You may have noticed in today’s Marshall Project morning newsletter, “Opening Statement,” a concentration of stories about overturned convictions around the nation. It’s been an ongoing theme all week, actually, and the flurry of belated self-corrections by judges and prosecutors deserves a closer look.
There are countless ways in which old cases take new turns. What happened this week, in almost every region of the country, helps illustrate how ordinary problems and mistakes in our justice systems can generate extraordinary stories of injustice.
Let’s start with today. In Ohio, Ricky Jackson and Wiley Bridgeman were freed hours ago, 39 years after they were wrongfully convicted of murder – during the Ford administration. They are, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, the longest sentences any American prisoners have ever served before being exonerated. The men were released, with the consent of prosecutors, because the principal witness against them, a boy of 12 at the time, now says he lied when he identified Jackson, Bridgeman, and a third man as murderers. “Everything was a lie,” said the witness, Eddie Vernon. “They were all lies.”
Which is essentially the story now emerging in another murder case in Houston. On Wednesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that two witnesses in a murder case have recanted their testimony incriminating Antonio Williams for two murders in 2006. The prosecutor “and the investigators pressured me to testify that Antonio was at the scene and was the shooter. They stated to me that if I helped them out, they would help out," one of these witnesses wrote in an affidavit. It is too early to know whether this development will lead to a new trial, or an exoneration, for Williams.
But it’s not too early to know that Michael Hanline, a 68-year-old man in California, may soon be released from prison after serving 36 years for a murder he may not have committed. Prosecutors acknowledged Tuesday that newly tested DNA evidence from the long-ago crime scene does not match Hanline’s. “Several sealed police reports also were uncovered,” the Los Angeles Times tells us. “The reports cast doubt on testimony by Hanline’s then-girlfriend, Mary Bischoff, who was granted immunity and was a key witness during the trial.”
Probably the biggest news of the week came from Louisiana. Albert Woodfox, kept in solitary confinement for over 42 years, moved one step closer to some measure of freedom. A panel of three judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – all Republican appointees all – ruled unanimously on Thursday that Woodfox’s long-ago trial for the murder of a prison guard was racially tainted at the grand jury stage. He has not been exonerated, but it’s hard to imagine that Louisiana prosecutors will seeking to retry him again.
Here is the link to the 5th Circuit’s panel ruling, which prosecutors may appeal to the full appellate court or to the U.S. Supreme Court. And here is the link to the trial court ruling the 5th Circuit just affirmed. Taken together, these two judicial opinions chronicle a remarkable (and remarkably long) legal story that touches on many of the issues that lawyers and judges confront in such cases. And it’s not over yet. It may be months before Woodfox learns whether he will be released from prison, or even from solitary, where he remains despite the order.
There will be no release for Dale Wayne Eaton, the sole resident of Wyoming’s death row, despite the good news he received this week. In 2004, Eaton was sentenced to death for the murder of a young woman named Lisa Marie Kimmell. On Thursday, a federal trial judge in Cheyenne threw out Eaton’s sentence, because his lawyers failed to adequately present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase of Eaton’s trial. The judge gave prosecutors an option – retry the sentencing phase of Eaton’s case more fairly, or permit the defendant to spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Racial bias (the Woodfox case), poor lawyering (Eaton), the impact of DNA evidence upon a conviction (Hanline), prosecutorial pressure (Williams), false eyewitness testimony (Jackson) – each of the cases turned on recurring themes that remind us why the search for truth in criminal trials is necessarily a ceaseless one.
There is, however, one more story this week worth sharing for perspective. In Milwaukee, prosecutors dropped murder charges against Brandon Crawford, a 21-year-old man they initially suspected had fired a gun that killed 29-year-old Fredricka Hodges during a drive-by shooting in April. A witness had picked Crawford out of a lineup. It was a high-profile case. There was tremendous community pressure both on the police to find someone responsible, and on prosecutors to charge someone for the death of the mother of two.
But the police this week agreed that Crawford had a strong alibi that undermined the circumstantial case against him. Crawford was buying a car across town at the time of Hodges’ death, the police now believe, because they have a time-stamped record from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation saying so. The family of the victim was unsurprisingly disappointed by the news about Crawford. And Crawford’s attorney was unsurprisingly relieved that both the police and prosecutors conceded their error. Here, in a week of wasted lives, is a story of a wrongful conviction averted.