Feature Stories

Cathy Woods

Cathy Woods: charges dismissed after 30 years in prison

On Friday, March 6, 2015, Washoe County (Nevada) prosecutors dismissed murder charges against Cathy Woods, who spent 30 years in prison for the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell.   

Mitchell’s car had broken down and her body was discovered in a nearby garage.  A cigarette butt was found near her body.  In 1979, Cathy Woods, who was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Louisiana, told hospital staff that she had murdered Mitchell and later repeated her story to Reno authorities.  She was convicted of the murder in 1980, her conviction was reversed, and she was again convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Woods filed a petition in 2010 requesting DNA testing.  Woods’s DNA was not on the evidence, but DNA on the cigarette butt found near Mitchell’s body matched male DNA from two unsolved California murder cases.  In July 2014, this DNA profile was matched to Rodney Halbower.  In September 2014, Woods’s conviction was vacated, a new trial was ordered, and she was released on bail. Halbower has been charged with the unsolved California murders.

Woods’s attorney, Maizie Pusich, says Woods confessed because she wanted to get a private room in the psychiatric hospital. (Woods has recanted that confession.)  Pushich told the AP: “She was being told she wasn’t sufficiently dangerous to qualify, and within a short period she was claiming she had killed a woman in Reno.”  Pusich said Woods is doing well and delighted that the prosecution is over.

Debra Milke

Debra Milke: On March 23rd, a judge formally dismissed charges against Debra Milke. 

At a press conference, Milke said: "I always believed this day would come.  I just didn't think it would have to take 25 years, three months and 14 days to rectify such a blatant miscarriage of justice."

On December 11, 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals remanded Debra Milke’s case to the trial court for dismissal with prejudice. Milke was convicted of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping in the 1989 death of her four-year-old son. Milke had been interrogated by Detective Armando Saldate, Jr., who testified that she confessed. Milke denied confessing to the murder and the evidence at trial boiled down to her testimony against Saldate’s.

The Court of Appeals opinion characterized the State as having engaged in “egregious misconduct” by not producing known impeachment evidence regarding Saldate. This evidence included at least seven cases of alleged impropriety by Saldate involving his interrogation methods and honesty, and an incident involving a “sexual quid pro quo” with a female motorist whose car Saldate had stopped. None of this information had been disclosed to Milke before trial.

The Court of Appeals concluded that this material was “highly significant to the primary jury issue,” and because of the State’s severe prosecutorial misconduct, double jeopardy barred retrial of Milke.

Debra Milke was in prison for more than 23 years, 22 of which were on death row. If the dismissal stands, she will become the second U.S. woman to be exonerated after spending time on death row, following Sabrina Butler Porter of Mississippi, who was acquitted on retrial in 1995.

Susan Jean KingSusan Jean King Exonerated

On July 18, 2014, the Kentucky Court of Appeals granted a new trial to Susan Jean King, who spent more than five years behind bars for a crime she maintains she did not commit. King was arrested in connection with the 1998 murder of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden eight years after Breeden’s death, when a police detective assigned to the cold case identified King as the primary suspect. On the advice of her attorney King took an Alford plea to manslaughter, which allowed her to assert her innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict her. In exchange, King received a 10-year sentence with parole eligibility after two years; she faced life in prison if convicted at trial.

But, in May 2012 while being questioned regarding a different crime, Richard Jarrell, Jr. confessed to murdering Breeden. At that time the Kentucky Innocence Project (KIP) was investigating King’s case, having determined that it would have been physically impossible for her to kill Breeden. King had one leg and weighed less than 100 pounds at the time of the offense, but Breeden’s body had been thrown off a bridge. The fact that King’s left leg had been amputated was never mentioned to the grand jury that indicted her. Furthermore, Louisville narcotics Detective Barron Morgan gave Jarrell’s confession to KIP, and later claimed he was demoted for doing so.

On May 18, 2012, King’s lawyers moved for a new trial based on Jarrell’s confession. Spencer Circuit Judge Charles Hickman denied the motion. Judge Hickman acknowledged that Jarrell’s confession was evidence that “with reasonable certainty” would have changed the result of King’s prosecution if a new trial were granted: Jarrell had given the police details of the crime that were unavailable to the public, including Breeden’s activities before he was murdered, the manner in which Breeden was killed, and how Breeden’s body ended up in the river. However, Hickman held that he could not legally grant King a new trial because she had pled guilty.

In a unanimous decision, the Court of Appeals reversed Judge Hickman’s ruling, finding that King was entitled to a new trial based on Jarrell’s confession, regardless of how her conviction came about. In fact, the Kentucky Supreme Court had entertained a similar motion to King’s in another case in which the defendant had pled guilty but had newly-discovered evidence. King served her sentence and was released on mandatory reentry supervision in late 2012, shortly after the likely perpetrator confessed to the crime for which she was convicted. On October 9, 2014, King's long ordeal ended when the Commonwealth of Kentucky dropped all charges. (Read more in this Times-Courier story.)

Kristine Bunch returns to
Indiana to educate and inspireKristine Bunch

On June 6, 2014, Kristine Bunch returned to the state of her wrongful conviction and spoke at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, as part of a day-long event titled Law and Forensic Science in Indiana. Kristine’s conviction was overturned by the Indiana Court of Appeals in 2012, in a decision that is already well known and frequently cited. Kristine, who hopes to attend law school one day, is committed to educating law students, members of the legal community, and the public regarding factors that can lead to wrongful convictions. WTHR of Indianapolis ran a beautiful story that gives a flavor of Kristine’s inspiring remarks.

