A Few of Washington’s Wrongfully Convicted

A new state law grants the wrongfully convicted $50,000 for each year spent behind bars. An apology, it turns out, is harder to come by.

James Anderson

Time served: four years

The 31-year-old Tacoma man was convicted of robbing a local Safeway in 2004. Two alleged accomplices earned lighter sentences by fingering him. But Anderson, who had a California criminal record, claimed he was in Los Angeles at the time of the robbery, visiting his probation officer. Prosecutors said the office had no record of such a visit. Acting as his own attorney, Anderson argued his case in Pierce County Superior Court. He was found guilty by a jury in 2005 and sentenced to 17 years. The University of Washington’s Innocence Project Northwest subsequently found the records that showed Anderson indeed had been in L.A. at the time. A state Court of Appeals granted him a new trial in 2008. Anderson was released from prison and the charges were dismissed in 2009.

Ted Bradford

Time served: nine years

In 1995, the then-22-year-old Yakima lumber-mill worker admitted breaking into a home and raping a woman who had been feeding her month-old baby. Bradford claims police interrogators subjected him to withering interrogations and lied to him, saying they had his DNA from the rape scene. Relying on advanced DNA technology, Innocence Project Northwest was later able to prove that the rapist’s sample came from another, unknown male. After Bradford spent nine years in prison, an appeals court, for the first time in state history, agreed to overturn a criminal conviction based solely on DNA evidence. Yakima County prosecutors nonetheless chose to retry Bradford in 2010. He was cleared by a jury that took only a few hours of deliberation to end his 15-year ordeal. His story was told in a Seattle Weekly report, “New DNA Methods Could Throw More Convictions Into Doubt,” Jan. 8, 2008.

Dayna Christoph

Time served: five years

The mentally disabled and sexually abused Spokane teen, abandoned by her alcoholic mother and raised in foster homes, confessed under police interrogation to molesting and raping her sister 100 times over nearly three years, using her hands and a doll. She pled guilty in 1995 to first-degree rape. In 1999, lawyers from the Center for Justice in Spokane showed that she had falsely confessed under police pressure, concocting memories from her own childhood abuse. Investigators also learned her attorney had spent a mere 105 minutes on her case. A judge dismissed the conviction in 2000, calling it a “manifest injustice.”

Larry Davis and Alan Northrop

Time served: 17 years each

In 1993 the two were accused of breaking into a home and raping a housekeeper in La Center, Clark County. Though blindfolded during the assault and able to remember only her attackers’ hair and skin color, the housekeeper picked out Northrop and Davis from a lineup. Prosecutors charged Northrop with the rape and Davis as his accomplice, trying them separately. There was no physical evidence of either man at the crime scene, but both were convicted based mainly on the identification provided by the victim. Northrop got 23 years, Davis 20. In 2000, Innocence Project Northwest sought to obtain DNA testing, but was opposed by Clark County prosecutors. The two sides battled for almost six years while Davis and Northrop waited behind bars. A law passed in 2005 gave judges new power to order post-conviction testing, and a consequent 2006 examination of crime-scene DNA implicated two unknown men, excluding Northrop and Davis. The convictions were finally overturned in 2010. Prosecutors subsequently dismissed the charges and the two were exonerated.

Benjamin Harris

Time served: 20 years

The sometimes-police informant was convicted in 1984 and sentenced to death for the murder of Jimmie Lee Turner, an auto mechanic found dead near his garage in Tacoma. Harris, 37, was implicated by another police informant, who said Harris had contracted with a second man, Gregory Bonds, who actually shot Turner. Harris’ attorney convinced him to testify that both he and Bonds had shot Turner, figuring that if Harris admitted to the shooting, he couldn’t be found guilty of paying Bonds to do it and thus couldn’t be convicted and sentenced to death. But he was. As Allen Ressler, Harris’ Seattle appeals attorney, later said, the strategy was “about as stupid as it can get.” (Bonds, represented by a different attorney, was acquitted.) In 1994, Harris was granted a new trial after an appeals court learned his lawyer had spent all of 14 hours preparing the case, and only two hours of that interviewing Harris. Forensic evidence not introduced at trial also showed that Harris had never handled the murder weapon. Retrying him proved impossible, however, since key witnesses were no longer available. The charges were dismissed in 1997, and the wrongly convicted Harris became—and remains—the only person exonerated from Washington’s Death Row. However, he was still in prison and wouldn’t go free for another seven years, after the state moved to have him civilly committed as “dangerously mentally ill” (even though prosecutors had previously—and successfully—argued he was sane enough to stand trial for the murder). In 1997, Pierce County jurors found Harris mentally ill, and he was sent to Western State hospital. He was later placed in a transitional program and released in 2004—having served 20 years in state custody. He died at age 61 in 2008.

John Jackson

Time served: six years

The Grant County cab driver went to prison in 1996 for distribution of cocaine. His attorney was a public defender who was handling more than 600 cases at the time. In a 2004 series on the state’s shoddy public-defense system, The Seattle Times reported that Jackson claimed he’d been framed. Later he told a judge that his public defender never even interviewed him before going to court. During trial, the attorney presented no defense witnesses nor made mention of the mental problems of a police informant who, police admitted, had claimed in past cases to have the ability to solve crimes before they occurred. After serving his sentence, however, Jackson cleared his name when a federal judge set aside the conviction in 2001 due to the questionable testimony and the ineffective assistance of counsel. Jackson died a year later, at age 65.

Tom Kennedy

Time served: 10 years

The 32-year-old Kelso divorcé was convicted of raping his 11-year-old daughter in 2002, based on the daughter’s testimony. She made the claim just months after she’d been expelled from school for writing a letter to a teacher threatening to bring a gun to class to shoot everyone. In court, she gave detailed accounts of being raped at home in the bathroom, and used stuffed animals to illustrate what occurred. Despite Kennedy’s claims of innocence, the jury was persuaded by the girl’s seemingly sincere testimony. Kennedy had been in prison for almost a decade when the daughter came forth last year and said she had lied. She had become a drug addict as an adult, but was recovering at a Christian addiction-treatment center. At a hearing, she said that the physical evidence of trauma to her genitals—brought up at her father’s trial—was due to sexual activity she’d had with a classmate since second grade. She made up the rape allegation, she said, to get rid of her father because he was drinking and smoking marijuana. A Cowlitz County judge ruled the recantation was genuine and granted Kennedy a new trial. He was released from prison, and the charges were dismissed last March.

Ross Sorrels

Time served: eight years

In 1995, the director of a club for troubled youths was accused of raping a 5-year-old girl he was babysitting in Clark County. Based on accusations by the girl’s mother’s boyfriend, John Tyler, officials determined the girl had been assaulted. She required major reconstructive surgery to her genitals. At a 1995 trial, Sorrels, who ran the America for Youth Foundation, was convicted and sentenced to 10 years based on the testimony of the girl and Tyler. Seven years later, the girl, then 12, came forward with her sister to point the finger at Tyler. As it turned out, the girl had told her grandmother after the rape that it had been Tyler who had attacked her. The grandmother told the mother, who kept the information to herself. In 2003, Tyler was convicted of multiple counts of sexually abusing the sisters, receiving a 73-year sentence. Sorrels was granted a new trial, and prosecutors later dropped all charges.

Sources (and for more information on these and other Washington cases): Innocence Project Northwest; the Center on Wrongful Convictions; Forejustice.org; and the National Registry of Exonerations.

 
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