South Dakotans for 
Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Innocence

The existence of the death penalty in any state will always risk the gravest injustice: the execution of an innocent person.

Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence of their innocence. Some of these exonerees came within hours of their execution before it was stayed. There is no way to tell how many of the over 1000 people executed since 1976 may have been innocent, as courts do not generally entertain claims of innocence once the defendant is dead.

Recent Innocence News

Eyewitness Identification Under Scientific Scrutiny
Years of scientific study on the accuracy of human memory are pointing to the need for reform in the use of eyewitness evidence in criminal cases.  Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University, whose experiments on memory were reported in the journal Cognitive Psychology, noted, “Memory is weak in eyewitness situations because it’s overloaded.  An event happens so fast, and when the police question you, you probably weren’t concentrating on the details they’re asking about.”  About 75% of DNA-based exonerations have come in cases where eyewitnesses have made mistakes.  Scientists suggest that witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination.  Strong emotions felt by victims of a crime is one such possible area of contamination. Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, found that the accuracy of lineups improves when the possible suspects are presented to witnesses in sequence, rather than all at once, as in the traditional lineup. The downfall of side-by-side lineups, Dr. Wells said, is that “if the real perpetrator is not in there, there is still someone who looks more like him than the others.” The Supreme Court of New Jersey recently promulgated new rules for dealing with the problems of eyewitness identification.


Recent Exonerations

Joe D'Ambrosio

 Convicted: 1989, Charges dismissed: 2012

On January 23, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the state of Ohio challenging the unconditional writ of habeas corpus and bar to the re-prosecution of Joe D'Ambrosio (pictured), thus ending the capital case. He has now been freed from death row with all charges dismissed.  A federal District Court had first overturned D'Ambrosio's conviction in 2006 because the state had withheld key evidence from the defense.  The federal court originally allowed the state to re-prosecute him, but just before trial the state revealed the existence of even more important evidence and requested further delay.  Also the state did not divulge in a timely manner that the key witness against D'Ambrosio had died.  In 2010, the District Court barred D’Ambrosio’s re-prosecution because of the prosecutors’ misconduct. The court concluded that these developments biased D'Ambrosio's chances for a fair trial, and hence the state was barred from retrying him. District Court Judge Kathleen O'Malley wrote:  “For 20 years, the State held D’Ambrosio on death row, despite wrongfully withholding evidence that ‘would have substantially increased a reasonable juror’s doubt of D’Ambrosio’s guilt.’ Despite being ordered to do so by this Court … the State still failed to turn over all relevant and material evidence relating to the crime of which D’Ambrosio was convicted. Then, once it was ordered to provide D’Ambrosio a constitutional trial or release him within 180 days, the State did neither. During those 180 days, the State engaged in substantial inequitable conduct, wrongfully retaining and delaying the production of yet more potentially exculpatory evidence… To fail to bar retrial in such extraordinary circumstances surely would fail to serve the interests of justice.”

In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the bar to re-prosecution.  (D'Ambrosio v. Bagley, No. 10-3247, Aug. 29, 2011).  Even the dissent referred to the state's "remarkable inability to competently prosecute D'Ambrosio."  The state appealed this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court mainly on jurisdictional grounds, but was denied certiorari on Jan. 23.  (Bagley v. D'Ambrosio, No. 11-672, denying cert.).

Gussie Vann

 Convicted: 1994, Charges dismissed: 2011

Vann was originally convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 for a sexual assault and murder of his own daughter, Necia Vann, in 1992. However, in 2008 following state post-conviction review, Circuit Court Senior Judge Donald P. Harris held that Vann was entitled to a new trial because his defense attorneys failed to hire forensic experts to challenge the state’s allegations of sexual abuse.  (Vann v. State, Order, Post-conviction No. 99-312, 10th Judicial Dist., McMinn Cty., May 28, 2008). Judge Harris wrote that this failure led to Vann being convicted on “inaccurate, exaggerated and speculative medical testimony."  (Id. Memorandum, at 23).   At the post-conviction hearing, forensic experts contradicted the state’s earlier testimony and said there were no signs of recent sexual abuse on the victim. Judge Harris described the failings of Vann’s original attorneys as “not only prejudicial, but disastrous.” (Id.)  The state elected not to appeal this ruling, though it did try to find grounds for a conviction on a lesser offense. Ultimately all charges were dropped by the state on September 22, 2011.

© South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software