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A 9-year-old’s murder puts an innocent man in jail

A 9-year-old’s murder puts an innocent man in jail

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The body of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton is found in a wooded area of Rosedale, Maryland, near her home. The young girl had been raped and beaten to death with a rock. Unfortunately, Hamilton and her family were not the only ones to suffer because of this terrible crime.

After witnesses saw a suspicious man in the area of the murder scene, a police sketch was publicized on television and in newspapers. Two weeks later, an anonymous caller identified Kirk Bloodsworth, a 23-year-old ex-Marine, as the man in the sketch. Bloodsworth, who had been in Baltimore (which is close to Rosedale) at the time of Hamilton’s murder, later returned to his home in Cambridge and told friends that he had done something that would harm his marriage.

Prosecutors, with little evidence other than this, accused Bloodsworth of murder. During the trial in 1985, the defense presented several witnesses who said that they were with Bloodsworth at the time of the murder. Disregarding his alibi, the jury convicted Bloodsworth and sent him to death row.

For the next seven years, Bloodsworth maintained his innocence while in prison. In the meantime, forensic DNA testing had come of age. On Dawn Hamilton’s underwear, policehad a spot of semen,smaller than a dime, and science had finally progressed to the point where this small amount of physical evidence could be tested. When Bloodsworth’s attorneys were eventually granted permission to test the semen spot, Forensic Science Associates, a private California laboratory, found that it did not match Bloodsworth’s DNA.

After the FBI’s crime lab confirmed this test, prosecutors in Baltimore County had no choice but to release Bloodsworth (but pointedly refused to apologize). On June 28, 1993, nine years after first going to jail, Kirk Bloodsworth was released. He was officially pardoned later in the year.

Innocent prisoner's dilemma

The innocent prisoner's dilemma, or parole deal, is a detrimental effect of a legal system in which admission of guilt can result in reduced sentences or early parole. When an innocent person is wrongly convicted of a crime, legal systems which need the individual to admit guilt — as, for example, a prerequisite step leading to parole — punish an innocent person for their integrity, and reward a person lacking in integrity. There have been cases where innocent prisoners were given the choice between freedom, in exchange for claiming guilt, and remaining imprisoned and telling the truth. Individuals have died in prison rather than admit to crimes that they did not commit.

United States law professor Daniel Medwed says convicts who go before a parole board maintaining their innocence are caught in a Catch-22 that he calls "the innocent prisoner’s dilemma". [1] A false admission of guilt and remorse by an innocent person at a parole hearing may prevent a later investigation proving their innocence. [2]

Prosecutor says man was wrongfully imprisoned for decades, yet he remains behind bars

“I think I’ve been destroyed,” Kevin Strickland said of life behind bars.

Prosecutors call for innocent man’s release, but existing law prevents it

Kevin Strickland spent his 62nd birthday behind bars. It’s the 43rd time he has spent a birthday in prison and says he desperately hopes it will be his last.

“I was determined to spend this birthday as awake as I could,” he told ABC News in an exclusive interview. “You never know if it’s going to be your last one.”

“I think I’ve been destroyed,” Strickland went on to say. “I've been placed in an environment where I had to adapt to living with all sorts of confessed criminals. The way I see things now is not normal, I would think, for somebody in society.”

The Jackson County Prosecutor's Office is the same prosecutor's office that originally tried Strickland for three Kansas City, Missouri, murders in 1978. It announced that it now believes Strickland is innocent after the key witness and only victim to survive the attack recanted her story.

“I’m here advocating for Mr. Strickland’s freedom and his conviction should be vacated,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in May. “Most importantly, though, I am advocating that this man must be freed immediately.”

Weeks later, Strickland is still behind bars. He says he doesn’t think he has “a lot of time left,” and sometimes needs a wheelchair to get around.

“I’ve experienced a couple of heart attacks,” Strickland said. “I got high blood pressure. My ability to stand is diminished.”

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The calls to free Strickland are growing after the Midwest Innocence Project (MIP) took on his case three years ago.

“I think, here, when there's not a question of innocence . the prosecutor and other authority figures agree that he should come home,” MIP lawyer Tricia Rojo Bushnell said. “I would certainly hope that our elected officials would give it a really hard and quick look.”

More than a dozen state lawmakers are now calling on Missouri Governor Mike Parson to pardon Strickland. Among them, Rep. Andrew McDaniel, the Republican chair of the state’s House committee that oversees its prison system.

Three people are murdered in Kansas City

Strickland was sentenced in 1979, a year after he was arrested for the gruesome triple homicide.

The grisly shooting took the lives of 20-year-old John Walker, 22-year-old Sherrie Black and 21-year-old Larry Ingram. It took place more than 2 miles away from Strickland’s family home, where he was staying.

Strickland, who was 18 years old at the time, said he was home watching TV and talking on the phone when the crime occurred.

Relatives confirmed his alibi at the time. He says it wasn’t until the next morning that police started accusing him of the triple murder.

He said he remembers thinking, “This can’t be happening.”

The crime shook the local community. While Strickland was in custody and charged with the murders, two other suspects, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, were on the run. Police later arrested them for the crime as well.

Police said they had found Strickland’s fingerprint on Bell’s car. Strickland, who’d grown up with Bell, said he had driven the car on multiple occasions.

“Bell, he actually lived … [with] two houses between his family home and my home. . And I met them and I was in the sixth grade,” Strickland said.

Strickland said he’d only seen Bell and Adkins earlier on the day that the murder happened, at 5 or 6 p.m. and that he didn’t know what they planned to do that night.

At the time, he said he was confident Cynthia Douglas, the only surviving victim, knew him and would know he was not involved. But Douglas later pointed him out as one of the shooters in a police lineup.

He said he was in “total disbelief.” However, Strickland still didn’t think he’d end up convicted, believing, “no, the system works.”

“It works. They don’t make mistakes like this. This is a capital murder charge,” he said of his thoughts at the time. “This is a big deal. They don’t make mistakes and grab the wrong person. Do they?”

His first trial ended in a hung jury. The only Black juror was the lone holdout.

“I’ll never forget it,” Strickland said. He said that after the trial, the prosecutor at the time came over to his table. “I’m sitting there and he tells my attorney, he said, ‘I’ll make sure this doesn’t happen next time.’”

“What that meant,” Bushnell said, “is [that in] the second trial, the prosecutor used every one of his peremptory strikes … to strike the remaining black jurors from the pool. And Mr. Strickland was convicted by an all-white jury.”

Strickland says he “totally” believes race played a role in his conviction. He says he was not given the presumption of innocence during his second trial.

“I didn’t know I could cry that bad,” he said, remembering his first trial. “I mean, this is unbelievable.”

Both Bell and Adkins ultimately admitted to the murders and cleared Strickland from any role in the crime in sworn confessions.

Recognizing Kevin Strickland’s innocence

During a press conference earlier this month, Prosecutor Baker, who was not involved in the original case, said, “it is important to recognize when the system has made wrongs and what we did in this case was wrong.”

Strickland said the recognition of his innocence helps.

“Yes. Coming from her,” he said. “Yes, because she didn't have to say that.”

Strickland has always maintained his innocence, but others began to reconsider the case in February 2009, when MIP received an unexpected email from Douglas.

“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused,” she wrote. “I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.”

Douglas eventually told her relatives that police had pressured her during the lineup, according to Kansas City Star reporter Luke Nozicka. She told her now ex-husband that the police told her all she had to do was pick Strickland and this would be over.

“She didn't do this intentionally,” Strickland said. “Kansas City Police Department pushed trying to identify me. … I believe they kind of told her, either you're going to work with us or we're going to place these charges on you. Might [have] even suggested that she was involved in some kind of way.”

The Kansas City Police Department said in a statement to ABC News that “this case was tried and prosecuted by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. They would be the only ones I would direct you to for any comment about this case. … In a case involving all details and comments have to come from the prosecutor’s office.”

Douglas has since died, but she made sure to document her recantation in different places and told different people about the recantation.

“The most important piece of evidence was a recantation of a witness,” Baker said.

The fight for Kevin Strickland’s release

Last week, the Missouri Office of the Governor announced 36 pardons, but Strickland was not one of them.

“When something like [Strickland’s case] comes up, we look at those cases but I don’t know [if] that necessarily makes it a priority to jump in front of the line,” Parson said. “We understand some cases are going to draw more attention through the media than others, but we’re just going to look at those things.”

Strickland has served more than 15,000 days behind bars. If exonerated, his term will be one of the longest wrongful imprisonments in U.S. history.

“Let's just call it what it is. This is wrong,” Baker said. “Everyone that works in this system must find a way to do the right thing. Now, the right thing is getting Mr. Strickland out.”

Baker said that even if Kevin Strickland is pardoned, he won’t get much more than an apology.

“Under Missouri law, those who have been exonerated do not get compensation. It's another wrong,” she said.

In the “Show-Me” state of Missouri, it’s unclear what else Strickland would have to do to prove his innocence.

For decades, the state’s Attorney General’s Office has fought nearly every wrongful conviction case, according to Injustice Watch. For Strickland, a commutation of his sentence would not be enough -- he wants to be pardoned or exonerated.

“[Commutation is] kind of saying I did it but you feel like I have served enough time. No, I didn't do it,” he said. “No, wipe it off.”

Bell and Adkins each served about 10 years in prison after admitting to the crime and that Strickland wasn’t involved.

“I mean, unbelievable,” Strickland said. “I mean, I don't know how could somebody admit to doing it, come in and go out,” he said. “I denied it from the start and I'm still here. You keep taking me back to feelings and I really can't put them in words.”

Simply put, Strickland says he’s become “numb.”

One thing he says he feels is a burdensome sense of loss. His childhood home is now just an empty lot. His brother, L.R. Strickland, who has always maintained that he was home on the night of the murders, told ABC News their mother may not have much time left to live.

In addition, Strickland said, “I really hate that I missed out my daughter growing up, calling somebody else dad. Yes, that's a heartbreaker.”

He and his family hope that one day they may be reunited.

“My father never lost faith in his son, Kevin,” L.R. Strickland said. “He did visit him at every opportunity. He visited my brother even after he was no longer able because of medical problems. My father passed in 2011. I believe that [he] was heartbroken -- for my father not to see his son released from prison -- because that meant so much to him.”

Kevin Strickland said that he joked with a friend that he might have to live under a bridge if he is released.

“What do I have? And I mean, if they … take this [wheel]chair, I would have to crawl out the front door. I have nothing,” Strickland said.

He says he doesn’t know what justice is, but he knows he hasn’t seen it yet.

With more representation and eyes on his case, Kevin Strickland said that he’s hopeful “more so now than ever.”

Yet still, just last week, the Missouri Supreme Court denied a petition to free him, something his lawyer calls a procedural barrier.

