In Ryan’s words

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

Ryan with his sister and mom during a December 2011 visit

This is the first guest blog I have hosted on here and I am really excited about it. I recently wrote about some of the people who have been sacrificing some of the last bit of privacy they have retained while incarcerated so that they can share their experiences with others. I feel that if more people did this it would be hard to ignore the problems that plague our justice system – mainly because it would become apparent that those who have suffered various forms of injustice are people, just like those reading the blogs that they write. Some have been wrongfully convicted, some have been overcharged, and some are guilty of their crimes but remorseful.

I approached Ryan Holle about writing a blog post. I have written about Ryan’s case a few times – most recently here. Also I maintain a website for his case here. I wasn’t sure if he would be interested or not, but I hoped that he would. That said, the following was written by Ryan:

____________________________________________________________________

You know when I was asked to write for this blog my mind went a little scatterbrain. I mean seriously, I’m sitting in a 8′ by 12″ cell on a mat that is like 3″ thick and a light that is just enough to write with. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t do the whole “woe is me” stuff. That train of thought will get you absolutely nowhere. Of course I never thought I would spend my 30th birthday and almost 10 years incarcerated either. I have hope though and that is what keeps me going.

You know it’s sad and hopefully it doesn’t make me sound crazy but even though I’m here I’m just thankful to be alive. I made a lot of poor decisions before I was incarcerated. It’s amazing how you can become so wrapped up in just what matters to you that you don’t see how your actions affect those that care for you. How can you adequately describe what it feels like to lose everything including your freedom?

If you have never been incarcerated then I pray that you never do. I could sit here and tell you everything that you have to go through but I’m not because that would just be a biased opinion from my perspective. I can tell you that it has been a crazy journey. On the day I was convicted a deputy who was escorting me back to the county jail after I just got a natural life sentence asked me if he could share some advice with me. As an inmate, trust me there are very few guards/police that care at all. He told me, “Don’t become an animal.” I have taken that to heart. I refuse to let prison dictate the person that I am.

I have learned a lot from being and try to be someone my family can be proud of. I really believe that you can do that even from in here. I have never been a writer besides in letters to family and friends. So, I hope you will excuse my poor penmanship. If there is one thing I could say it’s, “Be thankful for your freedom and cherish it.”

People tell me a lot that they can’t believe that I have been incarcerated for nearly 10 years and have an upbeat attitude. They are surprised that I smile a lot. In my mind this is just a part of the journey that is my life and I believe with all my heart that one day I will be free!!

The first page of Ryan Holle's guest blog.

Page one

Page two

Page two

Injustices in Indiana

Ellen Page played Slyvia Likens in "American Crime" - a girl tortured and murdered by neighborhood children

Ellen Page played Sylvia Likens in “An American Crime” – a girl tortured and murdered by her caretaker and neighborhood children. Copyrighted and all rights reserved – in compliance with Fair Use or educational/research purposes

Indiana is a dangerous state for adolescents and teenagers. The consequences for poor decision making, on the part of minors, are severe. Most recently we got a glimpse into the inner workings of the system when a group of teenagers were arrested for felony murder in Indiana after entering a man’s home. They did not commit a murder. They did not even plan a murder. They picked a home to enter based on the belief no one was even home. However, because the homeowner pulled a gun on the teenagers and killed one of them the prosecutor feels he must set an example.

There is no question that making a choice to break into a home is a bad one. No one – including the family of one of the boy’s, Blake Layman – would argue that a consequence is not warranted. The consequence should reflect the crime committed though, right? It should not be based on the crime manifested as a result of a prosecutor perverting one of the best examples of bad law in existence.

The prosecutor clearly feels he must set an example though. The felony murder rule almost always seems as though it is intended to set an example. We live in a society that quickly forgets the harsh lessons learned by others, but we like to establish precedents. The more extreme, the better.

That is, until that precedent involves someone we love.

You don’t necessarily have to make a bad decision to find yourself facing serious time in prison. People just need to think you did – namely a prosecutor and a jury. In the state of Indiana age has seemed, prior to today, insignificant.

How many times have you heard the mantra “adult time for an adult crime” or “if a child can make an adult decision they should be tried as an adult”? On its face it almost sounds reasonable, but these are fallacies.

First off, there is no such thing as an adult decision. One cannot logically say that a child made an adult decision. The main reason it is illogical to describe a decision in the above way is because it is a scientific fact that the brain of an adolescent, teenager, and even young adult is not fully mature. The process of brain maturation is a gradual one. Areas in the brain critical for making intelligent decisions appear to be the last to completely develop. For example, children do not have the same degree of impulse control, ability to fully understand consequences, or emotional control as adults.

If children could drive...

If children could drive…

As a society we know this. We don’t let young children drive vehicles. We don’t allow adolescent girls to make the decision to get married. Though there are some parents who allow their children to drink alcohol in the privacy of their home, it isn’t legal and as a society we allegedly do not condone it. There is a laundry list of decisions we do not allow children to make and these are only a few examples.

Individually most people realize there is a difference between children and adults, even if these people are the first to post a disparaging comment on a news story about the latest tragedy perpetrated by a young teenager. “Fry ’em!” is one I see a lot. However, these people probably wouldn’t hand their car keys to a twelve year old boy and ask him to go to the store and buy a six pack of beer. Not just because it is illegal to do it, but because they would likely have grave concerns about whether he would even make it to the store without causing an accident.

They also probably wouldn’t tell their fourteen year old daughter that it is okay to quit school and marry a 20-year-old boy she met on the Internet. One reason is because most parents wouldn’t trust their child to make a decision of that magnitude. Parents have a job, which is to protect their child or children from others who may harm them. Often the responsibility of a parent is to guide the child when it comes to making decisions, protecting the child from his or her own self.

Some believe the act of committing murder – under any circumstance – is different than other kinds of decisions. Again, this is illogical. The same adolescent brain that society has deemed incapable of making decisions such as drinking alcohol, voting, gambling, and myriad other activities is responsible for making the decision to kill. A person’s brain does not magically mature moments before this kind of decision is made. A child does not automatically transform into an adult just because he or she is waived into the adult court either.

