Tiny Town Stalked By Serial Killer

This is a story about a little town called Chillicothe in the Midwest of the United States. They call this area the Rust Belt. It is a very unflattering term given to a region in America, which has experienced devastating economic decline, population loss and urban decay due to the collapse of its once powerful industrial sector. It is by no means an exception that Chillicothe would be afflicted by the usual problems of drugs, poverty and unemployment. A lot of towns in this part of the world carry that stigma. But Chillicothe could be said to have fallen a long way further than the rest. Two hundred years ago it was Ohio’s first capital. It’s a boast they still include on the city sign. This is a place rarely mentioned in a headline of any kind unless some Presidential or Congressional candidate blows in promising to do this, that and the other to make life better for the town’s 21 thousand citizens, only to completely forget once election day came and went.

But lately Chillicothe is in the news for an entirely different reason. It is dark, sinister and extremely evil. It seems Chillicothe is also home to a serial killer who keeps murdering young women. In just over a year, at least six women have disappeared from the town. Four of their bodies were later discovered dumped in creeks or streams that flow out of the city. In every way it is a tragically, familiar story. Most of these women addicted to drugs or moonlighting as prostitutes to feed and fund their habit so local police say. Some of the missing women even knew each other. Understandably, the similarities between all of the victims, and the crime scenes has the residents of Chillicothe terrified. It is a murder mystery that local police, several county sheriff’s offices and State investigators are doing their best to try to solve. Even the FBI’s crime profilers are helping with the investigation trying to build a picture of who might be responsible.

“I don’t want to come out and say ‘yes, we have a serial killer’ but it’s a small community that we live in . . . and the number of females who have come up missing, and then the bodies that we’ve found, that’s quite a bit for our community,” Staff Lieutenant Mike Preston of the Ross County Sheriff’s Department told The Washington Post. “The community is starting to get concerned. Everyone just wants answers.”

In the absence of answers – and arrests – the citizens of Chillicothe are getting scared. Of course the most obvious conclusion is that a serial killer is stalking prostitutes and that fear is swirling around the town like the winds off the Great Lakes. Jessica Sayre’s older sister, Tiffany, is the latest victim. Her body was found in a drainage pipe on Saturday after she had been missing for more than a month. Obviously there has to be something going on, Sayre says. “Apparently my sister was the next target.”

Women began disappearing a year ago from Chillicothe, about an hour south of Columbus. “We are battling a problem with heroin in our community,” says Mike Preston of the Ross County Sheriff’s Department.

And of course that means prostitution is on the rise as well.

Charlotte Trego was the first woman to vanish. She was in her late 20s with wavy brown hair and glasses, a mother of two who had fallen on hard times. “She started taking pain pills and graduated to heroin,” according to the Columbus Dispatch. In the spring of 2014, Trego told her mother that she was ready to get herself drug free. Her Mother found a rehab centre. But then Trego was evicted by her roommate and was last seen on May 3, 2014. As one scribe put it, her disappearance was as if Chillicothe’s increasingly dangerous streets simply swallowed her whole. Police are certain she is dead but her body has not been found. That same day, a friend of Trego’s, Tameka Lynch, also vanished. Like Trego, Lynch had drug problems. “She used and she kind of was struggling, especially after she was diagnosed with lupus,”

Lynch’s cousin, Chasity Lett, told the Huffington Post. “Once that happened and she lost her place, it kind of triggered the whole drug thing.” Lynch, a 30-year-old mother of three, financed her deepening addiction by selling her body. Lynch was the first of Chillicothe’s missing women to be found. On May 24, three weeks after her disappearance, a kayaker spotted Lynch’s body on a sandbar in Paint Creek outside of town. The Ross County coroner’s office determined she died of a multiple-drug overdose. But Lynch was afraid of the water, her mother Angela Robinson told the Dispatch. “Somebody needs to pay for this,” Robinson said, speculating her daughter was murdered. “She was already dead when she was put in the water.”

In the year since, four more women vanished. On November 3, 2014, six months after Trego and Lynch disappeared another woman would go missing. She was Wanda Lemons a 37-year-old mother of five. “She just disappeared out of thin air,” her daughter, Megan Hodges, told the Huffington Post. “I just want them to find out what happened to her.”

Two months later, Shasta Himelrick was found dead, floating in the Scioto River outside of Chillicothe. In December, she had told friends she was “eating for two.” But on Christmas Day, the pregnant 20-year-old blond received a text message while visiting her grandmother. Himelrick left, promising to return, but never did. A Chillicothe gas station recorded her on CCTV. Hours later, her abandoned car was found on a bridge south of town. The doors were open, the tank empty, and the battery dead. Himelrick’s body was retrieved from the water eight days later. The coroner ruled her death was a suicide but Himelrick’s friends are convinced it was murder.

Tiffany Sayre went missing under similar circumstances. It was around midnight on May 11 and Sayre and friend Jessie Sanford were working as prostitutes at a local motel. “She was doing business at the Chillicothe Inn,” Sanford said. . “She left to run to her grandmother’s house and was going to go back to the hotel to meet the same people so she could make some more money. I don’t know what happened. I think somebody took her.”

Kenneth Buell, who was Sayre’s ex-boyfriend and the father of their two children, told The Washington Post that the couple took heroin and crack cocaine together. “For a couple of years we were both on drugs,” he said. Buell said he got clean a year ago, but Sayre couldn’t and the couple broke up. “She couldn’t kick it,” he said. “It just had a hold of her.”

Jessica Sayre said her sister met another man and tried to go straight. But when her new boyfriend died in April rom a blood clot, Tiffany returned to drugs. “It hit my sister really hard. She really loved him,” Jessica Sayre said. “They had planned on moving, going to this other place, actually getting married and having a life together. I think she did the drugs a little more to help with the pain. She didn’t want to be in her right mind because she didn’t feel like it was the right thing. “The night she apparently went missing, she talked about how she wanted to get her life straight and go clean,” Sayre said. “My sister did these things that we did not approve of to get money for drugs, because we didn’t want to be the source of money for those types of things. She did what she had to do.” Sayre’s family put out missing person flyers and held candlelight vigils, but heard nothing. While they were waiting, another woman, Timberly Clayton, was found dead: shot in the head three times and left in a ditch near another creek. Authorities have named a prime suspect in the killing but have not yet charged him with the crime.

Finally, last Saturday, Sayre became the last victim in the string of disappearances. A couple out for a Saturday evening walk through a nature preserve south of Chillicothe, spotted something white at the edge of a drainage pipe running underneath the road. Sayre’s naked body had been wrapped in a bed sheet and hidden inside the culvert with duct tape wrapped around her strawberry blond hair. “She’s wrapped up in a blanket and you can see her breasts, her stomach, duct tape, a white blanket,” the female passerby told a 911 dispatcher. “We were hoping that she was still alive,” Jessica Sayre said. “You’re wishing and hoping and then all of a sudden you get a phone call saying that your loved one has been found, but not the way you wanted to find her.” ” She got murdered,” Buell said. “Somebody took her away and it was intentional.”

Authorities ruled Sayre’s death a homicide. The grisly discovery helped launch the task force, which now includes more than a dozen members, including FBI analysts. The task force decided to investigate the cases of all six missing women, even those formerly considered suicides. And the investigation could expand to at least three other women who went missing from nearby Portsmouth and Columbus. Police admit a serial killer is a possibility with the apparent pattern of dumping the bodies along waterways outside the city.

“This wasn’t just a simple overdose,” Jessica Sayre said of her sister’s death. “They could have called the police. We didn’t have to find her like this.”

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is analysing the forensics found at the scene and the task force received more than 100 tips in just a few days, but is still searching for a witness. But as authorities investigate the growing number of deaths and disappearances, some locals say the police are part of the problem. “The day I reported her missing was very upsetting to me,” Trego’s mother, Yvonne Boggs, told the Huffington Post. “The cop said, ‘Women like your daughter take off because they don’t want to be bothered.’ It was like they looked into it up to a certain point and then quit looking.”

“The police didn’t take it serious and just blew me off,” Lynch’s mother, Angela Robinson, told the same Web site. Sayre’s family said they had also been kept in the dark. Kenneth Buell even blames the authorities. Both he and Jessica Sayre said police and authorities abandoned Chillicothe a long time ago. “It’s not safe,” he said. “The last five, six seven years it’s gone to hell. You can’t walk around by yourself, especially females.”

“I feel like Chillicothe has turned for the worst,” Jessica Sayre said. “Now they are going to start picking up the pieces, but this town has really gone down with drugs. It’s got pretty bad.” She says that despite the discovery of her sister’s body, her family will continue to hold vigils for Trego and Lemons, the two other women who disappeared but haven’t been found. “It’s been a nightmare for us,” she said of Tiffany’s death. “Nothing is going to bring her back, but we are going to get justice. And we are going to pray for these other women who missing in Chillicothe.”

What It’s Like To Be Black In Land Of Free

Something happened the other day, that for me, has become a metaphor for what it’s like to be born black and to live in the USA.

It isn’t pretty, or tolerant, or just, or even human.

In fact it’s about as unjust as injustice could possibly be.

It concerns the case of 22-year-old, Kalief Browder, who last week took his own life aged 22. When a human being decides their life is not worth living, at such a young age, it is always a tragedy. Often the reasons are far from clear-cut. Reasons, that are understandable only to them and a complete mystery to everyone else.

But Kalief Browder’s decision to end his life was perfectly understandable. But trust me, knowing why he did it doesn’t help. If anything, it only makes his death even more tragic, if that is possible.

As a teenager, Browder spent three years in New York’s notorious Rikers’ Island prison, two of them in solitary confinement, for a crime he didn’t do. He was, and is, completely innocent. He was never convicted. Never even tried. In fact all charges against him were ultimately dismissed.

No I am not joking.

It is no understatement to describe Rikers as one of America’s hardest prisons. Think the New York version of San Francisco’s Alcatraz. The inmates who end up in Rikers, are the worst of the worst. Many of them gang members. But if the video, smuggled out showing some of Kalief Browder’s incarceration is any guide, it’s a line ball in deciding who was the more brutal, the inmates or the some of the enforcers masquerading as prison guards. He was beaten by prison guards and, on at least one occasion, came face-to-face with gang members who punched and kicked him while he was defenseless on the floor.

