Wednesday, July 06, 2005


112.Pennsylvania...Convicted 1982
In 1981, Nicholas Yarris was in jail on a minor charge when he learned of the murder of 32-year-old Linda Mae Craig in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Yarris believed that he would be freed if he could tell investigators he knew the killer's identity. Yarris gave investigators a wrong name, believing he could blame the murder on a dead associate. Police leaked to other inmates that Yarris was a snitch, and Yarris endured days of regular beatings and torture. In an effort to save himself, Yarris asked what would happen if he had participated in the crime, but was not the murderer. The beatings stopped, and Yarris was charged with capital murder. A fellow inmate made a deal with the DA and began exchanging false information about Yarris in exchange for conjugal visits and reduced sentencing with the DA. This inmate became one of the few witnesses to testify against Yarris at trial. The only physical evidence prosecutors offered was semen that had been tested only for blood type. During the trial in June of 1982, the prosecution refused to hand over some 20 pages of documents that would later be revealed to include other physical evidence and conflicting witness accounts. Yarris was found guilty, and sent to death row.On appeal, a federal judge approved a motion by prosecutors to have evidence from the case tested in a lab in Alabama that was later revealed to have had no experience in DNA testing. This lab found no conclusive results to exclude Yarris or include anyone else. A May 1994 motion for a new trial was denied. The DNA evidence was finally independently tested in 2000 by arrangement with the Pennsylvania Federal Defender Office that now represents Yarris, and the results of 3 tests excluded Yarris based on evidence from the crime scene.A Philadelphia Common Pleas judge vacated his conviction and ordered a new trial. According to Delaware County Assistant DA Joseph Brielmann, the DA's office reviewed all available evidence, and "they have not uncovered enough information to proceed against Mr. Yarris. ... In fairness to Mr. Yarris, we requested that the prosecution be dismissed." District Attorney Michael Green said that he might be willing to offer an apology "in a private way." Yarris remains in custody, however, serving a sentence for the crimes committed during a 1985 escape in Florida. Florida and Pennsylvania officials are working to determine how much longer, if at all, Yarris will remain behind bars.

111. Missouri...Convicted 1986
Joseph Amrine was sentenced to death 17 years ago for the murder of a fellow prisoner while housed in one of Missouri's "SuperMax" prisons. Amrine has maintained his innocence since the incident, in which investigators never uncovered any physical evidence linking Amrine to the crime. Amrine was convicted on the testimony of fellow inmates, three of whom later recanted their testimony, admitting that they lied in exchange for protection. In a 4-3 vote in April 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered Amrine released 30 days from their mandate. During arguments before the court, the state argued that new evidence of innocence should have no bearing on the case. On July 28, 2003, prosecutor Bill Tackett announced that he would not seek a new trial of Amrine and that he would be released.

109. Ohio...Convicted 1976
110.Ohio...Convicted 1976
Timothy Howard and Gary James were arrested in December, 1976 for a Columbus, Ohio bank robbery in which one of the bank guards was murdered. Both men maintained their innocence throughout the trial. In 1978, Ohio's death penalty was held to be unconstitutional and all death row inmates were re-sentenced. Howard and James were given life sentences. With funding from Centurion Ministries of New Jersey, Howard and James were subsequently able to uncover new evidence not made available to their defense attorneys at the time of their trial, including conflicting witness statements and fingerprints. James agreed to and passed a state-administered polygraph test, prompting Franklin County prosecutor Ron O'Brien to dismiss all charges "in the interest of justice." Howard was freed earlier on April 23 when Franklin County Common Pleas judge Michael Watson overturned his conviction, citing evidence not disclosed or available at trial. The state dropped its appeal of the judge's ruling, thereby clearing him of the same charges. While O'Brien said that releasing the two men was an admission of a 26-year-old unsolved murder and robbery, "we don't want anybody in prison serving time for something they didn't do."

Louisiana...Convicted 1985
John Thompson was sentenced to death in 1985 following his conviction for a New Orleans murder. Thompson, who has maintained his innocence since his arrest was, released from prison on May 9, 2003, less than 24 hours after a jury acquitted him at his retrial. In 1999, just five weeks before his scheduled execution, Thompson's attorney discovered crucial blood analysis evidence that undermined information used to influence the jury's decision to send Thompson to death row. The blood evidence, which had been improperly withheld by the State, cleared Thompson of a robbery conviction. It was that conviction that kept Thompson from testifying on his own behalf at the murder trial. In 2001, trial judge Patrick Quinlan vacated Thompson's capital sentence, stating that the erroneous robbery conviction had likely influenced the jury's decision to send Thompson to death row. Thompson remained in jail under a sentence of life without parole. In a later appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal of Louisiana, the court ruled that Thompson was "denied his right to testify in his own behalf based upon the improper actions of the State in the other case." The court held that it was "the State's intentional hiding of exculpatory evidence in the armed robbery case that led to [Thompson's] improper conviction in that case and his subsequent decision not to testify in the instant case because of the improper conviction." The court reversed Thompson's conviction and sentence, ordering a new trial. The retrial featured never-before heard testimony by Thompson, professing his innocence. In addition, jurors heard testimony from an eyewitness who insisted that it was not John Thompson whom she saw kill the victim. They also heard testimony that another man, Kevin Freeman, was the actual killer. Freeman was originally charged with the murder, but arranged a plea agreement with prosecutors and implicated Thompson. Although Freeman died prior to Thompson's recent trial, jurors were allowed to hear his earlier statements about the case, which were followed by questions that the defense would have asked on cross-examination. The trial concluded after jurors took less than an hour to acquit Thompson.