“We don't know why the Missouri Supreme Court denied,” Bushnell said. “It was simply denied and no explanation was given.”

Bushnell has petitioned the lower circuit court in DeKalb County, where Kevin Strickland is being held.

“They have asked the attorney general to respond and to make known their position in July,” she said.

Another course they might take is via a state Senate bill.

“The Missouri legislature just passed a bill, Senate bill 53, which allows a prosecutor to file a motion for [a] new trial to overturn a wrongful conviction,” she said. “So, if that law goes into effect, it would go into effect on Aug. 28.”

The bill is sitting on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature. Strickland is also waiting hoping, he says, to one day see the ocean.

“I've never been on a beach. No, not even a man-made beach,” he said. “I want to go and have [a] clear ocean where you can see the sand and the water. And I want to go out far in the ocean where you can't see any land, any direction, and not just go out there, but get in that water. I want to feel the power. You know, God's creation.”

ABC News' Karin Weinberg, Cho Park, Stephanie Fasano and Anna Katharine Ping contributed to this report.


In the early morning hours of June 7, 1998, Clarence Elkins' mother-in-law, 58-year-old Judy Johnson, and his wife's six-year-old niece, Brooke, were brutally attacked by an intruder in Johnson's home in Barberton, Ohio. Johnson had been asleep on her living room couch when she was attacked. She was raped, stabbed, and beaten so severely that her nose, jaw, collarbone and skull were all fractured in the assault. Her cause of death was determined to be strangulation. [8] [9] Brooke, who was sleeping in her grandmother's bed, was awakened by the noise. She recalls: "I got out of bed and I went to the kitchen and I looked and I seen that there was a guy in the kitchen, but it scared me, so I ran back to the bedroom." She hid under the covers pretending to be asleep. The intruder entered the bedroom and struck Brooke in the face, knocking her unconscious. She was also beaten, raped, strangled, and suffered a small cut to her throat, but survived without any memory of the attack. She regained consciousness several hours later around 7 am [10] and telephoned a neighbor, leaving a message on their answering machine:

I'm sorry to tell you this, but my grandma died and I need somebody to get my mom for me. I'm all alone. Somebody killed my grandma. Now please, would you get ahold of me as soon as you can. Bye. [9]

Brooke then walked to a neighbor's house, the home of Earl Mann's common-law-wife Tonia Brasiel, and knocked on the door. Brasiel came to the door, told the nightgown-clad, bruised and bloody child she was cooking breakfast for her children and told her to wait on the porch until she could drive her home, which she did approximately 45 minutes later. [11] [12]

When the police questioned Brooke, she said that the killer "looked like Uncle Clarence" – Mrs. Johnson's 35-year-old son-in-law, Clarence Elkins. The police interpreted this to mean Elkins himself was the attacker. Brasiel also reported to Brooke's mother that Brooke had identified Elkins as the attacker. [10] [13] Years later, Brooke said she had grave doubts about the identification at the time but went along with it. "I just wasn't sure it was Uncle Clarence or not," Brooke said. "But I was too afraid to say anything". Elkins was arrested on the basis of this identification. [13] She later described the situation on Larry King: "I woke up and I found my grandma dead, I went to a next door neighbor's house and I told her that it looked like my uncle Clarence and it sounded like him. So, she took me home and she told my mom that -- what I told her and then everyone just started freaking out. And then my mom and dad called the police and my mom and dad told the police that it was my uncle Clarence who did it." When asked how the identification could go so wrong, she replied, "Well, I told people that it looked like him and they just went like it was him. They didn't even listen to what I was saying." [14] [15]

At trial, the prosecution theorized that Elkins killed his mother-in-law due to frustration because she was meddling in his then-contentious marriage to her daughter, Melinda. [16] The case against Elkins was largely based on the testimony of the 6-year-old eyewitness however, investigators did not find signs of forced entry, or fingerprints or DNA linking Elkins to the scene. Hairs recovered from Johnson's body were excluded as having come from either Elkins or Johnson. [17] He insisted he was drinking with friends until about 2:40 a.m. Sunday morning, a timeline that Melinda corroborated. She testified that she saw Clarence return home, and knew he remained there, as she was awake most of the night caring for a sick child. The attack occurred sometime between 2:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. Johnson's residence is more than an hour away by car. [9] Elkins's alibi was also corroborated by his neighbors and friends. [15]

Based on the testimony of Brooke identifying him as her attacker, he was convicted on June 10, 1999 of murder, attempted aggravated murder, two counts of rape by force or threat of force, and felonious assault, and sentenced to two terms of life-imprisonment. [18] [11] Elkins' case was first overseen by Judge Beth Whitmore, then tried under Judge John Adams in Akron, Ohio. [19] It was the first murder trial over which Judge Adams had presided. [ citation needed ]

After the conviction, Elkins and his wife Melinda began their own investigation and hired a private investigator, Martin Yant, who had previously assisted with the exonerations of numerous wrongfully convicted defendants. [9]

Reconciliation Edit

Since the night of the crime, Judy's family had been divided due to the case, with some members certain of his guilt and others of his innocence. Brooke had not seen Melinda or her children since the trial. Three years after the trial, the family reconciled. [9] [13] Brooke confessed her uncertainty, stating, "It couldn't have been Clarence. The person that hurt me and me-maw had brown eyes. And Clarence has blue eyes." [9]

Clarence's attorney interviewed Brooke on camera where she recanted her earlier implication of Elkins. Clarence appealed his conviction with this new evidence. The judge believed the child had been coached by relatives after the reconciliation the appeal was denied. [9]

DNA Edit

After the failed appeal, they decided to retest the evidence for DNA. The court ruled that Melinda could have access to DNA recovered from the scene, but she would have to pay the costs of DNA testing. Melinda raised almost $40,000 on her own before asking the Ohio Innocence Project for assistance. They convinced a laboratory in Texas to test two samples for $25,000, half their normal price. The results excluded Clarence Elkins. [9] Clarence appealed the conviction again on the basis of the new DNA evidence. The court ruled that because a jury convicted him without DNA evidence, they would have convicted him even if it didn't match. [9] Summit County Common Court Judge Judy Hunter denied Elkins' motion in July 2005. After the second failed appeal, the family's further research gained information regarding the next door neighbor, Tonia Brasiel, who had driven Brooke home the morning after the attack. It was discovered that Brasiel's common law husband, Earl Mann, was a convicted sex offender who had been released from prison just two days before the murder, on June 5, 1998. [20] It had been overlooked that Mann's wife Tonia left Brooke, a severely beaten and bloody 6-year-old in immediate need of medical care, on the porch for more than 30 minutes instead of telephoning 911 immediately. [9]

Melinda determined to sample Mann's DNA, but he was in prison by that time. Coincidentally, Mann was serving his time at Mansfield Correctional facility, the same facility where Clarence was serving his sentence. Clarence Elkins collected a cigarette butt discarded by Mann. He sent the cigarette to his attorney who sent it to a laboratory for testing. It was a match. [9]

Earl G. Mann [21] was born in Melbourne, Florida, before relocating to Ohio. He had an extensive criminal record for crimes ranging from a racially motivated assault on another man to robberies. During 2002, Mann was convicted of raping three girls, his daughters, all under the age of 10. He had three children with Tonia Brasiel, who lived next door to Judith Johnson. Brooke frequently played with their daughters. [22]

In 2005, after Mann was identified as a suspect, Barberton police officer Gerard Antenucci brought to the attention of the prosecution the existence of a memorandum from 1999, four months before Elkins' trial. Antenucci arrested Mann for an unrelated robbery. During the process of his arrest, a drunk and belligerent Mann asked why he hadn't been arrested for the murder of Judy Johnson. Per policy, the arresting officer sent a memo to the detectives working the Johnson murder. This statement was never disclosed to the defense. [17] [23]

After Mann was identified, Brasiel admitted during questioning that Mann returned home the early morning hours after the murder with deep scratches on his back. When she questioned him, he claimed he'd been with a "wild woman". According to Brasiel, when Brooke knocked on the door following the attack, he became angry and insisted that Brasiel not let her in nor call police. [16]

Melinda Elkins has stated that she suspects Brasiel may have influenced Brooke's identification of Clarence. Brasiel was the first person to hear the six-year-old's alleged identification of Elkins. Despite Mann's suspicious behavior that morning, Brasiel reported to Brooke's mother, after driving Brooke home, that the child had named Clarence as the attacker. Furthermore, Brasiel testified at Elkins's trial that the child had told her that Clarence was the perpetrator. [10]

Despite the DNA evidence connecting Mann to the murder, the district attorney refused to release Elkins. [8] Elkins's attorney contacted Ohio State Attorney General Jim Petro. Petro personally contacted prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh, on several occasions, regarding the case. He similarly discovered that she was not interested in reviewing the case. Petro then took the unorthodox action of having a press conference, in order to publicly pressure the prosecutor to dismiss the charges. The prosecutors performed more DNA testing of hairs found at the scene, and again, Mann was identified. [8] [9]

On December 15, 2005, the charges against Elkins were dismissed, and he was released from prison. [24] He filed for divorce in September 2006, [25] [26] which was finalized in 2007. [27]

In 2008, ten years after the crimes were committed, in a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty, Mann pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated rape and aggravated murder for the death of Johnson, as well as aggravated rape of Brooke. He was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison, and will not be eligible for parole until age 92. [28]

Clarence Elkins settled with the state of Ohio for US$1.075 million. He later filed a civil suit against the Barberton police for failing to disclose the incriminating statement by Earl Mann during his 1999 arrest. Barberton police sought to have the case dismissed, but failed. The judge ruled that had Mann's statement to Officer Gerard Antenucci been disclosed to the defense, they most likely would have noticed the proximity of Mann, a convicted felon, to the Johnson residence, as well as the behavior of Tonia Brasiel on the morning after the murder. Mann's DNA would almost certainly have been tested, and Elkins would almost certainly not have been convicted. [17] [23] Elkins later settled with the Barberton police for $5.25 million. [29]

Melinda Elkins Dawson was instrumental in getting Ohio to pass Senate Bill 262, also known as Post Conviction DNA Law. This bill contains provisions for DNA testing post-conviction, using outcome determinitive guidelines. Melinda also serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for "Ohioans to stop executions". As a public speaker and victim advocate, she continues to fight for justice and to increase awareness of wrongful convictions.