To understand how this could occur in a country supposedly built on the inalienable rights of its citizens we need to travel back in time. The year is 2010. Kalief Browder’s life is about to be turned upside down during a routine walk home from a friend’s house in the Belmont section of the Bronx, the northernmost of the five boroughs of New York City. Browder, is approached by police, not far from Little Italy, a popular strip of cafes and bakeries, where business boomed during the day but was all but dead at night. He is accused of robbery, searched and, despite possessing nothing out of the ordinary, is arrested and later charged with robbery, grand larceny and assault.

In 2013, Browder recounted that night to US media.

“This guy comes out of nowhere and says I robbed him. And the next thing I know they are putting cuffs on me. I don’t know this dude.”

Despite this travesty, Browder doesn’t just end up in custody. For some inexplicable reason he is sent to Rikers. It would be hell on earth for anyone let alone an innocent man.

In an interview last July, Browder told ABC News that he was held at Rikers for three years because his mother could not afford to pay his bail, set at $3,500, and his trial kept getting delayed. “Only thing on my mind was that I gotta go home, I didn’t do this,” said Browder, who was 16 when he was first incarcerated at Rikers. “Now, I’m in jail around these grown men and they’re, you know, they’re fighting each other. I don’t know. It was like hell on Earth.”

In the first incident of violence captured on video, a guard escorts Browder from his cell before throwing him face first into the concrete floor. In the second incident,again captured on video, Browder, is spat on by a gang leader. He defends himself and throws a punch in retaliation before being set upon by more than 10 inmates, all of whom kick and punch him while guards try in vain to regain control.

At other times, Browder is left alone with his thoughts. Unfortunately, left alone in solitary confinement — two of his three years at Rikers Island were spent in a section of the prison known as “the Bing.”

Through it all, he quite rightly maintained his innocence but it had a physical and mental effect on him. On more than one occasion, Browder contemplated suicide. “It was all just in my head to the point where I had to just grab my head,” he told American television in 2013. “I can’t take it.” After 634 days in custody, Browder tore up his bed sheet, tied it together to make a noose, attached it to the light fixture and tried to hang himself. Later that year, his High School classmates graduated without him. In 2013, he was released without a trial, a verdict or an apology.

Just let go.

But of course he wasn’t free. Outside prison, he attempted suicide again. On that occasion, in November of 2013, Browder tried to hang himself from a banister. He was taken to a psychiatric ward and later released. One of his supporters who interviewed him and was instrumental in having footage of his time in prison made public, said he went down hill after that.

“He was gaunt, restless and deeply paranoid,” she would write. Finally, in 2015, Kalief Browder succeeded where he had twice failed. He took his own life at his mother’s home by hanging himself with an electrical cord.

His lawyer said he had no doubt Kalief Browder killed himself because of “his incarceration and those hundreds and hundreds of nights in solitary confinement, where there were mice crawling up his sheets in that little cell.

“I think it was too much for him,” he said.

The New York authorities including the Mayor have publicly said they are “saddened” by Kalief Browder’s death.

But perhaps his lawyer should have the final say: “I’m cynical because it was the system that essentially killed him and the fact that so many young men have gone through this already. We’ll pick up the pieces, we’ll go forward and fight for justice because we don’t have a choice. That’s what Kalief would have wanted. Kalief wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’re optimistic that ultimately, there’ll be a silver lining for his family, his city and this country.”

The reality is Kalief Browder is owed a debt that can never be repaid. Shame on all of them.

Senior Church Figure Under Pressure To Appear Before Royal Commission

A tawdry melodrama is currently being played out in Sydney. It is called the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. It has already heard months of evidence. There’s been understandably teary witnesses recalling distressing and life changing events in lurid detail. There are a battery of lawyers doing what they do best, earning exorbitant fees, asking the odd probing question, all the while trying to shield some of the organisations and individuals they are representing from deserved scrutiny. Nevertheless, there are a number of organisations and religions, which are being forced to admit to wrongdoing. Right at the present time, it is the Catholic Church in the spotlight and being forced to relive the sins of its priests and brothers. But one Catholic administrator, a Cardinal no less called George Pell, who currently runs the Vatican Bank, is very much in the commission’s cross hairs. Certainly not for abusing young boys or girls but over allegations that he did not do the right thing by the victims of this abuse. I was interested in discovering why the Commission in general and abuse victims in particular wanted Cardinal Pell to appear as a witness. So i did a bit of digging.

George Pell, at one time, ran the Sydney Archdiocese of the Catholic Church before his promotion to Rome.  One of the cornerstones of the allegations against Pell concerns the legal claim by one abuse victim, a man called John Ellis. It turns out that the Royal Commission has already released a report where it examined the way the church handled complaints of sexual abuse, particularly those made by Ellis. It also turns out that the church spent more than $1 million fighting a legal battle against Ellis despite the fact that he was seeking only a tenth of that amount as a settlement of his claim. Worse still, the Commission found, the Catholic Church put him through “ distressing and unnecessary cross-examination” and threatened him with legal costs. The reports said the “archdiocese of Sydney wrongly concluded that it had never accepted that a priest abused Mr Ellis. This conclusion allowed Cardinal Pell to instruct the archdiocese’s lawyers to maintain the non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse. The archdiocese accepted the advice of its lawyers to vigorously defend Mr Ellis’s claims,” the report concluded.

The report confirms statements made by Pell who admitted this motivation in a public hearing of the Royal Commission in March of last year. “ One reason Cardinal Pell decided to accept this advice was to encourage other prospective plaintiffs not to litigate claims of child sexual abuse against the church.”

The other reasons the Commission found was that Pell believed Ellis was seeking “exorbitant damages” of millions of dollars with Pell “explicitly” endorsing the major strategies of the defence, to defend the proposition that the trustees were not liable, if an offence had been admitted by the archdiocese.”

It found that the church “failed” Ellis and “ did not make a compassionate response as its first priority.”

“ Some seven months after the fact of Mr Ellis’s abuse had first been put into dispute, the archdiocese on behalf of the trustees and the archbishop, sought to put itself in a position where it could maintain a non-admission of Mr Ellis’s abuse because this was in in the interests of the church in the litigation,” the Commission found.

Among its 34 findings in the Ellis case, the Royal Commission said it agreed with Pell’s statement during the hearings that “ the archdiocese, the trustees and he, as archbishop, did not act fairly from a Christian point of view in the conduct of the litigation against Mr Ellis.” It found a raft of “systemic issues” in the Catholic church.

In its dealings with another abuse victim, a woman called Joan Isaacs, who was abused by a Brisbane priest, the Catholic church was “unfair, mean and broke its own protocols in several instances,” the Royal Commission found. “ In 1998, the church knew that the priest had been convicted of two counts of indecent assault and the church did nothing until September 2011,” the report said. The priest was not dismissed from his church role until November 2013, more than 40 years after the abuse and 15 years after his conviction. “ It was not compassionate, fair or just” when it required Isaac to sign a deed of release which effectively gagged her from speaking about the settlement she received or from making “disparaging remarks” about the church. “ Confidentiality clauses should never have been included in deeds of release relating to child sexual abuse,” the report said. As you might expect, Joan Isaacs is over the moon at these latest developments.

“ I am deeply grateful to the Commission for upholding those two findings,” Isaac said. “ The silencing seriously affected my ability to heal and had a damaging effect on my emotional wellbeing. It brought about nearly 13 years of additional suffering for me as it held the same power over me as my abuser did when I was a child. I am grateful for having been released from the silence clauses. I have no doubt that those silence clauses would still be in effect to this day had it not been for the work of the Royal Commission.”

Isaac also thanked the Commission for “ exposing the true dealings” she had with the Catholic church. “ The Royal Commission has shown that the Catholic church or the archdiocese of Brisbane departed substantially from the undertakings they gave,” she said. “It is now public knowledge that the Catholic church invited me into a situation which brought me more pain and suffering.”

But returning to the case of Cardinal George Pell, it seems the tragic victims of sexual abuse, or more specifically their lawyers, have some tough questions they want to put to him and he has said publicly that he is prepared to return in person to give evidence. Watch this space.

Ohio Judge: Serving Cold Dish Of Revenge More Palatable than Justice

I’m not usually given to making extravagant statements. Most of the time. Ok. Make that under normal circumstances. But quite frankly, what I am about to tell you, really belongs in La La land.

It concerns the United States Justice system. Of course it would. You could not get a more spectacular example of eccentricity than the court system in the good old US and A and mostly never, make that rarely, in a good way.

So come with me, if you will, to Painesville, Ohio ( suitably named as you will discover) and the court of Judge Michael Cicconetti. Appearing before him was defendant Diamond T Gaston. Yes that is her real name. Gaston pleaded guilty to assault by using pepper spray on her victim. Now I have no interest in the whys and wherefores or even the merits of this case. What I am interested in, and focused on, was what Judge Cicconetti gave her by way of punishment.

I don’t know what law he was implementing in this case. I would simply call it the law of the jungle. This wise judge gave Gaston a choice: 30 days in jail or being sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Yes you have read it correctly.

So Gaston decided to opt for the pepper spray in the face. Before I tell you what happened next. Let’s just reflect on this for a moment. This is not justice. This is not rehabilitation. This is revenge. Pure and simple. I am sure there are some luddites who think that Gaston got what she deserved. Funny I thought courts of law were supposed to do exactly what the description suggests. Administer the law and dispense justice. What happened here is a charade. What happened next only goes to prove it.

Judge Cicconetti wasn’t done with Gaston. It would be pretty inhumane and pretty damning for a court to be sanctioning a defendant to be pepper sprayed as a form of punishment. So the judge substituted pepper spray for a non-harmful, water based substance. Or course he didn’t tell Gaston’s victim who sprayed it into Gaston’s face nor did he tell Gaston nor did he go on to tell her that the “punishment” would be videotaped. Does it mitigate what happened in any way? Not in my view.

But apparently this judge is well known for his eccentric ways of dispensing justice. For example, in another case where a woman pleaded guilty to theft by failing to pay a cab driver, she was given the option of 60 days jail or to walk the distance of her cab ride. She was given 48 hours to complete the 30 mile (48.6 kilometer) journey and ordered to pay $100 restitution. In the past, as part of the punishment, he ordered a drunk driver to view the bodies of car crash victims in the morgue. I wonder what the relatives of the deceased had to say about that. I wonder if they were even asked.

