News from around the Network
Thomas Sierra has become used to waiting.
The 41-year-old Chicago native spent more than half his life in prison, convicted of a murder he has claimed from the beginning he didn’t commit. His attorneys say he was framed by a retired Chicago Police detective who has since kept quiet about his alleged misconduct in multiple cases.
On Tuesday, a couple months after his release, Sierra found himself inside the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse, waiting the better part of two hours for a hearing that was scheduled for 10 a.m.
It was getting close to noon.
Sporting a close-cropped hairstyle and black shoes, dark grey pants and a grey shirt, Sierra spent most of that time seated in the front row of the gallery. He was hunched over, either with his hands clenched as if in prayer or rubbing his restless legs, chatting with his brother and waiting for his name to be called inside a sixth-floor courtroom. Read more.
A man who claims he was wrongly convicted of an alleged racially-motivated murder in 1987 was released from prison Tuesday after spending 30 years behind bars.
Nearly 20 family and friends waited to embrace Dean McKee, now 46, as he walked out of the Orient Road Jail after posting bond.
“It’s been a long road and I’m so overwhelmed and some wonderful people kept me strong and kept me focused,” said McKee, who made a brief statement before heading home. “When you open your heart some amazing things happen. I’m grateful and I’m blessed.”
McKee was 16 years old when he and his then-18-year-old brother Scott were arrested and accused of attacking Isaiah Walker, a homeless black man who was found stabbed to death outside the Tampa Museum of Art. Read more.
A Great Falls judge exonerated a man who has spent 15 years behind bars for a murder he said he didn’t commit.
The murder charge against Richard Burkhart, represented by the Montana Innocence Project, was dismissed last week. Burkhart was accused of killing Wiliam D. Ledeau, who was reportedly bludgeoned with a hammer on Nov. 13, 2001, on 12th Street North, between Central and First Avenue North.
The order dismissing the case allows prosecutors to refile the charge against Burkhart in the future if new evidence supports it.
A 12-person jury had found Burkhart, now 38, guilty at trial in 2002. In light of new evidence uncovered in 2015, Judge John Kutzman overturned Burkhart’s original conviction and ordered he receive a second trial.
Attorneys with the Montana Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerating the wrongfully convicted, filed a motion in December to dismiss the case for violation of Burkhart’s right to a speedy trial. On Dec. 28, district prosecutors filed their own motion to dismiss the case, citing a lack of evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Read more.
As Cory L. Epps was led away 19 years ago after being sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for a murder he swore he did not commit, he told his family: “The Lord’s going to take care of it. Don’t worry about it, you all.”
Epps’ assurances came through Friday morning in an Erie County courtroom packed with his family and friends.
Now 46, Epps, a married father of three now with four grandchildren, was ordered freed in a courtroom packed with relatives, exonerated in the road rage shooting death of Tameka Means of Cheektowaga early on the morning of May 26, 1997.
“The judgment of conviction of Mr. Cory Epps is hereby vacated … in the interest of justice,” said Erie County Court Judge James Barnesi.
Applause broke out and one man yelled: “Thank you, judge.” Read more.
Joseph Lavigne, a client of the West Virginia Innocence Project at the WVU College of Law, has been granted parole. He was released from Huttonsville Correctional Center on Nov. 15, after serving 20 years in prison.
In 1997, Lavigne was convicted of one count each of sexual abuse in the first degree, child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, and incest. The victim was his 5-year-old daughter. For 20 years, she and her mother have maintained Lavigne’s innocence.
No physical DNA evidence was submitted at Lavigne’s trial but witnesses testified that his daughter said she was assaulted by her father. Lavigne argued that his daughter said she was assaulted by a man who looked like her father. Read more.
Wilbert Jones walked through the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison gate around noon Wednesday and into the arms of his brother, sister-in-law and niece — free for the first time in almost 46 years after his 1974 rape conviction was overturned.