Clarence Elkins was instrumental in getting Ohio to pass Senate Bill 77, also known as Ohio's Innocence Protection Act. [2] This bill includes provisions requiring the police to follow best practices for eyewitness identifications, provides incentives for the videotaping of interrogations, and requires that DNA be preserved in homicide and sexual assault cases. Elkins spent much time advocating for what has been termed the "national model" of innocence reform bills, and the "most important piece of criminal justice legislation in Ohio in a century". [3] [4]

Clarence also engages in public speaking about his case and wrongful convictions in general at universities and other locations across the United States. [10]

During 2011, Clarence and his new wife, Molly, established the Clarence Elkins Scholarship at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. This scholarship provides $5,000 annually to the Ohio Innocence Project housed at UC Law School, and includes a scholarship to two students in the Ohio Innocence Project each year. [30]

In 2009, a television documentary about the Elkins case was released, named "Conviction: The True Story of Clarence Elkins". [31]

Melinda's story of her efforts was later optioned by movie producer/screenwriter David Massar, who said a script is in development. [21]

Clarence Elkins case was covered in the "All Butt Certain" episode of Forensic Files. It was also covered in an episode of I Solved a Murder.

An innocent man spent 46 years in prison. And made a plan to kill the man who framed him.

Richard Phillips survived the longest wrongful prison sentence in American history by writing poetry and painting with watercolors. But on a cold day in the prison yard, he carried a knife and thought about revenge.

By Thomas Lake, CNN
Video by Matthew Gannon, CNN
Photographs by Brittany Greeson for CNN

Richard Phillips is a tall man with broad shoulders and a habit of singing to himself, usually without words, a deep and joyful sound that seems to rise from his soul. He began singing when he was a boy, and kept singing in prison, and now sings in the car, and at the dinner table, sustaining that one long note, as if nothing in the world could stop the music.

Two days after he was sentenced to life in prison in 1972, Phillips wrote a poem. It may have been the first poem he ever wrote. He was 26 years old, and had left high school in tenth grade, and now, with plenty of time to wonder, he took a pencil and set his wondering down on the page. He wondered about the color of raindrops, the color of the sky, the color of his heart, the color of his words when he sang aloud, and the color of his need for someone to hold. He missed holding his children, missed lacing their shoes and wiping away their tears, and he knew the only way he’d ever return to them was to somehow prove his innocence.

One appeal failed in 1974, another in 1975. Phillips thought he might win with a better lawyer, so he took a job at the prison’s license-plate factory, in the inking department, catching freshly inked plates as they came out of the chute and sending them by conveyor belt to the drying oven. The wages were bad by civilian standards but good by prison standards, maybe $100 a month plus bonuses, and Phillips opened a bank account and watched the money accumulate.

About four years later he had enough to pay one of the best appellate lawyers in Michigan, so he sent in the money and waited for freedom. All the while he thought of his children, and remembered the taste of homemade ice cream, and wrote love poems to women, both real and imaginary, featuring beds made of violets and warm baths made of tears.

Richard Phillips was exonerated after spending more than four decades in prison.

He waited, and waited. On January 1, 1979, a date confirmed by his journal, Phillips was in his room when another inmate walked in with some news. He’d just seen Fred Mitchell in the chow hall. It was a cold gray Monday at the Jackson prison, and Phillips had not seen his children in 2,677 days. Fred Mitchell? Phillips knew what to do.

On his way he stopped to tell a friend.

I’m coming with you, the friend said.

The prison was home to several factories. This meant easy access to raw materials, including scrap metal, which also meant an abundance of homemade knives. Phillips and his friend each held one under a sleeve as they stood outside the chow hall, waiting for Mitchell to emerge. Here he was, walking across the yard, unaware of the two men walking behind him.

Phillips could see it all in his mind. He would wait until Mitchell reached the Blind Spot, a well-known location the guards couldn’t see. He would plunge the shank into Mitchell’s neck. And he just might get away with it.

This would feel like justice.

Phillips was about 12 years old when his stepfather’s watch disappeared. It was a Friday night in Detroit around 1958. The stepfather had a thick leather belt. He took a drink of Johnnie Walker and asked Phillips if he’d taken the watch. Phillips said no. The stepfather beat him with the belt for a long time. Then he asked again: Did you steal my watch? Phillips said no. The beating continued. Did you steal my watch? No. The belt tore into the boy’s skin. His mother watched, too afraid to intervene. The stepfather asked once more for a confession. Phillips stood firm. The belt struck again, and again, and again, and finally it shattered some internal barrier. Did you steal my watch? Yes, the boy said, just to make it stop, and the young man who emerged from that beating told himself that was the last false confession he would ever make.

Some lies require more lies. Phillips had to account for the watch somehow, so he said he’d given it to another boy at school. The stepfather told him to go to school Monday and get it back. Phillips went up to sleep in the roach-infested attic, as he did every night, and wondered how to conjure a watch out of thin air. The next morning he ran away. He gathered a can of pork and beans and a can opener and a few slices of bread and an empty syrup bottle full of Kool-Aid and he crammed them into his lunchbox and walked outside into his new life. That night he slept on the hard floor of a vacant house, aware that he had no one in the world but himself.

The police caught him the next day. His stepfather beat him again. And alone in the attic or on the streets of Detroit, Phillips taught himself how to survive. How to steal cherries from other people’s trees. How to have a vicarious Christmas morning by talking his way into a neighbor’s house and watching other children open their presents. How to escape into his own mind by drawing pictures: an airplane, or Superman, or even the Mona Lisa, with a pencil on a piece of cardboard.

On those streets, he made the friend who would betray him.

Phillips walks around Detroit’s Greektown district after stopping by a few casinos.

Little is known about the life of Fred Mitchell beyond a few memories of old acquaintances and the occasional mention in official records. When this reporter approached his sister in late 2019 to ask about Mitchell, she said, “Get the f--- off my porch.” Anyway, he was a good baseball player in the old days, when a lot of boys looked up to the great centerfielder Willie Mays. Fred Mitchell could chase down a deep fly and catch it over his shoulder, just like the Say Hey Kid.

When they were not playing baseball, Phillips and Mitchell and their friends skipped school and played with BB guns and drank beer in alleys and fought in backyards and played hide-and-seek with the cops. They were juvenile delinquents on the verge of becoming hardened criminals in a city where violent crime was all around.

A single issue of the Detroit Daily Dispatch newspaper gives a sense of the chaos and desperation. A man told police, “I have shot four men today.” Two women fought with knives one was stabbed to death. Kidnappers robbed and raped a doctor’s wife. It was December 13, 1967. At the bottom of Page 2 was a brief item about a 19-year-old man pleading guilty to manslaughter. This was Fred Mitchell, who quarreled with another young man and then shot him to death.

By this time, Phillips had taken a better path. After a joyriding conviction led to a brief prison sentence, he took a typing class and learned to type 72 words per minute. Out on parole, he turned this new skill into a good job at the Chrysler plant in Hamtramck, typing out time sheets and bills of lading for $4.10 an hour—more than $33 an hour in today’s dollars. He put on a suit in the morning and rode the bus to work, spending less time with the old crew.

Phillips had a strong jaw and an easy manner. He charmed the young ladies. One day a girlfriend named Theresa told him she was pregnant, and the baby was his. Phillips stayed with Theresa, and their daughter was born, and they got married and had a son. Theresa worked in a bank. They rented a modest apartment on Gladstone, and Phillips bought a Buick Electra 225. He gave his children the things he never had: abundant love, fancy new clothes, armloads of presents under the Christmas tree.

In 1971, the year Phillips turned 25, things began to unravel. He played around with some pranksters at work, and one prank went too far. Someone dropped a lit cigarette into a guy’s back pocket, and the guy said Phillips did it. Phillips denied it, but he lost his job anyway.

Around this time, Fred Mitchell got out of prison. Jobless and shiftless, with his marriage floundering, Phillips returned to his old friend. These days Mitchell ran with a big white guy he’d met in prison. They called him Dago. The three men went to shows at night and snorted heroin in motel rooms.

Phillips lived a double life, dangerous and unsustainable, a drug addict by night and a father by day. One day in September, he took the children to the Michigan State Fair. His daughter, Rita, was 4. His son, Richard Jr., was 2. They rode the Ferris wheel, crashed around in the bumper cars, and posed together for an instant photograph that was printed on a round metal button. That night Phillips went out and never came home.

Phillips holds one of the last photos ever taken with his daughter, Rita. It was taken in 1970.

Forty-six years later, legal observers would say Richard Phillips had served the longest known wrongful prison sentence in American history. The National Registry of Exonerations lists more than 2,500 people who were convicted of crimes and later found innocent, and Phillips served more time than anyone else on that list. Undoubtedly, the justice system failed him. The police failed. The prosecution failed. His defense attorney failed. The jury failed. The trial judge failed. The appellate judges failed. But on that cold day in the prison yard, as he walked toward the Blind Spot with the homemade knife under his sleeve, Richard Phillips was not thinking about a nameless, faceless system. He was thinking about the man who put him there: his old friend Fred Mitchell.

Here’s how it began: On September 6, 1971, two men walked into a convenience store outside Detroit. The black man stood watch near the door. The white man pulled a gun and demanded money. They drove off with less than $10 in stolen cash. An alert citizen noticed the car driving erratically and called the police. The registration came back to Richard Palombo, also known as Dago, who had stayed the previous night with Mitchell and Phillips at the Twenty Grand Motel in Detroit.

Palombo knew he was caught he would plead guilty to armed robbery. But who was his accomplice? Phillips and Mitchell were both detained shortly after Palombo was. The two men looked similar. In a lineup at the station, two witnesses looked them over. They agreed that the second robber was Richard Phillips.

At Phillips’ trial in November, Palombo took the witness stand and told the jury how he committed the robbery. The prosecutor asked who else was there.

“I don’t want to mention the name,” Palombo said.

The judge ordered a recess. After the jury left, he asked Palombo, “Are you afraid of somebody?”

“No,” Palombo said, “I am not afraid of anybody.”

“Is your silence because you did not wish to incriminate someone else?” Phillips’ lawyer asked.

His silence about the crimes of 1971 would stretch out for 39 years, with disastrous consequences. Even though one prosecution witness wavered between identifying the second robber as Fred Mitchell or Richard Phillips, the jury found Phillips guilty of armed robbery. He was sentenced to at least seven years in prison. And he was still in prison the next winter, when the body of Gregory Harris turned up.

Harris was a 21-year-old man who disappeared in June 1971 after going out to buy cigarettes. His wife found his green convertible the following night. There were bloodstains on the seats. Later that year, according to Detroit police documents, his mother told an officer about a strange phone call. She said an unknown woman told her, “I can’t hold it any longer, a Fred Mitchell and a guy named ‘Dago’ took your son out of a car at LaSalle Street. They shot him in the head and killed him. They then took him out near 10 Mile Road and tossed him from (the) car.”

It is not clear what the police did with that information.

On March 3, 1972, when a street repairman in Troy, Michigan, walked into a thicket to relieve himself, he saw daylight glaring off a shiny object. It was Harris’ skeleton, frozen into the ground. An autopsy showed the cause of death: multiple gunshot wounds to the head.

On March 15, Mitchell was arrested yet again — this time on more unrelated charges of armed robbery and carrying a concealed weapon. The next day, he told police he had information on the death of Gregory Harris. He said the killers were Richard Palombo and Richard Phillips.

