New trial

A convicted Oklahoma killer’s death sentence was overturned because of a landmark US Supreme Court ruling


March12, 2021

The murder convictions and death sentence of Shaun Michael Bosse, seen in this undated photo, were overturned by an Oklahoma appeals court on Thursday, March 11, 2021.
 Shaun Michael Bosse

An Oklahoma death row inmate is set to receive a new trial after a court overturned his conviction based on a US Supreme Court ruling last year that determined a large part of the state is Native American territory for the purposes of federal criminal law

.The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled Thursday the state did not have the jurisdiction to prosecute Shaun Bosse, who was sentenced to death in 2012 for the murders of 24-year-old Katrina Griffin, her 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter because the victims were members of the Chickasaw Nation and the murders took place on the reservation.The appeals court cited the Supreme Court’s landmark July 2020 ruling in McGirt vs. Oklahoma, in which the justices ruled 5-4 that a broad swath of the state was Native American land for the purposes of federal criminal law. According to federal law, crimes that involve Native Americans on a reservation are subject to federal, not state, jurisdiction.CNN has reached out to an attorney for Bosse for comment.District Attorney Greg Mashburn, who prosecuted Bosse, told CNN in an interview Friday that federal prosecutors will assume jurisdiction in the case.”I’m devastated for the family (of Bosse’s victims),” Mashburn said. “They can’t heal. They’re just going to have to go through this whole process again. I’m just really upset for them and hate that they’re going to have to sit through another trial.”

Former Alabama Chief Justice, lieutenant governor back new trial for death row inmate


March 19, A group of 14 former judges and prosecutors — including a former Alabama lieutenant governor and a former Alabama Chief Justice — urged a Jefferson County judge Tuesday to set a new trial for a death row inmate convicted in 1998.

In two of seven friend-of-the-court briefs filed with the Jefferson County Circuit Court on Tuesday morning, the signatories wrote that the court should follow the guidance of Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, who said the court should grant Toforest Johnson a new trial amid questions about the conduct in the first. 

“The DA’s decision to vacate Mr. Johnson’s conviction is a heavy one made after an exhaustive investigation of the surrounding circumstances and irregularities leading to his conviction; this weighty decision should be given significant deference by the Court,” said a brief signed by former Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers; former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cook; former Alabama State Bar President Bill Clark; retired Judge William Bowen and attorney Bobby Segall. “To disregard District Attorney Carr’s decision would frustrate the exact duties he was elected to perform and further undermine public confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Toforest Johnson’s conviction

A jury convicted Johnson in 1998 of the 1995 murder of William Hardy, a Jefferson County deputy sheriff. Hardy was working as a private security guard at a Birmingham hotel when he was shot and killed in the hotel’s parking lot early in the morning of July 19, 1995. Police arrested Johnson and charged him with murder a few hours later. 

No physical evidence linked Johnson to the scene, and Johnson, 48, maintains his innocence. A jury could not reach a verdict in the first trial, but a jury in a second trial convicted Johnson. After the conviction, Johnson’s attorneys learned that a witness for the prosecution named Violet Ellison received $5,000 from the state after approaching the police in response to a reward offered. 

Johnson’s attorneys filed a motion known as a Brady claim, saying prosecutors withheld evidence that could have raised questions about the witness’ credibility. State courts upheld the conviction, but the U.S. Supreme Court ordered new hearings on the Brady claim in 2017. 

Last year, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Teresa T. Pulliam denied Johnson’s Brady claim, ruling that Johnson had not established “by a preponderance of the evidence” that Ellison “either came forward or gave testimony out of a ‘hope of reward,’ or that the state had knowledge of such motivation at or before the time of the trial.” 

But in June, Carr said Johnson should get a new trial, citing issues with Ellison and other witnesses and the fact that prosecutors could not settle on a theory of the case. 

“A prosecutor’s duty is not merely to secure convictions, but to seek justice,” Carr wrote in a brief to the court.

Toforest Johnson

An L.A. court mistakenly destroyed evidence a death row inmate says would free him. Now what?


