innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, May 12, 2006

LA Judge Calls for Crowded County Prison Reform

This article by Stuart Pfeifer, originally ran in the LA Times on May 12, 2006:

The jurist expresses dismay at crowded cells in the county's main downtown facility.
Declaring that Los Angeles County officials have been housing inmates in ways "not consistent with basic human values," a federal judge Thursday called for speedy reforms at the cramped and crowded Men's Central Jail.

One day after touring the downtown Los Angeles facility, U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson said he was appalled to find six inmates crammed into cells intended to house only three and kept there for days at a time with no opportunity to exercise or even stretch their legs.

"There is not enough room for all six inmates to stand up or take a pace or two," Pregerson said. "There is not enough room to do push-ups or do anything but lay in their bunks and sleep. That is not a situation that I think should be permitted to exist in the future."


For the whole story, click here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Challenge in Aryan Gang Case-Witnesses

By Christopher Goffard, Times Staff WriterMay 11, 2006

Prosecutors seeking justice for Terry Lamar Walker in death found little good to say about him in life.
A convicted burglar, stickup man and bank robber, Walker spent much of his adult life behind bars. His killing in May 1999, at the high-security federal prison in Marion, Ill., was anything but discreet.
A guard reported seeing one inmate grab the unarmed Walker from behind while another lunged at him, over and over, with a 4-inch shiv.

Prison officials soon found informers to explain why the 37-year-old Walker, who was black, had to die: He had made the mistake of scuffling with a white inmate.

The Aryan Brotherhood, arguably the nation's most vicious prison gang, was sending a message.During a seven-month trial in Benton, Ill., the government called a procession of violent career criminals, including admitted murderers and perjurers, to build a case against the alleged regional gang leader, David "Big Dave" Sahakian, and two of his supposed assassins.

After the jury deadlocked in March 2004 on murder charges, handing prosecutors a hugely expensive embarrassment, one juror offered this explanation: "The government's witnesses were scarier than the defendants."

The Aryan Brotherhood is on trial again, this time in Orange County as part of a racketeering and murder case involving many of the same figures from the Illinois case. But this time, the aim is far bolder: Destroy the gang's alleged empire of drug-trafficking, extortion and gambling by scything away its entire high command.

For two months, the two men prosecutors call the brotherhood's supreme bosses in the federal prison system, Barry "The Baron" Mills and T.D. "The Hulk" Bingham — along with alleged lower-ranked leaders Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher Gibson — have been chained to the floor of a U.S. district courtroom in Santa Ana. There they have watched a stream of pale, bull-necked inmates — their former friends and confidants — take the witness stand with a clank of manacles and, one by one, turn on them.

For the whole story, click here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Whitley Finds the Cost of Freedom

By Bill Moushey
The Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Drew Whitley never before met the young woman who approached him outside his mother’s Braddock apartment yesterday, gently shook his hand and muttered: “God bless you.”

Just days after Mr. Whitley emerged from 18-years in prison because DNA tests proved he was not the man who brutally murdered a McDonald’s restaurant manager in 1988, an examiner scrutinizing his driver’s license application thanked him for his strength.

At a shopping center over the weekend, the intense media coverage of Mr. Whitley’s flight to freedom produced a deluge of well-wishers.

“People I don’t know walked up to me and told me they are sorry for what happened, and to thank me for standing so strong,” he said. “They told me my fight gives people hope,” he said.

So has gone the first week of freedom for a man who went to prison for life armed only with a defiant claim of innocence and the will to prove it. When a judge set him free, it not only made Mr. Whitley the second man to be exonerated via DNA evidence in Allegheny County since last August, but cast him as a hero to the disenfranchised.

Then there are the things he is amazed by in a Rip Van Winkle sort of way – like computers and cellular phones.

“It’s crazy,” a phrase he finds himself repeating often as he talked about the proliferation of cell phones since he was locked down. “Kids and everyone have them,” he laughed, pointing out he has one too, even if it is borrowed. He also looks forward to learning personal computers, which did not exist when he was imprisoned.

