300th Person Exonerated By DNA Evidence in US

Damon Thibodeaux

Damon Thibodeaux, released after 15 years on death row.

After 15 years of solitary confinement on Louisiana’s death row, Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person exonerated based on DNA evidence. He had been wrongfully convicted of raping and strangling his 14-year-old step-cousin Crystal Champagne, largely based on a coerced confession.

Five years ago, the Innocence Project and the office of Jefferson Parish DA Paul Connick reopened the investigation into his case and last Friday revealed compelling DNA evidence that was used to exonerate him.

At a halfway house called Resurrection After Exoneration, Thibodeaux observed:

It’s a surreal walk. It’s not something you can prepare yourself for because you’ve been in those (death row) conditions so long.”


Ohio Produces Nation's 140th Death Row Exoneration

Joe D’Ambrosio is free.  He spent more than 20 years on death row, and almost two more years waiting while the state of Ohio – whose prosecutors had withheld key evidence from his defense – tried to go after him again.  Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court closed the book on his case.  Joe D’Ambrosio is the 140th person exonerated from U.S. death rows since 1973, and the 6th from Ohio.

Is this exoneration an example of the system working?  Hardly.  Mr. D’Ambrosio’s exoneration came about because of a chance meeting with a Catholic priest who was visiting another inmate.  The priest, Rev. Neil Kookoothe, happened to have legal training and decided to look into the case himself.  As Kevin Werner, executive director of Ohioans to Stop Executions, put it: “Coincidence is not the standard we should be comfortable with when our justice system is seeking to execute people.”


Anthony Graves, Troy Davis and Innocence

Anthony Graves spent 12 years on death row in Texas for a crime he didn't commit.

The story of Anthony Graves illustrates how a particularly heinous crime can lead to an emotional response and a tunnel-visioned investigation, and how the result can be that someone ends up on death row based on nothing more than flimsy physical evidence (later discredited) and dubious witness testimony (later recanted).

Anthony Graves, it turns out, was innocent, and was set free from Texas death row late last year.  CBS’ 48 Hours Mystery did a good job of telling the story this weekend, and you can watch it below.

Troy Davis, who was also sentenced to death despite a lack of physical evidence tying him to the crime, and who remains on death row in Georgia despite recantations from most of the witnesses who testified against him, has so far been unable to exonerate himself.


Scent Lineup Not Necessary as Texas Prosecutors Declare Anthony Graves Innocent

Last year, Texas prosecutors wanted to use a “scent lineup” in a desperate attempt to generate new evidence against Anthony Graves, whose death sentence had been overturned in 2006. “Scent lineups” are a ridiculous form of junk science where dogs match a scent from a crime scene with a scent from a suspect (in this case the evidence from the crime scene was 17 years old, had been stored – actually lost – for years in an old unused jail cell, and came from a house that was burned to the ground).

Fortunately this year, Bill Parham, the new DA for Washington and Burleson counties, and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler took a hard 5-month long look at the case.  This refreshingly straightforward statement from Siegler says it all:  

“After months of investigation and talking to every witness who’s ever been involved in this case, and people who’ve never been talked to before, after looking under every rock we could find, we found not one piece of credible evidence that links Anthony Graves to the commission of this capital murder.  This is not a case where the evidence went south with time or witnesses passed away or we just couldn’t make the case anymore. He is an innocent man.”

So, on Wednesday, October 27, Anthony Graves became the 139th person exonerated from US death rows since 1973 and the 12th exoneree from Texas. 

But how did he end up on death row in the first place?

Partly, it was because the prosecutor, Charles Sebesta, elicited false statements and withheld evidence that would have helped Graves’ case.  But mostly, Graves’ conviction was based on a statement from the actual killer, Robert Carter.  Carter later recanted, and continued to insist that Graves was innocent up to and including the moment he (Carter) was executed.  After being tied down in the Texas death chamber, using some of his last words, Carter said:  “Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. … I lied on him in court.”

After the conviction was reversed, new prosecutors still attempted to re-try him.  The new judge (whose father tried the original case) allowed Carter’s statement to be used as evidence, even though Carter had retracted it multiple times and was no longer available to testify or be cross-examined (the state having killed him). Then, there was the lost evidence that was found, and the proposed “scent lineups” … But the responsible efforts of DA Parham and special prosecutor Siegler brought Anthony Graves’ legal nightmare to an end, after 16 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Sentenced to Death Due to Police Torture

On July 7, Ronald Kitchen became a free man.  Convicted of the murder of five people in 1988, he spent over a dozen years on Illinois’ death row facing execution, until former Governor George Ryan commuted his sentence, along with all other Illinois death sentences, to life without parole in 2003.  But his conviction was based on a confession he gave to Chicago police after they tortured him.  According to Kitchen, he was “hit in the head with a telephone, punched in the face, struck in the groin and kicked.”  Tuesday, all charges against him were dropped, and he was released.

“If you’re getting whooped for over 39 hours and you’re constantly saying that you didn’t do it and they’re constantly doing what they’re doing, somewhere along the line you’re going to realize they’re not going to stop unless somebody gives in,” Kitchen said in a Chicago Sun Times article.  

Kitchen’s wrongful conviction was one of many obtained by officers serving under Police Commander Jon Burge.  During the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, prisoners, mostly African American, were routinely tortured and abused into giving false confessions.  Amnesty International reported on these and other abuses ten years ago.  Because the arc of the universe bends towards justice, Burge now faces his own day in court, though for perjury and obstruction of justice charges, not torture.

Kitchen’s exoneration came in part thanks to the efforts of the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University; but, despite the clear evidence of torture, it still took dozens of people years of work to win his freedom.  As the video above makes clear, many others who may be equally innocent aren’t lucky enough to get that kind of support.