December 17, 2017

From his small cell on California’s death row, Scott Pinholster swore he could prove his innocence. The proof, he said, was in the dried blood on a work boot and a pink towel recovered from his home years ago.

The condemned inmate insisted that modern DNA testing — nonexistent when he was convicted of a double murder in 1984 — would show the blood belonged to him, not the victims, as the prosecution argued at his trial.

But a recent search for the items has led to a disturbing discovery that could throw the case into jeopardy: The Los Angeles County courts mistakenly destroyed the evidence.

A judge must now determine what, if anything, should be done to remedy the high-stakes error.

Pinholster’s attorney has asked for a hearing on how the destruction happened and says he will eventually ask for a new trial. Prosecutors, however, argue that a killer’s life shouldn’t be spared simply because of an innocent mistake by court staff.

One of the jurors who voted to send Pinholster to death row more than three decades ago was shocked to hear that the man convicted of fatally stabbing and beating two men might get a second chance.

“Oh my God!” said the juror, who spoke on condition of anonymity, when recently contacted by The Times. “He’s liable to get off then?”

Pinholster is one of 744 people awaiting execution in California — the largest death row population in the country. Although the state hasn’t put anyone to death since 2006, that could soon change, as voters passed a measure last year to speed up the process. Of the state’s condemned inmates, about 20 have exhausted their appeals, putting them at the front of the line. Among them is Pinholster.

California law requires that courts keep evidence until after a death row inmate is executed or dies behind bars — a safeguard put in place to preserve evidence for future testing. Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the court’s procedure for destroying evidence, which was updated last year, now requires that staff first contact California’s Supreme Court to confirm a death row inmate has died. The court, Hearn said, began a review of its procedure before learning of Pinholster’s case.

Hearn said Pinholster, 58, is the only known example of evidence destruction in a case of a living death row inmate convicted in L.A. County. But a small number of cases around the country have raised similar legal problems.

On the eve of an execution in 2005, Virginia’s governor reduced a condemned death row inmate’s sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole after learning that a court clerk had destroyed evidence in his murder case despite being warned by subordinates not to do so. Two years later, a man on death row in Oklahoma was released from prison after a judge ruled that a police lab analyst had intentionally destroyed hair evidence that could have pointed to the inmate’s innocence.

Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor who directs the school’s clinic that defends condemned inmates facing execution, said destruction of physical evidence cripples the ability to examine an inmate’s innocence claim.

“If the very evidence you need is gone … how do you make justice happen for these individuals?” she said, describing the scenario as “terribly, terribly devastating.”

The importance of such tests was highlighted last month when Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned a prisoner who spent 39 years behind bars for the 1978 killing of a young woman and her 4-year-old son in Simi Valley. After the prisoner, Craig Coley, exhausted his appeals years ago, a judge authorized the destruction of the crime-scene evidence. But a cold-case detective recently found the evidence and when tested, it helped clear Coley of the murders.

For Pinholster, prosecutors point to a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision that makes it difficult for prisoners to reverse convictions or reduce sentences unless they can show that evidence was destroyed in “bad faith.” In Pinholster’s case, prosecutors argue, the destruction was the result of “at most negligence, incompetency, recklessness,” but not “bad faith.”

At his trial, a prosecutor argued that the blood on the boot and towel found in the defendant’s Van Nuys apartment belonged to at least one of the two victims — Thomas Johnson, 25, and Robert Beckett, 29. The men were stabbed and beaten to death at the Tarzana home of a marijuana dealer on Jan. 9, 1982.

The state’s key witness, Art Corona, told police that he, Pinholster and a third man, Paul Brown, were all armed with buck knives when they barreled into the home looking to steal drugs and cash. Minutes later, Corona said, the two victims showed up. Pinholster attacked the men with a knife, his fists and his feet, Corona said, adding that Brown also stabbed one of the men.

Their loot: $23 and a quarter-ounce of pot.

