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Friday, 10 October 2014

Michael Morton: Murder in the City of the Violet Crown.*

August 13, 1986
 Day 1

9114 Hazelhurst Drive, Austin, Texas
Michael Morton is trying his best not to wake his wife, Christine, and their 3-year-old son, Eric. It is 05:30 on a warm Wednesday morning in Austin, Texas, and Michael is about to leave for work. It appears to be the start of another unremarkable day, just like every other working day.

Except it isn't.

On this particular day, 32-year-old Michael Morton's life will change forever - he just doesn't know it yet. After leaving a note for Christine, he gently closes the front door and heads to the Safeway store in Austin where he works as a Pharmacy Manager.

The previous day had been his birthday and he was still annoyed that Christine had not been as attentive as he felt she should have been. In the note he leaves propped against a vanity mirror in the bathroom, he mentions how he feels. He also writes "I-L-Y" (I love you) on the bottom of the note, and signs it "M".

After a half-hour journey through the sparse early morning traffic, Michael arrives at the store and punches his time card at 06:05 am. During the eight hour shift none of the staff notice anything different about Michael. Although he is an introverted individual, he also has an innate calmness about him and rarely shows signs of stress. Co-workers later recall that his attitude and demeanor appeared to be normal.

Michael clocks off around 2:00 pm and heads to the mall to shop for some personal items before making his way to pick up Eric from the babysitter. He arrives at Mildred Redden's house around 3:30 pm to be told that Christine never arrived that day. Concerned that his wife and child may have had an accident, Michael phones his home. He hears a man's voice he does not recognize.

Sheriff Jim Boutwell, 1987
Williamson County Sheriff, Jim Boutwell, has answered the phone. It is a tense moment. A short, highly charged conversation between the two men ensues. The sheriff politely refuses to answer any questions and asks Michael to return home immediately.

Fifteen minutes later, the neighbors, gathered on their front porches in Hazelhurst Drive, watch as Michael's car screeches to a halt outside number 9114. They see him move past the crime scene tape surrounding the house, sprint across the lawn and try to push his way inside. He is stopped by two uniformed officers.

After identifying himself to Boutwell, Michael asks if his son is okay.

"He's fine. He's at the neighbors," Boutwell answers, slightly puzzled. He wonders why that was the first question. Surely, the first question should have been about Christine.

"How about my wife?" asks Micheal.

The Sheriff slowly shakes his head and answers the question in a flat monotone. "She's dead."

Earlier in the day, a deputy sheriff had responded to a neighbor's phone call reporting 3-year-old Eric wandering around the front yard wearing only a shirt and a diaper. Before the police arrived, the neighbor had gone into the Morton's house looking for Christine. She found the battered body lying on the bed next to a wall splattered with blood. Christine had been bludgeoned to death with a blunt object.

Sgt Don Wood, 1987
Now, nearly three hours later, several scenes of crimes officers are combing through the house searching for clues. A police photographer is taking photographs of Christine's body, still lying in the bedroom.

Leading a strangely subdued Michael into the kitchen, Boutwell reads him his Miranda rights and then introduces him to lead prosecutor Sergeant Don Wood. After just fifteen minutes of questioning, both officers are convinced that Michael Morton is guilty of his wife's murder.

In the weeks, months and years that follow, they will steadfastly refuse to consider any other suspects.

Less than three hours into the investigation, both officers have read the note left by Michael and have both concluded that the motive for murder was his anger. He was refused sex, struck his wife and then lost control. The officers' initial suspicions are raised by Michael's apparent lack of emotion. He appears to be taking his wife's murder very calmly.

As forensic officers dissect the crime scene, no sign of a break-in is evident and robbery as a motive for the murder is ruled out; several items of jewelry and other valuables are still lying on the dresser in full view. However, one important piece of information is withheld from Michael Morton.

Christine's purse is missing.

The questioning continues for most of the afternoon and into the late evening. Michael does not request an attorney and answers, openly and without hesitation, every question put to him. After several hours of questioning, Michael loses his temper. "I didn't kill my wife," he shouts at the two lawmen. "Are you fucking crazy?"

 Although the prime suspect, Michael Morton is not arrested for murder. Not yet.



                                                                              
August 14, 1986
Day 2

The next day, one of Michael Morton's neighbors, Orin Holland, who lived a block north on Amanda Drive, stops a sheriff's deputy to report something unusual. A man had been seen parking a green van on the wooded lot behind the Mortons' home on several occasions prior to the murder. The same man had been seen wandering in the overgrown area surrounding the Mortons' privacy fence.

Later that evening an investigating officer calls on Orin Holland. "His purpose was not to ask us questions about what we had seen, but to reassure us that we weren't in any danger," Holland recalls. "He didn't overtly say, 'we know who did it,' but he implied that this was not a random event. The suggestion was that the husband did it."

Another neighbor called the sheriff's office to report sighting the green van on the morning Christine Morton was murdered. "We kept waiting for the police to call us but they never did. We figured the evidence led them in another direction."

Christine Morton's brother, John Kirkpatrick, finds a blood-stained bandana near the murder scene and gives it to Sheriff Jim Boutwell. Kirkpatrick thinks it is an important piece of evidence. The police do not. Nobody from the sheriff's office ever contacts Kirkpatrick and the area behind the Morton's house is never searched.

The medical examiner's report offers no respite for Michael Morton. An analysis of the partially digested food in Christine's stomach reveals time of death to be between 01:00 am and 06:00 am - a timing which places Michael at the murder scene around the time of death.

The ME also reports that Christine was not raped. if the motive was neither rape nor robbery - what was the motive?




August 15, 1986
Day 3

The Jewel Box store in San Antonio calls the police to report that someone appears to have fraudulently used Christine Morton's credit card. The San Antonio police department informs Williamson County Sheriff's Office and sends them the details. 
Sheriff Boutwell and Sergeant Wood are unmoved by this information. No action is taken.




August 24, 1986
Day 12

Eric Morton, 1986
Rita Kirkpatrick, Christine's mother, contacts Sergeant Don Wood with what she believes is vital information. She says that 3-year-old Eric saw the murder. "Eric and I were alone at my house...the first time he and I had been alone since his mother's death."

She tells Wood that she wrote down everything Eric said. She reads her exchange with the boy:

Eric: Mommie's crying. She's - stop it. Go away.

