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Five Victories Against Wrongful Convictions In The First Week Of 2024

Above photo: Willie Williams standing next to a loved one after he was vacated. Florida Innocence Website.

The new year has been off to a great start with four exonerations in just five days.

But what does that say about our criminal justice system’s conviction practices in the first place?

The new year has just begun and already there have been five victories against wrongful conviction within the first week, with the release of Montana Innocence Project (MIP) client Bernard Pease Jr. and the exonerations of William Williams and Renay Lynch in the U.S., and Robert Mailman and Walter Gillespie in Canada. Each of them had served decades in prison – a total of 191 years — for crimes they did not commit. They all received the help of innocence organizations, which are nonprofit organizations that provide legal services to innocent people in prison and prevent wrongful convictions through legal education and reform.

On Jan. 2, Bernard Pease Jr. was released from Alpha House Pre-release Center in Billings, MT after spending nearly 40 years in prison for murder he did not commit in 1983, when Maria Philbrick had been found dead in the alley near Pease Jr.’s father’s store, among several other businesses. Upon searching the Pease residence, police found a hair on a condom in Pease Jr. ‘s room. Montana Crime Lab Director Arnold Melnikoff reported that the hair was consistent with the victim’s pubic hair. In 2019, the Montana Innocence Project filed a petition for DNA testing and proved that  the hair actually belonged to a cat.

According to the MIP, Pease Jr. said that he is looking forward to “spending time seeing relatives that I haven’t seen in many years and getting to know the generations I don’t know.” He will live with his sister, who supported him throughout his wrongful conviction. They were able to exchange gifts this holiday season for the first time in 39 years. Pease Jr. has not yet been exonerated, an the Montana Innocence Project is actively continuing to fight for his innocence upon his release.

On Jan. 3, Willie Williams, a resident of Jacksonville, FL, also was exonerated. Williams told First Coast News he is looking forward to spending time with his family after 45 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, a 1976 robbery and attempted murder.. When the victim admitted he didn’t remember the shooter’s face and could not identify them out of a photo lineup, police hypnotized the victim to make an identification, even though hypnosis has been proven to be unreliable evidence. Williams was then identified as the perpetrator. Prosecutors did not tell the defense that the victim could not identify his assailant and had been hypnotized to do so.

Williams, 79, maintained his innocence, earned his law clerk certification in prison and spent years reading in the law library, learning and continuing “to file motions in the court hoping and praying that some court would give me relief,” Williams said. In 2021, the State Attorney’s office conducted an integrity review of his case and discovered that the victim had been hypnotized, leading to the exoneration. Williams, who was assisted by the Florida Innocence Project, now is focused on his wife and family.

“I can move forward, I don’t want to look in the rearview mirror. I don’t want to see what happened in the past, I’m concerned about the present and the future,” Williams told First Coast News.

The following day, on Jan. 4, a New Brunswick judge acquitted Robert Mailman and Walter Gillespie after they served 40 years in prison for a wrongful conviction after their lawyers presented evidence that the two witnesses whose testimony the conviction hinged on  had something to gain from testifying. Mailman and Gillespie had been convicted under second-degree murder charges and sentenced to life without parole for a 1983 murder after a witness who had previously claimed to know nothing came forward in exchange for his testimony. He later was given $400 from the police. A second witness, who was also charged with the crime, testified against the two men, blaming them for the murder, and was later given a 13-year sentence.

There was no physical evidence linking Mailman and Gillespie to the murder. In the years that passed, both witnesses recanted their statements and said that police pressured them into saying that the men were involved. Innocence Canada was ultimately able to prove their innocence.

“They’ve been 40 years waiting for this. As you can imagine, they’re glad this day has finally come,” said Ron Dalton, co-president of Innocence Canada, who had also been exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit, told BC/Radio-Canada.

On Jan. 5, Renay Lynch was exonerated from a 26-year wrongful conviction in Buffalo, NY, after a post-conviction re-examination of crime scene fingerprint evidence, which law enforcement had previously withheld from the defense, excluded her as the perpetrator and pointed to an alternative suspect. In 1996, a year after 82-year-old landlord Louise Cicelsky was found dead in her apartment, Lynch, one of her tenants, was arrested and coerced into making a false confession. Additionally, an incentivized witness claimed Lynch confessed while they were incarcerated together in June 1997. There were no eyewitnesses or physical evidence connecting Lynch to the murder.

In 2020, the Erie County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit and counsel for Ms. Lynch entered into a collaborative effort to re-investigate the case, and they discovered viable fingerprint evidence that police had withheld, which pointed to another tenant. Lynch became the Innocence Project’s 250th exoneration since it was founded in 1992. False confessions have contributed to 27% of the Innocence Project’s exonerations, while 19% of their exonerations occur after information provided by jailhouse informants is found to be erroneous.

“I have waited 26 years for this day to come,” Lynch told the Innocence Project. “That’s days without seeing my children grow up, days without holding my grandchildren, days that I will never get back. I’m grateful to finally have this weight lifted.”

Pease Jr., Williams, Lynch, Mailman and Gillespie maintained their innocence during the decades that they remained wrongfully convicted.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there were 128 recorded exonerations in the U.S. last year, and the Innocence Project also collaborated with advocates, policymakers, and partner organizations to pass more than 15 reforms that reveal and prevent wrongful conviction and strengthen compensation for exonerees.

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