Pinholster said he had stolen drugs from the home a few hours before the killings but never harmed anyone. When he took the stand, he seemed to revel in his criminal record. Asked for his occupation, he smirked and responded, “a crook,” according to court documents. He also boasted to jurors of having committed hundreds of robberies, but insisted he’d always carried guns, not knives.

A Sheriff’s Department criminalist told jurors that he’d tested the right work boot and towel collected from Pinholster’s home and found they came back positive for human blood, but technology at the time couldn’t narrow down whose blood it was. The prosecutor suggested that Pinholster had stepped in a pool of blood at the Tarzana home and used the towel to wipe off the murder weapon.

Neither Pinholster nor his attorney argued at trial that the blood was from him — an omission the district attorney’s office said undercuts his current claim. His new attorney said Pinholster was never asked during the trial who the blood belonged to.

Contacted recently, another juror who asked to be identified only as a 76-year-old woman said she was confident in the verdict.

“He was absolutely guilty,” she said. “No question.”

Even after three decades, she said, she can conjure a haunting memory of an image painted at trial by the prosecutor — Pinholster, wearing boots, kicking in the skull of one of the victims.

After his conviction, state courts rejected appeals from Pinholster, but a federal judge overturned the death sentence in 2003, ruling that his trial counsel had failed to tell jurors about the extent of Pinholster’s mental health problems. In 2011, however, the U.S. Supreme Court restored Pinholster’s death sentence.

“He’s been very discouraged,” said Sean Kennedy, Pinholster’s current lawyer.

But months after having his death penalty restored, the inmate got good news. A judge had finally approved his request to have DNA testing done on the towel and boot. Pinholster contends that the bloodstains came from his repeated intravenous use of heroin.

A Los Angeles police officer was assigned to scour an LAPD storage room for the items in case the court had returned them after the trial. The search came up empty, so officers checked inside another police storage facility. Still nothing. As the hunt stretched into a fourth year, Kennedy grew suspicious. Finally, a prosecutor stepped in to help speed up the process.

“And that,” Kennedy said, with a shake of his head, “is when they finally fessed up.”

Court documents from January 1998 show that People vs. Pinholster was mistakenly listed among more than a dozen cases deemed eligible for evidence destruction. The trial exhibits, records show, were destroyed that summer. Two top Los Angeles County Superior Court officials signed the destruction order — Judge John Reid and Ty Colgrove, an administrator who helped run the court’s criminal operations. Both men have since retired.

Reached for comment, Colgrove said he didn’t recall the case, as he’d signed hundreds of destruction orders over the years, but added that he relied on lower-level employees to properly sort through the cases.

Hearn, the court spokeswoman, said Reid could not comment, as he still sometimes fills in on the bench. In a recently signed declaration, Reid wrote that if he’d known the evidence from a capital case was going to be destroyed, he “would not have signed the order.”

Kennedy, an associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School whose work on Pinholster’s case carried over from his days as the federal public defender for the Central District of California, bristled at the rationale.

“It’s almost like the judiciary is facilitating wrongful executions,” he said.

Life on death row has worn on Pinholster. Last year, as California voters weighed two options — speeding up executions or banning the death penalty — Pinholster was quoted in a Times article, expressing apathy.

“After 30 years,” he said, “you don’t care one way or the other.”

But there’s still some hope for his exoneration, Kennedy said, pointing to trial exhibit 29 — a pair of bloodstained jeans also recovered from Pinholster’s home years ago. While court employees have said they presume the jeans are lost or destroyed, they haven’t found any documents showing they were, in fact, discarded.

Kennedy has asked for a special hearing so he can question the court officials who approved the destruction. A judge is expected to rule on that request early next year.

For Michael Kumar, the former marijuana dealer who lived at the home where the killings took place, the mention of Pinholster brings a rush of memories. Although he’d been out of town the weekend of the murders, the pain is still raw over the loss of Johnson, his best friend — a gentle giant who loved to play classical piano. When asked about the possibility of a new trial, Kumar sighed.

