Maurice on Carlos Deluna, “The Phantom” documentary, and the haunting legacy of wrongful convictions in Sojourners


“I knew Carlos DeLuna was innocent,” Maurice writes in “Wrongful Convictions Haunt the U.S.”, a new essay for Sojourners, published on Friday, July 2, 2021.

“In the spring of 2006, I sat in the living room of Rose Rhoton, whose younger brother, Carlos DeLuna, had been executed by the state of Texas in 1989 for a murder in Corpus Christi. I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and, along with my reporting partner, Steve Mills, informed her that after several months of investigation, we had concluded that Carlos was innocent — that another man, also named Carlos, had committed the murder.

“Seconds elapsed as she stared at us. Two decades had passed since Carlos was arrested and convicted.

“Finally, she spoke.

“‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ she asked, her voice cracking. “What good does this do me now?’”

Continue reading Maurice’s essay in full HERE.

The essay comes on the same day a new documentary film, The Phantom, about the DeLuna case hits theaters and streaming services, and a day after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a moratorium on federal executions, reversing a decision by his predecessor, William Barr, to resume federal executions after a 17-year pause.

The Phantom is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, and Vudu.



Maury’s new book, a collaboration with former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, debuts Sept. 1, 2020

Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois by George H. Ryan, Sr., with Maurice Possley, will be released Sept. 1, 2020.

(Pre-order your copy via the publisher HERE or Amazon or your local independent bookstore via IndieBound HERE.

until i could be sure

Description

In January 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions–the first such action by any governor in the history of the United States. Despite a long history as a death penalty proponent, Ryan was emotionally moved after allowing an execution in 1999. He was also profoundly disturbed by the state’s history–12 men had been executed and 13 had been exonerated since the return of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977. More had been proven innocent than had been executed. Three years later, in 2003, Ryan pardoned four death row inmates based on their actual innocence and then commuted the death sentences of 167 men and women. This was the largest death row commutation in U.S. history. At that time, 12 states and the District of Columbia barred the death penalty. His actions breathed new life into the movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States. Over the next 15 years, Illinois and seven other states would abolish the death penalty–New Jersey, Maryland, New Mexico, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Washington. Today, the push to reform the criminal justice system has never been stronger in America, a nation that incarcerates more men and women than any other country in the world and also wrongfully convicts hundreds of men and women. Although the number of executions carried out every year continues to drop in the U.S., the death penalty still exists in 31 states. Moreover, in some non-death penalty states, factions seek to reinstate it. Until I Could Be Sure: How I Stopped the Death Penalty in Illinois is, in his own words, the story of George Ryan’s journey from death penalty proponent to death penalty opponent. His story continues to resonate today. He defied the political winds and endured the fury and agony of the families of the victims and the condemned as well as politicians, prosecutors and law enforcement. It is a story of courage and faith. It is a timely reminder of the heroic acts of a Republican Governor who was moved by conscience, his faith and a disturbing factual record of death row exonerations.

About the Authors

George H. Ryan Sr., was the 39th Governor of the State of Illinois. Born in 1934, the son of a pharmacist, Ryan grew up in Kankakee, Illinois. He was first elected to state office in 1972 as an Illinois State Representative. He served two terms as Minority Leader of the House of Representatives and one term as Speaker of the House. He served as Illinois Lieutenant Governor from 1983 to 1991, as Illinois Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, and then was Governor from 1999 to 2003.Ryan was the first Governor in U.S. history to suspend the death penalty, declaring a moratorium in 2000. In 2003, as he left office, Ryan emptied death row in Illinois by issuing a blanket commutation order. He was indicted in 2003 and convicted of federal corruption charges relating to conduct while he was Illinois Secretary of State. He served nearly six years in prison and was released in 2013. Age 84, Ryan still travels extensively to speak about the death penalty and the criminal justice system, as well as to support humanitarian efforts in Cuba.
Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of three non-fiction books. Ryan cited the reportage of Possley and his colleagues at the Chicago Tribune when he declared the moratorium and emptied death row. Possley is now senior researcher for the National Registry of Exonerations, a national database of more than 2,500 wrongful convictions maintained by the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science & Society.

Maury in conversation with author Jennifer Grant about Faith, Love, and Hope During an Election Year

Author Jennifer Grant of Compassionate Christianity recently sat down (via Zoom) with Maury to talk about his work in the world, his spiritual journey, and what keeps him hopeful during 2020 in spite of global pandemics, social upheaval, and perhaps the most important presidential election of his lifetime.

MoPo in the Media: Criminal (In)Justice Podcast, Poynter

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Photo of the interir of Alcatraz by Geof Wilson via Creative Commons/Flickr

Maurice recently was a guest on David A. Harris’ Criminal (In)Justice podcast, where he discussed his journalistic work around exonerations of the wrongfully convicted.

