innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, October 19, 2006

DNA Test Result Casts Doubt on Two Convictions In 1987 Murder

This article ran in the Washington Post on October 3, 2006:

DNA Test Result Casts Doubt on Two Convictions In 1987 Murder

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer

Two of Colleen Williar's neighbors were convicted of murder after the 24-year-old woman was raped, strangled with a sock and repeatedly stabbed in her Baltimore home nearly two decades ago.

Now, a vaginal swab from the autopsy that was recently compared with DNA samples from the men might win new trials for James L. Owens, 41, and James Thompson, 47.

The men were convicted in 1988 during separate trials in which relatively weak physical evidence was supported by a last-minute confession by Thompson. He later recanted, and both men now say they were innocent bystanders who came under suspicion after telling a series of lies that began as an attempt to cash in on police reward money.

Defense lawyers said the case could mark the first time in Maryland history that a post-conviction DNA test clears co-defendants convicted of murder.

DNA tests, which became commonplace in criminal investigations in the mid-1990s, have led to the exoneration of dozens of convicts in recent years, including a handful in Maryland.

Stephen Mercer, Owens's attorney, said the DNA test yielded a profile of a man who is neither Owens nor Thompson -- a finding at odds with the state's theory in the case.

"Someone's gotten away with murder for 20 years," said Mercer, who this year persuaded a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to allow him to have the swab tested.

Baltimore prosecutors say they are ready to meet their burden of proof again if the case goes back to court, a prospect Williar's relatives find disturbing.

"In my heart of hearts, I believe they did it," said William C. Winkler, Williar's stepfather, who raised her. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't have to take a deep breath to get through a thought."

Mercer, a Rockville lawyer who teamed up with attorneys from the Innocence Project division of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said they intend to file motions seeking new trials based on the new evidence.

The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office opposed the motion to test the swab, arguing that the convictions were supported by physical evidence and Thompson's confession.

"There was a lot of compelling evidence that was presented," said Margaret Burns, a spokeswoman for the office. Jurors "found that there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Not only did the jury find that, the appeals process confirmed that several times."

She said prosecutors will examine the methodology used to test the sample as well as its chain of custody over the years. Winkler said semen residue collected from the body could have been from an earlier, consensual sexual encounter, although a state witness testified that Williar had broken up with her boyfriend months before she died, and was not seeing anyone at the time.
Prosecutors argued that the semen was evidence of the rape.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Coerced Confession Traps Detainee, Lawyers Say

This article appeared in the Washington Post on October 14, 2006:

Coerced Confession Traps Detainee, Lawyers Say

Former Prisoner of Taliban Held at Guantanamo

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer

Young runaway Abdul Rahim endured cigarette burns, electric shocks and repeated beatings at the hands of Taliban soldiers who captured him in 2000, he said -- all because he refused to fight for al-Qaeda.

In one of the bizarre twists of war, the 22-year-old college student was taken from the Taliban prison to another prison run by Americans after the invasion of Afghanistan. And the U.S. military's chief reason for holding Rahim for the past five years, according to newly declassified records, is the false confession Rahim gave to placate his Taliban torturers.

Rahim's American lawyers filed the records in federal court in Washington this week, along with the results of their own investigation corroborating Rahim's claims of innocence, adding sworn statements from witnesses. They are asking a judge to order the military to admit that it made a mistake and release Rahim, who is being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The filings outline a chain of unfortunate circumstances. Rahim left his family home in the United Arab Emirates after a quarrel with his strict father and was captured by Taliban fighters as he crossed into Afghanistan. They took him to an al-Qaeda training camp, and when he tried to flee, soldiers put him in prison and tortured him, the records say.

While in a cell in Kandahar, Rahim said, he gave his captors what they wanted to hear: He falsely confessed on videotape that he was a spy for the United States and promised to renounce the West and wage jihad. Among the people who tortured him, he said, was one of America's most notorious enemies: al-Qaeda operative Muhammad Atef, who was killed in 2001.

Rahim's account of being imprisoned and tortured by the Taliban is supported by newspaper accounts about Rahim and fellow prisoners whom the Taliban abandoned when U.S. forces began bombing Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. It is also supported by documents from impartial agencies that had contact with Rahim, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement yesterday that he could not comment on the specifics of Rahim's case, but he said detainees have several opportunities for review of their detention by military panels.

"There is a significant amount of evidence, both unclassified and classified, which supports detention by U.S. forces," he said. "This evidence has been carefully weighed at the Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT) and Administrative Review Boards (ARB) held over the past two years at Guantanamo."

The U.S. military is detaining 440 foreign nationals at Guantanamo, and most have been there for more than 4 1/2 years.

The investigation and new records describe Rahim as a pawn trapped unfairly on both sides of the war on terrorism -- first in the Taliban's prison in Kandahar and then at Guantanamo. Given that much of the gathered information suggesting Rahim's innocence was available in 2001, his lawyers say the case raises alarms about the U.S. military's willingness to fairly assess decisions to indefinitely detain foreign nationals.

