By Jeffrey Deskovic
“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.
As an anti-wrongful conviction advocate, I do my best to keep up with current events in the field. That information includes exonerations, developments, discoveries, and updates with respect to the causes of wrongful convictions, efforts to obtain legislative changes to make the system more accurate, information about the death penalty, and sometimes even wrongful conviction cases that are still in progress, such as my recent article questioning the Fernando Bermudez conviction prior to its being dismissed.
A day prior to Thanksgiving, I received an email blast from Equal Justice USA. Equal Justice USA, is “a 501(c)3 organization that mobilizes and educates ordinary citizens around issues of crime and punishment in the U.S. Our work brings into public focus the racial, economic, and political biases that permeate our legal system. By transforming our culture of vengeance and violence, we build support for an alternative public policy that is both effective and humane.”
The email had a variety of information pertaining to the death penalty. But, amongst the important information that was included, this one particular item really reached out and grabbed my attention, no doubt due to my background as an exoneree:
“Speaking of meat, before I wrap up this note, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge our beloved Turkey Day. Yes, tomorrow is Thanksgiving and we have many reasons to be thankful. In the last 12 months, nine people were exonerated from death row. One of them spent his last 23 Thanksgivings sitting on the row. I am thankful that at least these nine were able to prove their innocence in time and escaped their unjust fate.”
The Death Penalty Information Center is one of the leading authorities involved with the death penalty around the world, and its tabulations have, according to them, “been favorably reviewed by Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, as well as by many public officials around the country.” The original list of cases that they compiled of exonerated prisoners from death row was published as “a Staff Report of the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights,” pursuant to a Congressional request to them asking them to identify the risks of executing innocent people.
The criteria that they use for the word “exoneration” is “the defendants must have been convicted, sentenced to death and subsequently either a) their conviction was overturned AND i) they were acquitted at re-trial or ii) all charges were dropped; b) they were given an absolute pardon by the governor based on new evidence of innocence.” The following cases are taken from their website:
1) Nathson Fields, Illinois Conviction: 1986, Acquitted: 2009 Nathson Fields, 55, and a co-defendant were sentenced to death for the 1984 murders of two rival gang members. The original trial, however, was marred by corruption, as the judge in the case, Circuit Judge Thomas Maloney, accepted a $10,000 bribe during the trial.
Thomas Maloney, who died in 2008, was ultimately convicted and spent 13 years in prison for fixing murder trials. As a result, Fields and co-defendant Earl Hawkins were granted new trials in 1998. Hawkins, who had admitted to killing 15 to 20 people, testified against Fields in exchange for a lesser sentence. However, at Fields’ retrial, Judge Vincent Gaughan found Hawkins “incredible,” saying, “If someone has such disregard for human life, what regard will he have for his oath?”
2) Paul House, Tennessee Conviction: 1986, Charges Dismissed: 2009. The state of Tennessee dropped all charges against House, who was charged with the 1985 murder of Carolyn Muncey. The state alleged kidnapping or rape as aggravating factors, and House was sentenced to death. Biological evidence from the victim’s clothes used against him at trial was later found through DNA testing to belong to Muncey’s husband.
In House v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court considered new DNA testing and questions about the victim’s blood stains on House’s clothes. In 2006, the Court held that no reasonable juror would have found House guilty based on this new evidence, thus entitling him to raise constitutional issues that then led to a reversal of his conviction.
The case was remanded to the District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee, where Judge Harry Mattice vacated House’s conviction and sentence, but allowed Tennessee to pursue a new trial against him. In 2008, a Tennessee judge ordered House released from prison, pending a new trial. The state dismissed all charges on May 12, 2009, while expressing reservations about House’s complete innocence.
3) Daniel Wade Moore, Alabama Conviction: 2002, Acquitted: 2009. Daniel Wade Moore was acquitted of all charges by a jury in Alabama on May 14. Moore was originally found guilty of the murder and sexual assault of Karen Tipton in 2002. The judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of a life sentence and instead sentenced him to death in January 2003, calling the murder one of the worst ever in the county.
