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Lawyers look to Alabama Supreme Court on juvenile killer sentences after legislature fails to act

By Kent Faulk | 
May 21, 2013 at 6:13 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – How Alabama judges will handle the sentencing of juveniles convicted of capital murder – for at least the immediate future — now appears to be in the hands of the Alabama Supreme Court after the Alabama Legislature failed to enact a bill addressing the issue.

A bill had been pending in the state legislature to address a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Miller v. Alabama last June that bars automatic no-parole sentences for juvenile killers. The session ended Monday with no final action on the bill.

“We were very disappointed that the legislature didn’t act,” said Wendell Sheffield, the attorney for one of the teens awaiting trial on capital murder charges in the deaths of five people at a house in Ensley. “We have an act that’s unconstitutional. We have a client who is in jail on a no-bond.”

Sheffield is among several attorneys who have asked local circuit judges to toss out the capital murder indictments against their teen clients after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Those teens include:

 Rashad Stoves (Sheffield’s client), one of three teens indicted on capital murder charges in the January 2012 shooting deaths of five men at a house in the Ensley Highlands neighborhood of Birmingham. Stoves was 17 at the time of the shooting.

– Larry Henderson was indicted on a capital murder charge in the June 6, 2010, shooting death of Alex Rogers, 69, after a dispute in Ensley. Henderson was 16 years old at the time of the shooting. Another man, Detrick McGee, also was charged in Rogers’ death but McGee was 18 at the time of that shooting.

– Andrew Amison, was 17 when Mobile police arrested him on allegations that he participated in the robbery and killing of Sam Richardson inside in Main Street Barbershop on Nov. 22, 2011. Last month Amison’s attorney asked Mobile County Circuit Judge Robert Smith to throw out the capital murder charge.

Judges denied the requests in the Stoves and Henderson cases. In March Sheffield and Donald Colee, who represents Henderson, argued their appeals to the Alabama Supreme Court.

The Alabama Supreme Court had not ruled in the appeal as of today in the Stoves and Henderson appeals. “I think everybody was thinking they (Supreme Court justices) were waiting on the legislature” to address the issue first, Sheffield said.

“We are definitely looking for some action on their (Alabama Supreme Court) part,” Sheffield said. “Everybody’s in limbo.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 had ruled that juveniles cannot face the death penalty. Since then when juveniles in Alabama have been convicted of capital murder, they have automatically been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole _ the only other option remaining under Alabama’s capital punishment law.

But in last year’s ruling the U.S. Supreme Court said that judges must have options to sentence juveniles to something other than life without the possibility of parole.

Many attorneys and judges believed the Alabama Legislature would enact a bill that would deal with the issue. The bill introduced in the 2013 state legislative session, which ended Monday, called for giving judges the option of sentencing a juvenile convicted of capital murder to life, with one shot at parole after 40 years.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who had sponsored the bill in the Alabama Senate, stated in an email this afternoon that the reason the bill didn’t pass was mainly because it got caught up “in the procedural log jam of the last day.”

“Also, you had some people who wanted to make it 70 years instead of 40 which in my opinion would have been unconstitutional,” Ward stated.

Sheffield said that if the Alabama Supreme Court were to grant their appeal in the quest to have the capital murder indictment tossed out, he believes the state prosecutors would move “very, very, quickly” to charge Stoves with murder.

If the Alabama Supreme Court were to rule against them, however, it would basically leave the question in place about what state judges can do in sentencing teens convicted of capital murder, Sheffield said. If that happened, they would continue the appeal, he said.

“We’re not going to let this drop,” Sheffield said.

If the bill had been approved, Sheffield said they would have challenged it anyway. One shot at parole after 40 years only gave “lip service, not substance” to the U.S.

“I think courts in this jurisdiction need direction from the Supreme Court of Alabama in how they need to proceed,” Sheffield said.

Tommy Nail, the presiding Jefferson County Circuit Court criminal judge, said today that the judges and lawyers are “left to our own devices” and will have wait until the Alabama Supreme Court renders a decision.

