Ohio: Another release from death row
Sept. 6, 2012 Another deadly mistake has been uncovered and corrected. Michael Keenan was released from Ohio’s death row today, after serving 24 year of imprisonment, for a crime he did not commit. This is Ohio’s second exoneration in nine months, the seventh since 1976 when the death penalty was resumed in the United States and the 141st nationally.
Mr. Keenan was first tried, convicted and sentenced to death for his alleged role in the murder of Tony Klann, in 1988. His conviction was overturned in 1994 and again in 2012 due to prosecutorial misconduct. Most recently a federal court ruled that Mr. Keenan must be retried or freed in light of potentially exculpatory evidence hidden from Keenan at the time of his trial. The prosecutors attempted to retry him, but took the death penalty off the table, in an effort to coax him into taking a plea deal. Today Cuyahoga County Judge John Russo dropped all charges and released Mr. Keenan.
“This is yet another mistake, which luckily was corrected. But, how do you correct the 24 years that this man spent in prison?” asked Terrie Rodello, board member with Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (OADP) and Amnesty International USA Oregon Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator. Rodello continued, “There have been 141 exonerations and no one knows how many innocent people may have been executed before good lawyers, investigators and the courts could get to the truth”.
Oregon has had its share of dropped charges and murder convictions overturned. Christopher Boots and Eric Proctor were convicted of murder in Lane County in 1985 and sentenced to twenty years each. The evidence was thin and forensic evidence was later debunked. Most importantly, the person who committed the robbery and murder was identified. Released in 1994, after eight years in prison, Boots and Proctor settled with the City of Springfield for $2 million.
Laverne Pavlinek implicated her partner John Sosnovske in the murder of a young woman whose body was found in the Columbia Gorge in 1992. Apparently she did it in order to escape an abusive relationship. The evidence shows she learned enough from news reports and information she gleaned from her interrogators to convince them of Sosnovske’s guilt. Sosnovske pled no contest in order to avoid a death sentence and received a sentence of life without parole. Pavlinek was also convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Their case fell apart when Keith Jesperson, the “Happy Face Killer” who was in prison for other murders, confessed and gave information that only the police knew. Sosnovske and Pavlinek were released in 1995.
Santiago Ventura Morales was sentenced for the murder of another Mexican man in 1986. There were problems from the beginning, the county had no interpreters who spoke Ventura’s Mixtec dialect and he could not understand or cooperate in the investigation and trial. Most concerning, however, was that another person had confessed to the crime. Jurors, who had convicted him, almost immediately expressed doubts but it took a lengthy investigation by private citizens to identify the murderer and convince the authorities Ventura Morales was innocent and should be released. Ventura Morales was released in 1991
Phillip Scott Cannon was convicted of aggravated murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1999 for the murder of three people in Polk County. He maintained his innocence throughout his trial, the eleven years he served in prison, and through his ultimate release. Testimony from witnesses who had been at the murder scene to purchase drugs that Cannon had acted “strangely” and from the owner of the property who later served time for a subsequent murder apparently carried weight. However, the strongest evidence came from a forensic technique called “bullet lead analysis.” This technique, then suspect and now completely repudiated by the FBI, purported to match the lead from crime scene bullets to the batch in which they had been manufactured. If a defendant had bullets from the same batch in his possession, it was considered that proof had been established. In spite of the technique being under suspicion at the time of Cannon’s trial, the prosecution used it to convict him. The courts finally recognized there was no evidence to sustain a verdict of guilty and Cannon’s conviction and sentence were overturned in December 2009. It was subsequently found that the District Attorney’s office had lost or destroyed all of the original trial evidence. The unreliability of the original witnesses and the lack of investigation of other available witnesses who could have refuted the prosecution evidence cast doubt on the truth of Cannon’s conviction. He could have received a sentence of death. Fortunately he was given a sentence of life without the possibility of parole making it possible to reexamine his case before he could be executed.
Of the 37 people on Oregon’s death row presently, four have had their convictions overturned and are awaiting re-trial. The main reasons have been mistakes made by judges in their instructions to juries, lack of adequate legal defense and competency of the defendant to assist his defense team. While many feel that DNA evidence has played a major part in the 141 exonerations, DNA evidence was the major factor in only 17 of the 141 cases listed on the Death Penalty Information Center web site (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
“The death penalty in Oregon is needless, a failed public policy and too risky that we could execute an innocent person,” states Ron Steiner of OADP. Life in prison without the possibility of parole is a reasonable alternative, which would save taxpayers millions of dollars that could go to law enforcement to solve ‘cold cases’, rehabilitation programs for the addicted” or benefits to murder victim families.