Jennifer Del PreteJennifer Del Prete Released

Jennifer Del Prete was convicted in 2005 of first degree murder of a three-month-old baby in her care at a daycare. The State’s theory was that the baby had suffered abusive head trauma, or “shaken baby syndrome,” immediately prior to her symptoms and that Del Prete was therefore the person who caused the injuries.

U. S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly held a nine-day evidentiary hearing at which more than ten medical and scientific experts testified. Even the prosecution’s main expert ultimately conceded that a child victim of abusive head trauma can have a period of time (known as a “lucid interval”) before symptoms appear. Some victims might be listless or irritable, or might vomit, before a more dramatic onset of symptoms. Del Prete described these symptoms when she told police what the baby had been like earlier that day. Experts from both sides testified that the baby had some brain bleeding more than two weeks before the onset of symptoms. Del Prete’s experts testified that there were other possible medical causes of the baby’s symptoms.

In a 97-page opinion, which discussed the medical evidence in detail, Judge Kennelly concluded that Del Prete had established by a preponderance of the evidence that no reasonable jury would find her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Although Judge Kennelly was not persuaded that the experimental testing described by one of Del Prete’s experts definitively established that shaking alone cannot cause injuries of the type the baby suffered, he did state the following in a footnote: “But it is at least equally important that, as [one expert] testified, science cannot even yet establish an injury threshold. This, in addition to the other more recent developments in this area previously discussed, arguably suggests that a claim of shaken baby syndrome is more an article of faith than a proposition of science.”

It is not known, at this time, whether the State will ultimately dismiss charges against Del Prete in light of Judge Kennelly’s skepticism towards the State’s medical testimony. Last week a spokesman for the Will County State’s Attorney said that prosecutors “remain confident” in their case. Del Prete has spent almost a decade behind bars.

Sabrina ButlerDeath Row Exoneree Sabrina Butler Porter Fights to End Capital Punishment

Sabrina Butler Porter was convicted of murdering her infant son and sentenced to death in 1990.  At that time, Sabrina was the only female inmate on Mississippi’s death row.  Sabrina was acquitted on retrial in 1995, after neighbors offered evidence corroborating her account that her son’s injuries resulted from attempts to administer CPR, and the medical examiner belatedly attributed her son’s death to a kidney-related illness.  Sabrina published a book about her story, and currently works with Witness to Innocence, an organization dedicated to allowing death row survivors to speak out against the death penalty.  Last week, Sabrina visited the Kentucky Senate to advocate for pending legislation that would abolish the death penalty in that state.  Read about her experience in Kentucky here

The Center on Wrongful Convictions Women’s Project was pleased to host Sabrina as an attendee and panelist at its Conference on March 7, 2014.  For more information about her wrongful conviction and exoneration, read her story.  

Gloria Killian:  Exoneree and strong voice for justiceGloria Killian

Gloria Killian was wrongfully convicted of murder due to prosecutorial misconduct and perjury, and spent 17½ years in prison before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned her conviction in 2002. Despite her devastating losses and derailed career plans—she had been a law student at the time of the murder—Gloria has become a tireless advocate for women behind bars and for criminal justice. She has written a book about her case, and CNN is featuring her story as part of its Death Row Stories series, highlighting the critical role that Sally Ride’s mother Joyce Ride played in gaining Gloria’s freedom. Gloria is Executive Director of Action Committee For Women In Prison and hosts a weekly radio show called Women Behind the Wall.

Gloria attended the Women’s Project launch in November 2012 and our conference in March 2014. For more information about her wrongful conviction, see her exoneree story on our web site.

A Long Journey Home for Kristine BunchKristine Bunch

Kristine Bunch’s 3-year-old son Tony was the center of her world. Nonetheless, she was convicted of murdering him after a tragic but accidental trailer home fire took his life in 1995.  Read about her long journey from prison to freedom in this excellent feature story in the Indianapolis Monthly magazine.  Cases like Kristine’s inspired the formation of the Center on Wrongful Convictions Women’s Project.  More...

"San Antonio 4" women proclaim their innocence after being released as a result of new Texas law concerning changes in forensic science.

The three remaining women of the "San Antonio 4" were released from prison on Monday, November 18 after spending more than 10 years in prison (the fourth women was paroled last year). The "San Antonio 4" were convicted of molesting two girls in a case with similarities to the controversial day care abuse cases that were in the news years ago. The four women have always maintained their innocence and received the right to a new trial because of a new law in Texas, Senate Bill 344. This law allows courts to grant defendants new trials in cases in which forensic science has evolved since the conviction. The two alleged victims' trial transcripts contain inconsistencies, but, more importantly, the key medical witness's testimony as to the timing of the alleged injury was cast into doubt by scientific advances. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will decide whether to grant them a new trial but the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney has indicated that he will decline to prosecute them. The women will now attempt to receive a declaration of actual innocence.

To read more about these women's experience, see 'San Antonio 4' speak out after prison release: 'We're actually innocent' - U.S. News - blog NBC.NEWS

Nicole Harris exonerated in Illinois

Nicole Harris

June 17, 2013 - Cook County prosecutors dropped all charges against Nicole Harris, a client of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and Jenner & Block LLP who was convicted eight years ago of strangling her 4-year-old son, Jaquari Dancy, to death.

The Cook County medical examiner initially ruled the death accidental, but changed the cause to homicide after learning that Harris had confessed on videotape. The confession, which Harris said was false and coerced, came after 27 hours of intermittent interrogation by detectives at Chicago Police Area 5 headquarters. The interrogation occurred two months before an Illinois law requiring police to record the entire custodial interrogation of murder suspects went into effect.

Although the recording equipment required by the new law was in place, detectives chose to record only Harris's statement and nothing that preceded it. Harris's exoneration is the 89th in Cook County since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and the 33rd to have been wrongfully convicted based on an unreliable confession. More...