Judge Cicconetti, once ordered a group of teenagers to dress in green from head to toe after they were caught playing the game ding-dong-ditch. Apparently this game involves ringing the doorbell of a random house, splattering it with paint balls and then running away.

In my opinion, for what it’s worth, and using an Australian saying, Judge Cicconetti thinks like he’s a few sausages short of a bbq or got a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. In other words, he is lacking in clarity of thought. Or maybe “kangaroo” should be the way to describe how he runs his courtroom. It probably sounds outrageous for me to say but I really do think Judges are trained to rise above petty notions of spite and revenge when it comes to deciding on an appropriate punishment. Yes, justice needs to be done for the sake of the victim but the law needs to also consider the notion of a proper and appropriate reflection of society, its values and acting like a measured and rational human being. Sorry, but doing unto others, what they would do, or have done to you, just doesn’t cut it as a concept of penal or judicial reform, in my view. That’s my rant for the day.

Pirate Movie Downloaders. Beware. They’re Coming To Get You

A not so quiet revolution is being played out in the Federal Court of Australia. It’s a legal case with Tsunami like implications that could pretty much engulf most of the world. No, I am not being melodramatic.

In fact this court decision, will result in some unwelcome questions being asked wherever there’s a computer, and a person sitting in front of it, downloading pirated movies. When you put the two together it amounts to a shedload of people. Now do you see where this is a going?

If you still don’t, let me explain.

The case was a commercial action involving the copyright owners of a movie called The Dallas Buyers Club. I can’t profess to know much about the film other than it features some big Hollywood names like Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto. Clearly it was enough of a box office success for a lot of people to want to download the movie illegally. The copyright owners of The Dallas Buyers Club were understandably pissed that this was happening because it was costing them money. A lot of money. So they decided to do something about it. You could call it a testing of the waters.

In a nutshell, a Federal Court judge ordered several Australian internet service providers, including a very large one called iiNet, to hand over to a film studio, the identities of thousands of account holders whose internet connections were allegedly used to share an unauthorized copy of the Dallas Buyers Club movie. In a landmark judgment, Justice Nye Perram ruled in favour of Dallas Buyers Club LLC’s “preliminary discovery” application requesting that the ISPs disclose the identities of people it alleges shared the movie online.

Preliminary discovery. Such a quaint legal term but in this particular case it means dire consequences for pirate movie downloaders. In addition to iiNet, ISPs Dodo, Internode, Amnet Broadband, Adam Internet and Wideband Networks will also be required to hand over customer details. Even if these ISPs weren’t big companies, even if their list of subscribers was small, the devil is in the detail. It’s the implications of what this decision means that’s important. It is unclear whether iiNet will  appeal the decision before the Full Court of the Federal Court. They have 28 days to do so.

As for the implications, picture this. Thousands of anonymous people sitting in the privacy of their own home, in front of a computer screen all over Australia quietly using applications like Bit Torrent to download pirated versions of first release movies. Their safety net has always been their anonymity. I mean how could anyone trace them? Well guess what? Thanks to this court ruling now they can. Not only can, they will be traced. The ruling means about 4700 Australian internet account holders whose service was used to share Dallas Buyers Club on the internet from as early as May 2013 are soon likely to receive legal letters, from Australian lawyers representing Dallas Buyers Club LLC. These letters will threaten legal action, unless relatively large sums of money are paid for breach of copyright. Now I can hear you thinking. What is he on about? This case only affects 4700 people the man must be dreaming. How can this have worldwide implications? Well my answer to that is don’t think numbers. If you think numbers, you are missing the point. Think precedent. A ruling has now been made about one movie but what is to stop similar rulings being made for each and every pirated movie or video that has ever been downloaded? What is to stop similar courts in similar countries all over the world being asked to make a similar decision? And now that decision has been made in favour of the copyright holder, is it more probable than not that a similar court will make an almost identical ruling? These are very, very big questions.

And as for that letter of demand, the practice commonly referred to as ‘speculative invoicing.’ there are already examples in the United States where letters were sent to ISP account holders threatening legal action claiming they would be liable for damages of up to $US150,000 unless settlement fees of up to $US7000 were paid. No surprise most people paid the $7K. It’s a lot less than 150 grand.

Now the Australian Federal Court decision did come with some provisos. The judge also ordered that the privacy of individuals should be protected, meaning Dallas Buyers Club cannot disclose the identities of letter recipients to a third party.

Some overseas judges have placed caps on the amount of money that can be sought through this out of court process. But Justice Perram did not indicate whether he would do this as part of the letter approving process.

The case, which was heard over three days in February, centred on whether Dallas Buyers Club LLC should be given access to details of internet account holders whose connections it alleges were used to share its movie using peer-to-peer file sharing software. The details to be handed over include names, email and residential addresses of those whose connections were allegedly used to share the movie. So not only do they know who you are, they know where you live. During the case, Michael Wickstrom, vice president of royalties and music administration at Voltage Pictures, the parent company of Dallas Buyers Club LLC, objected to iiNet providing examples of the speculative invoicing letters sent in similar US cases. One of the reasons for his objection might be because those letters, in the minds of some, amount to extortion.

Wickstrom said the format of the letters to be sent to Australian ISP subscribers would be different and worded in such a way that they complied with local laws.

In a remarkable display of generosity, Wickstrom also said the company would not sue or attempt settlement with people suffering from autism people who were disabled, on welfare, or have mental illness.

It should be noted that anti piracy forces are employing sophisticated means to track down illegal downloaders. They employed a German-based pirate hunting company called Maverick Eye UG to identify ISP users who were sharing the movie online. Maverick Eye joined torrent “swarms” sharing Dallas Buyers Club and then tasked its software to log the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of those who distributed the movie without authorisation and in breach of copyright laws. The software identified a total of 4726 Australian IP addresses.

Dallas Buyers Club LLC then contacted iiNet and other ISPs, asking them to divulge customer details associated with those IP addresses without a court order — but as you might expect the ISPs refused. They know giving over that kind of information is also going to cost them customers. No-one will want to subscribe to an ISP that is going to hand over a customer’s private information.

Dallas Buyers Club LLC then decided to take Federal Court action, to compel the ISPs to disclose customer details through the preliminary discovery application process, which is often used by parties in a case where the identity of the person or company they want to take legal action against, is unknown but can be discoverable through a third-party.

iiNet sought to challenge the request on the grounds that it would lead to alleged infringers being sent letters of demand seeking significant sums of money for an infringement. “We are concerned that our customers will be unfairly targeted to settle any claims out of court using [this] practice,” iiNet said in a blog post. The ISP also argued that customers could be incorrectly and unfairly identified as alleged infringers if details of the account holder were revealed. In other words, the relevant IP address could have originated from a person in a shared household where someone other than the account holder had infringed copyright. iiNet also argued it wanted to fight the matter because Australian courts had never tested a case like this one. But none of these arguments impressed the court.

So, to all those Pirate downloaders out there in cyberspace. Here are some words of warning. They’re coming to get ya.

Poster Child For Why Death Penalty Flawed 3

I’ve been posting lately about a legal case that could end up being the first to uphold conclusively, that an innocent man was executed by the State, for a crime he didn’t do. Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed using a lethal injection by the State of Texas in 2004. The United States Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 2006, with Justice Antonin Scalia declaring that death penalty opponents could not cite “a single case” in which it was clear that a person was executed for a crime they did not commit.  But there is strong evidence, suggesting Willingham could be that single case, the judge was talking about. In previous posts on this topic, I deconstructed the forensic evidence against Willingham and demonstrated how it was hopelessly flawed and based on old wives tales rather than scientific fact.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap, to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.The so-called expert arson investigators, relied on by the prosecution, concluded that Willingham set fire to a trail of accelerant he laid from the front door of the house, to the children’s bedroom. His motive was to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Allegations, I might add, without merit or evidence.

For more than 20 years, the prosecutor, who persuaded a jury to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, of murdering his three young daughters, has maintained authorities made no deals to secure the testimony of a jailhouse informer, who told jurors that Willingham confessed to the crime in prison.

Those officials continued to defend the account of that informer, Johnny E. Webb. But now new evidence is reviving claims that Willingham was innocent. In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, now gives a detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts to get him favourable treatment by the prosecutor. Now, you have to be extremely careful about assessing the credibility of a witness who changes his story more than once. But there is evidence suggesting that Prosecutor  John H. Jackson, directly intervened to reduce Webb’s prison sentence for robbery and to arrange for thousands of dollars to be given to the prisoner by a wealthy Corsicana rancher in return for his testimony against Willingham. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently for Webb to receive a lesser sentence and to coordinate with the millionaire rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to provide financial support.

“Mr. Pierce and I visit on a regular basis concerning your problems,” Jackson wrote to Webb in August 2000, eight years after the trial, when his former witness threatened to recant his testimony. “We worked for a long time on a number of different levels, including the Governor’s Office, to get you released early in the robbery case. . . . Please understand that I am not indifferent or insensitive to your difficulties.”

The letters and documents expose a determined effort by prosecutor Jackson to change Webb’s conviction, get him speedy parole, clemency and relocate him from a tough state prison to his hometown jail. Many lawyers are of the opinion that had this favourable treatment been revealed before his execution, there were legal grounds for Willingham to seek a new trial.

Here is a summary of the sequence of events:

Johnny E. Webb is arrested on robbery charges. After talking to Willingham at the county jail, Webb says he was recruited by prosecutor Jackson, to testify against Willingham. Webb agrees and pleads guilty to the lesser charge of first-degree aggravated robbery.

Webb testifies at the Willingham trial that Cameron Todd Willingham confessed to murdering his daughters. Here is the interesting bit. Jackson emphasizes that he made no deal with Webb in return for his testimony. Jackson tells jurors the case rests on two pillars: the arson evidence and Webb’s testimony. The jury convicts Willingham and votes for the death penalty

Jackson asks the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant Webb an early parole hearing and to release him immediately.

In documents recently released, Jackson then writes to Webb on his personal stationery stating that he has been working on Webb’s behalf.

Jackson described the forensic evidence and Webb’s testimony as the foundations of his case, either of which he claimed was enough to convict Willingham. More recently, Jackson acknowledged that one of his foundation pillars had already crumbled but claimed that the trial presented “overwhelming evidence of guilt completely independent of the undeniably flawed forensic report.”

