Category Archives: Voices of Innocence

Voices of Innocence: Eddie Lowery

Eddie Lowery: A Kansas Wrongful Conviction

Eddie Lowery

In the early morning hours of July 26, 1981, an Ogden, Kansas woman was brutally raped in her home.  Nearby that same night, Eddie Lowery, a 22 year-old soldier stationed at Fort Riley, was involved in a car accident.

Because of his accident’s proximity to the location of the rape, Lowery was questioned by police about the rape all day with no food or rest.  When he requested an attorney, he was told he did not need one.

“I didn’t know any way out of that [situation], except to tell them what they wanted to hear.  And then get a lawyer to prove my innocence,” said Lowery in 2010.

Exhausted and scared, Lowery confessed to a crime he did not commit, believing the truth would come out in court.  After his arrest, Lowery quickly recanted his confession.  But, during his trial, it was used as evidence against him.

Lowery was convicted of the rape, and sentenced to 11 years to life in prison.  He served nearly 10 years at the Lansing Correctional Facility for a crime he did not commit.  In 1991, he was paroled, required to register as a sex offender and was dishonorably discharged from the military.

With the help of his attorney and the Innocence Project, Lowery paid to have the rape kit and other evidence from his case tested in hopes of proving his innocence.  Twenty years after his wrongful conviction, Lowery was officially exonerated by DNA evidence.  In 2010, the City of Manhattan and Riley County settled a $7.5 million civil suit for Lowery’s wrongful conviction and the 10 years he served in prison.

Eddie Lowery’s case is a clear example of how even with the best intentions, mistakes happen in Kansas criminal trials.  Since 1994, a quarter of Kansas death sentences have been overturned by the Kansas Supreme Court due to errors made during the trials.  As long as Kansas has the death penalty, wrongful convictions and wrongful executions remain an unacceptable risk.

 

Voices of Innocence: Juan Melendez

A Death Row Exoneration.

Juan Melendez

Juan Melendez spent nearly 18 years on Florida’s death row for a crime he did not commit.  Convicted of the brutal murder of Delbert Baker in 1984, Melendez was eventually exonerated in 2002.

But how does an innocent man get convicted of murder?

Barely able to understand English at the time of his arrest, Melendez unknowingly waived his rights.  Even though Melendez had a strong alibi, more than 16 pieces of evidence proving his innocence were withheld by the prosecution during the trial.  Less than a week after his trial began, Melendez was convicted and sentenced to death.

Additionally, Melendez’s conviction was bolstered by the testimony of two questionable witnesses: a police informant with a criminal record and a co-defendant who was threatened with execution, but received a deal for two years probation after testifying against Melendez.

Melendez’s exoneration was only possible after the discovery of a transcript of a taped confession from the real killer, which was found 16 years after Melendez was sentenced to death.

These errors can happen in any trial, but when the death penalty is involved, even one small mistake can put an innocent life at risk.  Since 1978, 138 people nationwide have been exonerated because new evidence came to light after they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit.  An execution cannot be undone.  Replacing the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole is the only way to ensure that an innocent person is never at risk of being executed.

 

Voices of Innocence: Cameron Todd Willingham

Executed. Innocent.

Cameron Todd Willingham and daughter

On December 23, 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham was at home with his three children.  Willingham later recalled waking up to the cries of his 2 year-old daughter, and found his house filled with smoke and flames.  Willingham remembered frantically trying to reach his daughters in their room, but he could not find them.  During his search, his hair caught on fire, and debris fell from the ceiling, burning his shoulder.  He fled his burning home through the front door.  His three children did not survive the fire.

Willingham was almost immediately suspected of arson.  During Willingham’s trial, the lead arson investigator testified that the fire had been deliberately set and pointed to evidence, including specific burn patterns in the home.  The arson investigators believed that Willingham had used an accelerant to set the fire and that he had deliberately blocked the exits of the home so the children could not escape.

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992.  In 2004, the State of Texas executed Willingham.

 

Willingham could have accepted a plea agreement and received a life sentence, but he declined, maintaining his innocence.  Tragically, the truth about his innocence was discovered before his execution, but Governor Rick Perry did not take any action to stay the execution.

After Willingham’s conviction, each example of arson presented to convict him was found to be scientifically invalid when reviewed by other arson experts, who determined that the fire was accidental.

