Important developments in the case of innocent prisoners sentenced to death
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Important developments in the case of innocent prisoners sentenced to death

Important developments in the case of innocent prisoners sentenced to death

On Monday, July 3rdr & d200th acquittal of a death sentence convict announced. Yet an unknown number of prisoners with plausible claims of innocence remain on death row, unable to obtain relief because they do not have access to competent legal representation in their appeals, do not have access to the courts because of legal barriers, or because of the intransigence of elected representatives. Execution dates have been set for some of these prisoners. There have been significant recent developments in three cases where there were strong claims of innocence: Marcellus Williams in Missouri, Robert Roberson in Texas and Rodney Reed in Texas.

Marcellus Williams, who was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Felicia Gayle in St. Louis, Missouri, is planned for execution in September 2024, despite DNA evidence that excludes him as a possible perpetrator. Mr. Williams’ trial court, at the request of St. Louis County District Attorney (DA) Wesley Bell, scheduled an evidentiary hearing for August 21, 2024 to consider his claims that he is innocent and should not be executed. In January 2024, DA Bell he filed an application overturn Mr. Williams’ conviction after his office reviewed the case and determined there was “clear and convincing evidence” of Mr. Williams’ innocence. District Attorney Bell noted that Mr. Williams’ DNA was not found on the murder weapon and that other evidentiary testing further excluded him as a possible co-author.

In Texas, Robert Roberson remains on death row for causing the death of his daughter from “shaken baby syndrome” (SBS). On July 1, a Texas court set an execution date for October 17. 2024 for Mr. Roberson, despite new scientific and medical evidence disproving the SBS theory. Mr. Roberson has maintained his innocence in the death of his daughter Nikki, who at the time of her death had “severe, undiagnosed” pneumonia that caused her to stop breathing. Instead of diagnosing Nikki with pneumonia, doctors prescribed her a drug no longer given to young children because it has been found to further inhibit breathing. Mr. Roberson’s attorneys say Nikki’s death “was a tragic, premature death for a sick child whose handicapped, impoverished father did not know how to explain what had baffled the medical community for decades.”

Despite new scientific evidence supporting the theory that Nikki was not a victim of child molestation, in 2023 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) denied Mr. Roberson a new trial. At the time, prosecutors argued that the evidence supporting Mr. Roberson’s conviction was “clear and convincing” and that the science surrounding SBS had not changed to the extent that defense attorneys claimed. During Mr. Roberson’s trial, the prosecution presented testimony from a child molestation expert who partially recanted his testimony against Mr. Roberson.

On July 2, 2024, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a motion by Rodney Reed, another Texas death row inmate who maintained his innocence, to hear his claim that prosecutors at his 1998 criminal trial unlawfully suppressed evidence favorable to his defense. In denying Mr. Reed’s motion, the Court allowed the TCCA’s decision denying him a new trial. Although Mr. Reed will not be granted a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, the Supreme Court ruled in April 2024 that his motion for further DNA testing of the evidence could proceed. Mr. Reed’s attorneys believe that DNA testing of the evidence from the crime scene will identify another person as the perpetrator. After the Court’s “very shocking and very disappointing” decision, Sandra Reed, Mr. Reed’s mother, said that “we, the Reed family, remain optimistic and we will continue to fight.”

Sources

Jason Hancock, Court Schedules Hearing for Marcellus Williams to Present GOUT evidence before execution date, Missouri Independent, July 2, 2024; Kayla Guo, Texas sets execution date for East Texas man accused of shaking baby The Texas Tribune, July 1, 2024;Claire Osborn, US Supreme Court denies Rodney Reed’s motion to reconsider his motion for a new trial, Austin American-Statesman, July 2, 2024; St. Louis Dispatch, July 7, 2024Editorial: Questions haunt damning defendant’s conviction. Missouri should vacate.