But the letters and court files show that Webb threatened to renounce his testimony against Willingham on at least two prior occasions. In 2000, he sent a formal motion to recant his testimony to the Navarro County District Attorney’s Office that was forwarded to Jackson, but never put in Willingham’s court file or shared with his lawyers.

Jackson, was elected as a Navarro County judge in November 1996 and retired from the bench in 2012. He claims he was just going out of his way to help Webb. But in a recent interview Jackson claimed he did so because he thought Webb was threatened by other inmates for cooperating with the prosecution. He described allegations that he coaxed false testimony from Webb as a “complete fabrication.”

Webb’s latest allegations  could have implications for the political ambitions of Texas governor, Rick Perry, a strong supporter of the death penalty and a possible Republican presidential candidate.

In 2004, Perry refused an application for a temporary stay of Willingham’s execution despite the report of a leading forensic expert strongly disputing the finding of arson by a Texas deputy fire marshal. Perry’s administration is also accused of repeatedly undermining the authority of a state Forensic Science Commission, which agreed that the arson finding that convicted Willingham, had relied on flawed analysis. Defending his handling of the case in 2009, the State Governor claimed Willingham “was a monster.”

Johnny Webb was a 22-year-old drug addict when he met Willingham in the Navarro County Jail, that holds about 125 prisoners on any given day. Willingham had just been arrested. Webb, had a long list of prior convictions when he was jailed for robbing a woman at knifepoint. Webb admitted he was stealing to support a drug and alcohol habit. In two taped interviews with the Innocence Project, conducted almost 22 years after his trial testimony, Webb described how the Navarro County sheriff, removed him out of his cell after he had spoken briefly with Willingham. The Sherrif was desperate to know what they talked about.

Webb said the Sherrif, and then Jackson, urged him to speak again with Willingham about the fire to see if he would incriminate himself. Webb claimed, he was taken repeatedly from jail to Jackson’s office in the courthouse, where the prosecutor showed him photographs of the fire scene that included the bodies of the little girls.

“I was in his office three or four times and he laid them pictures out in front of me and said, ‘Johnny, what do you think about that?’” Webb said. “That could be your child. This dude is guilty.”

Webb, was facing the prospect of a lengthy sentence for his crime. He said he asked Jackson, “What’s going to be my deal?” and Jackson allegedly replied, “If you help me, that robbery will disappear . . . even if you’re convicted now, I can get it off of you later.”

Now, it should be pointed out that there is nothing unusual about prosecutors offering informants lenient treatment, but they are obliged to present testimony they believe to be true and to disclose any deals before a trial so that those witnesses can be cross examined.

“He says, ‘Your story doesn’t have to match exactly’,” Webb said. “He says, ‘I want you to just say he put fires in the corners. I need you to be able to say that so we can convict him, otherwise we’re going to have a murderer running our streets.”

Webb told Jackson he wanted to turn his life around and become a properly employed, law abiding citizen. He claims he was told that could be arranged. In the taped interviews, Webb said, “He says, ‘Look, we can get Chuck Pearce ( the millionaire rancher] to help you with anything you need. He’s already there to help you.’ ”

“He had me believing 100 percent this dude was guilty — that’s why I testified,” Webb said. “The perks — they was willing to do anything to help me. No one has ever done that, so why wouldn’t I help them?”

Five months later, in August 1992, Webb was the first witness called by Jackson to testify for the prosecution at Willingham’s trial. Webb told the jury that Willingham, after repeatedly saying the fire was an accident, then confessed to him while they were speaking through a food slot in Willingham’s cell door.

Webb said Willingham told him he squirted lighter fluid around the home and set it on fire. Webb said Willingham and his wife, Stacy, decided to kill the girls to cover up Stacy’s physical abuse of one of the children. However, post mortems revealed no injuries to the girls other than those suffered in the fire. Forensic experts later discredited evidence at the trial that an accelerant was used to start the fire.

Jackson said that Webb was testifying at great personal risk. “My life has been threatened as well as my family’s life,” Webb said on the stand. “And if I make it to the penitentiary, then I’m going to be in deep trouble.”

Jackson ended Webb’s testimony by asking, “Johnny, have I ever promised you anything in return for your testimony in this case?”

“No, sir,” Webb replied. “You haven’t.”

“As a matter of fact, I told you there is nothing I can do for you,” Jackson said.

“You said there was nothing no one can do for me,” Webb said.

Willingham’s defense was pathetic. His lawyers called only one witness, a babysitter who said Willingham loved his daughters. The trial lasted three days. On Aug. 20, 1992, the jury convicted Willingham of the murders of his children and the following day, voted to sentence him to death.

Willingham, who had refused to plead guilty in return for a life sentence, maintained his innocence. In fact proclaiming his innocence were among Willingham’s last words before he was executed.

Two months after the Willingham trial, a typed, unsigned note to the Navarro County clerk,marked “per John Jackson,” instructed the clerk on how to respond to the Texas Department of Corrections if prison officials inquired about Webb’s status. The note said that Webb had not been convicted of first-degree, aggravated robbery, as he had just testified in open court, but only of second-degree robbery. “If TDC calls and wants to know which one is correct — tell them ROBBERY with No Deadly Weapon Used.” The note also explained the change: “That is what John Jackson wants it to be.”

It was an unsigned note and there is no evidence linking it directly to prosecutor Jackson. Days after the note was sent to the clerk, Jackson sent a letter to prison officials requesting that Webb be assigned to a medical unit, less onerous than protective custody. “Mr. Webb was a pivotal witness in a capital murder prosecution,” Jackson wrote. Webb had “placed himself at risk based upon his testimony in the case and I fear that he may suffer reprisal if placed in the general population.”

He added, “Webb’s testimony may be necessary at [a] later stage of the proceedings and I would appreciate your attempting to place him in an environment that guarantees the smallest risk.”

A month later, Jackson followed up with another letter requesting that Webb be transferred back to the Navarro County Jail because he’d received death threats from other inmates. “In the event of a reversal,” Jackson wrote, “I would also like to be able to count on Webb’s continued cooperation.”

Over the next three years, Jackson kept in touch with Webb, and Pearce, the wealthy rancher, deposited more than $2,000 into Webb’s prison commissary account, according to prison records obtained by the Innocence Project.

Jackson’s campaign for Webb’s early release escalated in May 1996, after Webb reported that he continued to receive threats and demanded to be transferred to federal prison or the Navarro County Jail.

“Here the state offered me certain benefits in exchange for my testimony which resulted in sending a man to death row,” Webb wrote to Jackson. “Because I kept my end of the promise, the state is bound to uphold theirs until my release from incarceration.”

Six weeks later, on July 15, 1996, at Jackson’s request, the Judge who presided over Willingham’s trial and sentenced Webb to prison in 1992, entered a new judgment in Webb’s case. The crime was officially recorded as a conviction for second-degree robbery instead of an aggravated robbery, which reduced the time Webb was required to wait before seeking parole.

Jackson then sent a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles saying he had “recently” become aware through a letter from Webb that prison records mistakenly showed Webb as being convicted of aggravated robbery.

Jackson told the parole board after consulting with Webb’s attorney, he had obtained a court order changing the record to reflect that Webb was convicted on the lesser crime of second-degree robbery, with no weapon involved.

Finally, Jackson followed up with a letter to the head of the parole board saying Webb “volunteered information and testified . . without any agreement from the State respecting diminution of the recommendation in his own case.” He asked that Webb be given consideration for his “Cooperation in the murder prosecution without expectation of leniency.”

Despite the high-level support, Webb grew impatient. His request for early release was denied. But Jackson kept filing for clemency on Webb’s behalf. The application included letters from the robbery victim as well as from Attorney-General Batchelor agreeing that Webb had been punished enough.

Batchelor’s letter said that the prosecution wanted to ensure Webb’s cooperation as long as Willingham was still filing appeals. “Any threat to the public by the early release of Webb is far outweighed by the possibility that Willingham might be successful” in his appeals, Batchelor said.

Shortly after Jackson’s election as a judge in 1996, he organised another series of letters to the parole board.

Webb’s clemency request was denied. He was eventually paroled in 2007.

Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutor misconduct.

In legal documents filed with the State Bar of Texas, the Innocence Project, a New York-based advocacy group, investigating the Willingham case for the past decade, argued that Jackson’s conduct “violated his professional, ethical and constitutional obligations.” The group called for a full investigation of Jackson’s handling of the case, arguing that he should be sanctioned or criminally prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence from the defence, perjury and obstructing justice. Jackson’s conduct, according to the documents, “violated core principles of the legal profession, and did so with terrible consequences . . . the execution of an innocent man.”

An attorney for Jackson says he expects the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, says Jackson will seek to have the charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.

In his interviews earlier this year with the Innocence Project, Webb said: “I’ve been wanting to come forward with this . . . for a long, long time about certain specific things that no one’s ever known. This has been something that’s pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years.”

He should have added and caused the death of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Poster Child For Why Death Penalty Flawed 2

Recently I wrote about why I consider the death penalty is deeply flawed. When authorities get it totally wrong, they only succeed in killing an innocent human being. This happens to be an important issue right now, because of a case in Texas which is the poster child for why the death penalty doesn’t work. It concerns a man called Cameron Todd Willingham. The evidence now suggests, he was wrongly convicted of murdering his three small children by committing arson.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap, to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns. The so-called expert arson investigators, relied on by the prosecution, concluded that Willingham set fire to a trail of accelerant he laid from the front door of the house to the children’s bedroom. His motive was to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Allegations, I might add, without merit or evidence.

Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004.

Sadly what may happen in the future, isn’t going to bring Cameron Todd Willingham back to life but it could win him redemption as far as the law and the State of Texas is concerned. It isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing.