The authorities had no physical evidence connecting their suspects to the crime. They had no circumstantial evidence, either. But with the sworn testimony of one man, the police could say they had solved a murder.

Phillips looks out on his balcony at his home in Southfield, Michigan.

When Mitchell took the witness stand on October 2, 1972, to testify against Palombo and Phillips, Palombo’s attorney asked the judge to inform the witness of his right against self-incrimination.

“It’s my opinion that his testimony involves him in a serious crime,” the attorney told the judge.

By Mitchell’s own testimony, he knew about the murder plot before it was carried out. He played a role in the murder by calling Gregory Harris and luring him into a trap. He was arrested in possession of what may have been the murder weapon. And under cross-examination, he admitted to a possible motive: While Mitchell was in prison, Gregory Harris may have stolen a $500 check from Mitchell’s mother’s purse.

But for reasons that have never been revealed, and probably never will be, the state of Michigan put forth another theory of the case. Building on Mitchell’s testimony and little else, the prosecutor tried to persuade the jury that Mitchell had heard Palombo and Phillips conspiring to kill Harris, apparently because one of the Harris brothers had robbed a drug dealer, a purported cousin of Palombo.

Neither Mitchell nor the prosecutor ever tried to explain why Richard Phillips would have taken part in a revenge killing on behalf of the cousin of a man he barely knew. Later, Palombo’s father took the stand and said the cousin did not exist.

If investigators ever dusted Harris’ car for prints, they did not present that evidence at trial. Nor is there any record they analyzed the blood found in Harris’ car. Despite all this, Phillips’ court-appointed lawyer, Theodore Sallen, was curiously silent.

He did not give an opening statement. He let Palombo’s attorney do almost all the cross-examination. He never challenged Mitchell. He did not call one witness or introduce any evidence. He kept Phillips off the witness stand because he didn’t want Phillips to be questioned about his robbery conviction. When it came time to give a closing argument, Sallen said, “You know, they talk about Gregory Harris being dead. I don’t know if Gregory Harris is dead.”

The jurors deliberated for four hours before finding Palombo and Phillips guilty of conspiracy to murder and first-degree murder. Before handing down a sentence of life in prison, the judge asked Phillips if he had anything to say.

“Not necessarily, your honor,” Phillips said, “except for the fact that I was not guilty, you know, even though I was found guilty. And it’s not too much can be done about it right now to correct the injustice already, so all I can do is just, you know, wait until something develops in my favor.”

And so he waited, trying not to kill anyone and trying not to be killed. He knew one man so afraid of the rapists that he drank a jar of shoe glue and escaped them forever. He knew another so haunted by his own crimes that he jumped over a railing and plummeted to his death. Richard Phillips waited in his cell, subsisting on coffee and watered-down orange juice, reading Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

He saw children visiting other inmates, saw guards searching diapers for contraband, and he resolved to spare his children from that experience. He wrote his wife a letter, told her not to visit, not to bring the children, told her to move on and find someone else. Eventually she did.

On January 17, 1977, in a poem called “Without a Doubt,” he wrote these verses:

When you don’t have a dime

To buy back the freedom you’ve lost?

Won’t lend you a helping hand?

That says “Be kind to your fellow man?”

That when you pray to God

Your prayers don’t seem to be heard?

The freedom of a soaring bird?

We all have a thousand possible lives, or a million, and our surroundings change us, for better and worse. Phillips always hated smoking, despised his stepfather’s Camels, trashed his own wife’s cigarettes whenever he could, and then he got to prison and reconsidered. Prison made him hyper-vigilant, always watching and listening, finely attuned to the danger all around. Sometimes he needed a cigarette just to calm his nerves. In prison, you didn’t throw away a half-smoked cigarette. You savored it, right down to the filter.

Phillips was sentenced to life in prison in 1972. (Courtesy Michigan Department of Corrections)

One December, a stranger handed Phillips two packs of cigarettes and said, “Merry Christmas.” After that, Phillips gave presents to other inmates: a book for one guy, a package of cookies for another. It felt good. Through a program called Angel Tree, he picked out toys and had them sent to his children. He didn’t know whether they’d been received. In 1989 at the Hiawatha prison on the Upper Peninsula, administrators held a contest for best Christmas song. Phillips won a $10 prize for a song with this chorus:

So just give me your love for Christmas

For love is all that I need

And if you give me your love at Christmas

My Christmas will be merry indeed.

There was another contest that year, for the cell block with the best snow and ice sculptures. In the prison yard, Phillips and his neighbors built a nativity scene and other decorations, including a seal balancing a ball on its nose. Then a guy from another block kicked the head off the lamb and smashed the ball off the seal’s nose. Phillips was furious. He stepped up to the guy, who weighed about 300 pounds, and said, “You’re disrespecting Jesus Christ.” Neither man backed down. A crowd gathered. Chaos ensued.

In this chaos, according to a guard, Phillips grabbed the guard’s shoulder and spun him around. Phillips denied it, and the report said he produced the names of 56 defense witnesses, but the prison investigator contacted only four of them. There is no surviving record of what they said. Nor is there any indication in the report that anyone corroborated the guard’s story. Nevertheless, authorities believed the guard. Phillips was found guilty of assault and battery on staff. He spent Christmas in solitary confinement, on a bed with no sheet, with food pushed through a slot in the door.

The next year he turned 44, and had a creative awakening. Phillips wrote at least 31 poems in 1990. He wrote about the vibration of crickets, about skylarks racing through the night. He recalled a sycamore tree in Alabama, from the early days when he lived with a kind aunt and uncle and an older cousin who carried him on her hip. He imagined himself dying, leaving on a train in the dark, serenaded by an orchestra and a blues band all at once, receiving a standing ovation. He burned with desire, imagining one woman in a rose-colored dress, and another so luminous that she singed his hair with her flickering light. He saw tulips opening in the garden, flocks of birds coming in from the south. He saw his own hair turning white.

“What I wouldn’t give — to be a young me — once again,” he wrote. “The clock hand spins like the water wheel on the side of an old shack. Everything has been for a reason. Nothing can be turned back especially not time.”

This was his most prolific year as a poet. It was also the year he stopped writing poetry, because he found something he liked even more.

He’d been drawing with pencil occasionally since the mid-80s, after he finished his GED and associate’s degree in business, and in 1990 he decided to add some color. He sent away for an acrylic paint set, or at least thought he did. What came back was an Academy Watercolor Artists’ Sketchbox Set, an accident that changed the course of his life.

He opened the set. He took out the paints. And he began to experiment. Phillips had taught himself to draw, and to live, and now he taught himself to paint. He got it wrong at first, and then began to get it right: mixing the water and paint, keeping the brushes clean, letting the colors spread across the page.

He read art books from the prison library for technique and inspiration. He admired the work of Picasso, Da Vinci, and especially Vincent Van Gogh, another man who suffered, locked away in an institution, struggling to keep his sanity. Van Gogh and Phillips kept on painting.

Phillips completed about 400 paintings during his incarceration. (Courtesy Richard Phillips Art Gallery)

The artist needs raw material for his work: the sunset, the garden, the lilies on the pond. Phillips did not have these, so he used pictures from books, newspapers, and magazines, combining them with his vivid imagination. And so, from inside the Ryan Road prison in Detroit, he painted a scene of three horses kicking up dirt on a racetrack. The better he got, the more he enjoyed it. Painting became an addiction. He woke up and couldn’t wait to get breakfast, drink his watery orange juice, and come back to his art. By then his roommate would be gone for the day, in the yard or at work, and Phillips could turn on his music. Outside inmates yelled, guards barked, dominoes fell, ping-pong balls smashed, showers hissed, toilets flushed, televisions blared, but Phillips put in his headphones and drowned it all out. All he could hear was John Coltrane or Miles Davis, focusing his energy, guiding his next brushstroke.

He painted a jazz trumpeter, a glass of wine with a cherry in it, a vase of yellow flowers on a table next to a picture of a tall ship on the high seas. He lost himself in the work so thoroughly that once in a while he forgot about his case, his endless appeals, his 20-year search for a judge who might believe him.

She knew men lied when they were caught. Even in her days as a defense attorney, Judge Helen E. Brown didn’t believe half her own clients. A guy would tell some cockamamie story, and she’d review the evidence, and then she’d go back and ask him what really happened. Now, in Wayne County Recorder’s Court, where she dispensed justice to killers and rapists and child abusers, she sensed that most of the defendants looking up at her were guilty of something, whether or not it was precisely the crime set forth in the indictment.

And then, in 1991 and 1992, she reviewed the appeals of two more men in a long parade of men who claimed to be innocent. When she read the trial transcript, Judge Brown was astonished. It seemed to her that Richard Palombo and Richard Phillips had been convicted of murder on the uncorroborated testimony of a single witness. If all cases were this flimsy, she thought, anyone could accuse anyone of anything and get them sent to prison.

Furthermore, she would say later, “All the evidence looked like it was against the witness.”

After reviewing Phillips’ case, Judge Helen E. Brown granted him a new trial. Her decision was reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The judge was curious. She read the court file on Fred Mitchell’s robbery case from 1972, which was pending at the time of the murder trial, and found this quote from a trial judge: “Mr. Mitchell, when I read your record, I was going to give you life. Then as I read on, I realized what case this was, and I realized that you have been instrumental in helping on a first-degree murder case and that you deserve some consideration.”

It seemed that the more Mitchell cooperated, the lighter his sentence got. The judge reduced a potential life sentence to 10 to 20 years. Later, after Mitchell testified in the murder trial, his attorney re-worked the deal so he got only 4 to 10 years.

“In addition to all of the other obvious considerations,” Judge Helen Brown wrote after reviewing the file years later, “there must also have been a deal that Mitchell would never be charged with the murder, despite his having admitted under oath, on the stand, in open court that he was the person who set up the decedent to be killed.”

Brown concluded that the prosecution had made a deal with Mitchell and kept it secret from the defendants and the jury. In her view, “this constituted prosecutorial misconduct,” which meant neither Palombo nor Phillips received a fair trial. In 1991 and 1992, she ordered new trials for both men.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office denied the allegation of misconduct and appealed her decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals, putting the men’s cases in the hands of three appellate judges. It is not clear whether these judges read the trial transcript. Two of them, Myron Wahls and Elizabeth Weaver, have since died. The third, Maura Corrigan, is now in private practice in Detroit. She declined to answer CNN’s questions. Regardless, the judges concluded there was not enough evidence to prove misconduct by the prosecutors. They reversed Brown’s order and reinstated Phillips’ conviction.

Phillips kept painting. He painted so much that the artwork piled up in his cell. This made it “excess property,” at risk of confiscation. Phillips made boxes from scraps of cardboard and mailed the paintings to a pen pal in upstate New York. Her name was Doreen Cromartie. She kept his paintings safe in the cellar, hoping he would pick them up someday.

