Day: May 28, 2012

As fourth appeal is lost Scott Lewis asks for your help finding a new witness in 1999 murder case

May 28, 2012 Source :

DETROIT  – There has been another setback for a man serving life in prison for a Mother’s Day murder he says he did not commit. A judge has denied Justly Johnson’s fourth appeal, despite a new witness uncovered by the 7 Action News investigators.

Johnson’s lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan said they are disappointed but determined to press forward to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Last December, the 7 Action News Investigators tracked down a new witness in the 1999 Mother’s Day murder of Lisa Kindred , the crime Johnson is serving a life sentence for.  Investigator Scott Lewis located her son, C.J. Skinner, who was with his mother in her minivan when a man walked up and shot her.

Skinner, who was eight years old at the time, talked with Lewis in a phone interview from Pennsylvania, where he is also serving time in prison. Skinner told Lewis that he saw what happened the night his mother was murdered and he would never forget the gunman’s face.

Did the police ever question you?” Lewis asked Skinner.

“Never,” he replied.

“Never looked at a photo line-up?” Lewis asked.

“Never,” Skinner said.

Skinner described a lone gunman who looked nothing like Justly Johnson or the second man convicted, Kendrick Scott.

Lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic took that information and other new evidence they uncovered to Judge Prentiss Edwards asking for a new hearing. But the judge rejected their request as he has three times in the past.

Judge Edwards has declined to be interviewed about the case.

“Suffice it to say we don’t think the judge gave any legally adequate reason to not at least hold a hearing on all of the evidence, and especially the new testimony from C.J. (Skinner),” said attorney David Moran, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

Lawyers from the Innocence Clinic have stated in court records that police overlooked the most likely suspect back in 1999, Lisa Kindred’s husband Will who had a history of domestic violence and threats against his wife and kids.

Detroit police never discovered Kindred’s history of violence.  It was uncovered years after Johnson and Scott’s convictions by lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project. The Wisconsin lawyers originally took on Johnson’s case and are still involved in efforts to win a new trial for him.

Will Kindred has denied any involvement in the murder during conversations with 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis.

In their latest appeal lawyers from the Michigan Innocence Clinic also argued Johnson’s conviction was tainted by what is known as a Brady violation. A Brady violation occurs when the prosecution withholds important information from the defense during a trial.

In this case, attorneys argued, police were given information by Lisa Kindred’s sister that pointed toward Will Kindred as a suspect, but that information was not passed on to Johnson’s defense attorney.

Judge Edwards rejected that claim as well, saying that while police did not turn the information over to defense attorneys they did not share it with the prosecuting attorney either.

“That’s a mistake because under the law if the police have the information it has to be turned over to the defense even if they haven’t turned it over to the prosecutor,” Moran said.

Innocence lawyers from Michigan and Wisconsin have been on this case for years and have now taken on an appeal for Scott , the second man convicted. Both men were convicted primarily on testimony of two young men who later recanted and said they were pressured by police to implicate Johnson and Scott in the murder.

A series of reports in the Detroit Free Press documented how police were using pressure tactics to solve homicides during the 1990’s and the news reports became a factor in the U.S. Justice Department taking control of the Detroit Police Department in a consent decree that is still in place to this day.

Moran said the evidence of Johnson and Scott’s innocence is compelling and he believes the two men deserve a judicial review of new information that has come to light.

“We just want to get a hearing in some court so we can present this new evidence and let a judge, any judge, decide whether this merits a new trial,” Moran stated.

Moran said if the Innocence Clinic eventually exhausts all of its appeals in state court they will take the case to the Federal District Court for a last-ditch effort known as a habeas petition.

Meanwhile, 7 Action News Investigator Scott Lewis, who has been looking into the case for nearly two years, continues to search for new evidence.

Lewis is currently trying to locate a man who lived on the Bewick Street where Lisa Kindred was shot and killed back in 1999 .  The man is known only by his street name, Tone.

Witnesses told Lewis that Tone was on the street shortly before Kindred was shot telling people to get back in their houses because “something was about to go down.”

According to witnesses, Tone was related to Antonio Burnette, one of two

prosecution witnesses who implicated Johnson and Scott in the murder. There is no evidence in the hundreds of police records reviewed by 7 Action News that Detroit Police ever questioned Tone.

Lewis was told by people who lived in the neighborhood that the man known as Tone left the State of Michigan shortly after the murder and never returned. 

The 7 Action News Investigators are trying to find out Tone’s first and last name hoping to track him down and find out what, if anything, he knows about the 1999 murder.

