Appleton Post-Crescent

Cheryl Anderson: Neenah author at center of Justice4James efforts

August 19, 2008

In his cell at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution on July 26, Alphonso James, 40, marked 23 years in prison for a crime he insists he never committed.

A community brainstorming conference in Milwaukee titled "Justice Denied is No Justice at All: Devastating Impacts of Wrongful Convictions" also was held that day with James' case the focal point.

The panel included civil rights attorney Ed Garvey of Madison; attorney Christopher Ochoa, a former Texas inmate who served 12 years of a life sentence for a crime he was acquitted of committing; attorney Catherine Canright, James' first post-conviction attorney who represented him pro-bono for 13 years; and a research specialist from Justice4James, who has spent hundreds of hours researching the case. Legendary civil rights icon Vel Phillips hosted the event.

At 17, James, then of Milwaukee, had two problems on his hands: One girlfriend had just had his baby and another had one on the way. But it didn't compare to what happened next. He was picked up by authorities and questioned for a stabbing he admitted he was involved in a few weeks before that.

While being questioned, another set of detectives entered the room and exchanged some private words with the officers interviewing James. The new detectives sat down and shifted the line of questioning from stabbing to murder.

James was charged with and later convicted of the 1985 strangling death of 54-year-old Del Pascavis. He also was charged with theft of personal property and attempted theft of an automobile.

Key to the case was a confession James signed in four different places with the understanding that if he signed he could go home. James did not write the confession, and James could not read. There was no attorney or parent present for the underage boy. Reasonable doubt was never established, his backers argue.

Steve Rose of Neenah, the author of a couple of faith-based books and a frequent speaker on faith issues, is the spokesman and founder of Justice4James. He first met James in 2001 while speaking at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution. He remembers it well.

"There was an African-American man in the front row. We made a connection, and after I was done, he said, 'Boy, it just felt like you were here speaking to me.' He said, 'My name is Alphonso James, and I've been in prison (at that time) 15 years for a murder I didn't commit.' And I didn't believe him for a couple seconds; everybody says that."

But then James said something that changed Rose's mind. The Innocence Project, a New York-based national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, had been on the case since the 1990s, thanks to Canright, who spoke at last month's conference.

James asked for Rose's help.

"I visited over 130 times over 14,000 miles and estimate I have spent about 350 hours with him," said Rose, who often was accompanied by his wife, Kathy. "After seven years I remain as committed as ever to see that this individual has his case re-looked at, possibly retried or whatever needs to happen."

Justice4James is picking up where the Innocence Project, which worked on the case for seven years, left off. The project believed DNA evidence would prove James' innocence, but DNA from the case was allegedly improperly stored and could not be tested. There neither is or ever was DNA evidence that pointed to James as the murderer.

Now Justice4James is working on the case.

James, who has been in six different correctional institutions over the past 23 years, taught himself to read and earned a culinary degree that got him a job in the prison kitchen. James' last 13 years in prison have been exemplary, Rose said.

Whenever James' parole comes up and he is asked if he is remorseful for his crime, he maintains his innocence. And stays behind bars.

"Finally, after seven years of me screaming for this guy, now we have the establishment's attention, and there's a strategy that will be put together," Rose said.

Click HERE to view video of the Community Brainstorming Session

Innocent Imprisoned
Truth in Justice