innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Journalists Fight Right to Stay at Guantanamo

This article ran in the LA Times Thursday, June 15, 2006.

Journalists Forced Off Guantanamo
The four were covering the suicides at the island prison. The Pentagon, citing other requests for access, says it's only fair.
By James Rainey, Times Staff WriterJune 15, 2006

Editors at the Los Angeles Times and two other newspapers protested the Pentagon decision to expel their reporters Wednesday from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the journalists were reporting on the weekend suicides of three prisoners.

Journalists from The Times, the Miami Herald and the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer had received permission from the prison's commander to be at the U.S. facility, where terrorism suspects are held and interrogated. The three reporters and an Observer photographer left the island Wednesday on orders from the Pentagon.

A civilian spokeswoman at the Pentagon said the reporters had to leave because at least five other news outlets wanted to cover the suicides but did not get permission from Guantanamo commanders.

"The Defense Department wants to be fair and impartial," said spokeswoman Cynthia Smith. "We got them on the next flight out of Guantanamo Bay to be fair to the rest of the media outlets that did not get a chance to go down there."

Smith said the reporters could not all be granted access to the prison because Guantanamo military personnel were preoccupied with investigating the suicides and enhancing security, and would not have had time to supervise more journalists. She said the other journalists worked for Reuters, the Associated Press, CNN and two British newspapers.

But the three newspapers that had reporters at Guantanamo to cover the suicides said the military should be doing everything possible to increase public knowledge about the prison."

Expelling Carol Williams and her colleagues represents a Stone Age attitude that only feeds suspicions about what is going on at Guantanamo," said Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Doug Frantz. "If the military hierarchy has nothing to hide, it should have respected the invitation extended by the [prison] commander and the professionalism of the journalists."

The military's 4 1/2 -year detention of terrorism suspects at the U.S. military facility in Cuba has been criticized by American allies and human rights groups.

For the whole story, click here

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Court to Hear Evidence in Wecht Case

This article by Paula Reed Ward ran in Wednesday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Judge won't suppress Wecht evidence

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

By Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A federal judge yesterday refused to suppress evidence seized in a search of former Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht's private offices last year.

That means that documents found in 29 boxes at the Penn Avenue location can be used against him at his criminal trial scheduled to begin in October. Dr. Wecht is charged in an 84-count indictment with misusing his public office for private gain.

His attorneys filed a motion to suppress evidence seized in the April 8, 2005, search, claiming that FBI agents did not adhere to the terms of the warrant.

In a 17-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab said the search and seizure "fit squarely within the scope" of the warrant and that the agents and support staff who executed it acted in "good faith."

Defense attorneys tried to claim, in particular, that one box taken from Dr. Wecht's office should never have been opened.

Box No. 20, which was in the same location as the others, was labeled for "the Wecht Law Firm," which is operated by Dr. Wecht's wife, Sigrid. Defense lawyers said that box should have been off-limits to the FBI.

Judge Schwab disagreed.

"The court has reviewed the contents of box 20, and finds that there are no letterheads, pleadings, statements, correspondence or other documents contained therein that were prepared for, generated by, reviewed by, or used by the Wecht Law Firm," he wrote. "On the contrary, the items in box 20 all appear to have been prepared for ... Wecht Pathology ... for example, invoices and billing records for reimbursement for private autopsy consultations, private limousine services and airfare."

Judge Schwab noted in his opinion that though Mrs. Wecht provided an affidavit with her husband's motion to suppress, she did not testify at the hearing on the matter.

Also yesterday, Judge Schwab issued an order relating to two disciplinary reports against the lead FBI agent investigating Dr. Wecht's case.

Bradley Orsini was transferred to Pittsburgh from Newark, N.J., where, Dr. Wecht's attorneys claim, he was disciplined for urging witnesses to lie to cover up his own misconduct.

Defense attorneys plan to use the information to question Mr. Orsini's credibility, and they, along with several local news organizations, requested that the reports be removed from a protective order so that they can be made public.

Yesterday, Judge Schwab agreed to unseal the reports. But at the same time, he stayed his order, giving the U.S. attorney's office the opportunity to appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Even though the material is quite likely irrelevant and not admissible at trial, the government has not established a compelling interest or good cause to justify the continual sealing of [the document]," the judge wrote.

U.S Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan said last night that she was unsure if she would appeal. If she does, the appeal must be filed by noon June 29.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Justices Offer Two Key Decisions on Death Penalty

This article originally ran on CNN.com:

By Bill MearsCNN



WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two death row inmates won separate victories in the Supreme Court Monday -- one hoping to prove he did not commit a 1985 Tennessee murder, the other seeking to show that lethal injection methods used in Florida are cruel and unusual punishment.
The justices offered narrow rulings in both cases, and made clear many capital prisoners who file similar last-minute appeals probably would not win stays of execution.
In the first appeal, the court ruled 5-3 that Paul House deserves a new hearing. Recent DNA tests, which were not in use at the time of House's conviction, showed semen on the victim's clothes came from her husband. The jury had concluded otherwise.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted the evidence presented "was not a case of conclusive exoneration."

"Although the issue is close," he added, "we conclude that this is the rare case where -- had the jury heard all the conflicting testimony -- it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror ... would lack reasonable doubt."

