118. Texas...Convicted 1987
Ernest Ray Willis was sentenced to death for the 1986 deaths of two women who died in a house fire that was ruled an arson.
He is the eighth person exonerated from Texas' death row since the reinstitution of capital punishment. Seventeen years later, Pecos County District Attorney Ori T. White revisited the case after a federal judge overturned Willis' conviction. White hired an arson specialist to review the original evidence, and the specialist concluded that there was no evidence of arson.
Willis, who was staying briefly at the house where the fire occurred, escaped from the house. Investigators believed they found an "accelerant" in the carpet.
Officers at the scene of the blaze said that Willis had acted strangely, and prosecutors had Willis arrested. Despite limited evidence, Willis was indicted for murder and arson. Prosecutors used Willis' dazed mental state at trial - the result of state-administered medication - to characterize Willis as "coldhearted" and as a "satanic demon."
Willis' court-appointed lawyers, one of whom later surrendered his law license following drug charges, offered little defense. The attorneys spent a total of three hours with Willis, and as a result, Willis was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The state's new arson specialist revealed, however, that the "accelerant" initially suspected of causing the fire was in fact "flashover burning," consistent with electrical fault fires. U. S. District Judge Royal Ferguson held that the state had administered medically inappropriate ant psychotic drugs without Willis' consent; that the state suppressed evidence favorable to Willis; and that Willis received ineffective representation at both the guilt and sentencing phases of his trial.
He ordered the state to either free Willis or retry him.
The state attorney general's office declined to appeal, and prosecutors dropped all charges against Willis. White, whose predecessors prosecuted Willis, said that Willis "simply did not do the crime. ... I'm sorry this man was on death row for so long and that there were so many lost years." Willis, who had no prior record, was released on October 6, 2004 with $100, ten days of medication, and the clothes on his back. Mr. Willis also had the help of a couple of dedicated pro-bono attorney's that worked hard for over 12 years.
117. Louisiana...Convicted 1999
On Monday, August 9, 2004, Jefferson Parish prosecutors dropped all charges against 24-year-old Ryan Matthews, making him the nation's 115th exonoree, and the 14th death row inmate freed with the help of DNA testing.
Shortly after his 17th birthday, Matthews was arrested for the murder of a local convenience store owner.
Three individuals interviewed by police were unable to definitively identify Matthews, and witnesses described the murderer as short - no taller than 5'8". Matthews is at least 6 feet tall.
Matthews' court appointed trial attorney was unprepared, and unable to handle the DNA evidence.
On the third day of the trial, the judge ordered closing arguments, and sent the jury to deliberate. When they could not agree on a verdict after several hours, the judge ordered the jury to resume deliberations until a verdict was reached. Less than an hour later, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Matthews was sentenced to death two days later.
In March 2003, Matthews' attorneys had the physical evidence (including a ski mask) re-tested.
The DNA results excluded Matthews, and this time they pointed directly to another individual - one serving time for a murder that happened a few months after the convenience store murder and only blocks away.
In April of 2004, based on the new DNA testing and findings that the prosecution suppressed evidence, a new trial was ordered for Matthews. Released into his mother's care after she posted bond, Matthews was officially exonerated on August 9, 2004 when prosecutors dropped all of the charges against him.
116. Louisiana...Convicted 1996
In 1996,Dan L. Bright was convicted of first-degree murder in Louisiana and was sentenced to death.
On appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana found the evidence insufficient to support his conviction of first-degree murder and rendered a judgment of guilty of second-degree murder.
The trial court imposed a sentence of life without parole at hard labor.
On May 25, 2004, the Supreme Court of Louisiana reversed Bright's conviction, vacated the sentence, and remanded for a new trial holding that the state suppressed material evidence regarding the criminal history of the prosecution's key witness, Freddie Thompson.
The court noted that there was no physical evidence against Bright, and that Thompson's testimony was the only evidence that served to convict him. Thompson was very drunk on the day of the crime. Moreover, the prosecution failed to disclose that he was a convicted felon and in violation of his parole.
