innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why did the D.A. block a murder inquiry?

This editorial appeared in the Delco Times of Pennsylvania on October 16, 2006:

Why did the D.A. block a murder inquiry?

In 1986, Alonzo Watts was convicted of murdering Cleophus Toler with a single shotgun blast in early September 1985. A man with a violent past, Watts’ fate was sealed when a friend of the murder victim testified that, as he lay dying, Toler whispered, "Alonzo did it." Pretty serious evidence. But 22 years later Richard Hepburn, a Haverford native working with Centurion Ministries, believed Watts was telling the truth when he said he didn’t do it.

He told Daily Times columnist Gil Spencer the trial transcript and the recanting of the friend’s "Alonzo did it" testimony convinced him Watts was worth fighting for.

Spencer asked Watts to take a polygraph test. He agreed, but the prison refused to allow the inmate to be hooked up to a lie detector.

Steve Leach, Watts’ attorney, also tried to get the results of a gunshot-residue test conducted by the state police after Watts’ arrest. The Delaware County District Attorney’s office declined to help him.On Oct. 7, Alonzo Watts died in prison. But the questions did not die with him.

Why would a prison object to an inmate taking a lie-detector test? Why would the District Attorney’s office refuse to help a defense attorney get evidence that was not introduced at the trial?

And, most importantly, isn’t the idea of justice to try and make sure the guilty go to prison and the innocent are set free?

This month a man was cleared of the rape of a police officer’s wife after 21 years in prison. Scott Fappiano was 23 years old when he was convicted. The hard work of the Innocence Project and DNA evidence freed him at the age of 44.

This month a man in Australia was freed after serving 13 years for the bludgeoning death of a woman in 1994. Applying forensic techniques of 2006 proved he was wrongly convicted.

Two cases, one in New York and on another continent, but two among many.

The Innocence Project has many branches and a couple of names. Considered the first is Centurion, which started in 1983 and has helped 14 innocent people to be released from prison.

Perhaps the best known is at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, founded in 1992.

But no matter the name or location, all the projects work to exonerate the innocent men and women in prison. Their work has set 183 wrongly convicted prisoners free. It has also prompted 31 states to initiate laws to provide for motions in post-conviction DNA testing.

Pennsylvania’s statute enacted in 2002 "provides that persons sentenced to death may assert innocence in a motion for DNA testing of specific, available evidence for which DNA technology was not available at the time of the conviction, or the defendant’s counsel did not seek testing, or the court refused to pay for testing for an indigent client."

While the statue provides for DNA evidence in death sentence cases, the Fappiano case proves it’s just as important and should be provided for those not sentenced to death.

Evidence other than DNA appears not so easy to obtain. Why would gunshot-residue evidence that could either help confirm the conviction or help prove the innocence of a prisoner be denied to his lawyer?

While polygraphs cannot be used in a court of law, the test requested would have helped those willing to work on Watts’ case for freedom.

Alonzo Watts died at age 57 a little over a week ago, but the questions still remain.

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