Harris says,

With hundreds of exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, it’s easy to think that the law and lawyers making use of DNA have made all the difference. But investigative journalists have made huge contributions: exposing shoddy forensics, showing the public how eyewitness testimony goes wrong and how false confessions get made, and confronting police wrongdoing and lack of accountability. Without the untiring efforts of reporters, much of the injustice in the criminal system would stay hidden.

Listen to the Episode 11 online HERE or via to the June 221, 2016 Episode via iTunes HERE.


Maurice received a nice shout out from Rick MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s Magazine, in a recent column by James Warren at the Poynter Institute.

In response to Warren’s question about the current state of criminal justice journalism, MacArthur said:

“It’s terrible now. It used to be very good when there were more newspapers. Two stars were Maury Possley (then at the Chicago Tribune, now the National Registry of Exonerations in California) and Jim Dwyer when he was at Newsday (now at The New York Times). But there were other people, too. All over the country, local papers were doing big investigative pieces on wrongful convictions and judicial malpractice. Now most of the reporters have been wiped out. So I would say the state of enterprise reporting on travesties of justice — the classic pieces — is very poor. And there’s no replacement.”

Read Warren’s column in its entirety HERE.

 

 

 

 

From the Washington Post and the Marshall Project: Willingham prosecutor accused of misconduct in execution case

Former Navarro County prosecutor, John H. Jackson, gets in his car on July 23, 2014 in Corsicana, Texas. Photo by MICHEL DU CILLE/THE WASHINGTON POST

 

From the Washington Post, Wednesday March 18, 2015:

In a major turn in one of the country’s most-noted death penalty cases, the State Bar of Texas has filed a formal accusation of misconduct against the county prosecutor who convicted Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004 for the arson murder of his three young daughters.

Following a preliminary inquiry that began last summer, the bar this month filed a disciplinary petition in Navarro County District Court accusing the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, of obstruction of justice, making false statements and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense.

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, [Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel,” the bar investigators charged.

The bar action was filed March 5 without any public announcement. It accuses Jackson of having intervened repeatedly to help a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham confessed the murders to him while they were both jailed in Corsicana, the Navarro County seat.

Webb has since recanted that testimony. In a series of recent interviews, he told the Marshall Project that Jackson coerced him to lie, threatening a long prison term for a robbery to which Webb ultimately pleaded guilty, but promising to reduce his sentence if he testified against Willingham.

CONTINUE READING at WashingtonPost.com HERE

READ “Willingham Prosecutor Accused of Misconduct” at The Marshall Project HERE.

From the Washington Post and the Marshall Project: More Doubts from Death Row (March 2015)

Johnny Webb in Corsicana, Texas. Webb, who testified that Cameron Todd Willingham made a jailhouse confession to him that he murdered his three children, has come forward to say he gave false testimony. Michel du Cille/The Washington Post

Johnny Webb in Corsicana, Texas. Webb, who testified that Cameron Todd Willingham made a jailhouse confession to him that he murdered his three children, has come forward to say he gave false testimony. Michel du Cille/The Washington Post

 

 

From the Washington Post, Tuesday March 10, 2015:

CORSICANA, Tex. — More than a decade after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for the arson murder of his three young daughters, new evidence has emerged that indicates that a key prosecution witness testified in return for a secret promise to have his own criminal sentence reduced.

In a previously undisclosed letter that the witness, Johnny E. Webb, wrote from prison in 1996, he urged the lead prosecutor in Willingham’s case to make good on what Webb described as an earlier promise to downgrade his conviction. Webb also hinted that he might make his complaint public.

Within days, the prosecutor, John H. Jackson, sought out the Navarro County judge who had handled Willingham’s case and came away with a court order that altered the record of Webb’s robbery conviction to make him immediately eligible for parole. Webb would later recant his testimony that Willingham confessed to setting his house on fire with the toddlers inside.

Jackson’s handling of the case is now under investigation by the State Bar of Texas, following a formal complaint of prosecutorial misconduct last summer. That grievance asked that Jackson be sanctioned or even prosecuted for falsifying official records, withholding evidence and obstructing justice.

On Monday, an attorney for Jackson said he expected the Texas bar to notify his client soon that it will pursue formal charges of misconduct. The attorney, Joseph E. Byrne, said Jackson would seek to have any such charges heard by a jury, as the bar rules allow.

CONTINUE READING at WashingtonPost.com HERE

READ “The Prosecutor and the Snitch” at The Marshall Project HERE.

Troy Davis: Will Georgia Execute an Innocent Man This Week?

This column originally appeared via SojournersGod’s Politics blog on Friday, September 16:

By Maurice Possley

“Perhaps the bleakest fact of all is that the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., 1994

On Monday (Sept. 19), the five members of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles will meet to consider whether to commute the death sentence of Troy Davis to life in prison or allow him to be executed on Sept. 21.