Texas opens court of inquiry into claims of prosecutor misconduct


Texas opens court of inquiry into claims of prosecutor misconductMichael Morton, left, was exonerated in the beating death of his wife after 25 years. Monday he attended a Texas court of inquiry focused on the prosecutor in his case. (Ricardo B. Brazziell / / February 4, 2013)
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

February 4, 2013, 6:58 p.m.

GEORGETOWN, Texas — In emotional testimony Monday, a Texas man told a judge how it felt spending 25 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

“Brutal,” Michael Morton said. “But after a couple decades, I got used to it.”

Morton, 58, who grew up in Los Angeles, was convicted in the 1986 beating death of his wife, Christine, at their home. He was exonerated and released almost a year and a half ago after DNA tests confirmed his innocence. Another man has since been charged in connection with the killing.

Now the man who prosecuted Morton, Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson, faces an unprecedented “court of inquiry” about 30 miles north of Austin in which a judge will decide whether the then-district attorney lied and concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton.

It is the first time the state has convened such a hearing for prosecutorial misconduct. Although part of Texas law since 1965, the court of inquiry has typically been used to consider allegations against elected officials. Some hope this week’s hearing will lead to a greater examination of alleged misconduct by prosecutors not just in Texas, but nationwide.

“This is going to be a significant case for prosecutorial misconduct. It could lead to judges giving more specific orders about turning over evidence,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, who attended Monday’s hearing.

Texas District Judge Louis Sturns, who is presiding over the court of inquiry, must determine whether state laws were broken in Anderson’s prosecution of Morton. If so, the judge must issue an arrest warrant, potentially leading to a criminal trial.

Morton’s attorneys — including several from the Innocence Project — appealed for the court of inquiry after uncovering evidence they believe should have been disclosed under the landmark 1963U.S. Supreme Court decision Brady vs. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to share evidence favorable to the accused with defense lawyers.

Rusty Hardin, the special prosecutor appointed for the court of inquiry, asked Morton on Monday how he felt when he learned that information that could have cleared him was not shared with his attorneys during his 1987 trial.

That evidence, Hardin said, included an interview the lead investigator conducted with Morton’s mother-in-law in which she recounted how his 3-year-old son, Eric, at home at the time of the murder, claimed his father wasn’t there but that he saw a “monster … hurt Mommy.”

“I was stunned,” Morton said. “All those years … the primary thing that kept hitting me was why? What purpose, what motivation?”

On the stand Monday, Morton occasionally choked up, but remained mostly composed, at times smiling.

He sat facing Anderson, who appeared impassive. Anderson has apologized, but also denied wrongdoing in the case.

Last fall, the State Bar of Texas filed a lawsuit accusing Anderson of professional misconduct in Morton’s prosecution. A date has yet to be set for that civil trial.

Anderson’s attorney, Eric Nichols, a former prosecutor with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, focused his questions Monday on what the trial judge, who has since died, ordered Anderson to turn over.

He argued that Morton’s lawyers ruled out relying on his son as a witness before his trial and emphasized that Innocence Project lawyers, not Morton, have been pursuing charges against Anderson. Nichols noted that two Innocence Project claims about concealed evidence that could have cleared Morton were recently found to be false.

“You are not interested in seeing someone prosecuted on insufficient evidence?” Nichols said.

“Correct,” Morton said.

Hardin argued that even if the evidence couldn’t have cleared Morton, it should still have been turned over before trial.

Morton said he’s not out for revenge, just accountability.

“I don’t want anything ill for Judge Anderson,” Morton said, tearing up, “But there are consequences for our actions. There needs to be accountability, because without that, everything else falls apart.”

Some said they hope the inquiry leads to increased oversight of prosecutors.

“There is no doubt that the eyes of Texas are going to be on this proceeding,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit that trains and assists lawyers who represent death row inmates. “Bad forensic science is not the only reason people get wrongfully imprisoned, and we have to be dedicated to trying to stop that.”

Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, has proposed legislation to create an “innocence commission” in Texas like some other states to systematically investigate wrongful convictions. Ellis attended Monday’s hearing and said it showed the need for such a commission to find solutions to prevent future mistakes, especially for poor defendants who cannot afford the “firepower” of the high-caliber lawyers that filled the courtroom Monday.

“It’s really hard to get to the real problem of what went wrong” with prosecutorial misconduct, Ellis said. “You ought to have a system, a way in which hard questions are asked.”

How the system failed William Ziegler: Perjured testimony, trashed evidence, lying jurors

By Brendan Kirby | 
February 01, 2013

How the system failed William Ziegler: Perjured testimony, trashed evidence, lying jurors

William Ziegler reacts to his capital murder conviction in the torture death of Russell Allen Baker Jr. on
Thursday,March 8, 2001, in Judge Robert Kendall’s courtroom, in Mobile, Alabama. (Press-Register file photo)

MOBILE, Alabama – On a cold winter night in February 2000, Russell Allen Baker Jr. ended up dead from multiple stab wounds in a wooded patch near the Peach Place Inn apartments on Leroy Stevens Road.Within a week, Mobile County sheriff’s investigators zeroed in on William John Ziegler as the ringleader of a group of people responsible for Baker’s death and charged him with murder.

From that point to the time the defendant moved into a cell on Alabama’s death row, the system failed Ziegler at every turn, according to a Mobile County judge who recently granted the defendant’s bid for a new trial.

Mobile County Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart’s 218-page ruling faults the actions of investigators and prosecutors, the performance of his lawyers before, during and after the trial, and even conduct of two of the jurors.

The judge wrote that Ziegler’s lawyers failed to provide the most basic defense, with one of the attorneys actually throwing away key evidence that could have allowed them to make a compelling argument that one of his co-defendants used his car to move Baker or his body.

To read the entire order by Judge Sarah Stewart, click here.

“Under any analysis, this Court cannot say that Ziegler received a fair trial and, accordingly, under our constitutional system … he is entitled to a new trial,” Stewart wrote.The judge, who conducted an extensive hearing in the case in 2010, determined that Ziegler deserves a new trial for a multitude of reasons related to prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective defense lawyers. The ruling came after Ziegler’s new lawyers filed a rarely successful post-appeal challenge available after defendants have exhausted their regular appeal options.

Stewart’s decision will not stand without a fight, though. The Alabama Attorney General’s Office has indicated that it will appeal, and the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office harshly criticized it. An attorney who represented Ziegler, now 37, also took issue with the findings.

“I strongly disagree with the order,” said Mobile County Chief Assistant District Attorney Deborah Tillman, who tried the case in 2001. “I did not and have not ever done anything improper in not turning over evidence.”

But Benjamin Nagin, a New York lawyer who took Ziegler’s case for free after the defendant lost his appeal, said the shortcomings Stewart cited in her order are well-documented.

“It’s a very detailed decision. It’s very well-reasoned,” he said. “I think it is unusual. But this is an unusual case. These are not technicalities. These are very serious errors raising very serious questions.”

Evidence in the garbage?

Authorities charged five people in connection with Baker’s death, but only Ziegler went to trial. The rest cut deals with prosecutors, and some of them testified against him.

Prosecutors contended at the trial that Ziegler beat Baker in retaliation for a racial slur and then forced him down a dirt road where he and his cousin, Alexander Randall II, stabbed him many times.

Stewart wrote that court-appointed attorneys Habib Yazdi and Greg Hughes largely accepted the state’s allegation of their client’s guilt because they failed to adequately investigate the crime.

Hughes said he did the best job he could but cannot recall many of the details more than a decade later. And he noted that he did not hear the testimony at the 2010 hearing on which Stewart based her ruling.

But Hughes said the very reason that post-appeal challenges exist is to give judges an opportunity to prevent miscarriages of justice that appellate courts have not caught.

