It is time for the first quarter 2016 wrongful conviction roundup, which includes some Loevy & Loevy clients who were exonerated through the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues.
Ernest Matthews: Ernest Matthews spent eight years in prison for a murder he did not commit. In 1992, Mr. Matthews was arrested along with two others, accused of a murder that had occurred more than five years earlier and had gone unsolved. There was virtually no evidence connecting any of the three men to the crime except for the testimony of a paid informant with mental health challenges. After Mr. Matthews’ two co-defendants were tried, convicted, and given the death penalty and life in prison, Mr. Matthews decided to plead no contest to a lesser charge in exchange for a twenty-year sentence. Then in 2006, one of the co-defendant’s conviction was overturned when a court found that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel. Soon afterwards, the informant recanted her testimony. In addition, new evidence surfaced, unknown at the time of the original convictions, implicating the true perpetrators of the crime. In 2013, the second co-defendant’s conviction was overturned based on the court’s “definitive conclusion” that the testimony given by the paid informant was false. Loevy & Loevy attorney Gretchen Helfrich filed a post-conviction petition for Mr. Matthews in 2015 and recently prevailed. The court vacated Mr. Matthews’ conviction and allowed him to withdraw his plea. This relief comes only after Mr. Matthews served his entire sentence and while the real perpetrators have been running free for decades. Still, we are profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to help Mr. Matthews clear his name
Ben Baker: Loevy & Loevy client Ben Baker won his innocence after spending almost ten years incarcerated for two drug crimes he did not commit. From the outset, Mr. Baker claimed that he was innocent of both offenses and that he was intentionally framed by Chicago Police Sergeant Ronald Watts after Mr. Baker refused to pay a bribe to Watts and a fellow officer. In his defense at trial, Mr. Baker described police officers running the drug business at a housing project, stealing drugs, shaking down drug dealers, and pinning cases on those who refused to cooperate. But Mr. Baker had no way to back up his claims of police corruption, and the court chose to believe the police officers’ testimony over Mr. Baker’s. For years, Chicago Police Department’s Office of Internal Affairs, Chicago’s Office of Professional Standards, and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office ignored similar allegations of police corruption against Sergeant Watts. Watts and his cohorts continued their corrupt reign until an FBI sting caught Watts stealing thousands of dollars from a drug dealer. Watts was sentenced to 22 months in prison for his corruption. This quarter, the court acknowledged that Mr. Baker had been telling the truth all along. He had his wrongful drug convictions vacated, was freed from prison, and received two certificates of innocence. His wife, Clarissa Glenn, was also exonerated for a drug crime where Watts had framed her alongside Mr. Baker in one of the false cases.
Timothy Bridges: In our blog post Crime Lab Scandals Abound, we talked about wrongful convictions arising from scientists giving false testimony in order to support the prosecution. Timothy Bridges wrongly served over 25 years for a rape and burglary, based in part on the erroneous testimony of an FBI-trained state hair analyst who falsely linked him to the crime scene. The type of hair analysis relied on to convict Mr. Bridges has now been discredited, but it was key evidence in the case against him. The Justice Department and FBI have now formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in its elite forensic science unit gave flawed testimony against the criminal defendant in almost every trial in which they testified during a 20+ year period. Mr. Bridges was one of those defendants. It has also come to light that police investigators threatened certain informants with prosecution and offered them cash or leniency in exchange for testifying that Mr. Bridges confessed to them. Recent DNA testing of the evidence from the rape kit, however, conclusively excludes Mr. Bridges as the offender. In October 2015, the prosecuting attorney agreed to vacate Mr. Bridges’ conviction, and in February 2016, the prosecutor finally dismissed the charges.
These miscarriages of justice are what results from a system that lets police play fast and loose with evidence.