innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Friday, February 23, 2007

Pete Williams Officially Exonerated

This article appeared on the website of the Georgia Innocence Project on February 13, 2007:

PETE WILLIAMS OFFICIALLY EXONERATED

Atlanta -Wishing Pete Williams "the best" for the rest of his life, Judge Thomas Campbell officially exonerated Willie O. "Pete" Williams in a hearing today in Fulton County Superior Court.

The judge granted an Extraordinary Motion for a New Trial filed on Williams' behalf by the Georgia Innocence Project. Representatives from the Fulton District Attorney's office then told the judge they did not intend to prosecute Mr. Williams further.

DNA tests earlier this year proved Williams' innocence of the 1985 rape and kidnapping for which he served nearly 22 years in prison.

Standing by Williams at the brief hearing were his attorneys, GIP Executive Director Aimee Maxwell, volunteer attorney Sandra Michaels, and GIP intern Cliff Williams, who located the DNA evidence that proved Williams' innocence.

Also in the courtroom were Williams' family and dozens of supporters including former GIP intern Ashley Tyson-Mackin, who first identified Williams' case as a strong one, and three previous Georgia exonerees, Robert Clark, Clarence Harrison, and Calvin Johnson, Jr.

Attorney Michael Schumacher, who served as Williams' defense attorney during his trial, was among the first to hug Williams in congratulations at the hearing's conclusion. Schumacher had argued vigorously during the appeals process that another man was responsible for the crime, but those arguments fell on deaf ears. Just days ago, Atlanta police arrested the man that Schumacher contended two decades ago was the real perpetrator. That man had pleaded guilty to three other attacks, and DNA testing by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that the DNA in one of those attacks matched the DNA in the case for which Pete Williams was wrongly convicted.

Said Maxwell, "Today is the official end of a decades-long nightmare for Pete Williams. It is now up to us at GIP -- and the entire state -- to help Mr. Williams rebuild his life."

The Atlanta law firm of McKenna, Long & Aldridge is already assisting in that effort. Today, McKenna Long's partner David Balser presented Mr. Williams with several thousand dollars' worth of gift cards, the result of donations from the firm's employees.

Pete Williams becomes the sixth DNA exoneree in Georgia and the 195th in the nation.
To help support GIP, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation which relies on individual donations, grants, and special events for its funding, please visit our Donations page.

For the latest media coverage on the Pete Williams story, please visit our Articles page.
Four of the six Georgia DNA exonerees join together for Pete Williams' exoneration hearing: Calvin Johnson, Jr., Robert Clark, Williams, and Clarence Harrison.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Dying Death Penalty?

This article appeared in the Washington Post on February 11, 2007:

The Dying Death Penalty?

By Dahlia Lithwick
Page B02

In a curious application of Newtonian physics, public and state support for capital punishment is steadily declining in America just as the resolve to maintain the death penalty seems to be hardening in the one arena where death-penalty policy once had seemed poised to change: the Supreme Court.

The trend is clear. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles statistics on capital punishment, two states have imposed formal moratoriums on the death penalty; executions in New York are on hold after the state's death penalty law was declared unconstitutional in 2004; 11 states (including, most recently, Florida and Tennessee) have effectively barred the practice because of concerns over lethal injection; and 11 more are considering moratoriums or repeals.

The raw numbers of executions and death sentences in the United States have plummeted: Information Center statistics show that in 1999 we executed 98 people, and in 2006 that number dropped to a 10-year low of 53. Whereas America steadily condemned about 300 prisoners a year to death through the 1990s, that number has declined by more than half and reached a low of 114 in 2006. Public support also seems to be faltering. A Gallup poll last year showed that two-thirds of the country still supports capital punishment for murderers, but when given the choice between the death penalty and a life sentence without parole, more people preferred the life prison term (48 percent) to capital punishment (47 percent) for the first time in 20 years.

The new uncertainty over capital punishment ranges from queasiness over the methods of execution to concern that we are executing innocents. Lethal injection, the preferred method of execution in 39 of the 40 states that permit capital punishment, is particularly fraught with problems.

In December, then-Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida ended executions following one in which it took the prisoner 34 minutes to die and he suffered chemical burns in the process. Recent scholarship, including a British medical journal report, indicates that the lethal-injection cocktail used may simply mask agonizing pain before death. And state courts are also increasingly bothered about the proper role of physicians -- often mandated by law to supervise the lethal-injection process over objections by medical associations and ethics boards.