“She’s the judge. That’s what she gets paid to do,” he said. “To my mind, it shows the system works.”

Stewart wrote that the lawyers’ inquiry consisted of little more than hiring an investigator who never had worked on a murder case. His previous experience involved arsons and other lesser crimes.

The investigator worked no more than 55 hours, even though Yazdi had previously estimated that he would need 300 hours, according to Stewart’s findings. She pointed to the investigator’s testimony that he talked to only two people who were not in the defendant’s immediate family. Remarkably, Stewart wrote, the attorneys did not speak to either of those witnesses.

Yazdi testified at the 2010 hearing that he viewed it as the job of the investigator, not the lawyers, to seek out potential witnesses.

“Think about going on trial for your life and your attorneys don’t bother to speak to any witnesses,” Nagin said.

Testimony at the 2010 hearing indicated that Ziegler’s lawyers failed to follow up on a “bucket full” of evidence that investigator Gary Cohen did gather. He testified that the defendant’s aunt and legal guardian, Odella Wilson, told him about a videotape showing a blood trail outside of the apartments at Peach Place down the center steps. It contradicted the state’s theory that the blood trail led down an outside stairway.

But the lawyers never watched the tape, Stewart wrote.

Wilson also testified that she gave Cohen a knife, a pair of socks discovered in a burn pile, bloody underwear and blood-stained shoes.

The clothing, which belonged to Randall, contradicted his testimony that he was only minimally involved in the killing and that he tossed the knives he and Ziegler used into a nearby catfish pond.

The attorneys had retained a DNA expert but did not submit the clothing or knives for analysis. In fact, Wilson testified, Yazdi told her that the jury would not care about the evidence and then proceeded to throw the materials in the garbage.

Yazdi adamantly said he never threw away materials and denied even being told about evidence cited in the judge’s ruling.

“These are a bunch of fabricated statements that the family of the defendant, Ziegler, fabricated,” he said in an interview with

But Stewart said she found Wilson’s testimony credible because Cohen corroborated it and a memo that he wrote at the time documented the evidence that he had collected.

Holes in the state’s theory

If Hughes and Yazdi had done a more thorough investigation, Stewart wrote, they would have found a slew of other evidence to challenge the state’s theory of the crime.

Dr. Leroy Riddick, who was the chief medical examiner in the Mobile office of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences at the time, testified in 2010 that he concluded from the victim’s injuries that it was unlikely he was killed in the woods where he was found. What’s more, Riddick said, it is most likely that a right-handed person inflicted the fatal slashes to Baker’s neck; Ziegler is left-handed.

Riddick also disputed the state’s theory of the time of Baker’s death, around midnight on Feb. 19, 2000. The medical examiner said based on testimony that Baker had been drinking earlier that night, he should have had alcohol in his system when died. He did not, indicating that he died at a later time than the state contended.

Riddick testified that he freely would have told all of this to the defense lawyers had they asked. But he said his only contact with the defense team was a brief conversation with Hughes, who did not ask any of those questions.

According to testimony at the 2010 hearing, law enforcement officials who went to the wooded spot where Baker’s body was found all agreed that it had been dumped there. That included then-Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., then-Sheriff Jack Tillman and his chief deputy, James Mayo, as well as the investigators on the case.

Having never discovered these critical points, the judge wrote, the defense lawyers had no ability to conduct an effective cross-examination of Riddick when he testified at the trial.

Hughes and Yazdi also failed to follow up on other leads that Cohen turned up, Stewart wrote. She noted that the investigator spoke with Greg Willis, who owned a car lot where co-defendant James Gordon Bennett II bought a 1988 Honda Prelude that law enforcement authorities at one time believed may have been involved in the crime. Cohen reported that Willis told him he had found an evidence bag in the back of the vehicle after he had repossessed it.