The ruling allows House to move ahead with his "actual innocence" claim. Kennedy said most such appeals would be normally dismissed "in an effort to balance societal interests in finality." But he said there is "miscarriage-of-justice exception" for which House may qualify.
House was a convicted sex offender who was sentenced to death two decades ago for the rape-murder of neighbor Carolyn Muncey in rural Union County, Tennessee.

Police say House lured the victim from her home by concocting a story that her husband was injured in a car accident.

Kennedy's opinion laid out in great detail aspects of the investigation, including DNA evidence that might point to "a different suspect."

Conservative justices dissent

Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative colleagues Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Samuel Alito did not participate in the case since he was not yet on the bench when oral arguments were held in January.

The Supreme Court in 1995 ruled a convicted murderer could receive a new trial if his or her "actual innocence" claim showed the new evidence made it likely "no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

A federal appeals court ultimately ruled House did not meet that standard. The high court here did not determine House's innocence or guilt, only the legal standard that should be applied.
It is an issue that haunts many of those who must decide and carry out executions: the possibility an innocent person will be put to death.

More than 150 innocent people have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.

This case was the first time the high court considered impact of genetic technology on the right to a fair trial. Such evidence has revolutionized the legal justice system, especially relevant for those defendants convicted before reliable scientific techniques came into use.

Is injection method painful?

In the second ruling, the court unanimously gave death row inmates another powerful procedural tool to challenge execution by a lethal "cocktail" of chemicals.

The justices ruled on a narrow legal argument over how inmates can file last-minute appeals,
and did not delve into the larger question of how lethal injection is administered. All but one of the 38 states with capital punishment use lethal injection. (Opinion)

Clarence Hill, who murdered a police officer, argued the drugs used could fail, leaving him conscious but paralyzed and unable to express his pain while strapped on a gurney. The state claimed its execution methods have been used the same way many times previously, and that Hill raised his claims too late in the appeal process.

The 48-year-old inmate had been scheduled to die January 25. A lawyer accompanying him to the death chamber said Hill was strapped to a gurney with IV tubes attached, ready for the injection, when Kennedy issued a temporary stay.

The specific legal questions dealt with whether Hill could make a last-minute claim on the method of execution, and whether he could properly claim a civil rights violation. Kennedy concluded he could. It means Hill's execution has been delayed indefinitely while he continues his appeals.

While giving Hill more time, Kennedy said other inmates may not get similar relief. "Both the state and the victims of crime have an important interest in the timely enforcement of a sentence."

Executions postponed
The issue has been closely watched around the country in the months since the high court accepted the case for review. A number of appeals challenging the execution method have led to stays of executions in three states, while other death sentences have been allowed to proceed.

In Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush has postponed all executions until the Supreme Court ruled on the issue.

Lethal injection in Florida and most states involves a three-step process: sodium pentothal to stop the pain, pancuronium bromide to paralyze, and potassium chloride to trigger a fatal heart seizure.

Other state methods of execution beside lethal injection include the electric chair, the gas chamber, and rarely, hanging or firing squad. The federal government uses only lethal injection.
Hill was sentenced to death for the 1982 killing of Pensacola police officer Stephen Taylor. His attorneys also claim Hill is mentally retarded, but the high court did not take up that aspect of his appeal.

The Supreme Court barred the execution of mentally retarded prisoners in 2002.

For the whole story, click here.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Retrial for Julie Rea-Harper

This article originally ran in the Belleville News Democrat:

BY BETH HUNDSDORFER
CARLYLE - A little county is getting a big trial that has attracted the attention of local and national media.

Julie Rea-Harper, accused of first-degree murder of her 10-year-old son, was moved earlier this month from Lawrence County in eastern Illinois to the Clinton County Courthouse in Carlyle.

"The trial will last about three weeks, including jury selection, and will begin July 11," said Hamilton County Circuit Judge Barry Vaughan, who will preside.

Nearly two years ago, Rea-Harper won a new trial after the 5th District Appellate Court in Mount Vernon ruled she didn't get a fair trial when a Wayne County jury found her guilty of murdering her son, Joel Kirkpatrick, as he slept in his bed in Rea-Harper's Lawrenceville home.
Rea-Harper received a 65-year prison sentence.

"It should be quite a trial," said Clinton County Sheriff Mike Kreke.

But spectators need to get in line for a seat early.

There are about 70 seats in the courtroom's gallery, Kreke said, and seats will be given on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"Right now, we have no plan for an overflow area or a closed-circuit telecast of the trial," Vaughan said. "We may revisit that, if it becomes necessary."

The Clinton County Jail will also be the site of a staging area for the media, Kreke said.
ABC's news show "20/20" covered Rea-Harper's case, as well as Springfield and Chicago newspapers. Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions and the Downstate Innocence Project worked on Harper's appeal.

Rea-Harper, 37, is free on bond.

Prosecutors maintain that Rea-Harper stabbed her only child, Joel, in 1997 after losing custody of him to her former husband.

Rea-Harper told police she fought with a masked intruder who attacked Joel, but got away.
Serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells later confessed to killing Joel in interviews with the author of a 2002 book and later Illinois police.

Sells is on Texas death row for murdering a 13-year-old girl.

Vaughan ruled Sells' statements can be used during Rea-Harper's new trial.
Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 239-2570.