innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, October 13, 2006

Freedom for Tiffany Pritchett


This article appeared in Pittsburgh's Observer-Reporter on October 12, 2006:

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Friday, October 13, 2006


10/13/2006

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Brenda Johnson screams with joy Thursday as she wraps her arms around her daughter, Tiffany Pritchett, after Pritchett was released from Washington County Jail. (JIM McNUTT/O-R)

Freedom

Linda Metz
Staff writer

Tiffany Pritchett began her new life shortly after 1 p.m. Thursday.
The 30-year-old former Donora woman walked out the rear entrance of the Washington County Jail and into the arms of the her mother, Brenda Johnson, and grandmother, Margie Pritchett. A friend of the family, Calvin Goggins, stood close by.

The sun shone on their faces while a crisp, cold breeze chilled Pritchett's first day of freedom in more than 12 years.

Pritchett, whose life sentence for a 1993 murder was overturned, pleaded no contest Wednesday to a third-degree murder charge before Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca. In exchange for her plea, Pritchett was given credit for the years she has been in prison and released without parole.

Attorney Noah Geary believed his client's freedom would be immediate after her plea. But that was not the case as the state Department of Corrections needed an original copy of the judge's order to approve Pritchett's release. Pritchett remained behind bars for one more night as a certified copy of the order was sent overnight to the department.

Pritchett's family arrived at the jail shortly after 11 a.m. in anticipation of her release. They withstood the chilling winds and cold temperatures for several hours. Shortly after they decided to warm themselves inside a car, Pritchett walked through the jail door.

"I can't even describe it," she said when questioned about her new freedom.

She talked with tears of joy in her eyes and while grasping a pomegranate that her mother handed to her upon her release.

Pritchett said the fruit was something her mother used to regularly give her to eat as a child. She had not had one since her imprisonment.

"She asked me to bring it, so I brought it," Johnson explained.

Pritchett said she had no immediate plans but to spend time with her family. She added that she will have to acquaint herself with a world that has changed so much over the past decade.

"I was never on the Internet before. I've never used a cell phone before," she said, laughing. "Mostly, I just want to do what I want to do and when I want to do it," such as taking longer than 15 minutes to eat a meal.

Further down the road, Pritchett said she wants to go college. "I want to work with kids to help keep them from making the same mistakes as me," she said.

Pritchett said she's not bitter about her circumstances nor about how her case was handled by Washington County District Attorney John C. Pettit. "He had a job to do and believed he was doing the right thing," she said.

In 1994, Pritchett was convicted of first-degree murder for killing 25-year-old Troy Groomes in a gang-style execution over drugs in Donora. The then-17-year-old girl was sentenced to life in prison and had been lodged at State Correctional Institution in Muncy for the past 143 months and 16 days.

Her case lingered in the court system with a series of appeals, including those filed by Geary, who took the case pro bono nearly six years ago and won her a new trial with his arguments about her representation before and after her conviction.

Pritchett, who has maintained her innocence, initially refused a plea offer after her conviction was reversed. But the chance for freedom and the illness of her grandmother led her to change her mind.

While Pritchett is thrilled to be out of prison, she said there are people she will miss.

"I made friends there. I kind of grew up there. There were older women who helped raise me," she said.

Although she never gave up hope for her freedom, Pritchett said it was difficult at times, especially with a life sentence.

And on the last Sunday before leaving Muncy, she offered hope to other "lifers."

Pritchett explained that at Sunday services, the chaplain asked those inmates who were leaving the prison to come forward so he could say a prayer for them.

"A lifer never stood up in front of the chaplain before," she said. "I didn't tell anybody. And when he asked, I stood up."

She added, "There were people crying. They were happy. I think I so many other lifers hope."

Pritchett credits her family, her faith and attorney for her freedom. Without them, she said she surely would still be in prison.

"When my granddaughter went to prison, I wanted to go with her," said Margie Pritchett, who lives in Virginia but stayed in close contact with her granddaughter while she was incarcerated. "With her getting out, it's like a part of me is coming out, as well."

The elder Pritchett said she would like her granddaughter to move and live with her. But she understands that's a decision that must be made by her granddaughter.

