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Articles about Wrongful Convictions

Pennsylvania: Former Cop Indefinitely Jailed for Failure to Supply Passwords

In March 2015, former Philadelphia police sergeant Francis Rawls, 37, was identified as a suspect in a child porno­graphy ring. As part of the investigation, Delaware County authorities confiscated several electronic devices from Rawls’ home and requested that he provide the passwords to decrypt the computers, tablets, iPhone and external hard drives. Rawls did not cooperate, saying he “couldn’t remember” the passwords. A court order was obtained requiring Rawls to divulge the encryption keys. He again did not comply. In September 2015, a judge found that Rawls’ explanation of forgetfulness was implausible; he was held in contempt and jailed indefinitely even though he had not been charged with a crime.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals heard testimony in the case on September 7, 2016. Defense attorney Keith M. Donoghue argued that decryption of the computers and other devices would violate Rawls’ rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Judish countered that authorities could demand the production of a key to a safe if they knew its contents; he compared Rawls’ passwords to a safe key. Neither lawyer addressed the possibility that, just like many other computer users, Rawls had ...

Wayward Prosecutors Go Unpunished as Prison Time for Victims Piles Up

by Brooke Williams & Shawn Musgrave

Massachusetts prosecutors have violated defendants’ rights to a fair trial regularly and without punishment, even as wrongfully convicted victims of tainted prosecutions have spent years in prison before being freed, decades of court rulings show.

The state’s Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals Court have reversed at least 120 criminal convictions since 1985 in part or entirely because of the prosecuting attorney’s misconduct described in the judges’ rationale for the overturned verdicts.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting reviewed more than 1,000 rulings in which defendants alleged prosecutorial misconduct. In addition to the 120 reversals, judges criticized the prosecution’s behavior in another 250 cases, but found the lapses not serious enough to affect the jury’s decision, and upheld the convictions.

At least 11 convicted defendants in the reviewed cases were ultimately exonerated. Added together, their time served for crimes they didn’t commit totaled more than 100 years. Others were convicted again or pleaded guilty when facing retrial, sometimes to lesser charges with sentences reduced.

Some prosecutors failed to turn over important evidence to defense attorneys or didn’t disclose information bearing negatively on witness credibility, judges said. Others misrepresented evidence in their closing statements to ...

AL: Insurance Company Required to Pay $2.3M Award in Wrongful Imprisonment Suit

Robert Garland and John Tatum were convicted and sentenced in 1991 on federal drug charges. They were later released when, in 1992, Captain Jerry Newton of the Andalusia, Alabama police department admitted to a fellow officer that he had planted the drugs to get a conviction against the pair. Garland and Tatum then sued Newton, the city, and Titan Indemnity -­the city's insurance carrier -- for false arrest, wrongful imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

In 1998, a federal jury found for Garland and Tatum and ordered the city and Newton to pay each of them $350,000 in compensatory damages and $800,000 in punitive damages -- a total verdict of $2.3 million.

Titan then filed a motion for a declaratory judgment, asking the court to declare that they were not required by the terms of its contract with the city to pay the judgment.

Titan argued it was not obligated to pay the award because its contract with the city covered "an occurrence resulting from law enforcement activities." Fabricating evidence, argued Titan, did not constitute "law enforcement activities," and therefore they should not be required to pay.

Rejecting Titan's position that a police officer who fabricates evidence was not ...

Few Oklahoma Exonerees Paid for Their Wrongful Incarceration

Despite Oklahoma having a wrongful-conviction compensation statute on the books since 2003, few exonerees in that state have received payment.

One example of the battles exonerees face is the case of Greg Wilhoit, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of his wife. Her body was discovered in her apartment a few weeks after they separated. Her throat had been slashed and there was a bite mark on her breast. The bite mark was the only evidence used to convict Wilhoit. At his trial, the prosecutor presented two dentists who testified that the bite mark matched Wilhoit's teeth.

Wilhoit's attorney was a known alcoholic. He never challenged the bite mark evidence and failed to send it to an independent forensic dentist.

Wilhoit's appellate attorney, Mark Barrett, sent the evidence to 12 of the top forensic dental experts in the country. They all agreed that it did not match Wilhoit. An appeals court reversed his conviction. Four years later, a court finally stopped the prosecutor's efforts to retry him.

Released after five years on death row, Wilhoit's luck continued to be bad. The state refused to pay compensation, saying that he was never declared ...

Illinois Man Falsely Convicted of Rape Released After 20 Years

On March 9, 2015, the rape and kidnapping charges against Angel Gonzalez that had held him in prison for nearly 20 years were dismissed. He had been exonerated by DNA evidence. However, he was not immediately released because he had been convicted of damaging a sink while in prison and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Those charges were also dismissed the next day.

