence of alcohol. Akselrod said the interrogating officer often prompted Allen to give answers to fit the crime, even asking Allen at times to change his answers.

The Innocence Project also said it unearthed documents showing police had evidence that the attacker had a blood type inconsistent with Allen's but failed to tell prosecutors or defense attorneys.

Allen's original trial ended in a hung jury. He was convicted in a second trial in 1983. While in prison, he was blinded in one eye by another inmate, said Tom Block, an activist and prison lay minister who first contacted the Innocence Project about Allen.

Texas Monthly Released but Never Exonerated, a Man Fights for Freedom

A couple of Fridays ago, Kerry Max Cook, who was released from Texas’ death row in 1997 after two decades, went to pick up his 11-year-old son, Kerry Justice, from his North Dallas school. Class was just letting out. As Mr. Cook approached a group of children and their parents, a little girl squirmed out of her mother’s arms and ran toward him. “Mr. Kerry!” she called. He laughed as she jumped into his arms. “Haleigh!” he shouted, and began tickling her. “She adores Mr. Kerry,” her mother said.

 
The same jolly scene follwed Mr. Cook as he walks around the small campus — children calling out to him, laughing, jumping into his arms. Vicki Johnston, the school’s director, looked on, smiling. “Kerry’s such a big part of the school,” she said. “He’s like a pied piper to the kids.” Asked about his past, Ms. Johnston simply said: “We know him. We know what kind of man he is.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Cook, 15 years after his release, the State of Texas still does not share Ms. Johnston’s view. Though he is widely recognized as one of the country’s most famous exonerated prisoners, Mr. Cook is not legally exonerated. In fact, in the eyes of the state, he is still a killer — convicted of the 1977 rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards.

Mr. Cook’s situation is complex. His death sentence was twice overturned by higher courts, and DNA taken from the victim’s underwear did not match his own, and the evidence used to convict him has been shown to be entirely fallacious — but because Mr. Cook pleaded no-contest to the murder on the eve of what would have been his fourth trial, he cannot be declared actually not guilty.

Nevertheless, Mr. Cook has become a high-profile spokesman for the wrongfully imprisoned. He has published a book about his experience and has been one of the subjects of a popular Off Broadway play, “The Exonerated,” which was later made into a film. He has given speeches all over the United States and Europe. His Facebook page contains pictures of Mr. Cook with actors like Robin Williams, Richard Dreyfuss and Ben Stiller, who have been drawn to his story.

Yet Mr. Cook lives in the shadows with his wife and their son, knowing that whenever he applies for a job or gets on an international flight, he will be identified as a convicted murderer. Now he hopes to change that, with two motions filed recently in Smith County, where the case was originally heard, that could finally clear his name.

Mr. Cook has always claimed to be innocent of the murder of Ms. Edwards, a woman who lived in the same Tyler apartment complex. The case against him was largely circumstantial, including the words of a jailhouse informant who said that Mr. Cook had confessed to him and the recollections of a man who said that on the night of the murder, he and Mr. Cook had had sex and watched a movie that involved a cat torture scene.

The prosecution’s theory was that Mr. Cook, aroused by the torture scene in the movie, had left his apartment to rape and kill Ms. Edwards.

In the years after, every piece of evidence used to convict Mr. Cook was revealed to be bogus. The informant admitted he had lied as part of a deal with prosecutors, and the witness who claimed to have had sex with Mr. Cook told a grand jury that there was no sex and that Mr. Cook had not paid any attention to the movie. The prosecution had also suppressed evidence showing that Mr. Cook and Ms. Edwards had known each other casually, which explained a fingerprint found at the scene.

Mr. Cook’s verdict was overturned on a technicality in 1988. When District Attorney Jack Skeen of Smith County tried him again in 1992, the case ended in a mistrial. Another trial in 1994 resulted in a guilty verdict and a new death sentence, but two years later the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, reversed that conviction, noting that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.”

Mr. Cook was released on bail in 1997, but the state prepared to try him for a fourth time. He was presented with an option: plead guilty in exchange for 20 years, which he had already served, and the charges would be dropped. He refused. As the trial date approached, in early 1999, Ms. Edwards’s underwear was sent to a lab for modern DNA testing. Mr. Cook, certain he would be exonerated, gave a blood sample.

On the morning of jury selection, the district attorney made another offer: if Mr. Cook pleaded no-contest with no admission of guilt, the case would be dismissed and he could go on with his life. Mr. Cook considered the deal. He had suffered terribly during his 19 years in prison — he had been stabbed, raped repeatedly and had tried to kill himself, once slitting his own throat after severing his penis, which was reattached.

He took the plea deal. Two months later, the DNA results returned. The semen belonged to James Mayfield, a married man with whom Ms. Edwards had been having an affair.

By then Mr. Cook was trying to move on with his life, but it was harder than he had imagined. The physical and emotional abuse he endured in prison causes nightmares and suicidal urges. And the murder conviction made him a second-class citizen.

“I couldn’t get a job, couldn’t sign a lease,” he said. “We’ve had to move five times because people would find out about me. One woman threatened to put up posters in the neighborhood saying ‘Convicted murderer lives here.’ ”

In 2009 Mr. Cook met Marc McPeak, a civil lawyer — with Greenberg Traurig in Dallas — who had read his book. Mr. McPeak’s firm began devising a legal strategy, pro bono, to navigate the difficult road of getting Mr. Cook an official exoneration. The first step was to get DNA testing on other items from the crime scene, including a hair found on Ms. Edwards’s body.

On Feb. 28, Mr. McPeak filed two motions in Smith County, one for the DNA testing and the other to recuse the judge who would decide whether to allow the testing — Mr. Skeen, the former district attorney. “We want it heard outside of Smith County,” Mr. McPeak said. “Not once in 35 years have officials there shown either the desire or the ability to treat Kerry fairly.”

They hope that further DNA evidence excluding Mr. Cook will help them to file a writ of habeas corpus to have him declared actually innocent.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cook waits. He dresses only in black (he swears he will not wear any other color until he is exonerated), and with his dark eyes and white hair, he cuts a striking figure. What he wants more than anything else are life’s simplest things.

“All I want is to be able to put my name on a lease,” he said. “I want to be able to walk my dog and have my neighbors over for cookouts. I want to live a normal life.”

Michael Hall is a senior editor at Texas Monthly.

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