As we finish out the year with the fourth quarter wrongful conviction roundup, I want to highlight the cause-effect relationship of many of the common themes discussed in this blog. The fourth quarter wrongful convictions and exonerations illustrate the tragic, real world effects of prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct, false confessions, and flawed eyewitness identifications. The injustice and pain endured by the victims is heart-breaking.
Floyd Bledsoe Exonerated: Floyd Bledsoe served more than 15 years of a life sentence for a rape and murder he did not commit. DNA evidence and suicide notes written by Floyd’s brother Tom (notes that included knowledge only the killer could have possessed) have shown that Tom, not Floyd, raped and murdered the 14-year-old victim. This evidence proved what should have been obvious from the outset: that Tom, not Floyd, was the culprit. Evidence of Tom’s guilt included two voicemail messages he left on his pastor’s answering machine confessing to the murder and expressing his regret. Tom also confessed to the police, gave the police the murder weapon, and told the police where to find the body. Then, Tom flipped and said that Floyd committed the rape/murder and told Tom the details.
That was when the prosecutorial misconduct came into play. Prosecutors dropped charges against Tom and instead prosecuted Floyd. To secure the conviction against Floyd, the prosecution maintained that the rape kit result was negative (so DNA testing would be futile). It turns out, however, that the rape kit result provided the assailant’s DNA. The prosecutor hid that fact and signed an order agreeing that there would not be any DNA testing conducted on the evidence. Years after Floyd’s conviction, the prosecution’s lies were uncovered, and DNA testing revealed that Tom was the culprit. Floyd Bledsoe was freed on December 8, 2015, after a judge reversed the conviction and ordered his release.
Donovan Allen Exonerated: Donovan Allen also spent 15 years in prison on a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. When he was 18 years old, Allen’s mother was strangled and bludgeoned to death. Allen was convicted of the crime on the basis of a false confession. Northwestern Law School professor Steven Drizin testified in the post-conviction innocence proceedings as a false confession expert, explaining that Allen’s false confession included numerous telltale markers of police influence. The “confession” included false fed facts – facts supporting an early police theory of the case, but not borne out by the eventual evidence. DNA tests revealed that Allen’s cousin committed the brutal murder. The testing showed that, despite his false confession, Allen was excluded as a suspect. Allen was released from prison on December 1, 2015.
Luis Vargas Exonerated: For every wrongful conviction, there is not only an innocent person sentenced for a crime he did not commit. There is also an actual perpetrator, still free to continue committing crimes. In 1999, Luis Vargas was wrongfully convicted of being the “teardrop rapist” a serial rapist who was sexually assaulting women in Los Angeles in the late 90’s. Vargas, like the assailant, was a middle aged, Latino man, with a teardrop shaped tattoo on his face. The prosecution’s case relied heavily on eyewitness identifications of Vargas, but it turns out that those identifications were mistaken. In November, a Los Angeles County judge reversed Vargas’ conviction based on DNA evidence exonerating him. The real “teardrop rapist,” has been linked to more than three dozen sexual assaults, spanning nearly two decades, and is still at large.
Russell Faria Exonerated: Russell Faria was serving a life-without-parole sentence for his wife’s murder. A new trial was ordered because prosecutors suppressed evidence. At the retrial in November 2015, the court found Faria not guilty. Police investigators are accused of hiding evidence, lying on the witness stand, threatening one of Faria’s alibi witnesses, and suggesting that a State witness change her story to bolster their case. An investigator’s testimony at the retrial supported that blood was planted on a pair of Faria’s slippers in an effort to falsely incriminate him. In acquitting Faria, the judge stated that he was disturbed by the police investigation.
These are just a smattering of the wrongful convictions from fourth quarter 2015. Visit the National Registry of Exonerations for the full list. Happy New Year.