Working with Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim, Innocence Project lawyers Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin and Illinois Innocence Project lawyer Lauren Kaeseberg helped Gonzalez establish his innocence. This was complicated by the fact that, during a highly suggestive one-on-one show up, Gonzalez had been identified by the victim as one of two men who dragged her from her Waukegan, Illinois apartment into a car, drove her to a nearby back yard and raped her. Gonzalez had also confessed to the crimes after a coercive 12-hour interrogation during which police provided details of the crimes to him and lied to him, claiming they had other evidence connecting him to the crimes. They also wrote out his confession in English, a language he could not understand. Four of the police officers who conducted the interrogation have been ...

“Demons” Push Chris Conover to Suicide 12 Years after Release

Release from prison is a great relief, and that is especially so for wrongfully convicted persons. The future, however, is wrought with difficulties, obstacles, and prejudice. For Chris Conover, it was a burden that overwhelmed him, pushing him to take his life 12 years after his release.

Conover, 60, was convicted in a drug-related double murder in Randallstown, Maryland, in the early morning hours of October 20, 1984, two white men and a black man went into the home of Charles “Squeaky” Jordan, who was involved in the city’s heroin trade. Jordan, his wife, and step-daughter were shot execution style.

Jordan’s wife survived, and she subsequently identified Conover as resembling one of the white attackers and picked him out of a line up. An FBI agent testified that two hairs found at the scene belonged to Conover. Based upon the identification and hair evidence, Conover was convicted.

The Innocence Project took his case, and in May 2001, it received DNA evidence that proved the hairs did not come from Conover. Prosecutors agreed the conviction was undermined and agreed to it being vacated. They, however, insisted he was guilty and were intent on a retrial. Conover agreed in 2003 to an ...

New York Prisoner Exonerated after Serving 25 Years

On March 10, 2016, Andre Hatchett, 49, became the 19th person exonerated since Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson strengthened a conviction review unit when he took office in 2014.

Hatchett had been convicted of second degree murder for the 1991 death of Neda Mae Carter. His conviction was based on “a perfect storm of error – bad defense counsel, an unreliable witness, critical evidence that was never disclosed to the defense,” according to Seema Saifee, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which helped secure Hatchett’s release. “It’s frightening how easy it is to convict an innocent person in this country,” Saifee said. “And it’s overwhelmingly difficult to release an innocent person.”

When Neda Mae was killed, Hatchett, then 24, was on crutches from an injury he received as a bystander during a shooting.

According to Innocence Project attorneys, Hatchett had an I.Q. of 63 and had cooperated with the police and provided an alibi. He was arrested and convicted mainly on the testimony of an informant, Gerald “Jerry” Williams, who was facing a burglary charge and had initially identified another person as the killer – a fact that prosecutors failed to disclose to Hatchett’s attorneys ...

Exonerated Prisoner Appointed to Connecticut’s Parole Board

In an unusual turn of events, a former prisoner was appointed to Connecticut’s Parole Board. While ex-prisoners are typically not considered as parole board members, state officials decided that Kenneth F. Ireland was a qualified candidate.

In 1989, when he was 18 years old, Ireland was convicted of raping and murdering Barbara Pelkey, a mother of four.

Several people had connected Ireland to the 1986 murder, including someone who claimed she witnessed his confession. The witness later admitted that she was intoxicated at the time and confused in her recollection, according to The Daily Mail. Ireland received a 50-year prison sentence.

Although he asserted his innocence, his claims fell on deaf ears until 2009. DNA testing was performed after the Connecticut Innocence Project became involved in the case, and the test results indicated another man, Kevin Benefield, had committed the crimes for which Ireland had been convicted. Benefield was subsequently sentenced to 60 years for raping and murdering Pelkey.

Ireland was exonerated and released in August 2009 after spending 21 years – more than half his life – in prison.

Vivian Blackford, a member of the Connecticut Sentencing Committee, originally raised the idea of having Ireland serve on the Parole ...

Wisconsin: Wrongfully Convicted Former Prisoner Receives $6.5 Million

Chaunte D. Ott received a $6.5 million settlement from the City of Milwaukee for spending over 12 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, after being cleared by DNA evidence that connected the crime to a serial killer.

Ott, now 42, was convicted of the August 1995 murder ...

Illinois: Exonerated Prisoner Calls $80,000 Award a Travesty, Retrial Ordered

Nathson E. Fields spent 18 years in prison due to a conveniently “lost” file that would have cleared him. Fields was a member of the El Rukn street gang when he was convicted of a double homicide in 1986. After a dozen years on death row and another six in general population, he was granted a retrial and cleared in 2009, then filed a wrongful conviction suit.

On April 28, 1984, at about 10:15 a.m., Talman Hickman and Jerome “Fuddy” Smith were shot to death on Chicago’s East 39th Street. Over 100 witnesses were interviewed, including a woman who described two black men with a “light complexion” fleeing the crime scene. Both wore ski masks but appeared to be in their “early 20s.” Fields had a dark complexion, was 30 years old and did not fit the description given to detectives.

Fields’ “street file” was kept by Chicago detective David O’Callaghan. Defense attorneys requested the file during Fields’ trial but prosecutors and police officers denied its existence; hiding street files was common practice in the Chicago Police Department. Years after his conviction, Fields’ file was found buried in a cabinet with cold cases dating back to 1944 ...