At Long Last, Justice for the Englewood Four
On January 17, four men were exonerated by DNA evidence in the 1994 murder of a Chicago-area sex worker. The men, known as the “Englewood Four,” have received national attention for their case and the injustice of their imprisonment has spotlighted the problem of juvenile false confessions.
Michael Saunders (32), Harold Richardson (33), Terrill Swift (35) and Vincent Thames (34) were teenagers when they were coerced into signing false confessions. Despite DNA testing of semen recovered from the victim that excluded all of the teens, they were convicted on the strength of their false confessions. In early 2011, a DNA database search linked the semen to Johnny Douglas, whose long criminal record includes the strangulation murder of another prostitute. Douglas, who is now deceased, was present when Glover’s body was recovered and was questioned by police. Presented with this new evidence, a local judge overturned the men’s convictions in November, and in January the State’s Attorney finally dropped all charges.
Read more on the Englewood Four case.
Rickey Dale Wyatt Freed After Three Decades
Just days into 2012, a Texas judge released Rickey Dale Wyatt and recommended that his rape conviction be vacated after he had served nearly 31 years. Working closely with the Dallas District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project secured Wyatt’s release through DNA and other evidence, including eyewitness misidentification evidence that the original prosecutors failed to turn over to Wyatt’s defense.
Police suspected a single perpetrator in three Dallas-area sexual assaults in 1980-81 and eventually arrested Wyatt for the crimes. The attacker was described as being much taller and heavier than Wyatt, and as having a gold tooth, which Wyatt did not have. Despite not matching the description, he was tried and convicted of one of the crimes and sentenced to 99 years.
Although much of the DNA evidence had degraded over the years, DNA testing did reveal a partial male profile that excluded Wyatt. The joint investigation also uncovered evidence which had not been turned over during the original trial, supporting Wyatt’s innocence. He is expected to be cleared by the Texas Court of Appeals.
Read news coverage of his release.
Read background on the case.
U.S. Supreme Court Overturns New Orleans Murder Conviction
In yet another example of misconduct by the Orleans Parish District Attorneys’ Office, the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned the conviction of Juan Smith, convicted of murder in 1995, because prosecutors withheld important evidence of his innocence from the defense. Prosecutors have announced that they intend to retry the Smith case.
Misconduct by New Orleans prosecutors has led to overturned convictions in at least four other cases, including the case of John Thompson who spent 14 years on death row. Thompson sued prosecutors and was awarded $14 million. In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped Thompson of his compensation in a decision that granted prosecutors almost complete immunity for their misconduct. Thompson has now joined the Innocence Project and other criminal justice reform groups in calling for greater prosecutorial accountability. Catch Thompson on the first stop of his nationwide tour on February 6 in New York City.
Why I Give:
Attorney and Mom
I have been a public interest lawyer for a long time, providing free legal services to individuals and families who cannot afford to hire an attorney. In particular, I have fought to help people who were threatened with loss of basic human needs. My clients were often powerless to get what they were entitled to, and without the services of a legal services office, they would have been homeless or without food or appropriate schooling. The Innocence Project’s work resonates with me as they likewise provide legal representation to clients who would be powerless without their help.
I read the exonerees’ stories in the Innocence Project magazine with outrage. The actions of prosecutors and the courts are hard to fathom. One would think that the parties on both sides of the case would have the same goal – to see that the guilty party is found. Who is served by imprisoning, and possibly executing, the wrong person, especially if the perpetrator is still on the street?
I have heard many heartbreaking stories as a Legal Aid lawyer, but there’s something incomparable to the loss of years that the wrongfully convicted experience. While it’s wonderful to see that they have been exonerated, I wonder how they will be able to go on with their lives after years of unjust imprisonment. In reading the magazine, I also come away with tremendous respect for the attorneys, paralegals, social workers, students and others who work so hard. It is painfully obvious from the articles what an uphill battle they fight for each wrongfully imprisoned inmate, and how crucial their work is to seeing that justice is served. Clearly without their intervention, so many people would languish without hope.
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