DNA evidence

Former Virginia death row prisoner to go free – Joseph M. Giarratano


A convicted double murderer who came within two days of sitting in Virginia’s electric chair will soon be a free man.

Joseph M. Giarratano, who won support from around the world fighting his 1979 conviction in the Norfolk slayings, was granted parole Monday.

“I’m confident there’s no other prisoner like him in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said lawyer Stephen A. Northup, who represented Giarratano before the parole board.

Giarratano was a 21-year-old scallop boat worker when he confessed to killing his roommates, 44-year-0ld Barbara Kline and her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle. But his confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence, which did not tie him to the crime. He later said that after waking up from a drug-induced stupor and finding the bodies, he simply assumed he was the killer.

His attempts to win freedom attracted the support of actor Jack Lemmon, singer Joan Baez and conservative newspaper columnist James J. Kilpatrick, among others. In 1991, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder granted Giarratano a commutation, changing his sentence from death to life and making him eligible for parole after serving 25 years.

However, Virginia Attorney General Mary Sue Terry declined to grant Giarratano a new trial, saying she was still convinced of his guilt.

n prison, the uneducated Giarratano taught himself the law and advocated for fellow prisoners. He helped secure representation for Earl Washington Jr., another death row inmate, who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

Giarratano sought to have similar evidence tested in his case, but it had been destroyed by the time he was allowed to file such a request.

Adrianne L. Bennett, chairwoman of the Virginia State Parole Board, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the parole decision should not be read as confirming Giarratano’s innocence. While Northup is confident that his client did not commit the murders, he said he believes the Monday decision has more to do with a parole board that is more open than in the past to freeing prisoners who have behaved admirably behind bars.

Now, Northup said, Giarratano plans to move to Charlottesville and work as a paralegal with lawyer Steven D. Rosenfield. He also hopes to work with the University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project.

James Bain – Freed by DNA after 35 years


James Bain’s case is unique. Not because he was wrongly convicted and freed by DNA evidence, overturning the entire case that convicted him. No, that stuff is commonplace now. What makes James unique is that he has the distinction of having served the longest amount of time behind bars who was ultimately freed on DNA evidence. And this highlights a huge problem. James was denied his requests for testing for years, saying that he had waited too long. It wasn’t until Florida passed a new law that allowed cases to be reopened for DNA testing that his fifth and final rejection was overturned on appeal, which led to his freedom. Such laws should be on the books in every state, no questions.

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One night in 1974 in Lake Wales, Florida, someone broke into a home and took a 9 year old boy out of his bed to a local baseball diamond where the boy was raped. By the time he returned home, the police were already present. The victim described the perpetrator as between 17-18, whose name was Jim and who had a mustache and sideburns. The victim’s uncle, a principal at James’s school volunteered that that description fit James Bain. From that point forward the victim always referred to the rapist as ‘Bain’. The police went to Bain’s house where they found him. He had been home with his sister since approximately 10:30pm after attending a party and had fallen asleep watching television.

For the official identification of the perpetrator, the police arranged a photo lineup including Bain and only one other man with a mustache and sideburns! This does not make for an impartial identification. Not only that, according to the Florida Innocence Project, the police suggestively and improperly instructed the victim to pick out Bain’s photo (not the photo of the person who assaulted him) which the victim did.

The Trial

The case against Bain consisted mainly of the victim identification and the Serology findings from the victim’s underwear. Regarding the Serology findings, FBI Analyst William Gavin stated that the findings showed a blood group B and that Bain was AB with a weak A. Conversely, the expert for the Defense, Richard Jones testified that Bain was AB with a strong A and that he could not have been the rapist. The DNA evidence has shown which side was correct.