And yet that is exactly how the system works in some states. A look into Indiana’s past reveals a state that is inconsistent in its treatment of juveniles as well as adults. However, the state was not always as hard on teenagers as it is now. Take the story of Sylvia Likens. Sylvia was left in the care of the Baniszewski family a few months before she died in 1965. The 16-year-old was tortured and brutalized in more ways than one before she finally succumbed to her fate.

The manner of her death is shocking, but the circumstances surrounding it are almost unfathomable. The woman charged with her care, Gertrude Baniszewski, not only inflicted severe abuse on the teenager, but encouraged her own children and other kids in the neighborhood (one as young as ten) to do the same. Astonishingly, adults who came in and out of the home saw Sylvia’s condition but did nothing to help her.

Gertrude had seven children of her own. Paula was 17, John was 12, Stephanie was 15, Marie was 11, Shirley was 10, and the twins were 18 months. John was convicted of manslaughter – sentenced to serve a penalty of two-to-21 years. He was released after two years. Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighborhood boys named Richard Hobbs and Coy Hubbard, were also convicted of manslaughter. They were released after two years as well.

Though Gertrude was sentenced to life in prison, she and her daughter eventually received new trials. Twenty years after Sylvia’s murder, Gertrude was released on parole. She changed her name and left the state. In 1990, she died as a result of lung cancer. Her eldest daughter Paula took a plea of voluntary manslaughter and was released after serving two years.

The story was immortalized in the 2007 film An American Crime, starring Ellen Page and Catherine Keener.

What a difference a few decades make, right? In 1966, a child of 12 in Indiana faced a sentence of 2-to-21 years for murder.

It is hard to know what the future holds for Anthony who resides at Wabash, or 16-year-old Blake who awaits his trial for felony murder while housed currently at the county jail among adult offenders. Just prior to his arrest, Blake was a freshman in high school and working 30 hours each week at Wendy’s. He also helped his mother care for his younger sister who has suffered from a brain tumor since she was very young. In a very short span of time Blake’s life changed completely. Now he faces the possibility of a lifetime in prison.

The frightening lesson to take away from this is that if you live in Indiana (or states who treat juveniles similarly) you or someone you know could find themselves in this type of situation. Blake and Anthony could have been anyone’s children. They are someone’s children. As resistant as one may be to the idea that something like this could happen to them, it is important to accept that possibility because the justice system is broken and anyone may become its victim.

This is American society at its core. This is how we respond to complex social problems such as juvenile crime. These sentences will not reduce the amount of crime in this country because they are not the cause. Forcing children to become adults in a legal sense when we scoff at the idea of doing so in other aspects of life is absurd.

Enough said.

…dig two graves

Amanda Clarke of ABC's "Revenge"

Emily VanCamp plays Amanda Clarke – a woman bent on getting her “Revenge” Copyrighted, all rights reserved – in compliance with fair use for educational/research purposes

Confucius said, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

Everyone has been wronged at one time or another. We have all felt the sting of betrayal and the satisfaction that comes with turning the tables on those who have hurt us. But few have experienced the peace that comes from seeking to stop others from being wronged similarly by taking the moral highroad and committing to make the world a more just place.

What about the wrongs society perpetrates on those who have committed wrongs themselves? At what point does retribution transcend punishment and become revenge? Does this happen when the rights of the most vulnerable are violated in the name of righting a wrong? When the punishment exceeds the crime? Or is the mere pursuit of punishment, devoid of compassion and common sense, just another form of revenge?

If these are questions you have not yet thought to ask yourself, now is a good time to do it. The American justice system is not just broken; it is morally bankrupt as well. However, the answer is never to ignore the problem and hope it will go away. It certainly will not become remedied on its own and the devastating consequences – many of which are unclear now – will compound over time.

That said, the first step to solving a problem is to identify it. When it comes to the juvenile justice system the problems are many. Perhaps the greatest is the mistake society makes when it holds children and teenagers accountable as adults in this one respect. One solution is to grant children the rights afforded to adults. We could change the drinking age to 10 (since there are states where children this age may be tried as adults for specific crimes). We could also allow 10-year-old children the opportunity to vote, to drive, to purchase tobacco products, to choose not to go to school, and to get married.

What images come to mind when you envision granting the above rights, and others, to children as young as ten? Is it one of mass chaos? Or is it one of harmony and peace?

Another solution is to change the law. If the justice system offers no appropriate solutions for children who are 11, 12, 13, or older who commit crimes  the answer seems quite simple. Admit the system does not work. Acknowledge the laws are flawed. Construct a system that works. Demand change. But most importantly, never assume that you as a single person lack the power and resources to help facilitate this kind of change. In fact, you have the power to prevent change by doing absolutely nothing to help fix what you know is broken.

There is much I don’t know, but I know this: We should not live in a country where a 20 year old man can be convicted of felony murder and sent to prison for the rest of his life for a crime committed by others while he was asleep about two miles away in his bed. This is what happened to Ryan Holle of Florida.

I know we should not live in a society where a person must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for DNA testing to prove their innocence because their defense was inept and the prosecution was short-sighted. This is what has and is happening to Darlie Routier, who has been on death row in Texas for over 15 years.

A person should not have to beg for permission from a stubborn prosecutor to have DNA tested to prove they did not commit a crime that happened 170 miles from where they were at the time. And yet this happened to Kirstin Blaise Lobato of Nevada.

A person should not have to be at the mercy of a magistrate when the decision is made between trying the person as the juvenile they are or as the adult the prosecution wants to force them to become. I also know that no person should face what is tantamount to a life sentence because people affiliated with a gang claimed the individual committed a crime – people who likely had motive to commit the crime themselves. This happened to Martin Anthony Villalon of Indiana who was just 15 at the time.

A person should not ever face a mandatory life without parole sentence for a crime they allegedly committed at the age of 12. Yet this is what is happening to Cristian Fernandez of Florida. The judge in his case recently denied the defense’s motion to drop the charges in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling that a mandatory life without parole sentence is unconstitutional. Florida provides no alternative sentence to felony or first degree murder except for the death penalty. This country no longer sentences children to execution as of 2005.

