This list includes DNA and non-DNA exonerations, actual innocence cases, and other adjudications (including pardons) if they were for reasons that include questions of guilt.
Debra Milke (DEATH ROW)
- Debra Milke served 25 years in prison for the murder of her son. On Saturday, December 2, 1989, James Styers, 42, asked Milke, who had just gotten divorced, if he could borrow her car for errands. Christopher, Milke’s 4-year-old son, had just visited the mall the previous day to see Santa and asked if he could go again. Milke permitted Styers to take her son to see the mall Santa while she did housework. Shortly before 3 p.m., Styers called Milke and told her he had lost Christopher. He said he was working with security guards and the police. After an hour passed, Milke called the police herself because she hadn’t heard an update. Police came to her apartment and arranged a trap and trace in case the boy had been kidnapped for ransom. Police questioned Styers at the mall and they also questioned Styer’s friend Roger Scott. Phoenix Detective Armando Saldate was assigned to the case. He had a reputation for cracking the tough cases and always getting the confession. He aggressively threatened Scott and his elderly mother. Scott, who had brain damage, seizures, and was an alcoholic confessed and led the police to the location of the boy’s body. About 20 miles from the mall, Christopher’s body was found, he had been shot 3 times. Saldate later claimed that Scott pointed the finger at Styers and Milke as well. At that it was a murder-for-hire scheme. Saldate visited Milke and he later claimed she confessed. Although his supervisor had ordered him to record the interrogation, he did not and he also did not have anyone else accompany him to hear the so-called confession. Milke was shocked to learn, when questioned by other officers, that she had confessed and she denied it. Of course, no one believed the woman accused of murdering her son. Styers also confessed, but told police Milke had nothing to do with it. Scott rejected a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Milke. The prosecution’s main witness was Saldate who claimed Milke not only confessed to him, but also offered his sexual favors. The defense had wanted to look at Saldate’s professional file before trial, but police and prosecutors examined the file and filed a motion to block the request, which was granted. More on that later. No forensic or physical evidence ever linked Milke to the crime. The jury did not believe Milke’s testimony that Saldate fabricated the confession and without any impeachment evidence, the jury convicted Milke and sentenced her to death. Both Styers and Scott were also convicted and sentenced to death. Over the years, investigators and attorneys for Milke combed through 7,000 hours worth of documents to uncover what the prosecutors and police knew all along, that Saldate had committed misconduct in at least 8 cases, including lying under oath and violating people’s rights. It wasn’t until 2013 that anyone would listen however. The U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed Milke’s conviction and found “egregious misconduct” by the prosecution and Saldate and called the case a “stain on the Arizona justice system.” The previous cases Saldate handled showed that he lied about sexually harassing a female motorist and he lied under oath in at least 4 cases, many of which included alleged confessions. In 2014, trial judge Rosa Mroz found that the prosecution did not intentionally conceal Saldate’s history as a detective (despite the fact they looked at the file before asking the judge to not give it to the defense). Milke’s defense team filed an appeal and the Arizona Court of Appeals dismissed Milke’s charges finding the retrial would violate double jeopardy protections due to “the long course of violations”. The state appealed, but the Arizona Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
“And it is far from clear that this reflects a full account of Saldate’s misconduct as a police officer. All of this information should have been disclosed to Milke and the jury, but the state remained unconstitutionally silent.” — 9th Circuit Court’s ruling
Michael Hanline (First Member of the California Twelve Freed)
- In November of 1978, a biker named J.T. McGarry vanished from his home. HIs body was discovered a few days later. He had been shot multiple times and his body dumped 25 to 30 miles from his house on the side of the road. Michael Hanline was arrested and ultimately convicted. He consistently maintained his innocence. After 20 years in prison, the California Innocence Project took up his case as one of their first cases. The CIP was able to uncover police reports that were sealed before Michael’s trial. They implicated other suspects and even impeached several of the state’s witnesses. It turned out that Bruce Robertson, a defense attorney, who represented many of the prosecution’s witnesses actively steered the investigation toward Hanline. He even intimidated witnesses in the case. In fact, Robertson was placed at the home of the victim that night. Before the trial, the District Attorney with Robertson had a secret meeting with the judge and had all the police reports that pointed to anyone else and impeached state witnesses sealed under the guise of protecting an undercover informant. In 2010, Magistrate Judge Andrew Wistrich recommended that the conviction be overturned. It was emphasize by the judge that the prosecution, investigators, and Mr. Robertson colluded to basically fix the case. He said that the prosecution acted so horrifically that “constitutional rules…[became] merely pretend…not to be taken seriously.” However, not long afterward, his appeals were denied. His case was almost a lost cause, so he applied for clemency. Clemency never came, but new DNA evidence was uncovered that didn’t match Hanline. In 2014, Hanline was freed from custody after 36 years in prison. His is the longest known wrongful incarceration in California history (released based upon grounds of innocence). At trial, prosecutors argued that Hanline was jealous of McGarry because the two were interested in the same woman.
