the case for innocence
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earl washington
earl washington

clyde charles
clyde charles

In 1984, Earl Washington Jr., then in his early 20s, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for the murder of 19-year-old Rebecca Williams in Culpepper, Virginia. Washington's conviction was based largely on his confessions to police. His lawyers insisted the confessions were internally inconsistent, and likely the words of a man with sub-normal intelligence (an IQ of 69) who was "easily led" by police to confess. Washington's appeals failed in the courts.

By 1993, Washington's lawyers had reached the end of their appeals. The last hope for them was Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. Washington's attorneys drafted an appeal for pardon and sent it to Wilder. But Wilder wanted DNA tests done before making a decision. The new test excluded Washington's DNA. Prosecutors then floated a new theory - the DNA belonged to an accomplice of Washington's.

By December 1993, as Wilder's governorship was coming to an end and Washington's execution date was nearing, the governor ordered one more DNA test - on a blanket. However, Washington's lawyers couldn't find out what it showed - the results were kept secret. On Wilder's last day of office, a call came to the lawyers. They had two hours to accept Wilder's clemency offer, life in prison for Washington rather than execution. In its investigation, however, FRONTLINE obtained a copy of that last DNA test. The test, reviewed by Wilder on January 14, 1994--the day of his clemency decision--concluded that Earl Washington Jr. was "eliminated" as a possible donor of the genetic evidence in the case.

In February 1999, the Virginia General Assembly rejected legislation that would have made possible a new trial for Washington, and others in his situation, by extending Virginia's "21-day rule" for hearing new evidence after final sentencing.

Over the summer of 2000, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore ordered more sophisticated DNA testing and a state police investigation into Washington's case.

On October 2, 2000 Earl Washington was finally pardoned, after the new tests found no trace of his DNA on evidence from the crime scene. After nearly 18 years in prison, Washington was finally freed on February 12, 2001.

In 1981, Clyde Charles, a 27-year-old, African-American shrimp fisherman, was arrested and charged with the sexual assault of a young white nurse near Houma, Louisiana. The following year, Charles was tried and convicted of aggravated rape, a charge which carries a mandatory life sentence in Louisiana. "The trial made me sick to my stomach," Charles later said in an interview. "I felt that I was going to be convicted, because the jury was all white ... Everything was set up, from the time they picked me up, until the end of this."

For years, Charles proclaimed his innocence. In 1990, when Charles learned of the power of DNA evidence to re-open previously tried cases, he began writing letters requesting a test of the evidence in his case. For years, his requests were ignored, blocked, or denied by state and federal officials. Charles kept writing however, as did his family, and eventually his case became one of the hundreds of files stacked at the Innocence Project where law students and DNA experts, including lawyer Barry Scheck,take on cases where DNA could prove prisoners' innocence.

The Innocence Project, coupled with FRONTLINE's media attention, finally helped pressure the state of Louisiana to agree to a DNA test in May, 1999; by November, results of the test excluded Charles as a possible perpetrator of the crime. Charles, now 46, was released from prison on December 17, 1999. "I don't have time to be angry, but I do want to know why," Charles said to a New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper reporter on the evening of his release. "Why did this take so long? I know I left some innocent men behind."

In March of 2000, Charles filed a federal lawsuit against Louisiana prosecutors who, he claims, blocked his access to DNA testing. In early April of 2000, Clyde Charles' brother Marlo was arested and imprisoned after DNA tests implicated him in the rape of the Houma nurse for which Clyde had earlier been convicted.

·"Earl Washington Jr.--An Innocent Man" (12/20/93)
·Gov. Wilder's Executive Clemency Offer (1/14/94)

·An Interview with Clyde Charles
·"A Long Journey Home for An Innocent Man"
·"Justice Delayed" - Chronology of the case

roy criner

joseph roger o'dell
joseph roger o'dell

On May 1, 1990, Roy Criner was sent to prison for 99 years for the rape and murder of sixteen-year-old Deanna Ogg some three-and-a-half years earlier near New Caney, Texas. Criner, a young logger, was convicted largely on the basis of statements he made to some of his friends and co-workers on the night of the crime that seemed to indicate that he had committed the crime. After years of unsuccessful appeals, Criner submitted to a DNA test, aware of the advances that had been made by then in DNA testing.