Rita: Why is she crying?

 'Cause the monster's there.

What's he doing?

He hit Mommie. He broke the bed.

Then what happened?

The monster threw a blue suitcase on the bed. He's mad...

Was he big?

Yeah.

Did he have on gloves?

Yeah. Red.

What did he carry in his red gloves?

Basket.

What was in the basket?

Wood.

(The boy's account matches the murder scene perfectly. Wood chips found in Christine's hair suggested she had been beaten with a piece of wood. A blue suitcase and a wicker basket were found on top of her body.)

Where was Daddy, Eric? Was daddy there?

No. Mommie and Eric was there.

(Sergeant Wood listens to this account and takes the transcript. He fails to ask any relevant questions and at one point tries to convince Rita that the "monster" Eric refers to is actually Michael wearing his scuba diving gear. This transcript was then filed away and never offered as exculpatory evidence to the defense.)



September 9, 1986
Day 28

Williamson County Sheriff's Office
Michael Morton is questioned at length by Sergeant Wood and Sheriff Boutwell at the sheriff's office. He provides samples of his hair, saliva and blood and gives permission for his car to be searched.

On the same day he also passes two lie detector tests.

No physical evidence is ever found that ties Michael to Christine's murder. In fact, the evidence found up to this point should have ruled him out as a suspect. Unfortunately, the two investigating officers are so convinced of Michael's guilt they refuse to accept they may have the wrong man. 

Later that day, Sergeant Wood tells a local newspaper, The Hill Country News, that fingerprints found near the murder scene had no connection to the killing. (It is later discovered that these fingerprints were found on a door inside the Morton's house.) He also dismisses a blood-stained item (he is referring to the bandana found by John Kirkpatrick, although he does not state that specifically) which he believes to be the result of a minor accident that may have occurred on the building site.




September 25, 1986
Day 44

Boutwell and Wood arrest Michael Morton at his home. They arrive unannounced. With no warning of his impending arrest Michael has no time to arrange child care for Eric, who once again, is pulled from his father's arms and given to a neighbor.

Michael looks at his young son and then back at the officers, "You've got to be kidding me," he says.

The child becomes hysterical as he watches his father being led away in handcuffs. Having lost his mother, he now loses his father.




February 9, 1987
Day 181

The first day of the trial. Michael Morton glances to his right and studies the faces of the twelve jury members. Two rows of blank faces stare back at him. He can almost feel them making their initial assessment of him.

He takes a deep breath and stares straight ahead.

Nothing is ever guaranteed in a court of law, but Michael knows that his defense attorney, Bill Allison, is cautiously optimistic that the lack of hard evidence will lead the jury to acquit. The evidence available to the prosecution is weak and mostly circumstantial.

But Williamson County District Attorney, Bill Anderson, the lead prosecutor, has other ideas. He ignites an emotional bonfire that engulfs Michael Morton. Firstly, he paints a picture of marital disharmony in the Morton household. Several witnesses testify that Michael's marriage is unhappy. He's portrayed as a bully and petty tyrant who hated his wife. One member of the jury later recounts that, "after listening to several witnesses, I was disgusted with Michael Morton's attitude. I'm assuming the entire jury felt that way too. Whether he was a murderer or not, I knew that I did not like him."

Williamson County DA, Bill Anderson
Bill Anderson now has everybody's attention. He insinuates that Michael Morton treated his wife with contempt and casts him as a sexual deviant.

The prosecutor rips into the jury with a lurid story of perverse violence; his voice cracks as he pounds his fist into his hand and weeps, the tears rolling down his cheeks.

He portrays the mild-mannered Pharmacy manager as a sexually dysfunctional, murderous psychopath. It is a bravura performance worthy of Broadway.

The jury is told that Michael Morton battered his wife to death with a wooden club and them masturbated over the dead body. The whole courtroom is stunned.

A story that belonged in the pages of a dime novel has swayed the jury. Unfortunately, none of it is true.

Texas statute requires law enforcement officers, if they take the stand, to turn over their reports and notes to the defense. Sheriff Jim Boutwell's report consisted of a couple of pages of handwritten notes containing virtually no information about his investigation. A major homicide investigation, and there was nothing there.

Sgt Don Wood
In fact, exculpatory evidence which included details about the intruder seen behind the Morton's house, the bloodied bandana, unidentified footprints and fingerprints found at the murder scene, Eric's revelations about the "monster" and the fraudulent use of Christine Morton's credit card in San Antonio was withheld by the prosecution. All of this evidence was contained in Sergeant Don Wood's investigation notes. Wood was never called to the stand, so he didn't have to turn his report over to the defense.

(With regard to the fraudulent use of the credit card, Williamson County sheriff's office never acknowledged the San Antonio police report. In a file discovered twenty-five years later, a Williamson County deputy sheriff dismissed the theory that Christine's purse had been stolen by the murderer with the words, "''Course we know better.")

Also withheld from the defense were unidentified fingerprints found on a sliding glass door at the Morton's house and on the blue suitcase left beside Christine's body. Only the sheriff's office and the district attorney's office knew about this evidence and they had no intention of ruining their case by giving it to the defense. With two unreliable law enforcement officers and a compliant judiciary system lined up against him, Michael Morton didn't stand a chance.




February 17, 1987
Day 189

The final day of the trial. The jury is out for less than two hours. One jury member later says, "eleven of us were ready to convict at the start. I was certain of his guilt."

The guilty verdict is read out and Michael has to be supported by his attorney. As the judge sentences him to life in prison, Michael rests his head on the defense table. "Your Honor, I didn't do this. That's all I can say. I did not do this."

Michael is moved to Huntsville diagnostic center, where he will remain for several weeks. On arrival he is ordered to strip and then ushered into the communal shower. He's allocated a prison number and his photograph is taken. Herded into the mess hall under the impatient eyes of the guards, he hurriedly eats a prison meal, the first of many.

Eventually, he is assigned a cell. At the ten-thirty lights out, he lays on his bunk listening to the cacophony of sounds reverberating around the cell block. What does the future hold? Michael knows he is innocent, but how does he prove it? And how long will it take? With a wry smile, he quickly realizes that the one thing he has... is time.

Lots of it.




