The Baton Rouge Advocate

Number of wrongful convictions in La. immense

By Brett Barrouquere
November 23, 2003

Albert Ronnie Burrell walked out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in January 2001 after 14 years on Death Row.Burrell, mentally retarded, schizophrenic and declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in an another case, had been convicted, along with another man, of the murders of a Farmerville couple.

A judge ordered a new trial in 2000, citing shoddy prosecutorial and police work. Another set of prosecutors elected not to retry the case, setting the stage for Burrell's freedom.

"I feel great," Burrell said at the time. "I didn't think I was never going to get out of there."

Burrell and others like him are being freed because courts found they had been wrongly convicted -- sometimes because of legal mistakes in their cases or because prosecutors dropped charges in light of new evidence.

Wrongful convictions are being uncovered in greater numbers than ever in Louisiana and other states.

The first person in Louisiana known to have been wrongfully convicted of murder or rape was freed in 1966. Since then, 19 other people convicted of those crimes have been released from Louisiana prisons after evidence surfaced casting doubt about their guilt, prompting prosecutors to drop charges or judges to order releases.

More than half of all wrongful convictions in Louisiana have come to light in the past five years, and so have dozens of others around the country.

Nationally, there have been about 700 people freed from prison in the last 25 years after judges found them wrongfully convicted, said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Warden was unsure how many people have been freed in the last five years, although he said there been a jump.

That surge of people released from prison -- both in Louisiana and nationally -- is in part because scientific advances in DNA testing now allow a higher quality of evidence examination, Warden said

The growth of wrongful convictions has drawn the scrutiny of the public and legal community, including the American Bar Association, which is studying how this happens.

The wrongful convictions, however, often result in cases remaining unsolved, Warden said. In nine of the 10 Louisiana cases since 1998, no subsequent arrests have been made after the original convictions were overturned.

These cases also leave ex-inmates lingering under clouds of suspicion. Although freed, they were not declared innocent, or cleared of involvement in the crime that sent them to prison in the first place.

The legal limbo leaves them struggling to rebuild their lives.

Unsolved mysteries
Twenty-two years ago, Calvin Willis went to prison to serve a life sentence after being convicted of aggravated rape. The key evidence was three witnesses who identified Willis, along with blood from the crime scene that matched Willis' blood type.

Two decades later, Willis' conviction was overturned and he was freed when a test on the blood didn't match his DNA. At the time of the original trial, DNA testing wasn't available.

As far as Hugo Holland, an assistant district attorney in Caddo Parish, is concerned, the case is over.
"There ain't no place to go with this case," Holland said. "It's impossible to try a second person when one person has been convicted."

Holland's dilemma is common in cases in which someone is freed from prison because of a wrongful conviction, legal scholars say.

In most cases, the files remain open, but prosecutors admit there is little or no chance of a second arrest being made.

The passage of time -- in many of the Louisiana cases, decades have passed since the original convictions -- and new prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges can affect whether a case goes back to trial.

Sometimes evidence gets lost, witnesses vanish and memories fade, said Jancy Hoeffel, a criminal law professor at Tulane University.

Other times, legal problems arise, such as a judge excluding old evidence or a key witness recanting, preventing a case from being brought back to trial, said Kelly Strader, a law professor at Southwestern University Law School in Los Angeles.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association, said cases must be reevaluated and sometimes re-investigated if a convicted person is freed.

"If there is insufficient evidence available, a decision may be made not to re-try the case," Adams said.

In some instances, more recent cases take precedence. That consigns older ones, in which someone has been convicted and freed, to the back of a filing cabinet. But they're still technically open, Hoeffel said.

That's what has happened with the 1986 murders of William Delton Frost and his wife, Callie. Burrell and Michael Ray Graham were sentenced to death after being convicted in Union Parish of the killings in 1987.

In 2000, the state Attorney General reinvestigated the case and found a "total lack of credible evidence" against Burrell and Graham. Prosecutors dropped the case against the two, leading to their release. But the continuing probe is making little progress, said Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office.

"We are still technically investigating the case, but there have been no new leads that we can report," Laborde said.

Law enforcement, in two cases, has taken steps to solve re-opened cases and, in one instance, made an arrest.

Clyde Charles of Terrebonne Parish was freed in 1998 after serving 20 years for rape when DNA excluded him as the rapist. The same DNA sample, however, pointed to his brother, Marlo Charles, who is now serving a life sentence for that rape.

