innocence

Newly discovered innocence cases show how old problems still haunt the N.C. death penalty


March 10, 2021

Last month two men were newly added to the list of innocent people who had been sentenced to death in North Carolina.

Anthony Carey was to be executed for a murder he took no part in, based entirely on the testimony of a 16-year-old who had made a deal with the police. The teen said that while he robbed and murdered a gas station attendant, Carey was a passenger in a getaway car parked blocks away. In exchange for that testimony, the prosecutor allowed the teen to plead guilty to second-degree murder while Carey went to death row.

John Thomas Alford was sent to death row for a shooting in an auto parts store, even though four people testified he’d been playing basketball with them at the time of the crime; even the co-defendant who carried out the murder said Alford wasn’t involved.

The district attorney withheld that last piece of evidence, saying he didn’t want to “confuse the jury” by showing them evidence of Alford’s innocence. Instead, he focused on a suspect lineup where four witnesses picked Alford. However, police polluted the lineup by showing witnesses Alford’s photo beforehand, a tactic that all but assured they would select him.

Both men were tried in Charlotte in the 1970s and had their convictions overturned after spending about a year on death row. Their exonerations had been lost to time until the national Death Penalty Information Center discovered them in the course of researching a new report. Nationwide, DPIC uncovered eleven new death row exonerations, bringing the total to 185 — one for every eight executions that have been carried out in the United States.

With the addition of these cases, North Carolina has sentenced 12 innocent men to death since 1973. They spent a total of 157 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

Both Carey and Alford are Black men who were accused of killing white people — once again bearing out the truth that Black men are more likely to be wrongly convicted , especially in cases with white victims. Of North Carolina’s 12 exonerees, 10 are Black, one is Latino and only one is white. Seven of the cases involved white victims.

Though these exonerations happened close to 50 years ago, many of the systemic flaws they exposed play a role in current death row cases.

For instance, several people on North Carolina’s death row were implicated by unreliable witnesses or co-defendants who were seeking deals in their own cases. Others were convicted with the help of tainted eyewitness identifications, which are a frequent cause of wrongful convictions. And under North Carolina’s felony murder rule, people can still be sentenced to death for killings they did not personally carry out, or for which they were not even present.

News stories from the time also noted that Alford had an all-white jury, which discounted the testimony of four Black witnesses who provided him an alibi. “To hear those four tell it, all they did was play basketball,” one juror told the Charlotte Post. “They didn’t work. How could you believe somebody who doesn’t work?”

The exclusion of Black jurors remains a pressing problem across North Carolina. Recently, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that almost everyone on death row should be allowed to present evidence of systemic discrimination in jury selection under the Racial Justice Act.

These cases are also a reminder that every wrongful conviction harms not just the person who receives the death sentence but their family and community.

Carey’s brother Albert was sentenced to death alongside him, as the alleged driver of the getaway car, and he was never exonerated. Instead, he was resentenced to life and spent three decades in prison because of a 16-year-old’s allegation.

According to interviews in the Charlotte Post, Alford’s mother took a second mortgage on her home to pay for his defense. His stepfather had to work a second job at night to pay it off. And hundreds of community members contributed to his legal defense fund for a second trial. His mother said she asked herself during the ordeal, “Why is this happening to us? Are we being punished? What’s the use of trying to live a good, decent life?”

A system as error-prone as the death penalty breeds distrust that can last for generations and creates harm that can never be healed, no matter how many people we exonerate.

MISSISSIPPI – Larry Matthew Puckett, march 20, 2012 – EXECUTED


The FACTS from court documents.

LARRY MATTHEW PUCKETT v STATE OF MISSISSIPPI

On October 14, 1995, shortly before 5:00 p.m., Mrs. Rhonda Hatten Griffis, age 28, was found lying in a large pool of blood next to the couch in the living room of her home on 198Sunrise Road, Petal, Mississippi. Mrs. Griffis was found wearing a t-shirt, and the only clothing on the lower part of her body was around her left foot. She had several gashes on the back of her head. There were other injuries to Mrs. Griffis’ head, back, and chest, including a deep laceration and three to four hesitation marks to the neck. She was also bleeding from her vagina. She had several defensive wounds on her hands, arms, and elbows. Mrs. Griffis died as a result of the injuries; the cause of death was cranial cerebral trauma, secondary to blunt force trauma. A wooden stick or club covered with blood was recovered outside the residence.

