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Art for Justice brings public awareness to systemic flaws and critical issues in the criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. Among these issues are: wrongful convictions, the death penalty, juveniles serving sentences of life without parole, isolation units and incarcerated individuals with severe mental illnesses.
Two of the organizations which have worked in Pennsylvania to improve the criminal justice system are: Justice and Mercy: and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. These organizations have detailed information about current Legislative Issues in Pennsylvania that affect the criminal justice system.
Art for Justice has highlighted the issue of Wrongful Convictions during our Exhibits and Spoken Word Presentations. During the Opening Reception for the Art for Justice Exhibit at Widener University in 2011 we honored Widener Professor Len Sosnov for his work with Centurion Ministries. His work led to the freeing of four individuals who were wrongly convicted in Pennsylvania. We presented a painting by Art for Justice artist Daniel Gwynn to Professor Sosnov. Sosnov then spoke during the Presentation about systemic flaws in the criminal justice system which lead to wrongful convictions.
Two organizations that assist individuals who are wrongly convicted are:
Pennsylvania Innocence Project at Temple University. "Works to exonerate those (in Pennsylvania) convicted of crimes they did not commit."
Centurion Ministries. Their mission is to “vindicate and free from prison those individuals in the United States and Canada who are factually innocent of the crimes for which they have been unjustly convicted for life or death”.
Art for Justice also acknowledges another organization that was founded in Pennsylvania. Witness to Innocence has the mission of "empowering exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones to be effective leaders in the movement to end the death penalty.”
Criminal Justice Issues in PA
Commonwealth v. Charles Zafir Lawson
Charles Lawson’s Coerced Confession
In 1974 17 year old Charles Lawson was handcuffed to a chair and beaten by police and gave a coerced confession, for a crime he did not commit. The coerced confession led to a First Degree Murder conviction. Charles was a juvenile when the coerced confession took place. No parent or legal representative was present during the interrogation. Charles spent four years in prison, appealed the conviction and was granted a new trial. He was then given poor legal counsel to plea bargain to Voluntary Manslaughter with a sentence of 5-15 years (for a crime he did not commit) and agreement of immediate release from prison. Lacking the resources for quality legal services that a new trial would require, Charles Lawson accepted the plea bargain. He later found that while he had plea bargained to Voluntary Manslaughter, written on the record was Third Degree Murder.
Mandatory Sentencing Laws
In 1982 the Pennsylvania Legislature enacted Mandatory Sentencing Laws that required that any person found guilty of a Murder Charge would automatically be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole if that person has a prior murder charge of any kind. In 1990, after a clear and direct threat was made on his life, Charles Lawson’s shot and killed a man. All witnesses testified that the threat had been made. In this case, Charles Lawson was convicted of Third Degree Murder.
Charles Lawson Sentenced to Life without Parole
Because of the previous coerced confession as a juvenile, the Ill Advised Plea Bargain to a crime he did not commit, the subsequent conviction to Third Degree Murder and the Mandatory Sentencing, Charles Lawson is serving a sentence of life without parole.
Recent Legal Rulings - written by Charles Lawson
In May 2010 the United States Supreme Court decided in Graham v. Florida that a Juvenile cannot be sentenced to Life without Parole solely for a non-homicide offense – which Graham’s actions were equated to for his part in the crime. Because I know my actions in the 1974 Juvenile offense are equated with the Graham rationale of a non-homicide offense, I appealed the Mandatory application of the Life Sentence which was given me. At the time the court opinion ruled that my claim failed because there was no indication that the U.S. Supreme Court held Graham to be retroactive on collateral review.
In June 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Miller v. Alabama that the discretion available to a judge at the transfer stage of a Juvenile cannot substitute for the discretion at post-trial sentencing in Adult Court. The Court did so by extending the reasoning recognized in Graham: that Juveniles who lack intent, who did not kill, nor intends to kill should be given the opportunity to mitigate any Mandatory application of a Life Sentence with that evidence.
I am again appealing my case, seeking a Resentencing Hearing, as the question of retroactivity, now that Graham has been given retroactivity, is attached to all cases on collateral review.
Commonwealth v. Daniel Gwynn
Daniel Gwynn, on death row in Pennsylvania, claims actual innocence.
He is represented by the Federal Defenders of Philadelphia.
The (False) Confession and Hidden Truths
I’m now sitting on Pennsylvania’s death row for a crime I did not commit. I’m trapped in the system and it refuses to let me go or acknowledge they made a mistake.