“I just want to be free,” the 64-year-old said, with a smile on his face and family embracing him. “I thank God for my family, I thank God for my legal team and I thank God for God.”
His brother Plem Jones gave him a long hug, later wiping tears from his eyes.
“I never gave up on him, I knew that he didn’t do it,” Plem Jones said Wednesday. “It was nothing but a matter of time, I knew he was going to be free one day.”
In the almost 46 years his brother was incarcerated, Plem Jones said he can remember missing only two opportunities to visit him. Jones traveled from his Baton Rouge home two weekends a month to Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, and additionally on a month’s rare fifth weekend, to talk, to cry with his brother, he said. In his earlier years, he brought his daughter with him, and more recently, he brought his grandchildren. Read more.
Darrell Jones, who has been in prison for 32 years for a murder he has always denied committing, was released on bail Thursday evening.
Two days after another judge ruled Jones would receive a new trial, Plymouth County Superior Court Associate Judge Robert Cosgrove freed the Boston man on $5,000 bail.
In a 39-page ruling Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Thomas McGuire said Jones did not get a fair trial when he was convicted in 1986 of killing a Brockton drug dealer.
McGuire cited new evidence that the lead detective gave false testimony and purposefully altered video of an alleged eyewitness that McGuire said “could have affected the jury’s judgment.”
“I stayed in prison a long time, not just the fact it’s something I didn’t do, but it was hard to get people to hear you,” Jones said at the courthouse Thursday. “So, I’m trying to get everybody here to understand one point: There’s somebody else back at that jail that nobody’s listening to, that’s probably innocent, and trying to fight like I’ve been trying to fight.” Read more.
More than a decade after Jodi Parrack was murdered in her hometown, Ray McCann II has finally cleared his name. St. Joseph County Circuit Judge Paul Stutesman on Thursday set aside his conviction of perjury. McCann already had served 20 months behind bars after pleading no contest to that charge. The Michigan Innocence Clinic said that St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough agreed that the charges should be dropped.
“It is ironic that after serving time in the county jail and being threatened with a potential life sentence, Ray McCann pleaded no contest to a charge of perjury when, in fact, he had told the truth and the charge itself was based on police fabrications,” said Michigan Innocence Clinic Director David Moran. “I am grateful that Mr. McDonough chose to do the right thing and exonerate him.” Read more.
Charges were dropped today against a Rockford man who was freed from prison after more than two decades behind bars for a killing he didn’t commit. Outside of a Winnebago County courtroom, John W. Horton Jr., 41, hugged family members and a cadre of supporters who spent years trying to clear his name.
“I’m blessed. I’m truly blessed. I’m grateful,” said Horton, the father of two daughters. He said he feels “a lot of hurt starting to go away.” Horton was convicted of the Sept. 19, 1993, murder and armed robbery of Arthur Castaneda in Rockford. Horton was 17 years old at the time Castaneda was fatally shot during a robbery at a McDonald’s restaurant, located at that time at 2715 Charles St. He was sentenced in 1995 to natural life in prison without parole. Read more.
After 13 years in prison for first-degree murder, a Baltimore man walked free Tuesday afternoon as the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office joined his defense team in asking for his exoneration. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby formally apologized at a news conference to Lamar Johnson and his family for what her office now believes was his wrongful conviction.
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which investigates suspected wrongful convictions, began looking into Johnson’s case in 2010. Last year, the project presenting its findings to the state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit — the first of its kind in Maryland — which, after its own investigation, agreed that Johnson was innocent. Read more.
Selwyn Days was acquitted Tuesday in the 1996 slayings of an Eastchester millionaire and his home health aide, ending his fifth trial and setting him free after 16 years of incarceration. The verdict, on the second day of deliberations in White Plains, vindicated Days’ claim that he gave a false confession when Eastchester detectives interrogated him in 2001, more than four years after the bodies of Archie Harris and Betty Ramcharan were found in Harris’ 4 Berkley Circle home.