A new trial was ordered in 2003 because of evidence withheld by the prosecution. A second trial in 2008 ended in a mistrial with the jury deadlocked at 8-4 for acquittal. Judge Glenn Thompson, who originally sentenced Moore to death, ordered a retrial upon discovery that the prosecution had withheld important evidence.
“Orders were entered in any capital case, that whatever the state has, whatever the prosecutor has, whatever the investigation has they should provide that to the defendant,” said Judge Thompson. The evidence missing was a 256-page F.B.I. report. “The prosecution, Mr. Valeska specifically, looked me in the eye and said, quote, ‘there ain’t no such thing as an F.B.I. report.’ Well, there prob- ably wasn’t a report, but there were 256 pages of information collected by Decatur police officers that were sent to the F.B.I., “said Judge Thompson.
According to Judge Thompson, Assistant Attorney General Don Valeska later came to him confessing there was withheld information. “Mr. Valeska came forward with the information after the conviction,” said Judge Thompson. “Clearly, the only remedy was to grant him a new trial and I did,” he said. “It frustrated and angered me that he would be willing to lie to the court,” he continued. Meanwhile, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Judge Thompson to stand down from the trial and continued to let Valeska prosecute Moore.
Upon hearing the jury’s not guilty verdict, Judge Thompson responded, “I felt like it was the only conclusion that a jury could reach if they actually followed the law.” Thompson also said that the problems with the prosecution withholding evidence continued throughout the 10 years of the case. Just days before the current trial started, the prosecution called the defense saying they had just found new evidence from the victim’s home computer.
4) Ronald Kitchen, Illinois Conviction: 1988, Charges Dismissed: 2009. On July 7, 2009, Ronald Kitchen was exonerated and released from Illinois [State] prison after spending twenty-one years, including thirteen on death row. His death sentence had been commuted to life without parole by former Illinois Governor George Ryan in 2003 as part of a blanket clemency grant.
Kitchen and a co-defendant were found guilty of the murders of two women and three children in 1988. His conviction was based primarily on a confession he gave to detectives under the command of discredited former Police Commander Jon Burge after hours of beating and threats by police. Prosecutors also relied on the testimony of a friend of the defendants who was in prison for burglary.
This witness later recanted his testimony, and the prosecutors withheld from the defense that they released this witness from prison early in return for his testimony. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that “Illinois Assistant Attorney General Richard Schwind told Criminal Court Judge Paul Biebel that after an exhaustive review of both cases, the office determined it could not ‘sustain its burden of proof.’” The Attorney General’s office further said, In this case it became extraordinarily clear that justice required the release of these two men.”
5) Herman Lindsey, Florida Conviction: 2006, Acquitted: 2009. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Florida rendered a judgment of acquittal for Herman Lindsey who was convicted in 2006 of the murder of the clerk at the Big Dollar Pawn Shop, a murder that happened 12 years earlier. Since his conviction, Lindsey has been on Florida’s death row. The Court held that the evidence in the case was not sufficient to convict Lindsey. They noted that the case was based completely on circumstantial evidence and that a special standard of review applies.
“[T]he State failed to produce any evidence in this case placing Lindsey at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. . . .Indeed, we find that the evidence here is equally consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” The Court also found that the trial court had erred in denying Lindsey’s motion for a judgment of acquittal at the conclusion of the presentation of evidence. three of the justices concurred with the Court, but went further and stated that the State’s line of questioning of the defendant during the penalty phase improperly exceeded the permitted scope of cross-examination. “The prosecution‘s comments were not only improper, but were also prejudicial and made with the apparent goal of inflaming the jury.”
These Justices found that the inflammatory statements made during cross-examination would have affected the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty. Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the Broward County State Attorney’s Office, said the prosecution would not appeal the unanimous decision.
“Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Jeff is now a practicing attorney.