Case Updates

Motion Filed on Behalf on Mentally Disabled Man on Death Row

"Some trials uncover the truth. Some conceal it."

So begins the application filed (pdf) by MacArthur Justice Center Attorney and Assistant Director Joseph Margulies on behalf of Alfonso Rodriguez, Jr., a mentally retarded man on death row.

In 2006, a jury convicted Alfonso Rodriguez and sentenced him to die. At trial, he was depicted as little better than an animal. The prosecution said he abducted Dru Sjodin, raped her, drove her to a remote field in Crookston, Minnesota, slashed her throat, and left her to die. But we now know this carefully scripted tale conceals much and reveals little.

The application filed by Margulies and his colleagues with the federal public defender in Minnesota describes the difference between what was and what could have been, had Mr. Rodriguez received the trial envisioned by the Constitution. To begin with, much of the forensic evidence was bogus. The centerpiece of the government's case was the testimony of Michael McGee, the Ramsey County (St. Paul, MN) Medical Examiner, who said Sjodin had been raped and that she died from two slash wounds to her neck.

Both parts of this testimony are false. To put it bluntly, no crime lab in the country would have endorsed Dr. McGee's testimony about the supposed rape. And as for his testimony about the knife wounds, four independent pathologists have examined the evidence in this case. All of them agree that McGee is just plain wrong. The dramatic testimony offered by Dr. McGee was untrue.

If the trial concealed much of what we now know to be true about the crime, it obscured even more about Mr. Rodriguez. We now know he was not simply "slow." He was not simply "cognitively impaired." He was not just the child who everyone picked on because he couldn't keep up. Not just the little boy who failed so many grades that he was 18 years old in the ninth grade; who boasts that he has read hundreds of books - the pitiful boast of a simple man with a child's brain. Alfonso Rodriguez is mentally retarded. And were there no more to learn about him than the fact that he is retarded, that would be enough. Because the law accepts what no civilized society should question: we do not kill the mentally retarded.

The same vulnerable little boy who fell gradually farther and farther behind his mates is the one who was preyed upon. He was the one who was taunted. He was the one who was sexually abused. Because he is retarded, he was a target. And because he is retarded, he cannot understand the deep shame and intense humiliation he feels. He only knows that sometimes, when he sees a person who triggers a memory of shame and rekindles the sense of humiliation, he can be thrown against his will into another time and place. He becomes overwhelmed. Fear gives way to panic. This panic-stricken and retarded man is the one who encountered Ms. Sjodin. What followed was a terrible tragedy, but not a capital crime.

Media coverage from MPR News.

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Case Involving Mexican National on Death Row

Oral arguments were heard on March 28 by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Medellín v. Dretke. Jose Ernesto Medellín is a Mexican national on Texas' death row whose rights under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations were violated by Texas authorities. This treaty provides important safeguards to people imprisoned in a foreign country.

MacArthur Justice Center Attorney Joseph Margulies filed an amicus brief (pdf) on behalf of U.S. citizens who have benefited from this same treaty when they were detained overseas.

Updated - 03/28/2005

MacArthur Justice Center Leads Statewide Clemency Petition

Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Clemency for All Death Row Inmates

The Illinois Supreme Court unanimously turned away a challenge to the Death Row commutations granted by former Gov. George Ryan, saying that the state constitution "does not in any way restrict the governor's power to act." Among the commutations upheld in the Supreme Court's decision were those for 23 on whose behalf the MacArthur Justice Center had petitioned.

Updated - 01/23/2004

MJC Coordinates Statewide Clemency Petition Effort on Behalf of Illinois Death Row Inmates

The MacArthur Justice Center has taken a leading role in organizing attorneys to file clemency petitions (pdf) on behalf of every inmate on Illinois death row. These petitions request Governor Ryan to grant clemency to current death row inmates whose sentences were imposed without the benefit of reforms that have been proposed by the Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment.

Governor Ryan gained international acclaim for his decision to impose a moratorium on executions in the wake of the exonerations of 13 wrongfully convicted men who had been sentenced to death and were later proved innocent. The Commission on Capital Punishment has recommended 85 reforms to the death penalty system, but none have as yet been enacted. The petitions argue that inmates now on death row should not be executed because their sentences were imposed by the same flawed system that allowed the 13 innocent men to be sentenced to death.

In connection with this clemency effort, the MacArthur Justice Center filed a clemency petition on behalf of 23 death row inmates who had refused to consent to the filing of clemency petitions on their own behalf. The MacArthur petition argues that the integrity and fairness of the system demands clemency for individuals sentenced to death under a broken capital punishment system - even if the inmates themselves don't want the clemency.

Updated 01/01/2002

Dickie Gaines Released from Death Row

Dickie Gaines, sentenced to death in 1979, was the first Illinois death row prisoner to exhaust his state postconviction remedies and proceed to federal habeas corpus review of his death sentence and conviction. The MacArthur Justice Center represented Gaines in his habeas proceedings and won a new sentencing hearing for him. MJC attorney David Bradford won a life verdict for Gaines at a jury sentencing hearing in Cook County Circuit Court. Ultimately, Gaines' sentence was further reduced to a term of years, and he was released from prison. Gaines is now employed as a prison rights activist in Chicago.

Ronald Jones Becomes the 12th Person Exonerated After Serving on Illinois Death Row

Ronald Jones was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a woman in an abandoned building on the south side of Chicago. When DNA testing showed that the seminal material recovered from the victim could not have originated from Jones, the Illinois Supreme Court vacated his conviction and death sentence and remanded Jones's case to the Circuit Court of Cook County for a new trial. MacArthur Justice Center attorney Locke Bowman teamed with attorneys Richard Cunningham, Barry Scheck, Matthew Kennelly, and Lawrence Marshall to form the defense group. After several months of pretrial maneuvering, the attorneys achieved Ronald Jones's exoneration when the Cook County State's Attorney formally dropped the charges against him.