Wrongful Convictions Cases Roundup: Q1 2015

People all over the country are serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit. In an earlier blog, we noted that in 2014, 125 individuals were exonerated in the United States—the most in American history. For now, it appears that the judicial system continues to be willing to act on innocence claims. Here are some noteworthy wrongful conviction news for the first quarter of this year.

 Kenneth Ireland

On January 29, 2015, Kenneth Ireland was awarded $6 million by the Connecticut claims commissioner — making him the first person to be compensated for a wrongful incarceration claim in Connecticut. Ireland spent nearly two decades in prison for a 1986 rape and murder he did not commit. Ireland, twenty-years old at the time of the conviction, was sentenced to fifty years in prison even though fingerprints found at the scene did not match Ireland’s and hair found at the scene was dissimilar with Ireland’s. The Connecticut Innocence Project began reviewing his case in 2007. DNA tests cleared him and instead fingered another man, Kevin Benefield, as the true killer. In addition to the monetary compensation, Ireland was appointed to a seat on the state Board of Pardons and Paroles by Gov. Dannel Malloy. The Connecticut claims commissioner remarked: “[N]o words or dollar amount will suffice to give him back the time that he lost and the misery he endured.”  His case will set a precedent for future wrongful conviction claims in Connecticut.

Joseph Sledge

After thirty-seven years in prison, Joseph Sledge is a free man.  On January 23, 2015, he was released from prison.  Sledge was convicted for the murder of a mother and her daughter found inside their North Carolina home in 1976.  An unfortunate series of events connected Sledge to this horrific crime.  The day before the murders, Sledge escaped from a prison camp where he had been serving four years for larceny.  Five miles away, and while he was out of prison, the murders happened.  At the time Sledge was tried, DNA testing was not available.  A simple hair comparison found that hair found at the scene was merely consistent with Sledge.  Sledge was found guilty for these crimes.  Sledge has pleaded with anyone who would listen to him to take another look at his case.  His chance finally came by way of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, established in 2006.  Serendipitously, a clerk cleaning the evidence vault found an envelope with hair found at the scene.  The envelope had been missing for twenty years, prohibiting any comparison with Sledge.  In December 2014, the Commission voted that Sledge’s case merited possible exoneration.  A DNA expert testified in front of the three-judge panel that no forensic evidence found at the scene—hair, DNA, or fingerprints—belonged to Sledge.  He was found innocent and released.  Sledge will be compensated by the state in the amount of $750,000.

James Hugney, Sr.

On January 23, 2015, James Hugney was finally released after serving almost thirty-six years in prison for a murder he did not commit. The victim: his own son.  Hugney was charged with killing his son by setting his bed on fire while the son was sleeping. At Hugney’s trial, experts testified that the fire that took the life of Hugney’s son was arson. They determined this by looking at the floor around the son’s bed and noting that there were “characteristic pour patterns.” Still, these investigators could not definitively determine the origin of the fire. This junk science is referred to as the “negative corpus” theory, which basically is a theory where the last standing cause of a fire is the asserted cause, regardless of evidentiary support.  This theory has been refuted as a clear violation of the scientific method. A jury found Hugney guilty in 1979. In 2011, Hugney petitioned the Dauphin County Court of Common pleas to revisit his case once.  The McShane Firm was appointed to look into his case. His attorneys used advances in modern science to petition the court to re-open the case and three international fire scientists determined that the method used to convict Hugney is not supported by science. He will not receive compensation from the state because unlike Connecticut (see Ireland’s story above), Pennsylvania does not compensate the wrongfully convicted.

George Toca

Toca was freed from prison on January 29, 2015 after serving thirty-one years for a crime he did not commit. In 1985, when he was just seventeen years old, Toca was charged with killing Eric Batiste, his best friend. Batiste was accidentally shot and killed during an attempted robbery of a convenience store. Descriptions of the shooter and Toca’s physical traits did not match – the shooter was described as 5’10” to 6’0” tall, while Toca stands at just 5’5” with a prominent gold teeth that no witness mentioned in their descriptions of the shooter. Despite this, Toca was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In 2003, the Innocence Project New Orleans uncovered evidence showing Toca’s innocence.  Additionally, the evidence pointed to another man as the actual killer. Even Batiste’s family has never believed that Toca killed Batiste.