"They accused me of being a spy. And here, you guys accuse me of being al-Qaeda. No mercy. Who am I?" Rahim told a U.S. military tribunal, according to transcripts. "You take me from that prison and nothing changed in my life."

According to court records, in December 2001, a New York Times reporter quoted Rahim and other prisoners left behind when the Taliban fled the prison. He described being desperate to recover from his torture and to find a way back to his family.

"We just need the Red Cross or the United Nations to come take us out of here," he was quoted as saying.

But Rahim and a Russian prisoner, who has since been released from Guantanamo, attest that U.S. troops arrived instead. At first, they told Rahim and his companions that they needed to remain in U.S. custody in case they had useful information about their former captors. Rahim told the soldiers about being forced to confess on a Taliban videotape that was broadcast in his home country and being worried about how he would be received there. A few days later, after finding the Taliban videotape of Rahim's confession, the detainee and his attorneys assert, the soldiers began to treat Rahim very badly, interrogating him about his interest in suicide missions and eventually taking him to Guantanamo.

"By me telling them about the video it created confusion to the point that the Americans believed I was working with al-Qaeda," Rahim told a military review panel last year, according to transcripts. "I swear I am not al-Qaeda. . . . Please be just and fair. . . . Look into this."
Rahim's attorneys, who work in the federal public defender's office in Oregon, said they traveled to Afghanistan in their investigation of Rahim's case. The key facts were not difficult to gather, they said.

"All you have to do is find public news articles and find out this guy was imprisoned by the Taliban," said Steve Sady, one of the lawyers.

In court filings, the attorneys argue that there is no legal justification for the Bush administration to detain someone who never took up arms against the United States and was simply in Afghanistan without a passport.

"No conceivable definition of enemy combatant would include a freed political prisoner who had been subjected to brutal torture and confinement by the enemy prior to the declaration of war," the lawyers wrote in their court filing.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rape Accusation Has Ruined Lives, Students Say

This article appeared in the New York Times on October 16, 2006:

Rape Accusation Has Ruined Lives, Students Say

Published: October 16, 2006

In their first news interviews, three former Duke University students told the CBS News program “60 Minutes” that they were falsely accused of raping a woman hired to dance at a lacrosse team party last March.

Duke lacrosse player David Evans, accused of rape in a racially-charged case that made national headlines, talks to Ed Bradley on a 60 Minutes report broadcast Sunday.

One of the men has graduated from Duke, while the other two, who were sophomores, have been suspended from the university pending the outcome of the case, they said on the program, which was shown yesterday. They are free on $100,000 bail while awaiting a trial expected to start next spring.

“This woman has destroyed everything I worked for in my life,” said the student who graduated, David F. Evans, 23, of Annapolis, Md. “And, worst of all, she’s split apart a community and a nation on facts that just didn’t happen and a lie that should have never been told.”

Also appearing on the show was James E. Coleman Jr., a professor at Duke’s law school who criticized the prosecutor in the case and accused him of misconduct. Mr. Coleman, who led a university review of the men’s lacrosse program after the party, said of Michael B. Nifong, the Durham County district attorney, “I think in this case, it appears that this prosecutor has set out to develop whatever evidence he could to convict people he already concluded were guilty.”
In June, Mr. Coleman said Mr. Nifong should ask the state attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor and remove himself from the case. Mr. Coleman said Mr. Nifong “pandered to the community” and set up an improper photo lineup to identify suspects.

In a telephone interview last night, Mr. Coleman said, “He has forgotten about his obligation to protect the innocent, and in my view, that’s prosecutorial misconduct.”

Mr. Nifong did not return telephone calls and e-mail messages yesterday. The accuser, a student at North Carolina Central University, could not be contacted.

Mr. Nifong has said that he, the police and the woman are determined to take the case to trial despite a tide of criticism. Mr. Nifong has said that there is medical evidence of rape and that the woman made valid identifications of the suspects, both points challenged by “60 Minutes” after what the show said was a review of nearly the entire case file.

Mr. Evans, the team captain, told “60 Minutes” that he regretted his decision to give a party with alcohol and hire strippers.

“I was naïve, I was young, I was sheltered,” he said. “And I made a terrible judgment. In five months I’ve learned more than I did in 22 years about life.”

One of the suspended students, Reade W. Seligmann, 20, of Essex Fells, N.J., said the police had never interviewed him about the case. He also said the district attorney did not want to see evidence proving he left the event shortly after the dancing stopped and before the alleged rape could have occurred.

The other suspended student, Collin Finnerty, 20, of Garden City, N.Y., said he also had evidence showing he left the party early, but did not want to reveal it before trial. He said he left the party after the women stopped dancing and never saw them again.