My case records were independently reviewed by Richard A. Leo, Ph.D., J.D., Prof. of Law, who began his report saying, “It is my professional opinion that Mr. Gwynn’s confession does not contain indicia of reliability.” The following is contained in Prof. Leo’s report:
“Mr. Gwynn was convicted of first degree murder, arson and aggravated assault in 1995. The primary evidence against him was an incriminating police-written statement that he signed. In this statement Mr. Gwynn is supposed to have started the fire at 4504-4506 Chestnut St. in Phila. PA that killed Marcia Smith, one of the six homeless residents there, who refused to jump out of a third floor residence. The other five residents survived. Two of (the residents) testified that on the day before the fire they had an altercation with someone known as ‘Rick’ who fought with them for seventy minutes before being forced to flee the residence and threatened revenge. The five homeless residents told police that they believed ‘Rick” had to have started the fire – even though they did not see who started the fire.”
Information about the (False) Confession
First, it does not contain any unique, non-public crime facts that were not already known to the detective who interrogated me. It is not independently corroborated by any physical, medical or other credible evidence. According to Prof. Leo, “There is no objective record of what occurred and therefore no way of ruling out that Mr. Gwynn was not educated about those facts that he got correct, a phenomenon known as ‘contamination’ that is not uncommon in police interrogations, especially those leading to false confessions.”
Second, this possibility is supported by the fact that on the issues the detective know about, the confession is very specific. By contrast, on the issues the detectives did not know details about, the confession is vague. And there’s not a single fact (actions before and after the fire) that was ever corroborated.
Third, the confession contains factual errors that reveal a lack of knowledge about basic crime scene facts as well as a description of events that would have been physically impossible and gets basic details of the building wrong.
Fourth, the confession contains statements that contradict or are not supported by existing physical and testimonial evidence.
Fifth, the confession is internally inconsistent, as it gives three accounts on how the fare was started and it’s clear that the detectives moved me from an incorrect account back to a correct account.
Finally, it is striking that there’s no record of any police investigation of the crime after taking my statement, to confirm any of the details to corroborate my very vague confession.
My legal team discovered that the prosecutor lied, misrepresented facts and hid some exculpatory evidence. The prosecution suppressed the following:
• In August 1993 (approximately 15 months prior to the November 1994 fire for which I stand convicted and sentenced to be executed) a homeless squatter named Glenn Taylor was beaten to death at the very same building I am convicted of burning down.
• The same people who later survived the fire were critical eyewitnesses in the Taylor murder case.
• The witnesses had identified another man as “Rick” numerous times under oath in the Taylor murder case.
• The defendants from the Taylor case had threatened to have the witnesses killed if they did not stay quiet about the Taylor murder.
• The prosecution and the police were all aware of these threats and did not inform us.
The witnesses testified against the defendants at the Taylor murder trial three days before the fire of my case.
• Another prosecution witness to the Taylor murder (who was not a victim of the fire in my case) was a victim of a strikingly similar arson after I was incarcerated.
• Numerous other fires had been intentionally set in that building in between the time of the Taylor murder case and this fatal fire.
• The prosecution knowingly presented false evidence that I had engaged in a confrontation with the victims the day before the fire, for they (the prosecution) were aware that the victims meant the “Rick” from the Glenn Taylor case.
• The prosecution also made knowing false representations to the court when they asserted that the victims had told the police that the person they had fought with was included as a filler in the photographic arrays from the Taylor murder investigation. There is no such record of that statement by the victims. The photo arrays from the Taylor murder investigation and from my case cannot be found. If the Taylor murder investigation’s photo arrays cannot be found, how were the police able to determine that I was a filler in that photo array and the likely suspect for this arson/murder?
• The prosecution did not disclose evidence of Lorrain Irby reporting to the police that she had been threatened with death if she cooperated with the investigation of Taylor’s death. Less that four months after her testimony the building where she was staying caught fire and the fire marshal determined that the fire was deliberately set.
• The prosecution failed to mention that a witness testified that he was offered money to stop Lorraine Irby from testifying in the Taylor murder trial and to provide information on how to locate Ms. Irby.
Commonwealth v. Angel Ortiz
Angel Ortiz has always maintained that he is innocent of a murder for which he is serving a sentence of life without parole.
