Posts Tagged ‘Conviction Integrity Unit’

Ben Baker, 43, of Chicago was convicted of drug possession in 2005 and sentenced to 14 years in prison, but last year, the Exoneration Project discovered evidence that the investigators framed Baker.  He was eventually released from the Robinson Correctional Center this week and sent home.  Baker’s legal team knew for more than a day that he was no longer convicted of what a corrupt officer framed him for, but Baker had no idea.  He said, “I was coming from the gym, from a fitness class they provide there. I was standing, waiting.  The officer told me to pack my stuff. I was going home. I told him, ‘Stop playing.’ ”

“This is what we do this work for.  This conviction should have never happened, but we are delighted that once the case got on their radar, the state’s attorney’s office acted quickly and decisively,” said Joshua Tepfer, a lawyer with the Exoneration Project.

Sergeant Ronald Watts and a number of officers on his squad testified that Baker was selling drugs out of one of the city’s public housing buildings, the Ida B. Wells building.  Baker has always maintained his innocence and said that the authorities were framing him.

At trial, he testified that Sgt. Watts had previously tried to frame him for drug-related cases when he refused to give Watts $1,000 for “protection”.   Baker refused to pay the money and got out of those false charges later.  He subsequently complained to another officer Alvin Jones, but he didn’t know that Jones was part of the scheme.  Jones responded it was all “part of the game…you win some, you lose some.  Next time we get you, it will stick.”

Watts and the other officers testified that Baker was lying and the jury convicted him.

Officer Douglas Nichols, who worked under Watts’ command, testified that he saw Baker with drug bags packaged for distribution and tried to capture him, but he fled.  Officer Robert Gonzalez, also a member of Watts’ team, testified that he arrested Baker in the lobby after Baker got away from Nichols and that he found heroin, crack cocaine, and $800 in his pocket.

Baker told the court that Watts and his officers were the ones with a criminal empire in the housing complex.  They often stole narcotics proceeds and shook down dealers for “protection money”, and even pinned cases on innocent residents if they refused to play ball with them.

At the sentencing hearing, the trial judge fully believed the officers stating that he thought Baker’s accusations were unfounded.  He sentenced Baker to 18 years, but that sentence was later reduced to 14 years.  The accusations “[hold] no water at all,” Judge Toomin said.

It turns out that the criminals were the ones wearing the badges in this case. (more…)

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Donald Watkins, 53, was convicted in 2007 of a home invasion and murder of Alfred Curry, 59.  Curry was killed by a shotgun in the presence of Verlisha Willis and her daughter.  Willis was the state’s star witness and acknowledged at trial that she was a drug addict, but denied being high at the time of the crime.  Willis later admitted to Medill Justice Project students that she indeed was high on heroin at the time of the crime.  Students also uncovered the fact that Watkins had sustained nerve damage to his left arm in 2003 making it less likely that he could have physically committed the crime in 2005.

In 2013, Kathleen Zellner wrote on behalf of Watkins to the State Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit raising these and other questions about the case.  Sally Daly, the spokeswoman for the Cook County office said the CIU received the request, but “absent of any additional information…” the unit will take no action on the case.  Zellner informed Watkins that the unit would not take his case and while she disagrees with their decision, she could no longer represent him.  Watkins is seeking new representation.

“I know Ms. Zellner wouldn’t have gotten involved if I didn’t have a good case,” he said during a telephone interview from the Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, “What keeps me going everyday is the love of my family and the fact that I’m innocent. There’s nothing else that’s more powerful.”

In 1990, Michael Phillips was convicted of raping a 16-year-old at a motel in Dallas, Texas.  Phillips pled guilty on the advice of his attorney.  His defense attorney informed him that as a black man accused of raping a white teen, he could not get a fair jury and so he should at all costs avoid a jury trial.  He spent 12 years in prison and then another 6 months for failing to register as a sex offender.  Nearly 25 years after his conviction, Phillips was finally vindicated and no one told him it was happening.

Hundreds of people have been exonerated since 1989, some of them by DNA post-conviction testing.  The Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins announced that Phillips, 57, was joining those innocent prisoners.  Phillips was never told that DNA testing was going to prove his innocence nor did he seek such tests.  He simply accepted what had happened to him, a wrongful conviction, knew he was innocent, and moved on.  He did not push for an exoneration.  He is the first person in the U.S. to be exonerated by a prosecutor’s office without taking any steps themselves.

“This is different from other exonerations…in a very important way,” said Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations and a law professor at the University of Michigan, “The man who was exonerated, this wasn’t on his mind. He wasn’t thinking about it, he hadn’t thought about it.”

The first he heard about it was when the Conviction Integrity Unit at the prosecutor’s office contacted him.  The unit was established by Watkin’s in 2007 to review and investigate “valid” innocence claims and other old cases.  As part of Texas’ ongoing effort to test untested, backlogged rape kits (including cases with convicted individuals), evidence from the 1990 case was run through the FBI’s CODIS database.  The result was a match to a different man.  The teen who was raped had said that she was able to partially pull up the ski mask being worn by her attacker and she recognized it was Phillips.  She picked him out of a photo lineup as well.  However, the DNA test along with a re-investigation by Watkin’s office shows that her eyewitness testimony was incorrect.

“DNA tells the truth, so this was another case of eyewitness misidentification where one individual’s life was wrongfully snatched and a violent criminal was allowed to go free,” Watkins said in the statement, “We apologize to Michael Phillips for a criminal justice system that failed him.”

Phillips had been released in 2002, but returned to jail in 2004 for failure to register as a sex offender in relation to the same case.  At that time, he did mention having DNA tests done, but he was denied.

“I never imagined I would live to see my name cleared,” Phillips, who suffers from sickle cell anemia and is living in a nursing home, said in a statement released by Watkins’s office, “I always told everyone I was innocent and now people will finally believe me.”

Phillips’ exoneration is also remarkable because unlike most exonerees, he did not have to spend a considerable amount of time fighting his case.

“Usually the people who have been exonerated have been working toward this for years,” Samuel R. Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, law professor at the University of Michigan, and former Dallas Co. Conviction Integrity Unit employee said.

About 20 other exonerees attended Phillips’ hearing where a judge announced that Phillips should be exonerated.  The issue will go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has to approve of the exoneration.  If Phillips is exonerated, he will be entitled under Texas law to $80,000 each year for every year he was in prison wrongfully.

In the last two decades, Texas has spent $65 million compensating people it wrongfully convicted.

In 2013, there were 87 exonerations nationwide.  Even though DNA exonerations get the most publicity, they only accounted for 20% of all exonerations.