Rhonda’s mother, Nancy Hatten, lived next door, roughly 150-175 feet from the Griffis’ trailer. On the day of the murder, Mrs. Hatten helped Rhonda’s boys, Justin, age 7, and Jeffrey, age 5, put up Halloween decorations in the yard. Rhonda was not feeling well that day, suffering from a headache and bad sinus problems. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Hattenwas in her front yard when she heard a “scream and a thud” come from the Griffis’ trailer. Mrs. Hatten then ran home and telephoned the trailer. The phone rang four or five times, but there was no answer. Mrs. Hatten hung up and dialed again, but there was still no answer. She then immediately went to the trailer.

As Mrs. Hatten neared the trailer, she saw David Griffis, Rhonda’s husband, and their two boys driving up to the trailer. David had been hauling pine straw all day and was returning with his last load. A blue truck was parked in the vacant lot beside the residence. Nancy entered the trailer door at the kitchen/dining room area and called for Rhonda but there was no answer. Puckett came from the hallway into the kitchen/dining area and raised a club back and started towards Nancy. As Nancy backed away from Puckett, Jeffrey entered the house followed closely by David. Justin was still outside. Nancy then took the children, ran to her house, locked the boys in the bathroom, and called 911. This 911 call was received by the 911 system at 5:01:15 p.m. and answered by the 911 operator at 5:01:20 p.m. At 5:01:41 p.m., Nancy was placed on hold, as 911 received a call from the Griffis’ trailer. Mrs. Hatten identified State’s Exhibit Number 3 as the club that Puckett had in his hand in the trailer.by  The Griffis family knew Puckett because he was once employed  While Puckett was employed by David, the employees would gather at the Griffis’ house before leaving for work.

Jeffrey Griffis testified that when he entered the home, he saw Puckett with a club in his hand and holding on to Mrs. Hatten’s shirt. David Griffis testified that when he entered the home, he saw Mrs. Hatten with Puckett standing in front of her with the club in his hand raised over his head. David indicated that Puckett was wearing army-type coveralls. The club had blood and a white substance on it. David asked Puckett what he was doing in his house and Puckett said he had hit a deer on the road and came to get David’s help and to 4 use the telephone. David called out for Rhonda but no one answered. However, Puckett told David that Rhonda was down at her mother’s house. David asked Puckett about the blood on the club and Puckett indicated that it was blood from the deer. David then dialed 911 from a portable phone that was laying on the counter beside him. This 911 call was received by the 911 system at 5:01:27 p.m. and answered by the 911 operator at 5:01:41 p.m. This (David’s) call was terminated at 5:04:42 p.m. At some point, David and Puckett struggled and David got the club from Puckett. David tried to keep Puckett in the trailer until the police arrived. However, Puckett took off running towards the door. As Puckett was running for the door, David swung the club and hit Puckett on the shoulder. Then, as Puckett ran out the door, David threw the club at him. Dr. Michael West testified at trial that the club, State’s Exhibit 3, was consistent with the wound pattern found on Puckett’s back.

Once Puckett exited the trailer, David entered the living room and reached for his pistol that was usually on a gun cabinet just to the left of the living room door. However, the pistol was not there. David did not see Rhonda’s body lying in the living room at this time. David then ran into the bedroom to retrieve a rifle from the bedroom closet. The bedroomdoor is straight ahead as you turn towards the cabinet. As David exited the bedroom and re-entered the living room, he then saw Rhonda laying on the floor. He saw that Rhonda was injured and dialed 911 again to inform the police. David’s second 911 call wasreceived by the 911 system at 5:05:01 p.m. and was answered by the 911 operator at 5:05:07 p.m. This call was terminated at 5:11:45 p.m. The time between the end of David’s first 911 call and the beginning of his second 911 call was 18 seconds. Sheriff’s deputies and paramedics arrived within minutes.

Before David fired Puckett, David considered him to be a decent employee and even wrote a letter of recommendation for Puckett to become an Eagle Scout. Another former employer of Puckett’s, Ray Watkins, testified that shortly before Rhonda’s murder, a maul handle was broken at his work site. Watkins had the maul handle for several years,between seven (7) and ten (10) years, and believed the maul handle to be State’s Exhibit No. 3. Watkins also testified that he had seen the handle in Puckett’s truck on several occasions.

Puckett was seen around 3:30 p.m. the afternoon of the murder at the same house from which David Griffis was collecting pine straw. Puckett’s blue 4-wheel drive truck was alsoseen passing the Griffis’ residence at approximately 4:41 p.m.

Puckett’s truck was recovered the next night in a wooded area in Perry County. On October 16, 1995, Puckett was apprehended near his mother’s home in Perry County. At the time of his arrest, Puckett nervously commented to his mother that “[t]his is a lot of law enforcement for somebody who just committed a burglary.” A duffle bag containing various items including a pair of coveralls was recovered from Puckett at the time of his arrest.