There was much he missed, “the whole nine yards of life,” as he called it. He was not there for the funerals of his brother Thomas and three uncles. He lost the chance to be with his son, who was 14-years-old when Mr. Whitley went away and is now the 31-year-old father of four.

He says he was able to maintain the fight because he was “born with a good spirit,” and due to the support of his mother on the outside, and several of his friends inside.

One of them was Tommy Doswell, who was incarcerated in various prisons with Mr. Whitley, before his release last August as the first Allegheny County exoneree from DNA evidence. Mr. Whitley says he has talked with Mr. Doswell daily since his release.

“Me and Tommy, we were just fortunate that we had some DNA evidence to test. Believe me, there’s a lot of people I know are innocent who are still locked up,” he said.

Mr. Whitley said yesterday he is “still pinching himself” about the series of events that led to his release.

The path to exoneration began months ago when a judge ordered DNA testing of hairs found on clothing presumed to be worn by the killer of Noreen Malloy, then a 22-year-old night manager at the McDonald’s restaurant near Kennywood, who was shot twice during an aborted robbery early on a summer morning in July 1988. After a second set of tests excluded Mr. Whitley, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. dropped the case.

“It’s crazy,” repeating his favorite phrase about the phone call he received from his lawyer, Scott Coffey, at the State Correctional Institution at Greensburg, telling him he was coming home.

The advice he got from his prison friends: “They told me to watch out for the women,” he said, laughing.

He has spent his first week of freedom with his family, renewing acquaintances. “I am thankful that God didn’t come and take my mother before I was set free. If that would have happened, that would have broken my heart for real,” he said.

There are the banal realities, especially since Mr. Whitley walked out of prison with less than $100 from working in the prison laundry ($30 a month) and not a stitch of clothing.

“I just want to work, I cannot be idle any longer,” he said of the immediate goals.

Mr. Coffey is considering lawsuits over the wrongful conviction, but any possible award would not come until after years of litigation.

While 21 states and the federal government have compensation bills to provide cash payments to victims of wrongful convictions, a bill sponsored by State Rep. Michael P. McGeehan (D-Phila.), has languished in the Pennsylvania legislature without a hearing since last May.

“It’s crazy,” he repeated. “I keep saying that because it is,” he added.

Mr. Whitley also reached out to the family of Ms. Malloy, whose murder is now is listed as unsolved and under active investigation by the Allegheny County Police Department.

“I got my closure, I got out, but they got to go over it again. That has to be double for hard for them, especially for the mother, I know it is. They are in my prayers,” he said.

For five years, Post-Gazette Staff Writer Bill Moushey, director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, an investigative reporting program where students investigate and write about allegations of wrongful convictions, worked on the Whitley-Malloy case. Mr. Moushey can be reached at Bmoushey@pointpark.edu or 412-765-3164.

To read the Post-Gazette story, click here.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Arson Re-Examined

This Associate Press Article originally ran on CNN:
(AP) -- We hear it after a smoky blaze that destroys a house, or an all-night warehouse inferno: The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Now those investigations themselves are getting a hard look, including the case of a Texas man executed two years ago for a house fire that killed his three little girls. Fire experts say he was wrongfully convicted because junk science was accepted as expert testimony.

The implications go far beyond Texas. More than 5,000 people are imprisoned nationwide for arson, and at least some are likely to have been wrongfully convicted, said five experts who analyzed testimony in the Texas case.

The experts included veteran arson investigators and people with backgrounds in science and engineering who have taught other investigators.

"It's an unspeakable error and people don't want to admit they made that error," said John Lentini, one of the arson experts. "It means you might've sent someone to prison based on bad science. It means you might've caused a family to lose their life savings, based on bad science."

Lentini and his colleagues concluded that bad science was at the heart of the testimony that led to Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction for a 1991 fire in Corsicana, Texas. Willingham maintained his innocence up to his execution in 2004.

The expert panel, along with The Innocence Project, a New York-based group that seeks to uncover wrongful convictions, presented their study on Tuesday to a special Texas commission set up to examine forensic misconduct.

For the whole story, click here.