Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted
BULLETINS: Jeff Dicks, profiled in the first issue of Justice Denied, has died. Jeff died of heart related problems on May 10 at 5:30 a.m., in his cell. Although prison officials were well aware of his condition, according to his mother, Mrs. Shirley Dicks, and others, Jeff was not given the medication or hospital attention he needed.
Shirley Dicks, his mother, fought for Jeff's freedom for 23 years, visiting him faithfully once a week to encourage him. Justice Denied Magazine extends its sincere condolences to Shirley and to Jeff's extended family for this sadness. We can only hope that Jeff's innocence may exonerate him in death, as it did not in life. Jeff was taken out of the prison on Mother's Day. Information about the funeral and memorial.
Herman Wallace and the "Angola Three" are in trouble -- for peaceful protest.
The "Angola Three" asked for changes by peaceful protest --fasting, refusing showers and other privileges. For their non-violent protest they have been moved to the punitive "Camp J." Herman Wallace's story was published in the first issue of Justice Denied. This was before the Angola Three cause (Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox and Robert "King" Wilkerson) was taken up by support groups who seek their freedom from wrongful convictions. Please read a brief overview of the case.
From the Editor
Death in the Desert--The Debra Milke Story Should we really execute a prisoner based on the unsubstantiated testimony of a single police officer? Are these the rules by which we judge life and death in Arizona? In such a confused case we need certainty. We need a signature, a witness and a tape recorder." Phoenix magazine, Arizona.
Running Out of Time -- Freddie Lee Wright could be executed for a crime he didn't commit.He will be executed if his last appeal of July 20, 1999, is rejected. If he can convince you that he's innocent, and you want to help save a life, this is the time to do it.
Two Innocent Men = One Determined Wife = Freedom. Regina Birindelli accused Schmieder and Clark of raping her. Only one problem: she was in jail on the day she claimed she was raped. Schmieder and Clark are Free At Last, but only because wife Jill Clark knew her husband was innocent and set out to prove it.
The Case of Jimmy Dennis. No Weapon. No Prints. No Motive. Jimmy was on a bus across town in a completely different area of Philadelphia at the time of the crime -- that bus ran nowhere near the crime scene. Records would have shown that at that time Jimmy was elsewhere and on the phone with his wife.
Waking From The Nightmare -- The Story of Jeffrey Modahl. Carla Modahl recently wrote her father a note asking for his forgiveness, hoping she can completely forgive herself someday. As much as anyone, she was also a victim of the prosecutors who wrongly convicted her father and robbed her of a normal childhood.
Heroes At The Bar, Banks and Cooney, Work Pro Bono for 11 years...and it paid off. Banks and Cooney free John Thompson After 15 Years Behind Bars. These men inspire the layperson and lawyers alike. Employment litigation and commercial litigation is their field, but they took on a criminal law case to fight against one of the most notorious DA's...and won!
Has Hollywood gone too far? A review of "Life," the new movie about wrongful convictions.
As we publish Issue 5 of Justice: Denied, you may have read that we're now incorporated and, pending federal approval, will be a full non profit organization with tax exemptions retroactive to May 4, 1999. We have more exciting news to share.On July 17, there will be a conference and banquet in Dallas for all innocents with Darlie as the featured innocent.
Our own Anne Good will attend the conference, and Justice Denied has been given the opportunity to heavily promote itself. We've rushed around to get ready for this event and have created a brochure for Anne to give to conference participants. Kathy Foster, newest member of JD, has quickly put our brochure together, and we expect to fully outfit Anne with all the props she needs, including bumper stickers with the Justice: Denied name and web site address.
With the advent of the brochure, we are now offering memberships in The Justice Institute. To find out about membership, click on Membership.
If you are interested in attending the conference, it will be at the Dallas-Fort Worth Hyatt Regency with people expected from different parts of the country. For reservations, call Saundra Kreeger of Morning Star Life Ministries: (972) 889-3247 or call 1-888-883-FAIR (1-888-883-3247).
Another development for Justice Denied is that we were just contacted by a reporter from a major TV station in California who wants to work with us to publicize the cases of those claiming innocence in California. We've published the stories of some Californians, and others are "in line," but would like to be able to give our reporter much more. We'll be gathering stories for this project.
This is a unique opportunity for those who know of a California prisoner who claims to be innocent. Contact our mail handler at Justice Denied: JusDenMail@aol.com (Nancy). Be sure to write"California Project" in your subject line.
Other exciting things are on the way, some we can't talk about yet. We will only tell you about things we know will happen or are very close to materializing. We can only tell you that the chance that we may soon be putting JD on the newsstands is closer all the time. Apropos of getting JD on the newsstands, we need to find out something about the costs of publishing. If any reader is in the publishing business and can give us some quotes, please contact us at: JusDenMail@aol.com. Any other publishing tips and advice will also be appreciated. As we move forward with plans to seriously publish, we also need people who can find sponsors, both local and national, for online and hard copy. A percentage of the advertising income for JD will, of course, go to the salesperson.With the demands on the staff growing, our need for volunteers has skyrocketed.
For one thing, we will need committees to begin taking care of things like fund-raising and promotion. We are constantly in need of more story editors, and the usual help for which we've asked in the past is still a need. Contact us if you want to share in JD's future. Indeed, if there is a talented person with excellent word skills who'd like to be my all-around assistant in Oregon, please contact me: ChipnClara@aol.com.
The future of Justice: Denied is unfolding. With its core group of workers dedicated to the cause of the innocent, and with the steadily increasing help from supporters, we believe we will make a very good difference in some lives. We come closer to our goals with every issue we publish. Never forget that our primary goal is to help free the wrongly convicted. We pledge ourselves to that above all else.
Clara Alicia Thomas Boggs Editor in Chief, Producer Justice: Denied -- The
Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted
Death in the
Desert (the Debra Milke Story)
"Welcome to the Canyon State," reads the sign as we drive over the California state line into Arizona. The West is at its wildest here, the landscape at its most inhospitable. Arizona is the state of the Grand Canyon, bare cacti, cliffs of red rock, rattlesnakes and heavy smokers (or at least for the cigarette ad makers) ... and for fans of the death penalty.
Traveling to Arizona on business is not always pleasant, especially if your business is journalism and your assignment is to do a piece on the death penalty. Right away we notice the green interstate signs, an indication that a prison is near: "Don't stop for hitchhikers." There are lots of prisons in Arizona and lots of signs like these, but never any hitchhikers.
There is a prison in Goodyear, too, a dusty town west of Phoenix. We reach it via Interstate 10. The facilities, visible from a distance, are doused in pale floodlight -- the Arizona State Prison in Perryville. "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young is playing on the radio, but Perryville marks the end of the free world. Here you're either guarding the complex or locked up inside.
Take Debra ("Debbie") Jean Milke. Her life can be summed up in a few lines that might go something like this: born in Berlin in 1963, raised in Phoenix, Arizona, died in Florence, Arizona in 1999. Cause of death: lethal injection. Debbie Milke, 34, has been on death row for nine years -- on a highway that now only has one exit: the execution chamber.
Debbie Milke is something of an exotic creature in Arizona. She is the only female inmate on death row in Perryville and the only woman now awaiting execution in Arizona. She will be the second woman ever to be killed in the history of the state. She is also the prestige project of former district attorney Grant Woods and, if one is to believe the "Arizona Republic," the state's largest daily, she is the most hideous monster in the country: a cold-blooded child killer who had her four-year-old son "executed" for a measly 5,000 dollars from an insurance policy. In Arizona, people want to see this woman strapped to the execution table -- so say the gas station attendant and the sheriff. So say the politicians too -- and many wouldn't mind administering the injection themselves.
Not that child killers are rare in Arizona. Just about every month the media report on some "valley woman" who has gone wild, murdering and cutting up her children. None end up on death row. But that's a whole different story.
One's first impulse when driving by Perryville Prison is to accelerate. A lot of locals would like to do the same and speed right out of town. The cheapest motel here is a Best Western with inflated rates. Late in the evening, in the bar, the friendly waitress wants to know what we're doing in Goodyear.
"Writing a story about Debbie Milke," we answer. The atmosphere suddenly becomes frosty despite the sweltering heat. "But the weather sure is nice, isn't it?" she remarks before leaving us to our drinks.
Debbie Milke's story is that of a young woman caught in a spiral of love, disappointment, hatred and drug abuse. It started out harmoniously enough in the "GI" district of Zehlendorf in Berlin. Debbie's German mother, Renate, fell in love with the American soldier, Richard "Sam" Sadeik. They married and had a daughter who spent her childhood in the divided city, sheltered by the occupying forces.
In her letters from prison, Debbie recalls her German grandparents in Tempelhof, the forests around Krumme Lanke Lake as well as strolls down the Ku'damm and visits to the Berlin Zoo. If she's ever allowed to lead a normal life again, it'll be in Berlin ... "please!" Next, Sam Sadeik is transferred back to the USA, to Phoenix, Arizona. Here, Debbie's sister is born. Both parents work as ground personnel at Luke Air Force Base in Goodyear, located directly behind Perryville Prison. Renate looks after German star-fighter pilots who are stationed at the base for training. The world is still intact.