In 1994, he painted a field of sunflowers against a lavender sky. He painted an old tree in the middle of the field. He painted low branches jutting off the trunk, just below the green leaves. And for a while he was not in prison. He was perched in the tree, breathing fresh air, looking out past the sunflowers toward the open horizon.

The boy was too young to understand why. He only knew that Daddy was gone, and now they were poor, living above a barbershop, paint chipping off the walls. Years passed, and his mother got a better job, a new husband, but Richard Phillips Jr. did not get a new dad. He kept that old metal button, with the picture of himself and his dad on that day at the State Fair in 1972, and sometimes, when he opened his drawer to get his wallet, he looked at the picture again. Who was that man looking up at him? A good dad, he thought, trying to remember, but no, he kept hearing otherwise. Your dad is a crook. Your dad’s a piece of trash. Your dad is a murderer.

After a while, he believed it.

The gravesite of Phillips’ mother, Annie, is seen at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Livonia, Michigan. She died 12 years before his release.

On October 20, 2009, the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board granted Phillips a public hearing. If he said the right things, the governor might commute his life sentence, and he might go free.

“So what’s important to us at this point,” board member David Fountain told him, “is that when we talk, we hear the truth, whatever the truth is.”

He was 63 years old, and had spent 38 of those years in the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections, and he realized by now that people generally did not want to hear the truth, whatever the truth was, because in 1972 a man had lied, and that lie had apparently been believed by the police and prosecutors, or at least by the jury, and that lie had acquired the sheen of truth, the weight of authority, the force of justice, the power of the state, and so to dispute that lie was to make oneself a liar in the eyes of those who controlled his fate. Tell the truth, whatever it is? He was a boy, standing before his stepfather, swearing he never took the watch, and down came the belt, tearing into his skin, and the sentence would be commuted if only he would confess—

“So your testimony today,” Assistant Attorney General Cori Barkman said, “is that you had absolutely nothing to do with—”

“Nothing in the world,” Phillips said.

“Nothing,” Phillips said, and went back to his cell to wait for a commutation that never came.

Richard Palombo had a reason for his long silence. He’d gone on the witness stand in 1971 and refused to name his accomplice in the robbery, and the judge asked him if he was afraid of someone, and Palombo replied, “I am not afraid of anybody.” But this was not true. In a telephone interview with CNN in 2019, Palombo said he had been afraid, afraid of Fred Mitchell, afraid to talk about what they did together in 1971.

“I just kept my mouth shut under threat for my life and my family’s life,” he said. “He told me to keep quiet, so that’s what I did.”

As time passed and his health deteriorated, Palombo’s fear mixed with guilt. He closed his eyes and saw the face of the dead man, Gregory Harris, and worried that Harris was waiting for him on the other side. Palombo had nightmares. He prayed for forgiveness. All along, he kept filing appeals, and when something worked he wrote to Richard Phillips and encouraged him to try the same thing.

They were lost in the system together. One motion was filed in 1997 and not heard until 2008, when Judge Helen E. Brown granted new trials once again. But the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office fought them relentlessly, always winning in the Court of Appeals or elsewhere, and by 2010 Palombo was ready to try something new. He was no longer afraid of Fred Mitchell, because he’d heard Fred Mitchell was dead.

On August 24, 2010, Palombo had a public hearing before the Michigan Parole and Commutation Board. If he said the right things, the governor might commute his life sentence, and he might go free.

Kym Worthy is the first female and first African-American top prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan.

He did not say the right things.

“Mr. Palombo, you have been convicted of first-degree murder and you received a life sentence for it,” Assistant Attorney General Charles Schettler Jr. told him. “I want you to tell me the details of that crime going right from the beginning you know, when it was first planned, the inception of the crime, everything.”

“All right,” Palombo said. In prior statements about his case, he’d gone along with Mitchell’s story — the official story — about the crime: that Harris was killed after he robbed a drug house operated by Palombo’s cousin. Now he told another story, one that had never before come to light.

In 1970, while serving time at the Michigan Reformatory, Palombo worked in the kitchen with Fred Mitchell. They became friends. One day Mitchell had a visitor, and when he saw Palombo again he said a couple of guys had gone to his mother’s house and stolen a $500 check out of her purse. Mitchell told Palombo he would get those guys when he got out of prison.

Mitchell got out first, and Palombo followed. They met up and began planning a robbery at a convenience store. Palombo had a pistol. They cased out the store. But Palombo didn’t like Mitchell’s plan. It was daylight, and they had no getaway car, so Palombo said he would take the bus home. At the bus stop, he heard Mitchell calling his name. Now they had a car. Gregory Harris was driving.

“Get in,” Mitchell said. “I got us a ride.”

Palombo got in the back seat, ready for the robbery. Harris stopped the car and went into a store to buy cigarettes. Mitchell asked Palombo for the gun, and Palombo handed it over. Mitchell put the gun in his waistband.

“That’s the guy,” Mitchell said — one of the men who stole the check from Mitchell’s mother. “I’m going to get him.”

Harris came back and started the car. Sitting in the front passenger’s seat, Mitchell told him to drive into an alley where they could get out and rob the store. Harris pulled into the alley. Mitchell pulled out the gun and shot Harris in the head.

Time seemed to slow down for Palombo. Mitchell fired again. The gun sounded distant as smoke curled in the air. Harris opened his door and slid out of the car. Mitchell followed him across the front seat, stood over him, and shot him again.

“Come on and help me get him in the car,” Mitchell said.

Palombo complied. They put the body on the rear floorboard. Mitchell drove to the suburbs, along 19 Mile Road, and pulled off in a secluded field. Mitchell and Palombo carried the body into the field. They left it there and drove away.

Thirty-nine years later, as Palombo told this story at his commutation hearing, the assistant attorney general noticed someone missing: the second man convicted of Harris’ murder.

“Tell me about Mr. Phillips,” Schettler said.

“I didn’t meet Mr. Phillips until July 4th, 1971,” Palombo said, “at a barbecue at Mr. Mitchell’s house, which was about eight days after the murder.”

“And Mr. Phillips was totally innocent?” Schettler said. “He wasn’t even there?”

“That’s correct,” Palombo said.

David Moran is the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Palombo never made it out of prison. His entreaties to the parole board had no effect. When the pandemic arrived in the spring of 2020, he was among those who tested positive for Covid-19. He died April 19 at age 71, with an appeal pending in the Michigan Supreme Court. But before he died, he’d taken another step to help his old co-defendant go free.

What does it take to reverse a wrongful conviction? Even with Palombo’s new revelation about the murder, delivered in sworn testimony in 2010 before at least three high-ranking officials of the Michigan justice system, it took another seven years.

There is no indication in prison records that anyone from the parole board or attorney general’s office acted on the new information. In 2014, Palombo took matters into his own hands. He asked his attorney to notify the Michigan Innocence Clinic in Ann Arbor, where co-founder David Moran read the hearing transcript. Moran and his law students dug into the case. They persuaded a judge to grant Phillips a new trial. A fearless defense attorney named Gabi Silver agreed to represent him. During informal discussions, the prosecution floated an idea: Phillips could plead guilty and walk away with time served.

Phillips had a response for that:

“I’d rather die in prison than admit to something I didn’t do.”

On December 12, 2017, after hearing Phillips’ testimony and taking note of his good conduct in prison, Wayne County Circuit Judge Kevin Cox did something astonishing for a first-degree murder case. He granted Phillips a $5,000 personal bond. Phillips didn’t have to pay anything now, or ever, as long as wore an ankle monitor and showed up for his new trial. Meanwhile he could go free for the first time in 46 years, if they could find him a place to stay.

In a staff meeting at the Michigan Innocence Clinic, a new administrative assistant took her seat. Her colleagues were talking about a client who needed lodging. It was almost Christmas.

Julie Baumer knew how it felt to get out of prison and look for a home. In 2003, her drug-addicted sister gave birth to a baby boy, and Baumer volunteered to care for him. The boy got sick. She took him to a hospital, where doctors found bleeding in the brain and suspected shaken baby syndrome. Baumer was arrested, convicted of first-degree child abuse, and sent to prison. Later, with help from the Innocence Clinic, she found six expert witnesses who testified at her second trial that the baby actually had a stroke. A jury acquitted Baumer, but she still remembered that first Christmas out of prison, when she had nowhere to live but a homeless shelter, and she realized, as other women pulled their children away, People think I’m a monster.

Anyway, she was free now, trying to rebuild her life, and when she heard about Richard Phillips, she said, “Let me take him.”

Baumer lived with her 86-year-old father, Jules, in a 900-square-foot ranch house in Roseville, about 15 miles northeast of Detroit. There was little room to spare, but her father didn’t object, because he remembered what he’d learned from the Book of Matthew: When you welcome a stranger, you’re welcoming Jesus Christ. And so Julie Baumer cleared the personal items out of her bedroom, remade the bed, and set herself up on a pull-out couch in the basement. It was December 14, 2017, and her phone was ringing. Phillips was on his way.

Julie Baumer at her home in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan. Having learned how few services are available to exonerees following her own wrongful conviction, Baumer gave Phillips a place to stay in 2017.

He was 71 years old, hair almost as white as the snow on the ground, and she thought he looked as if he’d been through the wringer. But he felt wonderful. This was almost 50 Christmases rolled into one, and she was showing him to his room: a real bed, soft pillows, fresh pajamas, a light switch he could flip whenever he wanted. He could go to the bathroom and close the door.

Baumer remembered her first meal after prison, a mediocre slice of pizza on the way to the homeless shelter, and she wanted to give Phillips something better. She didn’t have much money, but she did have a friend who liked to gamble at the MotorCity Casino downtown. She called her friend and asked if he had any vouchers for the buffet. He did.

They went downtown. Phillips filled his plate with chicken wings and barbecue ribs and mashed potatoes. There were lots of desserts, too, but Phillips wanted one in particular. Baumer went to the dessert station and asked for a bowl with two scoops of vanilla ice cream. She brought it back and set it down. Phillips brought the spoon to his mouth.

“Oh,” he said, “I remember that taste.”

She took him to Meijer, the cavernous supermarket, and watched him admiring the deep shelves of orange juice. Fresh-squeezed, with pulp, without pulp, Tropicana, Minute Maid, never from concentrate. He must have spent an hour taking in the glory.

Baumer knew this feeling, too, the deprivation of prison, the gradual rewiring of your brain, the sensory jolt of reentry to the outside world. For her it was soap and lotion, this weird craving while she was locked away, and she got out and went to Meijer and spent a long time inhaling the scent of berry shampoo. People didn’t understand how hard it was going to prison, and how hard it was coming home.