January 13, 1988
Day 519
Debra Baker is savagely bludgeoned to death with a wooden club in her North Austin home. It is less than 12 miles from where Christine Morton was murdered. Despite the similarities, police fail to connect the two murders. The murdered woman leaves behind a grieving husband and two small children.



March 22, 1990
Day 1318

Michael Morton, 1987
Michael Morton files an application for a writ of habeas corpus and requests testing on the bedsheets from the murder scene.

Williamson County DA's office opposes the motion.

When Christine's body was discovered, the blinds were drawn and she was still wearing her nightdress. Michael believes his wife was killed a short time after he left for work at 0530 am on that Wednesday morning.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals grants the testing on the bedsheets, which reveals Morton's semen. This apparently corroborated what the prosecution had alleged in court - that Michael had indeed masturbated over the corpse of his wife.

What they do not say is that the sample also contains Christine's vaginal fluid. This is not revealed because it confirms a truth the Williamson County DA's office would rather not hear. In the days before the murder the Morton's had had consensual sex, a rather different scenario than that put forward by the prosecution.

In any event, the application is denied.




March 2, 2001
Day 5316

Eric Michael Morton
Michael hits rock bottom. He receives a letter informing him that his son, Eric, has decided to change his name. It is the worst day of Michael's life. "Nothing before this did it - not Christine's murder, not my arrest, not my trial, not my conviction, nothing. Eric was what I had been holding on to. He was the reason I was trying to prove my innocence. There was a hollow, empty feeling, because getting out had never been the goal. It was getting out so that I could tell Eric, 'Look, see? I didn't do this."

Michael realizes that reconciliation with his son is now not a possibility. "This wasn't just another difficult thing to overcome, this was the end. This was death.




January 2, 2002
Day 5622

Williamson County DA, John Bradley
Ken Anderson, the Williamson County DA, becomes a state judge after being appointed to the bench by Governor Rick Perry. Perry appoints Anderson's first assistant, John Bradley, as district attorney.

Bradley continues to oppose all motions regarding Michael Morton. He also stonewalls all attempts to test DNA samples obtained at the Morton murder scene.

He will also oppose parole for Michael Morton saying that Michael and his attorneys, "are grasping at straws," in their search for a "mystery killer."

The only conclusion to be drawn from John Bradley's actions is that he was aware of Wood's, Boutwell's and Anderson's unethical use of exculpatory evidence in the Morton case and he was attempting to protect them.




February 11, 2005
Day 6785


Under Texas' post-conviction DNA law, Michael Morton requests testing on several items from the crime scene, including the bandana and fingernail scrapings from Christine and the evidence from the unsolved murder of Debra Baker near the Mortons' home.

Williamson County DA John Bradley opposes the testing. Asked why they oppose these tests a spokesman for the DA's office says, "It would muddy the waters."

Michael is informed that it may take some time. It is the first time somebody has actually told him the truth.




August 15, 2006
Day 7308
Eighteen months later. The trial court in Williamson County grants testing on some items, including the fingernail scrapings, but denies testing on the bandana and the evidence from the Debra Baker murder.



February 2, 2007
Day 7494


John Bradley, 2007
After serving the first third of a sixty-year sentence Michael is eligible for parole.

John Bradley, Williamson County DA, opposes it. He writes to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. "I am writing to protest parole (for Michael Morton) and request that you put off reconsiderations of parole for as long as the law permits."

The DA's excuse for writing to the Parole Board is that Michael Morton never accepted responsibility for Christine's murder. Which was correct. Michael tells his parents that he is unrepentant and that he will not lie to get out. "My innocence," he says, "is all I have."

Parole is denied.

When John Bradley receives notice from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that parole has been denied to Michael Morton somebody scrawls the word "Victory" across the bottom of the letter.




March 17, 2008
Day 7888
Nineteen months later. DNA tests ordered in August 2006 on swabs, nightgown and hair are completed. The results are found to be inconclusive. Only Christine's DNA is found, and the court finds that Michael Morton cannot be excluded as the murderer. 
Michael Morton has finally run out of appeals. He has nowhere else to go. His release date is February 18, 2047. He will be 92-years-old.



January 8, 2010
Day 8550

Justice Alan Waldrop 2010
The 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin unexpectedly reverses a previous judgment and allows DNA testing on the bandana found by John Kirkpatrick behind his sister's house.

After considering all the facts available to him, Justice Alan Waldrop suggests that there is a trail of evidence that connects the bandana to the crime scene. "If the bandana contains Christine's blood, it is sufficient by itself to establish a trail."

The blood on the bandana is now nearly 24-years-old. Michael Morton's attorneys do not have high hopes. They believe the DNA may have degraded beyond what is permissible for testing.

Once again, DA John Bradley intervenes and tries to stop the test. He is overruled.




June 30, 2011
Day 9088

Orchid Cellmark, the forensic testing firm, issues a report that confirms biological material on the bandana belongs to Christine Morton and another man who is not Michael Morton.

When Michael's lawyers tell him the good news, he doesn't remember the exact words but recalls that he was, "bouncing off the walls."

His lawyers tell him it is not over yet as they believe John Bradley will fight them all the way. Even if Michael's conviction is overturned the DA could order a retrial. Years of appeals could follow. What they really need is a match to the unknown man's DNA found on the bandana. With millions of profiles of people with convictions stored on the FBI national database, it is a long shot.




August 9, 2011
Day Nine Thousand One Hundred and Twenty Eight



A match is found. The man is Mark Alan Norwood, a drifter with a long criminal record. The story now begins to fall into place. Norwood is the man with the green van, seen prowling around the Morton's privacy fence. He entered the house through an open window (his fingerprints on the glass) around 6:00 am, just after Michael had left for work. After killing Christine, he wiped his hands on the bandana and left. While walking back to his van the bandana slips from his back pocket.

All the evidence was there. Boutwell, Wood and Anderson just did not want to see it.

When the news breaks the response from the Williamson County DA's office is predictable. John Bradley issues a statement. "I don't think on its face, that a DNA result on a piece of evidence away from the crime scene immediately proves innocence. It does raise some good issues that are worthy of investigation, and we will do that."

So, after 24 years they are going to do some investigating.The arrogance and hypocrisy of two law enforcement officers and two District Attorneys is breathtaking, but their case against Michael Morton is now shot to pieces.

And questions are being asked.




