Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

4 Prisoners Facing Executions or Serving Extreme Jail Sentences Who Very Well May Be Innocent

Recent evidence shows that an executed Texas man was innocent. There are others who still might avoid that fate.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

The tragic unraveling of the case against Cameron Todd Willingham -- the Texas man executed in 2004 for killing his own daughters by supposedly setting fire to his house -- seems to have crossed a major threshold in the debate over the death penalty in the past several weeks. For the first time in recent memory, there is devastating proof that an innocent man was put to death in this country.

Such a revelation, one might think, would give pause to even the most enthusiastic death penalty supporter. Yet Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has signed off on more than 200 executions, including Willingham's, is only focused on protecting his political career. The governor, who faces a hotly contested primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson next year, is going to great lengths to cover up evidence of Willingham's innocence -- particularly proof that he had this evidence in his hands before he signed off on his murder. At the same time, he continues to defend the death penalty in Texas as perfectly fine: "Our process works and I don’t see anything out there that would merit calling for a moratorium on the Texas death penalty,” he said last week.

Meanwhile, Texas is gearing up to execute another prisoner tomorrow, a man named Reginald Blanton, who has a very strong innocence claim of his own. (Read about his case here.)

Cruel and unusual though it might seem, for a person to be sentenced to die for a crime he or she did not commit is hardly a unique phenomenon in this country. In the past 35 years, no fewer than 138 people have been released from death row after proof of their innocence was discovered -- including eight this year alone. How many may have been executed before their innocence was known is unclear. As Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times last year, "we know almost nothing about the number of innocent people in prison."

Beyond death row, innocent men and women have languished in prison for decades, serving life sentences for crimes they didn't commit. Some have been exonerated. But many remain scattered in prison cells across the country, insisting on their innocence. These are prisoners whose cases, when examined up close, are often full of holes: a lack of physical evidence, unreliable -- or recanted -- witness testimony, false confessions, and more. Racism, crooked and lazy cops, untrustworthy jailhouse snitches, and the political aspirations of prosecutors who use them are just a few factors fueling wrongful convictions.

The list below could be much, much longer. But here are just four cases where innocent people appear to have been wrongfully convicted of terrible crimes. Some of them were sentenced to multiple life sentences. Others were sentenced to death. All of them remain behind bars.

Rodney Reed

In April of 1996, a 19-year-old woman named Stacey Stites was murdered in Texas, her body discovered in a wooded area just outside the city of Bastrop. Stites's body was partly clothed; she had evidently been strangled to death. DNA taken from semen found inside her body was matched to an African American man from Bastrop. His name was Rodney Reed.

At trial, the prosecution accused Reed of assaulting Stites while she was on her way to work, early in the morning. According to a 2002 report in the Austin Chronicle, "Prosecutors successfully argued that at some point on Stites' early morning drive ... Reed accosted Stites and forced his way into the truck -- while apparently on foot and without the aid of any weapon -- and raped, sodomized, and strangled her with the braided leather belt she was wearing, then dumped her body and abandoned the truck "

"This theory of the crime was deduced, theorized, and then presented at trial from a single piece of evidence: the match of Reed's DNA."

There was no other physical evidence linking him to the crime. Nevertheless, Reed was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Yet there was one critical twist in the case: Rodney Reed, many said, was having an affair with the engaged Stites. That would make their sexual relationship consensual, explaining the semen found in her body.

Stites's fiancee, Jimmy Fennell, was a police officer in Giddings. At trial, Reed's defense attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to show that it was Fennell who killed Stites, in a fit of rage over her affair with Reed. According to the Chronicle, "Court records show 10 other people were publicly identified as witnesses to the affair either during the trial or by affidavit." 'Everyone knew,' [Austin attorney Jimmy Brown] said. 'The people who worked with her knew; they confirmed it unofficially. None would come out with it, because we are talking about a white woman who was having sex with a black man in Bastrop -- and then she's dead. But there is no question they knew about it.'"