A person should never be treated differently in the justice system than others because of race or ethnicity. However, this happened to 16-year-old Curtis Shuler of Florida who is serving a life without parole sentence for a crime his trial co-defendants have admitted he did not participate in, let alone commit.

A person should never face a life sentence for a crime their father, with a criminal background and a penchant for vengeance, admitted to committing himself. This is especially true when the prosecution has no physical evidence to link the teenager to the crime. Despite this, Josh Young has been incarcerated since he was 15 and is waiting to stand trial as an adult.

And then there is Blake Layman of Indiana who is facing severe consequences after assisting a group of teenagers in a home invasion – an event that turned fatal when the homeowner took his gun and shot two in the group, killing one and leaving the other wounded. Because of the felony murder rule, Blake and others will eventually stand trial for murder. Unless, as one of the teens have already done, they accept a plea bargain. Jose Quiroz took a plea requiring him to serve 45 years in prison. He will be 62 years old when he is finally released and the irony is he never planned a murder, nor did he commit one.

There are too many injustices to list them all. The above are just some of the ones I have come to know all too well. As I write this I am certain there will be many more I will learn about in the future. Some injustices are startlingly clear, while others require the willingness of a person to accept that there are degrees of guilt and innocence. Some injustices are perceived by many as fair applications of the law; however, something does not become right just because it is perceived by one or more as such.

Right is right and wrong is wrong. It really is that simple. And it is wrong to look the other way in the face of injustice, large or small.

What will it take to free Ryan Holle?

Ryan with his parents during a June visit

Ryan with his parents during a June visit

Ryan Holle was convicted of felony murder in 2004. He did not participate in the murder or the burglary that precipitated it, but because he loaned his car to a roommate and it was used by those who perpetrated the crime, Ryan experienced the same consequence as those directly involved: life without any possibility of parole.

I have told Ryan’s story previously, but it is one I am particularly compelled to repeat because of the gross injustice this man has experienced. When I first learned about Ryan’s predicament I had a hard time believing it. I kept thinking there had to be something about his story I was missing. I first thought that perhaps he had a prior criminal history that prompted the prosecutor to come down harder on him. Upon learning this was not true I felt I should reach out to Ryan to learn about him as a person and try to understand the extreme sentence he was given.

Ryan was convicted under the Felony Murder Rule. This law exists in the majority of states in some capacity. Typically, states like Florida use this rule to hold anyone deemed as a participant in a crime equally culpable. The name of this law reflects the fact that it may be applied when a death occurs during the commission of a homicide. The sentencing is as severe as if the person committed first degree murder, even in cases where the resulting death was an unintended consequence of the felony component of the crime.

Some claim this rule is fair and is intended to act as a deterrent, but the truth is it does not deter crime because many people have no idea what felony murder is or how it works.

Just this month, five teenagers in Indiana allegedly broke into a home during the evening hours. The homeowner, upon hearing the commotion, grabbed his gun. He fired many shots, killing one of the intruders and wounding 16 year-old Blake Layman. As shots rang into the air, the teenagers scrambled to escape. One was so frightened by the man and his gun he jumped through a window to get away.

All of the surviving teenagers are being charged with felony murder. The prosecutor, Curtis Hill, is justifying this charge (which exposes these teens to life without parole sentences per the state’s statutes) by claiming he needs to use this case as an example. He is doing this as though the loss of one young man’s life is not a salient enough wake up call.

That is not to say there should be no additional consequence at all. Blake Laymon has no prior record. He made a very poor decision when he accompanied the group to the home, but should he receive a life without parole sentence because the homeowner shot and killed a member of the group? Absolutely not.

The prosecutor in the above case has the ability to charge the teenagers appropriately – without seeking an egregious sentence that will not deter future crime (it hasn’t so far in the many states this rule is applied in). Whatever happened to charging people with the crime they actually committed? I hear they do this in some countries, but it is a concept that is completely foreign to me since I live in the United States.

Three states have deemed the felony murder rule completely unconstitutional. Some may support the above prosecutor’s decision, but people who have teenagers or care about the welfare of teenagers in general, are going to find this decision hard to comprehend. It also sets a dangerous precedent for prosecutors throughout Indiana, and in states where this kind of charge is allowed.

Ryan as a child, with his family

Ryan as a child, with his family

But back to Ryan.

I spoke to Ryan about sharing his story in more detail with others and he said that was something he wanted to do. He began by explaining the Felony Murder Rule and how it works in Florida. He then said, “In my case, I was sleeping after a house party, hungover…I overheard talking about going over to Jessica’s house (the victim) and talk about robbing her. They were laughing, but at the same time they talked about getting food. I never took it serious because the guy living with me at the time, William Allen, dated her on and off.” The discussion about getting food threw him off as well.

Believing his roommate was not serious about stealing from Jessica, and only intended to use the car  to get food, Ryan gave him his car keys. He had loaned his car to the roommate without incident in the past and so he did not have any reason to believe this time would be different.

“Due to the fact that I heard that conversation and gave the keys to my car, under the Felony Murder Rule, I am just as guilty as the guy who committed the murder.” He added that the night before Jessica had been at his house.

I asked Ryan what his reaction was to being arrested and charged with felony murder. “I was stunned,” he answered. “From the start I cooperated with investigators and told them all I knew, not knowing that they were treating me as a suspect. I wasn’t even arrested for almost a month after the crime happened. It was literally out of the blue that I was being arrested”.

He then talked about the method the investigators used to arrest him. “On the day I was arrested, I got a phone call telling me that my car (which was driven by the four men to commit the crime) was ready to be picked up from the county impound. When I got there the investigator, Jimmy Sanderson, told me that he wanted to talk to me for a minute”.

The investigator took him to an  interrogation room and asked Ryan to sit down. The investigator also sat down and then another detective came into the room. He said, “We think you had something more to do with it…we are arresting you on an open count of murder”.

Ryan said he never believed that it would all lead to him being convicted and sentenced to life without parole. “I’ve been incarcerated for almost ten years,” he said to me. “I’m 29 years old and have a life sentence, without the possibility of parole”.