Today, as we drive along Lichtfield Road to visit Debbie's mother, Renate Janka, Air Force jets still thunder over the prison complex. Renate has been back in Goodyear for more than a year now, living just a few hundred yards from the cell where her daughter awaits execution. Debbie doesn't like having visitors -- she has to sit in a cage and undergo a strip search in front of the male guards. So mother and daughter talk on the phone for about five minutes each week. Renate Janka spends the rest of her time fighting to have her daughter's case reopened, writing letters, briefing lawyers, preparing interviews and keeping the international community of supporters up-to-date via internet.
She's in touch with "Spiegel" magazine, ZDF (German Television 2), Amnesty International and donations committees. Perhaps it is her uneasy conscience that drives Mrs. Janka to continue the almost futile battle with Arizona's legal system, for she left her daughter alone in the United States many years ago...The Sadeik's marriage is over. The dream GI is now an alcoholic, a cynic and a family tyrant. "No one leaves Sam Sadeik," he tells his wife when she files for divorce. "One day you'll pay for this." Renate doesn't take him seriously. Years later she'll find out just what she will pay.
First she moves to a new apartment with her two nearly grown up daughters. The girls have never had much in common. Debbie is good at school, her sister isn't. Debbie is attached to her mother, Sandy favors their father. As a result, there are many family fights. When Sandy steals and forges her mother's checks, Renate Janka, at the end of her tether, sends Sandy back to Sam Sadeik. In the meantime he's gotten a job as a prison guard in Florence, one of the toughest prisons in Arizona. It is in Florence that the desert state's executions take place.
Renate Janka then meets a new man, a German, and returns to Europe with him. Debbie stays in Phoenix. She is 19, single and has no contact with her family. A love-hate relationship connects her with her sister, grief with her mother: "I never understood why she left me. Sure, I was old enough to take care of myself. But in my gut there was a feeling of loss and emptiness." It is about this time that Debbie Milke falls in with a fateful circle of friends, a circle of drug addicts and dangerous psychopaths.
It's December 2, 1989. A man is in a shopping mall, trying to explain to the police that he's lost a young boy -- Christopher Milke, aged four, dressed in jeans and a yellow sweatshirt with a green triceratops embroidered on the front.
James Lynn Styers is the man's name. He explains that he's come shopping with a friend and the boy to get some pictures of Santa Claus. Christopher was excited. He wanted to shake Santa's hand. Then, suddenly, he disappeared. The officer is suspicious. Styers seems unfocused and nervous. There are contradictions in what he says about times and places, so the officer takes him in to be questioned. A little later the police also question his friend, Roger Scott.
The detective in charge is Armando Saldate, an ambitious Hispanic-American with a brutal demeanor and bullish face. Shortly before his retirement, Saldate senses a spectacular case. Drug addict Roger Scott is the first to break down after two hours of questioning. He admits that, instead of going to see Santa, he and Styers drove out to the desert with little Christopher to 99th Street, north of Happy Valley Road, to a place where you'd sooner stumble over rattlesnakes than St. Nick. What followed was a true execution.
Scott states that Styers took the child to a dried-out river bed. Shortly afterward Scott heard three shots. Styers returned, saying, "That small bastard won't be getting on my nerves any longer."
In confused words, Scott tells the detective one other detail: Debbie Milke, Styers' roommate, put them up to the crime. "What did she say, as far as you can remember?" asks Saldate. "That she wanted to get rid of him, that she wasn't born for motherhood and that we should take care of it," answers Scott.
Next, Scott leads the policemen to the spot in the desert he described. There the police make a gruesome find. Saldate tells his superiors of the murder and says he wants to question an additional suspect, Debbie Milke. He is told to use a tape recorder because of the importance of Debbie's statement. Saldate ignores these instructions and flies to Florence just as the media are jumping on the story.There, Debbie has been waiting with her father, Sam Sadeik, for word of Christopher.
Earlier, she was at home sitting by the phone, her mood swinging from hysterical worry to dull agony, but her stepmother persuaded her to drive to Florence.When Saldate arrives at the police department, he storms into the medicine room where Debbie is being kept. He sends everybody out and pulls a chair within inches of his suspect. He begins the questioning with the words: "Your son was found in the desert, shot to death. And you're charged with murder." "What, what?!" screams Debbie Milke -- though without a single tear, according to Saldate's later testimony. "I won't put up with your hysterics," says Saldate. "I'm here to find out the truth."
Debbie is subjected to a half-hour round of questioning that according to Saldate leads to a full confession and to this day is the sole piece of evidence supporting the murder charge. Yet the confession is not recorded on tape, there are no witnesses and Debbie Milke has signed nothing. Somehow, Saldate did not forget to tape Scott, have him sign the confession, and it was witnessed. All three pieces of evidence Saldate had no problem producing from his questioning of Scott are ominously missing for Debbie. The notes Saldate claims he made when he interrogated Debbie don't exist either. Later he will explain to the court that he threw them away. Instead, he presents ten pages of notes dated December 6, 1989, made from memory. According to these, Debbie confessed to getting the two men to murder her son and described in detail her relationship with her family, the child's father, Mark, her stepparents, her mother and God. She also explained her motive for the crime: "I didn't want Christopher to grow up like his father." All this in thirty minutes, punctuated by bouts of hysterical crying! Impossible, claim Renate Janka's lawyers.
After questioning, Debbie Milke is taken to jail. She is not allowed to make phone calls or receive visitors. Debbie is despondent but clueless. She still believes she is only there because she neglected her parental duties.Only after a few days does her court-assigned lawyer inform her that she has been charged with killing her son. Only then does she learn of her alleged "confession." Arizona is up in arms. The district attorney and politicians call for the death penalty. The media are rubbing their hands over "the crime of the1980s" and dissecting the "Santa Claus Case."
Later the entire Sadeik clan will form a unified front against Debbie in court -- sister Sandy, father Sam and his second wife, Maureen, as well as Debbie's stepsister, Karen Smith, ex-husband Mark Milke and her former best friend, Dorothy Markwell. They will portray Debbie Milke in separate testimony as a monster mother who beat her son, a hedonist and alcoholic, a resentful wife who begrudged her husband his role as father, the devil incarnate. "If she were pregnant again, she would kill the child again, says Sam Sadeik.
And then they will unanimously demand the death penalty for Debra. It is the complete moral bankruptcy of a family, of her family, that makes Renate Janka's blood run cold. She used to believe in the Arizona legal system and in her daughter's "confession." Maybe shame kept her in Germany, or perhaps the fear of having to see her daughter alone in the dock, the fear of having to look her daughter in the eye. A cry for help wakes Renate. From prison, Debbie sends a desperate letter to the only person she still trusts: "Grandma and Grandpa," she writes in broken German on the cover, "is not true. For my mother and Alex. Please,Grandma!! Please!!"
By then she has already been sentenced to death. Renate flies to Arizona and fights to have the case reopened with new lawyers and new evidence. But first she must grasp what has happened in her absence. After her mother leaves, Debbie tries out her newfound independence and her life soon becomes a walk on the wild side. She meets carpet-layer Mark Milke in a biker bar. He is an unstable character, a good-looking but unpredictable drug addict. Debbie falls in love with him, they marry and she becomes pregnant. "I thought that if I had a child, I wouldn't feel so lonely and empty. And I thought that it would give Mark the strength that we all needed so badly." She is wrong. During her pregnancy Mark is thrown into prison for drug possession. Once released, he spends his time in bars or shooting rattlesnakes out in the desert. Debbie works, sometimes holding down two jobs to make ends meet.
Little Christopher is often with Sandy, who, as a homemaker, has time to care for the boy. She asks Debbie to let her adopt him, but Debbie refuses, hoping Mark Milke will eventually become a responsible father. With these hopes dashed, she finally files for divorce in 1988. Mark turns out to be like Sam Sadeik. He can't accept the divorce. He beats up Debbie and threatens to kidnap the child. One day he steals her car keys and shouts, "Take your lousy brat and get the hell out of my life."
Debbie flees with Christopher to James Styers, one of Sandy's former boyfriends. At first glance, Styers is the exact opposite of Mark -- inconspicuous, reticent, almost shy. He attends church regularly, studies the bible and takes care of the neighbors' children as well as a daughter from his first marriage. Slowly Debbie recognizes that her solicitous new roommate is a sick psychopath haunted by terrible ghosts.
As a Vietnam soldier, Styers took part in massacring civilians, including women and children. He once shot an eight-year-old, unarmed Vietnamese boy who was trying to climb onto the bed of his military truck. "Self-defense" was how he justified the killing before a military commission. These victims won't leave Styers alone. After his discharge from the army, he has nightmares. He incurs serious head injuries from a fall and must receive regular medical treatment. He is given lithium and navane. According to tests, he has an IQ of 84, well below average.
Debbie's living arrangement with Styers becomes a nightmare for her. She discovers weapons and ammunition under tables and in closets. She must put up with Styers' friend, Roger Scott, a sick junkie who suffers from paranoid delusions. Scott is as devoted to the Vietnam veteran as a loyal dog. He sees Styers as the great "Alpha Wolf." Sensing that Styers not only wants to share the apartment with her, but her bed as well, Debbie secretly rents a second apartment. Once she signs the lease, she tells Styers she is moving out. It's Thanksgiving.