There were other reasons to suspect Jimmy Fennell. Not the least of which was the fact that, upon being brought in to answer questions about his murdered fiance, he failed two polygraph tests when asked question: "Did you strangle Stacey Stites?" Yet no further investigation into him ever went forward. The pickup truck that Stites was driving was returned to him soon after the murder, after an incomplete forensics investigation. Fennell then sold the truck, the very next day.

Over the years, alarming new pieces of evidence have surfaced. In March 2006, with Reed on death row, a former police academy classmate of Fennell's testified in District Court that Fennell once told him he would choke his girlfriend to death with a belt if she cheated on him.

Fennell had a reputation for his explosive anger and violence against women, one that would culminate in an indictment against him, in December 2007, for the rape and kidnapping of a woman who he took into custody while on duty with the Georgetown Police Department.. Last September, he pled guilty to the charges rather than facing trial and was sentenced to ten years.

That same month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Reed's latest appeal. As the Austin Chronicle pointed out, the ruling affirmed an earlier decision by Bastrop County Judge Reva Towslee Corbett, who happened to be the daughter of the judge in Reed's original trial. Not surprisingly, Corbett saw no proof that that state had done anything wrong in sentencing him to death.

Rodney Reed has been waiting to die for almost ten years. If the courts continue to rubber stamp his conviction, it will only be a matter of time before he finds himself facing an execution date for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.

To learn more about the case of Rodney Reed,go here.

Efrén Paredes, Jr.

In 1989, Efrén Paredes, Jr was just 15, a Latino honors student in a small Michigan town, when he was accused of an unlikely murder: the killing of his boss, Rick Tetzlaff, the 28-year-old assistant manager at Roger's Vineland Foodland in St. Joseph, Michigan. Paredes worked part time bagging groceries; that night, he had been asked to cover a shift and then agreed to stay late to help Tetzlaff with some chores. Tetzlaff offered to give Paredes a ride home so that he would be home by 9:30, at his mother's request. Later that night, Tetzlaff was shot dead in the store, the victim of a robbery and grisly "thrill kill," according to prosecutors, who singled out Paredes as the murderer.

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.

Of all of the teenagers, Paredes was the youngest, the first 15-year-old defendant in the county ever to be tried as an adult. He was also the only one who refused tp plead guilty. "If they said they would release me tomorrow if I would plead guilty, I wouldn't do it," he said. He was given three life sentences, with no possibility of parole, a virtual in-house death sentence.

(Later it was discovered that the jury had been overwhelmingly in favor of acquitting Paredes, but the jury foreman, a man named Brian Marsh, argued forcefully for him to be found guilty. Marsh, it turned out, was a co-worker of a relative of Rick Tetzlaff.)

For the past two decades, activists led by Paredes's family have been fighting for a re-examination of his case. In December 2008, he was granted a public hearing by the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board; nearly 200 people attended.

Paredes is now 36 years old. After the U.S.Supreme Court declined to hear his case, a commutation request on his behalf was sent to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm. This past April, members of the Parole Board sent their recommendation on the case to Granholm's office. They will not publicly announce what the recommendation was. "Now the Governor will issue a final decision which could be rendered any day now," Paredes's mother says. In an article in the Detroit Free Press, Jeff Gerritt wrote that Paredes is "probably innocent." But, like other innocent prisoners who refuse to express remorse for a crime they did not commit, this lack of remorse could convince the Board to deny his commutation request.

"Granholm should seriously consider the recommendations of the Parole Board, but the power of commutation is hers alone," wrote Gerritt. "In the Paredes case and others, the Parole Board should not keep her from doing the right thing."

To learn more about this case, and to sign a petition on behalf of Paredes,go here.

Timothy McKinney

On Christmas night, 1997, Timothy McKinney was one of hundreds of revelers at a comedy club in Memphis, Tennessee, when an off-duty police officer moonlighting as a security guard was shot, later dying from his injuries.

McKinney had argued with the officer, a man named Donald Williams, earlier that night -- he was upset because he could not find his car and he thought it had been stolen or towed -- but upon being accused of the murder, he swore he was innocent.