August 26, 2011
Day 9145

Ken Anderson, 2012
After the Morton homicide file is unsealed, Michael Morton's lawyers discover that Anderson did not provide all the reports as was ordered. Although the file contains six pages of preliminary reports, it excludes the Kirkpatrick phone transcript, the reports on the use of Christine Morton's credit card, a forged check and the neighbors' reports about the man in the green van.

Shortly after these revelations, the former Williamson County DA, Ken Anderson, now a state judge, held a press conference. "As district attorney at the time, and as woefully inadequate as I realize it is, I want to apologize for the system's failure to Mr. Morton and to every other person who was adversely affected by this verdict."

With regard to the exculpatory evidence willfully withheld by Anderson, he says he is not to blameUndeterred by the truth he continues to squirm. "There have been a number of allegations made about professional conduct of the prosecutors, including me, in this case. In my heart, I know there was no misconduct whatsoever."

Most people disagree with you, Ken. You and your colleagues stitched up an innocent man, took away 24 years of his life, and knew exactly what you were doing. There's a circle in hell reserved just for you.

Dante was right about lawyers.





October 4, 2011
Day 9184







October 5, 2011
Day 1








Sheriff Jim Boutwell
Died of cancer in Austin, Texas, 1993, aged 66.

Sergeant Don Wood
Now retired and living in Austin, Texas. Claims he can't remember anything about the crime or the investigation. When pressed, he remembers something about a credit card, but can't remember what it was. Says his memory "bounces around here and there."

Former Williamson County DA, now state Judge Ken Anderson
Ken Anderson claims he did nothing wrong. Also seems to have had a lapse of memory as he claims not to remember specific details about the Morton case. In November 2013 he pleaded 'no contest' to a court order to show cause for withholding exculpatory evidence. The special court of inquiry found Anderson "in criminal contempt of court." 
For his part in sending an innocent man to prison for 24 years, Ken Anderson was fined $500, received 500 hours of community service and had his law license revoked. 
The Innocence Project said, "It is an extremely rare instance, and perhaps the first time, that a prosecutor has been criminally punished for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence."

Former Williamson County DA, John Bradley
Was voted out of office in 2012. Many voters were appalled at how much time and taxpayers money he devoted to opposing Michael Morton's appeals and requests for DNA testing. A local blogger, Lou Ann Anderson, wrote this about John Bradley, "adjust the facts as needed, feign respectability, stick to talking points, and, above all else, protect your friends and associates." 
In the months leading up to the election, his critics tied bandanas to his political signs.

 Mark Alan Norwood
March 20, 2013
Day 9717
58-year-old, Alan Norwood, was found guilty of the murder of Christine Morton and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He was also indicted for the murder of Debra Baker. 

Michael Morton
Michael Morton received $2 million compensation from the state of Texas. He donated part of his compensation to a prison ministry that had helped him during his imprisonment. 
Michael was reunited with his son Eric in November 2011. During their first meeting Michael discovered he had a granddaughter. When he was told her name he cried for the first time in 24 years.  
Eric had named his daughter...Christine.


*The drawing-rooms of one of the most magnificent private residences in Austin are ablaze of lights. Carriages line the streets in front, and from gate to doorway is spread a velvet carpet, on which the delicate feet of the guests may tread. The occasion is the entrée into society of one of the fairest buds in the City of the Violet Crown. 
O. Henry (1862 - 1910)



 Information and pictures courtesy of:

Daily Mail (UK)

CNN

The Innocence Project

Texas Monthly

An Innocent Man
by 
Pamela Colloff

National Public Radio (npr.org)

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The FBI - San Antonio office

Williamson County District Attorney's Office




Thursday, 28 August 2014

John Thompson: An 18-year Nightmare on Death Row


                                          The Victim 

Ray Liuzza Jr.
December 6, 1984. 00:15 am. New Orleans. Louisiana. Ray Liuzza, a 34-year-old businessman from a prominent New Orleans family, is returning to his Garden District apartment after a night out with friends. He's celebrating his recent promotion to Vice-President of one of the city's biggest hotels.

Ray, a confirmed bachelor, has a great affection for the Big Easy with it's slow, gentle lifestyle. As a typical New Orleans resident, he loves the history of the city, the fine cuisine and, of course, the music. 

Ray has just parked his BMW outside his Barone Street apartment when a figure emerges from the shadows and points a .357 Magnum at him. The young black man looks nervous, but doesn't say anything. Ray, although he's had a few drinks, is not intoxicated. Remaining calm, he offers the young man his wallet and watch. "Here, take them, man," he says, raising his hands. "Take them."

But the young man remains silent. Inexplicably, he fires the heavy gun five times. Bullets fly in all directions. Ray is hit in the chest and collapses to ground, crying out for help. The shooter then grabs the wallet and a ring from Ray's little finger and runs off into the darkness, leaving his victim lying in the gutter. Ray is bleeding heavily from his wounds, but he's still alive.


                  The New Orleans Police Department.

Detective Donald Curole is one of the first police officers on scene, but the gunman has made good his escape. It is less than five minutes since Ray Liuzza was shot and he is receiving emergency medical treatment on the sidewalk.  

The multiple wounds to his chest are severe, but he fights for his life. "Why did he have to shoot me?" he asks. "Why?" 

Ray Liuzza is taken to Charity hospital.  On arrival at the Emergency Room he is still alive and conscious. Despite the efforts of the nursing staff his condition deteriorates and he is quickly moved to the 12th floor operating room. He does not survive. Outside the operating room, Ray Liuzza's father is given the devastating news and collapses after suffering a heart attack, from which he later recovers. 

Back at Barone Street, Detective Curole and his colleagues, used to attending bloodied murder scenes, are shocked by this particular shooting. "The thing that distinguished this crime scene was the amount of violence that occurred. There was blood and bullet holes in the side of the house. The suspect just kept firing his gun, every bullet that he had."

Despite a massive amount of publicity and a high profile investigation New Orleans detectives struggle to get solid leads in what is effectively a random shooting.

Days turn into weeks and still there are no leads. More than a month after the murder, the Liuzza family, now convinced that their son's murderer will escape justice, put up a $15,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the gunman.

In early January, 1985,  a local criminal named Richard Perkins contacts the Liuzza family claiming he had the murder weapon in his possession some weeks earlier. He tells them he sold it to an acquaintance.