But let’s take up the story again: Soon after the fire, the police began questioning Cameron Todd Willingham.  The two so called arson experts, Fogg and Vasquez were present for the interview, along with a police officer who happened to be working his first arson case. Talk about the blind leading the blind.  Willingham told them his wife Stacy, left the house around 9 on the morning of the fire. to pick up Christmas presents for the children. “After she got out of the driveway, I heard the twins cry, so I got up and gave them a bottle,” Willingham said. The children’s bedroom had a safety gate across the doorway, which Amber, the oldest girl, could climb over but not the twins. Willingham said he and Stacy often let the twins nap on the floor after they drank their bottles. Amber was still in bed, so he went back into his room to sleep. “The next thing I remember is hearing ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ ” he recalled. “The house was already full of smoke.” He said he got up, felt around the floor for a pair of pants, put them on but he could no longer hear his daughter’s voice :“I heard that last ‘Daddy, Daddy’ and never heard her again”, and he yelled, “Oh God— Amber, get out of the house! Get out of the house!’ ” He said he never sensed that Amber was in his room.  Willingham said his only explanation was that she had already lost consciousness by the time he stood up, or she came in after he left, through a second doorway, from the living room. Willingham said that he went down the corridor and tried to reach the children’s bedroom. He said, in the hallway, “you couldn’t see nothing but black.” The air smelled the way it had when their microwave had blown up, three weeks earlier—like “wire and stuff like that.” He could hear sockets and light switches popping, and he crouched down, almost crawling to the children’s bedroom. He stood up and his hair caught fire. “Oh God, I never felt anything that hot before,” he said of the heat radiating out of the room.

He said after he extinguished the fire in his hair, he got down on the floor and groped in the dark. “I thought I found one of them once,” he said, “but it was a doll.” But he could no longer tolerate the intense heat. “I felt myself passing out,” he said. Finally, he stumbled down the corridor and out the front door, trying to catch his breath. He saw his neighbour Diane Barbee and yelled for her to call the Fire Department. After she left, he said he tried, without success, to get back inside the burning house. The investigators asked him if he knew how the fire started. Willingham told them he wasn’t sure, but he thought it must have originated in the children’s bedroom, because that was where he first saw flames.  They were glowing like “bright lights” he said. He and Stacy used three space heaters to warm the house, and one of them was in the children’s bedroom. “I taught Amber not to play with it,” he said, adding that she got punished ” every once in a while for messing with it.” He said he didn’t know if the heater, which had an internal flame, was turned on. Arson investigator Vasquez later testified that when he checked the heater, four days after the fire, it was in the “Off ” position. Willingham believed the fire might have been caused by an electrical fault. When pressed by investigators on whether someone might have a motive to hurt his family, Willingham said he couldn’t think of anyone that “cold-blooded.” He said of his children, “I just don’t understand why anybody would take them, you know? We had three of the most pretty babies anybody could have ever asked for. Me and Stacy’s been together for four years, but off and on we get into a fight and split up for a while and I think those babies is what brought us so close together . . . neither one of us . . . could live without them kids.”

Recalling Amber, Willlngham said, “To tell you the honest-to-God’s truth, I wish she hadn’t woke me up.”

During the questioning, Vasquez let Fogg take the lead. Finally, Vasquez turned to Willingham and asked a question: had he put on shoes before he fled the house? “No, sir,” Willingham replied. A map of the house was on a table between the men, and Vasquez pointed to it. “You walked out this way?” he said. Willingham said yes. At that moment Vasquez was convinced that Willingham killed his children. If the floor was soaked with liquid accelerant and the fire burned low, as the evidence suggested, Willingham could not have fled the house in the way he described without badly burning his feet. A medical report indicated his feet were untouched by fire.

Willingham kept insisting that, when he left the house, the fire was still around the top of the walls and not on the floor. “I didn’t have to jump through any flames,” he said. Vasquez thought this was impossible. Willingham started the fire as he retreated, first, torching the children’s room, then the hallway, and then, from the porch, the front door. Vasquez said of Willingham, “He told me a story of pure fabrication. . . . He just talked and he talked and all he did was lie.” But if Willingham did this what was the motive?  The children had life-insurance policies, but they amounted to fifteen thousand dollars, and Stacy’s grandfather, who paid for them, was listed as the primary beneficiary. Cameron Todd Willingham was not a particularly nice man. He was a wife beater but Stacy told investigators that even though Willingham hit her he never abused the children—“Our kids were spoiled rotten,” she said, adding, she did not believe  Willingham murdered them.

John Jackson, then the assistant district attorney in Corsicana, was assigned to prosecute  the Willingham case. He later told the Dallas Morning News that he considered Willingham to be “an utterly sociopathic individual” who saw his children as “an impediment to his lifestyle.” Or, as the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor, put it, “The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing.”

Two weeks after the fire, police arrested Cameron Todd Willingham in circumstances that resembled a fictional police TV drama. He was riding in a car with Stacy when they were surrounded by SWAT teams, forcing them to the side of the road. “They pulled guns out like we had just robbed ten banks,” Stacy said. “All we heard was ‘click, click.’ . . . Then they arrested him.”  Willingham was charged with three counts of murder. And since there were multiple victims, he was eligible for the death penalty, under Texas law. Unlike many other prosecutors in the state, Jackson, who had ambitions of becoming a judge, claimed to be personally opposed to capital punishment. “I don’t think it’s effective in deterring criminals,” he would later say. “I just don’t think it works.” He also considered it an expensive drain on the legal and the appeals process. For example it costs, on average, $2.3 million to execute a prisoner in Texas, three times the cost of jailing an offender for forty years. Jackson said. “What’s the recourse if you make a mistake?” Yet his boss, the District Attorney, believed that, “certain people who commit bad enough crimes give up the right to live,” and Jackson came to believe that the abhorrent nature of the crime in the Willingham case, “one of the worst in terms of body count” he had prosecuted, demanded the death penalty.

But shortly before jury selection, Jackson approached Willingham’s attorneys with an extraordinary offer. If their client pleaded guilty, he would get a life sentence. “I was really happy when I thought we might have a deal to avoid the death penalty,” Jackson would later say. As it turned out Willingham’s lawyers were equally pleased. For defence attorneys they had an extraordinary attitude to the case. They shared the prosecution view that Willingham committed the murders and that, if the case went before a jury, he would be convicted and executed. “Everyone thinks defense lawyers must believe their clients are innocent, but that’s seldom true,” one of Willingham’s defence lawyers told New Yorker magazine.  “Most of the time, they’re guilty as sin.” He said of Willingham, “All the evidence showed that he was one hundred per cent guilty. He poured accelerant all over the house and put lighter fluid under the kids’ beds.” It was, he said, “a classic arson case”: there were “puddle patterns all over the place—no disputing those.”  Only one problem with reaching that conclusion. The science it was based on was, as you will soon discover, completely bogus and without merit.

Willingham’s defence lawyers advised their client to accept the offer, but he refused. The lawyers asked his father and stepmother to speak to him. They were shown photographs of the burned children and told, “Look what your son did. You got to talk him into pleading, or he’s going to be executed.” They visited their son in jail, and although his father did not believe he should plead guilty if he was innocent, Willingham’s stepmother begged him to take the deal. “I just wanted to keep my boy alive,” she said. But Willingham refused. “I ain’t gonna plead to something I didn’t do, especially killing my own kids,” he said. But Willingham’s refusal to accept the deal only confirmed the view in the minds of the prosecution, and his defence lawyers, that he was an unrepentant cold blooded killer. Clearly, Cameron Todd Willingham never stood a chance.

In August, 1992, the trial commenced in downtown Corsicana.  The State’s case, rested almost entirely on the scientific evidence gathered by arson investigators Vasquez and Fogg. On the stand, Vasquez detailed what he called more than “twenty indicators” of arson. “Do you have an opinion as to who started the fire?” one of the prosecutors asked. “Yes, sir,” Vasquez said. “Mr. Willingham.” The prosecutor then asked Vasquez what he thought Willingham’s intent was in starting the fire. “To kill the little girls,” he said. The defense tried to find a fire expert to counter Vasquez and Fogg’s testimony, but the one expert they contacted agreed with the prosecution. Ultimately, the defense presented only one witness to the jury: the Willinghams’ babysitter, who said she could not believe that Willingham could have killed his children. The Defence Attorneys later admitted Willingham wanted to testify, but they thought he would make a bad witness. The trial ended after two days.

During his closing arguments, Jackson told the jury the puddle configurations and pour patterns were Willingham’s inadvertent“confession,” burned into the floor. Showing a Bible, salvaged from the fire, Jackson repeated the words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whomsoever shall harm one of my children, it’s better for a millstone to be hung around his neck and for him to be cast in the sea.” The jury took less than an hour to find him guilty. As Vasquez put it, “The fire does not lie.” But he should have added arson investigators can make big, big mistakes.

By 2004,  Willingham had a new and much better legal team who had managed to persuade  a real, expert, arson forensic investigator to become involved in the case. This was not someone purporting to be an expert, he was and is the real deal. His name is Doctor Gerald Hurst, an acclaimed scientist and fire investigator He received a file describing all the evidence of arson gathered in  the Willingham case and agreed to look at it pro bono.

Hurst opened the file in the basement of his house in Austin, which served as his laboratory and office. Hurst was child prodigy, raised by a sharecropper during the Great Depression, He would scour junk yards, collecting magnets,copper wire and other bits and pieces in order to build radios and other amazing stuff. In the early 1960s, he received a Ph.D. in chemistry from Cambridge University, where he started to experiment with explosive chemicals, like fluorine even blowing up his own lab. Later, he worked as the chief scientist on secret weapons programs for several American companies, designing rockets and deadly fire bombs. He helped patent what has been described, as the world’s most powerful non nuclear explosive, an Astrolite bomb. He experimented with toxins so lethal,  a fraction of a drop is capable of rotting human flesh. When he gave up working in the defence industry, his extraordinary knowledge of fire and explosives, made him a sought after expert witness in determining the cause of a fire. Hurst found himself devoting a huge chunk of his time to criminal-arson cases, and, when he became exposed to the methods of local and state fire investigators, he was shocked and horrified by what he saw.

He discovered many arson investigators, only possessed a high-school education qualification. In most states, in order to be certified, arson investigators underwent a forty-hour course on fire investigation, and had to pass a written exam. In most cases, almost all of the investigator’s training came from on the job learning, taught to them by “old-school investigators” in the field, who passed down collective wisdom about the telltale signs of arson, even though a study in 1977 warned there was nothing in “the scientific literature to substantiate the validity” of these theories. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association, which promotes fire prevention and safety, published its first scientifically based guidelines for arson investigation. But many arson investigators  still believed that what they did was more art than science—a blend of experience and intuition which was a nonsense approach.  “People investigated fire largely with a flat earth approach,” Hurst said. “It looks like arson—therefore, it’s arson. My view is you have to have a scientific basis.Otherwise, it’s no different than witch-hunting.” He might have been talking about the Willingham case.

