According to University of Michigan Law School’s National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 1,909 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, when the Registry began counting these cases. Of those exonerations, over half involved police or prosecutorial misconduct. The year 2015 had the most exonerations — 157 — in a single year, 26 of which involved DNA evidence. This number only includes cases where innocence has been proven; many other plausibly innocent men and women languish behind bars without legal representation or are otherwise unable to prove their innocence.
The rise of DNA exonerations, as well as new understandings about unreliable eyewitness testimony, junk science, and other outdated methods, has rightfully caused consternation in the criminal justice community.
Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence, some prosecutors refuse to admit cases of actual innocence, even when supported by DNA or where there is proven misconduct on the part of police or prosecutors. Here are six elected prosecutors who refuse to acknowledge innocence even in the face of overwhelming evidence:
Hillsborough County, FL
In 1989, a woman was found shot and stabbed to death in her barn. Michael Mordenti was arrested and convicted of her murder in 1991 based largely on the testimony of his ex-wife, who told detectives she had hired Mordenti to do the killing. She was never arrested.
From the beginning, the case against Mordenti was thin. There was no confession from Mordenti, no physical evidence, and no witnesses. The prosecutor, Karen Cox, never shared evidence that contradicted the star witness’s story, and showed jurors a gun that was not the murder weapon. The Florida Supreme Court reversed Mordenti’s conviction in 2004, finding that Cox — who was later suspended from the practice of law for misconduct in another case– had withheld evidence.
Despite this, Mark Ober’s office insisted on retrying Mordenti two more times, one of which ended in a mistrial. Shortly after a third jury found him guilty, the victim’s husband told prosecutors that Mordenti was the wrong man, and an appellate court overturned the conviction. Nevertheless, Ober’s office was relentless and tried to prosecute him a fourth time. Mordenti pled guilty and was released after 17 years in prison; he didn’t think he could emotionally handle another trial. Mordenti has always maintained his innocence. Cox went on to be reprimanded for misconduct as a federal prosecutor before leaving for private practice.
In another case, Rudolph Holton was exonerated in 2003 because prosecutors withheld evidence, a DNA test failed to place Holton at the crime scene, and a jailhouse informant recanted. Ober’s office dropped the case and did not retry Holton in the face of clear evidence of Holton’s innocence, but Ober himself refused to admit error, stating, “I am not saying loud and clear that Rudolph Holton is innocent. I am saying we cannot prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Wayne County, MI
In 2007, Davontae Sanford — a fourteen-year-old developmentally impaired child — was found by police in his pajamas near the scene of four Detroit murders. After two days of interrogation without a parent or attorney, he gave an illogical confession and pled to second-degree murder, sending him to prison. What the police discovered, but did not reveal, was that a hired hit man named Vincent Smothers confessed to these crimes just two weeks after Sanford was sentenced; Smothers was already in prison for eight other murders. Smothers even tried to explain to law enforcement that Sanford had no involvement: “Wow, that’s really messed up,” he told a New Yorker writer when informed of Sanford’s case. The police even tried to convince Smothers to take a plea deal that guaranteed his silence on the four murders to ensure that Sanford stayed in prison. Sanford was wrongfully incarcerated for eight years.
Kym Worthy, the Prosecuting Attorney for Wayne County, refused to reopen the case based on this information and told the Detroit Free Press that the hit man’s confession was “not convincing.” Then, in 2015, a Detroit police deputy chief admitted that he had “helped” Sanford draw a map of the crime scene, which had been an important piece of evidence used to bolster Sanford’s otherwise incoherent confession. Based on these grievous errors and clear evidence of misconduct, Sanford, now 23, was released in June 2016. Worthy has refused to admit he is innocent. In a long press conference, Worthy instead defended her decisions and cast aspersions on Sanford’s innocence.
Sanford’s case isn’t an isolated incident. Twenty-three exonerations have occurred in Wayne County since Worthy became the Wayne County Prosecutor in January of 2004. According to University of Michigan law professor and Innocence Clinic director David Moran, her office has fought to keep most of these defendants incarcerated.
Orleans Parish, LA
Louisiana has 46 exonerations on record, making it one of the states with the most exonerations per capita, and Orleans Parish has the highest number of exonerations in the state with 19. Leon Cannizzaro, who has been the District Attorney of Orleans Parish since 2008, has consistently refused to admit when clear prosecutorial misconduct has placed innocent men in prison.
In 1992, a British tourist was killed in the French Quarter during what looked like a robbery gone bad. The shooting generated a lot of media attention, particularly because it was billed as a “crime spree,” and investigators quickly focused on then 19-year-old Robert Jones. Jones had no record, although he was known by the police as a suspect in some petty drug dealing. Investigators later also arrested a man named Lester Jones — no relation — and he was tried and convicted for the murder and several other crimes. But, prosecutors went ahead with Robert Jones’s trial even though another man had already been convicted of the same crime.