Perkins names two men as potential suspects in the murder.


The Suspects

John Thompson 1984
John Thompson, one of the men named by Perkins, is a low level drug dealer and petty criminal who grew up in a New Orleans project. During his formative years he very rarely sees his career criminal father and is raised by his long suffering grandmother. 

On January 17, 1985, police arrive at his grandmother's house and arrest 22-year-old Thompson on suspicion of murder. During a search of the premises, they find a .357 Magnum, and the distinctive ring that was stolen from Ray Liuzza's finger.

John Thompson says he knew it was the police because "they knocked real loud before kicking in the door."

Under interrogation by homicide detectives, Thompson listens to a tape recording. On the tape, Richard Perkins accuses him of the murder of Ray Liuzza and insists he sold Thompson a.357 Magnum several months previously.

John Thompson denies the accusations and says that Richard Perkins is lying. Asked why Perkins would lie Thompson replies, "I don't know." 

The second man named is Kevin Freeman, an acquaintance of Thompson, who is arrested on the same day. He tells detectives that he and Thompson were driving home together in the early hours of December 6, 1984, when they ran out of gas. At that moment, Ray Liuzza drove past them, parked up and walked toward his apartment. Freeman states that John Thompson pulled a gun out of his pocket and said, "I'm going to hit that guy".

Kevin Freeman 1985
Freeman says he wants no part of it and runs away. As he disappears into the darkness, he hears several shots fired and assumes John Thompson has shot the guy and robbed him.

John Thompson denies being anywhere near the murder scene and says that Freeman is also lying. He doesn't know why. Thompson says that he did buy the gun and the ring, but he bought them from Kevin Freeman, and it was only days ago, not months. He had no idea that the gun had been used in the Ray Liuzza murder. He insists that he is innocent. 

The detectives are unimpressed with Thompson's denial. They believe that the damning statements of Kevin Freeman and Richard Perkins, along with the gun and Ray Liuzza's ring found in Thompson's possession, is the hard evidence needed to secure a conviction. 

Both men are charged with murder.

Freeman will plea bargain and then testify against John Thompson. Some 15-years later, a previously unseen police report will reveal a witness who saw a man fleeing the Ray Liuzza murder scene. The man identified by the witness closely resembles Kevin Freeman.

What nobody knows at this point is that the police, as well as recording Richard Perkins' statement, have also recorded a conversation he had with a representative of the Liuzza family. On tape, Perkins agrees to testify against John Thompson for $10,000, to be paid after the conviction. He is now willing to say anything to get Thompson convicted. The police have evidence that points to a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. 

They do nothing.

The tape and transcript of the conversation disappear into a police black hole and the jury in the murder trial are unaware that Richard Perkins was paid $10,000 to testify. Unfortunately for John Thompson, this is only the beginning of a conspiracy that will encompass the New Orleans Police Department and the New Orleans District Attorney's office. 


The New Orleans District Attorney's Office.

Harry Connick Snr.
In 1985, the New Orleans District Attorney is Harry Connick Snr, father of singer Harry Connick Jnr. When the Thompson case is referred to the DA's office for prosecution, Connick decides that he wants nothing less than the death penalty for John Thompson.

However, he quickly realizes that Thompson has no record of violence, which will rule out the death penalty when he's found guilty. Life imprisonment is the best outcome Connick can hope for - but that's not good enough.

And then Connick gets a stroke of luck. Almost a month previously, on December 28, 1984, Jay Lagarde, 19, his younger sister Mimi, 16, and their 12-year-old brother, were attacked in their car while attending a ball game. They now identify a mugshot of John Thompson, recently published in a local newspaper, as their attacker and contact police.

According to the victims, a black man tried to steal their car at gunpoint. During the struggle the attacker was injured and a blood sample was obtained. This is good news for Harry Connick. All three members of the family identify the attacker as John Thompson and also identify the gun as a .357 Magnum.

Jim Williams, New Orleans Prosecutor, 1985
John Thompson is charged with armed robbery. The attacker's blood sample is sent to Harry Connick's lead prosecutor, Jim Williams, who takes great pride in his numerous death penalty convictions.

In the picture on the left a model electric chair can be seen on Williams' desk, bottom right. One of the faces glued to the chair is that of John Thompson.

The blood sample and the witness statements identifying John Thompson as the armed robber is damning evidence. Jim Williams notes that the sample belonging to the attacker is marked as Blood Group B.

Unfortunately, Williams also notices that John Thompson's blood group, taken from hospital records, is marked as Blood Group O. He is not the armed robber. The three young victims have inadvertently identified the wrong man. If this blood sample is entered into evidence, the case against John Thompson will collapse.

Unbelievably, Jim Williams, who has been ordered to gain a conviction at all costs, now decides to withhold this vital piece of evidence from the court, thereby sealing John Thompson's fate. But this wasn't the first or the last time that the New Orleans DA's Office, under the leadership of Harry Connick Snr, would withhold evidence favorable to the defense. A 2008 study reported that during Harry Connick Snr's 30-year tenure as District Attorney, in one out of every four cases where the death penalty was imposed, evidence was withheld. Look up at the picture above. All four of the men pictured on that model electric chair were later exonerated.

John Thompson, 2009.
John Thompson's robbery trial lasts just two days. On April 12, 1985, he is convicted of armed robbery solely on the testimony of the three victims. He receives the maximum sentence of 49 years.

Harry Connick Snr then prosecutes Thompson for the brutal murder of Ray Liuzza, knowing that the previous conviction for armed robbery would allow the judge to consider imposing the death penalty.

Thompson's defense team are hamstrung. They know that if they put Thompson on the stand in his own defense, prosecutor Jim Williams will cross examine him about the armed robbery conviction, thus convincing the jury members they are looking at a violent man capable of murder.

John Thompson says, "I couldn't defend myself because the first question they would ask me was 'have you been convicted for anything' and I would have to answer 'yes'. My lawyer advised me not to take the stand."

Richard Perkins, 1985.
Both  Richard Perkins (now $10,000 richer) and Kevin Freeman testify that Thompson killed Ray Liuzza. It is two damning blows to the defense. As Thompson has no alibi, and has been unable to take the stand, even his own defense team fear the worst. They believe there will be only one outcome.

And they are right.

