Thursday, March 19, 2009

Westchester Guardian/Jeff Deskovic.

Jeff Deskovic.

Georgetown University Law School Conference
Supports William Osbourne, Part 2


Monday, March 2, The Innocence Project argued the case of William Osbourne before the United States Supreme Court. The central issue in the Osbourne case is whether or not defendants have a Constitutional right to post-conviction DNA testing which can prove innocence. In order to raise public awareness of the profound implications of this case, an event was held a few days earlier, on February 26, at Georgetown University’s Law School.

Shawn Amherst, the executive director of The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, was the Moderator. One of the goals of the project is to prevent and correct wrongful convictions in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

She said that her organization was very excited to be there, co-sponsoring the event, along with the Georgetown Office of Public Service
and Community Service as well as e Innocence Project. Rickie Johnson stated that he had been wrongly convicted of rape in Louisiana, and that he served 25 years in prison in Angola before DNA cleared him. e facts of his case according to e Innocence Project’s website are:
“In the early morning hours of July 12, 1982, a 22-year-old woman awoke in her northwest Louisiana home to find a man holding a gun to
her head. The man raped the woman twice and stayed at her house for four hours. He told her his name was Marcus Johnson and mentioned several details, claiming they were about his life. He claimed to be looking for an ex-girlfriend of his from Many, Louisiana.

He said he was he was on probation; he was from Leesville, Louisiana, and had relatives in the towns of Natchitoches and Monroe. The victim reported the rape the next morning, at which point she told police her attacker was an African-American man between 5’6” and 5’8”,
weighing about 140 pounds, with facial hair and a scarf tied around his head.

A detective from the Sabine Parish Sheriff’s Department contacted the Leesville Sheriff’s Department to ask if they had a man named Marcus Johnson on file. There was no record of Marcus Johnson, but Leesville officers told the detectives about Rickie Johnson, who was on probation for a misdemeanor traffic violation. Rickie Johnson matched some of the details provided by the perpetrator – he is from Leesville, has a child with a woman in Many and had relatives in Natchitoches and Monroe – and he became a suspect.

Police showed the victim a photo lineup consisting of just three photos; Johnson’s photo, which was in the center, was eight years old. The victim told police that she had ample time to see the perpetrator’s face, and she identified Johnson as the perpetrator, even though he had a prominent gold tooth which was never part of her description of her attacker.

He was arrested two days after the crime, and no other suspect would ever be investigated. From the time of his arrest, Johnson asserted his innocence. Six days later, police conducted an in-person lineup with five individuals. Again, Johnson was in the center, and again the victim identified him as the assailant. This lineup was not presented at Johnson’s trial because it was ruled inadmissible in court since Johnson did not have an attorney present at the lineup. Tests at the Shreveport Crime Lab determined that evidence collected from the victim at the hospital included sperm from the perpetrator, and serological testing showed that Johnson – and 35% of the African-American population – could have been the contributor. Johnson was charged with aggravated sexual assault and tried before a jury in Sabine Parish, Louisiana.

The victim identified him at trial, saying she was “positive” that he was the perpetrator and there was ‘no question in [(her]) mind.’ She said
the apartment was dark until about 15 minutes before the perpetrator left. Prosecutors also presented the victim’s photo identification of Johnson and the serological evidence that his blood type matched the blood type of the perpetrator – as determined from the sperm cells from the perpetrator.

Johnson’s defense attorney presented evidence that he was with family members and at the dentist on the day of the crime. Johnson did not testify. He was convicted by the jury and sentenced to life without parole. In January 2008, the profile was checked against the Louisiana DNA database, and implicated another man, John McNeal, who is serving life in prison for a rape committed in 1983 in the same apartment complex as the crime for which Johnson was convicted.

In the 1983 rape – committed three months after Johnson was convicted – the perpetrator, later determined to be McNeal, broke into the home of a 19-year-old woman, claimed to be looking for a girlfriend, threatened her with a knife and raped the victim.”

