We Do Not Support Incarceration of the Innocent or Seriously Mentally Ill, Wrongful Convictions, Cruel Prison Conditions, or Over-Sentencing of the Minimally Culpable Offender
Many of us do share a recognition with juvenile justice reform advocates who believe that, as with any human institution, the criminal justice system is flawed. Families of murder victims generally do not support the incarceration of the innocent. NOVJM’s advocacy for victims’ rights should in NO WAY be construed as support of over-incarceration of the minimally involved or convictions of the innocent.
Prosecutors and Law Enforcement are among the finest people in our nation. Their work is vital, and most work tirelessly and thanklessly to protect us and to do justice. We will always stand by them and recognize them as the heroes that they are.
We also know that as with any huge, complex human institutions, the criminal justice system is imperfect. Professionals in the criminal justice system are human, they are overburdened and under-resourced, and sometimes (thankfully rarely) they make mistakes.
Criminals certainly make horrible mistakes. Defense attorneys also make mistakes. Judges make mistakes. Clerks and Police make mistakes. Victims make mistakes. And Prosecutors sometimes make mistakes. All human beings make mistakes. Not all mistakes are criminal and violent. Some mistakes are very costly, however, if they incarcerate an innocent person.
The debate about the appropriate sentencing of teen killers and JLWOP (Juvenile Life Without Parole) has nothing to do with the issue of wrongful convictions- an entirely separate and very serious issue which must be addressed by the legal and public policy mechanisms created to do so.
It is important not to blur these distinctions – everything that we discuss regarding the sentencing of juvenile killers and violent teens should be considered applicable only to the truly and fully guilty. And even in those cases, we understand that some offenders are very seriously mentally ill, and therefore not as legally culpable for their actions. Arguments against certain sentences for those convicted should not be made on the basis of innocence or over-sentencing. Those can be corrected in our legal system without any changes to what is the appropriate sentence for the truly guilty.
Pictured: Jennifer Bishop Jenkins of NOVJM with Mark Clements of Chicago, a released former “juvenile lifer” who served many years in prison, accused of murdering his family in an arson fire. He was sentenced to life for their murders, but was later released when the prosecution stopped their pursuit of the case. Jennifer, one of NOVJM’s founders, is a murder victims family member of a teen killer, but supported Mark’s release while he was still incarcerated.
Watch this YouTube video of a case from Massachusetts that illustrates the controversy.
The Juvenile Prison For-Profit Industry
Investigations have revealed that serious abuse and mismanagement abound in the for-profit prison industry, and have been especially harmful with regards to juvenile detention facilities. More information available here and here.
Prison Conditions and Health Care
First, because we are all human beings and ought to be judged by how we treat the least of those among us, and, second, because almost all offenders (98%+) are released from prison one day to re-enter society, NOVJM believes that prisons must be institutions that absolutely respect, protect and observe human rights.
There are wonderful projects around the nation from groups like the ACLU, John Howard, and CURE that advocate for humane treatment of prisoners.
Mental illness is very different from criminal conduct, and should be treated as such. Sometimes such evaluations run a very fine line, and involve complex shades of judgment that are very hard for victims’ families. But ever since our nation de-institutionalized places for the mentally ill to go for treatment and live, our prisons and homeless shelters have become packed to the fill with the mentally ill. The promise back in the 1960’s to replace institutions for the mentally ill with community based solutions did not come to pass, tragically. Mass murders by the extremely mentally ill are on the rise, while generally violent crime is on decline. This is a collective problem that NOVJM believes we must all muster the political will to solve in our nation.
NOVJM commends and holds up the work of NAMI, who offer many wonderful resources for both victims’ families and for offenders with mental illness. One of their more important projects nationally and in states are their Criminal Justice Committees. The statistics about the incarceration of the mentally ill are truly stunning and troubling.
Here, for example, is a tragic story of an abused and mentally ill ten year old child who killed his own bizarre and troubled father in self-defense, and yet ended up incarcerated. Was this the best we could do in a case like this? We believe this case tells us a lot about the work we all have to do as a nation.
National Registry of Wrongful Convictions
NOVJM congratulates the University of Michigan and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions for their May 2012 release of a new helpful tool to track wrongful convictions in the United States.
Francisco “Franky” Carrillo was sixteen when arrested and later sentenced to life for a murder, but thanks to the work of one of the nation’s many Innocence Projects, his conviction was overturned and he was released. The case highlights the problems with eyewitness testimony which can be faulty, and should not be the sole basis for any conviction. Witnesses were told who to identify in the line-up procedure. This case cries out for reforms nationally in how identifications are made. The Northern California Innocence Project in Santa Clara is to be commended for their heroic work in this case. Meet Franky and watch his articulate story on MSNBC news.
