Double vision: KU Project for Innocence frees wrongfully imprisoned man after finding doppelganger

Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Exoneree Richard Jones hugs Alice Craig, supervising attorney with the University of Kansas Project for Innocence, after being released from prison.

LAWRENCE — The outlook for Richard Jones appeared bleak when University of Kansas School of Law Project for Innocence interns Chapman Williams and Chad Neswick took over his case in 2015.

Despite maintaining his innocence from the start, Jones had already spent 15 years in prison for aggravated robbery – convicted after the victim and witnesses of a purse snatching identified him in a police lineup. Without new evidence to counter the eyewitness testimony, relief seemed unlikely.

Then something happened that made everyone see the case differently.

Inmates at the Lansing Correctional Facility — where Jones was serving his 19-year sentence — started mistaking him for another guy on the inside named Ricky Amos. Jones reported the look-alike confusion to the Project for Innocence, and Williams and Neswick tracked down mug shots of Amos.

“They looked like they could have been twins,” Williams said. “From there, other pieces of the puzzle began fitting together.”

Nearly two years later, Jones is enjoying a new view. He walked free this month after a Johnson County judge reversed his conviction and ordered his release. Jones held his 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time and enjoyed a barbecue with family and friends.

“Working on Richard’s case has taught me to look at every case with care,” said KU Law student Brenna Lynch, who helped draft the petition that won Jones another chance to challenge his conviction. “It’s bittersweet. We were able to help Richard, and now he gets to be with his family and live as a free man again. But it’s hard knowing that almost 20 years of his life were taken from him for a crime he didn’t commit.”

‘No other option’

On May 30, 1999, Jones celebrated his girlfriend’s birthday by hosting a Memorial Day weekend barbecue in Kansas City, Missouri. The next day, he was home all day cleaning up.

Exoneree Richard Jones embraces KU Law student Nikki Multer, who helped work on his case as an intern with the University of Kansas School of Law's Project for Innocence.A few miles across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, three people who had been driving around smoking crack went to a neighborhood where they could buy more. They picked up a man named Rick at a known drug house. He told them to drive to a nearby Walmart, where he attempted to steal a woman’s purse in the parking lot. She fought back, sustaining minor injuries, and the assailant got away with only her cell phone.

Neither the victim nor the Walmart security guard got a good look at the attacker. According to court records, they could only describe him as a thin, light-skinned black or Hispanic man with dark hair.

Through a series of identification procedures, police and witnesses came to believe Richard Jones was the assailant. He was arrested nine months after the attack and convicted of aggravated robbery in 2000.

No physical evidence tied Jones to the getaway vehicle, the victim or the robbery. Despite presenting a verified alibi, he was convicted based solely on eyewitness identification.

“Richard Jones’s case highlights the flaws in eyewitness identification and the importance of proper procedures,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney with KU’s Project for Innocence. “Witnesses were presented with no other option but to choose Jones in the lineups as created. None of the other photos matched the description provided by the witnesses.”

Manifest injustice

Those flawed identification procedures became strikingly clear after Jones drew the attention of Project for Innocence advocates to the existence of his doppelganger, Ricky Amos.

As students Williams and Neswick dug deeper, they discovered that Amos had committed other crimes consistent with the one for which Jones was serving time. They also determined that Amos had lived in the Kansas City area and was associated with the address of the duplex where Jones had allegedly been picked up before the robbery.

“With all of these facts, we were able to build a case, including meeting with the victim of the crime and witnesses who were at Walmart that day,” Williams said.

None of them could tell Amos and Jones apart. “I am no longer certain I identified the right person at the preliminary hearing and trial,” Tamara Scherer, the robbery victim, said in an affidavit last year. “If I had seen both men at the time, I would not have felt comfortable choosing between the two men and possibly sending a man to prison.”

Indeed, Jones was the only light-skinned man in the police lineups shown to Scherer and witnesses.

Project for Innocence students Brenna Lynch and Nikki Multer took over the case in 2016. They drafted the motion to vacate Jones’s sentence, compiled exhibits, made trips to get statements from the original witnesses, researched problems with eyewitness testimony, searched for experts to testify, met with the Johnson County District Attorney’s office and eventually helped file the case.

Although Jones had previously exhausted his appeals, the 10th Judicial District Court in Johnson County agreed to hear the new evidence to prevent a “manifest injustice.” 

Improving the system

Former Johnson County Assistant District Attorney John Cowles, who prosecuted the original trial, testified at the June 7 hearing that it was rare for him to try cases based solely on eyewitness identification because of its known “pitfalls.” He said new evidence presented by the Project for Innocence, in partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, undermined his confidence that Jones’s trial produced a just result.

Exoneree Richard Jones holds his 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time while giving a TV interview after his release.In a ruling from the bench, Judge Kevin P. Moriarty wrote that no reasonable jury would convict Jones if he were tried again, especially in light of evidence linking Amos to the crime.

“When Judge Moriarty finally said what we all had been waiting hours to hear, it was almost surreal,” said Lynch, who attended the hearing and was at the Johnson County Jail when Jones was released the next day. “The effect of that ruling didn’t even really hit me until I saw Richard get to hug his daughter, something he probably hasn’t done for 17 years. Members of his family, people I had never met before, were thanking me and hugging me. That’s a really good feeling, knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life like that.”

Multer and Lynch both said working on Jones’s case taught them the importance of vigilant advocacy.

“Our criminal justice system is flawed, so we as lawyers have a duty to make it better,” Lynch said. “I had the privilege of working on a case that had a happy ending, but, unfortunately, that’s rare. There are hundreds of other cases — and maybe hundreds of other people like Richard — who never get this chance.”

