innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Ernie's story

Ernest Simmons Posted by Hello

My first story for the Innocence Institute -- and the reporting work of which I'm most proud -- was the case of Ernest Simmons. He was convicted of killing a Johnstown women in 1992 and sentenced to death. But in an interview last year with me and another reporter, the star witness in the case admitted she lied about being able to identify Simmons.

His case in now being appealed in federal court. The last major hearing on the case was held in March, but there's still no word on whether the judge will order a new trial.

I'm writing about the case now because Simmons was mentioned in an article about Nick Yarris, an exonerated death row inmate. Yarris was convicted of a rape and murder in 1982, until DNA evidence led to his release last year. He's now apparently on a speaking tour.

In an story in the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice, Yarris said his fight isn't over. "There are two men on death row in Pennsylvania, Walter Ogrod and Ernest Simmons who, I believe, are innocent," he said. "I'll make you a promise. One day, I'll have one of those men out."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

False confessions

An Orange County Register story showed how high-pressure police tactics can get juvenile suspects to falsely confess. The paper detailed the case of a 14-year-old boy suspected of brutally murdering his 12-year-old sister.

The police used "false promises, isolation from parents and attorneys, even threats of adult prison and predatory older inmates to persuade the teenager to drop his protestations of innocence," the paper reported. Eventually, the boy confessed.

The only problem: Police found a shirt taken from a 34-year-old schizophrenic transient with the victim's blood on it. The San Diego DA eventually dropped the charges against the boy.

The story is similar to a case detailed in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader about a 7-year-old boy charged with setting a fatal fire. According to the paper, the boy's grandmother said he was miles away at the time and police used tricks and lies to get him to confess.

Police allegedly told the boy he was caught on videotape setting the fire and gave him pizza and candy to get him to confess. The Northwestern and Virginia innocence projects are now working on the case.