Ironically, Doctor Gerald Hurst received the files on the  Willingham case only a few weeks before Willingham was executed. As he looked through the case records, a statement by Manuel Vasquez, the state deputy fire marshal, almost knocked him over. Vasquez claimed to have investigated between 12 and  15 hundred fires and “most all of them” were arson. This was an unbelievably high estimate. Statistics show the Texas State Fire Marshals Office typically found arson in only fifty per cent of cases. Hurst also took issue with Vasquez’s claim that the Willingham fire “burned fast and hot” because of a liquid accelerant. The claim that a flammable or combustible liquid caused flames to reach higher temperatures, was frequently repeated in court by arson investigators for decades even though this theory was rubbish. Scientific experiments had proved that wood and gasoline-fuelled fires, burn at roughly the same temperature.

Then Hurst set about demolishing the arson conclusions reached by Vasquez and Fogg in the Willingham case. The two investigators claimed that proof of arson could be found in the fact that the front door’s aluminium threshold melted. “The only thing that can cause that to react, is an accelerant,” Vasquez had said. But Hurst wasn’t buying it.  He knew scientifically that a natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two thousand degrees Fahrenheit, far hotter than the melting point of aluminium alloy. Hurst discovered that like many other arson investigators, Vasquez and Fogg mistakenly assumed that wood charring underneath the aluminium threshold was evidence, as Vasquez put it of “a liquid accelerant flowed underneath and burned.” Hurst then conducted many different experiments to show that this type of charring was caused by the aluminum conducting so much heat. In fact, when liquid accelerant is poured under a threshold, a fire will extinguish itself, because of a lack of oxygen. Other scientists reached the same conclusion.

Hurst then turned to Fogg and Vasquez’s claim that the “brown stains” on Willingham’s front porch was evidence of “liquid accelerant,” which did not have time to soak into the concrete. Hurst had previously performed a test in his garage, where he poured charcoal-lighter fluid on the concrete floor, and ignited it. When the fire was extinguished, there were no brown stains, only soot smudges.

Hurst ran the same experiment many times, with different kinds of liquid accelerants, and the result was always the same. Brown stains were common in fires; but he concluded they were usually composed of rust or gunk from charred debris, mixed with water from fire hoses.

Another crucial piece of evidence implicating Willingham was the “crazed glass” that Vasquez claimed was formed by the rapid heating from a fire fuelled with liquid accelerant. Fogg and Vasquez seemingly were unaware that in November 1991, a team of fire investigators inspected fifty houses in the hills of Oakland, California, ravaged by brush fires. In a dozen houses, the investigators discovered crazed glass, even though a liquid accelerant was not involved. Most of these houses were on the periphery of the fire, where firefighters shot streams of water. As the investigators later wrote in a published study, they were of the opinion that the fracturing was induced by rapid cooling, rather than sudden heating. Thermal shock caused the glass to contract so rapidly it became disjointed. The investigators then tested the theory in a laboratory. When they heated glass, nothing happened. But every time they applied water to the heated glass, the intricate patterns appeared. Hurst said he saw the same phenomenon when he blowtorched and then cooled glass during his research at Cambridge University. In his report, on the Willingham case, Hurst wrote that Vasquez and Fogg’s conclusion on the crazed glass was nothing more than an “old wives’ tale.” Hurst then took on the most important arson evidence against Willingham, the burn trail, the pour patterns and puddle configurations, and other burn marks indicating the fire had multiple points of origin.  There was also the positive test for mineral spirits discovered by the front door, and Willingham’s statement that he fled the house without burning his bare feet.

As Hurst continued to read through the case files, he discovered that Willingham and his neighbours described the windows in front of the house suddenly exploding and flames roaring through. Hurst then looked at a floor plan of Willingham’s house, drawn by Vasquez, illustrating all of the pour patterns and puddle configurations. Hurst traced along the Vasquez’s diagram. The burn trail had gone from the children’s bedroom, turned right in the hallway, and headed out the front door. John Jackson, the prosecutor, said that the fire path was so “bizarre” it could only have been caused by liquid accelerant. But Hurst found it was a natural product of the dynamics of fire. Willingham fled through the front door, and the fire simply followed the ventilation path, toward the opening.

Similarly, when Willingham broke the windows in the children’s bedroom, flames shot outward. Hurst said Vasquez and Fogg considered it impossible for Willingham to run down the burning hallway without scorching his bare feet. But Hurst found the pour patterns and puddle configurations, were consistent with Willingham’s explanation of events. When Willingham exited his bedroom, the hallway was not on fire; the flames were contained within the children’s bedroom, where he saw the “bright lights” along the ceiling.

Vasquez made a videotape of the crime scene, and Hurst looked at footage of the burn trail. He said in his report even after repeated viewings, he could not find the three points of fire origin, as Vasquez had. But, it turns out, the other investigator, Fogg,  disagreed with Vasquez on this evidence, but remained silent because nobody from the prosecution or the defence ever asked for his opinion on the subject. After Hurst reviewed the infamous Fogg and Vasquez’s list of more than twenty arson indicators, he believed only one had any potential validity: the positive test for mineral spirits near the front door. But why did fire investigators only obtain a positive reading in that location? According to Fogg and Vasquez, Willingham poured accelerant throughout the children’s bedroom and down the hallway. Officials conducted extensive tests in these areas, including all the pour patterns and puddle configurations, and found no evidence of accelerant.

In any case, Hurst said he could not believe Willingham would pour accelerant on the front porch of the house, in clear view of the neighbours. Then Hurst noticed something else, a photograph of the front porch taken before the fire, which was included in the file of evidence. On the tiny porch, was a charcoal grill, where the family cooked barbecue. Court testimony from witnesses confirmed the grill, along with a container of lighter fluid, burned when the fire raged onto the porch. By the time Vasquez inspected the house, the grill had been removed from the porch, during cleanup. And although he referred to the container of lighter fluid in his report, he made no mention of the barbecue grill. At the trial, he insisted he was never told of the grill’s placement. Other authorities were aware of the grill but dismissed it as irrelevant. Hurst, however, was convinced he had solved the mystery. He determined that when firefighters blasted the porch with water, they had, in all probability, spread charcoal-lighter fluid from the melted container.

Hurst said, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact cause of the blaze without visiting the scene. But, based on the evidence, he concluded it was an accidental fire, caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. Hurst concluded  there was no evidence of arson, and a man who “ already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

The fifteen members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which reviews applications for clemency, was sent Hurst’s report, but they still denied his application.  A group called  The Innocence Project which campaigns against the death penalty later took up the Willingham case. They obtained, through Freedom of Information, all the records from the governor’s office, and the Pardons and Paroles board, relating to the Hurst report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” The Innocence Project said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

After his death, Willingham’s parents were finally allowed to touch his face for the first time in more than a decade. Later, at Willingham’s request, they cremated his body and secretly spread some of his ashes over his children’s graves. He told his parents, “Please don’t ever stop fighting to vindicate me.” In December, 2004, questions about the scientific evidence in the Willingham case began to surface. Two journalists from the Chicago Tribune, published an investigative series after learning of the Hurst report, The journalists then asked three fire experts, to examine the original investigation. The experts concurred with the Hurst report and in an independent review of the arson evidence in the Willingham case, concluded that “each and every one” of the indicators of arson were “scientifically proven to be invalid.”

In 2005, Texas established a government commission to investigate allegations of error and misconduct by arson investigators. The first cases are being reviewed by the commission, including the Willingham case. In mid-August, 2009, a noted fire scientist, Craig Beyler, hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In his report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of fire dynamics, relied on discredited old wives tales, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said the Vasquez approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics” in other words arrant nonsense. Beyler determined that the investigation not only violated scientific standards of today “but even of the time period” of the fire. The commission is reviewing his findings, and will release its own report despite the efforts of Texas Governor Perry to reconstitute its members. There is still a chance, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge, officially, that it carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”  In part three of the series we will examine the latest evidence that may result in a posthumous pardon for Cameron Todd Willingham.

Poster Child For Why Death Penalty Fatally Flawed

Just for the record. I am not in favor of the death penalty. It’s not that I don’t think people guilty of heinous crimes, shouldn’t pay the ultimate price. The problem I have is when the system, and a jury and a prosecutor, get it completely wrong. It’s been known to happen. And when it does, there’s no turning back. You cannot undo what has been done. Therein lies the problem. Sorry, but the way I see it, if you can’t guarantee that every person, who receives the death penalty, was one hundred percent guilty of the worst crime imaginable, then I’m sorry to say as a punishment it ain’t worth having. If you get it wrong, all you’ve done is kill an innocent human being. And when that happens, we are talking about not one but two equally abhorrent crimes. The case I am about to recite is the poster child for why the death penalty doesn’t work. In fact, this case is so outrageous and so compelling I want to deconstruct and examine the sum of its many parts. You can’t really do justice to this story with just one blog post. So this is the beginning of a series. To misquote that infamous Bette Davis line, fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The good old State of Texas, which has no hesitation whatsoever about using the death penalty, executed a man called Cameron Todd Willingham by lethal injection in 2004.

Here is a brief summary of the case: On December 23, 1991, a fire destroyed the Willingham family home in Corsicana, Texas. The blaze claimed the lives of Willingham’s three daughters: Amber Louisel, who was two, along with one-year-old twins Karmon Diane and Kameron Marie. Willingham, at the time, was a 23-year-old unemployed motor mechanic. He said he woke from a nap to discover the house filled with smoke. He was unable to find the sleeping children before he managed to escape the flames with minor burns.

Willingham’s wife, Stacy Kuykendall, was not home at the time. Prosecutors claim he deliberately started the fire to cover up allegations that he abused his children. Willingham was convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson in 1992 and was executed 12 years later. He claimed he was innocent right up until his death, using his last words to say: “The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit.” Actually he said a bit more than that: “ I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God’s dust I came and to dust I will return.”

Of course, guilty people can still claim they are innocent right up until the time they take their last breath. Willingham was offered a plea deal where he could avoid the death penalty. All he had to do was say he did it. But he refused. Again I draw no great significance from that either. What was always going to ultimately decide his guilt or innocence was the evidence, more specifically the forensic evidence. And that is precisely where this case begins to fatally unravel.

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story weatherboard building in a poor neighbourhood. Flames spread along the walls, through doorways, blistering paint, tiles and furniture. Smoke rose up to the ceiling, then curled downward, invading each room and through crevices in the windows.