“It’s preposterous to me…. It’s completely a joke if this guy says he’s innocent,” said Kumar, 58, who now sells parts for and restores classic cars. “I’m not going to say he doesn’t have the right, because I’m not sure what the technicalities are, but it’s just that — a technicality.”

 

Mentor-on-the-Lake death penalty case: New trial confirmed by Ohio Supreme Court


December 13, 2017

Joseph Thomas

It’s official.

The former Perry Township man who was sentenced to death row for a Mentor woman’s rape and murder will get a new trial.

The Ohio Supreme Court has refused to reconsider its previous decision that reversed Joseph Thomas’ convictions.

Thomas was found guilty in 2012 for the death of Annie McSween.

The 49-year-old victim’s body was found on Nov. 26, 2010, in a wooded area outside of Mario’s Lakeway Lounge in Mentor-on- the-Lake, where she worked as a bartender.

Lake County Prosecutor Charles Coulson said he is disappointed the high court did not grant his request to reconsider the case.

“In my opinion, the court’s reasoning for reversal was both factually and legally flawed as pointed out in our motion for reconsideration,” Coulson said. “Now we will have to retry the case.”

A new trial date before Lake County Common Pleas Judge Richard L. Collins Jr. had not yet been scheduled.

Thomas will remain in prison until trial, the prosecutor said.

After Thomas was convicted, Collins chose to adopt the jury’s recommendation of death rather than downgrade the sentence to life in prison. In a 4-3 vote in October, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and ordered a new trial be scheduled for Thomas.

The Lake County Prosecutor’s Office then filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the high court’s majority neglected to fully analyze the issues, confused legal standards and failed to use its own law, instead “cherry-picking cases from outside Ohio” to make its decision.

McSween was strangled and stabbed multiple times in the neck and back on Black Friday. The power lines to the bar had been cut, and McSween and two other women had their tires slashed.

Thomas has maintained his innocence and claimed he had no motivation to commit the crime.

Although Thomas had frequently been seen carrying a blue pocketknife before that night, it was not recovered during the criminal investigation. At trial, prosecutors introduced five other knives Thomas owned, describing them as “full Rambo combat knives.”

Justice Terrence O’Donnell wrote the court’s lead opinion, which determined the trial court committed plain error by admitting those five knives that prosecutors knew were not used in the crime into evidence. The majority found a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome of the trial, and that reversal was necessary to prevent a manifest miscarriage of justice.

“The state claims that the Court has ignored Ohio cases on this evidentiary issue, in favor of cases from other jurisdictions. That is a false and unfair accusation,” Thomas’ appellate lawyer Timothy F. Sweeney argued.

The three dissenting justices found the prosecution presented substantial evidence to support the jury’s verdict independent of the admitted knife evidence.

Convicted killer Bessman Okafor to get new sentencing next year


December 6, 2017

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A convicted killer sentenced to death row went before a judge Wednesday as he begins the process to get a new sentence

Bessman Okafor killed Alex Zaldivar, 19, and wounded two others in 2012.

He has to be re-sentenced because the state Supreme Court ordered all death sentence decisions must be unanimous.

Read: Florida Supreme Court overturns death sentence for Bessman Okafor

Rafael Zaldivar, the victim’s father, said reopening this case is painful.

“Everybody has to relive this all over again. It’s like we never moved on. It’s a never-ending story,” he said.

The judge scheduled Okafor’s new sentencing phase for November of next year.

The sentencing should take two weeks, with the first for jury selection and the other for witness testimony.

Photos: Orange County inmates on death row

Okafor will go before an Orange County judge to get an attorney and schedule a new sentencing phase.

“It’s opening up old wounds. It’s terrible for our family,” Rafael Zaldivar aid.

Okafor was sentenced to death in November 2015 for killing Alex Zaldivar and wounding two others during an Ocoee home invasion in 2012.

The three were set to testify against Okafor in a separate home invasion before the killing.

Rafael Zaldivar said he thinks about his son every day.

“He was a good and loving son. Unfortunately, he barely passed his 18th birthday,” he said.

State law has changed since the previous jury voted 11-1 to send Okafor to death row.