If you have any information on this case, contact The Investigators by calling 248-827-9252, or send an email to .

CALIFORNIA – Calif. death row inmate seeks new trial – Miguel Bacigalupo

May 28, 2012 Source :

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The state Supreme Court is set to hear a death row inmate’s appeal for a new trial after a judge found that prosecutors had withheld key evidence.

Miguel Bacigalupo was convicted in the 1983 slayings of two brothers, Jose Luis Guerrero and Orestes Guerrero, at their jewelry store in San Jose.

Bacigalupo, now 50, had argued that he was ordered to kill the brothers by the Colombian mafia and risked endangering his family if he did not comply. A judge three years ago found that a Santa Clara County prosecutor and her lead investigator had failed to disclose information that might have supported Bacigalupo’s claim.

The San Jose Mercury News reports ( that the Supreme Court will take up the case on Wednesday. It must decide whether to accept the judge’s findings.

Prosecutors have said the Colombian drug connection was deemed speculative.

TEXAS – East Texas man on death row loses federal appeal – Richard Cobb

May 28, 2012 Source

HOUSTON – A man on death row for an East Texas robbery a decade ago where three people were shot, one fatally, has lost a federal court appeal. The decision moves 28-year-old Richard Cobb a step closer to execution.

Cobb argued to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that letters from a jailhouse informant to Cherokee County prosecutors improperly were withheld as evidence in Cobb’s trial.

The informant also testified against Cobb at his capital murder trial for killing 37-year-old Kenneth Vandever during the robbery of a store in Rusk in 2002 and abducting, shooting and wounding two female clerks. The New Orleans-based appeals court ruled late Friday the letters were immaterial in the trial outcome.

Cobb’s companion in the robbery, Beunka Adams, was executed last month.

TEXAS – Experts say DNA exonerations are leading to fewer Texas death penalties

May 28  2012, Source :

Death penalties have become a rarity from juries in some parts of Texas in the wake of a string of prison inmates — including some on death row — who have been exonerated by DNA and other new evidence.

The last death sentence returned by a Bexar County jury in San Antonio came in 2009, when only one defendant was condemned in that county, the San Antonio Express-News ( reported. In the 11 years ending in 2006, Bexar County juries meted out at least 24 death sentences.

“We don’t go get the death penalty just because we can. It’s a very serious decision-making process,” First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg told the Express-News.

Recent state and national surveys continue to show strong support for the death penalty, but less so when the option of life imprisonment without parole is offered to juries. Texas began offering that option in 2005. That, Herberg said, “definitely changed the dynamics” in Bexar County.

As for appeals, “I think you do see the courts are saying, no matter what, let’s test it,” Herberg said.

By way of illustration is a recent federal court reprieve of Anthony Bartee hours before his scheduled May 2 execution for a 1996 San Antonio slaying. That shows judges are choosing to err increasingly on the side of caution when death row inmates appeal for new DNA testing of evidence in their cases.

“The courts are more cautious and most people think they should be, there is a question about it,” Professor John Blume of the Cornell University Law School told the Express-News.

“I think it’s moved the pendulum to at least introduce an element of skepticism in capital cases,” said Professor John Schmolesky of the St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio.

That is only appropriate, said civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, head of the Innocence Project of Texas. The nonprofit advocacy group says DNA testing has led to the exoneration of more than 280 people nationally, most of them over the past 12 years and 17 of them death row inmates. The new National Registry of Exonerations shows that at least 890 inmates — perhaps as many as more than 2,000 — have been falsely convicted nationally since 1989.

“We have to err on the side of finding out every fact that we can,” Blackburn told the newspaper.

However, prosecutors say DNA-based appeals can be used purely to stall executions. In the case of Bartee, said Assistant District Attorney Rico Valdez, “He wasn’t convicted with DNA evidence but by his own behavior.”


SOUTH DAKOTA – Two brothers sentenced to death in separate states

May 27, source :

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Rodney Berget lives in a single cell on South Dakota’s death row, rarely leaving the tiny room where he awaits execution for bludgeoning a prison guard to death with a pipe during an attempted escape.

For Berget’s immediate family, his fate is somewhat familiar. He is the second member of the clan to be sentenced to death. His older brother was convicted in 1987 of killing a man for his car. Roger Berget spent 13 years on Oklahoma’s death row until his execution in 2000 at age 39.

The Bergets are not the first pair of siblings to be condemned. Record books reveal at least three cases of brothers who conspired to commit crimes and both got the death penalty. But these two stand out because their crimes were separated by more than 600 miles and 25 years.

