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"Exonerated" Former DR Inmate Tries Again

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From Tampa, Florida, the Associated Press reports on the case of Rudolph Holton: "A man who was freed from death row in 2003 after being cleared by DNA evidence was sentenced to 20 years in prison for choking his wife." Holton has a space on the DPIC's notorious "innocence list."

But was he really "cleared by DNA evidence"? The DNA test in question merely showed that one item of evidence, a hair on the victim's body, was hers and not his. Circumstantial cases are often built up of many items of evidence, each of which is neither necessary nor sufficient by itself to prove guilt. "A brick is not a wall." See Note to FRE 401. According to Gov. Jeb Bush, this is just one more case where a new trial was ordered many years after the first one, and the prosecution could no longer make the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet it is reported in terms that would lead the general public to believe it was a case of clear proof he was actually innocent, continuing to build the myth.

Holton's attempted murder of his wife was not his first physical attack on her. In 2003, the same year he was released, the story says, "he was arrested for punching his wife and striking her several times with a golf club. She ended up in the hospital and he went to prison for 14 months." Altogether, he had 11 prior felonies. Twelve strikes and you're out?

Whose fault is all this? His wife's, of course. "'I married the wrong lady,' he said." Yeah, right.

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Here is some background on Holton's case and why it is not properly a case to be placed on the DPIC Innocence List:

Rudolph Holton-- Holton v. State, 573 So.2d 284 (Fla. 1991). Rather than a case of “actual innocence”, Holton’s case is the an example of a decision by the prosecution that it no longer had sufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This case’s inclusion on the DPIC List is another example of the misleading inadequacy of its criteria.

Holton was convicted of raping and strangling a woman in an abandoned building, then setting the building on fire. Holton initially denied being in the house, until he was confronted with a cigarette pack with his fingerprints recovered at the crime scene. Based on scientific evidence, the prosecution argued that the victim had several of Holton’s hairs in her mouth. Witnesses against Holton included an individual who claimed to see a man who resembled Holton at the scene, another witness who claimed Holton admitted the murder, and another witness who claimed to see Holton talking to the victim outside the house before the fire.

Claims that Holton was exonerated because of DNA and recanting witnesses have been greatly exaggerated. The decision of the trial court granting Holton post-conviction relief is based on the prosecution’s failure to disclose evidence that the victim had reported a rape at the same address ten days before and evidence of consideration received by one of the witnesses. There was also evidence from a witness who suddenly stepped forward for the first time that suggested that the person who previously raped the victim confessed to her murder. (However, the potential other suspect has denied involvement in the murder and voluntarily submitted to a DNA test.) In addition, DNA showed that the hair in the victim’s mouth was the victim’s, not Holton’s. However, the trial court rejected Holton’s claims of newly-discovered evidence. In particular, when two witnesses recanted, the trial court found both of those recantations “unpersuasive”. (Subsequently, both of these witnesses recanted their recantations.) The court also found “unpersuasive” evidence that scratch marks found on Holton’s face were not “fresh”. However, the court did find that the DNA evidence that the hairs in the victim’s mouth were hers, not Holton’s, was “of such a nature that it would probably produce an acquittal on retrial or result in a life sentence, rather than a death penalty.” State v. Holton, Order denying in Part, and Granting, in Part Defendant’s Motion to Vacate Judgment and Sentence with Special Requst for Leave to Amend, Case Nos. 86-08931 & 86-15176 (f.11/2/01)
(posted on http://www.oranous.com/innocence/RudolphHolton/innocent.htm .)

When the Florida Supreme Court denied the prosecution’s appeal, the prosecution made the practical decision that the lack of hair evidence coupled with the inconsistent testimony of the witnesses (despite the unpersuasive recantations) and the potential other suspect made it improbable that Holton or anyone could be convicted. Other witnesses had died and no other physical evidence connected Holton to the crime. The prosecutor explained: “I am not saying loud and clear that Rudolph Holton is innocent. I am saying we cannot prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” . Los Angeles Times (1/25/03); Tampa Tribune (1/25/03, 11/3/01); St. Petersburg Times (4/24/01,11/3/01).

If you took a sample of 1000 murderers who have been incarcerated for over a decade and required prosecutors to retry them all, I wonder how many convictions one would get. 90%, 75%?

One might think that with all the trashing of the DPIC innocence list that has been going on at this blog, someone from DPIC (dare we say Richard Dieter?)would step up and demonstrate how wrongheaded ward and federalist would be.

Dieter argues that the DPIC standard is "objective". Of course, that does not detract from the fundamental dishonesty of labeling as "innocent" those who are released from death row after their convictions have been overturned, since our system is designed to give false negatives rather than false positives. Innocence means "didn't do it" not "was not convicted after original conviction was overturned". So when people hear "innocence" from DPIC, they think (and rightfully so) of people like Kirk Bloodworth, not people like Jeremy Sheets.

This blog is regularly trolled by the anti-death penalty crowd. One or more of them will tell Richard Dieter that C&C bloggers think his innocence list suffers from "fundamental dishonesty", and specific examples of that dishonesty are repeatedly reported. Will that messsage be met with a stirring defense? Only time will tell.

The problem with the DPIC Innocence List and with this ongoing debate over innocence is that when we set standards, these standards are a two-way street. We can debate and ponder who on the DPIC Innocence List shouldn't be there -- who in some extrajudicial way really did do it.