On May 8, 1985, the jury retires to consider their verdict. They return less than two hours later with the expected 'guilty' verdict. One of the victims of the armed robbery is called to make an impact statement. Mimi Lagarde, 16, relates a chilling story about how a black man held a gun to her brother's head and threatened to kill him. Some jury members are in tears.

John Thompson says, "And with that, they decide that I deserve to die. They believed I killed one man and almost killed three others. They sentence me to death for a crime I didn't do."

During sentencing, Jim Williams uses the impact statement and Thompson's armed robbery conviction to argue for the death penalty. The judge agrees and sends John Thompson to death row.

Kevin Freeman plea bargains and serves just 10 months in prison. Once released he continues his criminal activities and is shot dead during an armed robbery in 1995. In 1999, lawyers working for John Thompson, uncover a police report that leads them to an eye-witness. A woman who lived across the street from Ray Liuzza had seen a man running away from the murder scene. She tells the lawyers that he was a tall, black man, with close cropped hair. John Thompson is 5'-8" and had an afro style haircut in 1984. Kevin Freeman, known as 'Kojak' because of his cropped hairstyle, was '6-1".

Back in the New Orleans courtroom on May 8, 1985, John Thompson, now a convicted murderer facing the death penalty, is led to the holding cells. He knows that at least two people have perjured themselves on the witness stand. What he does not realize is that the conspiracy against him goes far deeper than he could ever have imagined.

He will spend the next 18 years on death row trying to figure it out.


Death Row - The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola.

John Thompson arrives at his cell on death row to find the clothes and personal effects of the previous inmate scattered around. The man had recently been executed. "That really blew me away," Thompson says, "I started throwing the stuff out into the hallway. They were laughing at me, saying, 'You'd better get used to that little brother.'"

During his years on death row, John Thompson is given seven separate execution dates. He prepares himself to die six times before receiving a stay of execution each time. His seventh and final execution date is set for May 20, 1999.

Over the years he has watched 12 other men leave death row and never come back. Thompson says, "Cruel and unusual punishment starts there - to watch a man that claimed to be innocent walk away, claiming he's innocent all the way, and then you know he don't return because he'd been executed mentally tortured me. I can't tell you how many days that beat me up."

Thompson spends his time in Angola in virtual solitary confinement. He spends 23 hours a day in the six by eight foot cell reading law books, listening to the radio and slowly simmering about the injustice he is suffering. Thompson recalls the day he is given the final date. "My appeals were exhausted. My lawyers flew in from Philadelphia to give me the news. They said it would take a miracle to avoid this execution. I told them it was fine - I was innocent, but it was time to give up."

And then he remembers something else that is happening on May 20. He has recently read a letter from his younger son John Jnr mentioning that he wants to go on a school trip. "I'd been thinking about how I could find a way to pay for his trip by selling my typewriter and radio, when it occurred to me that May 20 was the day before he graduated. I  begged the lawyers to try and get the execution delayed."

His lawyers tell him they'll try for a delay, but not to hold out much hope. Thompson later discovers something that makes him feel even worse. When his son is at school, the teacher reads out an article about the forthcoming execution, not realizing she is talking about John Jnr's father.

Thompson says, "So he learned that his father was going to be killed from his teacher, reading the newspaper aloud. I panicked. I needed to talk to him, reassure him. I was ready to die, if that's what God had in store for me - but my son wasn't ready."

John Thompson quickly realizes that he cannot reassure his son because the date is set - and that is it. He has less than thirty days left and the authorities are unmoved. He will be executed by lethal injection on the designated date. It is, finally, the end of the line.

However, what John Thompson does not know, is that for the first time in 18 years his luck is about to change. The miracle he has hoped for is about to happen.


Gordon Cooney and Michael Banks - Defense Lawyers.

Michael Banks, Defense Lawyer.
The two lawyers, Gordon Cooney and Michael Banks, both of whom had worked on a Pro Bono basis for John Thompson for more than eleven years, prepare themselves for his reaction to the bad news. They expect an outburst of raw emotion, resentment, bitterness, even anger at their failure to get him the justice he deserves.

Not for the first time they have misjudged their client. All Thompson says before hugging them both is, "I know you guys did what you could. I appreciate that."

The two lawyers leave the prison in tears. Despite years of effort, exploring every legal avenue open to them, they have failed. On the three hour drive back to New Orleans, Cooney checks his voice mail and listens to a message from one of their investigators.

The man has discovered a memo buried in police archives. It described how blood from the assailant had been found at the scene of the armed robbery. They quickly realize that if the blood sample was withheld by the prosecution it can only mean one thing. It didn't match John Thompson's blood group, which means Thompson is innocent of the armed robbery.

They confront Harry Connick Snr in his office in New Orleans. They give him an ultimatum; either postpone John Thompson's execution or they will place the evidence of malpractice before a court and ruin Connick's thirty-year career.

Connick agrees to the lawyers' proposal. John Thompson is given a stay of execution, his seventh, with just eleven days to spare. The evidence the two lawyers have collected is put before a judge. As the full story is revealed, Connick insists it is a rogue lawyer who is responsible. The evidence against the prosecutors is damning. Not only was the blood sample not offered to the defense, it was actually destroyed.

Evidence of witness payments, jury tampering and police and judicial corruption is brought out into the open. Everything John Thompson has told police is true. He had nothing to do with the armed robbery. It now appears that the armed robber was probably Richard Perkins. Thompson had bought the gun and ring from Kevin Freeman several days after the murder of Ray Liuzza and was nowhere near the murder scene. Using the available evidence and the new witness, Gordon Cooney and Michael Banks suggest that Ray Liuzza was probably murdered by Kevin Freeman.

John Thompson is officially cleared of all involvement in the armed robbery and a new trial for the murder of Ray Liuzza is ordered. On May 6, 2003, eighteen years to the day since Thompson's first trial, the jury in the re-trial retire to consider their verdict. They return just 35 minutes later with a 'not guilty' verdict.


The Aftermath.

John Thompson, now exonerated, leaves the court to be re-united with his son for the first time in 18 years. Within days of his release he decides to press charges against the New Orleans District Attorney's Office for wrongful and malicious prosecution. He wins the case and is awarded $14 million dollars. Six years later, after a judicial appeal the award is overturned by the supreme court.