5.Puckett did not deny being in the trailer at the time of the murder, but testified that he witnessed David Griffis murder his wife. He indicated that he had originally planned only to burglarize the house in order to find money to pay his truck note. He stated that the idea to burglarize the house just popped into his head at the time he went by the Griffis’ house. Puckett testified that he parked his truck in a vacant lot beside the Griffis’ trailer and put his coveralls on. Puckett saw Rhonda’s car at the trailer, but proceeded to the door anyway and knocked. Puckett said that Rhonda let him in and they began to talk. Puckett said that he saw the stick (State’s Exhibit No. 3) lying on the living room floor. He stated that he and Rhonda began kissing and he then began acting out his sexual fantasy of undressing a woman while he remained fully clothed. He said that Rhonda then saw her mother approaching the trailer, grabbed her clothes and ran into the bedroom, and told Puckett to get rid of her mother. Puckett said heran into the dining room area and had picked up the stick and decided to scare Mrs. Hatten away with the club. Puckett further stated that after Mrs. Hatten fled with the children, David accused Rhonda of sleeping with Puckett and began hitting her with the stick that David took from Puckett. After beating his wife, David struggled to keep Puckett in the trailer, but Puckett was able to escape while David was calling 911. At trial, Puckett indicated the whole incident took four or five minutes. Puckett said he hid in the woods for two days because he was afraid of David.

Update : march 20, source :http://www.wlbt.com

Advocacy group calls for clemency in Puckett execution

watch the video click  here

Update : march 19,2012 sourcehttp://www.wtok.com

Group Protests Executions
Jackson, Miss.
A group that opposes the death penalty protested two executions scheduled in Mississippi this week.

Thousands of people have signed an online petition seeking to block the execution of death row inmate, Larry Matthew Puckett.

He is scheduled to die by lethal injection Tuesday at 6 p.m.

Puckett was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing his former boss’ wife when he was 18 years old.

His lawyers petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court last week to block the execution.

A group opposed to capital punishment spoke out Monday at the state capitol.

Mississippians Educating for Smart Justice want Gov. Phil Bryant to grant clemency to Puckett, as well as condemned killer, William Mitchell, who is also scheduled for execution this week.

“Neither of these men, William Mitchell or Matt Puckett, have had a fair trial,” said attorney Jim Craig. “Neither of them have had a real appeal. It’s time to quit hiding behind this fraud and accept the fact that our system is deeply flawed. And these two cases prove it.”

As of Monday, there were nearly 4500 electronic signatures on a petition called ‘Save Matt Puckett: stop an innocent man from being executed.’

Update : march, 15, 2012 source  : http://www.sunherald.com

JACKSON — A Mississippi prison inmate has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block his execution Tuesday based on the argument that his lawyers didn’t do a good job and prosecutors discriminated against blacks during jury selection.

Larry Matthew Puckett is scheduled to receive a lethal injection for the 1995 sexual assault and beating death of Rhonda Hatten Griffis of Forrest County. His lawyers filed the request Wednesday to block the execution.

March, 16,2012 : Jamie Arpin-Ricci  Author & pastor, Little Flowers Community talks about matthew’s innocence

[…]In less than a week another friend of mine, Matt, is going to be dead — killed as surely and finally as the other two. I will not see his death, but because the setting of his death is determined (and by some, celebrated) I am already haunted by the images of him dying. It has not happened yet, but I feel as powerless to prevent his death as I am with the others.

You see, my friend Matthew Puckett is being executed by the state of Mississippi on Tuesday, March 20. Matthew has been tried and convicted of a brutal murder. Doubtless there are those who believe that deserves this end and will take great joy when his sentence is carried out. I am not one of those people.

While I know many of my fellow Christians do not agree with me on this point, my faith makes it impossible to condone capital punishment. I will not attempt to argue that position here, for there isn’t the space nor is it the primary point. Whether you believe in the death penalty or not, what I hope we can agree on is that, should we use this form of punishment, we had better be damn sure there is no question of their guilt. As I look at Matt’s case, there are simply far too many uncertainties to make such a sentence acceptable.