In July, 1997, the test came back negative, indicating that Criner could not have contributed the genetic material found on the victim. Criner believed he'd be freed soon, but these hopes were shortlived: the DNA test did not persuade local and state officials to grant Criner a new trial. Overturning the ruling of a District Judge, a 5-4 majority of judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded in May of 1998 that the DNA evidence would not have changed jurors' minds. Judge Sharon Keller, writing for the majority, found "overwhelming, direct evidence" that established Criner's guilt beyond the doubts raised by the new DNA evidence. In his dissent, Judge Charles Baird stated that the majority undervalued the power of the DNA evidence to change jurors' minds and moved for a new trial. In his investigative piece "Hard Time," Houston Press reporter Bob Burtman uncovered additional evidence of Criner's possible innocence. Criner's family and other supporters continued to work for his release. But Criner's lawyers had no success in the courts. This may have been the last word on Criner, if it had not been for a unique combination of reporters, lawyers, and investigators taking interest in the case and pressing for answers on many fronts. FRONTLINE'S Ofra Bikel, especially, drew intense national attention to Criner's case, and to Judge Keller's ruling, raising new questions and forcing serious reconsideration.

In the end, a cigarette butt collected along with the rest of the state's evidence was singled out for scrutiny by Press reporter Burtman: Though previously discounted by the prosecution and a state crime lab, the butt was DNA tested by two different outside labs and a new conclusion was reached: The person who smoked the cigarette was also the person whose semen was identified in Deanna Ogg--and this person was not Roy Criner. The DNA evidence also disproved an alternate theory of the evidence put forward by the prosecution and Judge Keller of the Court of Criminal Appeals: Deanna Ogg did not have consensual sex with anyone in the immediate period prior to the crime. The state's case against Criner could no longer stand.

In late July, 2000, a District Court judge, joined by the prosecutor and sheriff, recommeded that Criner be pardoned. In early August, 2000, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles--a body which rarely approves pardons--voted unanimously (18-0) to set free Roy Criner, who had served 10 years of a 99-year sentence. On August 14, 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush concurred in the decision, stating that he agreed "that credible new evidence raises substantial doubt about the guilt of Roy Criner and that he should receive a pardon."

On February 6, 1985, Joseph Roger O'Dell was arrested for the murder, rape, and sodomy of Helen Schartner; he was convicted of these crimes a year-and-a-half later based largely on blood evidence and the word of a jailhouse "snitch." For much of the decade that followed, O'Dell's unsuccessful appeals went to the Virginia Supreme Court, Federal District Court, and the Supreme Court, where Justice Harry Blackmun found "serious questions as to whether O'Dell committed the crime" and warned of "the gross injustice that would result if an innocent man were sentenced to death."

Originally at trial, O'Dell represented himself; afterward, he continued to make his case, sending letters on stationery headed with an address of "P.O. Box 500-Death Row." In one letter, O'Dell petitioned the Circuit Court for release of the evidence in his case for DNA testing. In June, 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last appeal. That same month, the Virginia Circuit Court rejected a petition filed on O'Dell's behalf to release the evidence for testing. His innocence still questioned, and his case being closely followed by anti-death penalty groups in Virginia and around the nation, O'Dell was executed in July of 1997.

Following his death, efforts to conduct further tests on the evidence in O'Dell's case continued unabated. Late in 1997, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, petitioned the Circuit Court of Virginia Beach to release evidence for testing, but the Court denied the request and suggested that the evidence be disposed of as required by law.

In a 1999 law review article (PDF file) on the case, Lori Urs, an anti-death penalty advocate who married O'Dell just prior to his execution in order to gain access to the evidence in the case, argued strongly against previous court opinions in the case which, she felt, relied on mistaken early reports of a blood "match" in the case and did not take seriously enough the import of the subsequent DNA testing.

None of these appeals mattered. In March of 2000, the last of the DNA evidence in the O'Dell case being stored in the circuit court of Virginia Beach was burned without any further testing.

·"Innocent at Last" (August, 2000)
·Updates On the Case From Criner's Family
·Judge Baird Favors New Trial
·Judge Keller Opposes New Trial
·"Hard Time" - A Reporter Investigates

·A Prisoner's Plea (8/16/88)
·DNA Request Denied (6/24/97)
·Again Denied (1/30/98)
·The O'Dell Case Reconsidered (1999) (PDF file)

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