On November 17, Ryan will turn 30 in prison. Nearly a decade of his life will have passed in that environment.

Before his arrest in 2003

Before his arrest (which happened in 2003)

I asked Ryan about his life at the time all of this took place. I was curious about what was happening when his life was suddenly and irreparably interrupted by these events, and the fateful decision that he made while he was still intoxicated from the house party earlier in the evening.

“My life at the time was to be honest, chaotic.” He added, “I had recently lost my job as a delivery driver for an egg company due to the fact I suffered some muscle damage around my right eye in a car accident.” He explained that he was renting a place with a couple of his friends and his sister.

“I had recently split with a long-time girlfriend who helped me in more areas than I realized. I was actually trying to attend college,” he said. “I wanted to go back to school to become a software engineer. I’ve always been a fan of video games and I wanted to be a part of that industry.”

I wanted to know what Ryan’s first year in prison was like. He said that it was “like all my years…hard. There is no feeling like having freedom taken away from you. I’ve always been able to provide for myself, but when you’re incarcerated you have to rely on others. Granted, I would rather have someone to rely on than no one at all.”

“Imagine being 20 years old,” he said, “and being thrust into an environment where not only are you oppressed by guards, but surrounded by people that don’t care anything about you.”

He said that experience forced him to grow up quickly. “I could sit here and curse, mope, and moan about my situation. It still doesn’t change the fact that I’m here.” Since I first began writing to Ryan he informed me, repeatedly, that he has a strong desire to find ways to better himself – even though he is in prison and his options are limited. He has said this to me in light of the fact that his sentence prohibits his eventual release.

“I can still grow as a person even in this environment,” he explained to me. “I used to be real self-centered in a lot of ways until my first visit in prison where my mom and stepfather told me how my attitude had effected not only them, but my friends and family. That hit me hard. I want to be someone that my family can be proud of, even if I’m here.”

Ryan as a child

Ryan as a child

Whoever Ryan used to be many years ago, he is a different person now. He is funny – with a sense of humor that has probably helped him cope during some of the harder times in prison. He is intelligent and thoughtful as well. We have discussed everything from movies to the problems with the justice system as we perceive them.

Ryan describes himself as an easy-going person “who likes to smile and make others smile.” He says that he is also passionate about his family.

“My views of the justice system have changed,” he informed me. “It’s real easy to believe in it when you have never been a part of it.” Ryan’s arrest and subsequent conviction was a wake up call to him of the worse kind.

I can relate to this because if someone had asked me when I was 20 years-old if the justice system was fair I would have answered that it was. I had no real concept of wrongful convictions or excessive sentencing practices. My views have changed dramatically as well.

Ryan recounted something that happened just before his trial that could have changed his fate. “Prior to the trial I was offered a plea deal of second degree murder and ten years. My lawyer told me not to take it because there was no way I would be convicted. The state attorney offered me that plea deal because he stated that he didn’t believe I was as culpable as my co-defendants. Yet under the Felony Murder Rule I got natural life”. This has weighed heavily on Ryan. “In hindsight, should I have taken the plea deal considering the severity of the felony murder rule? Absolutely. I actually would have gone home last October if I would have.”

An additional challenge for Ryan has been learning to understand the courts and justice system. “As a pro-se litigant I have had to learn how to research and do my own motions to the courts. The courts give deadlines on filing certain motions. What it takes a lawyer 8-plus years to learn, an inmate has to learn in less than two. I am currently in the federal courts yet my Federal Habeas Corpus petition may not be heard because my appellate counsel advised me about the deadline and he was mistaken. Due to that fact my petition may never be heard. Even though I have a legitimate claim”.

Ryan is keeping himself busy by seeking educational opportunities within the prison. Recently he passed a test that has allowed him to become involved in a vocational training program. He started the program this week.

The sad part is that Ryan’s case is one of too many. In 2010, Charles Grodin wrote a letter to the Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He has spoken out about the Felony Murder Rule, citing Ryan’s case as an example of how it is unjust. In his letter, he wrote, “Last year I met with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss the felony murder rule, which is felt by many to be the most heinous piece of legislation we have in America. Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, currently the President of the Governor’s Association is very supportive, as is Orrin Hatch”.

Grodin ended his letter by stating, “We represent five percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population. As Senator Webb recently said so eloquently, ‘We are either the most evil people on the earth, or there’s something wrong with our justice system.’ I don’t believe we’re the most evil people on earth,” he concluded.

Ryan’s case is a travesty of justice. This man does not belong in prison. He has much to offer society and he is willing to work hard and pave his own way. However, to get this kind of chance he’s at the mercy of those in a position of power who have the authority to help him. One of those people is the governor of Florida, Rick Scott. If Ryan’s situation has outraged you, or even seems unfair, please take a moment to let the governor know your thoughts by clicking here.

You may also take a moment to sign a petition started by Floridian John Hart. John learned of Ryan’s case and felt compelled to do something to try to help. Over 1,300 people have signed the petition on behalf of Ryan:

https://www.change.org/petitions/governor-rick-scott-state-of-florida-pardon-ryan-holle

The petition has given Ryan a renewed sense of hope in that he now knows there are people out there who see this injustice for what it is and feel he should be released.

Ryan is grateful for any help and support he can get. If you would like to write a letter of support to Ryan, please use the following address:

Ryan Holle 0-126321/B4-2130
Graceville Correctional Facility
5168 Ezell Road
Graceville, FL 32440

Learn more about Ryan’s case and others by visiting my site at ryanholle.com.

The exoneration of Tim Masters

Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters

Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters

I first learned about the book Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Tim Masters while writing about Tim’s case in the beginning of the week. I knew as soon as I saw a book had been written about the case that I had to read it. I bought the Kindle edition on Amazon.com and finished it in a couple of days (which is fast for me since I have two young kids and a job).

I want to talk about the book because it is well written, disturbing, and the best detailing of a wrongful conviction I have ever read. A close second is Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt – a book that examines the conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley for the murders of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Tim’s book is powerful for many reasons. The book is written in the first person. Tim begins his story by describing the beginning of his day on February 11th of 1987. He was in the tenth grade and lived in a trailer with his father in Fort Collins, Colorado. The day began like any other, but soon marked the beginning of a nightmare that would ultimately result in Tim’s wrongful conviction, his incarceration at the Buena Vista Correctional Facility (known to many as “Bueny”), and his exoneration by the attorney general’s office in 2011.