In 2009, David Grann of the New Yorker published a thorough report on Willingham’s conviction and the likelihood of his innocence.  As Willingham’s case shows, executing an innocent person is not just a possibility, but a terrible reality. Mistakes happen.  When the death penalty is on the table, even a minor error can lead to the irreversible execution of an innocent person.  Replacing the Kansas death penalty with life without parole would ensure that an innocent person could never be executed in Kansas.

 

Voices of Innocence: Ruben Cantu

An Execution and a Prosecutor’s Regret

Ruben Cantu

Ruben Cantu was 17 years old at the time Pedro Gomez was murdered and Juan Moreno was wounded.  On November 8, 1984, both Gomez and Moreno were shot, but Moreno survived the attack with serious injuries.  Moreno, who was not a legal citizen of the United States at the time, was pressured into identifying Cantu as the perpetrator.  He provided the sole testimony against Cantu.

Cantu had no prior convictions and a solid alibi– he was in a different city the night of the attack.  But, Moreno’s emotional testimony swayed the jury.  Cantu was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986.  Juan Moreno later recanted his testimony, but Ruben Cantu was executed in 1993.

In 2005, 12 years after Cantu’s execution, the Houston Chronicle began investigating the case, and uncovered the serious errors that lead to his conviction and execution.  Juan Moreno told the Houston Chronicle that he is certain that Cantu was not the killer, and that police had pressured him to say Cantu had committed the murder.

“It was a case of an innocent person being killed,” Moreno said of Cantu’s execution.

Sam Millsap, the Bexar County District Attorney who made the decision to charge Cantu with a capital offense, has taken personal responsibility for the execution of a likely innocent man.

“The person I prosecuted in 1985, Ruben Cantu, was probably innocent,” said Millsap.

As a former prosecutor, Millsap is one of the last people expected to be opposed to the death penalty, but he knows the risks of the

Sam Millsap

death penalty better than most.

“We have a system that permits people to be convicted based on evidence that could be wrong because it’s mistaken or because it’s corrupt,” Millsap said.

When Millsap visited Topeka, KS, in 2009, he spoke about the lingering doubts about Cantu’s execution, saying that even after all of these years, “the most serious questions imaginable remain.”

As long as the death penalty is an option, there is the unacceptable risk of executing the innocent.  As Sam Millsap knows, “…our criminal justice system is driven, on its very best day…by imperfect human beings.  These people make mistakes from time to time.”  Despite the best intentions, these mistakes can and do happen.  Replacing the death penalty with life without parole will ensure that Kansas never executes an innocent person.

Voices of Innocence: Beatrice Six

Plea Deals Risking Innocent Lives

Less than 30 miles north of the Kansas border, a 68 year-old woman named Helen Wilson was raped and murdered during the winter of 1985.  The heinous crime rocked the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska, and put into motion a series of events that would put not one, but six innocent people behind bars.

The FBI’s initial investigation, which concluded that the crime had been committed by a single person acting alone.  However, a series of mistakes and manipulations led to accusations that six people were involved in the crime–Joseph White, Thomas Winslow, James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Sheldon, and Ada JoAnn Taylor.

Of the six people who were accused of the crime, five confessed to being involved.  Only Joseph White maintained his innocence.  Ultimately, all six were convicted and sentenced to prison.  They served a combined total of more than 70 years for a crime they did not commit.

A break in the case came following the passage of the Nebraska DNA Testing Act in 2001.  Joseph White was able to push for DNA testing from the crime scene, using testing methods that had not been available at the time of the trial.  The testing proved that White not a match to any evidence at the crime scene, and neither were any of the other five defendants.

The DNA matched Bruce Allen Smith, who died in Oklahoma City a few years after the Beatrice murder.  During the initial investigation, Smith had been a suspect, but was released after an Oklahoma lab botched a test on evidence that later revealed he was the real killer.

Why did the other five people confess to a crime they had no part in committing?  All of them now say they pleaded to lesser charges under the threat of the electric chair—Nebraska’s method of execution until 2009.  After spending decades in prison, these five people were officially pardoned in 2009.  Joseph White was exonerated in an appeal trial and released in 2008.

Instead of keeping violent criminals off of the street, the plea deals in this case ended up risking the lives of six innocent people, while the real killer went free.  As a November 2008 editorial in the Lincoln Journal Star proclaimed, “The circumstances of the Beatrice case ought to shake the faith of the most hardened defender of the death penalty.”  The only way to prevent these errors and their catastrophic consequences is to replace the death penalty with life without parole.