Post-Trial Chaos

As outlined in the opening, James had submitted for DNA testing several times and was each time rejected. I don’t know what it is about this system that makes it seem okay to deny someone DNA testing when their livelihood hangs in the balance. If not for the statute that enabled DNA testing on older cases and the appellate court confirming James’ right to have DNA testing, he would still be in prison today.
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Beaming, Bain watched the quick proceedings in a Polk County courtroom, where Judge James Yancey told him, “I’m now signing the order, sir. You are a free man. Congratulations.”

As for Bain’s defense, aside from the defense testimony mentioned above, there were plenty of witnesses to James having been at the aforementioned party prior to going home. The location of the rape was a full two miles from the party James was attending and his presence was noted to the degree that he would not have been able to sneak away, commit the crime, and be home by 10:30pm – Too many people had seen him. However, the defense only called four witnesses for his alibi, most of which were family. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, calling the mother or sister to corroborate an alibi for a man accused of rape just isn’t going to cut it. That is not enough for reasonable doubt for a lot of people. You have to corroborate the alibi with witnesses that have no reason to lie. And you have to bridge these witness statements across one another so that even if one or two are questionable, the whole of the witness statements creates a picture that resonates with the jurors and strikes at the prosecution’s case. Needless to say, that wasn’t done here, and it could have been.

 

link source :James Bain – Florida Innocence Project

CALIFORNIA : Man gets death penalty in 1988 murder of pregnant woman – Jason Michael Balcom


february 7, 2014 (latimes)

A man who raped and murdered a pregnant woman in her Costa Mesa home a quarter of a century ago was sentenced to death Friday.

 

Jason Michael Balcom strangled and stabbed 22-year-old Malinda Gibbons in the chest on July 18, 1988.

Her husband, Kent Gibbons, found his wife dead in their apartment, bound and gagged with his neckties. Police said she had been sexually assaulted.

At the time of the crime, Balcom, then 18, was living with his mother and aunt in a Costa Mesa motel less than a mile away from the apartment. He had been  released from juvenile hall just weeks before the murder.

Investigators cracked the cold case more than a decade later when DNA evidence linked Balcom, now 43, to the crime.

Balcom’s DNA was entered into a nationwide database in 2004 after he was convicted of rape in Michigan, where he and his mother moved after the murder.

He was serving a 50-year prison term when Orange County prosecutors extradited him  to stand trial.

In 2012, an Orange County jury convicted Balcom of first-degree murder with sentencing enhancements for murder during commission of sodomy, rape, robbery and burglary. But jurors deadlocked on whether to recommend the death penalty.

A second jury recommended the death penalty last year, a decision that was affirmed in Superior Court on Friday.

 

After decades in prison over murders, DNA evidence frees 2 New York men


february 7, 2014

(CNN) — Two men behind bars for more than half their lives over a triple murder walked free this week after DNA evidence tore holes in their convictions.

Antonio Yarbough and Sharrif Wilson were teenagers when prison doors clanked shut behind them.

Now, in their late 30s, they can hardly believe they’re out.

What does freedom feel like? “I’m still going through it right now,” Yarbough said Friday.”I haven’t slept yet. I’ve been up for two days now. I have no words for it right now.”

Nearly 22 years of hard time

Imagine more than two decades in a maximum security prison. Add to that the fact that you’re accused of killing your mother, your sister and your cousin.

As if that’s not enough, you were the one who discovered their lifeless, bloodied bodies when you opened the door to your home one night.

If it’s hard to imagine what that’s like, Yarbough will tell you.

After years in Attica’s maximum security prison among New York’s toughest criminals, he left its high, gray walls behind him Thursday.

“It was a nightmare,” Yarbough told CNN’s Piers Morgan in an exclusive interview. “Twenty-one years and seven months was more like 42 years and seven months, when you know you’re in prison for something you didn’t do.”

After reviewing DNA evidence, District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson said the previous convictions for the 1992 murders in Brooklyn would most likely not stand up in court again and agreed the two men should be freed.

“Anybody looking at this evidence with an open mind would see that there is no chance in the world that Tony murdered his mother and these two little girls,” his lawyer Zachary Margulis-Ohuma said.