For Styers, a world collapses. No one knows what this Vietnam vet, who conceals his demons behind a pious facade, really feels for Debbie. Is he a man like Sadeik or Mark Milke who cannot accept a separation? Is he hoping she will stay with him if he destroys the last tie to her ex-husband?
On death row, the child killer unburdens his heart. In a letter to Debbie at Perryville Prison, he confesses his love for her and quotes the Bible, Psalm 51: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest."
A few days after Debbie talks with Styers about moving out, Christopher begs to go see Santa Claus, and Styers offers to take him to the mall. Debbie agrees, and Christopher puts on his favorite clothes. Styers picks up Scott and all three stop at Peter Piper Pizza, where the boy eats his last meal. Debbie is at home doing her chores, ironing, chatting with the neighbors. Styers and Scott take Christopher out to the desert. In their car is a snub-nosed 22 caliber revolver. The police never find out who fired the shots or what weapon was used. The bullets are too deformed to be traced. Thus, both Styers and Scott are sentenced to death and even Debbie finds herself on trial for murder, although there is not a single scrap of evidence for her complicity. There is only a single police officer's assertion and a confession that is not taped, not witnessed by a third party nor signed by the suspect. Saldate is still proud of this confession today.
The motive ascribed to Debbie is greed. The prosecutor claims she was after 5,000 dollars from a life insurance policy. But Debbie didn't sign the contract. Her employer, an insurance company, signed it as part of her usual social-welfare benefits. Monthly premium: two dollars. Judge Cheryl Hendricks later rejects all evidence in Debbie's favor: psychiatric reports, a lie-detector test, testimony by neighbors and coworkers who describe Debbie as a solicitous mother, the contradictions in Saldate's questioning of Roger Scott, and even Styers' assertions that Debbie had nothing to do with the murder.
"It's very difficult to fool a group of observers twenty-four hours a day for fourteen months," says Dr. Bunuel, director of the prison psychiatric services. "As time passed, the whole team came to believe in Debbie's innocence, and it was a shock when she was convicted. "None of this interests the judge or the district attorney. When no substantial evidence is found, they have the entire Sadeik clan testify in court. When even this proves ineffective and there is the risk of a hung jury, Judge Hendricks -- in violation of courtroom procedure -- sends a tape into the room where the jury is deliberating. It is evidence that was not used in the trial.
The tape is of the questioning of Debbie's sister, Sandy Pickinpaugh. Despite his usual forgetfulness, Saldate made a point of recording Sandy. On the tape, Sandy, a jealous, embittered woman, describes her sister as cold and unemotional. The district attorney regarded the tape as insufficient for use in court, but now it helps the jurors reach a verdict: "Guilty on all counts." The public breathes a sigh of relief and the New Times runs the headline: "Hi, my name is Debbie Milke. I'm on death row for killing my little boy." Welcome to the prison state of Arizona!
Nine years have now passed; six appeals have failed. They kept landing on the desk of the same judge, Cheryl Hendricks, until she was transferred due to other complaints. Renate Janka has collected mountains of files, including revelations about Saldate's previous life: in 25 (!) cases, the court found fault with his interrogation records, which had apparently been manipulated. In the case of Debbie Milke, no one raised any objections.
On the contrary, based on his newfound popularity, Saldate was elected to the office of county constable, a kind of justice of the peace. Even Sam Sadeik called Saldate a "liar," though that was later, when Sadeik, on his death bed, also expressed regret about his courtroom testimony. At the beginning of 1998, Debbie's time had come. An execution date was set for January 29. Debbie was allowed to choose between the gas chamber and lethal injection but, unlike the LaGrand brothers, she chose injection. She was given a so-called dry run: her veins were marked and her reaction was recorded on video. Shortly before the actual date, Debbie received another postponement so her case could be reviewed again. All opportunities for appeal have now been exhausted.
Debbie's lawyer, Anders Rosenquist, sees only one way to prevent her execution. A state court is now looking into the trial using the writ of habeas corpus. Facts don't count, nor pieces of evidence, only the question of whether or not Debbie's human rights were violated in the trial. If the court rules in her favor, the verdict will be overturned and a new trial will be scheduled. Judge Broomfield is regarded as a fair, level-headed man. But the country wants a lynching. "I have no scruples whatsoever about asking the state to proceed with the execution," Randall Howe, the assistant to the district attorney, recently said. "She killed her four-year-old son at Christmas time. A pardon would cause a public outcry. She has little sympathy here."
We drive to Florence, to Debbie's last home. A friendly police officer shows us the way to the execution building. We're only allowed to take pictures from a distance of 400 meters, but even here an FBI agent comes over and wants to confiscate our camera. In the prison outlet store we can buy souvenirs, prison clothes, metal bowls and T-shirts printed with "I survived the Arizona State Prison."
We talk to Debbie several times on the phone although prison spokesman Michael Arra warns us: "Debbie is very wishy-washy. She doesn't speak with everyone." We don't tell him we've been corresponding with Debbie for awhile now and have also exchanged tapes. Debbie's mood alternates between hope and despair. She talks about her daily routine, about the occasional visits to the courtyard in chains and in a cage, about small vices like smoking, the curses she must endure from her fellow inmates. A talk lasts ten minutes, maybe half an hour if we're lucky.
The internet is the new battleground for the "Debbie wars." Renate Janka, with Berlin web-master "Frankie," has created a home-page with a guestbook, but in addition to the email left by supporters, people post the vilest curses. A former juror from the trial who uses the anonymous code name "Juror," has spearheaded a counter-movement by starting a Debbie Milke hate-page. Not only does it attract notorious advocates of the death penalty, but the usual suspects as well: Debbie's sister, Sandy, Mark Milke and a few scattered members of the Sadeik clan. Hackers keep trying to crack the page of their adversaries and Sandy once again is able to demand "just" punishment for her sister, this time on the internet.
A Harvard study, just published, has documented over 100 executions in which the alleged criminals were later proved to be innocent. A government study even goes so far as to assume that every sixth death-penalty case contains errors. A group of journalism students who recently took part in a practical law course, saved a man from the executioner with their investigative work. But in this vast country, public opinion still holds that it's better to execute three innocent people than to let ten guilty people go free. Fortunately, there are other voices. One of Arizona's largest magazines, the Phoenix, published a long article about half a year ago re-examining the case. Their thoughtful conclusion:
"Should we really execute a prisoner based on the unsubstantiated testimony of a single police officer? Are these the rules by which we judge life and death in Arizona? In such a confused case we need certainty. We need a signature, a witness and a tape recorder."
How true -- but wouldn't it be a whole lot easier if in Arizona it wasn't a question of life or death?
WHY I BELIEVE DEBRA MILKE IS INNOCENT
After my initial studies and based on what the general media had published, I was prepared to expect little cooperation. I also realized I might be faced with a cold-blooded woman who allegedly had her son killed, for she was portrayed as a clever manipulator. Nearly eight months of interaction via more than 20 cassette tapes and hundreds of letters exchanged with Debra Jean Milke have now convinced me that a rush to judgment by the players involved had taken place. My game plan was to let her talk freely about her feelings about her son's death, her life and the events that led up to the hideous murder. I phrased and rephrased specific crucial questions and used various avenues to find the slightest discrepancy in her statements or recollections. I scrutinized these documents with the Arizona Republic archives, court transcripts, witness testimonies and, of course, the police report. I talked to many people who intimately knew Debra Milke, as well as her attorneys, private investigator, and the professionals who covered Debra Milke's trial.
In Debbie's extensive correspondence with me, all I could detect was an initial mistrust of anyone representing the media. Even so, after nine long years, she had a desperate need to get rid of some enormous burdens. Debra Milke appeared to be rather shy, but she wanted the public to know about the pain of losing her only child. She never had the chance to properly grieve. Debbie never could comprehend why she was deserted in her time of need. From day one Debbie adamantly denied she had any part of the crime for which she was convicted. There is no tangible evidence. The entire case against Debra Milke is based on one detective's paraphrased police report, written three days after an unwitnessed and unrecorded 30-minute interview with her. In court, this detective claimed he destroyed his notes, yet he somehow came up with 6½ typewritten pages of a so-called confession, which was judged admissible at her trial, despite the fact that Debra Milke had never seen nor signed this document. Furthermore, according to public court records, the prosecution resorted to an unsubstantiated character assassination from various sources, but thwarted any testimony by credible and professional witnesses.The atrociousness of this particular case resulting in a death sentence is that, according to my research, this is not a singular occurrence in the United States. There are more than 70 cases of "wrongfully convicted" people who were fortunate enough to be freed, but only after many years of agony. I cannot help but ask, "Where is the justified outcry of conscientious and free citizens?" and, "Why do people keep looking the other way when confronted with an obviously damaged justice system?"
My article and the coverage of other major media sources in Germany and neighboring countries have produced a tremendous outrage among millions of citizens. Letters of protest and signature collections keep pouring in daily for many months. It is not my intention or that of our readers to sit in judgment over the policies of the world's largest democracy. However, cherished privileges can only be of true value when the inherent responsibilities to preserve them, are adhered to. The state-ordered extinction of one innocent human life is one too many.