There are teens convicted of murder whose convictions are controversial due to any number of issues that arose during the criminal justice proceedings. With the profound respect we hold for the work that many innocence projects and justice centers do around the country, we look to clinics such as the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, to raise attention for cases involving teen killers that ought to be re-examined. One such case meriting careful examination may be that of Devontae Sanford in Michigan. There are serious doubts regarding his murder conviction.
The Following is From the Northwestern Center for Wrongful Convictions
Daniel Taylor – ORDERED RELEASED JUNE 2013
Illinois lifer Daniel Taylor’s case has had doubt cast on it, as one law enforcement source says his forced confession could not be accurate because Mr. Taylor was actually incarcerated at the time of the crime. Forced confessions are a major source of wrongful convictions all over the USA. Read more at the CWC website and in the Chicago Tribune.
- Wrongfully Convicted Man Released Innocent
Daniel Taylor set free, originally sentenced as a teen killer
- Former Death Row Inmate/Teen Killer Released in Indiana
Paula Cooper, once the youngest person on Indiana’s death row, is freed from prison with the assistance of the victim’s grandson. Ms. Cooper was guilty but, many felt, oversentenced given the facts of her case.
And on the Huffington Post.
A poignant story about Center on Wrongful Convictions client Robert Taylor appears on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. “I can’t believe people do what they did to me,” reporter Steve Mills quotes Robert as saying. Robert was only 15 when he and four also-innocent teenage codefendants were coerced into confessing to a rape-murder they didn’t commit. Cook County prosecutors proceeded with the case even though all five had been excluded by DNA before trial.
Read Robert’s story:
Steve Mills wrote a second, excellent piece that also appears this morning about two
of Robert’s co-defendants, Jonathan Barr and James Harden.
Read their story:
The Englewood Case
Ed Note: CWC is the Center for Wrongful Convictions and CCSAO refers to the Cook County (IL) States Attorney’s Office
Five teenagers (including CWC client Terrill Swift) were charged with the November 1994 rape and murder by strangulation of Nina Glover, a 30-year-old woman known to engage in prostitution and drug use. During an investigation led and orchestrated by Detective James Cassidy, all five teenagers confessed in March 1995. Cassidy is known to have taken multiple proven false confessions, including the two from the Englewood children originally charged in the infamous Ryan Harris murder. In Swift’s case, pre-trial DNA testing excluded all five teenagers as the source of the semen recovered from the victim, yet four of the five were still convicted and remain in custody.
In September 2010, the CWC requested additional DNA testing in an attempt to match the unknown semen to an individual in the national database of offenders. In its motion, the CWC laid out in detail that since the time of Swift’s convictions, new details have been learned about previously unknown serial killers who preyed on prostitutes in Englewood and surrounding communities. In a written objection to our motion, the CCSAO claimed that a hit to one of these serial killers would be a “red herring.” After pressure from the Chicago Tribune, the prosecutors dropped their objection to testing, but still maintained that the results could never prove the teenagers innocent.
In May 2011, the CWC learned that the semen recovered from Nina Glover hit to Johnny Douglas. In November 1994, Douglas was twice the age of the charged teenagers and has no connection to any of them. He was not mentioned in the confessions of the teenagers — which is the only evidence of their guilt. According to police reports, Douglas was interviewed at the scene of the crime on the day the victim’s body was recovered from a dumpster.
Most significantly, Douglas is a serial killer who has a history of assaulting and strangling prostitutes, a history that was unknown at the time of Glover’s murder. In 2001, after DNA connected him, Douglas pled guilty to the 1997 murder of Gytonne Marsh, a prostitute who was strangled to death, and was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Subsequently, in 2002, DNA connected Douglas to the 1995 strangulation of Elaine Martin, another prostitute that turned up dead. The State charged Douglas with Martin’s death, initially seeking the death penalty. During the prosecution, the CCSAO sought to admit not only evidence of the Marsh murder for evidence of Douglas’s modus operandi of strangling prostitutes to death (which was granted), but also evidence that Douglas committed five other assaults of prostitutes. Douglas was acquitted of the murder of Martin. In 2008, Douglas was killed by Minosa Winters, who claimed self-defense and was eventually acquitted. During that prosecution, the court admitted evidence that Douglas committed both the 1995 and 1997 murders to support Winters’s argument that Douglas had a known reputation for violence.