Though Tim was 15 when the body of 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was found in a field near his home, he was not arrested and charged for the murder until 1998. By the time of his arrest for the murder, Tim had served in the Navy and had earned an honorable discharge in 1997. His father had died just two years earlier from a massive heart attack.

The pursuit of a conviction against Tim is one of the more unnerving aspects of the book. One detective in particular, Jim Broderick, stood out in his quest to arrest Tim for the murder. Broderick consistently ignored all evidence and leads pointing directly away from Tim as a suspect. He appeared to go to great lengths to suppress critical evidence in the case. For example, Broderick never informed Tim’s defense about other potential suspects in the murder (and by suspects I mean people who were far more suspicious than a 15 year old boy walking through a field near his house to catch a school bus). The prosecution hid this information as well.

Lessons Learned: The Media

Throughout the book Tim touched on various ways the media had an impact on his case. His original attorneys advised him to not to speak to the media and tell his side of the story, even though the police spoke to the press regularly. The defense’s reluctance to speak to the media, or allow Tim to do it, resulted in a very one-sided presentation of the case to the public. Tim examined the influence this had on potential jurors, writing in his book: “One woman told the court she couldn’t be impartial. She told the court, ‘I thought he was guilty based upon the paper.'”

So much for not believing everything one reads, right? However, during my own advocacy I have observed the same approach to avoiding media coverage by countless other defense attorneys. I believe that providing the public with a full picture is essential because in America criminal cases are tried in the media long before they ever play out in a courtroom. There is no innocent until proven guilty in the court of public opinion.

Hidden Suspects

The book discusses the perverted and criminal acts of Dr. Hammond who lived so close to the field where Peggy was found that his bedroom had a clear view of it. Dr. Hammond had set up a video recording device in a guest bathroom vent that recorded images of visitors using the facilities. He videotaped children as young as thirteen. When his activities were exposed the police and prosecution took action that seemed more protective than judicious. It is worth reading the book to see precisely what was done to protect this man from prosecution, and then his eventual response to the pressure (though minimal).

The same was true regarding Matthew Zoellner, Peggy’s “on again off again” boyfriend. Zoellner claimed to have an alibi the evening of the murder; however, when questioned about seeing Peggy at the Prime Minister the evening before she was discovered in the field he got the name of his own alibi witness incorrect. The alibi in question was a woman named Dawn Gilbreath, whom Zoellner referred to during questioning as “Shawn”. Dawn claimed to have left Zoellner’s residence around 3 a.m., meaning she was not with him for the entire night. The jury was not informed of this, among other things.

This is important because when touch DNA testing was later conducted on Peggy’s clothing, Zoellner’s DNA was found on the inner part of her panties, as well as on the cuffs of her shirt. The DNA was found in locations the examiners suspected the perpetrator of the crime would have touched.

Another remarkable piece of information I obtained from the book pertained to the prosecution’s file. While Tim’s attorneys worked to appeal his conviction, they sought the original prosecution file regarding his case. It turned out that the complete file had never been turned over to the defense as required by law. Thousands of pages of documents were withheld. Had Tim’s original defense had access to these files, as they should have, it is hard to imagine he would have ever been convicted.

However, having seen firsthand the injustices that have taken place throughout this country I am uncomfortable making that statement with any degree of certainty. I do feel sure of three things though. First, I know Tim Masters did not murder Peggy Hettrick. Two, I know he was relentlessly railroaded by an overzealous detective and the prosecution went along with it. Three, if the jury had access to the DNA results that eventually prompted his conviction to be vacated, he wouldn’t have been convicted in the first place.

Steve Lehto: Attorney and Coauthor

Steve Lehto is an attorney who helped to prepare and write the book about Tim’s wrongful conviction. He describes himself as “naturally skeptical” and said that early on, upon learning Tim had been exonerated by DNA evidence, he “still assumed that the case against him had been substantial enough to support a conviction.” He recognized that Tim was innocent, but like so many other people in this country he believed that when a jury convicted someone it was because there was evidence supporting the decision.

As he began to review the transcripts, case documents, and other materials pertaining to Tim’s case he was alarmed at what he discovered. “I was shocked at how non-existent the case really was. I had access to the case files, transcripts, everything the police had. It was a huge pile of nothing incriminating.” He added, “I never doubted he was innocent. I came to doubt whether the prosecutors ever really thought he was guilty. I believe they knew they were prosecuting an innocent man.”

Steve is primarily a litigator. However, Tim’s case has caused him to adopt a cynical view of the criminal justice system. He is particularly disturbed by “the police and how far they will go to make someone look guilty – rather than simply following the evidence where it leads.”

I asked Steve how he approached the project of helping Tim to prepare a book about his experiences. He explained that “Tim kept journals while he was in prison and after he was released. I reviewed those along with the case files (which Tim knew extensively) and then he and I spent a lot of time going over it. Tim knows those files better than the prosecutors ever did.”

He discussed the strategy behind the process of putting together the monumental amount of information in Tim’s case. “We had to come up with a way to make a huge mass of documentation and evidence accessible to the average person. The funny thing is that Tim wound up being the voice of reason. I really wanted to lay into the prosecutors and the police and Tim was the one who wanted to dial it down. The book is told from his perspective so it was appropriate to write it exactly how he wanted it told.”

I asked if Steve believed Peggy’s killer or killers would ever be brought to justice. He responded that “it is hard to say. The prosecutors and the police screwed up Tim’s trial so badly that anyone charged with the murder now could actually point to mistakes made at Tim’s trial to help their case (for example: There were other potential suspects who were never even looked at by the police. Now her killer could point to them as well and say, ‘What about them?’).”

Steve cautions that Tim’s story is not as unique as it might sound. “Tim’s story is remarkable for several reasons, one of which is that it is too common. We hear stories all the time about defendants who are convicted and then released later because of DNA or other evidence. We need to be mindful that our system has its flaws. One way to balance that is to allow for DNA testing and other methods to confirm or refute convictions.”