Johnnie Lee Savory
- Gov. Pat Quinn pardoned Savory in early 2015. His criminal record was ordered expunged or purged of his double murder conviction. Savory was convicted in 1981 for the 1977 double-murders of Connie Cooper, 19, and James Robinson, 14. The prosecutor in the case, Jerry Brady said he was “appalled, angry, and distressed” at the pardon. Savory served 30 years in prison for a crime many say he didn’t commit. The motive was allegedly that Savory, who was 14 at the time, lost his temper while he was practicing karate with Robinson and stabbed the siblings to death. Savory was tried twice in the case. His first conviction was overturned because his Miranda rights were violated. He was retried and convicted. In the subsequent years, there were several witness recantations. DNA testing was inconclusive in the case.
Thomas and Raymond Highers
- On June 26, 1987, Robert Karey, 65, a drug dealer was shot with a shotgun in his home. Todd Knapp, 18, who lived at the home said he did not witness the shooting. Knapp told police he was packaging drugs at the kitchen table when he heard someone at the door. He then heard two shotgun blasts. Police found a 20 gauge shotgun on the table, but never tested it for prints because a police officer handled it without gloves. Karey, who was known to make nearly $1,000 a day in his illegal dealings, had just $40 when his body was found. Thomas Culberson, a customer of Karey’s said he saw two men running away from the scene. Jamie Lawrence, who was in jail at the time, asked to talk to detectives and told them that 2- 3 weeks before the murder he heard Thomas Highers, 21, talk about wanting to rob Karey. According to Lawrence, Highers and his brother Raymond, 20, owed Karey money. Witnesses at trial supported the brother’s alibi and 2 people witnessed them loading up items to sell that night for drug money (which they would not have needed to do had they robbed and murdered Karey). The brothers were tried in a bench trial and found guilty in 1988. The judge did not find Lawrence credible, but did find Culberson credible. They were sentenced to life in prison without parole plus 14.5 to 27 years. Their initial appeal was denied. Kevin Zieleniewski, an attorney and former resident of the area, was perusing Facebook when he came across a post about the Highers case. Zieleniewski recalled a conversation he had in 1993 or 1994 at law school. His roommate, John Hielscher told him that he was present when Karey was killed. He contacted the Highers brothers and Hielscher. Ultimately, Hielscher agreed to come forward with his eyewitness account and gave a description of 4 African American youths as the perpetrators. James Gianunzio also came forward. The pair testified that they were recent graduates from high school and wanted to score some drugs at Karey’s home. As they reached the back door, they noticed 4 African American men with guns, heard gunshots, and fled. The Highers brothers’ attorneys said that the two men that Lawrence saw that night running from the scene were actually Gianunzio and Hielscher, not the brothers. In 2012, Judge Lawrence Talon rejected the prosecution’s argument that the entire story was part of a conspiracy to free the brothers and granted a new trial. After 25 years in prison, the brothers were released and prosecutors dropped the charges.
Michelle Byrom (DEATH ROW)
- Michelle Byrom, 58, came close to being the first woman executed in Mississippi since WWII. She served 16 years in prison. Byrom, who maintains her innocence, pled no contest in order to avoid a retrial. She was convicted of the murder of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr. in 1999. She was sentenced to death. As a condition of her plea deal, she was sentenced to 20 years with 4 years suspended, which equaled time served. She spent 14 of her 16 years in prison on death row. While officially not exonerated, Byrom had exhausted her state and federal appeals when The Clarion-Ledger and advocates pointed out in the spring of 2014 that the jury never saw letters where her son Edward Jr. confessed. The jury also never heard from a psychologist to which Junior also confessed in detail. Junior was a key state witness against his mother. Junior claimed that his mother hired a “hitman” whom he named as Joey Gillis for between $10,000 and $15,000 to kill her husband/his father. The murder-for-hire scheme was believed by the jury. Edward Sr. was a known abuser, but that was not introduced at trial as her attorneys presented no mitigating evidence. Gillis pled guilty to being an accessory after the fact because he helped Junior dispose of the murder weapon. He has maintained his innocence as to being the “hitman’. Junior was sentenced to 30 years in exchange for his testimony. He earned early supervised release. In addition to Junior’s confessions, it was later learned that investigators had performed GSR (gunshot residue) tests on Gillis and Junior, but only Junior’s test came back positive. Junior’s letters talk of his father’s vicious verbal and physical abuse of both him and his mother. He points to this as his motive basically stating that he hit his breaking point. Byrom initially confessed to investigators saying, “I will take responsibility…” when told that her son would “bite the big bullet”.
Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson in the dissent of Byrom’s first appeal, “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot.”
- Hamilton’s murder conviction was officially vacated in early 2015. Hamilton’s case was investigated by the controversial former Detective Louis Scarcella, who has been repeatedly implicated in instances of misconduct and cases of innocent people being imprisoned. It is believed that Scarcella threatened a witness to “bring him down” for the murder and in turn the witness implicated Hamilton. Hamilton was convicted for the 1991 murder of Nathaniel Cash. The reason officially cited by D.A. Kenneth Thompson was ballistics evidence used in the case did not match testimony given by the sole eyewitness. However, there were also several witness recantations and alibi witnesses who were never allowed to testify. Hamilton became the 11th convict to be cleared by the D.A.’s unprecedented Conviction Review. Hamilton spent 21 years in prison. Hamilton’s case is known for setting a more realistic standard for people with innocence claims to prove them.