Days and his lawyers held hands as the jury forewoman said “not guilty” to both charges of second-degree murder. Moments later he was able to hug his brother, Stelwyn, who had sat through all five trials. Read more.
A Lowell man who spent three decades in prison has been formally exonerated. Victor Rosario was convicted of setting a 1982 fire in Lowell that killed eight people, including five children. The conviction was based mainly on inspectors determining the fire was intentionally set and a written confession that Rosario says he signed because he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol and did not understand English.
Rosario was released from prison three years ago after the state Supreme Judicial Court upheld a ruling ordering a new trial. The lower court judge said there were questions about his confession and about the fire investigation techniques used decades ago. Read more.
A team with the Northern California Innocence Project based at Santa Clara University ended 12 years of dogged legal wrangling last week when their client was cleared of molestation charges that put him in prison and made him register as a sex offender.
Ed Easley, a 62-year-old electrician, was accused and convicted of molesting a 7-year-old in Shasta County 24 years ago. Since then, it came to light that he had been scapegoated because the young victim was protecting a juvenile male cousin at the behest of family members. Read more.
Around the time he confessed to killing 12-year-old Christina Brown in an abandoned apartment, Detroit police came under scrutiny for some of their tactics. Whether LaMarr Monson’s confession to the Jan. 20, 1996, murder would stand up today is a key reason Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy decided to dismiss first- and second-degree murder charges when Monson won a new trial.
In addition to the confession problem, a new witness has testified there was a different killer, newly discovered fingerprints corroborate the witness’s claim, and Detroit police have lost key evidence. Read more.
A mother and child who testified in a murder trial more than 20 years ago that led to a man’s life sentence may have received $1,000 in reward money, some trips to a theme park and basketball games for the son, according to court filings in the case.
A three-judge panel is set to open a hearing Monday for Robert Bragg as part of North Carolina’s unique innocence process. The 64-year-old inmate is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole in connection with the fatal beating of an elderly man in December 1994. Bragg has maintained innocence throughout his 21 years behind bars, even rejecting a plea deal that carried a 15-year sentence. Read more.
The B.C. Court of Appeal set the stage Friday for Phillip James Tallio, who has spent the last 34 years in prison for killing a child, to appeal his 1983 murder conviction. If Tallio’s appeal were to be successful, it would make Canadian legal history as the longest prison sentence served by someone found to be wrongly convicted.
Friday’s decision, which legal observers are already calling “historic,” allows the appeal to proceed. The ruling hinged on the issue of DNA evidence, with the judge saying new testing had the potential to either exonerate Tallio or conclusively re-affirm he was guilty. “The risk Mr. Tallio takes, if this testing is performed, is that it will not exculpate him, but conclusively include him,” B.C. Court of Appeal judge Elizabeth Bennett said in her ruling. “This is a risk he is willing to take.” Read more.
A man who has been in prison since 1981 for a murder that investigators now say he didn’t commit is free — for now. According to Innocence Project New Orleans, John Floyd, now 67 years old, has been released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola under supervision and will work on a farm in the Lafayette area while his case is on appeal.
Floyd was convicted of one of two murders that happened Thanksgiving week of 1980. Both victims were gay men who had sex with their killer before being stabbed to death, one at the Fairmont Hotel and one on Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter. Despite the similarities in both murders, Floyd was only convicted of one. Read more.
A judge this week dismissed a decades-old murder case and ordered the release of DeMarlo Berry, a Las Vegas man whose lengthy quest to prove his innocence culminated after prosecutors reviewed new evidence and identified a different suspect in the 1994 slaying of a Carl’s Jr. restaurant manager.
“We’re thrilled for DeMarlo and his family,” said Utah-based attorney Craig Coburn, one of the lawyers who fought for Berry’s release. “He’s a very good man.”
Berry, 42, is scheduled to be released from prison Friday after spending most of his adult life behind bars. He served 22 years of a life sentence for the murder and armed robbery that occurred nearly a quarter-century ago at the fast-food-chain restaurant’s downtown location. Read more.