He had a case: According to an official police statement by Williams' colleague, Frank Lee, who heard the gunshot and ran after the shooter, the assailant was an African American male wearing a "black t-shirt, black pants, orange or gold hushpuppy like shoes, orange bandana around his mouth, no hat."

This hardly matched the outfit McKinney had on that night, an outfit described by Lee himself, in the same statement, as a "multi-color sweater" with "circular designs around the arm, and around the body of the shirt -- they were gold, yellow, red," and "a gold sleeveless leather vest." McKinney’s pants were described as "black or navy blue trousers." The one similarity were his shows, hushpuppies described as "orange or orange gold."

This contradiction -- within the same police document, no less -- didn't seem to faze the cops. Neither did a different description of the shooter from another eyewitness, a 24-year-old woman named Joyce Jeltz, who was leaving the club when Williams was shot. In her initial statement to police, she described the killer as wearing "a dark color knit turtle neck sweater pulled over his nose and mouth" and "brown pants." She also described his hair -- no mention of a hat -- as "dark brown," with a "low fade hair cut."

Jeltz was shown a photo array of six black men and asked: "After viewing the photographs did you recognize an individual that was responsible for this crime?" Jeltz said, "No."

"I cannot identify the suspect at this time," she said, signing her statement at 11:26 AM.

(Jeltz's friend, 23-year-old Karen Thornton, also described the shooter as wearing a "black turtle neck sweater and dark pants or stone wash jeans." According to her, though, he was also wearing a skull cap. Thorton's statement did not make it into the courtroom, however.)

Yet, when it came time for the trial, the case against McKinney hinged almost entirely on eyewitness testimony from the same people whose descriptions of the killer didn't match McKinney: Lee and Jeltz. It helped that during the trial, Jeltz's story changed: Not only did she identify him as the shooter, she also described his outfit -- specifically, the gold vest -- from the photograph. (Later, upon being cross-examined, she admitted that the prosecutors had shown her the vest that morning.)

Timothy McKinney's trial began on his 25th birthday. It lasted just two days. According to court documents, "the defense presented no evidence at trial" -- an incredible statement, given its implications. As attorneys working on McKinney's appeal later argued, "the decision to put on no defense cannot conceivably be characterized as a reasonable strategic choice in this case." Perhaps one of the defense team's most important efforts -- the introduction of an expert witness on wrongful identifications, the leading factor behind wrongful convictions -- was denied by the court.

 On July 14, 1999, McKinney was convicted of premeditated, first-degree murder, and of attempted second degree murder. He was sentenced to death.

In the years since his trial, evidence that never made it into court has raised alarming -- and long overdue -- questions about McKinney's death sentence. In addition to the absurdly contradictory eyewitness statements, according to recent appellate briefs, "police dispatch logs … not produced until long after the trial confirmed that, for Mr. McKinney to have been responsible for the shooting, a lengthy series of events must have all occurred between 2:01 a.m. and 2:30 a.m. (when the crime was committed), rather than between 12:30 am. and 2:35 a.m., as the prosecution asserted at trial." Among them: driving to his girlfriend's house, four miles away, arguing with her for 20 minutes, and driving back. Officer Lee's claim that McKinney was the only patron who clashed with the guards that night has also been proven false: Seven other people who were there have since testified that multiple confrontations had occurred that night between patrons and the officers.

Hundreds of people were said to have been at the club that night. 150 have been identified. Of those, a third reportedly have police records. Attorneys for McKinney believe they know the true identity of the person who killed Williams that night. But above all, they argue that McKinney did not get a fair trial, that he was railroaded to the death house on false and circumstantial evidence.

McKinney has been on death row for ten years. He still insists upon his innocence.

To learn more about Timothy McKinney,go here.

Anthony McKinney

Anthony McKinney (no relation to Timothy McKinney) has spent 31 years in prison for the killing of a security guard in 1978, when he was 18 years old. In the past few years, journalism students at Northwestern University have re-investigated his case, uncovering incontrovertible proof of his innocence. "After more than three years of reporting, involving nine reporting teams, we became convinced that Anthony had been wrongly convicted and that several other men were responsible for the crime," according to David Protess, director of the Medill Innocence Project, who calls the McKinney case "about the most tragic I've ever seen."