Johnson moved from the facts of his case, to sharing various shocking things about his case that to those in the know, are all too common. He
wondered out loud how it was that the police “got Rickie Johnson from Marcus Johnson.” He said that his court-appointed lawyer had met with him only twice before the trial. He stated that his trial only lasted three days, and from the first day he could tell that the prosecutor ran the courtroom. Perhaps addressing how the jury overlooked his above-mentioned alibi, he stated that once the jury heard that the blood type fit within 40% of the population. A final ironic thing about his case is that the real perpetrator was right there in the same prison with him for approximately two decades.

Speaking to his fighting spirit, he stated that there were many times when he very nearly gave up. Changing gears, Ms. Amherst then invited Michele Mallin to speak. Mallin had been the rape victim in the Timothy Cole case, discussed in a previous column. Cole had been wrongfully convicted of rape in 1985, based upon Mallin’s misidentification. Although her misidentidentification caused the wrongful convictions, she now realizes that the police engaged in a lot of misconduct, in the absence of which the wrongful conviction might not have occurred.

Looking back on her misidentification, she said that Cole’s picture was the only color photo in the photo array whereas the other photos were black and white mug shots. She later identified Cole at a lineup. She never realized that the only evidence they had against Cole was her identification, and this bolstered her confidence that the right person had been convicted. She thought that the police had compared the fingerprint that the rapist had left on her car’s cigarette lighter; in fact the cops threw them away.

She thought that they had tested the smoked cigarettes that the rapist left in her car, they had not. After Cole was convicted, she underwent
counseling, got married, and moved on with her life. Nine years later she got a call from the police stating that Cole had died in prison from
asthma, [which as stated in Part 1 was exacerbated by prison conditions].

When she asked them why they were suddenly contacting her, they replied that a DNA test had been performed and that Cole had been innocent. She later learned that in 1995, after the statute of limitations for rape had run out, that the real rapist began confessing, but no one would listen.

A judge who had received the letter from him threw it out. Since learning about all of this, Mallin has felt horrible about what happened and now understands the fallibility of identifications. Mallin recognizes the accuracy of DNA, and accepts that Cole was innocent.

She joined with the Cole family in order to get the judge to recommend that he posthumously be exonerated. That recommendation is currently awaiting approval by the Texas Court Of Appeals. Mallin believes that everybody deserves theright to DNA testing.

Replying to arguments that are made on behalf of victims as to why testing should notbe done, to wit, that it reopens old wounds: Yes, she conceded, it does reopen old wounds, but the need to be certain that the right person is imprisoned as opposed to an innocent person far outweighs that concern.

Commenting on stories of the long years that it often takes for wrongfully convicted people to get testing, she stated that it shouldn’t take years to get testing; that’s ridiculous.Detective Jim Trainum works in the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. He learned about the world of wrongful convictions as a result of his obtaining a false confession and very nearly sending an innocent person to prison for life.

That happened, he said, without his yelling at the suspect or using violence. While staying within the law, he simply utilized the interrogation tactics that are taught across the country. The problem, he said, was that those tactics not only yield confessions, but also false confessions. He realizes now that false confessions are more frequent than what most people, himself included, believe.

Often the person being questioned simply wants the interrogation to end and will say anything just to get out of that situation, as opposed to thinking about long term consequences. As a result of that experience, he now works within the system to try to prevent wrongful convictions.

He noted that while courts require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, honest police officers and prosecutors need to go beyond that:they need to go beyond all doubt. He further stated that law enforcement officers should never stand in the way of DNA testing, whether before trial or post conviction.

There were other exonerees in attendance, who were present to show their support. Ms. Amherst invited all of them to come on stage, state where they were from, the year of their conviction, the year of their exoneration, and a bit about their lives now. The first person who spoke was Dennis Fritz, who recited an abbreviated version of his case.

This time headded that Oklahoma still does not have a statute permitting DNA testing as a matter of right, even though to date there have been 10 DNA exonerations in that state. He stated that he tries to bring about greater awareness of wrongful convictions, and that in connection with that he has worked with various innocence projects and law schools across the country.

