[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----SOUTH CAROLINA
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Sun Jul 4 19:24:22 CDT 2004
Questions of innocence----Sometimes the bad guy isnt the one doing time
If you ask South Carolinas 24,000 inmates, many would say they are
innocent of their crimes.
Prosecutors and police usually dont agree with their claims. But defense
lawyers and others are convinced some innocent people are behind bars.
Even if those cases are rare, its worth finding anyone who might have been
wrongly convicted, they say.
"There are needles in a haystack that we are looking for," said Columbia
criminal defense lawyer Joe McCulloch, one of the founders of the Palmetto
Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization investigating S.C. cases.
The trouble is that researching the cases is painstakingly slow. And its
difficult to separate them from cases where defendants are simply trying
to get out of jail.
Exonerations are rare, but they do occur in the Palmetto State. In the
past 100 years, at least 6 S.C. inmates convicted of murder - 3 of whom
were on Death Row, awaiting execution - later were cleared legally,
according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University
School of Law in Chicago.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, which
investigates wrongful convictions nationwide, believes many more wrongful
conviction cases eventually will be uncovered in the United States,
including South Carolina.
"Its a lot worse than we thought," said Scheck, best known as one of O.J.
Simpsons criminal defense lawyers. "Theres just too much of this now to
simply discount it as a passing fad."
Everyone should be concerned about the issue because "every time an
innocent person is convicted, a perpetrator is still out there," Scheck
National figures on the number of exonerations vary. According to a
database maintained by Dr. Edmund Higgins, a Charleston psychiatrist who
has studied wrongful convictions, there have been 316 recorded cases
nationally of wrongful convictions in murder and other serious cases since
A 1992 book titled "In Spite of Innocence," written by University of
Colorado sociology professor Michael Radelet and other researchers, puts
the number of wrongful murder convictions alone nationally at more than
400 since 1900. And a University of Michigan study released in April
identified 328 false convictions - nearly all for murder or rape - in the
United States since 1989.
In Illinois, 18 death row inmates have been exonerated since the death
penalty was restored nationwide in 1976. The exonerations led former
Illinois Gov. George Ryan in 2000 to take the unprecedented step of
declaring a moratorium on all executions. Ryan made international news
last year when he commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates.
Trey Gowdy, the solicitor for Spartanburg and Cherokee counties, doesnt
believe there are many S.C. inmates serving life sentences who are
He said he is sometimes asked whether he has wrongfully convicted someone.
"I tell them, Why would I prosecute someone if I didnt think they did it?"
Gowdy said. "I would hope prosecutors would have as much joy in clearing
someone who is falsely accused as they do in convicting people who are
There is no clear definition of what it means to be exonerated, which
explains in part why the numbers vary.
Some believe a "not guilty" verdict during a retrial by a jury or judge
will do; others, such as Higgins, say a DNA test or the arrest of the real
perpetrator is required to prove someone is innocent.
Roger Zane Dedmond puts himself in the latter category.
The Shelby, N.C., man was convicted of strangling his 33-year-old wife,
Annie Dedmond, and leaving her nude body on a road in Union County, S.C.,
in May 1967. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for manslaughter.
But in February 1968 - just 2 months after his trial and after about 10
months behind bars - he was released after another man confessed to a
strangling spree in the Gaffney area that included his wifes killing.
Police said Dedmond confessed to killing his wife; he denies he confessed.
"That was the biggest lie they told," the 64-year-old retired electrician
said in a recent interview. "They just wanted to solve it."
Dedmond said he received no apology from the sheriff and prosecutor or
compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction.
Nineteen states - though not South Carolina - have laws providing
compensation to exonerated inmates, according to the Innocence Project. A
Pennsylvania township, for example, agreed in March to pay $1.6 million to
Bruce Godschalk of Hilton Head, who served 15 years in prison for 2 rapes
near Philadelphia before DNA tests cleared him.
A recent S.C. exoneration case involved Perry Mitchell, who was freed in
1998 after serving more than 14 years in prison for the 1982 rape of a
teenage girl in Lexington County. He was convicted largely on the
testimony of the victim; a DNA test later said he didnt do it.
Mitchell is the 1st - and so far the only - state inmate to be freed after
DNA testing, which analyzes the bodys genetic material. He is among 144
U.S. defendants exonerated since 1989 by DNA, according to the Innocence
MANY MORE CASES
Since the founding of Schecks national organization in 1992, dozens of
states have started similar projects. Today, there are programs in at
least 30 states, according to Schecks organization.
2 years ago, a fund-raiser involving Scheck helped start South Carolinas
Palmetto Innocence Project, made up of volunteer lawyers and
investigators. The program is housed at the Columbia office of McCulloch,
one of the projects founders.
So far, it has received more than 150 requests from inmates, charged
mainly with murder, rape or robbery.
No inmates have been exonerated, McCulloch said. But he remains passionate
in his belief that there are wrongful conviction cases in South Carolina.
Volunteers say they are actively investigating an old murder case and a
The stakes are high.
Some lawyers, such as John Blume of Columbia, a death penalty expert, say
the state has executed innocent people. He points to one of his former
clients, Richard Charles Johnson, as an example.
Johnson was convicted in the 1985 shooting death of state trooper Bruce
Smalls in Jasper County. In an unprecedented move, however, the S.C.
Supreme Court postponed his 1999 execution - a day before it was scheduled
to happen after co-defendant Connie Sue Hess claimed she killed the
But the state Supreme Court in 2001 upheld Johnsons death sentence, ruling
that Hess, whom the justices noted suffers from mental illness, wasnt
In 2002, Blume and other S.C. death penalty opponents called on then-Gov.
Jim Hodges to declare a moratorium on all executions, citing flaws in the
states criminal justice system.
Hodges declined to do so, saying he supported capital punishment. 3 men
were executed that year, including Johnson.
Neither the governor nor anyone else has the authority to declare a
moratorium under state law, said Trey Walker, spokesman for state Attorney
General Henry McMaster.
Blume acknowledges that many people thought Johnson was guilty.
He still doesnt agree.
"I know what I believe," he said.
(source: The State)
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