In another case, prosecutors in Baton Rouge sent a DNA sample to State Police for comparison to other samples from known offenders after a test cleared Gene Bibbins of a 1986 rape of a young girl. No new arrests have been made.

Bibbins, who now works as a laborer in Baton Rouge, spent 16 years in prison before the test set him free. But such cases are the exception, Hoeffel and Strader say.

Prosecutors often are convinced they charged and convicted the right person, no matter what courts might rule, Hoeffel said.

Holland said he is certain he convicted the right man in the Shreveport rape involving Willis because other evidence -- mainly the witnesses identifying him -- points to Willis.

He holds firm to that belief, even though the DNA evidence that was testable doesn't match Willis. Holland said he won't push to arrest anyone else in the case.

"I'm still not convinced Calvin Willis didn't do it," Holland said. "Calvin Willis is not innocent, he's just not guilty. I just don't know who did it."

Declining to follow up on wrongful conviction cases often leaves the real criminal free to hurt someone else, said Cynthia Orr, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

"They will rape and kill again," Orr said.

Hoeffel wondered what message the public gets when old cases are left open after a convict is freed.

"Whatever the reason, the lack of pursuit of the real perpetrator is an injustice, not only to the public and the victim, but to the wrongfully convicted," Hoeffel said. "They are given the message that the state spent all of its resources pursuing him and lost interest once a person, any person, was jailed for the crime."

And prosecutors are under no legal obligation to review old cases to look for people who might have been wrongfully convicted, even though an ethical obligation may exist, said Walter Sanchez, a Lake Charles lawyer and member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

"I don't know that any court has held them to that standard," Sanchez said.

Holland said as long as the legal system functioned properly and there was no intentional misconduct, there's no reason to cast blame in the cases, especially when it remains unclear who committed the crime.

"There is no reason whatsoever for us to ever say that the legal system made a mistake," Holland said.

Free, but not clear
John Thompson came within two days of execution for the 1984 shooting death of Ray Liuzza, a hotel operator in New Orleans. A last-minute stay based on previously unreleased evidence saved his life.

In 2002, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Thompson deserved a new murder trial, citing the prosecution's "intentional hiding" of evidence -- a blood sample -- that an investigator working for Thompson's attorneys discovered in 1999. The blood sample from the perpetrator did not match Thompson. A retrial in May resulted in a jury acquitting Thompson.

He's one of the rare ones in Louisiana. Most people released from prison as wrongfully convicted don't have any proof they are innocent or not guilty, whether it is a verdict or a statement from the judge or prosecutors.

Again, that's because the person may not be innocent, said Adams of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association. Juries don't decide issues of innocence; they decide whether there is enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

A not-guilty verdict doesn't mean someone is factually innocent in that he had nothing to do with the crime. It only means his participation couldn't be proved, Adams said.

"The fact is that legal innocence and factual innocence may be two very distinct things," Adams said. "It is very much to the advantage of many defendants to blur the distinction."

Laurie White, the attorney who represented Bibbins, said that "blurred line" does not serve many of those who are freed.

"Their lives are ruined," White said. "How do you explain to somebody what you've been doing for the last 28 years?"

Some former inmates keep their paperwork to show what happened to them, while others don't talk about it, White said.

The most tragic are the ones like Isaac "Jerry" Knapper, White said. Knapper spent 12 years in state prison before being freed in 1991 after the state Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors intentionally withheld a police report from him.

The report quoted the key witness giving a description of the killer that didn't match Knapper. Knapper, a one-time Olympic boxing hopeful, is now in federal prison for drug convictions.

That's somewhat common among those freed, said Dr. Lola Vollen, director of the Life After Exoneration Program in Berkeley, Calif., which works with people freed from prison.

"They don't have anyplace else to turn sometimes," Vollen said.

Thompson, the man who came within days of execution, has stayed clean since his release. He doesn't really try to explain his situation but focuses on readjusting to the outside world.

Nick Trentacosta of New Orleans is the attorney who represented Thompson and now employs him as an office clerk.

He said Thompson is adjusting quite well. Thompson also said the return to the free world is going fairly well, although he has trouble at times with anger over what happened and adjustments to a less structured life outside of prison.

"I am still struggling," he said. "I'm still struggling every day."


How the System Works
Truth in Justice