Thursday, January 29, 2009

232 and Counting

The Innocence Project in New York who keep count of exonerations says the with these 5 there have now been 232 DNA exonerations nation wide.

5 pardoned after wrongful conviction in Neb. crime

Anna Jo Bratton, Associated Press

Published Monday, January 26, 2009

LINCOLN, Neb. — Five people wrongly convicted of a 1985 Beatrice murder have been pardoned.

Three of the six people convicted in the rape and slaying of 68-year-old Helen Wilson spent nearly 20 years in prison. One didn't seek a pardon because his conviction was overturned.

It's the first time in Nebraska history that DNA evidence led to the freeing of inmates.

The pardon, granted Monday by the state's three-member Board of Pardons, doesn't expunge their criminal records. But it does restore their civil rights, such as the right to vote, serve in the military and be issued a passport.

Attorney General Jon Bruning announced in November that DNA evidence conclusively linked an Oklahoma man to the murder. Bruce Allen Smith died of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 30.

Five of the six were granted a pardon Monday afternoon.

Joseph White isn't asking for a pardon, because his felony record was cleared when a judge ordered a new trial for him and the charges against him were dismissed.

The pardons board made up of Bruning, Gov. Dave Heineman and Secretary of State John Gale normally grants pardons to people convicted of minor crimes who have shown remorse for committing them, not people they believe are innocent.

The pardon doesn't mean a person is considered innocent of the crime.

White, Thomas Winslow and Ada JoAnn Taylor spent nearly 20 years each in prison before being freed last year. James Dean, Debra Shelden and Kathy Gonzalez were released in 1994, after the completion of their sentences.

Smith grew up in Beatrice and had returned within days of the murder, then headed back to Oklahoma days later.

He was among the original suspects in the case, but evidence tested as part of the original investigation appeared to exclude him as a suspect. Newer DNA tests performed recently showed that the earlier test result was flawed.

The murder rocked the small Nebraska town of Beatrice. The perpetrator left blood all over the walls, and investigators described a gruesome scene in which Wilson was held down and raped in front of a group of people.

Five of the defendants pleaded guilty to the charges and several confessed to the crime. But Bruning recently released interrogation videos, police reports and other documents he says show a former prosecutor used questionable tactics, including threatening defendants with the death penalty to get them to confess.

Videotapes of the interrogations show that cameras were turned off. Witnesses who didn't have answers to investigators' questions before cameras were turned off suddenly had answers once the cameras started rolling again.

In another odd twist, videotaped testimony of three of those convicted shows they relied on what they said they had dreamed about what happened, not on their memories of what actually happened.

The six could get money from the state if lawmakers approve a bill (LB260) from Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah. It would provide for a minimum of $50,000 for each year an innocent person is incarcerated.

Rogert wants to make the measure retroactive. Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have laws that entitle exonerated inmates to government compensation, according to The Innocence Project, which represents inmates fighting to have their convictions overturned.

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