The Innocents:

 Stories of People Released from Prison Because of Wrongful Convictions

Beating a bum rap

By K.C. MYERS
STAFF WRITER

Cape Cod Times

December 16, 2006

FALMOUTH - Thanks to the gumshoe work of Steve Delaney, a retired private detective living in Falmouth, a Baltimore man walked free out of Baltimore Circuit Court Wednesday after 39 years in prison.


Walter Lomax, center, receives hugs from his friend Robert Asbey and daughter Wanda Holmes-Smith after his release.
(Baltimore Sun)


 

''You have a local hero up there and I hope you recognize him,'' said Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit that works to free prisoners believed innocent who are serving life or death sentences.

Three years ago, Centurion Ministries hired Delaney to take a careful look at the 1967 conviction of Walter Lomax, who was 20 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 56-year-old Robert Brewer during a Baltimore convenience store robbery.

Delaney's investigative work uncovered evidence in the complicated case that set Lomax free.

''It boils down to they got bum information from a lying informant,'' Delaney said in a telephone interview Thursday night.

Injustice revealed

At Lomax's 1967 trial, five white witnesses identified him as the killer.

In overturning Lomax's conviction Wednesday, Circuit Judge Gale Rasin said cross-racial identification is often unreliable, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Wednesday, Delaney got to watch Lomax, who became a poet and editor of a newsletter in prison, exit the courthouse a free man. As joyous as the moment was, Delaney said there are hundreds who will die behind bars without their innocence recognized.

''Especially in the 1960s, the cops were overpowered with all the violence going on,'' Delaney said. ''They were overpowered and understaffed. They were then, and they are now.''

Delaney began his investigative work for Centurion Ministries when he moved to Falmouth in 1996.

His work with the group followed a colorful career beginning in 1957 working for the Metropolitan District Commission, a now dissolved civil service branch of the Massachusetts State Police. While working for the MDC in 1964, he was assigned to the Boston Strangler Task Force. The high-profile case taught Delaney how easy it is to convict an innocent man, he said.

Delaney had relatively little experience when he was assigned to investigate the mysterious case of the Boston Strangler serial killer.

During his investigation, he came to believe that Albert DeSalvo, who confessed to being the Strangler in 1965, was the right man. But he also believes that the wrong man, Roy Smith, took the rap for a Strangler murder. Based on striking similarities of that and DeSalvo's other murders,  Delaney believes the Boston Strangler killed Bessie Goldberg of Belmont.

Smith's conviction for Goldberg's murder, which has recently been the subject of a book by author Sebastian Junger, planted the seed for Delaney's later work.

''I was shocked,'' Delaney said. ''I couldn't believe they could convict someone that way.''

Smith's incarceration set Delaney on a path that eventually brought him to Centurion Ministries.

Not long after the Boston Strangler case was closed, Delaney resigned from police work in 1966 and began working at the private investigation agency owned by F. Lee Bailey, of O.J. Simpson defense team fame. In 1980, Delaney was well-established as a private detective and working for several lawyers in Newark, N.J., when McCloskey knocked on his door.

McCloskey, a 37-year-old graduate student in Princeton University's divinity school, was a student chaplain at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton. He had just taken a year off from school to help a ''lifer'' who he believed was innocent. McCloskey said two lawyers recommended Delaney.

Delaney told him he was too busy to investigate the case himself, but he gave McCloskey endless free advice and, in 1983, Jorge De Los Santos of Newark, N.J., was set free.

''Steve became my mentor, '' McCloskey said.

McCloskey's organization has since freed and exonerated 40 prisoners. With a $1 million annual budget, Centurion staff and volunteers review all trial transcripts, then they go out and find the trail witnesses. They find new witnesses. They review the forensic evidence. Then they hire lawyers to fight the case again.

''We get 1,200 letters a year from inmates: Not all are innocent and don't fit our criteria by any stretch of the imagination,'' McCloskey said. ''We must totally believe in their innocence and believe that if we freed them, they have the character to lead an honest and hard-working life.''

Short retirement

Delaney moved to Falmouth in 1996 to retire with his wife. But it didn't last long. That same year, McCloskey asked him to investigate the conviction of a Baltimore ''lifer,'' Michael Austin.

''Were it not for Steve Delaney's amazing investigation from 1996 to 2001, Michael Austin would still be in jail,'' McCloskey said.

Delaney made cold calls and found the brother and sister of the now-deceased star-witness against Austin. They admitted their brother lied about Austin.

''Steve gained their trust and got them to tell the truth,'' McCloskey said.

After 27 years in prison, Austin was exonerated in 2001.

While McCloskey calls Delaney's work ''amazing,'' Delaney says what's really amazing is the flimsy evidence used to convict people for murder in the first place.

''I never dreamed that (my job) could be so satisfying,'' Delaney said. ''When Michael Austin was freed, it was just wonderful.''

And, he added, ''I think I have energy for one more long, complicated case.''

Copyright © Cape Cod Times. All rights reserved.

***************** 

Taking deep breath of freedom

After 20 years in prison for a killing that a key witness now says he didn't commit, Timothy Atkins wants only some fresh air.

 By Ashraf Khalil
 

Los Angeles Times


February 10, 2007

A lifelong heavy drug user, frequently homeless or in jail, Denise Powell was a hard person to track down.