"Let doubt be in favor of the defendant"
It was his gun, but Freddie Lee Wright was at the Ebony Club with friends at the exact time of the murder.
Statement of Freddie Lee Wright
My name is Freddie Lee Wright. I have spent the past 20 years fighting for my life here on Alabama's Death Row. My last appeal for a rehearing in the United States Circuit Court (11th Circuit) was denied. I now have until July 20 to file my final appeal to the United States Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court lets stand the ruling from the 11th Circuit, my appeals will become final and I will have no chance to prove my innocence.
I am accused of committing two murders during a robbery. I was said to have been the trigger man of a four-man robbery team. It took the State of Alabama two separate trials to convict me of these murders I did not commit. The first trial was held before a mixed jury-- seven whites and seven blacks -- and ended in a mistrial. After the two alternate jurors were excused, a vote of 11-1 for acquittal was returned, causing a mistrial. The one juror, a white female who held out voting to convict and causing the mistrial, admitted several years later in an interview with my appellate attorneys that she did not believe I was guilty, but she felt "someone must be severely punished for such a senseless crime," and I was "the only one left that could receive the level of punishment deserved" so she held out causing the mistrial.
The second trial was presented to an all-white jury and the State put on one additional witness, then suppressed her mental health records. I was convicted and sentenced to die in Alabama's electric chair.
Now I will go back to mid-November 1977 and tell you my story. I am a native of Mobile, AL and had returned there to find an apartment for my fiancée, Hazel Craig, and our two daughters (one eight, the other just over a year) who were then living in Long Beach, California. In Mobile, a friend of mine, Reginald Tinsley, whom I had known for 5 or 6 years and with whom I had worked on several jobs, introduced me to Percy Craig (no relation to my fiancée) and Roger McQueen. I met those two men during the week of Thanksgiving, 1977, and, on Thanksgiving Day, Roger McQueen and Percy Craig came over to my sister's home in Craig's car to invite me back to Craig's house for Thanksgiving dinner. I accepted the dinner invitation.
McQueen and I then drove to Prichard, Alabama, to pick up my ex-girlfriend, Doris Lacey Lambert (mother of my 29 month-old son), and McQueen, Doris, and I drove back to Craig's apartment, where we had dinner with Craig and his girlfriend, Donna Lockett. This was on Thanksgiving Day 1977 -- I believe the date was November 24.
The next time I saw Percy Craig was on the night of November 30, 1997. He and I spent most of that night at a local gambling house. On December 1, I spent the morning at my sister's house with Carl Harrington and Barbara Brazelton. While I was there, a gentleman from the insurance company arrived. I paid my sister's insurance with part of an $80 or $86 rebate check from the phone company. I used the rest of that check to buy an additional insurance policy for my son. If this insurance agent could have been found at the time of my trial, he could have verified that I was with him at the time that Craig, McQueen, and the State claimed I was with the robbery team on the way to Jackson, Alabama.
At approximately 10:00 a.m. on December 1, 1977, Barbara, Carl, and I left my sister's house and went to the Ebony Club, where we stayed until between 1:45 and 2:00 p.m. Earlier that morning (before I went out to the Ebony Club with Barbara and Carl), Craig, McQueen, and Tinsley had stopped by my sister's house.
Craig wanted to borrow money, and asked if I had anything "to get high on." I gave him $25 and three "hits" of THC. Before he left, Craig asked to borrow my gun -- a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. I gave it to him. He was a friend of my friend, Tinsley, and I did not question him. I had been out with Craig the previous night gambling and I figured that Craig, McQueen, and Tinsley were going back to the gambling house to try to win back some of the money Craig had lost the night before.
As a point of information, I should say that guns were a way of life for most of us, and the gambling house was in a rough area. Everyone in there gambling would either have his gun out on the table or on his person where it could be seen. Because carrying a gun most of the time was our way of life, I thought nothing of it when Craig asked to borrow my gun. I had no idea before or after the fact that they were going to commit a robbery and double-murder.
Shortly after Carl, Barbara, and I returned from the Club to my sister's house, Craig and Tinsley showed up again. They said they had stopped by earlier but had left when they found no one home. I noticed that Tinsley was extremely nervous and agitated, but I attributed this to his probably being high. Craig did not return my gun at that time, nor did I ask for it. I was busy getting ready to go out to dinner, after which I would be on my way to Tallahassee with Carl, who played for the Bishop State Community College basketball team and was considering a transfer to FSU (Florida State University). We were making the trip so he could talk to the FSU coach.
Craig left Tinsley at my sister's house when he left. Before going out to dinner, I called a cab for Tinsley and after he left in the cab, I went with Carl, Barbara, and Carolyn Miller, to Piccadilly Circle for dinner, then went shopping. One of the items I bought that day (Dec. 1) was a pair of shoes for my son.(The robbery and murder of which I was accused happened in Mt. Vernon, Alabama, around 11:30 a.m. or 12:00 noon. This was exactly the time I was at the Ebony Club with Carl, Barbara and Carolyn.)
After leaving the mall that evening, Carl and I dropped Barbara and Carolyn off at their homes, then went to Prichard, Alabama, to Doris Lambert's house for a short visit and to drop off the shoes for my son. We then returned to my sister's house. I borrowed several hundred dollars from her to insure that Carl and I had money for gas, motel, food and other expenses. Carl and I left Alabama around midnight Dec. 2nd, and arrived in Tallahassee early Friday morning. We checked into a motel near the FSU campus. Friday evening we attended a basketball game between Jacksonville State University and Dillard University. My nephew played on the Dillard Team and Carl knew several of the other players, so after the game we went to the motel where the Dillard players were staying in to visit with some of them.
On the afternoon we returned to Mobile (Saturday, December 3, 1977), I visited Percy Craig at his apartment. As I was leaving, he walked outside with me, opened the trunk of his car, and returned my gun to me, wrapped in some sort of cloth. When I inspected the weapon I saw that it was fully loaded with five .38 caliber "hollow point" bullets and, from the coating of oil on it, I saw that it appeared to have been freshly cleaned. I returned the pistol to my shoulder holster. I failed to ask, as in retrospect I realize I should have, why my gun had been freshly cleaned; the only reason would be if someone had fired it.
Later that week, maybe the 4th or 5th of December, I contacted my fiancée in Long Beach, California and told her I had found an apartment.We moved into the apartment (in the same complex where Craig and McQueen lived) between the second week and the end of March,1978. Six days after the December 1, 1977 robbery and murder of Mr. and Mrs.Warren Greene, in Mt. Vernon Alabama, Theodore Otis Roberts was charged with the crime after being identified by Mary Johnson.
A .38 caliber, blue-steel, Smith and Wesson revolver, identified by Roberts' girlfriend, Sharlene Tipton, as belonging to Roberts, was recovered. Ballistics tests later resulted in Roberts' gun being positively identified as the murder weapon. Ms. Tipton also led police to property Roberts had allegedly traded for drugs, but which belonged to the Western Auto Store. All this was reported to Mobile P.D. Detective Stroh and was reported in an affidavit by Detective Stroh, but it was never presented at either of my trials.
Ms. Mary Johnson's identification of Roberts:
On the morning of the crime, as Ms. Johnson was exiting the Mt. Vernon Western Auto Store, she "bumped into" a man -- later identified as Roberts -- as he was coming into the store. She also observed a light blue car in the parking lot with one person in the front passenger seat and three people in the back seat.When Ms. Johnson saw the news report about the robbery and murders, she immediately called the police with information of what she had seen.
After Roberts was arrested, Ms. Johnson was called back to the police department to view a "line-up." As she was entering the police station she recognized the same blue car she'd seen at the Western Auto Store -- a light blue Buick Riviera with an angel hood ornament. The car belonged to Theodore Otis Roberts. Ms. Johnson not only identified the car, she also positively identified Roberts, first in a photo layout, then in a live police line-up.
In February, 1978, Roger McQueen was arrested and sent to prison in Mississippi for unrelated robberies. While at the Parchman State Prison, McQueen talked of the Mt. Vernon, Alabama murders to another prisoner who went to the Warden with what McQueen had told him. The Warden, in turn, contacted the Alabama authorities. The Alabama authorities, along with the FBI, removed McQueen from the Parchman prison grounds, took him to a motel and interviewed him. He gave statements implicating himself, Tinsley, Craig, and me, with me being named as the trigger man.
When at the trial the Courts were presented with the eyewitness evidence of Ms. Johnson against Theodore Otis Roberts, they declared that Ms. Johnson had made a mistake in her identification "due to a striking resemblance "between Roberts and McQueen. This opinion was reached based solely on a statement to that effect made by Roberts' attorney. There is no evidence to show that this man or the Courts had ever seen Roberts and McQueen at the same time, viewed photos or other likenesses, or used any other means of comparison to reach this conclusion -- other than its being in his client's best interest. The only physical similarities between Roberts and McQueen are that they are both African-American and both wore "Afros," a hairstyle very common among black men in the late '70s.