107. Alabama...Convicted 1997
An Alabama jury acquitted death row inmate Wesley Quick of the 1995 double murder for which he was sentenced to death in 1997. The jury acquitted Quick at the conclusion of his third trial for this crime. Quick's first trial ended in a mistrial because of juror misconduct, but a second jury convicted him in 1997. During that trial, defense counsel tried to impeach the state's witness with prior inconsistent statements from the first trial, but the judge would not allow the attorney to use his notes, and would not provide counsel with a copy of the transcript from the previous trial. Quick was found guilty and sentenced to death, but the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned that verdict in 2001, stating that the judge in Quick's second trial was wrong to deny Quick a free copy of the transcript from the previous mistrial in light of his indigent status. During Quick's third trial for the double murder, at which he received experienced representation, he testified that he did not commit the murders but said he was at the scene and saw the state's star witness against him, Jason Beninati, kill the men.

Arizona...Convicted 1999
On March 14, 2003, the Pima County (Arizona) Attorney's Office dismissed all charges against death row inmate Lemuel Prion, who had been convicted of murdering Diana Vicari in 1999. In August 2002, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction, stating that the trial court committed reversible error by excluding evidence of another suspect. According to the Supreme Court, "There was no physical evidence identifying Prion as her killer," and the trial court abused its discretion in not allowing the defense to submit evidence that a third party, John Mazure, was the actual killer. Mazure, who was also a suspect in the murder, was known to have a violent temper, saw Vicari the night of her disappearance, concealed information from the police when they questioned him, and "appeared at work the next morning after Vicari's disappearance so disheveled and disoriented that he was fired." The Arizona Supreme Court held that the third-party evidence "supports the notion that Mazure had the opportunity and motive to commit this crime. . . ." Prion's conviction was based largely on the testimony of Troy Olson, who identified Prion as the man who was with Vicari on the night of her murder. However, when police first showed Olson photographs of Prion, Olson could not identify Prion. According to the Court, "[Olson] stated that the person in the photograph did not look familiar." Seventeen months later, after seeing a newspaper picture of Prion labeling him as the prime suspect in the Vicari murder, Olson believed he could identify Prion. The Arizona Supreme Court also held that the trial court committed prejudicial error in failing to sever the Vicari murder trial from Prion's trial for another crime, stating "any connection between the two crimes is attenuated at best.” Prosecutors admitted that Prion would most likely have been acquitted if prosecuted under the standards set by the August 2002 ruling. Prion remained incarcerated in Utah for an unrelated crime.

Florida...Convicted 1986
Florida death row inmate Rudolph Holton was released on January 24, 2003, after prosecutors dropped all charges against him. Holton's conviction for a 1986 rape and murder was overturned in 2001 when a Florida Circuit Court held that the state withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense that pointed to another perpetrator. The court also found that new DNA tests contradicted the trial testimony of a state's witness. At trial, a prosecution witness testified that DNA hairs found in the victim's mouth linked Holton to the crime. However, recent DNA tests conclusively exclude Holton as the contributor of the hair, and found that the hairs most likely belonged to the victim. In December 2002, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision to reverse Holton's conviction and sentence. Prosecutors announced in January 2003 that the state was dropping all charges against Holton, who had spent 16 years on death row.

104.Illinois...Convicted 1987
Stanley Howard was convicted in 1987 for the murder of Oliver Ridgell. At trial, one of the main pieces of evidence against Howard was his statement to the police. Howard, however, always maintained that his confession was obtained through the use of police torture. Testimony at his trial contradicted information in Howard's "confession." The other evidence used against Howard was the testimony of Tecora Mullen, the passenger who was in the car when Ridgell was shot. Mullen admitted that it was dark and raining outside at the time of the shooting. In addition, Mullen's husband was originally a suspect in the murder. Howard remains incarcerated for an unrelated offense.

103.Illinois...Convicted 1984
Leroy Orange spent 19 years on death row before Governor Ryan pardoned him. Orange was arrested and questioned about the murders of four persons, and he subsequently confessed. Orange later stated that his confession was obtained by police torture and that he was innocent. At Orange's trial, his half-brother, Leonard Kidd, testified that, although Orange was at the victims' apartment earlier in the evening, he left before the murders and took no part in the crime. Kidd testified that he was solely responsible for the murders. Shirely Evans, a friend of Orange, testified that Orange was with her the night of the murders. At trial, Orange was represented by attorney Earl Washington, who was paid only $400 to represent Orange and who had three Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (ARDC) charges pending at the time of Orange's trial. The Chicago Tribune singled out Washington for his ineptitude, noting that the state filed new disciplinary charges against him. Those charges alleged that Washington's representation of Orange and others "amounted to professional misconduct."