Jurors must now all agree on the death penalty.

Rafael Zaldivar believes that will happen.

“I’m very confident they’re going to do it again,” he said.

Months after the Supreme Court ruling, Orange and Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala announced she would not seek the death penalty during her tenure.

Read: Florida Supreme Court rules against Ayala on Scott’s reassigning of death penalty cases

Gov. Rick Scott then gave Okafor’s case, along with dozens of others, to State Attorney Brad King in Ocala.

“Out of the blue, we had to deal with Aramis Ayala, about her not applying the death penalty to our son’s case. So, it’s been difficult for us and we did not need that with everything going on,” Rafael Zaldivar said. “Thank God Gov. Rick Scott executed that order.”

Miami mom is on trial a third time for the torture and murder of ‘Baby Lollipops’


December  4,2017

For the third time, a jury heard about Baby Lollipops’ short and tragic life — and the details remained just as ghastly now as they did in 1990, when his body was discovered in the bushes of a Miami Beach home.

The skeletal, malnourished 3-year-old weighed just 18 pounds. His soiled diaper was duct-taped onto his filthy body. His cheek bore a burn mark, likely from a cigarette.

Two teeth were knocked out, taking out a portion of his jaw. Blow after blow, inflicted month after month, eventually left his tiny body battered. He was unable to walk, his skull was fractured, his brain stem severed.

“His left arm was so badly injured that the muscle from the elbow to the shoulder had fused into the bone making it impossible for this young child to extend his arm,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Christine Hernandez told jurors on Monday.

Lazaro Figueroa died an unimaginably horrible death. And to blame, prosecutors allege, was his own mother, Ana Maria Cardona, who beat and abused her youngest child over months.

“This young baby was the subject of her hatred, this baby was the target of her rage,” Hernandez told jurors.

The start of the trial Monday marks the third time Cardona has faced a jury for the November 1990 murder of little Lazaro, whose corpse was discovered dumped outside a home in Miami Beach.

As detectives hunted for his killer and identity in a case that captivated South Florida, they dubbed him “Baby Lollipops” for the design on his shirt. Homicide detectives soon arrested Cardona, a cocaine addict who had lived in a Miami efficiency with her two other children and lover, Olivia Gonzalez.

Cardona’s defense team on Monday shifted the blame.

“We’re going to bring you testimony that while Olivia Gonzalez was serving time in prison, she bragged that she was the one who hit the child over the head with a baseball bat and killed him,” Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Manuel Alvarez said.

Jurors will not hear that twice before, Cardona was sent to Death Row after convictions for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

Lazaro Figueroa died an unimaginably horrible death. And to blame, prosecutors allege, was his own mother, Ana Maria Cardona, who beat and abused her youngest child over months.

“This young baby was the subject of her hatred, this baby was the target of her rage,” Hernandez told jurors.

Mississippi death row inmate Michelle Byrom to get new trial


April 1, 2014

(CNN) — A new trial has been ordered for Mississippi death row inmate Michelle Byrom, according to a state Supreme Court opinion issued Monday.

Byrom’s capital murder conviction was reversed, and the case has been remanded to the circuit court for a new trial, the opinion said.

“We are very grateful that the Mississippi Supreme Court has granted Michelle Byrom’s request for relief from her death sentence,” said Byrom’s attorney, David Calder. “This was a team effort on the part of the attorneys currently representing Michelle, and we believe that the court reached a just and fair result under the facts presented in this case.”

Byrom has been on death row since her 2000 conviction for capital murder. The 57-year-old woman was convicted of being the mastermind of a murder-for-hire plot to kill her allegedly abusive husband, a killing her son had admitted to committing in several jailhouse letters and, according to court documents, in an interview with a court-appointed psychologist.

He recanted when he was put on the stand, according to court records.

Attorney General Jim Hood, who had requested Byrom’s execution, said Monday his office would seek the court’s reasoning for the reversal.

“While we respect the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision, it is important that the trial court know and understand the specific errors that were found by the justices so that the lower court knows the best way to proceed,” he said. “Our citizens can once again take comfort in the fact that we have a legal system that works for all parties involved.”