Buffie Barbee, eleven years old, lived two houses down from the Willinghams. She was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street to see the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, his bare chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He screamed, “My babies are burning up!” His three children, one-year-old twin girls, and a two-year-old were trapped inside. Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Diane raced down the street to get help he found an object to break the children’s bedroom window but fire lashed through the hole. He broke another window and flames burst through that as well. He retreated to the backyard, kneeling in front of the house. A neighbor later told police that Willingham intermittently cried, “My babies!” then fell silent, as if he had “blocked the fire out of his mind.”

Within minutes, the first firemen arrived, and Willingham approached them, shouting his children were trapped inside the burning house. He grew more hysterical, and a police chaplain named George Monaghan led him to the back of a fire truck to calm him down. Willingham explained his wife, Stacy, left the house earlier that morning, and he was woken from sleep by Amber screaming, “Daddy! Daddy!”“My little girl was trying to wake me up and tell me about the fire,”he said “I couldn’t get my babies out.” While he was talking, a fireman emerged from the house, carrying an unconscious but still alive Amber. As she was given C.P.R., Willingham, twenty-three-years old and physically strong, ran to see her, then suddenly headed toward the children’s bedroom. Monaghan and another man restrained him. “We had to wrestle with him and then handcuff him, for his and our protection,” Monaghan said. “I received a black eye.” One of the first firemen at the scene told investigators, at an earlier point, he also restrained Willingham. “Based on what I saw on how the fire was burning, it would have been crazy for anyone to try and go into the house,” he said. Willingham was taken to a hospital, where he was told Amber, who was found in the master bedroom, died from smoke inhalation. Kameron and Karmon were discovered lying on the children’s bedroom floor, their bodies severely burned but they too, died from smoke inhalation. A community collection helped the Willingham’s pay for the funerals of their children.

Fire investigators, tried to determine the cause of the tragedy. Willingham gave authorities permission to search the house: “I know we might not ever know all the answers, but I’d just like to know why my babies were taken from me,” he said.

Douglas Fogg, the assistant fire chief in Corsicana, conducted the initial investigation. He’d been fighting fires or what he calls “the beast”—for more than twenty years, and was a certified arson investigator. “You learn that fire talks to you,” Fogg would later say. He was soon joined by one of the leading arson investigators in Texas, a deputy fire marshal called Manuel Vasquez who had an extremely high opinion of his own abilities. He would frequently say: “Fire does not destroy evidence—it creates it.” And: “The fire tells the story. I am just the interpreter.” Vasquez was convinced there was very little he didn’t know about the crime of arson. Once, he was asked under oath whether he had ever been mistaken in a case. “If I have, sir, I don’t know,” he responded. “It’s never been pointed out.”

Vasquez and Fogg visited the Willinghams’ fire gutted house four days after the blaze. Following the investigators protocol, they moved from the least burned areas to the worst. “It is a systematic method,” Vasquez later testified. “I’m just collecting information. . . . I have not made any determination. I don’t have any preconceived idea.” The men slowly toured the perimeter of the house, taking notes and photographs before entering the burned out building. In the kitchen, Vasquez and Fogg found only smoke and heat damage—a sign that this was not the source of the fire. In the master bedroom, where Amber’s body was found, most of the damage was also from smoke and heat, which suggested that the fire began down the hallway. The two arson investigators noticed deep charring along the base of the walls. Because hot gases from the burning become buoyant, flames will ordinarily burn upward. But Vasquez and Fogg discovered that the fire burned low down, causing peculiar char patterns on the floor, shaped like puddles. Vasquez followed the “burn trailer”—the path burned by the fire—which led from the hallway into the children’s bedroom. According to arson experts, flammable or combustible liquid doused on a floor can cause a fire to concentrate in these kinds of pockets, which is why investigators describe them as “pour patterns” or “puddle configurations.” In the Willingham fire, the floor had some of the deepest burn marks and Vasquez concluded it was hotter than the ceiling. Given that heat rises, this was, in his words, “not normal.” Fogg examined a piece of glass from one of the broken windows. It contained a spiderweb-like pattern—which fire investigators call “crazed glass.” Forensic experts describe the effect as a key indicator that the fire burned “fast and hot,” meaning it was, more than likely, fuelled by a liquid accelerant, causing the glass to fracture.

The men then looked again at what appeared to be a distinct burn trail through the house. It went from the children’s bedroom, into the corridor, then turned to the right and out the front door. Even the wood under the door’s aluminum frame was charred. On the concrete floor of the front porch, Vasquez and Fogg noticed something else they thought was unusual: brown stains, which, they reported, were consistent with the presence of an accelerant.  Vasquez identified three places where, in his opinion, the fire originated: in the hallway, in the children’s bedroom, and at the front door. Vasquez would later testify that multiple origins pointed to one conclusion: the fire was “intentionally set by human hands.” Both investigators claimed to have a clear vision of what happened. Someone had poured liquid accelerant throughout the children’s room, then poured more along the adjoining hallway and out the front door, creating a “fire barrier” that stopped anyone from escaping.

The investigators collected samples of burned materials from the house and sent them to a laboratory that could detect the presence of liquid accelerant. The lab’s chemist reported that one of the samples, taken near the front door, contained evidence of “mineral spirits,” a substance often found in charcoal-lighter fluid.  The fire was now considered to be arson and this was a triple homicide. Cameron Todd Willingham—the only person, other than the victims, inside the house at the time of the fire—became the prime suspect.

But as you will learn in part two of this story, looks can be very deceiving and what may seem like damning evidence can suddenly become discredited by the simplest of explanations.

Teenager Sentenced to Jail For Murder Even Though He Was A Victim

Occasionally a case comes along just to show how truly mad the criminal justice system can be in the United States. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example. It concerns the case of a young man called Blake Layman, who as it turns out, made one extremely bad decision. It happened three years ago and he was 16 at the time. You would describe him as an unexceptional teenager, who grew up in a small Indiana town. He’d never been in trouble with the law, had a clean criminal record, had never owned or even held a gun. But Blake Layman would become embroiled in a fateful decision that sparked a chain of events culminating in his arrest and trial for “felony murder.’’

For those who don’t understand the concept of felony murder, here is an explanation. There are 46 states in the American union that have some form of felony murder law on their statute books. Of those 46, 11 states unambiguously allow for individuals (here is the crucial bit) who commit a felony, that ends in a death, to be charged with murder, even if they were the victims, rather than the agents, of the killing.

Blake Layman was unarmed. He never pulled the trigger of a gun. He killed no one. In fact he was shot and injured in the incident while his friend, standing beside him, was shot and killed. Yet Layman would go on to be found guilty by a jury of his peers and sentenced to 55 years in a maximum-security prison for a shooting that he did not do. How Blake Layman got to be in the position, in which he now finds himself, is like something out of a Franz Kafka novel. He faces the prospect of spending almost the rest of his life in a prison cell for a murder that he most surely did not commit. Fortunately for him, his case is the subject of a special hearing of the Indiana Supreme Court, the state’s highest judicial panel. But how the judges respond to this case that has become known as the “Elkhart Four” has implications for how the so-called “felony murder” laws, in Indiana and the other states across the union, will be applied in the future.

But to understand the Blake Layman story, we need to go back in time. It was about 2pm on 3 October 2012, and Layman was hanging out after school in his home town of Elkhart with a couple of his mates, Jose Quiroz, also 16, and Levi Sparks, 17. They smoked a little marijuana, got a little high, and complained to each other about how broke they were. Yes they were not particularly smart young men. Layman spends a lot of time these days looking back on that afternoon and wondering why he did what he did? Why he threw away his young life? He was doing well at school, had an evening job at Wendy’s, had a girlfriend that he liked, was preparing to take his driving license test.

“It felt to me like life was really coming together at that point,” he said. But within minutes, all of that promise evaporated in an act of teenage madness. One of his group noticed that the grey pickup truck belonging to Rodney Scott, a man who lived across the street, wasn’t in its usual parking spot. They, very stupidly, drew the conclusion that the homeowner must be at work or away somewhere. The house, therefore, must be empty.

The group of young men made a spur of the moment decision, Layman and his teenage buddies came up with a plan to break into the house, steal a few things to sell and leave before Scott returned. It would be an easy, risk and harm-free plan to make some quick money. It was reckless and stupid and criminal and it all happened fast. Really fast. They called a couple of older friends from down the road, 21-year-old Danzele Johnson and 19-year-old Anthony Sharp to join them on their criminal enterprise. They knocked as loudly as they could on Scott’s door and when there was no reply – it was confirmation in their minds that the house was unoccupied – so they broke open the side door. Five minutes after having that original, dumb idea, four of them were in the house with Sparks maintaining a watch outside. They ran through the kitchen, with Layman pocketing a wallet on the kitchen table, never once stopping to think that it would not have been left there if the house were empty. They rummaged in a spare bedroom and then indicated to each other it was time to leave.

And that’s when the shooting started.

Layman heard the boom of a gunshot and scrambled to hide in the bedroom closet. Danzele Johnson fell into the closet beside him. When Layman looked down he saw Johnson’s shirt, stained red with blood. Layman crouched down in terror, and noticed that he too had been shot and that blood was streaming down his right leg.

The homeowner, Rodney Scott was not, as the young men assumed, away from the house. He was asleep upstairs and when he heard the commotion of the break-in, grabbed his handgun. Of course he did not know that the intruders were unarmed, when he fired a couple of rounds, one of them striking Layman in the leg and the other fatally hitting Johnson in the chest. Layman replayed those fateful minutes during a recent newspaper interview as he sat in a visitor’s room in Wabash Valley correctional facility, a maximum-security prison in the south-west of Indiana, where he is serving his sentence. He is dressed in standard-issue khaki and grey, his hair cropped short in classic prison style. He remembers the couple of hours after his arrest, when he was told by officials at the county jail in Elkhart that he was being charged with “felony murder.”

“I was shellshocked,” Layman said. “Felony murder? That’s the first I’d heard of it. How could it be murder when I didn’t kill anyone?”

The ‘how’ is a good question. But the charge was not a mistake. At the end of a four-day trial in September 2013, in which they were all judged as adults, Layman, Sharp and Sparks were found guilty of felony murder. Quiroz pleaded guilty under a plea deal and was given 45 years jail. Layman was sent to prison, aged 17, to begin his 55 years in a lock-up cell.