Some time in the early part of 1978, I heard from Doris Lambert that she had heard a rumor that Craig, Tinsley, McQueen and I were involved in the crime. I told Doris that the only knowledge I had of the crime was what I'd heard on the news reports, and that someone had been charged with it. This was the one and only conversation I had with Doris Lambert about the murders until after I was arrested.
I later confronted Craig and Tinsley about the crime. Both denied any involvement, although Tinsley again became agitated and nervous. On several occasions after that, conversation about the crime came up, but there was never any mention of my being involved, nor did they admit their involvement. On the morning of July 28, 1978, Mobile police officers went to Craig's apartment and arrested him, then came to my apartment and arrested me. Tinsley was taken into custody later that day.
I was told by Detectives that I could be placed at the scene of the crime based on statements given by Craig and McQueen. This, despite the fact there was never any eyewitness identification of me (other than Craig and McQueen claiming I was the shooter). No fingerprints of mine were ever found at the crime scene, and no other physical evidence linked me to this crime. A man named Joe Nathan Berham did, however, testify that some time in January 1978 he was given a watch by someone in the car in which he was riding. He also admitted that it was passed to him over the seat back, and that he couldn't say who had handed him the watch. This watch was later recovered from a pawn shop and identified as the Seiko brand watch belonging to Mr. Warren Greene (murder victim). Pawn shop records indicated that it had been pawned by Berham. Still no tie to me.
While I was incarcerated at the Mobile County Jail awaiting trial, I called Ms. Lambert an estimated 44 times -- once a week for the eleven months I was there. During those conversations she repeatedly expressed her belief that I was innocent because she knew me as a person not in the habit of lying to her about anything, no matter how serious the situation.
After the first trial began, she spoke to my attorney, asking if there was anything she could do to help prove my innocence. After my attorney had this brief conversation with Doris, he returned to the courtroom and asked me if there was anything she could testify to that would help prove me innocent. I told him I wasn't aware of her having any knowledge of anything helpful other than her firm belief that I was innocent. She was never called to testify. The trial ended in a mistrial. Shortly thereafter, I was rescheduled for a second trial. I spoke again with Ms. Lambert, telling her of my anticipation of an acquittal and my plans for my life after I was acquitted.
Those plans were to take my two daughters and fiancée back to California and get on with my life. This plan didn't sit well with her. Ms. Lambert told her mother she would see me dead before she saw me with another woman, and her mother testified to that at the second trial. Doris was jealous even though she was married to someone else and trying to get a divorce at the time. She was also very dependent on me as a friend she could "pour her heart out to" about anything without fear of judgment for her drug use, and for financial support. If I went back to California, she would lose all of this. I believe this is the reason she made the complete turnaround from telling my attorney she believed me to be 100% innocent, before she heard my plans to move back to California, to claiming that I had confessed to her right after the murders had occurred.
According to Lambert's testimony, I confessed the murders to her in June 1977 -- six months before the murders were even committed. My attorneys were not allowed to present Ms. Lambert's mental health records. The records showed Ms. Lambert to be "manipulative," a pathological liar, a drug addict (cocaine and THC), had homicidal and suicidal fantasies, had borderline retardation, and heard the voice of her father (who'd been dead since she was about 13 years old) speaking to her. The mental health records I am speaking about are not a few remote incidents, nor are they from Ms. Lambert's distant past. They cover the years from 1973 up to within months of her testifying at my second trial.
Another problem with Ms. Lambert's reliability as a witness is the fact that she was pressured by the State. They told her that if she didn't testify, she would never regain custody of her children. The state had removed the children from her custody and put them in the care of her family or her husband. Before she testified against me, she was placed in a shelter for battered women, although she never claimed to have been battered. At one time, she changed her mind and refused to testify. This resulted in her being taken from the shelter and locked up in the County Jail.
After testifying against me, full custody of her children was restored, and the State provided services such as transportation for her children to and from school. My fiancée, Hazel Craig, had similar pressure applied to her.
She had gone back to California and, after returning to visit me in jail, was detained at the jail after visitation on a "trumped-up" charge of having left a damaged apartment when she moved. The claims that Ms. Craig was responsible for "leaving behind a damaged apartment" and that being the reason she was placed in the Mobile County Jail are ludicrous.
First, all damage to the apartment was caused by the Mobile County deputies in their search for my gun, and the security deposit Hazel and I had paid had already been withheld. There is just no justification for her incarceration. (The police found my gun on the morning of my arrest, July 28, 1978, and it was implicated in the crime.) Helen Craig was later asked about testifying against me, but at that time she said she knew nothing and would not testify. She was returned to the County Jail where she remained until the first trial was declared a mistrial. She was then immediately released.
During both trials, Reginald Tinsley -- the only person to give a statement exonerating me -- had escaped and was known to be staying in New Orleans, Louisiana. Deputies at the county jail mentioned to me on several occasions that they were going to New Orleans to observe Tinsley's last known address because the State was keeping him under surveillance. They knew enough about his whereabouts to go and arrest him in New Orleans within a few days after I was found guilty and sentenced to death. I could be wrong, but I think they did know exactly where he was. If he had been arrested we could have stopped my trial until he was back in Mobile to testify on my behalf that I wasn't with them and I didn't kill the Greens. His testimony would have hurt the State's case.
Craig and McQueen both attempted several times to recant their statements implicating me, but were not allowed to do this. The District Attorney told them that if they "didn't give us Wright" they would be charged with capital murder and would also face the death penalty. Craig and McQueen had no choice but to comply by continuing to implicate me. The D.A., Chris Galanos, is now a judge in Mobile. He shouldn't have been handling my case because he was Tinsley's attorney before he was appointed D.A.
The State was also granted its motion to prevent any mention of Roberts' being initially charged with the murders. The state's purpose in filing the motion to get any and all evidence suppressed that had to do with Roberts' being initially charged with this murder and robbery was to build a stronger case against me. If the jury had heard all the evidence the state had against Roberts, which was a much stronger case than the one against me, the jury would most likely have believed that Craig and McQueen were lying when they said I was with them and I killed the Greens after robbing their store. If the evidence against Roberts had been given to the jury, my acquittal would have been likely.Where are they now?
Percy Craig: sentenced to ten years for his part in the above crime. Status unknown.
Roger McQueen: Given plea agreement in which he would do no time in Alabama upon completing Mississippi 30-year sentence for unrelated robbery. Presently incarcerated in federal prison for robbery/kidnapping committed after his release.
Tinsley: Sentenced to 25 years. Granted parole and released. Presently residing in Mobile, AL.
The foregoing is true and correct to the very best of my knowledge. Some of
these facts do however require me to rely on memories after spending these past 20 years
on death row.
From a letter Mr. Wright wrote to Mildred Barnet: "My attorneys have made
major mistakes in the handling of my case, at this point my best chance of getting the
court to maybe rethink my case is if I can get my case out to the public and get the
public on my side."I have already wrote letters to all of the news programs and talk
shows, some have wrote back saying . . . not interested in doing an interview with me. . .
. The three judges on the 11th Circuit Court of appeals who denied my motion for rehearing
are: Birch, Dubina and Barkett, 56 Forsyth Street, N.W.
Freddie Wright has trouble writing or reading for long periods because of diabetes and is losing sight because of a cataract in one eye. He's been on death row 20 years.
Contact: Mildred H. Barnet -- firstname.lastname@example.org
Two Innocent Men +
One Determined Wife = Freedom
In December of 1998, Jeff Schmieder and Mark Clark were convicted of raping Regina Birindelli on May 17, 1998. On May 20th of this year, Superior Court Judge Patricia Aitken declared they were innocent and ordered their release from the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent, Washington.
Schmieder and Clark, both 42, were in jail awaiting sentences of up to15 years in prison for first-degree rape when they were released. They were saved from spending years behind bars by only one thing -- Jill Clark's unwavering faith in her husband's innocence. With the tenacity of a bloodhound, she tracked down every possible lead that might vindicate her husband of 10 years and his friend Jeff. She finally hit pay dirt when she found an ex-boyfriend of the alleged victim in the county jail. Jill Clark visited him three times in an effort to help him recollect what he and Birindelli did on the day of the alleged attack. Putting dates and places together, he finally remembered something that might get her husband and his friend out of jail. He told Jill that Birindelli was in the Auburn city jail on the day the alleged rape occurred.
With this lead, she checked the jail's records. She didn't find any record that Birindelli had been in Auburn's jail that day, but instead of giving up, she dug deeper. Finally checking the jail's records to see if Birindelli had been booked under her name from a previous marriage, she discovered the ex-boyfriend had told her the truth. Birindelli wasn't brutally raped by Jill's husband and his friend Jeff. On May 17, 1998, she was in the Auburn city jail on a driver's license violation. She wasn't fingerprinted when jailed, and police didn't investigate Clark and Schmieder's claim they were innocent, so the impossibility that they raped Birindelli was hidden until Jill Clark uncovered the truth.
This was the final bizarre twist in a story that was bizarre from the beginning. Birindelli originally claimed that three men raped her. County prosecutors had to drop charges against the third man, however, when he produced evidence prior to his trial that he had been in jail at the time of the alleged rape. Schmieder's defense lawyer, John Henry Browne said, "I think that should have been a clue as to her credibility. [The prosecutors] knew before trial that one of the three could not have been there.
"The prosecutor offered Clark and Schmieder a plea bargain before their trial. If they would plead guilty to assault, the rape charge would be dropped. They refused, claiming their accuser had made up the entire story and they were innocent. At trial, there was no physical evidence presented that Clark and Schmieder had raped Birindelli. They steadfastly proclaimed their innocence, and had alibis for their whereabouts at the time of the alleged attack. Clark even had proof that he was in traffic court in Auburn at the time the alleged rape took place.
The jurors were also told about the third man and the fact that he was in jail at the time Birindelli claimed he was attacking her. Clark and Schmieder were convicted anyway, although four jurors had enough doubts about their guilt to cause the jury deliberations to last for five days.
The only evidence presented against Clark and Schmieder was the graphic testimony of Birindelli that they handcuffed her, then raped her orally and anally. She claimed they videotaped the attack, which she said took place at Clark's mobile home in Auburn, but neither the videotape nor any handcuffs were found by police investigators. Although she changed parts of her story three times while testifying, the jurors found her testimony compelling enough to convict the men without any evidence.
After their release from jail, one of the jurors who didn't change her vote to guilty until after days of arguing, said, "The one thing was that we couldn't for the life of us figure out why she would get on the stand and crucify those two guys if it wasn't true."
Why she did so remains a mystery, although there are claims that it may have had something to do with her work as a police informant. In spite of Clark and Schmieder's exoneration, King County deputy prosecutor Dave Ryan is taking the low road by not only refusing to acknowledge the men are innocent, but by publicly implying they are guilty. He said that perjury charges won't be filed against Birindelli because she might be telling the truth about being attacked, and just confused about the date it occurred. He's taking this position even though she perfectly recounted events on the days before and after the "attack" that were verified by other people, and both Schmieder and Clark have airtight alibis for those days.
The men spent all their money fighting the false rape charges, and both had their mobile homes repossessed. In speaking about his ordeal, Jeff Schmieder said, "I've just got to put my life back together. It just doesn't seem right that somebody loses their home. I was called a rapist."
Thanks to Jill Clark, he's free to be able to pick up the pieces of his life. After his release from jail Mark Clark commented, "I guess you just have to try and take a lesson from this. I'm not so quick to judge now."
Defense attorney Browne summed up Schmieder and Clark's exoneration and release by saying, "It's just scary. In my business, you have to shake your head and say, 'How many times does this happen?' "
Sources for those who want to read more about Schmieder and Clark's ordeal:
"Cleared by the court," Chris Norred (reporter), South County Journal, Kent, WA,
5-27-99, p. A1, A9; "Convicted man savors his freedom," Scott Sunde (reporter),
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 5-22-99, p. A1, A5; "Rape case crumbles; pair
freed," Bruce Rushton (reporter), The News Tribune, Tacoma, WA, 5-21-99, p. A1.
His attorney said they knew the prints weren't Jimmy Dennis', so who cares? Jimmy said he cared, because the prints would be the killer's.
In 1991 Jimmy Dennis was optimistic about the future and the success of his musical career. He was in a band called Sensation. Jimmy and his band had won many talent shows and were beginning to get attention from record labels. They had been together since the fifth grade, had participated in various music seminars and conventions, and had worked very hard to get to where they were. He was a husband and a father with one daughter and a baby on the way.
Then, the inconceivable happened. Because of police and prosecutorial manipulations and misconduct, shoddy investigative work and incompetent representation, Jimmy was convicted and sentenced to die for a crime with which he had nothing to do.
His wife gave birth to their second daughter a week after he was incarcerated. His children are now 10 and 7.One of the worst things about this nightmare for Jimmy is that he has never spent a whole day with his youngest child, and that all the time he has spent with her has been in prison. He wishes he could take his children to school in the morning, help support his wife and daughters, as well as his elderly parents, who have both had health problems in recent years.
In 1991, James A. Dennis was charged with the high-profile shooting of 17 year-old Chedell Williams outside of Philadelphia's Fern Rock Subway Station. Two unknown assailants (the state maintains Jimmy was one of them) attacked Chedell Williams and her friend, Zahra Howard, as they were buying transit fares at Fern Rock Station. Chedell was shot and her earrings stolen in broad daylight in mid-afternoon.The city of Philadelphia cried out in pain over the murder of Chedell.
How could one so young die in broad daylight over something as inconsequential as a pair of earrings? A lot of public pressure was placed on the police to find the killer. Due to previous accusations of racism and corruption, it was important that the police be able to assure the community that they would not ignore the killing of this young girl.
How Jimmy came to be charged with murder:
During the course of the investigation, police questioned anyone and everyone in the projects where Jimmy grew up and lived. His name was given to the police by others in the projects. Notably, everyone who mentioned Jimmy's name to police had extensive police records -- unlike Jimmy. None of these people showed up at the trial.When he heard rumors that his name had been mentioned, Jimmy, his father and brothers went to see if the Homicide Division wanted to talk to him. They waited almost an hour and were then told that the police didn't want to talk to him.
A month later, Jimmy was arrested for the crime. There were supposed to be two other people involved with the crime, and police were posturing to the media that they were known. To date, no one is in jail for Chedell Williams' murder but Jimmy Dennis. The killer walks free. In the beginning Jimmy was charged with more crimes. He says, "This is a tactic used by Philadelphia police always to make one look like Jessie James or a cowboy. I was charged with 8 or 9 robberies. Guess what? Two years later those cases were dropped, except for one. It all looks good in the paper though."
The Defense Lawyer:
Jimmy only saw his lawyer, Lee Mandell, twice. The first time was the day before the trial, the second was at trial. Apparently Mr. Mandell takes on more death penalty cases than anyone else in Pennsylvania and does not have the resources or ability or both to adequately represent them all. Before trial, neither Jimmy nor his family could reach Lee Mandell or get a return call from his office.
At trial the prosecutor showed a button that was ripped off Chedell William's clothes during the struggle with the shooter. Jimmy turned to his attorney, Mr. Mandell, and asked whose fingerprints were on the button and asked if it had been tested. Mr. Mandell said they knew the prints weren't Jimmy's, so who cares? Jimmy said he cared, because the prints would be the killer's. Mandell didn't say anything in court and also didn't ask for a test. It is procedure to automatically conduct such tests and examinations where evidence exists in a case of this nature. The tests obviously did not support the conclusions the police and the district attorney wanted for the jury to have. If they didn't support the prosecution, then they must have supported the defense, but Jimmy will never know because of Mr. Mandell's lack of proper representation.
The jury foreman was falling asleep during some points at trial, and Mr. Mandell said nothing.
Shoddy Investigative Work:
The police failed to find any forensic evidence linking Jimmy to the crime scene or to victim Chedell Williams. Not only that, but an essential piece of evidence, the button from the crime scene, was never tested for prints or, more likely, it was tested and never introduced into evidence because it did not fit their version of the story. Those test results were never given to the defense or entered into any court record.
At the time of the murder, Jimmy was in a completely different area of Philadelphia. He was on a bus across town at the time of the crime. His father saw him get on the bus. That bus runs nowhere near the scene of the crime. Many witnesses were not called and many avenues were not pursued so the police could do what they wanted to make reality fit their version of the facts.
Telephone records that were not investigated would have proved Jimmy was elsewhere when the murder happened. The records would have shown that at the time of the crime Jimmy was on the phone with his wife. There are many important witnesses, and those who could corroborate and support Jimmy's innocence were never interviewed by police.
In trying to identify the shooter, witness Zahra Howard initially told police that she was unable to identify Jimmy as the assailant. Witness David LeRoy, who owned a hot dog stand at the scene of the crime, later said that the police had tried to make him pick Jimmy out as the shooter, but he said, "I will not take away anyone's life with a lie."
David LeRoy also said that after the killer took the earrings from the victim, Chedell stood up straight, stood back (that was when the button came off her jacket) and that the killer was not holding Chedell when the shot was fired. Chedell was 5'10" tall. If a short person like Jimmy had shot Chedell, the bullet would have gone a different way through her body than it did.
Thomas Bertha, another eyewitness to the killing, said in court that he was eye-to-eye with the shooter on a straight road, and not a hill or incline. When asked his height, Bertha replied that he was 5'10". Bertha was obviously not eye-to-eye with the 5'4" Jimmy Dennis.
Another witness who saw Jimmy elsewhere that day later said she was basing her testimony of the time on when her welfare check was cashed, which is listed in military time. She said she does not know how to tell military time, so she was easily convinced by police into believing that "1300" was 3 o'clock. She said police told her what to say.
All eyewitness accounts said the shooter was a big guy between 5'10"and 6' tall, was a very dark-skinned black male, weighing approximately 200 pounds. In contrast, Jimmy has a much lighter complexion than all witnesses described, weighed only 125 pounds, and he stands only 5'4" tall. (His friends were known to call him "Shorty".)
Police coerced and intimidated witness Charles Thompson into cooperating and signing a statement that supported their story of the case. Charles Thompson's statements were made under duress while he was in the police station handcuffed to a chair, being interviewed and misled by 5 detectives for hours on end. Police implied that charges might be pending against Charles in this case if he didn't cooperate. Charles later recanted his statements to legal representatives.