Josue Ortiz

Ortiz was released from prison in December 2014 after serving a decade in prison for a double homicide he did not commit. Indictments against Josue Ortiz, however, were not formally dismissed until January 30, 2015.  Ortiz, who suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, falsely confessed to the shootings of Nelson and Miguel Camacho. Ortiz was charged with and convicted of killing brothers Nelson and Miguel Camacho. Two years ago, federal investigators discovered evidence supporting Ortiz’s innocence. The FBI and Buffalo police learned that the Camacho brothers were allegedly killed by Buffalo’s 7th Street Gang. Another man, Efrain “Cheko” Hidalgo, confessed to the crimes. 

Walter Swift

On February 3, 2015, the city of Detroit agreed to a $2.5 million settlement in Swift’s wrongful conviction case. Swift was convicted of rape in 1982, a crime he did not commit.  Detroit police showed the rape victim photographs of black teenagers. She selected seven photos that resembled her rapist. Police only brought Swift in for questioning after randomly deciding that the next photo the victim selected would be the suspect they brought in for questioning.  While she could not confidently identify Swift as the rapist, she did implicate Swift.  At Swift’s trial, the jury did not hear any information about the victim’s uncertainty that Swift was her rapist. In addition, forensic evidence discovered before the trial supported Swift’s innocence.  Testimony from the lab technician who discovered this information, however, was not presented to the jury. Swift was convicted of the rape and served twenty-six years in prison.  He was released in 2008. Swift filed a lawsuit against Detroit in federal court in 2010. The case was stayed for over a year due to Detroit’s bankruptcy filing.

Christopher Abernathy

Abernathy was released from Statesville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois on February 11, 2015. He had served thirty years of a life sentence that he received at age eighteen.  Abernathy was convicted of murdering a fifteen-year old girl, Kristina Hickey. Hickey disappeared in 1984 while she was walking home from a high school choir concert in Park Forest, Illinois. Two days later, Hickey’s body was discovered behind some bushes. Hickey had been stabbed multiple times and was likely sexually assaulted. Abernathy was questioned by police because he knew Hickey, but he was released. A year later and after two days of interrogation, Abernathy confessed to the murder because he believed signing was the only way to see his mother again. The coerced confession was a chief piece of evidence used to convict him. Since then, Abernathy has maintained his innocence. The Illinois Innocence Project took on Abernathy’s case in 2014. The Project’s concluded that Abernathy likely suffered from diminished mental capacity when he confessed. DNA testing excluded Abernathy from all pieces of evidence in which DNA was obtained.

Mario Victoria Vasquez

Vasquez was released from a Wisconsin jail on January 30, 2015.  He had served nearly seventeen years in prison for a child sexual assault he did not commit. In 1998, a four-year old girl was diagnosed with genital herpes. Police questioned the girl and she pointed to a variety of suspects. One of the men she identified was Vasquez, her babysitter’s brother-in-law. Mario, however, was also the name that the girl sometimes called her uncle. The uncle was questioned and lied about not having herpes. Because the uncle appeared calm and Vasquez was nervous during question, Vasquez was charged and convicted of child rape. Vasquez was represented by an attorney who was eventually disbarred for ineffectual representation of clients. The Wisconsin Innocence Project took on Vasquez’s case a few years ago. The Project’s investigation uncovered multiple police records indicating that the child was unsure about who had molested her and that the child’s uncle tested positive for herpes. Based on this newly discovered evidence, Vasquez moved for a new trial. After the court granted Vasquez’s motion for a new trial, the Brown County District Attorney’s office decided not to retry the case. Vasquez was offered a plea deal a few years ago, which would have led to immediate release, but he rejected it, maintaining his innocence.

Dewey Bozella

On February 10, 2015, Dutchess County in New York agreed to pay out $7.5 million to Dewey Bozella for his wrongful imprisonment. Bozella, just eighteen at the time, was arrested in 1977 for the burglary and murder of a 92 year old woman. Charges were dropped after finding no evidence connecting him with the crime. But six years later, Bozella was arrested again after two inmates told prosecutors that Bozella had committed the murder.  Even though a fingerprint that matched an individual who committed a nearly identical crime was found at the scene of the murder, prosecutors pursued the case against Bozella. Bozella was convicted on the inmates’ testimony alone.  He spent twenty-six years in prison before his conviction was overturned.