Jones was convicted and sent to Angola despite the fact that police and prosecutors knew someone else was guilty. The prosecutors were Roger Jordan (who was censured by the Louisiana Supreme Court for misconduct in another case) and Fred Menner; Menner wrote a 1996 memo admitting that there was no evidence proving Robert Jones’s guilt. The memo was supposedly misplaced and wasn’t discovered until 2015. Jones served 23 years of his sentence before he was released. Cannizzaro is still insisting that he might retry Jones for these crimes. He wanted a multi-million dollar bond, which a judge reduced. According to the latest reports, Jones is still on an ankle monitor awaiting Cannizzaro’s decision whether to retry him. Cannizzaro did offer Jones a plea agreement to close the case, but Jones refused and maintains his innocence.
After another recent exoneration, that of Jerome Morgan, Cannizzaro remained skeptical of Morgan’s innocence. He then charged two eyewitnesses, who were teenagers when they testified against Morgan 22 years ago, with perjury when they changed their stories, leading to Morgan’s release. Those charges are still pending.
In light of recent exonerations, in 2014 Cannizzaro agreed to team up with the Innocence Project New Orleans to create a conviction integrity unit within his office. But, the unit never really got off the ground, exonerating only one person, Kia Stewart, who was originally convicted based on the testimony of one eyewitness. Cannizzaro did not fight the defunding of the unit last year.
Hennepin County, MN
Prosecutors often rely on flawed forensic evidence in the quest to obtain a conviction. In September of 2016, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report that called into question the scientific legitimacy of forensic techniques that prosecutors have used for decades to send people to prison and death row–such as bite marks, bad firearms testing, biological samples containing the DNA of multiple individuals, and shoe prints.
Instead of showing concern that prosecutors had relied on faulty techniques for decades, the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) — a national organization of local prosecutors — dug in its heels. According to Daniel Denvir at Salon, Michael O. Freeman, the County Attorney for Hennepin County, Minnesota and President-Elect for the NDAA, admitted under questioning he was “a prosecutor and not a scientist” and said, “We think that this group of so-called experts had an agenda, which was to discredit a lot of the science…used by prosecutors.”
San Bernardino County, CA
The current president of the NDAA, District Attorney Michael Ramos of San Bernardino County, California, dismissed the above-mentioned PCAST report as “biased” in a press release, and accused researchers of ignoring “scientific literature authored by true subject matter experts.”
Ironically enough, Ramos’s office has recently had to deal with the consequences of junk science. Bill Richards was tried in San Bernardino County four times for the alleged murder of his wife. The evidence was fairly unconvincing. The first two trials resulted in a hung jury; the third ended in mistrial. The fourth time, a jury convicted Richards largely on the strength of so-called bite mark evidence. PCAST specifically condemned the study of bite marks, which claims to be able to identify people by vague tooth impressions and has long been known to be junk science. Dr. Sperber, the bite mark “expert” used in Richards’s trial, later retracted and reversed his own opinion, which led the trial court to grant Richards a new trial in 2009. However, Ramos’s office appealed the decision. Richards was finally released in June of this year after serving 23 years in prison when the California Supreme Court vacated his sentence based largely on Dr. Sperber’s own retraction. Despite this ruling, Ramos’ office considered retrying Richards yet again until the case was dismissed for good on June 28, 2016.
Multnomah County, OR
In 2002, Lisa Roberts was indicted for the murder of her girlfriend as part of an alleged love triangle gone bad. Roberts took a plea and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2008, during the course of Roberts’s habeas proceedings, her defense attorneys received lab reports that had not been disclosed previously — they were DNA reports indicating that a man had been at the scene of the crime. Further DNA testing linked two other men to the murder. Roberts was released from prison in May of 2014.
Rod Underhill, who became the District Attorney in 2013, refused to believe Roberts’s innocence despite the DNA evidence. His office said, “It is a common defense to point the finger at someone else.” Ultimately, he decided not to retry Roberts, even though he maintained her guilt.
Speaking to Willamette Week, Roberts said, “We’re all human. We all have a pulse. We all make mistakes. But admit to your mistakes. I would have more respect for [Underhill] if he did.”
In January 2016, the Oregon legislature passed a law which broadened the availability of DNA testing for those who had viable innocence claims, inspired by the Roberts case. Underhill vigorously fought these changes, arguing that the new bill was “ambiguous” and that it would change the conviction status of “the most dangerous cases,” giving people a “right to relitigate guilt.”
District attorneys’ offices are often reluctant to acknowledge error, opting to maintain the white knight image that the office does not make mistakes or prosecute innocent people. The existence of exonerations, however, shows that this is simply not true — innocent people are convicted and others are over-punished. While the justice system will always have human error, no matter how diligent the actors are, it is the role of the prosecutor to ensure that justice is served, which includes freeing the innocent and ensuring the integrity of all convictions.
About the Fair Punishment Project
The Fair Punishment Project uses legal research and educational initiatives to ensure that the U.S. justice system is fair and accountable. As a joint initiative of Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice and its Criminal Justice Institute, we work to highlight the gross injustices resulting from prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective defense lawyering, and racial bias, and to highlight the unconstitutional use of excessive punishment. The Project also closely partners with The Bronx Defenders, which provides invaluable strategic, research, and writing assistance.