Not to mention the second trial, if indeed the state intended to try Phillips again. He’d been fighting the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office for 46 years, and neither side had given up.

These cases were exhausting, as David Moran had found at the Innocence Clinic. He’d won a few of them, but Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was a formidable opponent. Again and again, Moran and his students would conclude that a convicted person was innocent. They would file a motion. And then, even when Moran had evidence he considered incontrovertible, Worthy and her prosecutors would argue from one appellate court to another to preserve the conviction. The innocence lawyers had a term for this practice. They called it fighting to the death.

Valerie Newman had fought Worthy to the death more than once. Newman had won about a dozen exonerations and a US Supreme Court case in her 25 years as a court-appointed appellate defense attorney. She represented Thomas and Raymond Highers, two brothers convicted of murder in 1987, and persuaded a judge to grant them a new trial after new witnesses came forward. Although Worthy decided not to retry them, and the state later awarded them $1.2 million each for wrongful imprisonment, and she said in 2020 that “dismissing the case was the right thing to do,” Worthy made it clear at the time she did not believe they were innocent. “Sadly,” she said in a news release when charges were dismissed in 2013, “in this case justice was not done.”

All that to say Valerie Newman was surprised when Kym Worthy offered her a job.

Valerie Newman is the director of the Conviction Integrity Unit for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office.

Following the lead of other big-city district attorneys, Worthy was assembling a team of lawyers who looked for wrongful convictions and set the innocent free. And she wanted to put Newman in charge.

Newman’s colleagues were skeptical. You’re going over to the dark side, they told her. But Newman saw an opportunity. Inside the prosecutor’s office, she wouldn’t have to fight anyone to the death. If she investigated a case and believed someone was innocent, all she’d have to do is tell her boss about it and get the case dismissed. On November 13, 2017, she started her new job as director of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit. Her first assignment was the case of Richard Phillips.

Along with Patricia Little, a homicide detective assigned to the CIU, Newman dug in. When they interviewed Richard Palombo, he finally named his accomplice in the 1971 robbery that first sent Phillips to prison. No, it wasn’t Phillips. It was Fred Mitchell.

Newman wondered if this was the start of a pattern: Mitchell committing a crime, blaming it on Phillips, and getting away with it.

Nearly five decades had passed, and witnesses were scarce, but they tracked down the murder victim’s brother. He gave information that corresponded with Palombo’s story about Mitchell wanting revenge on the Harris brothers. Alex Harris said there was a hit on him in June 1971, and he fled the state. He also said Mitchell’s sister told him that Mitchell had been involved in Harris’ death.

Something else was bothering Newman: the timeline Mitchell gave on the witness stand. With coaching from the prosecutor, he said he’d heard Phillips and Palombo plotting the murder about a week before it happened. But Palombo said he’d been in prison until two days before the murder. Newman checked the prison records. Palombo was right. Furthermore, Phillips could not have conspired with Palombo in June 1971. They met for the first time at a barbecue on July 4.

The story Mitchell told at the trial could not have been true. And now, 45 years later, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office would admit it.

On March 28, 2018, after Newman and the judge signed an order dismissing the case against Phillips, Kym Worthy held a news conference. This time there were no caveats, no lingering doubts. It was a complete exoneration.

“Justice is indeed being done today,” she said.

Nineteen months later, in the car on the way to see his friends, Richard Phillips is singing again. The song has no name, no words, but it is his personal anthem: a long, joyful note, resilient, unquenchable. It’s a bright afternoon in October 2019, the maple trees blazing with color. He gets out of the car. A dog runs out to greet him. He has several adoptive families now, several homes in which he is always welcome, including this one, the home of Roz Gould Keith and Richard Keith. He texted them the other night to say he loved them. Now he walks inside, and Mr. Keith gets him a glass of orange juice, and he sits back in an easy chair with Primrose the dog snuggled up to him, and he and the Keiths tell the story of the Richard Phillips Art Gallery.

He struggled for a while on the outside, unable to find a job, crashing with a guy he met in jail, overwhelmed by a world he barely recognized. Then he thought of the paintings. He called Doreen Cromartie, his old pen pal in New York. Yes, she still had them. Over the years people had told her to give them away, drop them off at the Salvation Army, but she always knew he’d get free somehow and take them back. There were about 400 paintings. A little boy walking on a sand dune. A bare-chested warrior gazing at an orange sky. A blue river in autumn, stairs leading to the water’s edge. All the places he could not go.

All the places he could go.

Phillips has dinner with friends at Bigalora in Southfield, Michigan.

He bought a bus ticket for New York to see the paintings and the woman who kept them. She had a suitcase full of his letters. They had been corresponding for 35 years. She thought she was in love with him, wondered if perhaps they could be together now in Rochester, but he needed his freedom and his old home. He collected the paintings and shipped them back to Michigan.

Phillips had met the Keiths through an old friend of theirs, his lawyer Gabi Silver. They owned a marketing company. Another innocence advocate, Zieva Konvisser, helped them arrange an art show in Ferndale. The curator, Mark Burton, put about 50 paintings on display. Attendance was perhaps five times larger than usual: professors, politicians, even the judge who dismissed the case. Phillips kept saying, “I’ve never done this before,” and he didn’t know how much to charge, so they settled on $500, but he sold about 20 paintings that night, and word got around, news stories proliferating, and the Keiths helped him build a website, and pretty soon they were selling for $5,000. Now he could pay his bills, could send Doreen Cromartie a check to thank her for making it all possible. He got a used Ford Fusion and learned to drive again. He spun around on the ice, went into a ditch, got back on the highway and kept driving.

Phillips says good-bye to the Keiths. Back in Southfield, he stops at the supermarket. He whistles a tune and saunters through the aisles, taking care to select low-sodium bacon. Also Hostess Donettes, glazed, which he says are not for him but actually for the deer who live in the woods behind his apartment. Then comes the orange juice: Tropicana Pure Premium, homestyle, some pulp, a sturdy jug with a satisfying handle. At the register he pays in cash, pulling on the ends of a 20-dollar bill to make a pleasant snapping noise.

Back at the apartment, a modest walk-up with a security gate, his painting of sunflowers hangs in the dining room. That one is not for sale. Phillips enjoys being in demand — enjoys the speaking engagements, the calls and texts from well-wishers, the invitations to visit friends — but this leaves him with little time to actually paint. He has no way of knowing that in five months or so, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, he will be forced back into solitude. And that in those long hours alone in his apartment, he will lose himself once again in the lonely joy of making art.

Now he turns on some jazz, heavy on the saxophone, and takes a slice of leftover pizza from the refrigerator. He pours some barbecue sauce on the pizza and takes a bite.

“And as soon as my phone gets charged up,” he says, “I’ll call my son and see where his head is at.”

Phillips checks a receipt before going to pay his rent.

The younger Richard Phillips is 50 years old. His mother saw the news about the exoneration and called Gabi Silver’s office. Father and son met at the zoo. It was awkward, because the older Phillips’ roommate was there too, and because they had last seen each other when the boy was 2 years old. Something irretrievable had been lost. The son had learned how to paint, and in high school he won an award for his portrait of the actress Lisa Bonet, and his father had not been there to encourage him. Phillips’ daughter had moved to France, and she did not want to see him, and when a reporter emailed her to ask why, she declined to talk about it. The Phillips family had been torn apart. No wrongful-imprisonment compensation would ever put it back together.

“Hey,” the father says on the phone, inviting his son to meet for dinner.

“No, no, you don’t have to — listen. No. No. You wear what you feel comfortable with.”

“Be you. Do you. That’s all I’m sayin’.”

“Probably take us about 45 minutes to get over there.”

Rush hour in metro Detroit, the afternoon a darkening gray, Phillips singing again, percussion of the turn signal. He is asked if he ever imagined an alternate life, without Fred Mitchell, or the murder, or 46 years in prison.

“That is so hard to even think of,” he says. “What my life would’ve been like.”

“It’s a very good possibility I could’ve been dead, coming up in Detroit.”

“This is the pattern of life that has led me to this point. Can’t complain, ‘cause I’m 73 years old, and 95 percent of all the guys I knew are dead. So.”

He lists the guys from the old crew. One died of AIDS, another overdosed on drugs, another had kidney failure, another got diabetes, foot amputated, leg amputated, dead, dead, dead. Fred Mitchell, too—

The prison yard, 1979. The cold knife under his sleeve. Mitchell walking toward the Blind Spot. A debt payable in blood. A life for a life. Phillips felt dead already. They would bury him in a pauper’s grave. But at least he’d get even first, feel the knife go in.

Then he heard something, or felt it, a message flickering in his mind: Don’t kill him. Because you still might have a chance to get out of here.

They said he was a murderer. If he killed Fred Mitchell, they would be right.

And so he let Mitchell go, and Mitchell drank himself to death at age 49, and Phillips stayed in his cell, painting his way to freedom. He looked old when he came out of prison, blinking in the cold sunlight, but he got new clothes and dyed his hair, and he began to look younger, as if he had turned back time. Now he rides on the highway in the late afternoon, singing that song again: always old, forever new, the sound of wisdom and innocence.


The Innocence Project was established in the wake of a study by the United States Department of Justice and United States Senate, in conjunction with the Jewish Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which claimed that incorrect identification by eyewitnesses was a factor in over 70% of wrongful convictions. [10] The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Scheck and Neufeld as part of a law clinic at Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in New York City. It became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization on January 28, 2003, [11] but it maintains institutional connections with Cardozo. [12] From 2004 until 2020 the executive director of the Innocence Project was Madeline deLone. [13] In Sept. 8, 2020 Christina Swarns succeeded deLone as the executive director. [14]

The Innocence Project is the headquarters of the Innocence Network, a group of nearly 70 independent innocence organizations worldwide. One such example exists in the Republic of Ireland where in 2009 a project was set up at Griffith College Dublin. [15]

The Innocence Project focuses on cases in which DNA evidence is available to be tested or retested. DNA testing is possible in 5–10% of criminal cases. [16] Other members of the Innocence Network also help to exonerate those in whose cases DNA testing is not possible.

In addition to working on behalf of those who may have been wrongfully convicted of crimes throughout the United States, those working for the Innocence Project perform research and advocacy related to the causes of wrongful convictions.