A 61-year-old man who has been in prison since 1976 was freed Thursday after a Wayne County Circuit judge agreed to vacate his sentence because his first-degree murder conviction was based on a discredited scientific method. Thursday’s release of LeDura Watkins makes him the longest-serving inmate in the United States to have his sentence vacated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The previous record for the most time served in prison before being having a sentence vacated was Ricky Jackson, who was incarcerated 39 years, three months and nine days in Ohio for a murder conviction before being released in 2015. Read more.
A judge has ordered a new trial for a Wisconsin Rapids man serving a virtual life sentence for a 1987 sexual assault he has always denied. Richard Beranek, 58, raised new issues with the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and gained extra attention because one of his lawyers, Jarrett Adams, went to law school after he himself was freed from a wrongful conviction with help from the same program. Adams now works for the Innocence Project in New York.
Reserve Judge Daniel Moeser presided at Beranek’s original trial, and heard defense arguments earlier this year about why an FBI agent likely overstated the scientific probability that hair recovered from the scene matched Beranek’s. Furthermore, new DNA testing has shown that the hair “match” is conclusively not Beranek’s. Read more.
A Kansas City man who spent nearly 17 years in prison for purse snatching was released Wednesday after a judge overturned his conviction. The 10th Judicial District Court in Johnson County vacated Richard Jones’ 1999 aggravated robbery conviction. He had been sentenced to more than 19 years in prison. But according to officials with the Midwest Innocence Project, Jones was convicted based solely on eyewitness identification, despite presenting a verified alibi. The Innocence Project and the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence at the University of Kansas worked for Jones’ release. Alice Craig, Jones’ attorney and professor at KU’s Project for Innocence, said the case highlights the flaws in eyewitness identification. Read more.
US prosecutors have dropped all charges against a man who spent 25 years in prison for murder, amid allegations police had falsified evidence. Desmond Ricks’ lawyers say homicide detectives switched bullets in his mother’s gun to pin a shooting on him. He was convicted of gunning down a friend outside a restaurant in Detroit, Michigan, in March 1992, and sentenced to at least 32 years in prison. Mr Ricks, 51, was released from prison last Friday.
On Thursday, Wayne County prosecutor’s office said Mr Ricks would not face a second trial. “I hope you enjoy your newfound freedom,” Judge Richard Skutt told the exonerated man, who heaved a sigh of relief. Mr Ricks’ case was championed by lawyers and students from the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan’s law school. Read more.
While he’s still not a free man, William Amor was as close to it Tuesday as he has been in more than two decades. Amor, 62, walked out of the DuPage County Jail late Tuesday after posting bond on a decades-old murder charge. It marked the first time since 1995 that Amor was not incarcerated in either the county jail or an Illinois prison.
“It’s overwhelming,” he told a small group of reporters. “I’m taking it hour by hour.” Amor is scheduled to be retried in September on charges that he set a fire that killed his mother-in-law, Marianne Miceli, 40, in 1995 in her Naperville condominium. Amor’s 1997 conviction was vacated this spring by Judge Liam Brennan, who ruled it was scientifically impossible for the fire to have started in the manner in which Amor confessed. Read more.
A 46-year-old Chicago man was released from prison on Tuesday after being acquitted of a murder charge from 1991. After spending 26 years behind bars, Patrick Prince was embraced by friends and family, including his daughter, outside of the Cook County prison. Prince was 19 years old when he was charged. “It’s going to take some getting used to again. But at the moment, I’m holding. I’m sleep-deprived. Just trying to get back re-acclimated to society,” Prince told Chicago TV station Fox32.
According to a court order, a man named Edward Porter was shot and killed on a sidewalk on August 28, 1991. Police received an anonymous tip just a few weeks later which pointed the finger at Prince. Read more.
“His family believes his claim of innocence. We believe that he has a meritorious claim of innocence. We’re hoping that the DNA test shows that as well,” said Eric Haught with the West Virginia Innocence Project. Haught is talking about a DNA test that could come any day for Charles “Manny” Kilmer and lead to his re-sentencing or release.