But now judges in the Indiana Supreme Court have asked lawyers representing Layman, and for the prosecution, to address them on this specific question: Is it consistent with Indiana law that Layman and his friends, who were all unarmed, who fired not a single shot, and who in fact were themselves fired upon, one fatally, by a third party – the homeowner Rodney Scott – could be locked away in prison for more than a generation for murder?

It is important to understand that in Indiana, the wording of the felony murder law is more specific than those of the other 11 states. It says that a “person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit … burglary … commits murder, a felony.”

The legal team representing Layman, said the heart of the Argument, they will present to the Supreme Court, is the issue of agency. They will argue that the plain language of the statute requires the defendant or one of his accomplices to have done the killing. But, in Blake Layman’s case neither he nor any of his co-accused killed anybody. Conversely the law also says that this was a justified killing by the person who was protecting his home. So the homeowner, Rodney Scott faces no criminal sanction.

Layman’s mother, Angie Johnson, a woman much smarter than her son, makes the important distinction that “stealing and killing are two different things. In this case they took stealing and they turned it into killing – my son doesn’t deserve that,” Johnson said.

Blake Layman has a lot of time to contemplate his actions, and their consequences, since that Wednesday afternoon in 2012. “I’ve thought about it a lot. I made this bad decision and it derailed my entire life. I just wish I could go back and tell my 16-year-old self to see sense.”

Those closest to him say he’s done a lot of growing up behind bars, discarding the youthful impetuosity and the reckless decision-making that came with it.

“I know I did wrong. I know I committed a crime. From the very beginning I’ve never disputed that. If they had brought me a burglary plea bargain I would have signed it, because I was guilty. I made a bad choice, and I gladly take responsibility for it,” he said.

But the one thing he does not accept is that he is a murderer. “I’m not a killer,” he said.

He is right of course.

Layman’s wounds have healed, leaving two very neat tattoos on the side and back of his leg, where the bullet entered and exited. And he continues to feel deep remorse for what happened. Police reports show that when the arresting officers turned up at Scott’s house, they found Layman lying face down on the carpet of the bedroom saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.

“I realised how bad everything had gone,” Layman said. “I knew Danzele was dead. I was apologising to him, and to the homeowner – both of them really.”

Layman also had the chance to apologise to Danzele Johnson’s mother, who visited him in the county jail while he was awaiting trial. “I told her if I get the chance, whenever I get out, I promised her I’d do right. Danzele was 21 years old and he didn’t get the chance to live his life. So I said I was going to do right when I get out, not just for me but also for him.”

Blake Layman is currently housed in a wing of Wabash prison where inmates are put as a reward for their good behaviour. He’s taking cognitive thinking classes, has learnt how to quilt, and spends a lot of time in the library reading up on the law. “I feel like if I have to do my time, why not better myself as much as I can while I’m here,” he said.

He’s hoping he will be allowed to walk free from prison while he is still a young man. “I just want a chance to live,” he said. “I’ll go to work every day, and come home to my wife and kids. When I think of my future that’s what I see. I don’t ask for much.”

Considering everything that happened, I think he should be given that chance.

When There Is No Humanity Justice Gets It So, So Wrong

Hate to be negative, but humanity and the capacity of the criminal justice system to get it right, are an interesting dichotomy. Yes dichotomy. Rarely, if ever, are they singing from the same hymn book. Instead of being at one and working together, one or the other, or both, go missing in action. But, every now and again these noble principles are forced to undergo a pressure test. In this case pushed under the legal microscope, in the form of the re-hearing of two criminal cases that certainly tested my faith in humanity and represented dramatic illustrations of how the American justice system got it terribly, terribly wrong. In the first example, a New York man, spent 29 years in prison for kidnap and murder, finally walking free after a judge overturned his conviction, saying it was based on a false confession.

David McCallum, was aged 16, when he was arrested for murder in 1985. Now, 30 year later, and a man approaching middle age, he was overcome with emotion after a Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge exonerated him. All I can say is, thank God for a crusading District Attorney who saw a wrong and knew he had to right that wrong. The packed courtroom broke into loud applause on hearing the ruling. McCallum and fellow teenager, Willie Stuckey, also 16 at the time, were arrested for the 1985 kidnapping and murder of 20-year-old Nathan Blenner in Queens. Children discovered Blenner’s body on disused land in Brooklyn. He’d been shot once in the head. McCallum and Stuckey, were arrested a short time later and confessed to the crime.  Each suspect initially blamed the other for the murder during videotaped interviews, but both quickly recanted. But their confessions were not worth the paper they were written on. Their confessions had contradictions and what the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, called “false fed evidence,” or details about the crime that appeared to have been provided by others. McCallum and Stuckey had long maintained their innocence. But a jury convicted the two teenagers in 1986 of second-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and criminal possession of a weapon. Stuckey died of a heart attack in prison in 2001 at the age of 31, but McCallum, who is now 47, persevered in the attempts at clearing his name. His efforts were boosted when his case was championed by Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, a former professional boxer, who was wrongly convicted of murder in 1967, and spent 19 years in prison before being freed. Carter wrote a deathbed letter to District Attorney Thompson, asking him to investigate the case. In the letter, Carter wrote of McCallum and Stuckey: “Their two confessions, gained by force and trickery, are not corroborated even by each other; they read as if two different crimes were committed.”

District Attorney Thompson said he needed little persuasion to re-examine the case. And his subsequent inquiry found no DNA or physical evidence or credible testimony, to link McCallum or Stuckey to the abduction or the killing. As bad as this case is, the news just gets worse. At a news conference, Thompson said he had “inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful conviction cases.” In other words, there were many more cases just like David McCallum. A Conviction Review Unit established by Thompson and headed by a Harvard Law School professor, has resulted in the overturning of nine convictions this year.

In the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, Assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, told the judge, that the McCallum and Stuckey convictions were tainted by false testimony and their confessions were “the product of improper suggestion, improper inducement and perhaps coercion.”  Prosecutors said the convictions in the murder of Blenner in October 1985 had been marked by inconsistencies. While Stuckey told the police that three shots were fired, McCallum said there had only been one. Each described the other as being close to the man when he was shot, but neither had evidence of skin stippling, which often accompanies a shooting at close range. Both suspects said the murder took place at night but the medical examiner said the time of death was 3:15 pm. Among other evidence that Thompson said was discredited, Stuckey confessed to making a comment about a Buick Regal to a woman in Queens about an hour before Blenner’s abduction. The woman told detectives that the two men she encountered were in their 20s and that one had braided hair. The descriptions did not fit either Stuckey or McCallum, who both had close-cropped hair. The District Attorney suggested that the comment about the Buick Regal had been fed to Stuckey, perhaps by the police, to make the confession look more authentic. Thompson said additional doubt was cast on the case when prosecutors began to believe that one of the main witnesses, testified untruthfully. That man, whom Thompson did not name, was the first to link Stuckey to the case, telling investigators that he had given the murder weapon to an aunt who then transferred it to Stuckey before the killing of Blenner. The aunt, Thompson said, refuted the account. McCallum’s shoulders sagged as the judge announced, “I will dismiss the indictment.” He rested his head on a table in the well of the court, as one of his lawyers and the mother of Stuckey, patted his back.McCallum left the courtroom to applause from dozens of supporters, McCallum’s mother sat next to her son in court, gripping his hand and comforting him as the judge overturned the indictment. She later left the court in tears, refusing to talk to the media. McCallum, dressed in a white shirt, beige jacket and khaki pants, emerged from court with a smile and hugged his overjoyed family as dozens of supporters clapped. He then briefly spoke with reporters in a courthouse hallway. “I feel like I want to go home, finally,” he told reporters, admitting that he had at times lost hope of being freed. “I’m very, very happy but I’m very, very sad at the same time,” he said, adding he wished that Stuckey walked free with him. “This is a bittersweet moment because I’m walking out alone,” he said. “There’s somebody else who is supposed to be walking out with me but he isn’t, and that’s Willie Stuckey.” He said his first wish was to walk on the footpath, and then go home and enjoy his mother’s cooking. He had no special requests, saying that after 29 years of prison food, anything she cooked would be wonderful. His mother rushed to embrace her son in the corridor. “I kept praying and hoping for this day to come,” she said.

Despite spending all that time in prison for a crime he didn’t do, David McCallum could at least walk to freedom. The same couldn’t be said for a black 14-year-old teenager,named George Stinney, who was sent to the electric chair more than 70 years ago, wrongly convicted of the murders of two white girls in a segregated mill town, in South Carolina. Finally, a modern day judge reviewed the case, overturning Stinney’s conviction, saying the state committed a great injustice. George Stinney was a child when he was arrested in 1944 and convicted of murder in a trial lasting one day —and then executed. All of these events taking place in a three month time frame, and without an appeal. The speed in which South Carolina delivered its ‘justice’ against the youngest person ever executed in the United States, in the 20th century, was found to be both shocking and extremely unfair, according to a Circuit Judge. “I can think of no greater injustice,” the judge wrote. Stinney’s case, long spoken of by civil rights activists, as an example of how a black person could be wrongly convicted by a southern justice system that sanctioned legal discrimination, when investigators, prosecutors and juries were all white. The two girls, aged 7 and 11, were beaten to death. A search by dozens of people, found their bodies and investigators arrested Stinney, saying witnesses saw him with the girls as they were picking flowers. Stinney was not permitted to speak to his parents, and authorities later claimed he confessed. His supporters said he was a small, frail boy and so scared that he would have said whatever he thought the authorities wanted to hear. They said there was no physical evidence linking him to the murders. In the saddest part of his story, his executioners noted he was so tiny that the electric chair straps didn’t fit him, and an electrode was too big for his leg.

This year, a Circuit Court Judge heard testimony during a two-day hearing. Most of the evidence from the original trial disappeared long ago and most of the witnesses were dead. It took the judge nearly four times as long to issue her ruling, as it did for George Stinney to go from arrest to execution. The judge’s 29 page order included references to the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, where nine black teens were convicted of raping two white women. Eight of them were sentenced to death. Fortunately, the convictions were eventually overturned before the teens went to the gas chamber and the charges were dropped. In the George Stinney case, the Circuit Judge made a point of saying that Stinney did not even get the consideration of an appeal. So, finally there is justice, and some humanity, for George Stinney. What a shame and a travesty that he wasn’t alive to appreciate it.