Archive for ‘Looking Outward – Angela Derrick’

August 7, 2011

The Other Life: on Frank Hyle’s Novel – by Angela Derrick

If I could replace food with books, I would be so happy! I’d start the day with a serving of Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic), have a midmorning snack of Grisham (Skipping Christmas, in keeping with the whole Christmas-in-July theme), luncheon with Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) , and dine with a King (Stephen, the novelist and short-story writer of Full Dark, No Stars).  

Just imagine the calories I would save! Wouldn’t it be a grand thing? I could say such things as: recently, for dinner, I attended a book discussion/signing. I was so full when I left. It was such a great feeling; I was satisfied but not stuffed (like after Thanksgiving dinner when you have to unbutton the top button).

Seriously, I just attended a book signing and discussion at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, Ohio, of the recently published novel Caesura by author and practicing attorney Frank Hyle.

It is always a treat to hear authors speak in person about their writing and the process. It is even more so when I happen to know the author, as is the case with Mr. Hyle as I have had the pleasure of being one of his students. 

A “caesura” (pronounced ‘say-zur-a’) is a brief, silent pause occurring in music, poetry and sometimes life, in which time is not counted (Hyle, 2010). 

The novel evolved out of recollections of Mr. Hyle’s mother, who during the last stage of her life, experienced dementia. The story is written with compassion and hope and illuminates the unexpected but frequent shift that often occurs between parent and child as roles are reversed. I believe that many readers will be able to relate to it, as I had the pleasure of doing, having experienced the death of my Aunt Jenny to Alzheimer’s disease.

If we are called to minister to those who raised us, I can think of nothing better than to look to stories such as Frank Hyle’s Caesura for affirmation and reassurance. Even if you are not experiencing this particular situation, I recommend Caesura. It is about family coming together in support of one another and we all need that.

Frank Hyle has been practicing law for more than thirty years. He is currently working on his third novel.

April 10, 2011

EXPLORING INNOCENCE (Update 3) by Angela Derrick

Tonight my soul is full. I feel both full and light at the same time, and it all has to do with the conference and the stories and music I heard and the courage and strength of spirit I witnessed.

I’ve been walking through Illustrated Truth: Expressions of Wrongful Conviction, a collection of artwork, poems, letters, and narratives created by innocent people during the time they were imprisoned. This is such a powerful experience. The words seem to reach right into me and take hold of my heart. There is much to be learned from these men and women. They are a reflection of our broken justice system.

It is a triumph that they are free, but the reality is that many of the people responsible refuse to admit their mistakes. Their stories need to be recorded and told. The world needs to know what happens when the justice system breaks down, when an innocent person gets thrown in prison. Police officers and prosecutors and others that are a part of the system need to see the effects of their actions: to see how families get torn apart; see how children grow up without parents. They need to feel what they are doing.  Illustrated Truth bridges that disconnect. 

Illustrated Truth: Expressions of Wrongful Conviction is on display at the National Underground Railroad Center in Cincinnati, Ohio from April 7, 2011 through July 9, 2011. It is a must-see exhibition.

The culmination of the conference was a concert, Let Freedom Sing, which featured exonerated formerly incarcerated individuals who are also musicians.  Eight men took to the stage: Antione Day, Darby Tillis, Eddie Lowery, Michael Austin, Raymond Towler, Tommy Doswell, William Dillon, and Ronald Cotton.  And they rocked it out. (I want to know when the album is coming out.)

I can’t help but think what if there wasn’t an Innocence Project? What if someone didn’t listen when these inmates said, “I’m innocent; I didn’t do this terrible thing they said I did?” What if? Then the world would have been robbed of these incredibly talented men. We wouldn’t know that the system was broken.  Right now there are innocent people locked up. Will you listen? 

RED! the breathrough ‘zine columnist, Angela Derrick, has been covering the major exhibition, “Illustrated Truth: Expressions of Wrongful Conviction,” currently at The Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

April 9, 2011

EXPLORING INNOCENCE (Update 2) by Angela Derrick

I can only imagine what it is like to sit locked away in a cell waiting for someone to own up. Many are still waiting. Some have been freed and still they wait for someone to own the miscarriage of justice.

Here, Cincinnati, Ohio, at the 2011 Innocence Network Conference: An International Exploration of Wrongful Conviction, I was privileged and honored to witness a beautiful, awesome sight: 102 exonerees standing together, the largest gathering ever. It was a vision of inspiration, a triumph of the human spirit.

The Innocence Network is an international network that is made up of 65 individual Innocence Projects in the United States and around the world. At the conference this weekend are guests, representatives, presenters from 20 countries.

Approximately 500 people from a range of countries across the world have attended this major conference.


RED! columnist Angela Derrick is reporting from the 2011 Innocence Network Conference this weekend, April 7 – April 10.