Regarding wrongful prosecutions and the barriers presented to those who encounter barriers to proving their innocence, such as the reluctance on the part of prosecutors to later test DNA evidence using advanced technology, Steve said, “I’ve never understood prosecutors who fight to block DNA testing. If the conviction is appropriate, the DNA will underscore that. Right?”.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, this is precisely the problem people like Darlie Routier have faced – all while sitting on Texas’s infamous death row. It is the obstacle that prevents Kirstin Blaise Lobato of Nevada from proving her innocence in court as well.

Why People Must Read the Book

The book reads like a well crafted fictional novel. The only problem is that the book is true. It is an unsettling account of a man’s conviction when there was no physical evidence suggesting he committed the crime, no eyewitness claiming he did it, no confession, and no logical motive. If the idea of this happening scares you, good. It should. This is not the kind of system that should exist in a civilized society that values human rights.

People need to read this book to develop an understanding of how and why wrongful convictions occur. Tim’s honest account of his experiences being interrogated and incarcerated are troubling and yet refreshing on account of his candid descriptions.

This book is proof that a wrongful conviction can happen to anyone, even if there is no real evidence existing to support it. It should be required reading for criminal justice and law majors, as well as any person who still believes the myth that people are only convicted by a jury when strong evidence exists to support that decision.

That myth is being systematically debunked by courageous people like Tim Masters who are not afraid to speak up about the serious flaws in the system that are preventing true justice for countless numbers of people.

In this book Tim’s voice is loud and it is clear. I urge you to read his story and share it with others.

Doubt in the Darlie Routier case: The subjective science (part 2)

Tim Masters at 15

Tim Masters at 15

Two years after providing testimony on behalf of the prosecution at Darlie Routier’s 1997 trial, bloodstain pattern analyst Tom Bevel was involved in a case where the accused was arrested, convicted, denied multiple appeals, and then granted a retrial that resulted in his release from prison three decades after the original crime occurred. The man’s name is Tim Masters and he was only 15 years old when 37 year-old Peggy Hettrick was murdered in Fort Collins, Colorado.

In February of 1987, Peggy ended her shift at work around 9 p.m. at a local clothing store. She had acquired a temporary roommate and she had given her the only key she had. Her roommate had gotten drunk and passed out, oblivious to Peggy’s banging on the door. Upon realizing she was locked out of her residence, Peggy went to a couple of bars and then returned home to get her key from the roommate. She changed her clothes and then returned to one of the bars just before midnight. Peggy did not have a vehicle and so she relied on walking or obtaining rides from others.

At the time of Peggy’s murder she was seeing a man named Matt Zoellner. On the evening in question, Peggy and Zoellner had an argument when she spotted him at the Prime Minister Pub with another woman. She became extremely upset and left. This was the last time anyone reported seeing Peggy alive before her partially nude body was discovered the following morning by a person riding a bike. She was found near a curb that led into a field, with her breasts exposed, her jeans and panties pulled down to her knees, and the straps of her purse still twisted around her arm. She had been stabbed and mutilated.

The Investigation

At the time Peggy was found in the field, 15 year-old Tim lived with his father in a trailer. The residence sat atop a hill that overlooked the field. During a routine canvassing of the surrounding area, detective Linda Wheeler-Holloway, was informed by Tim’s father that he had observed his son go toward the area where Peggy’s body was found as he was walking to school that morning. The detective had Tim pulled out of class and learned that he had indeed seen the woman’s body, but he did not think it was a real person. He thought that it resembled the dolls his school used to teach CPR courses. During Tim’s bus ride to school, he told the detective he started to wonder if he had seen a body instead of a doll.

The following day, two detectives showed up at Tim’s home while he was in school. One of the detectives was Jim Broderick. They asked Tim’s father to sign a consent to allow them to search the property. Believing that neither he nor his son had anything to hide, Clyde signed the form and allowed the detectives to conduct a search. The detectives found a number of knives in Tim’s bedroom. The detectives also found notebooks containing stories and drawings that Broderick described in a report as dealing “with death and dismemberment of body parts and other graphic portrayals of people being killed and the narratives [that] describe it.”

Tim was a withdrawn teenager who used his narratives and drawings as a means of escaping. He was small, shy, and struggling with school. Though he was not violent, he enjoyed creating pictures that focused on themes such as monsters and war. He had an interest in the armed forces and liked to read about those kinds of topics.

Ordinarily a murder investigation begins with those closest to the victim and spans outwards. This was not exactly what detectives did while investigating Peggy’s murder. The police learned about her somewhat tumultuous relationship with Matt Zoellner early on. Zoellner told police that he had run into Peggy at the Prime Minister and offered her a ride home. He had been waiting for another woman at the time. He claimed to have offered Peggy a ride home but when he returned from using the restroom she was gone.

Detectives were less concerned with Zoellner and much more interested in Tim. They questioned him at length, insisting he committed the murder. Tim repeatedly informed the detectives that he was not involved. His father had signed a form that allowed police to interrogate his son for nine hours. Tim adamantly maintained his innocence, despite the use of a wide range of tactics used by the officers attempting to extract a confession.

The police had no physical evidence linking Tim to Peggy’s murder. They did not have a confession or even an eyewitness claiming he was involved. All the police had were the drawings and writings of a sullen teenager who was trying to find his place in what he probably perceived as an unwelcoming environment.

A year after the murder, a large team of police officers participated in a stake out of his residence. They even went so far as to follow him incessantly and plant a false story in the news, suggesting an arrest of a suspect was imminent. The police left copies of this story in places where Tim was sure to see them.

Police in Fort Collins were unable to make a convincing case against Tim with the evidence they had. As a result, Tim went on to graduate from high school and joined the Navy. As Tim attempted to go on with his life, one of the detectives originally involved with investigating Peggy’s murder made the decision to re-open the case.

Detective Wheeler-Holloway zeroed in on Tim once again in 1992 based on supposed new evidence involving something Tim had told a friend at his high school. When questioned about it, Tim told the police that he got the information from a classmate who had been involved in the police effort to search the field. Tim’s claims were verified. The detectives did not pursue charges as a result.