The court held that the specific facts of Thompson's criminal record and the fact that he was still on parole when he testified against Bright raised questions about the veracity of his trial testimony: "This conviction, based on the facts of this case which include a failure to disclose what the State now admits is significant impeachment evidence, is not worthy of confidence and thus must be reversed."
Because material evidence had been withheld by the state, Bright's conviction was overthrown. The prosecution subsequently dismissed all charges and Bright was freed.
Laurence Adams left a Massachusetts prison 30 years after his conviction for the 1972 robbery and murder of a transit worker in Boston.
Superior Court Judge Robert Milligan overturned Adams’ conviction in 2004 because police had withheld important evidence.
The District Attorney recommended that Adams be released on his own recognizance. Charges against Adams were formally dropped on June 7, 2004.
Adams had been convicted at age 19 on the testimony of two witnesses, both of whom had unrelated charges against them dropped after their testimony.
The government's key witness testified that Adams had admitted to the offense in a discussion in a private home, but subsequently discovered records indicated that the witness was actually incarcerated at the time that he alleged the conversation took place.
The witness was in fact incarcerated with one of a pair of brothers who were suspects in the case.
The second witness recanted her testimony against Adams just prior to her death.
The court-appointed attorney for Adams was also representing one of the two brothers at the same time he was representing Adams. (Boston Globe, May 21, 2004).
Adams was originally sentenced to death in 1974, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life imprisonment, after declaring the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional.
Adams had always maintained his innocence. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology while in prison. Adams’ appellate attorney, J. J. Barter, said, “it’s not a matter of him being there but not being culpable. He wasn’t there.”
Gordon "Randy" Steidl was freed from an Illinois prison May 28, 2004, 17 years after he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to die for the 1986 murders of Dyke and Karen Rhoads.
An Illinois State Police investigation in 2000 found that local police had severely botched their investigation, resulting in the wrongful conviction of Steidl and his co-defendant Herbert Whitlock.
Due to the poor representation Steidl received at trial, a new sentencing hearing was granted in 1999, resulting in a sentence of life without parole.
In 2003, federal judge Michael McCuskey overturned Steidl's conviction and ordered a new trial for Steidl stating that if all the evidence that should have been investigated had been presented at trial, it was "reasonably probable" that Steidl would have been acquitted by the jury. The state reinvestigated the case, testing DNA evidence, and found no link to Steidl.
State Attorney General Lisa Madigan decided not to appeal the ruling and Edgar County prosecutors decided they would not retry the case.
113. North Carolina...Convicted 1998
Alan Gell was arrested for a 1995 robbery and murder of a retired truck driver named Allen Ray Jenkins.
The two key witnesses presented by prosecutors were Gell's ex-girlfriend and her best friend, who were both teenagers. Both girls, who were at Jenkins' house and pled guilty to involvement in the murder, testified that they saw Gell shoot Jenkins on April 3, 1995.
Prosecutors withheld valuable evidence that might have cleared Gell in the initial trial, *including an audiotape of* one of the girls saying she had to "make up a story" about the murder.
In 2002, a State Superior Court Judge found that the prosecutors withheld evidence "favorable" to Gell, and vacated Gell's conviction. Vacating conviction and granting new trial.
Gell was re-tried in February 2004.
The defense team was able to present evidence that Gell was out of state or in jail at the time of Jenkins' murder, which was placed closer to April 14th. This refuted the April 3rd claim by the original prosecutors. Also challenging the state's timetable was a series of statements by as many as 17 witnesses who told investigators that they had seen Jenkins alive between April 7th and April 10th. The most important new evidence was the taped conversation mentioned above, in which the state's key witness referred to making up a story about the murder.
Gell was originally convicted in 1998 and spent the next four years on death row until a new trial was ordered. On February 18, 2004, a jury found Gell not guilty on all counts, and he left the court with his family.