With more than 1,260 men and women executed in the United States since the death penalty was restored more 30 years ago, pardon boards across this country have routinely addressed pleas for clemency and routinely have rejected them, allowing executions to go forward.

Indeed, as Davis’ case has becoming increasingly more public, the machinery of death moves on in other parts of the country.

On Thursday, U.S. Supreme Court ordered a last-minute stay that blocked the execution in Texas 0f Duane Buck, within hours of his walk to the execution chamber. The next scheduled execution in Texas is Sept. 20 for Cleve Foster, who was convicted of murdering a woman.

On Sept. 21 — the day Davis is now set to die — Lawrence Brewer is scheduled to be executed in Texas for the infamous dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

And on Sept. 22, Derrick Mason is to be executed in Alabama — although the judge who imposed death sentence on Mason now says he made a mistake and believes the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison without parole.

Other than the case of Brewer, notorious because he was one of three white men who killed a black man in particularly cruel and gruesome fashion, it’s unlikely that most of the general public has been particularly aware of the cases of Buck, Foster or Mason.

So what makes the Davis case stand out from most other death penalty cases?

Serious doubt.

Not about whether the death penalty is the appropriate punishment for Davis or has been correctly applied.

The doubt raised in Davis’ case is whether he committed the crime at all. And those questions about his guilt have prompted hundreds of thousands of people to raise their voices in opposition to his execution, most recently former FBI Director William Sessions who, in an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Friday, called on the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute Davis’ sentence to life in prison.

Over the last 30 years, most death penalty cases have worked their way through the courts and into the execution chamber with little publicity, notoriety or public outcry, beyond that of the people directly affected by the crime — relatives and survivors of the victims, family members of the accused and the assorted participants in the legal system, such as judges, police officers, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

From time to time, however, certain cases have taken on a more dynamic persona. Karla Faye Tucker was executed in 1998 — the first woman to be put to death in Texas — amidst national and international pleas for clemency largely based on her gender and conversion to Christianity.

Similarly, Stanley “Tookie” Williams engendered a groundswell of opposition to his 2005 execution in California because of the positive work he had done after being convicted in the murders of four people. While in prison, Williams wrote children’s books with anti-gang and anti-violence themes.

Still, the issue in Tucker and Williams’ cases was rehabilitation, not innocence.

Perhaps the last high-profile case that involved serious claims of innocence was that of Gary Graham, who was executed in Texas in 2000 despite new evidence suggesting that the sole eyewitness who identified him was wrong.

There have been 1,267 executions in the United States since the death penalty was re-instated in 1976, after having been struck down in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The death penalty returned in 1977 when Gary Gilmore was executed by a firing squad in Utah.

Sine the reinstatement of the death penalty 34 years ago, 138 people have been released from Death Row after their innocence was established or their guilt could no longer be proved.

At the same time, serious questions have been raised about the guilt of a number of defendants who were executed, including Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu in Texas, Leo Jones in Florida, and Larry Griffin in Missouri.

There are now more than 3,200 men and women on death row in the United States and the population continues to grow, although at a much reduced rate over the past 10 years.

The number of states that execute has dropped by three, with New Mexico, New Jersey and Illinois outlawing the death penalty.

Executions nationally have dropped gradually over the last several years—from a high of 98 in 1999. There were 46 executions in 2010 and so far in 2011, there have been 33.

“The decline is a breakthrough in the public’s consciousness that mistakes are made and that it’s hard to tell in which ones the mistakes mean innocence,” says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Davis was convicted in 1991 of the 1989 shooting death of an off-duty Savannah police officer who was working as a security guard in a shopping center. Davis was found guilty and sentenced to death on the basis of witnesses and informants.

There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Over time — and three postponed executions — Davis’ defense has produced evidence that six of the nine witnesses have recanted their testimony. Still it was not enough to persuade a Georgia court to grant him a new trial.

Davis has received support from such influential forces as Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Jimmy Carter as well as from more than 500,000 people who have signed petitions urging the pardons board to spare his life.

Davis is no stranger to the pardons board — he has appeared before it twice before. But if there is a breath of hope for Davis, it is that the five-member pardons board has three new members who have not voted on his case before.

He needs three votes for his death sentence to be commuted to life without parole. Such a vote would not mean his immediate release. But it would give his defense team more time to continue their search for evidence of his innocence.

When the board convenes, they will have Davis’ life in their hands. And as they consider whether to send Davis to the execution chamber, perhaps they should consider the case of Earl Washington Jr.

Washington was sentenced to death in Virginia in 1984. Ten years later, when preliminary DNA tests raised doubts about his guilt, then-Gov. Douglas Wilder commuted the death sentenced to life without parole.

In 2000, 16 years after Washington was convicted, more sophisticated DNA tests exonerated him and he was released.

Because he was still alive.

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