Alan Newton

On February 26, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Alan Newton is entitled to the $18.5 million jury verdict that was awarded in 2010. Newton was wrongfully convicted and spent over 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. For Newton, this is the end of a harrowing and unjust journey that began over thirty years ago. In June of 1984, a twenty-five year old woman was assaulted, kidnapped and raped.  The victim described her assailant as a black male in his late twenties and pointed to Newton in a photo lineup. Newton told the police that he was at the movies that day and then went to his fiancé’s house. His alibi fell on deaf ears. In May 1985, Newton was convicted of rape, robbery and assault and sentenced to 13 to 40 years. Newton requested DNA testing but was denied because the kit was supposedly lost. In 2005, the Innocence Project requested a search be conducted to find the rape kit. The rape kit was found in the same barrel indicated on the evidence voucher! The DNA testing conclusively excluded Newton as the perpetrator.  On July 6, 2006, two decades after his wrongful conviction, Newton was released from prison. In 2010, a jury awarded Newton $18.5 million against New York City. A federal district court judge, however, tossed out the verdict, finding that the City did not intentionally violate Newton’s civil rights. Newton appealed and on February 26th, the appellate court reversed the lower court’s ruling.

Kirk L. Odom

On February 27, 2015, a D.C. Superior Court ordered D.C. to pay Kirk Odom $9.2 million for his wrongful conviction. Odom served over 22 years in prison for a rape and robbery he did not commit. The D.C. Superior Court’s ruling is significant because the $9.2 million award is the largest award ever granted under D.C.’s wrongful conviction law and is one of the largest non-jury awards ever given in a United States exoneration case. Odom was only 18 years old when he was accused of rape and robbery of a 27 year old woman. Flawed forensic work and biased line-up procedures caused Odom’s conviction. In July 2012, a D.C. Superior Court judge exonerated Odom based on new DNA testing that proved his innocence. Odom is the third man convicted to have his charges have been vacated based on false FBI hair analysis and the 293rd person to be exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in this country.

Cathy Woods

Cathy Woods is officially clear of charges for the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell. Cathy Woods, who suffered from mental disorders, was convicted solely based on her false confession. In 1979, Cathy Woods was a patient at the psychiatric ward of the LSU Medical Center. She told the staff that she killed someone named Michelle, a nineteen year old, in order to serve Satan, which the staff reported to the Reno authorities. In November 1980, Woods was convicted of Mitchell’s murder.  She was sentenced to serve a life term in prison. In 2010, Woods filed a petition requesting DNA examination of evidence. Woods’ DNA was not found at the crime scene. In fact, the DNA found at the scene matched Rodney Halbower, who was charged with the murders of two women in California that occurred around the same time as Mitchell was killed.  In September 2014, Woods was released from prison and her conviction was vacated.  Woods served thirty five years in prison.  On March 6, 2015, Washoe County District Attorney announced that there will be no retrial of Woods.

Christopher Coleman

On March 5, 2015, Christopher Coleman was declared factually innocent by a Peoria County judge, the first time this has happened in Peoria County history. Coleman served nineteen years in prison before being released on November 2013.  In August 1994, a group of masked men broke into a home shared by five women, beating and raping a seventeen-year-old woman. No physical evidence linked Coleman to the crime.  Two of the victims, however, identified Coleman in court. They knew Coleman previously and claimed to recognize his style of walking. The victims had not seen Coleman in years, however. Coleman was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to sixty years in prison. Coleman filed a petition for post-conviction relief due to newly discovered evidence of actual innocence. Four admitted participants in the break in all testified that Coleman had not been involved.  Despite this evidence, the trial court denied Coleman a new trial, reasoning that the evidence was not of “such a conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial.”  The appellate court agreed.  In October 2013, however, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed and remanded the case in favor of Coleman.  Coleman was released on bond in November 2013.  All charges against Coleman were dismissed in March 2014.

Angel Gonzalez

On March 10, 2015, forty-one year old Angel Gonzalez walked out of prison.  He had spent about half of his life serving a sentence at Illinois Department of Corrections. Nearly twenty years ago, Gonzalez was wrongfully convicted of rape and abduction. In 1994, a Waukegan woman was dragged from her home, thrown in a car and sexually assaulted.  The police stopped Gonzalez’s car because it matched the description of the car the victim gave.  Gonzalez had an alibi at the time the crime was committed and no prior criminal history.  Police interrogated Gonzalez and used various tactics to get Gonzalez to sign a written confession that he did not understand. Gonzalez only spoke Spanish at the time.  Based on the false confession, Gonzalez was sentenced to fifty-five years in prison. Gonzalez has maintained his innocence for decades.  DNA testing proved his innocence. The DNA results of the victim’s clothes returned profiles belonging to two other unidentified men.  Gonzalez is the fifth man to be exonerated of a violent crime in Lake County by overwhelming DNA evidence in his favor.


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