However, by 1995 Jim Broderick had been promoted to the position of supervisor. He was in charge of the Crimes Against Persons Unit at the local police department. He made the decision to refocus his efforts on the seemingly cold case involving Peggy Hettrick. Broderick still insisted Tim Masters committed the murder. One of the detectives on Broderick’s squad, Troy Krenning, did not share his supervisor’s belief that Tim committed the murder. Krenning felt that elements of the murder appeared to be too well executed for a skinny and unsophisticated 15 year-old boy.

Broderick eventually hired a forensic psychologist, Reid Meloy, at the rate of $300 per hour to analyze Tim’s writings and drawings. Meloy eventually earned more than $42,000. The psychologist indicated that Tim had murdered Peggy Hettrick as a means of committing a displaced matricide (the murder of one’s mother or a mother figure).

District Attorney Terry Gilmore was not as confident about the strength of the alleged evidence against Tim; however, Broderick took special care to convince him and assistant district attorney Jolene Blair that they were on the right path.

On August 10th of 1998, Tim was arrested for Peggy’s murder. Tim had been living in California. Following an honorable discharge from the Navy he lived an ordinary life working as an aircraft mechanic.

Enter Tom Bevel

The district attorney did not have physical evidence to present at Tim’s 1999 trial. It wasn’t that physical evidence did not exist in the case; it was that the physical evidence in the case did not match the accused. An important element of the case against Tim was convincing a jury that the murder happened in the general area where Peggy’s body was found. After all, Tim had been a thin 15 year-old teenager when the murder occurred.

The prosecution called Tom Bevel to provide expert testimony. Bevel informed the jury that he believed Peggy was murdered on Landings Drive and then either dragged or carried to the location where she was found the following morning. This testimony was critical in securing a conviction against Tim. If the jury had been presented with evidence that Peggy had been murdered somewhere else and then later dumped in the field it would have become much harder to make the argument a 15 year-old boy, who still rode the bus to school, committed the crime.

Tim was convicted of Peggy’s murder and sent to prison.

Bevel would later claim that he provided the testimony he did because he was not shown all of the necessary documentation and photographs to make a correct assessment of the crime scene. In 2005, Barie Goetz who headed the crime lab at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, contacted Bevel. He showed him reports and photographs that Bevel claimed he had never seen before.

Bevel made the decision to write a report for Tim’s defense, stating that he had “serious concerns” about the evidence – or lack of it – he received prior to giving testimony. After reviewing the information Goetz provided to him, Bevel reversed his original claim that Peggy had been murdered and mutilated in the field. He said, “I do not believe all of that did take place at that juncture”.

CNN reported in 2008 that Bevel claimed “he has never experienced a miscommunication of this level in more than 35 years of testifying as an expert and as an Oklahoma City police officer, but he was reluctant to say police deceived him.” But in all honestly, how can he even be sure he has never experienced another “miscommunication of this level”?

Bevel’s claim not to have received all of the pertinent information relating to the case was a problem experienced by Tim’s defense as well. This poses even bigger questions about other convictions Bevel has helped prosecutors achieve. How many other cases did Bevel, or any other bloodstain pattern analyst for that matter, work on where importance evidence in the form of reports and photographs were suppressed by the prosecution or investigators?

And what reports and photographs was Bevel missing? Was it not apparent to him that he had not received a complete record as it pertained to the case? Did he at any time have any concerns about the information provided to him? Those are questions I can’t find answers to.

I do know that the alleged science, known as bloodstain pattern analysis, seems to rely entirely on the honesty and accuracy of the police investigation. It also relies on the credibility and integrity of the prosecutors as well. If the police and prosecutors only provide limited information to the experts they ask to testify is it really that surprising that people are wrongfully convicted? Another disturbing aspect of wrongful convictions is that they ensure those who perpetrated the crimes are free to commit future ones

The DNA Evidence

In 2007, Tim’s defense conducted testing of the clothing found on Peggy Hettrick. The testing revolved around an innovative and advanced approach to DNA testing known simply as “Tough DNA”. Selma and Richard Eikelenboom, forensic scientists in the Netherlands, were approached by Tim’s defense and asked to try to create a DNA profile based on skin cells left on Peggy’s clothing.

The couple was successful in obtaining a full DNA profile of a male. Skin cells removed from the cuffs of Peggy’s blouse suggested she may have been carried or dragged by the wrists. The same DNA profile was found on the lining of Peggy’s underwear, which had been pulled down to her knees.

The DNA did not match Tim Masters, however. Instead it matched Matt Zoellner, the boyfriend Peggy had encountered at the Prime Minister the night she was murdered.

Tim Masters after his release

Tim Masters after his release

His Release

In 2008, Tim’s sentence was finally overturned. A judge threw out the original conviction based on the evidence that was presented in support of his innocence. He was subsequently released from prison. Following his release from prison, Tim Master’s brought a civil lawsuit against the city of Fort Collins. He reportedly received $10 million as a result of settlement.

These days Tim spends time doing things he enjoys, such as working on cars. He wrote and published a book called Drawn to Injustice: The Wrongful Conviction of Timothy Masters with co-author Steve Lehto. The book details his case and the barriers Tim faced in finally obtaining a new trial. He has also spoken out about his conviction.

In 2011, Tim joined a panel of speakers at the Colorado University Law School to discuss being incarcerated, his wrongful conviction, and the challenges people face when it becomes necessary to prove innocence.

I decided to write about Tim’s case for three reasons. First, his conviction was achieved through the presentation of a highly circumstantial case. The police made a rush to judgment and refused to consider other possibilities. These same behaviors have contributed to other wrongful convictions and have also played a role in suspected wrongful convictions.

Second, Tim was convicted based on expert testimony provided by Tom Bevel. Bevel’s name comes up in relation to a number of confirmed and suspected wrongful convictions. This same expert was responsible for helping police and prosecutors obtain a conviction in Darlie’s case as well. Not only has the science Bevel has relied on come under fire in recent years, but cases like Tim’s raise questions about the communication process that occurs between these experts and prosecutors.