The following is Angel’s account of the events that led to his wrongful conviction. The synopsis is written by Gerry Givnish, Board President of Art for Justice, Founder and past Executive Director of the Painted Bride Art Center. Gerry was a volunteer art teacher at Graterford Prison from 1998 – 2006. Angel was a participant in the art workshops. After Gerry left his teaching at Graterford, Angel and he maintained contact through letters and visits. Gerry has been assisting Angel with his case for several years.
On October 5, 1980 Harry Cronce and his girlfriend, Dawn Holmes, were riding around in the North Philly Barrio looking for cocaine. They were hailed by several young Latino males who were selling drugs. While the sale was in progress one of them decided to rob Cronce. Reaching into the car to grab money and drugs, he stabbed Cronce with an ice pick. Cronce died a week later in Temple Hospital. Dawn Holmes survived and testified at the trial.
About one week after Cronce died, Hector Flores, a 15 year old in the company of his mother, went to the police with a confession. He said that he was accompanied during the crime by a person named “Spade” who wielded the ice pick and stabbed the victim. Since Angel was known by the street name “Spade” he was eventually picked up and questioned by the police. On October 23 Sergeant John Rechner led a ten hour interrogation during which Angel’s right hand was cuffed to a chair and he was denied food. Angel did not give Officer Rechner a confession.
Angel says that Officer Rechner had him sign several blank sheets of paper on a clip board, promising Angel that he would be released after he signed the blank papers. After Angel signed the blank papers, Officer Rechner left the room. He returned about an hour later with a confession, which Angel had not given, typed above Angel’s signature.
Angel says that he was then unfastened from the chair and refastened with handcuffs on his hands held behind his back. Angel was put into a cell to await trial which would take place six months later. The forged confession became the basis of the prosecution’s case against him.
From May 17 to June 4, 1981, four young Latino men were tried together for the murder of Harry Cronce. Angel was represented by Charles Mirachi, a court appointed lawyer. Officer Rechner’s version of the crime, which was written by someone other than Angel and placed above his signature, was read in the courtroom and became part of the evidence. Officer Rechner testified that the interrogation lasted 2 hours and that Angel was told that he was free to leave at any time. Angel was not called to testify. Therefore the jury never heard Angel’s account of the events.
The police had taken finger and palm prints from the car. However, they never tried to match them with Angel’s or the other defendants. All of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.
Angel has been incarcerated since 1981. He has always maintained his innocence. His conviction is based on the malfeasance of a police officer. Adding to the injustice was the decision to try the four defendants together. The four defense attorneys were challenged and the jury confused by different accounts of the crime given by Dawn Holmes and the three co-defendants. This greatly helped the prosecution and contributed to the injustice of Angel’s conviction.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has agreed to have an intern review Angel’s case.
Commonwealth v. Eddie Ramirez
What hope is there for a wrongly convicted man with limited means battling for justice, for his life, against an opponent with endless resources?
Growing up I was socially conditioned to believe that justice will always prevail, that the truth will always come to light, and that the system my police officer father and god fearing mother put stock in, would, in the end, protect the innocent. No one ever told me about the mistakes that could be made, or worse, of the possibilities of being betrayed by the criminal justice system. No one told me of the possibility of being wrongly convicted, forced to listen to my family cry as I was led away in chains to face the indignity of criminal (in)justice and state (in)corrections.
Though I was arrested – I prayed that the true killer’s identity would be revealed so that I could be returned to the safety of my family.
Though I was put on trial – I held to the faith that a jury of my peers would put aside bias and render an honest verdict. That faith was devastated by the reality that any arrest, no matter how shoddy the evidence, is sufficient to establish guilt.
Though I was convicted – I appealed to the high courts to recognize the continuing injustice. I presented indisputable facts of perjured testimony and existing DNA evidence that would undoubtedly exonerate me. I demonstrated to the courts that a narrow-minded investigation ignored the presence of suspects infinitely more likely than myself to have committed the crime, that an over zealous prosecution suppressed exculpatory statements and physical evidence of my innocence in order to secure a conviction. I insisted to the courts that an injustice to me is an injustice to the victim, to the victim’s family, to our society.
The courts were unmoved, indicating that although DNA evidence was hidden from the jury, that comments regarding my right to remain silent were designed with the intention of implying guilt, that defense counsel was clearly unaware of the law regarding 5th amendment violations, and that the trial court could not provide a charge sufficient to overcome whatever prejudice had developed, All these errors, real and factual, were “harmless.”
I grow old, older every day. A generation of my family has grown up unfamiliar with who I am or the travesty that was forced upon me. An older generation of loved ones who prayed to see the day of my release has passed away, their hopes unmet.