"She's a grown woman now. I have to let her make up her own mind," she said.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Jurors Acquit Man Accused of Killing Transit Supervisors

This article appeared in the New York Times on October 12, 2006:

Jurors Acquit Man Accused of Killing Transit Supervisors

By MICHAEL BRICK

An out-of-work train cleaner accused of executing two transit supervisors in a drunken rage walked out of court free yesterday, acquitted of all charges.

When the verdict was read, the man, Darryl Dinkins, 42, sat and held his lawyer’s hand, trembling and crying. He had been in jail since Feb. 28, 2004, the day after the transit supervisors were found shot dead inside a trailer parked behind the fence of a 75-acre railyard in Coney Island.

The police questioned Mr. Dinkins hours after the shooting. He had a history of trouble with the victims, Luigi Sedita, 61, and Clives Patterson, 46, who had caught him playing dominoes on the job, the police have said. He had been disciplined by Mr. Sedita, and months before the shootings, fired by New York City Transit.

Detectives testified that Mr. Dinkins gave them a confession but refused to sign it or repeat it before a video camera. After his arrest, the police have said, he tried to hang himself in his jail cell. He was charged with first-degree murder.

During a two-week trial in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, prosecutors built a case around the confession and the circumstances of the crime. Defense lawyers called the police detectives liars.
A central witness, Detective James Gaynor, testified that Mr. Dinkins had said he had been fired “because certain supervisors didn’t like him.”

When told of the shooting, Detective Gaynor said, Mr. Dinkins had responded, “I hope you don’t think I did that.”

Detectives testified that Mr. Dinkins had given them a detailed account of his night, a boozy but specific history of gambling clubs, cash machines, liquor stores and drug corners, ending past midnight but before the time the shots were fired, which medical examiners said happened after 4:30 a.m.

Mr. Dinkins, who lived alone, initially said he had gone home to sleep, detectives testified. After hours of questioning, detectives said he changed his account to include shooting the supervisors, but without as much detail. He was unsure of the type of gun, his route to the railyard or his method of evading security, detectives testified, but he remembered pulling the trigger.

“At that point, it just got dark, like the lights went out,” Detective James McCafferty testified Mr. Dinkins had said to him.

Defense lawyers emphasized the lack of details, portraying the confession as false and coerced.
“Their story doesn’t make sense,” argued a defense lawyer, Jerilyn L. Bell. “The only logical conclusion is that they’re being untruthful.”

An assistant district attorney, Mark J. Hale, argued that the police were right to focus on Mr. Dinkins. The victims had their wallets and were shot sitting down. The railyard was vast and imposing, difficult to navigate but so isolated that five gunshots could have gone unnoticed.

“You see what I’m driving at, ladies and gentlemen?” Mr. Hale asked the jurors.

They did not. After a day of deliberations, the jury sent out a note saying it had reached a verdict. Mr. Dinkins entered the courtroom wearing a gray suit and glasses. He turned to look at his family, seated across from relatives of the victims. The forewoman delivered the verdict, and her fellows were polled.

“Any basis for further detention of this defendant, Mr. Hale?” asked Justice James G. Starkey.
Mr. Hale said, “None that I can think of.”

The victims’ families left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. Mr. Dinkins stood up. His eyes were bloodshot. He did not speak. He walked out the door and hugged his mother. Someone sang a gospel refrain, someone chanted, “Home sweet home.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Junk science" used to support claims

This article appeared in the on-line magazine "Medical and Legal" on October 6, 2006:

"Junk science" used to support claims

Solicitors in the US have warned that a significant number of personal injury cases are being affected by experts offering unfounded or misleading information in courts

The medical journal, American Radiology, reported that in the summer of 2004, 492 chest X-rays that were deemed to show evidence of asbestos-related illnesses by medical experts acting on behalf of PI lawyers.

When reviewed by independent doctors, however, only 4% showed actual lung damage.The perceived abuse of “junk science” in Texas courts led one judge to comment, “It is apparent that truth and justice had very little to do with these diagnoses – otherwise more effort would have been devoted to ensuring they were accurate. Instead, these diagnoses were manufactured for money."

