By Dixie Somers, Special for USDR
The Innocence Project is a non-profit, public policy organization whose sole purpose is to help exonerate individuals who were wrongly convicted of crimes. The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 after a study done by the United States Department of Justice, the U.S. Senate, and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law found that in more than 70% of wrongful convictions, incorrect eyewitness identification was a major factor. The main focus of the Innocence Project is to use DNA testing in order to exonerate those wrongfully convicted. To date, the Innocence Project has helped exonerate 325 wrongfully convicted individuals.
In 1976, nine-year-old Lisa Cabassa was raped and murdered on the south side of Chicago, Illinois. Cabassa and her 11-year-old brother were heading to a friend’s house on January 14, 1976 when she complained of a headache and turned around to go back home. When her brother returned home a few hours later, the family realized that Lisa was missing. The police found her body in the early hours of January 15, in an alley two miles from her home. She was sexually assaulted and strangled. At the time, the Cook County Medical Examiner posited that it took more than one person to subdue the young girl.
During the investigation, police discovered two witnesses. The first one, Judith Januszewski, told officers that at “approximately 6:37pm” on the night in question, she saw two black men struggling with a young white girl. She was able to help make an artist sketch of the suspects and later identified Evans as one of the men she saw. It should be noted that, even before the crime, Januszewski knew Evans. After the sketch was finalized and the identification made, the police arrested Evans and he was indicted for rape, kidnapping and murder.
Evans chose to forgo a jury, instead appealing to Cook County Circuit Court Judge Earl E. Strayhorn. Initially, Januszewski’s credibility was questioned when investigation showed that she was at work during the time she supposedly saw the struggle. However, investigators fixed this problem by altering their time cards to make the time of the struggle later. Despite this, Evans and his co-defendant Paul Terry, were convicted in 1977 of murder (sentenced to concurrent 200-400 years), aggravated kidnapping (75-150 years), rape (75-150 years), and deviant sexual assault (50-100 years).
In 1994, the original prosecutor, Thomas Breen (now a defense attorney), began looking at the conviction and sending requests for the DNA from the semen found on the victim to be tested. In 2002, DNA results exonerated Evans and Terry and in 2003, 26 years after his conviction, the charges were dismissed.
On June 25, 1982, two men broke into an apartment and sexually assaulted the female resident. The woman (names of sexual assault victims are kept private) woke to find a man sexually assaulting her and depositing semen on her clothing. She described the man as Latino, with no shirt and no hair. The second man never entered the bedroom.
Almost immediately after the incident was reported, officers confronted a group of Cuban-American men in the parking lot of a convenience store. Orlando Boquete was the only one in the group who was hairless and shirtless. He was taken to the police car, where the victim made a positive identification from 20 feet away. When Boquete was arrested, he had a big, black mustache. The victim later added this detail to her description of her attacker. Boquete was arrested and charged with burglary and attempted sexual battery.
The victim identified Boquete as the man who attacked her and testified that the semen found on the victim’s underwear and pajama top were from the accused. Blood-type testing found that some of the spots on the clothing belonged to a person with Type A blood. Boquete and the victim both had Type O non-secreting, which means bodily fluids cannot be used to determine blood type. However, instead of saying that Boquete was excluded as the perpetrator, the expert witness testified that the other unidentifiable spots on the clothing could have come from Boquete.
He was convicted on January 3, 1983 for burglary and attempted sexual battery and sentenced to 50 years in prison. In 2003, Boquete petitioned the courts for approval to conduct DNA testing on the semen stains found on the victim’s clothing. In 2004, the evidence was sent to a private lab and results showed that Boquete could not be the source of the semen on the underwear. His conviction was overturned on May 23, 2006 after 23 years. However, due to a 10-year escape in 1983 and a one-year escape in 1995, he was not released from prison until August 22, 2006.
Michael Morton had it all: a good job (supermarket manager), a beautiful wife (Christine), and a 3-year-old son Eric. On August 12th of 1986, Morton, his wife and their son celebrated his birthday at a nearby restaurant. Before leaving for work the following morning, he left a note on the mirror expressing his disappointment in the lack of intimacy the night before. He ended the note with “I love you,” left for work at 5:30 a.m. Later in the morning, his wife was found bludgeoned to death in their bed laying atop semen stained sheets.
During the investigation, officers found a bloody bandana discarded at a construction site approximately 100 miles from the family’s home. During the interviews, Christine’s mother told the police that Eric was present during the murder and said that it was a “monster” who killed his mommy. He was able to describe the scene and the murder in significant detail, often repeating that “daddy was not home,” during the time of the crime.
In addition to the information provided by Eric, Sergeant Dan Woods (the chief investigator) and his investigators learned that a man in a green van had been in the area of the home. Additionally, the credit card stolen from Christine was used in San Antonio, Texas at a jewelry store. An officer said he could positively identify the woman who had tried to use the stolen card. When the case went to trial, Morton’s defense attorneys told the judge that the prosecution was withholding evidence, specifically regarding the van, Eric’s statement and the credit card incident. The prosecution was ordered to give the judge all the evidence and conveniently missing was the evidence that would prove Morton was innocent.
The prosecution had no physical evidence or witnesses, but rather played on the emotions of the jury saying that Morton beat his wife to death after she refused to have sex with him on his birthday. On February 17, 1987, he was convicted of murder and received a sentence of life in prison and a $5,000 fine.
In 2005, a request to test the DNA on the evidence was submitted and granted. However, only the sheets (not the bandana) were tested. Since it was the bed he shared with his wife, the testing could not exclude Morton as the murderer. In 2011, testing was done on the bandana and DNA from both Christine and an unknown male were discovered. The DNA was run through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and came back matching convicted felon Mark Norwood. On October 4, 2011 Morton was released from prison and fully exonerated on December 19, 2011…almost 25 years after his conviction.
The above cases are just three examples of the more than 300 instances of exoneration that the Innocence Project played a key role in orchestrating. The Innocence Project comes in after the felony arrests, after the trials and after the convictions and they work to exonerate individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. In addition to using DNA testing to help overturn convictions, the Innocence Project is also working to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustices.