Nearly 200 guests attended the 28th Annual Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP) Awards Dinner & Meeting on Saturday, June 8 at the Capitol View Event Center in Oklahoma City. The evening included a cocktail reception, a buffet dinner by Ingrid’s Catering, followed by an awards program. Flowers were provided by A Date With Iris.
Timothy Durham was living in Tulsa and working at his family’s business in 1993, when his life was turned upside down.
An 11-year-old girl was raped, and Durham’s photograph was placed in a lineup, even though he didn't match the victim’s description of the assailant. The officer conducting the procedure told the victim that Durham had been in prison before — not true — and not surprisingly, she identified him as the culprit. He was found guilty and sentenced to more than 3,000 years in prison.
Four years later, DNA testing proved Durham was innocent and pointed to a convicted rapist named Jess Garrison. However, the victim would never get justice because by the time the truth was revealed Garrison had committed suicide.
The Case of Willard O'Neal
On January 23, 2019, we had an evidentiary hearing set in the Willard O’Neal post-conviction case. Just one week before the hearing, the case was transferred to Judge Tracy Priddy, who was recently elected to the bench. As a result of this new development, the parties agreed to move the hearing to a new date, March 27, 2019, to give Judge Priddy time to review the brief and exhibits.
This fall semester, the clinic had four students enroll in the Innocence Clinic class. These students work on real-life cases for the Innocence Project. One case they are currently working on is Michelle Berry's.
As a reminder, Michelle Berry lost her infant daughter in 2003. After a night out, Ms. Berry went to her parents’ home where she lived with her five-year-old son and daughter. She awakened early in the morning after hearing a noise and found her five-year-old son in the hallway and her daughter motionless. There was no forensic evidence that indicated Ms. Berry was involved in the murder of her infant daughter except for her proximity to the child. There was, however, evidence that other people were in the house around the time the murder took place – including the baby’s father. Several pieces of evidence were collected and tested, however, four significant items that were collected from the home were never tested. Ms. Berry was tried for the murder of her infant daughter on three separate occasions. She was finally convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Oklahoma Innocence Project filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing of those four items of evidence which could potentially prove Ms. Berry’s innocence. A hearing on the motion was heard in July, but we await a ruling on the motion. We are contemplating filing additional motions as necessary.
Last year was a busy year for students and volunteers in the Oklahoma Innocence Project. In 2017, we received an additional 39 requests for assistance and closed 68 cases. This brings the Oklahoma Innocence Project to over 1,500 total requests for assistance since opening its doors in August 2011. Given the 400 cases awaiting review and the numerous requests we receive for help, Andrea Miller, an Assistant Public Defender and our clinical professor, with the help of students enrolled in the Wrongful Conviction class, are continually reviewing case files to answer those requesting the Clinic’s help.
Student efforts are critical to the Clinic’s success and provide an invaluable experience to our future lawyers. For instance, in the case of Willard O’Neal, students discovered that some of the evidence collected at the 2001 crime scene was not submitted to a lab to obtain possible DNA evidence. A client of OKIP since its inception, Mr. O’Neal was convicted of murder based solely upon the uncorroborated preliminary hearing testimony of a woman whose guns were used in the murder. Upon our students learning that evidence had not been submitted for DNA testing, we filed a petition for post-conviction relief in Tulsa County in June 2015, and in September 2016, we filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing.
After Fred Steese spent two decades in a Nevada prison for murder, evidence indicating that he was innocent was found buried in the prosecution’s files. It was proof that Mr. Steese, as he’d always claimed, had been hundreds of miles away on the likely day of the murder and couldn’t have been the killer.
In Maryland two years earlier, the conviction of James Thompson, who had also served 20 years for murder and rape and whose case involved police and prosecutorial misconduct, was thrown into overwhelming doubt when his DNA didn’t match the semen found in the victim.
avontae Sanford was 14 years old when he confessed to murdering four people in a drug house on Detroit’s East Side. Left alone with detectives in a late-night interrogation, Sanford says he broke down after being told he could go home if he gave them “something.” On the advice of a lawyer whose license was later suspended for misconduct, Sanford pleaded guilty in the middle of his March 2008 trial and received a sentence of 39 to 92 years in prison.
On the night of the killing, witnesses said they could see more than a silhouette. They identified Benjamine Spencer and another man running away from the scene. Their testimony helped send them to prison.
The Oklahoma Innocence Project’s caseload is growing after the non-profit scored a legal victory last year that exonerated two former inmates.
In May 2016, Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter left prison for the first time in 16 years after the Oklahoma Innocence Project cleared the two men. Both were wrongfully convicted in the 1994 murder of Karen Summers and sentenced to life plus 170 years.
On May 9, 2016, after spending 22 years in prison for being accused and convicted of killing a 19-year-old woman, Malcolm Scott and De’Marchoe Carpenter were exonerated for a crime that they did not commit. Scott and Carpenter wrote and requested help for 22 years, until finally someone heard their plea. Years after standing by their innocence, the Oklahoma chapter of the Innocence Project took up their cause.