April 8, 2011


Tonight, my first dispatch forRED!, as I attend a local criminal justice conference, regards the issue I call “Exploring Innocence.” I sat in the audience of a viewing of Presumed Guilty a disturbing documentary about Mexico’s inept and downright strange judicial system.

Most defendants never see a judge; whatever is written into to the record is accepted as the facts and cannot be questioned and defense attorneys aren’t allowed to introduce new questions. It’s the proverbial “catch-22” with innocent people caught in the crosshairs.

Presumed Guilty chronicles the fight to free Antonio (Tono) Zuniga, a 26-year old street vendor who was pulled into a police vehicle and arrested for murder despite the fact that he had a solid alibi with numerous witnesses to back him up. There was nothing connecting him to the crime, and he didn’t even know the victim.

With a twenty-year sentence looking probable, Layda Negrete and Roberto Hernandez, two young married attorneys, began filming both the proceedings in court and even in the prison. The best part of the viewing was afterwards when we were treated to a Q-and-A session with film participants who answered many questions about the parallels between the Mexican and American justice systems, the film, and innocence. 

Yes, Antonio Zuniga was ultimately freed!  

Tonight was the kick off of the 2011 Innocence Network Conference: An International Exploration of Wrongful Conviction. Many of the leading experts in the Innocence Movement from around the globe and more than 80 exonerees have gathered here in Cincinnati this weekend. I am excited to be attending the conference and will be sharing more.



EDITOR’S NOTE:  RED! columnist Angela Derrick is on assignment for the webzine, sending dispatches from the 2011 Innocence Network Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Her regular column is called “Looking Outward”. 

March 22, 2011

Ryan Widmer: Fourth Time’s a Charm? a column by Angela Derrick

“But once you tell your story into the law, it becomes the object of a precise semantic dissection. The whole of the story is of no interest; instead, patient surgeons of language wait and watch, snip and assay, looking for certain phrases, certain words. Particular locutions trip particular legal switches, and set a heavy machine in motion.”
–D. Graham Burnett
“The duty of a prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.”
–American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice

I have just dried off after conducting an experiment: after stepping from my shower at approximately 1:13 p.m. I refrained from using a towel on both my long hair and my body. I wanted to see how long it would take to dry without the aid of a towel or any other implement. At 1:15 my hands were completely dry, my hair was still dripping wet and other parts of my body were rapidly drying. By 1:18 there were a few drops of water left on my forearms but they were otherwise dry. My stomach, upper thighs, lower legs and back had all dried completely. A few drops of water remained on my upper arms from my still wet hair. It took just five minutes for me to dry naturally, no towels involved, but my hair was wet, very wet. Indeed, right now, as I write this, at 1:45 p.m., my hair is still wet.

Why the experiment? I have long hair, just like Sarah Widmer and I wanted to see for myself if a body dries faster than hair. The answer is yes. A body does indeed dry faster. Hair does stay wet considerably longer and there is nothing sinister involved. It is a plain and simple fact.

Who is Sarah Widmer and why should you care? In 2008, 24-year old Sarah drowned in her bathtub and within two days her 27-year old husband Ryan was charged with murdering her. Now, after three trials, the State of Ohio, at the conclusion of a recent third trial, has sentenced Ryan Widmer to fifteen years to life in prison. One of the main lynchpins of the prosecution’s case centered around the premise that, because her hair was wet while the rest of her body was dry, she seemed to have dried in the space of the 6 ½-minute interval of Ryan Widmer’s call to 911 and emergency officials’ arrival, and as a result, this indicated that he drowned her. Interestingly enough, none of her false fingernails were dislodged or had come off her fingers, something one would think might occur in a struggle involving a drowning. There was no water splashed on the floor and no wet towels indicating he had cleaned up water. Sarah was reportedly known to fall asleep frequently in odd places and at odd times. The Widmer’s family, friends, and Sarah’s coworkers and employer all corroborated this. It was a fact of testimony during the trial that Sarah Widmer had a condition of falling asleep at unexpected moments, even in odd places like Bengals games.

There was a simple way to check to see if Sarah Widmer suffered from any undiagnosed neurological diseases or disorders: perform a brain autopsy. The procedure for a brain autopsy is very specific. It involves a process called “fixing the brain,” in which the brain tissue is immersed in a formalin solution for a period of 10 to 14 days following the regular autopsy. According to Southwestern Medical Center, an autopsy brain evaluation allows neuropathologists to examine tissues for neoplastic, infectious, inflammatory, demyelinating, degenerative, vascular, traumatic, metabolic, and developmental disorders. “Inspecting the brain often reveals some surprises,” writes pathologist Dr. Ed Friedlander. “A good pathologist takes some time to do this.”