The final frontier of my hope lies in a society that understands itself not to be subjects of the government, but rather will hold the government subject to its will for justice. In that society I have hope that a roaring shout against injustice will not be driven back by fear or cowed into complacency. In that society I hope that through the adversity that many face, the only option is to increase the volume until a united voice is heard in every part of the land that shouts:
JUSTICE FOR ALL!
Commonwealth v. Giovanni Reid and Carlton Bennett
On November 30, 2010, room 1007 of the Criminal Justice Center was packed with spectators as the defense team was able to finally procure their witness from Tennessee— Mr. Wayne Richman. When co-defendants Giovanni Reid and Carlton Bennett entered the courtroom, Mr. Richman began to weep. He testified for more than three hours about what he witnessed on the morning of August 10, 1991. He passionately relived how on that fateful morning he witnessed one man commit the assault and murder of his friend, Robert Janke, and that individual was neither Carlton Bennett nor Giovanni Reid.
Later, while still under direct examination by defense attorneys, Mr. Richman testified about the menacing and threatening visit he received in 2007 from Philadelphia homicide detectives Mike Cahill and Gerald Lynch. He also testified about how he was consumed with so much fear that he enlisted the assistance of his local police department who in turn asked the officers to leave Mr. Richman’s place of business. Next, Mr. Richman told of how he lived the next few years of his life in a state of anxious fear all as a result of the threats unleashed by Detectives Cahill and Lynch and that the only reason he was present in court is because he was compelled to do so under a Tennessee court order.
Under cross-examination, the Commonwealth introduced into evidence an audio tape of an interview with Mr. Richman conducted by AFJ board member and advocate for the wrongly convicted, Ms. La Tasha Williams, after the detectives’ 2007 visit with him. It seems as if the Commonwealth’s game plan is to call into question the veracity of Mr. Richman and Ms. Williams. The defense will rebut the Commonwealth’s assertions at the next evidentiary hearing which will take place at the Criminal Justice Center in Center City Philadelphia on September 10, 2012 before Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi.
Mr. Richman was the only defense witness who testified on 11/30/10. The defense plans to call several more witnesses who will help to bolster Mr. Richman’s credibility and substantiate Mr. Reid and Mr. Bennett’s long-lost claim of innocence. Please visit www.GiovanniReid.com and www.facebook.com/GiovanniReid for future updates.
Art for Justice acknowledges the outstanding work of the legal team: Attorneys Robin Gunn, Jared Kasher, Carole L. McHugh and Michael Wiseman.
Commonwealth v. Carmon Woods
My name is Carmen Woods. In November 1982 I was wrongfully convicted of the murder of Chester Laws Jr. I was 19 at the time. My highest grade completed in school was the 9th grade. I had very little resources and knowledge of the law. I was no match for the criminal system.
I went into a criminal trial with an alcoholic lawyer (who was later dis-barred) and a District Attorney who wanted a win by all means necessary. I just did not have the money or resources to fight the criminal system. I was sentenced to "Life".
My innocence and all the evidence that supported that fact meant nothing to the District Attorney. The entire case was based on a statement made by Homer Lane saying that he saw me shoot the defendant. In 1986, Homer Lane (the DA's star witness) signed an affidavit recanting his testimony. He admitted that he did not see me shoot Chester Laws, Jr.
Status of Appeal
On July 9, 2009, Carmen Woods submitted a new Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) appeal regarding favorable new evidence unwittingly revealed by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in a reply brief concerning an agreement entered into by the trial prosecutor and the state’s star witness, Homer Lane. This deal is something that the state has denied for the past 28 years.
To place things in perspective, on May 18, 1982, Homer Lane alleged that Carmen Woods and Michael Jones shot at him on Lansdowne Avenue because Carmen allegedly killed Chester Laws, Jr. a couple of days earlier and knew that Homer Lane was an eyewitness to that murder. Prior to this incident, Homer Lane had a big legal problem on his hands. He had been accused of stealing a car from the state of Florida. Homer agreed to speak to homicide detectives regarding his eye witness account of Mr. Laws’ murder, but before requesting immunity from any prosecution or extradition to Florida. The Philadelphia DA’s office acquiesced and Florida was never notified by Philadelphia authorities that Homer - the fugitive - was alive and well in Philadelphia.
