innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is it really justice for all?

This article appeared in the Patriot-News on February 20, 2007:

Is it really justice for all?
Gladden case, others show flaws of conforming evidence to crime

By Pete Shellem
The Patriot-News

The homecomings are always surreal.

In Patty Carbone's case, it was a reuniting with her father and brothers, and later with the 21-year-old daughter she hadn't seen outside prison in about a decade.

Steven Crawford's family rented a limo and took him out for a steak dinner before returning to the family members and well-wishers from whom he had been separated for almost three decades.

Barry Laughman was surrounded by the rural roughneck workers that made up his loved ones.
David Gladden was greeted by nieces and nephews he didn't know he had at his grandmother's Harrisburg home Friday night.

She served him the fried chicken he had been telling me about every time I tried to get him to talk about his case.

They were all joyful moments, but in each case I was struck by overwhelming sadness watching these bewildered souls being thrust back into a life from which they were torn when the justice system ran them over.

They were all at a disadvantage when it happened. Patty Carbone was described as trailer trash. Steven Crawford was a young black man in trouble with the law after the racial unrest of the late 1960s.

Like Laughman, Gladden appears to be mentally challenged. At the time of his 1995 trial, a psychologist said he was functioning at a third-grade level.

While authorities dispute whether he's really retarded, one of the first things Gladden wanted to talk about to me, his attorney Royce L. Morris, and his grandmother when we picked him up from the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy was the fact that the Cartoon Network had started showing reruns of the old Hanna-Barbara cartoon "Lippy the Lion and Hardy Har Har."
And when I first started writing about Gladden more than a year ago, Steven Crawford -- who was also housed at Mahanoy -- told me Gladden once showed up in the showers wearing a raincoat and boots.

I did write down one thing Gladden said on our three-hour trip from prison Friday:
"The truth of the matter is I still don't know what's going on."

But then again, perhaps he wasn't the only one during this long and sorry case of injustice.
The arson investigators who probed M. Geneva Long's murder initially blamed faulty wiring for the blaze that was set to cover up her death.

Never mind the piles of magazines and papers on top of her body.

It was clear from their reports that they initially suspected Andrew Dillon, staying in a room next door, who would later admit to killing four other elderly women in a similar manner.

Yet, they were led away from those suspicions by a convicted sex offender named Donald "Goofball" Walborn, who met Gladden in prison. At the time, Walborn was facing charges for raping a 12-year-old girl.

In his initial statement, Walborn described Gladden as a Superfly kind of guy, flashing jewelry and money after Long's murder, although it was clear that Long had nothing of value to steal and Gladden couldn't even raise the $100 he needed to get out of jail on a marijuana possession charge.

While on bail for a rape charge, Walborn proceeded to rape another 12-year-old. Within days of being let out of prison last year, he was arrested on charges that he molested a 19-year-old retarded man. Those charges were thrown out, but when the stories came out, Walborn would later accuse me of molesting him. This was the "reliable confidential informant" police used -- a man who referred to himself as "the eyes and ears of the Harrisburg Police Department."

Walborn also implicated a small-time burglar named James A. Carson Jr., who eventually confessed and said he was burglarizing Long's apartment with Gladden and saw Gladden choking her as he ran away.

Police proceeded with this theory even though Carson identified the wrong location, put himself with Gladden when Gladden was in jail, and couldn't even say whether Long was white or black in his initial statements.

Since he was the only witness, I immediately sought out Carson when I began investigating the case. He recanted right away and said he had been coerced into the confession.

I covered Gladden's 1995 trial and was surprised at the verdict, since Carson was the only witness against him. Afterward, I was at a bar with Gladden's attorney, Allen C. Welch, who was railing about the outcome -- first-degree murder and a life sentence. His trial folder was on the bar and I started to page through it. On the first page, Welch had written, "Can I blame Andrew Dillon?"

When I asked what Dillon -- who at the time had been charged in one murder and was the prime suspect in three others -- had to do with it, Welch told me Dillon lived nearby. He said then-District Attorney John F. Cherry had told him authorities had cleared Dillon.

When I later asked Cherry about it, he said they cleared Dillon with polygraphs.

It wasn't until years later when I looked at the case again that I found Dillon had refused a polygraph and Carson had flunked.

So why didn't authorities turn back?

Thomas Carter, the city detective who solved the Dillon case, was telling everyone who would listen that they had the wrong man in Long's murder.

Carter wouldn't talk to me about the case, but he told a Susquehanna High School forensics class I spoke to last year that my stories were on the mark.

When Dauphin County District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr. and his first assistant, Fran Chardo, first retrieved the Gladden file, they knew there were major problems.

The file, which they opened to me, had crime-scene photos from Dillon's other murders in it, along with a fax about Dillon's arrest from Carter to Cherry. They were also troubled that a murder trial transcript was only about an inch-and-a-half thick. To their credit, they immediately began conducting an exhaustive review, but there was little with which to work.

The only solid piece of evidence The Patriot-News' series turned up was a witness who said Dillon asked him for an alibi on the night of the slaying. Joseph Baumgartner's statement was corroborated by one Dillon gave police after the murder, in which he said he was with a heavyset white cabdriver named Joe at the time of Long's murder.

Last Thursday, Marsico and Chardo told me to expect some news. But then they hooked Baumgartner up to the lie detector and he failed. He admitted to Morris that he may have embellished the story, but stuck to his guns about Dillon asking for an alibi.

Marsico took the file home with him Thursday night, reviewed it again, and finally decided to pull the plug, saying Long's murder was a signature of Andrew Dillon. Marsico said any reasonable jury would have acquitted Gladden had they known about Dillon.

"The re-investigation has established to our satisfaction that Andrew Dillon was the principal actor in the murder of Margaret Geneva Long," Marsico and Chardo wrote in the petition that freed Gladden.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf has formed an innocence commission to review the 10 cases where DNA proved people were doing time for crimes they didn't commit.

Of the four cases I've investigated and written about in the past decade, only Barry Laughman's will be among those 10 because there was fresh DNA evidence.

But there has been a common theme in all of the cases -- investigators trying to conform the evidence to their theories rather than the other way around.

As one state police investigator has always told me, "you can't prove innocence."

Hopefully, the justice system will come up with better ways to assure guilt before it unjustly swallows another large chunk of someone's life.

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