When he was 20, DeAndre Howard was locked up for murder and attempted murder. But last Friday he finally walked free, several days earlier than his family was expecting. His first instincts were to search for a pay phone, but times had changed a bit. Eventually someone let him borrow a cell phone so that he could call his family members who didn’t expect even the best case scenario to result in Howard joining them for Christmas.
Howard was recently released from 11 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. He is only free today after a federal judge finally granted him an appeal after years of fighting for justice from behind bars. The prosecutor said that if he pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter he might be able to get out in time for Thanksgiving.
His other option? If he went back to trial he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison.
For Howard, the trial option seemed the best route. He felt that he could effectively prove his innocence, even while the burden of proof was supposed to have always been on his accusers.
“There was no need to compromise your integrity just so you can go free,” Howard said. “I felt that’s something you have to hold firm to even if your life is on the line.”
Howard’s belief that he would be exonerated proved correct, but many know they are more likely than him to have their convictions re-affirmed. As a result, given the same choice, many plead guilty to crimes they know they never committed. The reason is pure pragmatism: to get out sooner than if they pushed their luck. Often times this is on the advise of court appointed attorneys who tell them to take the plea deal.
As Howard reflected on this legal process to prove himself innocent, he admitted one day after his release that affirming his innocence and taking it to retrial was a huge risk. Nevertheless, he said, “It was my way of fighting back — take it to trial.”
How’d this happen? Howard was at the wrong place at the wrong time. A liquor store employee witnessed a shooting of two victims, Mark Freeman, who was killed, and Arthur Ragland. The shooter then got back into a white vehicle and drove away. Because Howard had made some poor life decisions, and become a crack cocaine dealer, his presence in the area seemed all the “evidence” that was needed to convict him. To make matters worse, one of the two people to pick him out of a line up was an ex-girlfriend who had a proverbial axe to grind with him.
Radland survived the shooting. Howard knew this victim could exonerate him, but his court appointed attorney never even bothered to contact him, even though his client – Howard – had begged him to repeatedly. In spite of this, and while pleading his innocence, a jury convicted him of 75 years to life, along with a consecutive life term.
Ragland eventually did come through. Howard and those helping fight for his freedom got in touch with him. In a sworn declaration, Ragland said, “The truth remains DeAndre Howard never attempted to murder me. Neither did he murder victim Mark Anthony Freeman.”
Still, a U.S. magistrate judge refused Howard’s request to overturn the conviction in 2007. It took an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to get him a retrial.
The court stated that “One would normally expect the surviving victim to be a star witness for the prosecution. A reasonable attorney would therefore have attempted to interview Ragland to prepare for trial.”
Jennifer Turner, a lawyer with the federal public defender’s office who defended Howard during his habeas proceedings, said “He was finally represented by an attorney who investigated the case … and actually advocated for Mr. Howard. The difference between the two trials was the quality of representation that Mr. Howard had. There’s nothing that an attorney or any of us can do to get back the 11 years of his life that were lost to this case,” she continued. “But aside from that, this was the most justice we could hope for.”
How many more Howards are behind bars, but aren’t fortunate enough to have a surviving witness to exonerate them?
(Article by Shante Wooten; image via Los Angeles Times)
The post Home For Christmas After 11 Years In Prison For A Murder He Didn’t Commit appeared first on Counter Current News.