In May 2011, within days of learning of the hit to Douglas and in conjunction with the attorneys representing the co-defendants, the CWC moved to vacate the four teenagers’convictions. While claiming to investigate, the CCSAO has otherwise remained mute over the last six weeks. They have, however, opposed our discovery request for police reports relating to Douglas’s murders of Marsh and Martin, arguing that evidence relating to Douglas’s past crimes is “irrelevant.” Of course, the evidence was very “relevant” when the CCSAO sought admission of six of Douglas’s past crimes during the prosecution of the 1995 murder, and the court found the evidence was “relevant” when it admitted it during that prosecution as well as the prosecution of Winters for the murder of Douglas.
January 2012 update from the CWC: The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office dropped all charges against CWC Client Terrill Swift and three co-defendants who, as juveniles, confessed to a 1994 rape-murder they did not commit. Although the case officially ended only now (Jan 2012), the innocence of the men, known collectively as the Englewood Four, has been apparent since last May when DNA testing identified the perpetrator of the crime as a now-deceased serial killer.
The Dixmoor Case
Cateresa Matthews, a 14-year-old Rosa Parks Elementary Student, disappeared on November 19, 1991, and was found dead with a gunshot wound through her mouth 19 days later on a path near I-57 in Dixmoor. Eleven months later, the Illinois State Police obtained confessions from three teenage peers of the victim (including CWC client Robert Taylor, who was just 15 years old). The confessions also implicated two other teenagers, James Harden and Jonathan Barr, who the police always suspected. The CCSAO then charged all five teenagers with sexual assault and murder.
The case began to unravel when pre-trial DNA testing of semen recovered from the 14-year-old victim excluded all five charged teenagers as the source. The CCSAO pressed on, however, explaining the DNA results away at trial by arguing that the semen must either belong to a consensual sexual partner of Cateresa, or perhaps could have been left by a wandering necrophiliac who happened upon the body. Indeed, the State felt so strongly that the confessions trumped the DNA evidence that it offered two of the confessors – Robert Lee Veal and Shainne Sharp – sweetheart deals to plead guilty and testify against Taylor, Harden, and Barr. Indeed, without the guilty pleas and testimony of Veal and Sharp, the State would have been forced to drop the charges against Harden and Barr, as they didn’t confess and the State had literally no other evidence against them. All five were convicted, and Harden, Barr, and Taylor remain incarcerated to this day.
In 2010, the CWC found Robert Lee Veal, who immediately recanted his testimony. Not long thereafter, Shainne Sharp did the same. Meanwhile, after a year-long search, the extracts of the previous DNA testing were found, and to the credit of the CCSAO, prosecutors agreed to further DNA testing.
In March 2011 came the bombshell – the DNA matched to a man named Willie Randolph, a serial offender with rape and armed robbery convictions who was 32 years old at the time Cateresa was murdered, but who was currently on the streets. The CWC immediately moved to vacate the defendants’ convictions. Little happened for months as the CCSAO promised the Court that it was “investigating.” It became clear, however, that the investigation was inept at best when the CWC discovered that Randolph had been arrested for a drug charge. When the CWC contacted prosecutors, they admitted that they were unaware of his arrest.
After months of “reinvestigation,” the CCSAO finally concluded that it would oppose any form of relief. Given that the DNA exclusion was known at trial, the CCSAO’s position in court filings has been that the results are neither “new” nor “relevant.” Indeed, the CCSAO thinks so little of the fact that a 32-year-old, gun-toting convicted rapist’s semen was in the body of the 14-year-old gunshot victim that they have opposed even the holding of an evidentiary hearing, requesting that our motion be dismissed on the pleading itself. Additionally, as in the Englewood case, they have opposed our efforts to discover information about Randolph’s prior crimes. Meanwhile, Randolph remains in custody on the drug charge with no indication that he will be charged with any crime relating to the rape and murder of Cateresa.
From EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE www.eji.org
13-Year-Old Mississippi Child Sentenced to Die in Prison Has Been Resentenced to Reduced Prison Term
April 24, 2012
Demarious Banyard was 13 when he was arrested and ultimately sentenced to die in prison. He was accused of being involved in a robbery-murder with an older man in a public housing project in Jackson, Mississippi. EJI won a new trial for him in 2010. Last week he was resentenced and should be released in the next several years.
EJI Seeks Relief for Disabled Pennsylvania Child Sentenced to Die in Prison
May 14, 2012
(ED NOTE – NOVJM consistently disapproves of the use of photos of the offender from an earlier time in their life to make them appear to be younger than they were when they were convicted. Most certainly this is one of those photos. However, we share EJI’s concerns about life sentences for any offender who is mentally challenged or mentally ill.)
In 1977, a 14-year-old mentally disabled girl was charged with second-degree murder after setting a fire that tragically killed two people in Chester, Pennsylvania. She was tried in adult court and sentenced to die in prison. EJI is now challenging her sentence and seeking relief for Trina Garnett, whose story is profiled in this month’s issue of The Nation.