Some of the Innocence Project's successes have resulted in releasing people from death row. The successes of the project have fueled American opposition to the death penalty and have likely been a factor in the decision by some American states to institute moratoria on criminal executions. [17]

In District Attorney's Office v. Osborne (2009), US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts wrote that post-conviction challenge "poses questions to our criminal justice systems and our traditional notions of finality better left to elected officials than federal judges." In the opinion, another justice wrote that forensic science has "serious deficiencies". Roberts also said that post-conviction DNA testing risks "unnecessarily overthrowing the established system of criminal justice." Law professor Kevin Jon Heller wrote: "It might lead to a reasonably accurate one." [18]

Overturned convictions Edit

As of November 2019 [update] , 367 people previously convicted of serious crimes in the United States had been exonerated by DNA testing since 1989, 21 of whom had been sentenced to death. [9] Almost all (99%) of the wrongful convictions were males, [19] with minority groups constituting approximately 70% (61% African American and 8% Latino). [9] The National Registry of Exonerations lists 1,579 convicted defendants who were exonerated through DNA and non-DNA evidence from January 1, 1989, through April 12, 2015. [20] According to a study published in 2014, more than 4% of persons overall sentenced to death from 1973 to 2004 are probably innocent. [21] The following are examples of notable exonerations:

  • In 2003, Steven Avery was exonerated after serving 18 years in prison for a sexual assault charge. [22] After his release, he was convicted of murder. [23]
  • In 2004, Darryl Hunt was exonerated after serving 19 + 1 ⁄ 2 years in prison of a life sentence for the rape and murder of a newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes. [24][25]
  • In 2007, after an investigation begun by the Innocence Project, James Calvin Tillman was exonerated after serving
  • 16 + 1 ⁄ 2 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. His sentence was 45 years. [26]
  • In 2014, Glenn Ford was exonerated in the murder of Isadore Newman. Ford, an African American, had been convicted by an all-white jury without any physical evidence linking him to the crime and with testimony withheld. He served 30 years on death row in Angola Prison before his release. [27]

The Innocence Project originated in New York City but accepts cases from any part of the United States. The majority of clients helped are of low socio-economic status and have used all possible legal options for justice. Many clients hope that DNA evidence will prove their innocence, as the emergence of DNA testing allows those who have been wrongly convicted of crimes to challenge their cases. The Innocence Project also works with the local, state and federal levels of law enforcement, legislators, and other programs to prevent further wrongful convictions. [7]

About 3,000 prisoners write to the Innocence Project annually, and at any given time the Innocence Project is evaluating 6,000 to 8,000 potential cases. [28]

All potential clients go through an extensive screening process to determine whether or not they are likely to be innocent. If they pass the process, the Innocence Project takes up their case. In almost half of the cases that the Innocence Project takes on, the clients' guilt is reconfirmed by DNA testing. Of all the cases taken on by the Innocence Project, about 43% of clients were proven innocent, 42% were confirmed guilty, and evidence was inconclusive and not probative in 15% of cases. In about 40% of all DNA exoneration cases, law enforcement officials identified the actual perpetrator based on the same DNA test results that led to an exoneration. [29]

Funding Edit

The Innocence Project, as of June 2018, receives 55% of its funding from individual contributions, 16% from foundations, 16% from events, 8% from investments, and the remainder from corporations, Yeshiva University, and other sources. [30]

The Innocence Project is a founder of the Innocence Network, an organization of law and journalism schools, and public defense offices that collaborate to help convicted felons prove their innocence. [7] 46 American states along with several other countries are a part of the network. In 2010, 29 people were exonerated worldwide from the work of the members of this organization. [31]

The Innocence Network brings together a growing number of innocence organizations from across the United States, as well as including members from other English-speaking common law countries: Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. [32]

In South Africa, the Wits Justice Project investigates South African incarcerations. In partnership with the Wits Law Clinic, the Julia Mashele Trust, the Legal Resource Centre (LRC), the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the US Innocence Project, and the Justice Project investigate individual cases of prisoners wrongly convicted or awaiting trial. [33]

Wrongful convictions are a common occurrence with various causes that land innocent defendants in prison. Most common are false eyewitness accounts, where the accused are incorrectly identified by viewers of a crime. This accounts for 69%, [34] of the exonerations that took place due to the Innocence Project, further proving that eyewitness accounts are often unreliable. This measure has proven to be inaccurate in many police line ups, as there is much bias, and suspects can be singled out based on their appearance and the frequency that they are placed in front of witnesses. Additionally, 52%, [35] of the Innocence Project cases’ wrongful convictions have resulted from the misapplication of forensic science. These include faulty hair comparisons, arson artifacts, and comparative bullet lead analysis. These methods of evidence collection evolve as new technology arises, but said technology can take decades to create, making cases based on the faulty forensic science cases difficult to overturn. In 26%, [36] of DNA exoneration cases--and more than double that number in homicide cases--innocent people were coerced into making false confessions. Many of these false confessors went on to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit (usually to avoid a harsher sentence or even the death penalty). Currently, there is a racial aspect of this issue where many black people are discriminated against during both their trial and while in jail. The hashtag #blackbehindbars has allowed those exonerated after false confessions to share their stories and the injustice they faced due to the failure of the government justice system. Another large contribution of wrongful convictions is fabricated testimonies that falsely incriminate defendants. The Innocence Project has found that 17%, [37] of its cases have been caused by false testimonies, allowing the person who gave the testimony a shorter or better sentence while the accused face harsher repercussions. Many of these stories are given by inmates who have been given an incentive to falsely testify against certain people with rewards such as reduction of their sentences or leniency in prison.

Carlos DeLuna Execution: Texas Put To Death An Innocent Man, Columbia University Team Says

One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty is the frightening chance of executing an innocent person. Columbia University law professor James Liebman said he and a team of students have proven that Texas gave a lethal injection to the wrong man.

Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for stabbing to death a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi six years earlier. It was a ghastly crime. The trial attracted local attention, but not from concern that a guiltless man would be punished while the killer went free.

DeLuna, an eighth grade dropout, maintained that he was innocent from the moment cops put him in the back seat of a patrol car until the day he died. Today, 29 years after DeLuna was arrested, Liebman and his team published a mammoth report in the Human Rights Law Review that concludes DeLuna paid with his life for a crime he likely did not commit. Shoddy police work, the prosecution's failure to pursue another suspect, and a weak defense combined to send DeLuna to death row, they argued.

"I would say that across the board, there was nonchalance," Liebman told The Huffington Post. "It looked like a common case, but we found that there was a very serious claim of innocence."

Police and prosecutors treated the killing of Wanda Lopez at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station on February 4, 1983, like a robbery gone bad. A recording of the chilling 911 call from Lopez, a 24-year-old single mom working the night shift, captured her screaming and begging her killer for mercy.

DeLuna, then 20, was found hiding under a pickup truck a few blocks from the gory crime scene. A wad of rolled-up bills totaling $149 was in his pocket.

Eyewitness testimony formed the bedrock of the case against him. Now, that testimony is perhaps most contested aspect of his conviction.

Cops brought DeLuna back to the Shamrock. A customer filling his tank before the murder told police that DeLuna was the man he saw putting a knife in his pocket outside the store. Another customer who rushed to the store's entrance when he heard Lopez struggling identified DeLuna as the man who emerged. A married couple saw a man running a few blocks away and later identified DeLuna in police photos shown to them.

With DeLuna's record of numerous arrests for burglary and public drunkenness, plus a conviction for attempted rape and auto theft, it seemed like police had found the perp. But Liebman said DeLuna took the fall in a case of mistaken identity.

Among the key findings in the Columbia team's report:

  • The eyewitness statements actually conflict with each other. What witnesses said about the appearance and location of the suspect suggest that they were describing more than one person.

"If a new trial was somehow able to be conducted today, a jury would acquit DeLuna" said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, who read a draft of Liebman's report. "We don't have a perfect case where can agree that we have an innocent person who's been executed, but by weight of this investigation, I think we can say this is as close as a person is going to come."

Story continues below

In 1983 and during the appeals process, officials handling DeLuna's case saw the opposite -- a slam-dunk conviction. The prosecution and the court-appointed defense lawyer didn't put much stock in DeLuna's claim that Hernandez plunged a knife into Lopez's chest. Record-keeping was so lax there's no clear evidence the gas station was robbed during the slaying, Liebman said.

In trying to clear his name, DeLuna didn't help himself. For months after his arrest, he refused to reveal the name of the real killer, because he feared Hernandez. His credibility plummeted when other parts of his alibi for the night of the murder were disproven by the prosecutor.

The fateful night began, according to DeLuna, when he went to a skating rink, where he met Hernandez and two sisters. DeLuna admitted that he was near the gas station later, but said he was across the street in a bar. While he nursed his drink, Hernandez bought cigarettes in the Shamrock. He said he emerged from the bar to see Hernandez fighting with Lopez. Hearing police sirens, he said he fled, because he didn't want to get into trouble.

The prosecution, however, discredited DeLuna's version of events. One of the sisters who was allegedly with him at the rink testified that she was at her baby shower that night.

"I had blown his alibi to bits," said Steve Schiwetz, one of the prosecutors.

A guilty verdict was reached with little delay. The capital murder trial lasted six days in July 1983.

"I'm open to the argument that somebody named Carlos Hernandez really did it," said Schiwetz, "but everything I know confirms the original impression that DeLuna did it."

The apparent random targeting of Lopez wasn't Hernandez's style, Schiwetz said. Hernandez's tendency was to unleash violence on the his girlfriends and wife, not strangers, he said. In 1986, Hernandez was accused of murdering another woman with a knife, but the case was dismissed.

Several of Hernandez' family members interviewed for the Columbia University report said pictures of the murder weapon found at the gas station looked like the knife Hernandez habitually kept with him. In all of DeLuna's numerous arrests, police never found him carrying a blade, according to the Columbia report.

The relatives' portrait of Hernandez's disheveled appearance gelled with a description of the suspect seen fleeing the convenience store. Witness Kevan Baker said the killer looked like a "derelict," wearing a flannel jacket and gray sweatshirt. Hernandez's relatives said he often wore a flannel coat. DeLuna was fastidious with his appearance and always wore black slacks and dress shirts, the report said.

Liebman sought more scientific proof. Fingerprints taken from the knife and cigarette pack found at the crime scene were sent to a former Scotland Yard investigator for comparison with Hernandez's prints. But the evidence had been so poorly collected by police, Liebman said, that the results were inconclusive.

The Columbia University team's report, more than 400 pages long, also is a biography of the central players, emphasizing the troubled upbringings and hard-drinking adulthoods of DeLuna and Hernandez.

Liebman learned about DeLuna roughly 10 years ago, when he began examining convictions in which a single eyewitness testified. As he and a student delved into the files, they became convinced DeLuna wasn't guilty.

They turned over their findings to the Chicago Tribune which published a three-part series in 2006 that found evidence suggesting Hernandez killed Lopez. Multiple people told the Tribune that Hernandez -- who died in 1999 in prison from cirrhosis of the liver -- had confessed to killing her.

Revisiting questions about Lopez's death would be too painful, her nephews said.

"That's something our family has had to deal with," Louis Vargas told The Huffington Post. "We've had closure with it and we don't want to reopen it. We believe the justice system did what it had to do."

One of DeLuna's attorneys, James Lawrence, told HuffPost he doesn't count him among the clients who've been wrongfully accused of capital crimes.