Researchers for the California Innocence Project spent months searching for Powell — who was only in intermittent contact with her own family. Their goal was to finally document on the record what Powell had been openly admitting for years: Her testimony implicating Timothy Atkins for murder was false.

When researcher Wendy Koen finally found Powell in early 2005, in rehab after a recent arrest, she confessed without hesitation.

"She was ready to talk. She'd been wanting to talk for years," Koen said. "She said, 'I was young and stupid. I didn't know it would come to this. I lied.' "

Thus began the final step in Atkins' 20-year campaign to prove his innocence. On Friday morning, Atkins, now 39, walked out of Los Angeles County Jail and into the arms of his family, free for the first time since his teens.

"It's over. I made it," he said, as weeping, whooping relatives lined up to embrace him. "I don't think the realization hit me until late last night."

In light of Powell's recanted testimony, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan overturned Atkins' conviction Thursday and ordered his immediate release. Tynan was the trial judge in 1987 when Atkins was convicted of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

In his ruling freeing Atkins, Tynan recalled that Powell's testimony was "the key to the conviction in this case…. The state has no interest in upholding a conviction obtained by false testimony."

 

Overjoyed

Joyce Boney is overcome with emotion as she embraces her son Timothy Atkins, who was released from L.A. County Jail on Friday. A judge overturned his 1987 murder conviction a day earlier after a key witness prosecution recanted her testimony. (Luis Sinco / LAT)Feb 9, 2007.


On Friday, Atkins still looked a little shellshocked as he was swarmed by dozens of ecstatic family members and the beaming legal team from the California Innocence Project, part of the California Western School of Law in San Diego.

"This is the pinnacle of our existence," said project director Justin Brooks. "This is the whole goal: freeing the innocent."

Back at his cousin Tanya Franklin's house in South Los Angeles, Atkins dispensed hugs and fielded congratulatory phone calls. After decades of incarceration, he spent most of his time outside on the front lawn.

Franklin asked, "You want to come inside?"

"No," he answered, "I want air."

Atkins' conviction stemmed from a New Year's Day 1985 carjacking attempt in which flower shop owner Vincente Gonzales was killed.

Powell, an acquaintance of Atkins at the time, told police that Atkins and another man, Ricky Evans, had bragged about killing Gonzales. Both men were arrested. Evans was beaten to death in jail before the case could come to trial; Atkins was seriously injured in the same jailhouse fight.

"I'm thinking about Ricky a lot today," said Atkins, who has remained in contact with Evans' mother.

If Evans had lived, "He would have been exonerated as well," Koen said. "It was the same evidence against him."

Police were unable to find Powell to testify at Atkins' trial. Instead, her testimony at a preliminary hearing was read aloud in court.

In his ruling releasing Atkins, Tynan wrote that Powell's absence from the trial was crucial. If she had appeared, subject to cross-examination from the defense, "her demeanor and other indicia of truthfulness and veracity, or their absence, would have been observed by the jury," Tynan wrote. "In all reasonable probability the result would have been more favorable" for Atkins.

Other evidence, such as a vague description of the suspects from the victim's widow, were deemed equally shaky in hindsight by Tynan.

The judge also leveled pointed criticism at police for their "casual attitude toward maintaining contact with Powell." The failure to find and produce her for the trial "appears to be an error of constitutional magnitude," Tynan wrote.

Despite losing half his life to the prison sentence, Atkins said he bore no ill will toward Powell or anyone else.

"The past is the past," he said. "If I see her, I'll speak to her and if I can help her, I will."

Atkins and several family members expressed sympathy for Powell, who has a long history of drug addiction and legal problems and has said she was remorseful over her role in Atkins' jailing.

Powell told researchers she was pressured by police to name a suspect in Gonzales' slaying.

"They got her into the station and told her, 'You're not going to leave until you tell us something,' " said Brooks, who listened to a recording of Powell's initial interrogation.

"She had a whole lot of guilt over what she had done to Tim's life," said Koen, who videotaped Powell's statement for the Innocence Project and tracked her down a second time to sign an official court declaration of her changed testimony. "The guilt has really destroyed her life in a lot of ways."

Atkins, who said he plans to work counseling at-risk youth, was remarkably philosophical Friday about his ordeal. He admits to a misspent youth before his arrest and views his incarceration as the only reason he's going to live into his 40s.

"I was a gang member. I was a thief and I had a drug habit," he said. "The life that I was living before, I probably would have ended up dead."

The Los Angeles County district attorney has 60 days to refile charges against Atkins. But Brooks does not expect prosecutors to do so.

"They have no case. They had no case 20 years ago," he said.

Brooks plans to file for state compensation, which offers $100 for each day in prison for those found to be wrongfully convicted. For Atkins, that could mean close to $800,000.

There's also the possibility of a civil suit against the police for wrongful imprisonment, "but that would be a tougher nut," Brooks said.

"First we'll go for the compensation and get him some money to get on his feet."

For now, Atkins is celebrating, adjusting to life as a free man and enjoying some home cooking.

"I'm whole now. I got my baby back," said Atkins' mother, Joyce Boney. "I'm going to the store. My boy wants to eat."


Copyright © Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.