New York

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.

US – Prosecutors help set record number of exonerations in 2013

February 4, 2014 (dallasnews)

ST. LOUIS — A nationwide push by prosecutors and police to re-examine possible wrongful convictions contributed to a record number of exonerations in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.

The National Registry of Exonerations says 87 people falsely convicted of crimes were exonerated last year, four more than in 2009, the year with the next highest total. The joint effort by the Northwestern University and University of Michigan law schools has documented more than 1,300 such cases in the U.S. since 1989 while also identifying another 1,100 “group exonerations” involving widespread police misconduct, primarily related to planted drug and gun evidence.

The new report shows that nearly 40 percent of exonerations recorded in 2013 were either initiated by law enforcement or included police and prosecutors’ cooperation. One year earlier, nearly half of the exonerations involved such reviews.

“Police and prosecutors have become more attentive and concerned about the danger of false conviction,” said registry editor Samuel Gross, a Michigan law professor. “We are working harder to identify the mistakes we made years ago, and we are catching more of them.”

Texas topped the state-by-state breakdown with 13 exonerations in 2013, followed by Illinois, New York, Washington, California, Michigan and Missouri.

District attorneys in the counties containing Dallas, Chicago, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Santa Clara, Calif., are among those to recently create “conviction integrity” units. The International Association of Chiefs of Police also is pushing to reduce wrongful convictions, joined by the U.S. Justice Department and The Innocence Project, an advocacy group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. The association’s recommendations to local departments include new guidelines for conducting photo lineups and witness interviews to reduce false confessions.

Fifteen of the 87 documented cases in 2013 involved convictions obtained after a defendant pleaded guilty, typically to avoid a longer prison sentence. Forty of the cases involved murder convictions, with another 18 overturned convictions for rape or sexual assault.

The number of exonerations based on DNA testing continued to decline, accounting for about one-fifth of the year’s total.

“It’s extremely valuable to use,” Gross said. “But most crimes don’t involve DNA evidence. … DNA hastaught us a huge amount about the criminal justice system. Biological evidence has forced all of us to realize that we’ve made a lot of mistakes. But most exonerations involve shoe-leather, not DNA.”

In Illinois, Nicole Harris and Daniel Taylor each received certificates of innocence from a Cook County judge in January after their respective murder convictions were tossed out in 2013 — a designation that allows both to receive financial compensation from the state. Harris had been convicted in 2005 of strangling her 4-year-old son, who had an elastic band wrapped around his neck. Taylor was released after spending more than 20 years in prison for a fatal robbery that occurred while he was in police custody for an unrelated incident.

In Missouri, former death row inmate Reginald Griffin went free in October 2013 after a small-town prosecutor declined to refile murder charges in connection with a 1983 prison stabbing for which Griffin spent nearly three decades behind bars. Griffin denied his involvement but was convicted after two inmates claimed to have seen him stab the prisoner. One of those inmates later recanted, saying he had not seen the attack. An appellate attorney also discovered that prosecutors had withheld a report that guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate as he was attempting to leave the area where the attack took place.

Ryan Ferguson, convicted in 2005 in the beating death of a Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune sports editor, was freed in November 2013 after a state appeals court panel ruled prosecutors had withheld evidence from his attorneys and that he didn’t get a fair trial. The state attorney general’s office decided not to retry Ferguson, who had received a 25-year prison sentence.

Like their counterparts across the country, Missouri prosecutors are reviewing not just questionable individual convictions but also the broader issues that lead to exonerations, from coerced confessions to contaminated crime labs.

“It’s the duty of police and prosecutors to protect everyone in the community, including victims and defendants,” said Boone County Prosecutor Dan Knight. “We want the process to be as fair and transparent as possible.”


Only Inmate to Receive Federal Death Penalty in New York Again Sentenced to Death


Ronell Wilson, whose first death sentence for killing two undercover police detectives was overturned, was sentenced again on Wednesday to die by a federal jury that heard gripping testimony about his time in jail, where he roamed freely after the shootings, intimidated fellow inmates and fathered a child with a guard.

The anonymous 12-member jury took just five hours to reach its decision to return Mr. Wilson to federal death row, where no other New Yorker has served time in six decades.

As the jury foreman responded to preliminary questions from a 22-page verdict sheet, Mr. Wilson, 31, slumped forward with his chin in his hands as the tension rose in the courtroom in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. When the foreman finally said “yes” to the death penalty, Mr. Wilson leaned back and looked over to his family. They wept as he was led away.

Outside the courthouse on Wednesday, Rodney Andrews Sr., the father of one of the victims, Detective Rodney J. Andrews, said that he was pleased with the outcome. “He’s done too many things,” Mr. Andrews said of Mr. Wilson. “He’s proven that he’s not going to change.” Mr. Andrews said that he wanted to watch Mr. Wilson’s execution, and when asked why, he replied, “For satisfaction.”

Detective Andrews’s wife, MaryAnn, said she was too emotional to speak. The family of Detective James V. Nemorin, the other victim, did not attend court on Wednesday.

In a statement, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, said: “It was an assault on the society that those officers represented, and for that reason their murders had to be answered with the full force of punishment at society’s disposal. To do otherwise is to invite chaos.”

Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney for the Eastern District, whose office prosecuted the case, said that she hoped the verdict would bring closure to the victims’ families.

Mr. Wilson’s lawyers declined to comment. A judge is expected to formally sentence Mr. Wilson in the fall.

The legal case against him has lasted more than a decade.

On March 10, 2003, Mr. Wilson killed Detective Andrews, 34, and Detective Nemorin, 36, who were participating in a sting operation to buy an illegal gun. He shot each once in the back of the head at point-blank range on a secluded street on Staten Island.

 In choosing the death penalty, the jury unanimously found that prosecutors proved every element of their case, including that Mr. Wilson committed the murders for financial gain and that he poses a future danger.

The jury rejected arguments posed by the defense — that life in prison was punishment enough and that Mr. Wilson’s rough childhood filled with bad influences should spare him from death. Only one member of the jury found that the federal prison system could restrict Mr. Wilson’s inappropriate behavior. Only two found that “Ronell Wilson’s life has value.” None felt that his background mitigated against the imposition of the death penalty.

 Death penalty trials are exceedingly rare in New York, where the state’s highest court struck down the death penalty in 2004 and where capital cases at the federal level are often resolved before trial.

 Federal prosecutors vigorously sought the death penalty against Mr. Wilson, taking the case from state prosecutors on Staten Island, when capital punishment at the state level was invalidated. They won a death verdict in 2007, the first one in New York since 1953.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his death sentence in 2010, ruling that the prosecutor had violated Mr. Wilson’s constitutional right not to testify by telling jurors that if Mr. Wilson had felt any remorse, he would have taken the stand. The panel commuted the sentence to life in prison without parole, but prosecutors decided to again seek death.

 With Mr. Wilson’s guilt never in doubt, the question at the heart of the monthlong sentencing trial was: How much punishment is enough?

Prosecutors argued that prison alone would not do. The prosecutors showed a dramatic video of several guards at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn storming into a recreation pen to retrieve Mr. Wilson, who had refused to be handcuffed. When the guards emerged from the pen with Mr. Wilson, he smiled.

One of their witnesses described seeing a guard, Nancy Gonzalez, walk away from Mr. Wilson’s cell one day, leaving him there with his pants down and his genitals exposed. Mr. Wilson had several sexual encounters with Ms. Gonzalez, fathering a child, Justus, who was born in March.

Defense witnesses described Mr. Wilson’s difficult childhood, during which he shuttled between relatives as his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, was often absent. He spent years in an overcrowded and squalid home, where the adults who influenced him were criminals.

Life in prison was punishment enough, Mr. Wilson’s lawyers argued, for someone who never really had a chance.

But Celia Cohen, one of the prosecutors, said that only the death penalty assured justice. “He’s not going to stop until he’s dead,” she said in her closing argument. “Truer words were never said.”

Death Penalty Methods, State by State

The death penalty laws in each state and the District of Columbia. Six states with the death penalty have not had an execution since 1976: Connecticut, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey, NewYork and South Dakota.
ALABAMA – Lethal injection unless inmate requests electrocution
ALASKA – No death penalty
ARIZONA – Lethal injection for those sentenced after Nov. 15, 1992; others may select injection or lethal gas.
ARKANSAS – Lethal injection for those whose offense occurred after July 4, 1983; others may select injection or electrocution.
CALIFORNIA – Lethal injection unless inmate requests gas.

COLORADO – Lethal injection.

CONNECTICUT – Lethal injection.

DELAWARE – Lethal injection.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA – No death penalty.

FLORIDA – Inmate may select lethal injection or electrocution.

GEORGIA – Lethal injection.

HAWAII – No death penalty.

IDAHO – Firing squad if lethal injection is”impractical.”

ILLINOIS – Lethal injection; electrocution authorized if injection is ever held to be unconstitutional.

INDIANA – Lethal injection.

IOWA – No death penalty.

KANSAS – Lethal injection.

KENTUCKY – Lethal injection for those convicted after March 31, 1998; others may select lethal injection or electrocution.

LOUISIANA – Lethal injection.

MAINE – No death penalty.

MARYLAND – Lethal injection for those whose offense occurred on or after March 25, 1994; others may select injection or gas.

MASSACHUSETTS – No death penalty.

MICHIGAN – No death penalty.

MINNESOTA – No death penalty.

MISSISSIPPI – Lethal injection.

MISSOURI – Lethal injection or lethal gas; statute leaves unclear whether decision to be made by inmate or director of state Department of Corrections.

MONTANA – Lethal injection.

NEBRASKA – Electrocution.

NEVADA – Lethal injection.

NEW HAMPSHIRE – Hanging only if lethal injection cannot be given.

NEW JERSEY – Lethal injection.

NEW MEXICO – Lethal injection.

NEW YORK – Lethal injection.

NORTH CAROLINA – Lethal injection.

NORTH DAKOTA – No death penalty.

OHIO – Lethal injection.

OKLAHOMA – Electrocution if lethal injection is ever held to beunconstitutional; firing squad if both injection and electrocution are
held unconstitutional.

OREGON – Lethal injection.

PENNSYLVANIA – Lethal injection.

RHODE ISLAND – No death penalty.

SOUTH CAROLINA – Inmate may select lethal injection or electrocution.

SOUTH DAKOTA – Lethal injection.

TENNESSEE – Lethal injection for those sentenced after Jan. 1, 1999; others may select electric chair or injection.

TEXAS – Lethal injection.

UTAH – Lethal injection; firing squad available to inmates who chose it prior to passage of legislation this year banning the

VERMONT – No death penalty.

VIRGINIA – Inmate may select lethal injection or

WASHINGTON – Lethal injection unless inmate requests

WEST VIRGINIA – No death penalty.

WISCONSIN – No death penalty.

WYOMING – Lethal gas if lethal injection is ever held to be unconstitutional.