Finally, Tim’s case is an example of how dangerous circumstantial evidence is in a murder case. Had police and prosecutors followed the physical evidence in this situation – even if it meant waiting for years until the technology became available to analyze it properly – they could have saved the city a lot of time and money. They might have apprehended the real killer. Most importantly, they might have given those who cared about Peggy a true sense of justice.

Doubt in the Darlie Routier case: The subjective science (part 1)

Example of a t-shirt with blood-spatter

The prosecution’s case against Darlie Routier, presented in court in 1997, was based on circumstantial evidence. Lacking true and convincing physical evidence directly linking Darlie to the murders of her two sons as well as the attack inflicted on herself, the prosecution focused on an approach to crime scene analysis that the National Academy of Sciences has stated is “more subjective than scientific”. That approach is known as bloodstain pattern analysis.

In 2010, the Texas Observer pointed out that three confirmed wrongful convictions had resulted from “flawed blood-spatter evidence”. This says nothing about how many wrongful convictions have taken place as a result of subjective bloodstain pattern analysis that have not yet been confirmed, or have not received the kind of attention that some cases do.

Along with the above information, the Observer published a detailed account of the conviction of Warren Horinek. Horinek was a less than sympathetic individual who was indicted by a grand jury on suspicion he murdered his wife, Bonnie. He claimed his wife committed suicide in the family home on March 14th of 1995, after the two had become severely intoxicated during an earlier night out.

An investigation into the alleged suicide resulted in a shared conclusion on the part of the police sergeant responsible for supervising the investigation, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, the crime scene investigator, and the local district attorney: Horinek’s wife committed suicide using a firearm.

Fort Worth district attorney, Mike Parrish, declined to bring charges against Horinek. He later told the media, “I always thought that it was a suicide…still do.”

Bonnie’s parents did not accept their daughter had taken her own life. Despite a history of depression in the past, they did not believe she was distraught enough during the time period surrounding her death to do something that extreme. Moreover, Horinek has a history of being both obnoxious and sometimes violent when he had too much to drink.

When the district attorney refused to bring charges against Horinek, Bonnie’s parents hired a lawyer who found a way to pursue charges without the assistance of the district attorney. Texas law allows any individual to bring evidence in front of a grand jury to seek an indictment. It is a well known fact that when a grand jury is presented with evidence, it is easy to get an indictment. This case was no exception.

However, the district attorney continued to refuse to prosecute Horinek. He claimed he had an ethical duty to refrain from charging a person with a crime when he believed that person was innocent. As a result, the district attorney’s office in Tarrant County assigned two attorneys working in private practice to fill in as special prosecutors. These attorneys had access to resources the district attorney’s office would not otherwise have had.

Everything was backwards at Horinek’s trial. The people who ordinarily testify on behalf of the prosecution testified on behalf of Horinek’s defense. This included, but was not limited to the sergeant in charge of the investigation, the district attorney who refused to seek charges in the first place, and the crime scene investigator. It was a situation that should only exist within an episode of the Twilight Zone.

For the majority of Horinek’s trial it appeared that he would be acquitted. Even the foreman of the jury would later reveal that an acquittal was imminent.

That is, until Tom Bevel took the stand.

Before Tom Bevel ever testified at Darlie Routier’s trial, he testified at what may only be described as the “bizarre” trial of Warren Horinek. Though bloodstain pattern analysis has been used since the late 1800s, it was and still is rarely used as the primary evidence against a defendant. It is often used to strengthen a case that is already based on physical evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints.

In 1996, when Bevel took the stand to testify that Horinek murdered his wife and that this contention could be confirmed through bloodstain pattern analysis, the National Academy of Sciences was 13 years away from publishing a report that outlined the serious limitations of using this approach to crime scene analysis. The jurors who listened to Bevel found his testimony credible and convincing.

Bevel stated that tiny bloodstains on the shirt Horinek was wearing on the evening of his wife’s death could only have resulted from a “high velocity occurrence”. He claimed the cause of the bloodstains was Horinek’s use of a gun. He argued that Horinek’s repeated attempts to administer CPR were not the cause.

The jury subsequently changed their mind about Horinek’s innocence and convicted him of murdering his wife. They did this based on Tom Bevel’s testimony.

The Observer wrote, “Most criminal justice experts believe that flawed forensic evidence – and overreaching expert witnesses – have sent thousands of Americans to prison for crimes they didn’t commit”. The article went on to state that a number of commonly used sciences presented in United States courtrooms, including bloodstain pattern analysis and arson investigations, are really just “junk sciences”.

Jim Varnon was one of the officers who responded to the scene. He believes that Horinek was wrongfully convicted and has put together extensive evidence countering the bloodstain pattern analysis presented by Bevel. He has been fighting to prove Horinek’s innocence ever since.

Horinek has since tried to appeal his conviction. In late 2011, the Observer provided an update on his case, explaining that there were two hearings in 2011 that occurred in reference to his case. Three forensic experts “testified that overwhelming evidence points to a suicide”.

However, despite this and the fact that Bevel has been involved in other suspected wrongful convictions, including one in which a convicted man was later exonerated, Horinek remains imprisoned in Texas.

There are similarities in the case of Warren Horinek and Darlie Routier. Both cases were based on circumstantial evidence. Both prosecutors presented Tom Bevel’s “expert” testimony regarding bloodstain analysis. Both crime scenes contained evidence that supported the convicted person’s version of the events – claims that Bevel used a science that has substantial limitations to discredit.

The very group that claims Tom Bevel as a charter member known as the Scientific Working Group on Bloodstain Pattern Analysis (SWGSTAIN), “recognizes that the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts may contain an element of subjectivity”.

Really? In light of this information, one has to ask just how reliable a conviction is when the weight of the prosecution’s case rests on this type of “science”. One also has to wonder just how many people convicted based on this science are truly innocent.

In the next article I will describe the case in which Bevel’s testimony helped to send a juvenile to prison for life, without the possibility of parole. This same teenager grew into a man behind bars, but was exonerated based on an advanced approach to DNA testing.

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