In his closing argument the prosecutor stated: "Mr. Mandell [Mr.Dennis' defense lawyer] said there is no motive, why does there have to be a motive?" In this way, the prosecutor simply bypassed the fact that Jimmy had no motive, no weapon, no linking evidence whatsoever.
The recent July 1998 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in which the majority denied Jimmy a new trial was the closest one in years, 4-3. Three Supreme Court judges thought Jimmy should get a new trial due to prosecutorial misconduct. Although that decision did not win a new trial for Jimmy, it does give him a cause for hope. Perhaps, the next time it will be a majority decision and he will get the new trial he deserves.
People believe in Jimmy. People from Germany, Slovenia, Denmark, Netherlands, Canada, and Turkey have all banded together and formed a group called The International "Justice for Jimmy" Campaign. Conceivably the organization might speak loudly enough so that the USA will hear that Jimmy Dennis deserves justice.
Editor's note: Immediately before publication of this story, due to the support from around the world Jimmy has retained proper legal council and an investigator. A detailed investigation is expected shortly, but $600 a month needs to be raised to pay for all the legal expenses. Please see his website for further information: Justice For Jimmy
While this is good news for Jimmy's case, his health is faltering. He has been suffering from an illness that requires medical tests that the prison officials have repeatedly denied him. He asks that you take time to write a letter to the Superintendent as well as the prison doctor and urge them to allow him these tests.
Superintendent Price and also Dr. Charles Rossi
Waking Up From The Nightmare
(Editor's Note: Jeff Modahl appeared in our very first issue at a time when he was still begging for anyone to hear his claim that he was innocent. Nick Peters, who has contributed other stories to Justice: Denied (Felito Mendoza and John Stoll), and supplied Jeff's story to us originally, has supported Modahl's claim of innocence with unflagging devotion. Modahl's new-found freedom is a victory to savor, and one that underscores the importance of our efforts in behalf of the innocent. Join us in helping to free innocent people.)
The Jeffrey Modahl Story
Jeffrey Modahl's nightmare started like many others -- suddenly. One minute, he was minding his own business in the privacy of his home, and the next, he was in police custody for a crime he had not committed. Modahl's perspective on his arrest is raw, "To have them walk in the door and stick a gun in your nose and tell you you're being arrested for molesting your daughter, it's just like a nightmare. I went nuts. I don't think anyone knows what stress is until you're put into that kind of situation."
Targeted in a witch hunt style prosecutorial frenzy, Modahl was then convicted and sentenced to 48 years in prison.That was fifteen years ago. Jeffrey Modahl was one of fifty Kern County, California residents arrested for sex crimes against their children in the mid-1980s in the nation's largest prosecution of child molesters. Of the fifty parents arrested and charged, half were sent to prison with sentences in the hundreds of years. More than a dozen of those found guilty were later shown to be innocent in cases tainted by prosecutorial misconduct, overzealous investigation and the testimony of brainwashed children.
Jeffrey Modahl's decision to forgo a jury trial in this hysterical climate may have been well-founded, but his fate at the hands of Judge Walter Condley who found him guilty and called him a "depraved" human being was no safer. Justice advocate and well-known California attorney Joe Burton discovered that some of the children who originally testified wanted to sign affidavits that their stories of molestation were false. In 1987, Modahl's daughter, Carla, changed her story, bringing him hope in the form of a new hearing.
However, her testimony was not enough to sway Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Sparks, who still believed Modahl to be guilty, saying that it's common for victims to change their stories over a period of time because of family pressure. The judge didn't believe Carla's recantation either and Jeffrey Modahl was sent back to prison, his hopes for justice dashed.
This year, however, California Supreme Court Judge John Kelly ruled on two pieces of evidence he says should have been available to Modahl's defense before his trial, but were withheld by the state: a medical exam from1984 showing no signs of molestation in Modahl's then 9 year-old daughter Carla and a tape of an interview with Jeffrey Modahl's stepdaughter, Teresa.
Judge Kelly ruled that the interview with Teresa showed the state's interviewer using techniques which would be likely to generate false and unreliable accusations of sex abuse and that the same unethical techniques may have been used with other children, including Carla.
According to appellate court testimony, social worker Velda Murillo, a central figure in many of the Kern County cases including Modahl's, believed that the use of leading and suggestive questions was not only acceptable but essential in overcoming a child's tendency to protect relatives. Carla Modahl, now 25, recalled that Velda Murillo and a sheriff's detective came to her school and took her into the principal's office, to question her for 4 1/2 hours. She relates that they kept on pressuring her, saying her dad had touched her, and she kept telling them, "No, he didn't."
They told her they had pictures and hounded her in a way a 9 year-old should never be hounded. She recalls that it went on for so long that it made her believe her dad really did do those things to her.
On May 18 of this year, Jeffrey Modahl was in his jail cell watching television, when suddenly, the face that appeared on the nightly news was his own and the story was the stuff of dreams! Dramatically, the long-awaited news that his conviction had been overturned brought a good portion of Jeffrey Modahl's nightmare to an end nearly as suddenly as it had begun.
In interviews, Modahl said, "It was a total out-of-body experience. I started yelling at the guys, 'Hey, this is me on the tube, my conviction's been set aside and I'm going home! I was so weak in the knees that if I had tried to take a step, I would have fallen flat on my face. After 15 years, I had finally gotten justice."
Carla Modahl recently wrote her father a note asking for his forgiveness, "I am so happy that you are home, but I'm so sorry that you had to wait for so long. Maybe I will forgive myself completely someday. I'm just not ready yet."
It's no surprise that Jeffrey Modahl is much happier now at home than he was in prison. His positive attitude is infectious, "I don't want the days to end!" Also not surprising is that he has a whole new set of problems to face.
Last month, he returned to his 10-acre property in Bakersfield which is littered with painfully real reminders of fifteen long years of legal battles -- abandoned machinery and assorted vehicles, once intended for a construction business, now stripped of parts that had to be sold for pennies on the dollar to raise money for his defense. Not only did the prosecutors' Blind-eye and Broad-brush approach destroy fifteen years of Jeffrey Modahl's life, but their actions in ignoring exculpatory evidence and their manufacturing of details for a phantom crime crippled his financial aspirations.
"It (success) was there in our grasp," Modahl said of his once-promising business. "Kern County took it away." Modahl plans to file a lawsuit against the county that took such liberties with his rights. His attorney, Michael Snedeker, citing repeated instances of key documents hidden and never turned over in Kern County, expressed his concern over the injustice suffered by his client, wondering if it wasn't something even more corrupt.
The joy of Jeffrey Modahl's new found freedom is shared by many including
long-time supporter Nicholas Peters who authored a comprehensive website about the case
Heroes at The Bar, Banks and Cooney, Work Pro Bono for 11 years...and it paid off. Banks and Cooney free John Thompson After 15 Years Behind Bars
by Clara A. Thomas Boggs
Fifteen years ago, two crimes occurred -- crimes having nothing to do with John Thompson. Fifteen years ago, Thompson was sentenced to death row for those crimes. He claimed innocence but no one listened.
Enter Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney, Jr. As partners of the Morgan, Lewis and Blockius Law firm, they were handling employment litigation and commercial litigation when they became involved in Thompson's case. On their first capital case they had a most formidable foe, New Orleans DA, Harry Connick, Sr.
DA Connick, the senior, is a far cry from his son, the romantic and sensitive crooner, Harry Connick, Jr. The Senior Connick has been known to play a little music himself at the good old boys clubs in the jazz capital of the world, but he is most known for being the leader of the most unscrupulous bunch of prosecutors around.
After 25 years as New Orleans DA, Harry Connick is being forced to admit that hiding evidence to put people on death row is improper behavior. Suppressing evidence to win capital cases has been almost routine in Connick's office.
For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction that left Curtis Kyles on death row for 11 years, due to prosecutor misconduct. Connick kept after Kyles, giving up only when he failed after trying him for the fifth time. Kyles was released from death row February 16, 1998. Throwing out Shareef Cousin's murder conviction and death sentence last year, the state Supreme Court noted that Connick's prosecutors had concealed evidence that was "obviously exculpatory." Connick did not try Cousin again. The Kyles and Cousin cases are the most well known of Connick's misconduct, but many defense lawyers and judges say they fit a familiar pattern.
This "Trophy" adorns the desk of James Allen Williams -- John
Thompson's prosecutor. John Thompson, who was just released from the wrongful conviction
inflicted on him by Jim Williams, is the man in front. Please note: Four of the men
pictured on the "trophy" have been released from death
row. Only one remains.
Michael Banks and Gordon Cooney Jr. handled John Thompson's appeal on a pro bono basis since 1988 through the Loyola Capital Defense Fund, which coordinates defenses for indigent death row inmates. They worked on the case for 11 years, giving up many thousands of dollars worth of billable hours. Banks has no regrets, although he says Thompson's case was an emotional roller coaster for him and Gordon Cooney. He said it was a rewarding experience, but that it was hard to concentrate on work with the execution of a man he'd come to like looming over him.