John Thompson says, "I just want to know why the prosecutors' who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn't do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves.There was no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, nobody was fired and now, according to the supreme court, nobody can be sued."

In 2009, John Thompson sets up Resurrection After Exoneration, an education and outreach program that helps exonerated and formerly incarcerated inmates rebuild their lives.

Shortly after John Thompson is exonerated, Harry Connick Snr reportedly defends his team of prosecutors. He tells the Associated Press, "We follow the rules. We have an ongoing and continuing obligation to turn over exculpatory evidence and we do."

Really? I must have missed something.



John and Laverne Thompson - September 2009

Against all odds.




Pictures and information courtesy of:

CNN

The Innocence Project

The New York Times

Resurrection After Exoneration

US Attorney's Office - New Orleans

Louisiana Department of Correction

Louisiana State Penitentiary - Angola

The painting of John Thompson is used courtesy of
Dan Bolick.






Friday, 8 August 2014

Blake Layman: 16-year-old sentenced to 55 years for burglary


Blake Layman
October 3, 2012. 2:32 pm. Elkhart County. Indiana. The five youths casually walking along Frances Avenue are trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, which isn't an easy thing to do in this quiet, tree-lined, residential community.

The young men are looking for houses to burglarize, to make some quick money, and Frances Avenue is an ideal location. Most of the occupants are either at work or out shopping, leaving several unoccupied premises as likely targets.

Halfway along Frances Avenue the boys reach number 1919. Blake Layman knocks loudly on the front door several times and rings the bell. They agree that if anybody comes to the door, they will take off, but nobody answers and there is no barking dog, which probably means nobody is at home. They assume the property is vacant and decide this is the house they will enter.

Blake Layman, 16, kicks in a rear door to gain entrance to the property. Levi Sparks, 17, waits outside as a lookout. Three other members of the gang, Anthony Sharp, 18, Jose Quiroz, 16, and Denzele Johnson, 20, follow Layman into the house. They split up and begin searching through cupboards and drawers in the downstairs rooms for anything of value.

1919, Frances Avenue, Elkhart, Indiana
Unfortunately, what these young men do not know is that the homeowner, Rodney Scott, 54, taking a nap upstairs, has been woken by the sound of the break-in and is now slowly walking down the stairs, one tentative step at a time.

The boys are also unaware that Mister Scott has armed himself with a 9mm handgun.

The first shot rings out, hitting Denzele Johnson in the chest. He drops to the floor, bleeding heavily from his wound.  A second and third shot echo around the room. A fourth shot hits Blake Layman in the left thigh while he's trying to drag the bloodied body of Denzele Johnson into a closet to escape the hail of gunshots that is descending upon them.

Anthony Sharp, separated from the other three in a rear room, escapes through a back window. Jose Quiroz scrambles to join Layman and Johnson inside the closet. At his trial, Blake Layman says, "I ran through the kitchen to the (first floor) bedroom and the first thing I heard was gunshots. I was shot entering the closet. I felt something warm and I came up with a handful of blood. That's when I realized I'd been shot in the leg."

Denzele Johnson
Denzele Johnson is now slumped between Layman and Quiroz in the closet and he is still bleeding heavily. Neither of the two boys know if their friend is dead or alive, but it doesn't take long for them to realize the gravity of the situation.

"Denzele died between me and Jose," Layman says later. "We were both right there next to him. I remember screaming, "I'm sorry," to him just over and over again. It was a bad situation. I was sorry for it all."

Even while they are sheltering inside the closet two more shots are fired, both shots miss the boys and pass through the closet door and into the rear wall. Rodney Scott, the homeowner, has already called 911 and the police are only minutes away, in fact, the sound of sirens can be heard in the distance - so why is Mister Scott still firing blindly through a closet door?

Because he's terrified.

It is very easy to criticize the homeowner. But what does it feel like to wake up from a nap and realize a gang of burglars are ransacking your property?

At the trial, Rodney Scott, who had lived alone in the Frances Avenue property for more than ten years, describes what happened. "I was sitting on the side of the bed. There was this boom and the whole house just shook. I thought, what in the world is that, what caused that?"

A second or two later it happens again, and Mister Scott decides to head downstairs to find out what it is. He recalls that his neighbor's house had been broken into recently. "I'm the type of person that if I hear a noise in my house I have to go find out what it is."

He gets his gun, loads it and then opens his bedroom door to see if anyone is out there. There isn't, so he slowly walks down the first three steps and then runs down the rest. He says he hopes whoever is in the house will hear him and run away.

He gets to the bottom of the stairs and walks into the living room, scanning the area for intruders. He sees one intruder in the kitchen and two more standing by the first floor bedroom door. "It was fear because when you see that many people in your house, fear comes over you. You don't know if you're going to be hurt or you're going to be killed."

Rodney Scott then decides to fire his gun at the intruders because he doesn't know if they are armed or whether they are going to attack him. He begins firing randomly in all directions, hoping to corner them in the room until he can call the police. He says later that he could not remember where he aimed his gun. It was, apparently, the first time he had ever fired it. As he calls 911 on his cell phone, the closet door swings open to reveal the boys trapped in the closet. He tells them not to move. Still using his phone, he tells the police dispatcher to also send an ambulance as somebody has been shot.

Within minutes the emergency services arrive at the scene. Mister Scott is initially treated as a suspect in a homicide. As the story unfolds, no charges are brought against him. Elkhart County prosecutor, Curtis Hill, decides that the homeowner, despite firing a full clip at the intruders, acted reasonably and in self defense. He then files a burglary charge and a felony murder charge against each of the four boys. The prosecutor explains his actions by saying, "When somebody commits a felony, and someone dies as a result, Indiana law is very clear."

Elkhart County courthouse.
Except it isn't.

The felony murder statute in Indiana states, "A person who kills another human being while committing or attempting to commit arson, burglary, child molesting, consumer product tampering, criminal deviant conduct, kidnapping, rape, robbery, human trafficking, sexual trafficking of a minor or carjacking ... commits murder, a felony."

The four youths did not kill another human being while they were committing burglary. There was no premeditation, no intent to commit murder. In fact, it was the homeowner who had the gun and he was firing blindingly in all directions because he feared for his life. Rodney Scott killed Danzele Johnson, but he wasn't committing a felony at the time, which renders the felony murder statute worthless in this particular case.