Next was Julius Earl Ruffin. He said that he had been wrongfully convicted of rape, burglary, and sodomy in 1982 and was sentenced to five life terms in prison. His accuser had said that she was 100% sure.

DNA testing freed him. He said that he went about obtaining the DNA testing himself, with the assistance of some of the other prisoners. He was exonerated in 2003. He stated that he now lives in Portsmith, Virginia. He then mentioned his book in which he documented a little bit about his childhood, his wrongful conviction, what he went through during his wrongful conviction, and how he fought the system that he went through. Rickie Johnson spoke again.

He again stated that in 1983 he was wrongfully convicted of aggravate drape in Louisiana. He stated that the victim said that she was 100% sure that it was him, and that he spent 25 years in prison in Angola, one of Louisiana’s bloodiest prisons, before being cleared by DNA on Jan. 14, 2009.

He stated that he hoped that no one else had to go through what he did, even though he realized that there would indeed be wrongful convictions in the future. Perhaps underscoring the importance of the United States Supreme Court hopefully ruling that all citizens have the right to DNA testing to prove innocence, he said “Thank God for DNA.”Next it was my turn.

I mentioned that I had been wrongfully convicted of murder and rape in 1990. I mentioned that I had been convicted based upon a coerced, false confession extracted from me when I was16 years old, the fabrication of other evidence, and prosecutorial misconduct. In addition, my public defender was not very good.

I stated that I had been exonerated in 2006 after serving 16 years. In order to secure my freedom, I had to go beyond simply proving my own innocence, I wound up proving the guilt of the real perpetrator through DNA testing. I added that presently I give lectures on the subject across the country, am currently in a Masters Degree Program in Criminal Justice, and that I hoped to become a lawyer in the future. At the conclusion of the event, Marvin Ruffin shook my hand, and he gave me a complimentary copy of the book that he had written about his wrongful conviction and how it affected his life.

The title of the book is a brilliant play on words, to underscore the devastating impact the wrongful convictions have on not just the exoneree’s life, but also that of their family, an aspect that typically gets overshadowed. It also alludes to the danger that wrongful convictions pose to us all, in as much as it can happen to anyone at anytime.

The book’s name is Why Me? When It Could’ve Been You! Here is the Epilogue of the book, which I found to be very touching: “I want the world to know that I was innocent. And just like I served time for a crime that I did not commit, there are thousands of men and women who are experiencing what I went through for all those years.

Therefore, you are encouraged to listen when a loved one or friend tells you that he or she is innocent and support them in their efforts to pursue justice. It isn’t easy being in prison for something you didn’t do.

I, Julius Earl Ruffin, know because:For 21 years, I was incarcerated and treated as a criminal, identified by a number, counted each day, unable to come and go as I pleased, told when I could see and call my family, locked in a cell, and much, much more, for a crime that I did not commit, would not commit, and am incapable of committing. For 21 years, I had to inhale the body odor and waste of people I did not know, including those who shared cells with me as I was moved from institution to institution.

For 21 years, I was subjected to violent crimes and was threatened by those who desired to do bodily harm to me. For 21 years, I had to work for little pay, one dollar a day, or no pay.For 21 years, I had to get permission to do things that free men do without permission. For 21 years, I missed family reunions, weddings, birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings, and the freedom to shop and do things that people do for those they love on those special holidays. For 21 years, I suffered like no free man could ever imagine.

For 21 years, my family was humiliated and labeled. They were emotionally torn apart by my incarceration. My children grew up without me in their lives, and I did not have the opportunity to a part of their lives and the birth of my grandchildren. I was unable to be at my mother’s side during her illness and death, and the mental impact of having to attend my mother’s funeral in handcuffs was more than I could bear. I loved my mother very much. It pains me when I think about my mama going to her grave knowing that I was an innocent man in jail.

Her belief in my innocence helped me get through the 21 years of not having the freedom to live my life, come and go as I please and pursue my dreams. My mother isn’t here to see me as a free man. However, I thank God that my father of 84 years at the time of my release was blessed with the opportunity to see me liberated after 21years.”

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