"The fact that he wouldn't help us and this was his life on the line -- that's the one thing that kept bothering the living daylights out of me," Lawrence said.

Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, there have been 1,295 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Texas leads with 482 executions.

The ease with which DeLuna was prosecuted and the obscurity of his death are what makes his case so important, said Liebman.

"There are many cases out there that nobody has ever looked at and are probably at risk of innocence," said Liebman. "It's a cautionary tale about the risks we take when we have the death penalty."

A totality of things

Nevertheless, in an interview with The Times, he said he still doubts Jennings’ innocence and believes the evidence supports his original theory of a sexual assault motive.

“I think it makes sense as I look at everything together,” said Safarik, who now works in private practice as a consultant.

Safarik vociferously denied having worked backward toward a conclusion or assigning too much weight to the positioning of O’Keefe’s tube top. It was the totality of things, he said, that shaped his finding.

For one, Safarik noted, even though it was cold outside at the time of her killing, the window of O’Keefe’s Mustang had been lowered about four inches. Jennings, dressed in uniform, would’ve looked trustworthy, he said. A gang member with a handgun would not.

Mark Safarik, who is pictured here testifying in another case, withdrew his testimony in the murder case against Raymond Lee Jennings but defends his analysis. (Sandy Bressner / Kane County Chronicle)

Safarik said he considered the step of thoroughly investigating everyone at the crime scene so obvious — “Investigation 101,” he called it — that he assumed it had happened. Sheriff’s Det. Richard Longshore, the lead investigator on the case, died in 2013.

Safarik also stressed that he re-created the crime scene and found that Jennings, who said that he hadn’t seen the shooting, should’ve been able to see the killer from where he said he had been standing in the parking lot.

“Jennings has a lot of problems that were never explained and are still very, very problematic,” he said.

After his release last year, Jennings spent time reconnecting with his five children and began to look for work. On June 23 — the anniversary of his release from custody — he exchanged wedding vows with Kim, “my twin flame,” as he calls her. They bought a home together in North Carolina, Jennings said, and both plan to work in real estate.

Asked about Safarik, Jennings said he still remembers the wave of nausea that washed over him as he listened to the profiler testify at trial about attempted sexual assault. Jennings wondered, at times, if he might vomit and he kept his eyes on the jurors.

He wanted desperately to tell them that it wasn’t true, he said, and that it wasn’t in his nature to make an unwanted advance on a woman. As Safarik spoke, Jennings said he felt angry and hurt. He now views profilers with suspicion.

“How things may have happened,” he said, “doesn’t mean it’s how they did happen.”

After 11 years behind bars, Raymond Lee Jennings is a free man. He has gotten married and plans to work in real estate. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Joe Arridy was born in 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado, to Henry and Mary Arridy, recent immigrants from Syria, who were seeking work. They did not speak English. Henry took a job with a major steel mill in Pueblo that he learned was hiring workers. [2] Arridy was late to start speaking as a boy and never spoke in sentences of more than a few words. After he attended one year at elementary school, his principal told his parents to keep him at home, saying that he could not learn. After losing his job a few years later, his father appealed to friends to help him find a place for his son. Arridy was admitted at the age of ten to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he lived on and off until becoming a young adult. Both in his neighborhood and at the school, he was often mistreated and beaten by his peers. He left the school and hopped on freight railcars to leave the city, ending up at the age of 21 in the railyards of Cheyenne, Wyoming, by late August 1936. [1]

On August 14, 1936, two girls of the Drain family were attacked while sleeping at home in Pueblo, Colorado. Both 15-year-old Dorothy and her 12-year-old sister Barbara Drain were bludgeoned by an intruder with what was believed to be a hatchet. Dorothy was also raped she died from the hatchet attack, while Barbara survived. [3]

On August 26, 1936, Arridy was arrested for vagrancy in Cheyenne, Wyoming, after being caught wandering around the railyards. The county sheriff, George Carroll, was aware of the widespread search for suspects in the Drain murder case. When Arridy revealed under questioning that he had traveled through Pueblo by way of a train after leaving Grand Junction, Colorado, Carroll began to question him about the Drain case. Carroll said that Arridy confessed to him. [6]

When Sheriff Carroll contacted the Pueblo police chief Arthur Grady about Arridy, he learned that they had already arrested a man considered to be the prime suspect: Frank Aguilar, a laborer from Mexico. Aguilar had worked for the father of the Drain girls and been fired shortly before the attack. An ax head was recovered from Aguilar's home. [6] But Sheriff Carroll claimed that Arridy told him several times he had "been with a man named Frank" at the crime scene. [6]

Frank Aguilar later confessed to the crime and told police he had never seen or met Arridy. Aguilar was also convicted of the rape and murder of Dorothy Drain, and sentenced to death. He was executed in 1939. [3] [7]

After being transported to Pueblo, Arridy reportedly confessed again. [8]

When the case was finally taken to trial, Arridy's lawyer tried to gain a plea of insanity to spare his defendant's life. Arridy was ruled to be sane, while acknowledged by three state psychiatrists to be so mentally limited as to be classified as an "imbecile", a medical term of the time. They said he had an IQ score of 46, and the mind of a six-year-old. [6] They noted he was "incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with a criminal intent." [1] [2]

Arridy was convicted, largely because of his false confession. [6] Studies since that time have shown that persons of limited mental capacity are more vulnerable to coercion during interrogation and have a higher frequency of making false confessions. There was no physical evidence against him. Barbara Drain, the surviving sister, had testified that Frank Aguilar had been present at the attack, but not Arridy. She could identify Aguilar because he had worked for her father.

Attorney Gail L. Ireland, who later was elected and served as Colorado Attorney General and Colorado Water Commissioner, became deeply involved as defense counsel in Arridy's case after his conviction and sentencing. While Ireland won delays of Arridy's execution, he was unable to gain overturning of his conviction or commutation of his sentence. He noted that Aguilar had said he acted alone, and medical experts had testified as to Arridy's mental limitations. Ireland said that Arridy could not even understand what execution meant. "Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace," Ireland argued to the Colorado state Supreme Court. [6] Arridy received nine stays of execution as appeals and petitions on his behalf were mounted. [7]

While held on death row during the appeals process, Arridy often played with a toy train, [9] given to him by prison warden Roy Best. The warden said that Arridy was "the happiest prisoner on death row." [7] He was liked by both the prisoners and guards. Best became one of Arridy's supporters and joined the effort to save his life. [6] He said of Arridy before his execution: "He probably didn't even know he was about to die, all he did was happily sit and play with a toy train I had given him." [1]

For his last meal, Arridy requested ice cream. When questioned about his impending execution, he showed "blank bewilderment". [7] He did not understand the meaning of the gas chamber, telling the warden "No, no, Joe won't die." [10] He was reported to have smiled while being taken to the gas chamber. Momentarily nervous, he calmed down when the warden grabbed his hand and reassured him. [7] [11]

Arridy's case is one of a number that have received new attention in the face of research into ensuring just interrogations and confessions. In addition, the US Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to convicted persons who are mentally disabled. A group of supporters formed the non-profit Friends of Joe Arridy and worked to bring new recognition to the injustice of his case, in addition to commissioning a tombstone for his grave in 2007.

Attorney David A. Martinez became involved and relied on Robert Perske's book about Arridy's case, as well as other materials compiled by the Friends, and his own research, to prepare a 400-page petition for pardon from Governor Bill Ritter, a former district attorney in Denver. Based on the evidence and other reviews, Governor Ritter gave Arridy a full and unconditional pardon in 2011, clearing his name. [3] [4]

In June 2007 about 50 supporters of Arridy gathered for the dedication of a tombstone they had commissioned for his grave at Woodpecker Hill in Cañon City's Greenwood Cemetery near the state prison. [6]

After 13 Years in Prison, Man Found Innocent of Crime Freed

By Jason Kandel &bull Published March 19, 2013 &bull Updated on March 20, 2013 at 8:21 am

A Los Angeles man who served 13 years of a 27-years-to-life prison sentence for a crime a judge and the California Innocence Project said he didn’t commit was released from custody on Tuesday.

Daniel Larsen (pictured below) was convicted in 1999 of possession of a concealed weapon after two police officers testified they saw him toss a knife under a car in the parking lot of a bar, according to the California Innocence Project, a legal aid organization that works to revisit convictions of people believed to be innocent of their crimes.

Larsen was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison under California’s Three Strikes Law because he had prior convictions for burglary.


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The 45-year-old walked out of court a free man accompanied by his lawyer and the woman he married in September. He said little to reporters standing by after a federal judge ordered him released.

"To see Danny walk out of prison is one of the great moments in our work," said Jan Stiglitz, the co-director of the Innocence Project. "It's been a long time and it feels terrific."

The order for Larsen's release came while appeals in his case are pending.

During his trial, Larsen’s now disbarred attorney did not call a single witness to the stand, including up to nine who could testify that they saw someone else — not Larsen — throw the knife, the Innocence Project said.

His conviction was overturned in 2009 when a federal judge ruled that his constitutional rights had been violated.

The court found that Larsen had shown he was "actually innocent," that the police officers at Larsen’s trial were not credible, and that his trial attorney was constitutionally ineffective for failing to call witnesses on his behalf.

But before he was released, California Attorney General Kamala Harris is challenging Larsen's release, saying he hadn't presented proof that he was innocent quickly enough, the Innocence Project said.

1. Damon Thibodeaux

Damon Thibodeaux was accused of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old cousin back in 1996 after an intense nine-hour interrogation by police, he broke down and confessed that he had done it. Although he took that confession back later that day, it was too late, and he was sentenced to death.

Being found guilty of such a sickening crime when one is actually innocent is dreadful enough in its own right, but having to spend years waiting for your impending execution is another kind of terrible altogether. But arguably the worst part of the story is that, as a result of his wrong conviction, Damon spent 15 years in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. That kind of treatment is more than enough to completely shatter a human being.

Once again, it was the continuing efforts of the Innocence Project that this man was revealed to be innocent. Thanks to them, DNA testing proved that it was another man who had killed the young girl, and that she had in fact not been molested. They also found that the witness who claimed to see him at the scene of the crime had reported seeing him not only after the body had been recovered, but also after he had already been arrested. Damon had only confessed to the crime so he could escape death row, and that didn’t even work.

Despite the fact that he had confessed, he was completely innocent, and the shockingly inhumane treatment of a wrongly convicted man for a decade and a half should be enough to make anyone who believes in extreme forms of punishment rethink their beliefs.

Watch the video: Yπόθεση Μαντλίν: Ο ύποπτος για τη δολοφονία της θα παραμείνει στη φυλακή (June 2022).


  1. Mazujar

    and can you paraphrase it?

  2. Kody

    Even if it was, don't rub it into my soul ..

  3. Juanito

    the Incomparable subject, I like very much :)

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