And that goes beyond the DNA evidence alone. Margulis-Ohuma was convinced Yarbough was innocent years before.

At least one false confession detectives coerced out of a scared teenage boy over 20 years ago led to the convictions.

A night out

After a night of partying, Yarbough, 18 at the time, and Wilson, 15, went home to Coney Island. Wilson was staying with friends, they said.

When Yarbough got home, he opened the door to find his mother, sister and a close family friend lying stabbed and strangled to death. The two girls were partially undressed.

Police came.

“I was asked to come down to the precinct,” he said. Officers said they wanted him to tell them who might have killed his family, he said.

“Before you know it, I had this photograph shoved in my face, and I was being threatened and slapped around, and they wanted me to sign a false confession. And I wouldn’t,” Yarbough said.

Police also took in Wilson and questioned him separately from Yarbough. But he got similar treatment, he said.

“I was scared, afraid; I was lied to, manipulated into believing that I was going to go home, if I do tell … what they said happened.” Wilson said.

Faced with a life behind bars, the young boy cooperated for the promise of lighter treatment.

Life in prison

The two were convicted in separate trials. Yarbough was sentenced to 75 years to life. Wilson got a lower sentence of nine years to life.

They sat behind bars for about 12 years, then something important arrived by mail.

“Out of the blue, I got a letter from his (Yarbough’s) aunt,” Wilson said. “And she asked me, did we really do it. And I had to tell the truth.”

He wrote back to her: “I was wrong for turning on him, but I was scared and pressured into it.” We’re innocent, he told her.

“For many years I felt horrible that I had to do that and that I actually did it knowing that we weren’t guilty for a crime we didn’t commit,” Wilson said.

“I still feel horrible now,” he said, sitting next to Yarbough.

Wilson’s letter led lawyer Margulis-Ohuma and the district attorney Thompson to review their cases in 2010 — five years after he sent it.

Wrongful convictions

Thompson came into office in January with promises to restore justice to the wrongfully convicted. This case is part of a review of Brooklyn killings from the 1980s and early 1990s.

Then, last year, the right shred of evidence came along in the form of a DNA sample from a rape-murder committed in 1999.

It matched DNA found under the fingernails of Yarbough’s mother, indicating that the same killer probably committed both crimes. In 1999, Yarbough and Wilson were in prison and couldn’t have committed the second murder.

Margulis-Ohuma called Yarbough in prison to tell him that he was going to be free.

“When I heard about it, I was extremely overwhelmed,” Yarbough said. “I was happy.”

And the DNA was not the only thing that matched. The m.o. was the same, Yarbough said. The victim was stabbed and strangled.

“Hope had finally started to sink in,” he said.

Free at last

Wilson and Yarbough had not seen each other for more than two decades, when they met in court Thursday.

Wilson approached the man he had testified against. “I just wanted to apologize to him for all I put him through, all I went through.”

Yarbough is still in pain over it, but he faults someone other than Wilson.

“I know what they did to him, because I know what they did to me,” he said.

As to finding his relatives’ killer decades later, Yarbough said, “It’s in God’s hand’s now.” He teared up.

Both men celebrated freedom by fulfilling some longings they had for two decades.

Wilson filled his mouth with a hot slice of New York pizza.

Yarbough filled his lungs with New York air.

PAMPA-TX -Testimony ends in Hank Skinner’s DNA hearing


february 5, 2014

PAMPA — A Texas Department of Public Safety expert testified Tuesday that genetic material found on a knife at the scene of a 1993 triple homicide was consistent with Hank Skinner’s DNA profile, but the death row inmate’s defense team maintains that another man killed the family.

Georgette Oden, an assistant attorney general, quizzed DPS expert Brent Hester about a battery of DNA testing results during an evidentiary hearing at the Gray County courthouse.

Testimony ended Tuesday in the two-day hearing, but attorneys for both sides are expected to submit further briefs to District Judge Steven Emmert after court transcripts are completed.