“To have it in different states in different crimes is some sort of commentary on the family there,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which tracks death penalty trends.

The siblings’ journey from the poverty of their South Dakota childhood to stormy, crime-ridden adult lives shows the far-reaching effects of a damaged upbringing — and the years of havoc wrought by two men who developed what the courts called a wanton disregard for human life.

Rodney Berget is scheduled to die later this year, potentially ending the odyssey that began when the two boys were born into a family that already had four kids.

A former prison principal described Rodney as a “throwaway kid” who never had a chance at a productive life. A lawyer for Roger recalled him as an “ugly duckling” with little family support.

The boys were born after the family moved from their failed farm in rural South Dakota to Aberdeen, a city about 20 miles away. Roger arrived in 1960. Rodney came along two years later.

His farming dreams dashed, patriarch Benford Berget went to work for the state highway department. Rosemary Berget took a night job as a bar manager at the local Holiday Inn.

The loss of the farm and the new city life seemed to strain the family and the couple’s marriage. When the family moved to town, “things kind of fell apart,” Bonnie Engelhart, the eldest Berget sibling, testified in 1987.

Benford Berget, away on business, was rarely around. When he was home, he drank and become physically abusive, lawyers for the brothers later said.

By the 1970s, the couple divorced, and Roger and Rodney started getting into trouble. Roger skipped school. Rodney started stealing. Soon, they were taking cars. Both went to prison for the first time as teens.

Roger Berget enjoyed a rare period of freedom in 1982 and met a woman while hitchhiking. The two started a relationship, and the woman gave birth to a child the next year. But Roger didn’t get to see his son often because he was soon behind bars again, this time in Oklahoma. And for a far more sinister crime.

Roger and a friend named Michael Smith had decided to steal a random car from outside an Oklahoma City grocery store. The two men spotted 33-year-old Rick Patterson leaving the store on an October night in 1985. After abducting him at gunpoint, they put Patterson in the trunk and concluded he would have to be killed to prevent him from identifying his captors.

They drove the car to a deserted spot outside the city and shot Patterson in the back of the head and neck, blowing away the lower half of his face.

A year later, Berget pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to death on March 12, 1987. An appeals court threw out a death sentence for Smith, who was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Less than three months after Roger was sentenced to death, Rodney Berget, then 25 and serving time for grand theft and escape, joined five other inmates in breaking out of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.

The men greased their bodies with lotion, slipped through a hole in an air vent and then cut through window bars in an auto body shop at the prison. Berget was a fugitive for more than a month.

Thirteen years passed before Roger Berget was executed by lethal injection on June 8, 2000. His younger brother was still in prison in South Dakota.

Then in 2002, the younger Berget was released. His sister and her husband threw Rodney his first-ever birthday party when he turned 40.

But the good days were numbered because a year later, he was sentenced to life in prison for attempted murder and kidnapping. He headed back to the South Dakota State Penitentiary — this time for good.

Then Rodney got to talking with a fellow inmate named Eric Robert about a goal they shared: to escape — or die trying.

The plan was months in the making. The inmates figured they would corner a solitary guard — any guard would do — and beat him with a pipe before covering his face with plastic wrap.

Once the guard was dead, Robert would put on the dead man’s uniform and push a box with Berget inside as the prison gates opened for a daily delivery. The two would slip through the walls unnoticed.

On the morning of April 12, 2011, the timing seemed perfect. Ronald “R.J.” Johnson was alone in a part of the prison where inmates work on upholstery, signs, custom furniture and other projects. Johnson wasn’t supposed to be working that day — it was his 63rd birthday. But he agreed to come in because of a scheduling change.

After attacking Johnson, Robert and Berget made it outside one gate. But they were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through the second gate. Both pleaded guilty.

In a statement to a judge, Rodney acknowledged he deserved to die.

“I knew what I was doing, and I continued to do it,” Berget said. “I destroyed a family. I took away a father, a husband, a grandpa.”

His execution, scheduled for September, is likely to be delayed to allow the State Supreme Court time to conduct a mandatory review.

Rodney Berget’s lawyer, Jeff Larson, has declined to comment on the case outside of court. Rodney did not respond to letters sent to the penitentiary.

The few members of the Berget family who survive are reluctant to talk about how seemingly normal boys turned into petty criminals and then into convicted killers of the rarest kind: brothers sentenced to death.

Dieter, of the Death Penalty Information Center, said some families of the condemned remain involved in appeals. But others see no reason to preserve connections.

“There’s no light at the end of it,” he said. “What happens at the end is execution.”