Cohen testified that he told the lawyers that he felt Willis was holding something back, but the lawyers never followed up on it. Willis testified in 2010 that the bag contained a bloody sweatshirt and that the back of the car was full of blood.

Hughes said he recalls that the investigator reported that Willis had found an empty bag. He said he does not remember any mention of a bloody mess in the car.

Yazdi took exception to the judge’s characterization of his performance. He said he and Hughes visited the wooded area where the body was found and hired the investigator to probe the state’s evidence.

He said the case presented to him and his co-counsel was damning: The victim’s body was discovered a few hundred feet from Ziegler’s home. Witnesses from the neighborhood testified that Ziegler and Randall were walking him to the area. The victim was the ex-boyfriend of the mother of Ziegler’s child.

Three co-defendants fingered Ziegler as the killer, Yazdi recalled, and the defendant had made several incriminating statements to detectives investigating the case. He said he did not have access to much of the information contained in Stewart’s ruling, adding that he doubts a lot of it is true.

“Many of the facts that (the judge) relies upon, they did not exist at the time, and we were not told about them at the time,” he said. “A lot of them are fabricated.”

But Stewart wrote that attorneys in capital murder cases have a duty to believe their client’s innocence – even when he has confessed. They also have a duty to conduct a thorough investigation to challenge the state’s theory. Yazdi and Hughes fell well short of that standard, the judge wrote.

Prosecutorial misconduct cited

While faulting the performance of Ziegler’s lawyers, Stewart wrote in her order that prosecutors and law enforcement investigators undermined their ability to mount a vigorous defense by failing to turn over key evidence.

It began, the judge wrote, with the failure of Detective Dale Kohn to step aside from the probe when he found out that his niece, Dawn Kohn, may have been involved. Investigators steered away from evidence that could have implicated her, according to the judge.

Dawn Kohn was at Ziegler’s apartment on the night Baker died. Wilson, Ziegler’s aunt and legal guardian, testified that she found a letter Kohn had written to Bennett discussing the victim’s death before law enforcement authorities discovered the body.

Kohn made two statements to investigators. The first, which she hand-wrote at her high school, implicated Bennett but indicated that Ziegler was not involved. She later changed her story after coming to the Sheriff’s Office, according to Stewart.

Stewart wrote that Dale Kohn’s involvement in the investigation was a conflict of interest given his niece’s status as a potential witness. She also wrote that fellow Detective Donald Lunceford attempted to obscure Detective Kohn’s involvement, testifying during a preliminary hearing and again at the trial that he was the only law enforcement officer present during unrecorded questioning of the defendant. This was untrue, the judge wrote.

Stewart also found that Lunceford testified falsely when he said he was in the woods shortly after Baker’s body was discovered. That was not true, either, the judge noted.

Stewart also determined that prosecutors allowed testimony that they knew or should have known was false. During the trial, a Bayou La Batre woman testified that Baker, Ziegler and others were at her house in Bayou La Batre the night before the murder and that Ziegler threatened Baker.

Vicki Bosarge’s testimony that Ziegler told Baker he was a “walking dead man” was important because it supported motive in a case that largely was circumstantial.

But Bosarge recanted that testimony at the 2010 hearing, telling the judge that Ziegler was not the man who made the threats. That person, she said, was a light-skinned, dark-haired man.

“I’m so sorry,” Bosarge said at the 2010 hearing, sobbing an apology as Ziegler sat across from her in the court. “I am so deeply sorry because it wasn’t him.”

Bosarge testified that she was confused when talking to investigators because both Ziegler and Randall are named William.

She said she felt badly about her testimony as soon as she gave it and told a police officer about it when she got off the witness stand. She testified that the officer – she did not remember his name – told her she had done the right thing.

Stewart wrote that she found Bosarge’s testimony credible because two other people who were present that night – her son, Ricky Melton, and a woman named Margaret Roberson — corroborated it.

The judge made no determination about whether prosecutors intentionally withheld evidence favorable to the defense, but she wrote that does not matter. As Nagin, the defendant’s current lawyer said: “As a legal matter, it’s irrelevant. We have never sought to deal with the question of motive.”