The hearing focused on whether it is “reasonably probable” that Skinner, now 51, would have been acquitted if all DNA evidence in the case had been presented at his 1995 trial, according to court records.

Skinner was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die in the slayings of Twila Jean Busby, 40, and her sons — 22- year-old Elwin “Scooter” Caler and 20-year-old Randy Busby.

Skinner has claimed he was too intoxicated to have slain the Busbys because he drank vodka and took codeine on the night of the killings.

After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted Skinner’s execution three times due to changing post-conviction law, prosecutors agreed to allow DNA testing, and both sides now have received the results.

Hester, a DPS analyst from the Lubbock crime lab, testified Tuesday that genetic material recovered from the blade of a knife found on the front porch of the victims’ home could be linked to Skinner. Forensic tests on the knife blade, he said, proved the presence of blood on the weapon, and the material found on the knife contained DNA traces from Skinner, Caler and Busby.

“We do not say it was that person’s DNA,” Hester said of how DPS interprets DNA results recovered from a crime scene. “They are not consistent solely with him, but they are consistent with him being a possible contributor.”

Hester also testified that some DNA recovered from the crime scene was contaminated with his DNA and that of a former court reporter who handled evidence in the case. The longtime forensic scientist also testified that some genetic material recovered from a carpet stain, door handles in the home and a door frame could be tied to Skinner.

Hester also said DNA from an unknown individual also was located in the carpet stain, which was in a bedroom where the two male victims were found. Hester said that genetic material could have been deposited when the carpet was originally laid and could have come from nearly anyone who visited the Busby home at 804 E. Campbell St. in Pampa.

Robert Owen, Skinner’s attorney, said after the hearing that testimony showed minute traces of DNA from an unknown person and Twila Busby’s blood had been found on a dish towel that had been left in a plastic bag at the crime scene.

Owen also said the prosecution has claimed that Skinner stabbed Randy Busby in the back while he lay on his bunk bed, but Owen said testimony presented during the hearing casts doubt on the state’s theory.

“If Mr. Skinner stabbed Randy Busby in the manner claimed by the state, Mr. Skinner’s blood should have been on the blanket of Randy’s bed. It was not. If Mr. Skinner’s hands were covered with the victims’ blood when he staggered out of the house, their blood should have been mixed with his on the doorknobs he touched. It was not,” Owen said in a statement.

Owen said a state expert’s testimony also indicated that three of four hairs found in Twila Busby’s hand — hairs the defense said contain DNA consistent with a maternal relative of the victims — were “visually dissimilar” to the victim’s own hair. That testimony, he said, supports the defense team’s conclusion that Robert Donnell, Twila Busby’s now-deceased uncle, killed the Pampa family.

“The state presented no compelling evidence that the hairs could have come from another maternal relative. In fact, Ms. Busby’s mother stated under oath before Mr. Skinner’s trial that she had not been inside the house in the preceding four months,” Owen said in a statement.

Owen also said he was disappointed that Emmert did not allow testimony from a key witness about a jacket found at the crime scene. The witness was prepared to testify the now-missing jacket belonged to Donnell.

“At the DNA hearing, Mr. Skinner sought to present testimony from a witness who can positively identify the jacket as Donnell’s, and to have his DNA expert explain how testing could have confirmed Donnell’s DNA on the jacket,” Owen said in a statement. “We respectfully disagree with this decision. In our view, this evidence is at the center of the case. It shows why a jury that heard all the evidence, including DNA results, would have harbored a reasonable doubt about Mr. Skinner’s guilt.”

Owen also noted that much of the DNA evidence gathered in the case was mishandled, contaminated or lost.

Owen indicated in his statement that “doubts about Hank Skinner’s guilt are far too great to allow his execution to proceed, particularly where the state’s utter failure to safeguard key pieces of evidence may make it impossible to resolve those questions conclusively.”

(Source: Amarillo Globe News)