Recent independent studies conservatively estimate that between 2 and 5 percent of inmates in the United States are innocent. More than 70 percent of those wrongful convictions are the result of mistaken eyewitness identification, especially across racial lines, according to Cardozo Law’s Innocence Project.

“Cases like Mr. Jones’s give our students the opportunity to examine the causes of wrongful convictions, as well as the valuable experience of working with a client,” said Beth Cateforis, supervising attorney with KU’s Project for Innocence. “When we achieve an outcome like Mr. Jones’s, the students get to see the result of their perseverance and know that their efforts changed their client’s life.”

Williams, who graduated in May, characterized Jones’s exoneration as the most important accomplishment of his budding legal career.

“More importantly, I’m extremely happy that Richard is free,” he said. “His resilience and determination made it all possible. I hope he is compensated for those 17 years of lost time.”


PHOTOS (from top): Exoneree Richard Jones hugs Alice Craig, supervising attorney with the University of Kansas Project for Innocence, after being released from prison; Jones embraces KU Law student Nikki Multer, who helped work on his case as an intern with the Project for Innocence; Jones holds his 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time while giving a TV interview after his release.

Law professors honored for work that freed innocent man from prison

Thursday, April 21, 2016


KU Law Professors Alice Craig, Elizabeth Cateforis and Jean Phillips

LAWRENCE – Three University of Kansas law professors were recognized this week for demonstrating “compassion, dedication and tenacity” through nearly a decade of work to free an innocent man from prison.

Jean Phillips, Elizabeth Cateforis and Alice Craig of KU Law’s Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence & Post-Conviction Remedies received the Sean O’Brien Freedom Award from the Midwest Innocence Project during its annual Faces of Innocence benefit Tuesday evening in Kansas City, Missouri.

The three were singled out for their leading role in winning the exoneration of Floyd Bledsoe, who spent 16 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. Students and faculty in KU Law’s Project for Innocence worked on Floyd’s case for nearly a decade before new DNA evidence and a suicide note confession from his brother cleared his name.

“The best feeling a lawyer can have is walking out of court or prison with an innocent client who is finally being freed after a decade or more of wrongful incarceration. Everybody would love to have that feeling, but few lawyers are willing to do what it takes to get there,” said Sean O’Brien, associate professor at the UMKC School of Law and the award’s namesake. “The work of Jean, Beth and Alice reminds me of something Mother Teresa said: ‘There are no great deeds, only ordinary deeds, done with great love.’ That’s what these lawyers are all about.”

Through its partnership with KU Law, the Midwest Innocence Project provided funding for new DNA testing in Floyd’s case.   

“The MIP working with KU Law is a model of what legal partnerships can be,” said Oliver Burnette, executive director of the MIP. “Since the Paul E. Wilson Project for Innocence is such a recognized source of expertise and dedication, MIP’s resources and legal team can act as a force-multiplier for the good work already being done.”

All three honorees graduated from the KU School of Law in the 1990s and worked on the Project for Innocence – then known as the Defender Project – during law school. Phillips has served as director of the project since 1999. She hired Cateforis as a supervising attorney that same year, and Craig joined the team in 2004.  

“I had the good fortune to learn from David Gottlieb, and he taught me the dangers of passing judgment and failing to see that human beings are worthy of respect and compassion. I left that experience knowing that I was put here to battle against simply putting people in prison and forgetting about them,” Phillips said. “We look forward to a time when we actually work ourselves out of a job. One client at a time – one Floyd Bledsoe at a time – we get a little bit closer to that goal.”

The Project for Innocence was founded by former KU Law Professor Paul E. Wilson as the Defender Project in 1965 to help prisoners who otherwise might not receive legal representation. Working under the supervision of faculty attorneys, students in the clinic represent state and federal prisoners in appellate and post-conviction litigation in state and federal courts. The program has won more than 40 direct appeals, constitutional challenges and actual innocence cases since 2008.

The Midwest Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Network, is dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted men and women in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. The MIP partners with KU Law’s Project for Innocence and other regional innocence organization by providing legal and financial support to enhance local exoneration efforts.

Floyd Bledsoe released after his 2000 Jefferson County murder conviction is overturned

"After 16 years behind bars for a murder his brother eventually took responsibility for, Floyd Bledsoe is a free man.

...

Bledsoe, who has been represented by attorneys with the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies at the University of Kansas Law School and Midwest Innocence Project, smiled during much of Tuesday’s proceedings and hugged teary-eyed well-wishers after the judge agreed to release him. A crowd of roughly 50 people cheered inside the courtroom when the judge’s decision was announced."

Judge overturns Bledsoe's murder conviction, released after 16 years behind bars

A Kansas man who had served more than 15 years of a life sentence for the 1999 shooting death of his sister-in-law is a free man, after a county judge overturned his conviction.

Floyd Bledsoe was ordered released Tuesday after attorneys presented new evidence that implicated his late brother in the death of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann.

 

Judge overturns Kansas man's conviction in sister-in-law's 1999 killing

 "A Kansas man who served more than 15 years of a life sentence for the 1999 shooting death of his sister-in-law was freed Tuesday after a judge overturned his conviction when new evidence implicated the man's brother as the likely killer.

...

The decision came after a Jefferson County Sheriff's investigator testified that Bledsoe's brother, Thomas, killed himself last month after DNA evidence implicated him in the death of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann. Thomas Bledsoe left behind suicide letters admitting he killed the girl.

...

Judge throws out 2000 murder conviction, frees Oskaloosa man after 15 years in prison

"Floyd Scott Bledsoe was set free Tuesday after a Jefferson County judge overturned his life sentence for the 1999 murder of his 14-year-old sister-in-law.

New evidence, including DNA evidence and three suicide letters written by his brother Tom Bledsoe, indicate that Floyd Bledsoe was not the killer. Floyd Bledsoe spent more than 15 years in prison.

...

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