Thompson's state and federal appeals were exhausted and he was scheduled to die May 20. Not a team to give up, Banks and Cooney hired a private detective to see if any new evidence could be uncovered. Time was running out for Thompson.
The investigator's discoveries stopped the train of death in its tracks and pointed the finger at prosecutor misconduct. The New Orleans prosecutors had withheld physical evidence that could have exonerated Thompson in the unrelated robbery conviction that played a major role when he was sentenced for murder. One robbery victim had struggled with the attacker and that blood went all over his pants and one of his shoes. A lab test identified the attacker's blood as Type B. The victim and Thompson both have Type O blood. Thompson's trial attorney did not know of this test. If he had been given the evidence the prosecutors had, Thompson would have beaten the armed robbery rap.
Thompson and his codefendant were arrested for the Dec. 8, 1984, shooting death of Ray Liuzza, a hotel executive. Following the arrest, three young people who'd been car-jacked and robbed just weeks after the murder, saw the media coverage and accused Thompson of that crime. He was charged with that robbery.
The murder arrest came first, but the wily New Orleans prosecutors found a way to delay the murder trial until the robbery trial was over so they could get a death penalty for Thompson at the sentencing phase of the murder trial. That manipulation was very effective. Since Thompson was convicted of the robbery and got a sentence of 49 years, there was no way he could testify in his own behalf during the guilt phase of the murder trial because they would bring up the robbery conviction if he did.
That cleared the way for the DA to present him as a violent felon who would be put away for 49 years in prison anyway. The jury bought it. The investigator the Morgan Lewis attorneys hired found a police report from the robbery incident revealing that a bloody pair of pants worn by one of the victims had blood from the killer on them. The blood did not match Thompson's type.
According to Banks, records showed that the prosecutors checked physical evidence out of a storage locker before the robbery trial, but never returned the bloody pants after the trial. Documents also showed that prosecutors in the robbery and murder cases knew about the pants.
Banks said he went to New Orleans three times in two weeks, and that when one of the prosecutors in the case was first asked about this information, he denied it. From there, they went to a former ADA who screened the robbery case because he said he wanted to talk so Banks flew down again. That ADA said he knew of at least one DA who admitted to concealing it.
For the first time in his 25 years as DA, Harry Connick will join the defense in a request to stay an execution. He almost cannot do otherwise, for the paper trail leading to the missing blood evidence may clear Thompson of the armed robbery. Asked to respond to the case, Connick said he thought complaints about earlier cases were "frivolous, almost absurd," whereas the Thompson case is "unsettling."
After the stay was granted, Connick launched a grand jury probe to determine the level of misconduct by prosecutors. Whether this grand jury investigation is a sincere attempt to hunt down unethical prosecutors or merely a stunt performed for the public, at least Connick has been forced to admit that justice has not been served.
Banks and Cooney are not waiting for the grand jury. They aim to get Thompson's
robbery conviction reversed and a new murder trial for him. Thompson has refused all
offers of a plea agreement and has consistently maintained his innocence. Louisiana is
rife with corruption in almost every quarter of its legal system. Connick and other
prosecutors are only beginning to be put on the defensive as more interest is centered on
the wrongly convicted. How many more innocent people will be found behind bars in
A review of the movie: Life
Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Directed by Ted Demme.
by Hans Sherrer
"Hollywood has gone too far," was my first thought when I heard about a new movie called Life on the radio. The announcer said it was a fresh new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Its story line was simple. Murphy and Lawrence play two men imprisoned 65 years for a murder they didn't commit.
I was dumbfounded. How could any Hollywood producer stoop so low as to make a comedy about the horror of two guys wrongly imprisoned for their entire adult lives? I made up my mind. "That is one movie I'm definitely not going to see, and that's that!"
Life opened in April, and after it had been in local theaters for several weeks, I heard several people describe it as being more than a lame comedy. My curiosity was aroused, so I began to hedge on my earlier decision not to see it. After arguing with myself for a bit, I decided I would see the movie as a sort of research project. I would take a couple of hours to find out how badly the movie makers had mangled the truth in their pursuit of making money by providing people with some comedic entertainment.
Not wanting to blow more than the discount admission price on a movie I wasn't eager to see, I decided to go to a Sunday afternoon matinee. Entering the auditorium, I was struck by something extraordinary. In an area of Seattle where you can go an entire day without seeing a single black man or woman -- the majority of the surprisingly large audience was black.When the movie was over, I had some understanding of why there were so many blacks in the audience.
Munching on popcorn as the lights dimmed and the movie started, I was anything but unbiased. Being open minded, however, I was willing to give Eddie Murphy a chance to prove he didn't commit the sacrilege of making fun of people whose lives were decimated by being falsely convicted of murder and imprisoned for life.
The movie begins in 1932. Eddie Murphy plays Ray, a fast- talking, spirited dreamer who wants to have his own speakeasy -- "Ray's Boom Boom Room." Martin Lawrence is Claude, a quiet and methodical man eager to start his new job as a bank teller so he can be financially stable enough to marry his sweetheart, Daisy. Ray and Claude begin as strangers living in New York who happen to meet one night at Spanky's, a hot nightclub. After a series of events, they wind up in Mississippi needing to buy and haul a load of liquor to New York for Spanky, to whom they both owe money. Ray is always ready to have a good time, so after picking up their load of booze he gets them into an awkward situation that prevents them from leaving Mississippi. Found near a dead man they didn't kill, they are wrongly convicted of a murder they didn't commit. Ray and Claude are sentenced to life and spend the next 65 years together as the property of the State of Mississippi Department of Corrections. The Boom Boom Room remains a dream in Ray's mind, and Claude can only fantasize how life with Daisy would have been.
I won't give away any more of the plot but, to my surprise, within the first ten minutes I realized that my expectations of the movie were wrong. Life is neither a slapstick comedy, nor does it grossly mangle the truth about the way people falsely accused of committing a crime are treated. Certain parts of it are even reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke, but with a liberal sprinkling of "dark humor" consistent with the gravity of Ray's and Claude's predicament.
I was impressed by how Life mixed a great deal of meat in with Eddie Murphy's and Martin Lawrence's low-key humor. A list of meaty themes it presents:
Police perjury is pervasive.
This list of themes should make it abundantly clear that Life is anything but an insignificant comedy, although it entertainingly conveys these serious messages without being preachy by skillfully combining humor, drama, photography and social commentary.
Thinking about the way Life deftly deals with its serious subject matter reminded me of why Rod Serling started The Twilight Zone television series in 1960. As one of the most well-known and highly paid television writers during the 1950's, Rod Serling constantly battled to keep the censors who worked for sponsors from stripping controversial themes and meaningful dialogue from his scripts. He decided there was only one way he could consistently slip serious scripts past the advertising censors. He had to submit them for review under the guise that they weren't to be taken literally because they were only "science fiction" stories from The Twilight Zone. It may not have been done consciously, but Life has mimicked Rod Serling's ingenious idea. By appearing to be an Eddie Murphy comedy, it has slipped some of the most serious and tragic themes of our time into movie theaters all across America to be shown many hundreds of times daily.
Apart from having many black actors, the troubling story told by Life may help explain the predominantly black audience at the theater I attended. In general, non-whites can relate to a movie revolving around false imprisonment more than whites. This is because non-whites are imprisoned at a dramatically higher rate than whites, even though it is known that the overwhelming amount of crime in America is committed and condoned by upper class white people who occupy positions of financial control and political power. A few of the many books that document this are: ... And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice by Jeffrey Reiman (1996), White-Collar Crime: Offenses in Business, Politics, and the Professions edited by Gilbert Geis & Robert F. Meier (1977), and Power, Crime, and Mystification by Steven Box (1983).
Among other things, these books explain that crimes by businessmen, professionals, and politicians not only exceed the annual dollar value of all "street and drug crimes" by a factor of more than fifty, but they also inflict much more physical harm, including deaths, on lower- and middle-class Americans than do "street criminals."
An example of this is that avoidable deaths attributed to business practices, professional activities and political decisions are not classified as murder, so they are not prosecuted as crimes. A national study released last year emphasized this by revealing that up to 135,000 healthy people a year die in hospitals from adverse reactions to doctor-prescribed drugs, yet I can't recollect hearing of any doctor who was prosecuted for contributing to these unnecessary deaths. On the other hand, the 17,000 deaths officially classified by police as murders last year were predominantly committed by people in the lower economic and social class of American society.
Life acts as a mirror to reflect the plain truth that politically institutionalized racism against the poor and defenseless is alive and well in the USA of 1999. In its April, 1999 issue, Esquire magazine exposed a particularly crass example of this. Investigative reporter Gary Webb revealed that the federal government has a policy of training and encouraging police nationwide to target blacks for traffic stops using racial profiling. It is known as DWB: driving while black.
There are two aspects of Life that didn't ring true, although they are minor compared to the movie's good points. It portrayed one man who briefly served as Ray and Claude's prison warden in their later years as having a compassionate heart of gold, and the ending was all Hollywood.
Life is poignant, entertaining and remarkably accurate about many of the real-world ways hordes of innocent people are routinely prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. With Eddie Murphy's seemingly effortless charm leading the way, Life won me over. It definitely rates a thumbs up.
© Justice Denied