On September 11, 1982, Homer Lane was stopped while driving the Florida car in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia by a patrolman who knew nothing about any agreements Homer entered into with homicide detectives and the DA’s Office. The DA's office would step in on October 26, 1982 and drop the charges of car theft on Homer Lane; now they had to alert the Florida authorities about Homer’s capture. The defense has since discovered that Home Lane was rewarded for his fabricated testimony once the Philadelphia police permitted him to have the stolen Florida car back. This car should have remained in police possession for evidence purposes: 1) It was alleged that Carmen and Michael shot at Homer in this car while driving by the intersection of Edgewood & Lansdowne and 2) The car belonged to people in Florida, and not Homer.
On Feb 24, 2010, the District Attorney responded to Carmen’s new PCRA with a ridiculous response. They first asserted that Carmen is time-barred because "Maybe the investigating detectives forgot to take the car from Homer Lane". They did not respond to the assertion of perjury by Homer Lane when he told the jury he was arrested for the car on May 18, 1982, nor did they respond to the fact that the DA misrepresented the evidence about when Homer was arrested. Furthermore, they did not explain the circumstances under which Homer received the car back. At Carmen’s trial, the DA stated "they took the car from Homer and took it to the police garage." The DA went so far as to say that it was a mistake for them to indicate that Homer had a deal prior to trial.
On March 2, 2010, Judge Shelly Robins New denied Carmen’s appeal. In her opinion which was finally issued on December 22, 2010, she invoked the time-bar statute. Furthermore, she stated that "the DA just did sloppy work on the appeal when they tried to summarize Homer Lane's recantation" even though Carmen argued in his PCRA appeal that Homer admitted that a deal was given to him and the DA stated that they were aware of this. The DA stated at Carmen’s trial that (paraphrasing) the only promise they gave Homer Lane was a promise to write a letter after the trial to Florida's Attorney General and explain how he helped them and if they can help him for that, great, if not too bad. Carmen Woods appealed Judge New’s denial to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania but was denied earlier this year. He awaits consideration of his allocator appeal which is pending before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Please visit www.justiceforcarmen.com for future updates and to sign Carmen’s petition.
Art for Justice acknowledges the outstanding work of attorneys Carole L. McHugh and Barnaby Wittles.
Art for Justice also supports prisoners Daniel Gwynn, Angel Ortiz, Eddie Ramirez. While they are some of our most creative artists on the inside, they also assert their actual innocence and we are actively eliciting as much support possible to assist them in their efforts. We appreciate the work of the Defender Association of Philadelphia and Federal Defender for the Eastern District.
Commonwealth v. Chester Hollman
My name is Chester Hollman, III but many people from my past may remember me by the name "Tyke". I'm originally from Chester, Pa but moved to Delaware. I grew up with my mom, dad, and little sister Deanna. I graduated from Brandywine High School (class of 88) and soon got a great job working as an armored guard for Brooks.
My life abruptly ended almost 21 years ago when a friend and I were pulled over by the Philadelphia police one August morning in 1991 and accused of having just participated in the robbery/murder of UPenn student, Tae Jung Ho.
The police's suspicion was rooted in the fact that the first three letters of the Chevy Blazer I was driving matched the same letters of the getaway vehicle as reported by a taxi driver in the same vicinity as me who witnessed the crime. The irony is that the Chevy Blazer I was driving was a rental and the other rented-out white Chevy Blazers at the same Airport Alamo all had the same first three letters on their license plates. Go figure!
There was no statement evidence or physical evidence that connected me to the murder. I was convicted because of false testimony provided by two witnesses - one was a homeless crack addict who was quite familiar with police and the other was my female passenger and friend who was pressured and coerced into signing a statement that was totally false.
Both witnesses have since recanted their statements and trial testimony citing that they were pressured to testify in a certain manner to appease the homicide detectives. After nearly 2 decades of dismissals, I was granted an evidentiary hearing which took place on January 12, 2012 before the Honorable Gwendolyn Bright (Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas). After all the hard work of gathering new witness statements, polygraph tests, etc., she summarily dismissed my appeal and I now await consideration before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. I'm praying that justice will prevail soon. I refuse to die in prison for a crime I had absolutely nothing to do with. Please visit www.facebook.com/
Art for Justice acknowledges the outstanding work and efforts of DJC Investigations, The PA Innocence Project and attorney Alan Tauber.
George Ivan Lopez
George Lopez has always maintained his innocence. In December, 2007 he was granted a new Evidentiary Hearing to review his case in the Pennsylvania Courts.
Art for Justice acknowledges the outstanding work of attorney Jonathan Feinberg.
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