Why didn’t the coroner, Dr. Russell Uptegrove, know that any brain diseases or brain disorders wouldn’t be visible the day after death? Why didn’t he take the time to rule out this very real possibility?

The Ohio State Coroner’s Association (OSCA) states: “The Coroner is charged by law with the responsibility of determining the cause, mode, and manner of death. The determination of the anatomic cause of death is a medical aspect while the legal interest is all-inclusive and requires that all factors of causation, the mode and manner, as well as the anatomic cause of death be established. The two aspects are so interrelated that they cannot be separated; therefore equal consideration must be given to the medical and legal phases of investigation.”

The presence of two blood stains on the carpet were mentioned during testimony without including the facts that paramedics had noted vaginal bleeding from Sarah Widmer and that feminine sanitary product wrappings in the bathroom waste can were clearly visible in photographs of the bathroom. According to the Department of Forensic Medicine, London Hospital Medical College, “The phase of the menstrual cycle at death is easily determined by a histological (microscopic) examination of endometrial tissue.” It would have been easy to determine if Sarah Widmer was menstruating at the time of her death. Did the Coroner make this determination? This seems like a crucial piece of evidence. If not, why not?

If the state was sure they had a case, why not conduct a brain autopsy in the standard way? If not, why not? If the state was correct in their theory, they would have had nothing to lose. It would have only strengthened their case. So, why the rush?

The question of motive remains murky, and in a criminal case where we are locking someone up for perhaps the rest of his life, how can we do so with an uncertainty as to absolute guilt? To be found guilty of a crime, two elements must be satisfied: that a crime actually occurred and that the person charged had the intent to commit the crime.

How can anyone say beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime actually occurred when all of the proper medical testing was not conducted? Where is the motive in this case; the criminal intent to purposefully commit murder? One of the jurors from the most recent trial reportedly told a news reporter, “We think something happened and he just snapped.” If that is what the jury believed, the jury should have found him not guilty of murder, because that notion does not fit the legal definition of a murder conviction. What the juror described aligns with the legal definition of “voluntary manslaughter.” Did the jury even understand the instructions they were given by the court judge?

Following this last, third trial, several jurors gave statements to the press, expressing that the most bothersome things were that Sarah’s body was completely dry, and that the evidence did not support the defense’s theory that Sarah Widmer had a seizure or medical condition.

It seems clear from the comments made by certain jurors, after this third trial, that they didn’t fully understand the instructions they were given. The legal “burden of proof” rests upon the state, not upon the defendant. A juror allegedly told a friend in pretrial, “Don’t worry about the Widmer case. We all talked about it and we know he is guilty. He is going to burn in hell.” This juror should not have served on the jury. Our jury system is built upon the premise of impartiality. What this juror did was create a biased, tainted jury that likely insured Ryan Widmer could not receive a fair trial.

In our culture we want an explanation for everything. And we want it now. I don’t even believe that a murder occurred. A death occurred. Sarah Widmer, tragically is no longer with us. A review of medical literature reveals that medical doctors are aware that sometimes seemingly healthy young people die for no apparent reason and with little or no warning. Tragic. Now, the tragedy has been compounded by the fact that it has been turned into a murder that presumably wasn’t. Now, a family has lost both a daughter and a son.

Juries make mistakes. This is an indisputable reality that is backed up by the growing number of exonerations of wrongful convictions. A recent study showed that, in as many as six percent of all trials, the jury gets it wrong. That is an alarming statistic. Just think if it was your loved one, your son or daughter, husband or wife wrongfully locked up for something they didn’t do. Just think if it was you.

There are too many unanswered questions, too many doubts, and not enough evidence to satisfy the burden of proof. There was no sign of a struggle, questionable reasoning on the part of the detectives, and a seeming rush to charge and indict. Better to be methodical and reach the correct conclusion than embark on a mad dash to conviction.

The judicial standard of the term “beyond a reasonable doubt” has not been met. The coroner did not perform the proper autopsy to rule out that Sarah Widmer did not have an unknown neurological condition. To be guilty of a crime, a suspect must be proven guilty “beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt.” We don’t have that here. Reasonable doubt remains.

The defense currently has two motions in front of the court: one motion for a new trial based upon improper comments made by jurors that biased the jury depriving Ryan Widmer of his fundamental right to an impartial jury under the Sixth Amendment, and a second motion for acquittal, requesting the court to set aside his murder conviction on the basis that all of the elements of murder have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Both motions have merit, but I believe that the reason we could be looking at the likelihood of a fourth trial is the fact that the evidence does not support the scenario presented by the Prosecution, and this in and of itself is problematic and an inescapable fact because facts do not change. Whether there is a fourth trial or not, facts can’t be altered to support the story we want to believe.

All of the evidence appears to point to one necessary outcome: acquittal. Like it or not, the evidence does not currently support a murder conviction.