Friday, May 18, 2007

Free at Last: DNA Exonerates Man After 19 Year Imprisonment

"Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison... the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor." – Henry David Thoreau
Over 200 prisoners in America have been released from wrongful convictions after DNA evidence cleared them. How many more innocents are serving time or on death row? We must realize that unjust convictions happen too often and our criminal justice system is in need of review and transformation. The imprisonment of an innocent human being is a serious injustice. Preventing wrongful convictions and correcting the miscarriage of justice must be a priority of our criminal justice system.

One recent case is Byron Halsey. On May 15, 2007, Mr. Halsey had his handcuffs removed and walked out of prison after serving 19 years. A judge in the Union County, New Jersey courthouse vacated his convictions because DNA evidence had cleared him.

[Reprinted from The New York Times website –]

DNA in Murders Frees Inmate After 19 Years

ELIZABETH, N.J., May 15 – A man who served 19 years in prison for the sadistic murders of his companion’s two children walked out of the Union County Courthouse flanked by his family members after a judge vacated his convictions on Tuesday.

Prosecutors contended that DNA evidence in the case would probably change the mind of the jury that convicted the man, Byron Halsey, 46. They also said that the DNA evidence pointed instead to Cliff Hall, a neighbor who testified against Mr. Halsey at his 1988 trial and who is currently in prison for three sexual assaults.

Mr. Halsey, who was handcuffed, sat crying silently during the brief proceeding in Union County Superior Court before Judge Stuart L. Peim.

As he left the courthouse, Mr. Halsey said, "I thank my Lord and savior Jesus for keeping me."

Asked about his emotional state, he smiled and said, "I don’t want to get in more trouble." He added, "What was done to me was criminal at best."

Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, the Manhattan legal clinic that revived the case, said: "It’s a miracle that Byron is here with us, because if ever there was a case where there was a risk of executing an innocent man, it was this case. Because the facts of the case were so horrible."

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Mr. Halsey in the 1985 killings. The crimes were particularly chilling – Tina Urquhart, 7, was raped and strangled, and her brother, Tyrone Urquhart, 8, died after four nails were hammered into his skull with a brick. The children’s bodies were found in the basement of a rooming house in Plainfield where Mr. Halsey lived with their mother.

Mr. Halsey, a factory worker, was convicted in 1988 of two counts of felony murder and other charges, and sentenced to two life terms and 20 years. He was not eligible for the death penalty because he was not found guilty of purposeful and knowing murder, a capital offense, one of his lawyers said.

His release comes at a crucial time in the state’s debate over abolishing the death penalty, which has not been carried out since 1963. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for the most serious crimes. A similar bill was introduced in the Assembly last November. There are nine men now on death row in New Jersey.


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