innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Man Sues New Jersey for Wrongful Conviction

This article ran in the Trentonian on December 17, 2006.

An Innocent Man: Browns Mills man sues New Jersey over wrongful conviction

Journal Register News Service

A gruesome rape-murder nearly 20 years ago led to the wrongful conviction of a Browns Mills man for felony murder.

And now a prominent Moorestown attorney is suing the state, seeking financial compensation for the exonerated prisoner, who languished almost 18 years behind bars. Under New Jersey law, the award could amount to $20,000 for each year of incarceration.

The suit on behalf of Larry Leon Peterson, 54, involves the first murder case in New Jersey ever to be overturned primarily because of DNA evidence. It is the 180th such case nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, the team of lawyers that fought for Peterson’s ultimate exoneration in March of this year.

"Society owes Larry Peterson a lot," said William H. Buckman, an attorney noted for both criminal and civil rights litigation, who filed the civil claim on Peterson’s behalf last week in Burlington County Superior Court.

Buckman said the complaint names as defendant the state Department of Treasury, because that agency holds the state’s purse strings. But Buckman said he may also pursue civil action against the Burlington County detectives, who initially gathered evidence in the Peterson case.

"The case was not dismissed simply because the DNA showed Peterson was innocent," Buckman said. "Many witnesses against him gave false testimony, some of it because of coercion by original detectives."

Peterson is now working at a minimum wage job, unable to find better employment because of his prison background, according to Buckman.

Meanwhile, Jack Smith, spokesperson for the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment on the suit. However, Smith did say the nearly 20-year-old murder case is still "open," which is to say that, one way or the other, the killer is still out there.

The Peterson case began on the morning of Aug. 24, 1987, when a woman walking her dog on a wooded path in Browns Mills happened upon the partially naked body of 25-year-old Jacqueline Harrison. Investigators soon determined the victim had been manually strangled and sexually assaulted.The investigation also soon indicated that the body had been mutilated, with a stick left in the victim’s mouth and another inserted in her genital area.

Harrison’s best friend, as well as a former boyfriend, reported afterward that they had seen Peterson, a neighbor, with what appeared fresh "fingernail" scratches on his arms. Upon hearing of the allegations, the record shows Peterson voluntarily turned himself in to authoritiesPeterson denied committing the crime, noting he had an alibi for the timeline in which the slaying allegedly occurred.

But investigators were also talking to three other area men, each of whom claimed to have heard Peterson confess to the rape/murder, while the four men car-pooled to work on a day in the immediate aftermath of the crime.

"Two jailhouse informants also testified at trial that they had heard Peterson admit that he had killed the victim," according to a case summary issued by the Innocence Project, one of whose founders is attorney Barry Scheck, famous for his DNA work in the O.J. Simpson case.

Ultimately, the most incriminating evidence came compliments of the New Jersey State Police crime lab, which microscopically analyzed three loose pubic hairs found on the victim. The lab determined the hairs matched samples taken from the defendant. Additionally, state forensic specialists testified Peterson’s pubic hair had been found on a stick near the crime scene.

Investigators learned that the victim had performed sex acts with two other men in consensual arrangements on the same fateful night prior to her murder, but forensic tests found no matches between the DNA of those two partners and any recovered from the crime scene.Tests on sperm and seminal fluid taken from the body, however, proved inconclusive at the time.

Meanwhile, Peterson testified on his own behalf, and several witnesses corroborated his alibi. Records uncovered by investigators also showed that Peterson did not go to work on the day the three men from the carpool said he confessed.

Nonetheless, in March 1989, a Superior Court jury in Mount Holly found Peterson guilty of felony murder and aggravated sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, plus 20 years.

Unknown MalePeterson didn’t begin seeking redress through DNA testing until the early 1990s. By 1995, the Innocence Project took his case, ultimately winning a motion to authorize the Serological Research Institute (SERI) to undertake mitochondrial and other DNA tests on the hairs and fluids recovered from the victim and crime scene."

Although the New Jersey State Police Laboratory had reported that there was no semen in the victim’s rape kit, SERI identified sperm on her oral, vaginal and anal swabs," notes the Innocence Project summary. "Two different male profiles were found.

"One of the profiles matched one of the victim’s consensual lovers. The other profile belonged to an unknown male."The unknown male was found on all of the swabs in her rape kit," notes the Innocence Project. "Significantly, the unknown male profile was not found on the victim’s underwear or jeans, indicating that she did not put these items of clothing back on before she was killed, consistent with the fact she was found partially nude."