There are numerous other reasons for our growing doubts about the death penalty. In a 2005 speech, Justice John Paul Stevens pointed to several, including DNA evidence that has shown that "a substantial number of death sentences have been imposed erroneously," the fact that elected judges face disproportionate pressure to impose capital punishment, and the problem of "death-qualified" jurors (those who oppose capital punishment are barred from sitting on capital cases). For these and other reasons, many Americans have begun to worry that the death penalty in this country is not reserved for the "worst of the worst," but for the poorest of the poor and those whose trial attorneys later prove to have been asleepest at the switch.

The Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic associated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, says there have been 194 post-conviction DNA exonerations. A wrongful-executions study by Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet of contends that from 1900 to 1991, 416 clearly innocent people were sentenced to die. And studies about the racism that taints the entire system are unequivocal.In recent years the Supreme Court has also shown concern about the death penalty.

In an article published last year, Duke University professor Erwin Chemerinsky observed that in the final years of the William H. Rehnquist Court, the justices showed a marked tendency to overturn death sentences. Chemerinsky speculated that "a majority of the Court was (and continues to be) deeply concerned about how the death penalty is administered in the United States" and that, as a result of the revelations by various investigators, "the reality of innocent people facing execution has had a profound effect on the Justices."

So in the early years of the new century, the court handed down surprising decisions outlawing executions of the mentally retarded and of those who were juveniles at the time of their crimes, and refining the tests for the ineffectiveness of counsel. Several justices also voiced concerns off the bench: Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor each spoke publicly and passionately about flaws in the capital system.

But, largely as a result of a change in the court's composition, that trend may now be ending. Just as a few states are defiantly expanding their use of the death penalty. And there is some reason to fear that some justices don't share the burgeoning sense that the machinery of death in this country is broken. One is the new chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., who, when he worked in the Reagan White House, wrote a memo suggesting that the high court could cut its caseload by "abdicating the role of fourth or fifth guesser in death penalty cases."

One case last term involved a man convicted of a rape and murder, who later produced DNA evidence raising serious doubt that he was the culprit. The court ruled 5 to 3 that this new evidence warranted a new hearing. But Roberts led the dissenters, who felt it wasn't enough for the new evidence to cast doubt on the defendant's conviction; to grant relief, the evidence had to prove he "was actually innocent."

In another death-penalty case from 2005, then-Justice O'Connor agreed with the court's liberals that trial counsel was ineffective. That decision reversed an opinion by Samuel A. Alito Jr., then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, that would have denied relief. The signals are still mixed. In a different case, the entire court allowed death-row inmates to pursue a civil claim against lethal injection.

But also last term, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a separate opinion in a death-penalty case for the sole purpose of excoriating Justice David H. Souter, who had written in a dissent about exonerated innocents. Scalia's opinion was a full-bore attack on the notion of innocent exonerees "paraded by various professors" and claimed, in effect, that even if those exonerated were not guilty enough to warrant the death penalty, they were still far from "innocent." (How that made them candidates for the death penalty he did not explain.)

Oral argument this term has also revealed a subtle hardening on the part of some of the court's conservatives. In one case, Roberts questioned the need for a trial judge to specifically guide jurors regarding mitigating evidence.

Somehow, just as the American people are beginning to consider the grave injustices pervading the capital system, several justices seem to be staking out strong personal positions on this front in the culture wars.

In his article, Chemerinsky suggests that justices who change course on the death penalty often do so only after decades on the bench. That might suggest that the two new justices will only soften on capital punishment in the far distant future. These justices also would insist that if the death penalty in this country needs fixing, the state legislatures should do it, a process that's already beginning to happen. But if for most Americans the time for stubborn certainty about the death penalty, at least as it's currently practiced, seems to be over, a court that is more certain than ever of its fundamental fairness looks grievously out of step with an American public willing to recognize the dangers of injustice, error and doubt.

dahlia.lithwick@hotmail.com
Dahlia Lithwick covers legal affairs for Slate,
the online magazine at www.slate.com.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Confession of a false witness frees California man

This article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 10, 2007:

Taking deep breath of freedom
After 20 years in prison for a killing that a key witness now says he didn't commit, Timothy Atkins wants only some fresh air.

By Ashraf Khalil, Times Staff Writer

A lifelong heavy drug user, frequently homeless or in jail, Denise Powell was a hard person to track down.

Researchers for the California Innocence Project spent months searching for Powell — who was only in intermittent contact with her own family. Their goal was to finally document on the record what Powell had been openly admitting for years: Her testimony implicating Timothy Atkins for murder was false.