Tillman, the prosecutor who tried the case, said nobody at the District Attorney’s Office withheld evidence or allowed false testimony

“I know that our office did not do anything improper, and I did not do anything improper,” she said.

Victim in co-defendant’s car?

Stewart pointed to testimony indicating that the Sheriff’s Office had evidence well before the trial that supported the theory that Bennett killed Baker far from the wooded spot in west Mobile – evidence that should have been given to Ziegler’s lawyers.

The Sheriff’s Office had obtained a warrant to search Bennett’s Honda for evidence that the vehicle was used as a means of committing the murder. The affidavit in support of that warrant has been lost, but Stewart noted that investigators would have needed to show they had probable cause.

And testimony at the 2010 hearing backed up the notion that the Honda played a role in Baker’s death. Then-Bayou La Batre police Chief John Joyner testified that his department received a radio alert from the Sheriff’s Office to be on the lookout for Bennett’s Honda and to check to see if Baker was inside.

Joyner testified that records of the radio call were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But the judge wrote that Joyner’s testimony indicates that it existed and that prosecutors had a duty to alert the defense attorneys to any possible evidence that might help their client.

The judge also pointed to testimony that the attorney for co-defendant Patricia Renee Davis sent the prosecutor a fax before Ziegler’s trial indicating that her client remembered hearing about a bag of clothes in the car.

Melton testified about a conversation with Bennett’s wife, Rose Johnson, in which she said Bennett had brought Baker back to Bayou La Batre in the trunk of his car and was seen cleaning out the trunk with chemicals.

Faulty appeal, dishonest jurors

According to Stewart’s ruling, Ziegler’s appellate lawyer also failed him.

The judge wrote that attorney Arthur Madden failed to raise several important points in his appeal – including a matter that Ziegler had specifically asked him to pursue. The defendant wanted to appeal on grounds that a lawyer who represented co-defendant Davis also represented him at a probation revocation hearing.

Madden, who declined to comment for this story, did not raise the objection in the appeal.

Stewart cited several other points that Madden should have raised in the appeal, including:

  • the fact that the trial judge, Robert Kendall, allowed improper victim impact testimony.
  • the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
  • The fact that defense lawyers failed to object to the racial makeup of the jury.

Even the jurors did not escape the judge’s criticism. Several lied during jury selection, she found.

One juror indicated that she “probably” had discussed the death penalty in the past. In fact, Stewart wrote, that juror served on a jury in a capital murder case in 1994, making her assertion that she “probably” had discussed the death penalty misleading.

Another juror answered “no” on a questionnaire asking if she or a member of her family ever had been a victim of a crime. The juror acknowledged at the 2010 hearing, though, that both her brother-in-law and cousin had been murdered prior to Ziegler’s trial.

Hughes testified that he would have struck both women from the jury had he known the truth.

If Stewart’s ruling survives appeal, prosecutors said, they will put Ziegler on trial again. But Tillman, the assistant district attorney, acknowledged that prosecuting an old case will be challenging.

“The case was tried 12 years ago,” she said. “It puts us in a difficult position.”

Nagin, the current defense lawyer, said the state’s problem in not the passage of time but the evidence, itself.

“Witness after witness, including the state’s own forensic expert, contradicted the theory of that case, contradicted the evidence,” he said. “It was never right, and it’s not going to be right 10 years later.”

How the system failed William Ziegler: Perjured testimony, trashed evidence, lying jurors

Unbelievable – Texas Leads U.S. in Executions, Payments to Exonerated Inmates

By Tim Stelloh – Jan 31, 2013 4:00 PM CT

In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he’s never been able to find a job.

“Who wants to hire someone who’s 61 years old and who’s an ex-convict?” Smith said. “Even though I’m exonerated, people don’t consider that, because I was in prison for 20 years.”