Kilmer has been serving a life sentence without mercy for first-degree murder at the Mount Oliver Correctional Complex since the early 1990s. Kilmer is a veteran, and his health is failing, making the results of the test all the more critical. “He’s extremely elderly,” Haught explained. “He suffers from a variety of medical conditions. He suffers from a neurological disease that was brought on by his exposure to Agent Orange while he was fighting in Vietnam. We’re really hoping that these test results do not point to him.” Read more.
About 24 years after he was arrested for a murder he always insisted he didn’t commit, 43-year-old Shaurn Thomas walked out of a state prison as a free man shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday. A beaming Thomas — jailed since he was 19 — stopped at the front entrance of the Schuylkill County correctional facility with his lawyers; his fiancee, Stephonia Long; and family members for an impromptu news conference that felt a lot more like a victory party.
Just eight hours earlier in a Center City courtroom, his conviction for taking part in the 1990 murder of a Puerto Rican businessman in North Philadelphia had been thrown out after the District Attorney’s Office agreed with his lawyers that the evidence against him did not support his conviction. Read more.
Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent Client Andrew Wilson Reunites With His Mother After 32 Years
After 32 years of separation, a Florissant mother is reunited with her son, just in time for Mother’s Day. Andrew Wilson was released from a Los Angeles jail in March. LA County prosecutors rules that his original trial on charges of robbery and murder, was not a fair one. Now, he says his mom has waited long enough. And that he’s here in St. Louis to stay.
“Oh you can only imagine,” said Margie Davis, Wilson’s mother, when asked how it feels to be reunited with her son. Mother and son sat arm in arm after 3 long decades apart. “It’s great to be home and she’s plenty of fun, she keeps me going,” said Andrew Wilson. Wilson arrived home on Wednesday and says he’s committed to making up for lost time. Read more.
While wrongful conviction cases seem dramatic in Hollywood movies, the day-to-day reality is far from glamorous. It is more about inventorying “boxes upon boxes” of police documents, mounting court challenges to see a psychiatrist’s letter, and shuffling through musty file folders, said Tamara Levy, who has spent most of the last decade focused on this work. “It can be really tedious.”
The case of Phillip James Tallio, reported this week by Postmedia, has brought attention to the UBC Innocence Project at the Allard School of Law, which Levy co-founded in 2007. Tallio has been in jail since 1983 for the murder of a child. But since the beginning of his sentence, he has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, according to the lawyers trying to appeal his conviction. Next month, Tallio’s case will go before a judge on the preliminary question of whether the court should consider the case. Read more.
After spending nearly 42 years in prison, 15,236 days, Juneal Pratt was granted parole. He assured members of the Nebraska Parole Board it was his intent to never give the state a reason to put him back in custody. In 1975 Pratt was convicted of rape and an unrelated purse snatching in Omaha. While in jail, he earned additional time for two escape attempts.
At an April 27 meeting, the Parole Board voted 3-1 to grant Pratt parole. From the day he was arrested, and in multiple unsuccessful court appeals, Pratt claimed he had been wrongly accused of the sexual assault. He had been eligible for parole since 2001, but his requests were denied, in part, because Pratt was unwilling to admit to the original crime. In recent years, the Nebraska Innocence Project spearheaded new efforts to clear Pratt’s name. Read more.
Partially buried within a package of bills signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback last week was a compromise between innocence groups and a law enforcement lobbyist that will require that police interrogations be recorded in the most serious of cases. Last year, passage of a bill requiring recorded interrogations for murder and felony sex cases looked impossible. This year, it looked inevitable, passing the Senate unanimously and passing the House by a vote of 115 to 9.
The difference between passage and defeat was Ed Klumpp, who represents several law enforcement groups. He and prosecutors opposed the idea last year as a costly legislative mandate on small Kansas law enforcement agencies. Read more.