When researcher Wendy Koen finally found Powell in early 2005, in rehab after a recent arrest, she confessed without hesitation."She was ready to talk. She'd been wanting to talk for years," Koen said. "She said, 'I was young and stupid. I didn't know it would come to this. I lied.' "

Thus began the final step in Atkins' 20-year campaign to prove his innocence. On Friday morning, Atkins, now 39, walked out of Los Angeles County Jail and into the arms of his family, free for the first time since his teens.

"It's over. I made it," he said, as weeping, whooping relatives lined up to embrace him. "I don't think the realization hit me until late last night."

In light of Powell's recanted testimony, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan overturned Atkins' conviction Thursday and ordered his immediate release. Tynan was the trial judge in 1987 when Atkins was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

In his ruling freeing Atkins, Tynan recalled that Powell's testimony was "the key to the conviction in this case…. The state has no interest in upholding a conviction obtained by false testimony."

On Friday, Atkins still looked a little shellshocked as he was swarmed by dozens of ecstatic family members and the beaming legal team from the California Innocence Project, part of the California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"This is the pinnacle of our existence," said project director Justin Brooks. "This is the whole goal: freeing the innocent."

Back at his cousin Tanya Franklin's house in South Los Angeles, Atkins dispensed hugs and fielded congratulatory phone calls. After decades of incarceration, he spent most of his time outside on the front lawn.

Franklin asked, "You want to come inside?"

"No," he answered, "I want air."

Atkins' conviction stemmed from a New Year's Day 1985 carjacking attempt in which flower shop owner Vincente Gonzales was killed.

Powell, an acquaintance of Atkins at the time, told police that Atkins and another man, Ricky Evans, had bragged about killing Gonzales. Both men were arrested. Evans was beaten to death in jail before the case could come to trial; Atkins was seriously injured in the same jailhouse fight.

"I'm thinking about Ricky a lot today," said Atkins, who has remained in contact with Evans' mother.

If Evans had lived, "He would have been exonerated as well," Koen said. "It was the same evidence against him."

Police were unable to find Powell to testify at Atkins' trial. Instead, her testimony at a preliminary hearing was read aloud in court.

In his ruling releasing Atkins, Tynan wrote that Powell's absence from the trial was crucial. If she had appeared, subject to cross-examination from the defense, "her demeanor and other indicia of truthfulness and veracity, or their absence, would have been observed by the jury," Tynan wrote. "In all reasonable probability the result would have been more favorable" for Atkins.

Other evidence, such as a vague description of the suspects from the victim's widow, were deemed equally shaky in hindsight by Tynan.

The judge also leveled pointed criticism at police for their "casual attitude toward maintaining contact with Powell." The failure to find and produce her for the trial "appears to be an error of constitutional magnitude," Tynan wrote.

Despite losing half his life to the prison sentence, Atkins said he bore no ill will toward Powell or anyone else.

"The past is the past," he said. "If I see her, I'll speak to her and if I can help her, I will."Atkins and several family members expressed sympathy for Powell, who has a long history of drug addiction and legal problems and has said she was remorseful over her role in Atkins' jailing.

Powell told researchers she was pressured by police to name a suspect in Gonzales' slaying.

"They got her into the station and told her, 'You're not going to leave until you tell us something,' " said Brooks, who listened to a recording of Powell's initial interrogation.

"She had a whole lot of guilt over what she had done to Tim's life," said Koen, who videotaped Powell's statement for the Innocence Project and tracked her down a second time to sign an official court declaration of her changed testimony.

"The guilt has really destroyed her life in a lot of ways."Atkins, who said he plans to work counseling at-risk youth, was remarkably philosophical Friday about his ordeal. He admits to a misspent youth before his arrest and views his incarceration as the only reason he's going to live into his 40s.

"I was a gang member. I was a thief and I had a drug habit," he said. "The life that I was living before, I probably would have ended up dead."

The Los Angeles County district attorney has 60 days to refile charges against Atkins. But Brooks does not expect prosecutors to do so.

"They have no case. They had no case 20 years ago," he said.

Brooks plans to file for state compensation, which offers $100 for each day in prison for those found to be wrongfully convicted. For Atkins, that could mean close to $800,000.

There's also the possibility of a civil suit against the police for wrongful imprisonment, "but that would be a tougher nut," Brooks said.

"First we'll go for the compensation and get him some money to get on his feet."

For now, Atkins is celebrating, adjusting to life as a free man and enjoying some home cooking.

"I'm whole now. I got my baby back," said Atkins' mother, Joyce Boney. "I'm going to the store. My boy wants to eat."

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com