Tiffany Pritchett Goes Free After 12 Years in Prison

This story ran in the Post-Gazette Wednesday, October 11, 2006.
Still denying killing, woman to go free

Wednesday, October 11, 2006
By Bill Moushey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Twelve years after 18-year-old Tiffany Pritchett was sentenced to life in prison for the slaying of an acquaintance, she is set to accept a plea bargain in the killing she still denies and walk free.

Attorney Noah Geary of Washington, Pa., said Miss Pritchett will plead no contest today to third-degree murder, ending negotiations that began before a judge ordered a new trial, citing numerous violations of her right to due process.

Under the deal expected to be approved by Washington County President Judge Debbie O'Dell Seneca, she will accept a maximum sentence of 12 years -- which she has already served -- and later "breathe free air for the first time as an adult," Mr. Geary said.

"She's maintaining her innocence. The sole reason she's doing this is to put this behind her and to get on with her life," he said.

Miss Pritchett's decision was spurred by the fact that she did not have to admit guilt, Mr. Geary said. Also, delays in the appeals process could last years, and Miss Pritchett wishes to be with a grandmother who is in failing health.

The deal was struck between Mr. Geary and representatives of Washington County District Attorney John Pettit.

Mr. Geary said that Mr. Pettit did not want to retry the case, which was replete with lies, subterfuge, hidden deals and more questions than answers about who killed Troy Groomes on a wintry December 1993 night in Donora. Mr. Pettit could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Geary said Miss Pritchett previously turned down two offers for freedom because she would have had to admit guilt.

On Dec. 13, 1993, Miss Pritchett, Mr. Groomes and Dameon Isbell watched a movie at a friend's house, and then walked up a snow-covered hill toward another Donora neighborhood when Mr. Groomes was executed with a single gunshot wound to the back of his head.

At the time, Miss Pritchett was a 17-year-old with no criminal record. She was on the run from a group home during a prolonged stay in the child welfare system that began after her single mother became addicted to crack cocaine.

There were no suspects in the killing until four months later, when Mr. Isbell's attempt to rob a Donora Uni-Mart with the gun used to kill Mr. Groomes was foiled by a retired Marine.

Before police could even ask about the gun, Mr. Isbell told them he watched Miss Pritchett use it to murder Mr. Groomes over an alleged rape. When she was apprehended, she denied the rape and said she did nothing other than help Mr. Isbell and another man move the body.

Based on a polygraph test that Mr. Isbell passed and circumstantial evidence that could have implicated any of the three, Miss Pritchett was charged in the murder.

At trial, Mr. Isbell insisted she was the killer, but admitted to several lies. Another witness said Miss Pritchett confessed the killing to her before admitting she had intimate relationships with both Mr. Isbell and the deceased.

That's when Mr. Pettit -- whose office had never lost a murder case -- proposed a polygraph test for Miss Pritchett, assuring Francis Sichko, her trial attorney, that she had "everything to gain" if she passed.

Mr. Sichko allowed her to undergo the test while he attended a Pitt-Temple football game.
With no counsel present, Pennsylvania State Police said she not only failed the polygraph test, but confessed, even though they did not take notes or record the six-hour interrogation.

While she denied the confession and her lawyer argued that it should be suppressed because he was not present, a judge allowed the troopers to testify and Miss Pritchett was convicted.

Still proclaiming her innocence from prison, Miss Pritchett chronicled Mr. Isbell's lies under oath and then found three individuals who made sworn statements that Mr. Isbell admitted the killing and joked about pinning it on her.

After Miss Pritchett spent a decade behind bars, Mr. Geary took the case, and won an appeal based on the new evidence and issues surrounding the confession.

Recently, prosecutors withdrew an appeal of the retrial order and scheduled today's hearing, where Miss Pritchett will be freed.

Now, with a high school diploma and several educational certificates she earned in prison, she is looking forward to reuniting with what remains of her family and hopes one day to go to college, her lawyer said.

(Staff writer Bill Moushey is director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, which investigated Miss Pritchett's claims for more than a year for the series "False Confessions," published in the Post-Gazette in September. He can be reached at bmoushey@pointpark.edu or 412-765-3164. )