Friday, April 3, 2020

National Registry of Exonerations Report 2019: Part Three: The report contains several 'representative cases' - most of which I have posted on over the years as they involve key forensic science and related issues.

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The report contains several 'representative cases' - most of which I have posted on over the years as they involve key forensic science and related issues. The inclusion of these cases is an excellent idea as they treat the subjects of these brutal miscarriages of justice as real human beings, and not merely statistics. (Not to minimise the importance of  gathering statistics on the workings - or the all too pervasive failures they may entail.) 

Harold Levy:  Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog.



On May 1, 2019, 72-year-old Lee Arthur Hester was exonerated of the 1961 murder of a Chicago elementary school teacher. At the time, he was just 14 years old, and the crime shocked Chicago. The dismissal of the charges came nearly 58 years after he was convicted based on faulty forensics and a false confession coerced by Chicago police. The exoneration was the result of several years of investigation by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law and a review by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit. On January 10, 2020, Hester was granted a certificate of innocence in Cook County Circuit Court, paving the way for him to seek compensation from the state of Illinois. He was convicted of the murder of Josephine Keane, a 45-year-old master teacher at Lewis-Champlin Elementary School in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Steven Drizin, a Northwestern law professor and expert on false confessions who led the re-investigation of Hester’s case, published a detailed account of the case in 2011 in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy. The article described Hester’s trial as “a highly contested affair which involved a battle of the experts with regard to the physical and scientific evidence in the case and a swearing contest between Hester and the interrogating officers with regard to the confession.” Drizin also noted that the case was a “cauldron of racial tension which boiled over at times.” Hester was convicted of murder as an adult and sentenced to 55 years in prison. He was released on parole in 1972. Hester’s legal team presented a motion to vacate the conviction noting that the Conviction Integrity Unit had concluded that Hester’s confession “was not a reliable piece of evidence...the statement was taken under circumstances that, if they arose today, almost certainly would have resulted in the suppression of the statement.”The review showed the confession was contradicted “in almost every material respect by the physiical evidence in the case” and the expert testimony about blood hair and other materials “is no longer considered to be scientifically reliable” and was “inaccurate, misleading or based on flawed methodologies.” The 58-year gap between Hester’s conviction and his exoneration is the longest of all exonerations in the National Registry of Exonerations.



After an initial mistrial, Hassan Bennett of Philadelphia was convicted in December 2008 of sec- ond-degree murder in the shooting death of Devon English. Following his conviction, he was housed at the same prison with his co-defendant, who had testified against Bennett as part of a plea deal. The man now said that Bennett wasn’t involved. Bennett appealed his conviction, unsuccessfully, then in 2014 sought a new trial under Pennsylva- nia’s Post-Conviction Relief Act. During that process, Bennett fired his appellate attorney and draft- ed his own motion that said his trial attorney, who had died in 2009, had been ineffective by failing to follow up on evidence and testimony that bolstered Bennett’s claims of innocence. This included cellphone records, arrest records that impeached prosecution witnesses, and even a drug-test that showed Bennett wasn’t smoking marijuana at the time of the shooting, as a state’s witness had testified. In addition, the harsh investigative tactics of one of the police officers involved in the case had come under scrutiny. Bennett was granted a new trial in 2017. At the retrial in 2018, he represent- ed himself, appearing before the jury in jail scrubs. The jury deadlocked, with the majority voting for acquittal. Bennett also represented himself at his fourth trial in 2019. The jury acquitted him after only 81 minutes of deliberation.


GARY: CIFIZARRI: MASSACHUSETTS: Gary Cifizzari was convicted in 1984 of the brutal murder in the death of his aunt, Concetta Schiap- pa, in Milford, Massachusetts in 1979. After the initial investigation ran cold, Cifizzari became a suspect in 1981 when his brother, Michael, who had severe psychiatric problems, told police that they were involved with the death. As part of the investigation, police made molds of what appeared to be bitemarks on Schiappa’s body. Sev- eral forensic odontologists compared those bruises with dental impressions taken from Cifizzari’s mouth, and they concluded that Cifizzari had left the bitemarks. At trial, Cifizzari’s attorney didn’t pursue alternate suspects or rigorously challenge the forensic evidence. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison. Michael Cifizzari had been convicted of second-degree murder in 1983 and died in prison in 2000. In 2017, Cifizzari’s attorneys with the New England Innocence Project had DNA testing done on several pieces of evidence. Cifizzari was excluded as a contributor. Later analysis said the DNA results matched the profile of a man named Michael Giroux, an initial suspect who had died in 2014. Separately, in the years since Cifizzari’s conviction, forensic odontology had been discredited as a tool for making identifications. In a motion for a new trial filed in 2019, Cifizzari’s attorneys said the analysis done for his trial was wrong, with mistakes caused by bad science and confirmation bias. Cifizzari’s conviction was stayed on July 12, 2019, and the charges were dismissed on Decem- ber 10, 2019.