Most significantly, scrapings from the victim’s fingernails underwent tests that showed they did not match the DNA of Peterson, but rather that of the same unknown male profiled in earlier forensic testing.

Peterson’s conviction was thus vacated by July of 2005 but the Burlington County Prosecutor’s office decided to re-try him, despite the loss of the forensic evidence. Peterson’s family and friends struggled to raise the $20,000 for the defendant’s release on bail.

Then, in late May of this year, prosecutors finally dropped the case against Peterson and Superior Court Judge Thomas S, Smith signed the order dismissing all charges."I was emotional, overwhelmed," Peterson was quoted as saying at the time. "I have proclaimed my innocence for so long, and now others will know I’m innocent as well."
©The Trentonian 2006

Monday, December 18, 2006

Victim of 34 Minute Execution Claimed Innocence

This article, written by former Innocence Institute grad assistant Nate Crabbe, appeared in the Gainesville Sun Times on December 14, 2006.

Inmate takes 34 minutes to die

Sun staff writer
December 14. 2006 6:01AM
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Angel Nieves Diaz shuddered and appeared to grimace in pain during his execution Wednesday, requiring two rounds of lethal drugs before dying.Diaz, 55, was declared dead 34 minutes after the process started, about 20 minutes longer than recent executions have taken.

His appeals claimed lethal injection constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and his execution seems likely to fuel the debate over the process.

The Puerto Rican native was sentenced to death for the murder of a Miami topless club manager 27 years ago this month. He professed his innocence in his last statement, which was spoken in Spanish and translated by a prison official.

"The state of Florida is killing an innocent person. The state of Florida is committing a crime because I am innocent," he said.

Observers couldn't recall another execution that required two rounds of drugs since lethal injection was instituted in 2000. Inmates are typically given three drugs in the process: the first to render unconsciousness, the second to cause paralysis and the third to stop the heart.

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said Diaz had liver disease, slowing the effectiveness of the drugs and requiring the second round. Plessinger said Diaz didn't feel pain during the procedure.

"Once the first set of drugs was introduced, he did not recover," she said.But Diaz's family members and death-penalty advocates assembled outside Florida State Prison questioned her explanation. Mark Elliott of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said Diaz would have felt intense pain if he was conscious when the third drug was administered."The sensation is supposed to be like being burned alive from the inside out," he said.

Cousin Maria Otero of Orlando said the family wasn't aware Diaz had liver disease and demanded more facts about what happened. One of 16 family members who spent 45 minutes with Diaz earlier in the day, she said he was calm and professed his innocence.

"He asked for us not to lose the faith, to try to be united," she said.

Family members aren't allowed to witness executions, so they assembled with protesters in the pasture across the street from the prison. Relatives cried out in grief during the protests, and two passed out from what a relative said was anxiety.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last-ditch appeals in the hour before the execution. Diaz claimed he was not the triggerman in the killing of Joseph Nagy during a robbery at the Velvet Swing Lounge.

He was convicted largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed the Spanish-speaking Diaz mimed a confession. The informant later said he lied.While a co-defendant cut a deal with prosecutors and was given life in prison, Diaz acted as his own attorney at trial and was sentenced to death.

Diaz turned down requests for a final meal and was served the day's standard prison meal of turkey tacos, which he turned down. He later met with prison chaplain Dale Recinella and received last rites from Father Jose Maniyangat.

He asked that his body be sent to Puerto Rico for funeral services. Puerto Rican Gov. Acevedo Vila and other officials had asked Gov. Jeb Bush to stop the execution. The U.S. territory abolished the death penalty in 1929.

The execution was the fourth this year, the most since 2000 even with delays caused by challenges to the lethal injection method. Convicted cop killer Clarence Hill stopped his execution in January with such a challenge, only to be executed in September when further appeals were not allowed.

All four inmates executed this year have challenged the lethal injection procedure as cruel and unusual punishment, claiming inmates can wake and feel pain during the process. The state has argued the process is designed to ensure inmates are unconscious after the first drug is administered.

But Diaz's execution would appear to contradict that claim.After making his last statement at 6 p.m., Diaz appeared to wince and mouth words. Over the course of 10 minutes, he grimaced and shuddered at several junctures. He then moved his mouth in a way that made it appear he was gasping for air. Diaz stopped moving at 6:24, and was declared dead by prison officials 10 minutes later.

Nathan Crabbe can be reached at 352-338-3176 or