The Supreme Court opinion noted that the decision “is extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave to pursue post-conviction relief.”

Oliver Diaz, the former presiding justice of the Supreme Court, called the opinion “actually kinda amazing,” from the order for a new trial to the ruling’s release on a Monday instead of a Thursday, as usual.

“The lawyers filed a last ditch motion for additional post conviction relief. These are almost never granted. Defendants are limited to a single post conviction motion,” he wrote in an e-mail to CNN. “It is extremely rare to grant and send back for a new trial.”

The court further instructed that a different judge should be assigned to Byrom’s new trial.

Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner, who imposed the death sentence on Byrom after her conviction, declined to comment to CNN, saying, “The matter is ongoing.”

Diaz also said the order for a new judge was extraordinary.

“Also, taking the step of removing the original trial judge is very unusual as well,” he wrote.

Tara Booth, spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections, said the department expects an order Tuesday to transfer Byrom from the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility to Tishomingo County, where the killing occurred.

Hood, the attorney general, had requested that Byrom be executed “on or before (the date of) March 27,” but the Mississippi Supreme Court, which has the final say on execution dates, denied Hood’s request.

During Michelle Byrom’s original trial, prosecutors said she plotted to kill her husband, who was fatally shot in his home in Iuka, Mississippi, in 1999 while Michelle was in the hospital receiving treatment for double pneumonia. A jury convicted her based on evidence and testimony alleging that she was the mastermind of the plot.

Byrom Jr. admitted in jailhouse letters that he had committed the crime on his own after growing tired of his father’s physical and verbal abuse, and a court-appointed psychologist has said that Byrom Jr. told him a similar story.

On the stand, Byrom Jr. pinned the slaying on one of his friends, whom he said his mother had hired for $15,000.

Following her attorney’s advice, Michelle Byrom waived her right to a jury sentencing, allowing the judge to decide her fate. He sentenced her to death.

Prior to Monday’s ruling, Michelle Byrom’s defense attorneys had filed a motion asking the court for additional discovery so the alleged confession to the court-appointed psychologist could be fully explored.

The defense attorneys also want to depose the prosecutor from her trial, Arch Bullard, regarding his knowledge of Byrom Jr.’s alleged confession to the psychologist.

Bullard has told CNN that he firmly believes Michelle Byrom was the mastermind of the murder-for-hire plot.

ARIZONA: Jodi Arias Trial Sentencing Pushed Back


february 16, 2014

Jodi Arias will have her sentencing trial date pushed back from March 17 because of a prosecutor’s scheduling conflict – amid a report saying that she might have to get new lawyers after motions were filed this week.

Arias was convicted of murdering her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, at his suburban Phoenix home in 2008. A jury could not get to a verdict on her sentence.

The Arizona Republic reported that Juan Martinez, the prosecutor in question, has to handle a death penalty trial May 12, reported The Associated Press.

Maricopa County Superior Court Presiding Criminal Judge Joseph Welty this week said that the death penalty trial will go first. The suspect in that case is accused of killing a Phoenix-area police officer in 2007.

(Source: The Epoch Times)

Ohio man on death row for killing 11 women challenging conviction with court filing- Anthony Sowell


Anthony Sowell

September 27, 2012 http://www.therepublic.com

CLEVELAND — An Ohio man sentenced to death for killing 11 women whose remains were found in and around his Cleveland home is now challenging his conviction.

WEWS-TV reports Thursday (http://bit.ly/Psqxzv) that lawyers for Anthony Sowell (SOH’-wehl) of Cleveland filed a petition to have his conviction overturned and win a new trial.

Such filings are common for those sentenced to the death penalty and often are turned down.

Prosecutors said Sowell, who was convicted last year of killing 11 women, lured the victims to his home by promising them alcohol or drugs.

The murdered women began vanishing in 2007. Police discovered 10 bodies and a skull at Sowell’s house in late 2009 after officers went there on a woman’s report that she had been raped at the home.