According to Protess:

Around 9:30 p.m. on September 15, 1978, Donald Lundahl, a white security guard, was sitting in his car in the far south Chicago suburb of Harvey when he was murdered at close range by a shotgun blast. Later that evening, one of the Harvey police officers who was called to investigate the murder noticed an African-American youth, Anthony McKinney, running down the street near the crime scene. The officer arrested Anthony, even though he possessed no weapon, signs of blood spatter or other physical evidence that would have predictably linked him to the brutal homicide.
Anthony, an 18-year-old Harvey resident with no history of violent crime, professed his innocence and explained that he was running from gang-bangers when the officer saw him. Lacking any direct evidence against Anthony, the Harvey police released him, though he remained a prime suspect. The authorities soon began questioning others about the crime, including another Harvey teenager, Wayne Phillips. Phillips eventually told police that he was an eyewitness to the murder, claiming that -- from 50 yards away -- he saw Anthony point the shotgun at Lundahl and declare, "Your money or your life." Anthony then was re-arrested, and, after a lengthy interrogation, signed a confession (typed by police) admitting the crime and saying the motive was robbery.

Prosecutors in the case sought the death penalty, but McKinney was sentenced to natural life in prison.

Decades later, McKinney's brother, Michael, got in touch with Northwester's Innocence Project, convincing them to take up the case. Journalism students re-interviewed original witnesses, discovering that they had been beaten and coerced by the police into giving false testimony. One man, Dennis Pettis, was 15 years old the night he and Wayne Phillips were picked up for questioning by two police officers, who he identified as McCarthy and Morrison.

In a sworn affidavit dated October 2005, Pettis said that the officers put the two boys in separate rooms. "I told them that I did not see the murder and did not know anything about it," he said. "But they told me that Wayne said that he had seen the murder and that I was with him and saw the murder, too."

The officers tried to get Pettis to implicate Anthony McKinney, telling him that his friend already had. "McCarthy and Morrison also told me that if I didn't give Anthony McKinney up, Anthony would give me up." The officers also also implied that "if I went along with their story, I would get the reward money that the police department was offering for information on the murder." When he still did not say what they wanted him to say, Pettis says "McCarty and Morrison started to beat me up."

"They hit me, punched me, kicked me, and tried to intimidate me They implied that they were going to kill me if I said anything different from what they were telling me to say."

Pettis finally said he wrote down what he was told "because I wanted to leave that room alive."

"What I wrote down was not true, but I signed it because I wanted to go home."

Pettit testified before the grand jury -- "I was scared of what McCarthy and Morrison would do to me if I didn't go along with their story" -- but he skipped town before the trial. ("I did not want to lie again and I was scared of what McCarty and Morrison would do to me if I told the truth.") Three weeks after his interrogation, Pettis left home to live with an aunt on the West side of Chicago. He stayed for seven years.

"I am coming forward with the truth now because I am no longer afraid that McCarthy and Morrison will hurt me," Pettis said on October 8, 2005. He was 42 years old.

Like Pettis, Phillips, too says today that he was beaten up by the police. Both men have recanted their original testimony, on tape.

Most recently, the McKinney case has been at the center of a controversy between the Cook County States Attorney's office and Northwestern. With a new hearing on the case coming up, prosecutors are now going after the journalism students and their investigation. According to the Chicago Tribune, the Cook County state's attorney has "subpoenaed the students' grades, notes and recordings of witness interviews, the class syllabus and even e-mails they sent to each other and to professor David Protess of the university's Medill School of Journalism."

The school has turned over documents relating to the new evidence in the case, but it is putting up a fight when it comes to grades and other academic records.  As Protess recently told the Tribune. “Prosecutors should be more concerned with the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney than with my students' grades."

Liliana Segura is an AlterNet staff writer and editor of Rights & Liberties and World Special Coverage. http://twitter.com/LilianaSegura