Blake Layman with his mother and Brother.
During the trial, the defense ask Mister Scott if the intruders had any weapons. "I didn't see any weapons, no," he answers, truthfully.

The defense. "When they were in the closet you felt relieved?"

Mister Scott. "Yeah. I was no more threat to them, and they were no threat to me."

But Mister Scott fired two more shots even when, in his own words, "they were no threat to me."

Blake Layman was shot as he tried to shelter in the closet. Not only was he no threat to Mister Scott he was actually trying to get away. Every man has the right to defend his property, but at what point does defense turn into malicious offense.

Jose Quiroz, the boy sheltering inside the closet with Layman and Johnson, plea bargains and pleads guilty to felony murder. He receives 45-years in prison and ten-years probation. Not much of a bargain, I would suggest.

He is called by the prosecution to testify against his friends. Despite being asked a number of questions several times, he remains uncooperative. The only thing he says is that he was under the influence of drugs during the break-in and that it was him and not Blake Layman who kicked the door in. "I had no intention of hurting nobody."

Blake Layman, Levi Sparks and Anthony Sharp plead not guilty. The judge tells the jury that if they don't find the teens guilty of felony murder they do have the option of finding them guilty of burglary.

L-R. Sparks, Layman and Sharp.
On August 22, 2013, after a week long trial, the jury are out for less than six hours. They return with a guilty verdict.

Levi Sparks, is sentenced to 50-years, a mitigated sentence because he was not inside the house during the burglary. (How is he guilty of murder if he wasn't even there?) He is also fined $10,000, which is suspended.

Anthony Sharp receives a 55-year sentence and a suspended $10,000 fine. He is recommended for drug and alcohol treatment.

Blake Layman receives a 55-year sentence and a suspended $10,000 fine with a mandated drug treatment. With good behavior, he will serve 27-years with a release date in 2040. He will be 44-years-old when he's released.

Interestingly, one of the jurors later says he was 'uncomfortable' with the verdict, but felt pressured to find the boys guilty.

This is not the first time that felony murder charges have been brought against teenagers in the United States following a burglary. On September 21, 2010, four boys aged between 15 and 17 break into a home in Davenport, Florida. The homeowner shoots the 15-year-old in the stomach, killing him instantly. Two of the boys plea bargain and receive a sentence that keeps them in detention until their 21st birthdays, effectively a sentence of between 4 and 7 years.

The third boy, aged 16, who used a hammer to break into the house, is charged with first degree felony murder and faces a sentence of 50 years in the Florida Department of Corrections. Florida, a state known for its tough justice system and harsh sentencing, has no options for parole. However, in this particular case, the prosecutor and the judge realize it is a unique situation. The 16-year-old pleads guilty to second degree* felony murder and burglary and receives a 6-year sentence, which seems to make more sense than Elkhart County's sentencing policy.

Tony Martin 1999
What about other countries? In the United Kingdom the charge of felony murder does not exist, having been abolished by 'The Homicide Act (1957). You are allowed to use reasonable force to protect your home, up to a point.

On the night of August 20, 1999, two burglars break into a house in Norfolk, England. The homeowner, 55-year-old, Tony Martin, is woken by the noise of the break-in. As he stands at the top of the stairs he sees two shadowy figures in the hallway moving towards him. He fires down the stairs with his shotgun, killing one of the intruder instantly. The second burglar flees the house and is later arrested by police. He is convicted of burglary and receives a 3-year sentence.

Tony Martin is charged with murder. The jury at the trial are told that they have the option of returning a verdict of manslaughter rather than murder, if they think that Martin "did not intend to kill or cause serious bodily harm". However, the jurors find Martin guilty of murder by a 10 to 2 majority. He is sentenced to life imprisonment.

On appeal, the charge is dropped to manslaughter and the sentence reduced to 3-years.

Bearing in mind other states and other countries leniency, why does the Elkhart County prosecutor, Curtis Hill, want to see 17-year-old Blake Layman and his friends serve 55-year sentences, effectively ruining their lives?

The truth is that Blake Layman is no angel. He was expelled from one school for fighting and was involved with several types of drugs.

It is also fair to say that the Frances Avenue burglary probably wasn't the first time he'd broken into somebody's property. He doesn't have a police record, but that's only because he's never been caught.

He appeared on British televison recently in an ITV program called "Kids In Prison", a documentary about the Wabash Correctional facility. His attempt to garner sympathy from the viewers didn't work. Despite being baby-faced and quietly spoken, there is a brooding anger and a hint of violent intent lingering just below the surface. He is not what he appears to be.

Elkhart County Prosecutor, Curtis Hill.
However, once again, the Indiana Justice Department and Mister Curtis Hill in particular, have fumbled the ball.

Instead of making an example of Blake Layman and his friends by handing them 20-year sentences for burglary (all out in ten-years, aged 27 - lesson learned?) Curtis Hill hands down ludicrous 55-year sentences for felony murder, thereby turning common criminals into martyrs.

Blake Layman and his friends may be many undesirable things, but they are patently not murderers. "I committed a crime," says Layman, from his cell in the Wabash Correctional facility. "I committed a burglary, serious things did happen. A man, the homeowner, has to live through life with what he did. And Danzele's gone. His mom lost a son. I understand I committed a crime and it was wrong. Twenty years is the max for burglary and I'd be fine if they gave it to me."

And what about Rodney Scott, who was at home in Frances Avenue, just minding his own business? He has never spoken publicly about the incident and has declined all requests for interviews. He testified that he has suffered terrible nightmares since he was caught up in a situation not of his making.

And he never spent another night in the house he had lived in for the previous 18 years.


  

Blake Layman, Levi sparks, Anthony Sharp

Release date - August 22, 2040
  


*Second degree felony murder. The state of Florida differentiates the degree of culpability in felony murder based on who does the actual killing. When the person who does the killing is an accomplice, it is first degree felony murder with a 50-year sentence. When the person who does the killing is a victim or a bystander then those committing the crime are charged with second degree felony murder, which carries a much reduced sentence.

Are you WATCHING Elkhart County?




Pictures and information courtesy of:

ITV television (UK) "kids in Prison"

Nationalpost.com

ABC News

Wabash Correctional Facility

Indiana Criminal Justice Institute

freeelkhart4.com