Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Is Dennis Counterman's day of justice finally coming?

Last week Lehigh County Judge Lawrence J. Brenner announced a trial date for Dennis Counterman of Allentown. Five years after Brenner first declared a retrial, there is finally a date set for December 11. This trial would have and should have occurred long ago. In fact, death penalty abolitionists thought Dennis might be the nation's 100th exoneration, a designation that went to Ray Krone in 2002. Alas, delaying tactics by the Lehigh County DA's office kept this trial from happening. Until now.

Ironically, Lehigh County DA James Martin recently co-authored an op-ed entitled "Prosecutors are held to highest ethical standards" in The Daily Item. Sadly, ethical behavior has been but a distant memory in the Counterman case. Although Martin, an assistant DA in 1989, was not involved in the original prosecution, he has been directly involved in the delaying tactics during the appeals process.

Last Sunday, Morning Call columnist Paul Carpenter pulled no punches in criticizing the DA's office and, specifically, original prosecutor Richard Tomsho, who now works in the PA Attorney General's office:
The abuse of power never starts with victims who are bright, robust and respected.

It starts with the most vulnerable, perhaps someone of modest means with low intelligence who does not handle himself very well, and who has used illegal drugs — a guy like, say, Dennis Counterman.
Too often, a piece of work like Tomsho gets away with subverting the way the legal system is supposed to work, but now and then, a judge will come along and say, "whoa."

In 1990, when Tomsho was a prosecutor in Lehigh County, he convinced a jury that Counterman murdered his three sons by setting his own house ablaze in 1988. Counterman has been incarcerated since then, including more than a decade on death row.

In 2001, Lehigh County Judge Lawrence Brenner threw out the conviction because Tomsho had hidden nine pieces of evidence indicating it might have been one of Counterman's sons who set the fire.

The evidence included a statement to that effect by his wife, Janet, which Tomsho "whited out" in a police report. Also hidden was evidence the boy had a history of setting fires, and witness accounts that Counterman tried frantically to put out the fire.

For a comprehensive retelling of Dennis's story, check out this 2002 Baltimore Sun article.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Update on Mumia Abu-Jamal

Mumia's lawyers have sent out an update on the legal proceedings in the case. I thought this was interesting.
We continue to aggressively pursue relief for Mr. Abu-Jamal. On July 20, Professor Judith L. Ritter, associate counsel, and I filed a lengthy opening brief supported by voluminous exhibits. A week later NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., through Christine Swarns, filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.

It's good to see the NAACP getting involved in a capital case, whether it's Mumia or an obscure prisoner. Hopefully it will trickle down to the state and local grass-roots level.

I've been thinking a lot more about Mumia's case recently and hope to post more thoughts on it soon.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The danger of false confessions

Bill Moushey of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette has an excellent piece in last Thursday's paper about false confessions. It seems strange to the layman that someone would confess to something that he/she didn't do, but it happens:
Innocent people confess to crimes for many reasons, including the desire for notoriety. That was the apparent motive in the celebrated unraveling this week of John Mark Karr's false admission that he had killed JonBenet Ramsey.

But false confessions usually involve coercive interrogations in which police claim to have evidence of a suspect's guilt and then promise leniency for cooperation or severe punishment for non-cooperation.

In a study of 340 overturned convictions between 1989 and 2003, Dr. Samuel R. Gross of the University of Michigan Law School and his colleagues found that 51, or 15 percent, involved false confessions. Most of those confessions resulted from police coercion.

The case of Walter Ogrod of Philadelphia is one in which a confession, potentially coerced, is playing a role.

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