Texas is well known for its prodigious use of the death penalty: On Halloween, it carried out its 250th execution under Republican Governor Rick Perry’s 12-year tenure. It’s also the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Feb. 4 issue. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He’s also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can’t replace his lost years, Smith says, but he’s now married and owns a home. The activists who persuaded Perry to support the cash settlements are lobbying Texas lawmakers to expand the law to include health coverage for ex-prisoners’ families.

Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Vermont gives them a one-time payment of between $30,000 and $60,000 for each year they were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000 total, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated. So far Texas has paid 88 former prisoners, including two released from death row, a total of nearly $60 million, according to R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A dozen former inmates were added to the rolls in 2012.

Wrongly Convicted

Perry endorsed the reparations under pressure from falsely convicted men and their families. In 1986, Timothy Cole, an Army veteran, was found guilty of raping a classmate at Texas Tech University. He died of a heart attack in prison in 1999. On Mother’s Day nine years later, Cole’s mother, Ruby Cole Session, received a letter from the real rapist, who confessed. As Cole Session and her family lobbied the governor to clear Timothy Cole’s name, several other men who’d been wrongfully convicted in Dallas, including Smith, were suing the city for tens of millions of dollars.

Freedom Money

They agreed to drop their lawsuits if the legislature increased the small payments that Texas then provided. At one meeting, Cole Session grabbed the governor’s hand and said, “I need this bill passed for these gentlemen,” recalls her son, Cory Session, who was there. Session says Perry told his mother, “If it gets to my desk, I’ll sign it.” (A Perry spokesman could not confirm the anecdote.) Perry called the Tim Cole Act a “significant step for justice,” and the men withdrew their lawsuits.

The law provides exonerees with a lump sum based on how many years they spent behind bars, plus the $80,000 annuity. The state also agreed to pay for 120 hours of college credit and $10,000 for job training. Cory Session, who’s now policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which helps identify and free falsely convicted prisoners, says even the application process was made simple: Freed prisoners submit a few documents, and about six to eight weeks later the first check arrives. “In most states,” he says, “you need a lawyer.”

Prison State

The Innocence Project, which is funded by private donations and is currently reviewing 14 more claims of false conviction, has become a savvy lobbying force in Austin, in part because Texas courts have locked up so many innocent people and their stories are hard for politicians to ignore. (Texas ranks No. 3 nationally in wrongful convictions over the last 24 years, behind Illinois and New York, according to a 2012 study by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools.)

On Jan. 10, Session led a group of exonerated men to the Capitol in Austin, where they were greeted warmly. Afterward, they pressed a list of new demands in meetings with lawmakers. The legislature is now considering at least six of their proposals, including a change to the state’s habeas corpus rules that would allow challenges to convictions based on shoddy science; a requirement that police record all interrogations of people charged with serious felonies; and funding to help the state’s four public law schools investigate claims of false convictions.

The key to winning over legislators, Session says, is letting the innocent men who lost years in prison do the talking. “I was able to get all the attention just on them.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Josh Tyrangiel at

Texas Leads U.S. in Executions, Payments to Exonerated Inmates

Hackers take over sentencing commission website

WASHINGTON (AP) — The hacker-activist group Anonymous says it hijacked the website of theU.S. Sentencing Commission to avenge the death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet activist who committed suicide. The FBI is investigating.

The website of the commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch, was taken over early Saturday and replaced with a message warning that when Swartz killed himself two weeks ago “a line was crossed.”

The hackers say they’ve infiltrated several government computer systems and copied secret information that they now threaten to make public.

Family and friends of Swartz, who helped create Reddit and RSS, say he killed himself after he was hounded by federal prosecutors. Officials say he helped post millions of court documents for free online and that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles from an online clearinghouse.

The FBI’s Richard McFeely, executive assistant director of the Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch, said in a statement that “we were aware as soon as it happened and are handling it as a criminal investigation. We are always concerned when someone illegally accesses another person’s or government agency’s network.”

Hackers take over sentencing commission website