We can also debate and ponder whether the following people who are NOT on DPIC's list but have been removed from death row due to emerging evidence of their innocence are, in fact, innocent:

Larry Dean Smith, Oklahoma, sentenced to death 1978, released from prison, 1984.

Sonia Jacobs, Florida, sentenced to death 1976, released from prison, 1992.

Michael Blazak, Arizona, sentenced to death 1974, released from prison, 1994.

Anthony Scire, Louisiana, sentenced to death 1985, released from prison, 1994.

Victor Jimenez, Nevada, sentenced to death 1987, released from prison, 1999.

Joseph Spaziano, Florida, sentenced to death 1976, still incarcerated on another charge.

Paris Carriger, Arizona, sentenced to death 1978, released from prison 1999.

Andrew Mitchell, Texas, sentenced to death 1981, released from prison, 1999.

Lee Perry Farmer, California, sentenced to death 1992, released from prison 1999.

Kerry Max Cook, Texas, sentenced to death 1978, released from prison 1997.

Lloyd Schlup, Missouri, sentenced to death 1985, plead out to second-degree murder, still in prison.

Donald Peradis, Idaho, sentenced to death 1981, released from prison 2001.

Charles Munsey, North Carolina, sentenced to death 1996, died in prison before an official decision was made on whether to drop charges against him or retry his case.

Dennis Counterman, Pennsylvania, sentenced to death 1990, released from prison last month.

Of the above individuals, if one were to closely and assiduously examine their cases, one could probably make cogent arguments that some were guilty and some were not guilty. What they all have in common, however, is that because of the standards DPIC uses, they do not join the DPIC Innocence List.

In addition, there are five former death row inmates whose sentences were commuted (usually by governors) because of serious doubts about their guilt. These include Joseph Payne, whose death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Gov. George Allen. We can say many things about Allen. But we cannot say that he was a bleeding heart liberal who was overly sympathetic to criminals. This list also includes the names of Ronald Monroe of Louisiana, Joseph Giarratano of Virginia, Helbert Bassette of Virginia, and Henry Lee Lucas of Texas.

And finally, lest we never, ever forget, there are between a half dozen and a dozen of cases in the so-called "modern era" where people were executed who may well have been innocent. These cases include Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna, Larry Griffin and Cameron Todd Willingham.

Mr. Elliot, a simple question, yes or no, do you concede that some of those on DPIC's list, if we were to closely and assiduously look at their cases, could have actually done it and gotten away with it?

A simple question. Will you answer it?

Also, Henry Lee Lucas is a bad example.

Federalist asks if I will "concede that some of those on DPIC's list, if we closely and assiduously look at their cases, could have actually done it and gotten away with it."

Sure. Of course I will concede that. For me to answer "no" to that question would require that I have the omniscience of God. Of course I do not. And I would be quite suspicious of anyone -- retentionist or abolitionist -- who claimed such omniscience. (I think that I would label such a person a Pharisee.)

My point is that if we are to critique DPIC's list as possibly having guilty people on it, then we need to be just as quick to critique DPIC's list for excluding people who are possibly innocent. What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

Of course, it is remarkable that we are having this debate to begin with. It is an encouraging development that today we acknowledge that innocent people are sent to death row, and that the focus of the debate has shifted to not whether this happens, but rather how many people it happens to.

Mr. Elliot is not without skill. He has seamlessly moved from a discussion whether the DPIC innocence list suffers from "intellectual dishonesty" to an acknowledgement by federalist (?)"that innocent people are sent to death row." How did that happen? Federalist, say it ain't so!

I don't think it's much to concede that innocent people have been sent to death row--Kirk Bloodworth is an example of that happening. What is the far more important question is whether innocent people have been executed. We can debate that. But given Mr. Elliot's concession and his refusal to address my point about the fundamental dishonesty of the DPIC list, I'd say that Mr. Elliot is taking the position that the best defense is a good offense.

As for the goose and the gander, Mr. Elliot is apparently arguing that because the DPIC list theoretically could be attacked from the abolitionist side is is acceptable. Of course, DPIC has a "probable innocence" list too, so it seems that the theoretical attack from the abolitionist side would be pretty weak.

"My point is that if we are to critique DPIC's list as possibly having guilty people on it, then we need to be just as quick to critique DPIC's list for excluding people who are possibly innocent."

I have never heard anyone claim that the list is a comprehensive list of every innocent person who has ever been sentenced to death. There is no reason to attack a claim that is not being made.

I hear the list cited all the time as a list of people sentenced to death who have subsequently been proven innocent. One time I was testifying in a congressional committee hearing, and the chairman of the committee claimed that. It is because of this persistent misuse of the list that we have to constantly point out that there are guilty people on it.

The DPIC has always included this separate additional list of people mentioned in the Elliott post. I think, given the DPIC track record, that it is safe to infer that DPIC has very good reasons for not actually promoting these additional inmates on its "Innocent and Freed from Death Row" list. These names have not been without controversy in regards to guilt/innocence. For instance, the Sonia Jacobs case is discussed at length in Josh Marquis's recent law review article "The Myth Of Innocence"
(published in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology - March 31, 2005
Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago, Illinois).

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