Illinois...Convicted 1987
Madison Hobley was convicted of setting fire to an apartment building in 1987 that claimed the lives of seven tenants, including his wife and child. Hobley maintained his innocence, claiming that his confession was the product of police torture. At trial, the evidence against Hobley consisted of the testimony of Andre Council, a suspected arsonist who claimed to have seen Hobley buying gasoline before the fire, and a gas station attendant who could not identify Hobley in a lineup and could only state that Hobley "favored" the man who purchased the gasoline. Hobley's trial was marred by prosecutorial and juror misconduct. The Illinois Supreme Court concluded that "despite [Hobley's] pretrial requests for production, the State failed to disclose to him the evidence of two pieces of exculpatory evidence: (1) a report that defendant's fingerprints were not on the gasoline can introduced against him at trial, and (2) a second gasoline can found at the fire scene." Records also showed that police destroyed the second gasoline can after the defense issued a subpoena for it, a move the Illinois Supreme Court said supported a finding that the destruction was "motivated by bad faith." In addition, post-conviction affidavits of jurors stated that non-jurors intimidated some jurors while they were sequestered at a hotel, and that they were prejudiced by the acts of the jury foreperson, a police officer that believed Hobley was guilty. The affidavits also stated that jurors brought newspapers with articles about the case into the jury room and that they repeatedly violated the trial court's sequestration order. The Court remanded the case for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of whether prosecutors’ violated Hobley's constitutional rights by withholding evidence, and on the issue of whether the jurors were intimidated during deliberations. In remanding the case, the Court stated: "we stress that we are deeply troubled by the nature of the allegations in this case."

101.Illinois...Convicted 1989
Aaron Patterson spent 14 years on death row and always maintained his innocence in the stabbing deaths of an elderly couple in 1986. During his pre-trial interrogation, Patterson etched the following words on an interrogation room bench: I lied about murders police threatened me with violence slapped and suffocated me with plastic - no phone - no dad signed false statement to murders (Tonto) Aaron. In addition, photographs of the interrogation room revealed the phrase "Aaron lied" etched in the door of the room. There was no physical evidence tying Patterson to the crime, and fingerprints recovered from the scene did not belong to him. In addition, Patterson's former girlfriend testified that she was with Patterson on the night of the murders. In 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court granted Patterson an evidentiary hearing to determine whether his attorney was ineffective for failing to present evidence that the confession was coerced. The Court stated: "Evidence identifying defendant as perpetrator consisted of (1) the oft-changing testimony of a teenager [Marva Hall] whose cousin had been a suspect in the crime; and (2) the testimony from the police officers and assistant State's Attorney concerning defendant's confession." After Patterson's conviction, Marva Hall swore in an affidavit that prosecutors pressured her into implicating Patterson. "It was like I was reading a script," she said of her testimony. Hall told Northwestern University journalism students who were investigating the case: "I helped send [an] innocent man to jail."
Patterson's first public words (to the press upon being relesased from death row) were, "I know most of you guys. How you doing, Dave Savini? Thanks a lot for the reports, thanks a lot. Unbelievable, it's a miracle. You know, miracles do happen. The governor gave an extraordinary speech, but I just want to make this statement very clear, you know.""I'm sure a lot of you-all have worked with me before and you-all know how hard it was for me to get my case out there," he said. "I wrote several news media and investigators to look at my case, you know. Some of you-all responded and some of you didn't. It's very important that you-all look into other guys' cases on death row and in (the) prison population. There are more innocent people locked up. There ARE more innocent people locked up."


On January 10, 2003 Illinois Governor George Ryan granted four pardons based on innocence. The men pardoned, Aaron Patterson, Madison Hobley, Leroy Orange, and Stanley Howard, were all members of the "Death Row 10," a group of Illinois death row prisoners who claimed that they were the victims of police torture. The four pardoned men maintained that their confessions were given only after they were beaten, had guns pointed at them, were subjected to electric shock, or were nearly suffocated with typewriter covers placed over their heads. In 2002, a special prosecutor was named to conduct a broad inquiry into the allegations from more than 60 suspects who, like the Death Row 10, claimed that they were tortured by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge or his detectives at the Burnside Area Violent Crimes headquarters in Chicago during the 1980s. The Chicago Police Board fired Jon Burge in 1993 for his role in the torture of another prisoner. Governor Ryan examined the cases of all the Illinois death row inmates and selected these four for pardons based on their coerced confessions and other information. Governor Ryan commuted the death sentences of
167 other inmates , but did not pardon them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great job on your talk on dna testing. I have a dna testing secrets blog if you wanna swing by my place!

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but you really shouldn't have false information in your blog. If you want to be credible, you have to be truthful. Nicholas Yarris was not in jail for "minor charges", he was charged with the attempted murder of a police officer, stealing a car, being high on meth, robbing people, and a bunch of other stuff that us non-criminal members of society don't exactly consider "minor charges." He took a cop's gun and shot him with it. Get your facts straight.

12:32 AM  
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