I believe that Matthew Puckett is innocent. For those not convinced, I hope that you will examine his case and recognize that he was not given the kind of justice our society boasts as being the right of every person. Given that reality, I ask that you consider signing this petition to save Matt’s life and/or contacting Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, and ask for a stay. Allow Matt at least the chance to live his life, even if behind bars.

read full article

Supreme Court of United States

No. 11-6550      *** CAPITAL CASE ***
Title:
Larry Matthew Puckett, Petitioner
v.
Christopher B. Epps, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections
Docketed: September 26, 2011
Lower Ct: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
  Case Nos.: (09-70032)
  Decision Date: May 19, 2011
  Rehearing Denied: June 22, 2011
~~~Date~~~ ~~~~~~~Proceedings  and  Orders~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Sep 19 2011 Petition for a writ of certiorari and motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis filed. (Response due October 26, 2011)
Nov 2 2011 Order extending time to file response to petition to and including November 28, 2011.
Nov 28 2011 Order further extending time to file response to petition to and including December 1, 2011.
Dec 8 2011 Brief of respondent Christopher B. Epps, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections in opposition filed.
Dec 9 2011 Order extending time to file response to petition to and including December 8, 2011.
Dec 14 2011 Reply of petitioner Larry Matthew Puckett filed.
Dec 22 2011 DISTRIBUTED for Conference of January 13, 2012.
Jan 4 2012 Record Requested .
Jan 13 2012 Record received from the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit (one envelope).
Jan 23 2012 Record received from United States District Court Southern District of Mississippi (two boxes).
Jan 26 2012 DISTRIBUTED for Conference of February 17, 2012.
Feb 21 2012 Petition DENIED.

~~Name~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~Address~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~Phone~~~
Attorneys for Petitioner:
Keir Michael Weyble Cornell Law School (607) 255-3805
    Counsel of Record 103 Myron Taylor Hall
Ithaca, NY  14853
Party name: Larry Matthew Puckett
Sheryl Bey 4268 I-55 North (601) 351-2400
Meadowbrook Office Park (39211)
P. O. Box 14167
Jackson, MS  39236
Party name: Larry Matthew Puckett
Attorneys for Respondent:
Marvin L. White Jr. Assistant Attorney General (601) 359-3680
    Counsel of Record 450 High Street
P.O. Box 220
Jackson, MS  39205
Party name: Christopher B. Epps, Commissioner, Mississippi Department of Corrections

Supreme Court, state case 

On November 5, 2009, Puckett filed an appeal with the Fifth Circuit over the denial of his habeas petition in Federal District Court.

On May 19, 2011, the Fifth Circuit affirmed Puckett’s death sentence.

Petition 

Innocence – Exonerations


Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. Some of these exonerees came within hours of their execution before it was stayed. There is no way to tell how many of the over 1000 people executed since 1976 may have been innocent, as courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence once the defendant is dead.

Joe d’ambrosio Convicted: 1989, Charges dismissed: 2012

On January 23, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the state of Ohio challenging the unconditional writ of habeas corpus and bar to the re-prosecution of Joe D’Ambrosio, thus ending the capital case. He has now been freed from death row with all charges dismissed. A federal District Court had first overturned D’Ambrosio’s conviction in 2006 because the state had withheld key evidence from the defense. The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more important evidence and requested further delay. Also the state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D’Ambrosio had died. In 2010, the District Court barred D’Ambrosio’s re-prosecution because of the prosecutors’ misconduct. The court concluded that these developments biased D’Ambrosio’s chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him. District Court Judge Kathleen O’Malley wrote: “For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court … the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bar to re-prosecution. (D’Ambrosio v. Bagley, No. 10-3247, Aug. 29, 2011). Even the dissent referred to the state’s “remarkable inability to competently prosecute D’Ambrosio.” The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court mainly on jurisdictional grounds, but was denied certiorari on Jan. 23. (Bagley v. D’Ambrosio, No. 11-672, denying cert.).

Gussie Vann Convicted: 1994, Charges dismissed: 2011

Vann was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for a sexual assault and murder of his own daughter, Necia Vann, in 1992. However, in 2008 following state post-conviction review, Circuit Court Senior Judge Donald P. Harris held that Vann was entitled to a new trial because his defense attorneys failed to hire forensic experts to challenge the state’s allegations of sexual abuse. (Vann v. State, Order, Post-conviction No. 99-312, 10th Judicial Dist., McMinn Cty., May 28, 2008). Judge Harris wrote that this failure led to Vann being convicted on “inaccurate, exaggerated and speculative medical testimony.” (Id. Memorandum, at 23). At the post-conviction hearing, forensic experts contradicted the state’s earlier testimony and said there were no signs of recent sexual abuse on the victim. Judge Harris described the failings of Vann’s original attorneys as “not only prejudicial, but disastrous.” (Id.) The state elected not to appeal this ruling, though it did try to find grounds for a conviction on a lesser offense. Ultimately all charges were dropped by the state on September 22, 2011.