4 Prisoners Facing Executions or Serving Extreme Jail Sentences Who Very Well May Be Innocent
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But Paredes's mother, Velia Koppenhoefer, a former Foodland employee, insists that Efren had already been dropped off at home when the murder took place, having eaten pizza with her and his stepfather, Hans, before going to bed. "We know he is innocent because he was with us, not because he told us he didn't do the crime," his mother told AlterNet. "It was physically impossible for him to have done it." There was no physical evidence linking Efren to the crime -- except for fingerprints on the store's cash register, which would seem to make sense, given that he worked there.
Nevertheless, police came and arrested Paredes, accusing him of robbery and murder.
Soon thereafter, the father of a local teenager named Steve Miller called the police, saying he had information about who planned and carried out deadly crime. He named four people: Chinese-American brothers Alex and Eric Mui (ages 17 and 16), a white teenager named Jason Williamson (16), and Paredes. His own son, Steve, later admitted to having a role. He was granted immunity and not charged with a single crime.
The Muis and Williamson told wildly contradictory stories about the plot to rob the grocery store, accounts that "not only conflict(ed) with each other but also with what some witnesses told police," according to the South Bend Tribune, which recently ran an investigative series on the case, But all the teenagers pointed at Paredes as the ringleader. "He said that he had did it," Alex Mui told police.
The case became a media circus; it was the first murder in ten years in the small town of St. Joseph, and the Paredes's one-week trial was covered heavily. The judge issued daily admonishments to the jurors to try to insulate themselves from the constant bombardment of news coverage. "I have seen in some of the newspaper reports, some things that are inaccurate, and that could be very misleading and be prejudicial to either side," he told jurors on the fourth day of the trial. "Therefore, again, I'm going to emphasize ... to keep yourself apart and separate and free from any outside influence."
This would prove difficult -- and not just because of local coverage of the case. The trial took place at the height over the hysteria over the famous Central Park Jogger case in New York, in which Black and Latino youths were falsely accused of brutally raping a white investment banker in Manhattan. (Many of them gave false confessions; all of them have since been exonerated.) The case drew ugly, racist imagery in the media, with the youths portrayed as animalistic urban predators. "Efren's case was right in the midst of that," recalls Koppenhoefer.
As in the Central Park jogger case, she says, "racism played a large role in how the media covered Efren's case." What's more, "the jury had 11 whites on it and one black male. All the police who investigated the case were white, the prosecutor was white, the victim was white. Additionally, the county (Berrien County) has never had a non-white sheriff or chief prosecutor in its history. The county is also very Republican," she added.
Race seems to have played a role in the sentencing of the four boys as well: In the end, Eric Mui pled guilty to armed robbery and murder and received two life sentences. Alex, his brother, pled guilty to armed robbery, and given a similar sentence. Both had the possibility of parole and both of them were released in the past few years. Meanwhile, Jason Williamson was tried in juvenile court. He pled guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and got out after just six months in juvenile detention.