 Clifford Williams Jr. and his nephew, Hubert Myers, spent 42 years and 7 months in prison after they were convicted of murdering of a woman and wounding another in 1976. They were exonerat- ed in 2019 following an investigation by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the State Attorney’s Office for Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit. They were convicted after a two-day trial. The surviving victim testified that Myers and Williams, each armed with a handgun, entered their bedroom and wounded her and killed her partner. Myers was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Williams was sentenced to death, but in 1980, the Florida Supreme Court modified the sentence to life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Their defense attorneys failed to call alibi witnesses or point out that neither man had gunshot residue on them, that holes in the window screens and broken glass on the bed indicated the shots were fired from outside the bedroom, or that there was no evidence that two guns were involved— as the surviving witness claimed. In 2017, Myers read a newspaper article about the formation of the Conviction Integrity Unit. He wrote to State Attorney Melissa Nelson, asserting his and his uncle’s innocence was based on four key points: First, the numerous alibi witnesses who had not been called at trial; second, the results of the gunshot residue tests; third, the gunshot residue on the window frame and other forensic evidence suggesting the shooting had come from outside the bedroom; and fourth, the insufficien- cy of the surviving victim’s testimony. In a follow-up letter, Myers included a copy of the ballistics report and a surprising piece of new evidence: A man named Nathaniel Lawson had confessed to the crime before he died in 1994. On March 29, 2019, Myers, 61, and Williams, 76, were released. Only three exonerees spent more time incarcerated before exoneration. Myers and Williams both received $2 million in state compensation in 2020.



Alfred Chestnut, Andrew Stewart Jr., and Ransom Watkins were 16 years old when they were charged with the murder of 14-year-old DeWitt Duckett in the hallway of his Baltimore, Maryland junior high school in 1983. They were accused of killing him to get his Georgetown University Starter jacket. They were convicted on the testimony of students at the school who said they saw the three con- front Duckett and shoot him. All three were sentenced to life in prison.
In 2018, Chestnut filed a public records request with the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and re- ceived Baltimore police reports that had not been disclosed to the defense prior to the defendants’ trial. The reports showed that there were several students who identified the shooter as Michael Willis, that a fourth student’s identification was the sole foundation connecting the three defendants to the crime, and that there was an unexplained shift in the investigation from one perpetrator to three. In addition, the notes revealed that anonymous calls implicated Willis as the gunman, that witnesses told officers that Willis was later seen wearing DeWitt’s jacket, and that Willis had admit- ted he shot DeWitt. In 2019, Chestnut wrote to the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Baltimore City District Attorney’s Office asking that their cases be re-investigated based on the documents that he had obtained. During a review of the case, the witnesses all recanted their identifications of Chestnut, Watkins, and Stewart, and all said the police had heavily coached them.
When they were released after more than 35 years in prison, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Mari- lyn Mosby said, “These three men were convicted, as children, because of police and prosecutorial misconduct. What the state, my office, did to them is wrong. They deserve so much more than an apology. We owe them real compensation—and I plan to fight for it.” In March 2020, the state of Maryland awarded Chestnut, Stewart, and Watkins each $2.8 million in compensation.



In 1976, 38-year-old Charles Finch was sentenced to death for the murder of a convenience store owner in Wilson, North Carolina despite the testimony of witnesses that he was playing poker in Tom Smith’s Shoeshine Parlor at the time of the crime. His conviction was based primarily on an eyewitness whose description of Finch as one of three men involved in the crime progressively moved from vague to positive by the time of trial. The prosecution presented testimony that pellets from a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car were similar to or “just like” the pellets found in the body of the victim. The prosecution failed to disclose that the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) had examined the pellets from the shell found in Finch’s car and analysts were unable to find sufficient similarities. In 2001, attorneys at the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Duke University School of Law began repre- senting Finch. They were able to use a state law enacted in 1996—20 years after Finch was con- victed—to obtain the SBI report as well other evidence that had never been disclosed to Finch or his attorneys. On May 23, 2019, Judge Terence Boyle granted Finch’s petition for a writ habeas corpus, vacated his conviction, dismissed his charges, and ordered him released. Finch’s original death sentence had been commuted to life in prison. After nearly 43 years in prison—the second longest incarceration of any person exonerated since 1989—Finch was released. He was 81 and in a wheelchair. “I’m just glad to be free,” Finch de- clared. “I feel good.”



Elgerie Cash and her daughter, Jennifer Weathington, of Dallas, Georgia, were each charged with
murder in the shooting death of Lennis Jones, Jennifer’s boyfriend, on May 30, 2011. The initial investigation pointed to an accidental shooting. Cash said she had been showing Jones a Glock pistol, and there was an argument about whether the chamber was loaded. An au-topsy would show Jones was legally intoxicated at the time of the shooting. But the doctor who per- formed the autopsy said his examination of the head wound found no stippling of gunpowder. He said that suggested the weapon had been at least 18 inches away, an unlikely distance for an accidental suicide. Weathington and Elgerie were both charged with first-degree murder. The women were tried together. Weathington’s attorney failed to challenge the ballistics and foren- sic evidence. Cash’s attorney did little to prepare and was a disruptive presence in the courtroom. He swore at Cash and cursed so much during the proceedings that the judge asked him to stop. Both women were convicted in 2013 and sentenced to life in prison. They appealed their conviction, claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. Their motion was granted in 2014, and their retrial began in April 2019. The women had new attorneys who pre-sented new evidence of innocence, including a report from a former medical examiner that con-tradicted the state’s autopsy. On May 1, 2019, Cash and Weathington were acquitted of all charges.


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to:  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;
FINAL WORD:  (Applicable to all of our wrongful conviction cases):  "Whenever there is a wrongful conviction, it exposes errors in our criminal legal system, and we hope that this case — and lessons from it — can prevent future injustices."
Lawyer Radha Natarajan:
Executive Director: New England Innocence Project;