Posts tagged ‘criminal justice system’

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.

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.

March 8, 2011

PILE DRIVEN – PART IV by Brian Crawford

PILE  DRIVEN – PART IV: “Empowered by Change”

Action Words – Essay by Brian Crawford

Brian Crawford

I present the new installment of my series, Pile Driven: Empowered by Change.

It’s May, 2010, and I’m now at Marion Correctional Institution. Since I last wrote “Pile Driven – Part III,” I have undergone a lot of change. My security status dropped and I was moved from one of Ohio’s toughest prisons to one of Ohio’s safest and most religious prisons. This has been after two-and-a-half years of praying that the Lord would lead me down a safe path in what has ultimately been his plan for me.

I felt upon leaving Southern Ohio Correctional Facility that my work was done. Many lives changed there as a part of the work I did for the Lord. I now leave behind many good brothers to continue the Lord’s work. As for me, I knew I had to embrace this change and the good at my new home at M.C.I.

As my feet were shackled and my hands were cuffed to my waist, I sat quietly in the back of a prison bus with tears streaming down my face as I saw God’s beauty outside the walls of Lucasville. I talked to God and asked him to one day set me free and let the truth of my innocence be known.

At that moment I also knew that I had to focus on God’s will for me at M.C.I. once I arrived. All I could think about was the chapel. After all, to me, that is the most peaceful place in prison. I had always heard so much about chapel services at M.C.I. and I was so ready to see the reality of it. In my essays, “Pile Driven #1, 2, and 3,” I spoke of the ups and downs of attendance of guys at S.O.C.F.  Many times it was dark and discouraging due to the small number of inmates attending. However, don’t get me wrong, because at times  those few guys brought so many blessings and we would worship the Lord as if there were hundreds attending.

So, then, the day was here: my first Sunday at M.C.I. chapel services. I grabbed my Bible and made my way to the chapel, feeling the butterflies in my stomach. I could hear a choir singing and music playing as I got ever so close to those double doors. Finally, I was there. I opened the doors to see a chapel packed full, wall to wall with inmates praising God, smiling, and singing.

I felt a lump in my throat as I found a seat. My emotions immediately took over as I felt the Holy Spirit. I felt as if I was home again at a regular church. The choir continued to sing and I felt free at that point and tears rolled down my face. I knew after that service that I was right on track for what God has in store for me.

Change is never easy and I’ve had many things to overcome and still deal with on a daily basis, but when each day is over I can close my eyes and say, “Thank the Lord for another day of my life and a chance to serve you.” My mission is now here at M.C.I. and there are still many out there that need to know God loves them and they can be saved. Although this innocent man that I am still suffers, I know I must embrace this change and keep living for God.

My faith is growing in my heart and mind every day. No matter where I go, I will surround myself with good and walk away from evil. Oh, it’s not all “peaches and cream.” Satan is not happy with me right now and he tries to tempt me all the time. When he does, I just smile and say, “Nice try. But you lose.” Now, of course, the devil will not stop trying to ruin my days, but I look at it this way: I’m a child of the Most High God and my God will not allow Satan to do anything to me without his permission. If something would happen I can always go back and look at what Job went through in the Bible and know it was or is a test. I will pass the test! I’m not afraid anymore!

Now, some days I watch television and I see our world heading toward Bible prophecy and I do worry. I wish many more people would give their lives to Jesus before it’s too late. I’m only one man and I know I cannot help them all, but if I can just keep proving my walk – that God is real – then I’ve done my job. I fought the good fight and will be ready to go with my Christian brothers and sisters to be with our Lord in heaven.

So, what about you? If you’re out there and you don’t know the Lord as your savior, as yourself a question: If I died today, where would I go? Some people say they don’t believe in anything, but think about it. Would you rather die believing in something and know you did good in this world, or would you want to die believing in nothing and possibly face horrible consequences in the afterlife? I think the answer is easy. If you’re out there and going through chance, then “embrace it” – put God first in your life and the rest is easy.

Thank you for reading my words in this essay and God bless you all.

Read other stories by Brian Crawford:

Pile Driven— Part I
Pile Driven—Part II
Pile Driven—Part III


Editor’s note: visit  for further information on supporters of Brian Crawford’s case.  Mr. Crawford has been a dedicated writer and contributor to RED! the breakthrough ‘zine since 2008. We urge you to read his other work, including parts 1,2, and 3 of his PILE DRIVEN series. He is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution.

February 27, 2011

Growing and Evolving

Greetings, RED! the breakthrough ‘zine Readers,
As RED! moves into another year of publication, and nears its third anniversary, we are proud to unveil a new look. RED! continues to grow and evolve.

Thanks to the design talent and innovations of RED! web editor, Christine Grote, we are moving to a blog format. Please be patient with the transition.

You’ll soon notice that news and information will be even more quickly delivered. We went “fluid” (more than weekly) in April 2009, and now that fluidity will be ramped up. The opportunities for you to offer feedback and interact with RED! will be more prominent. The new site will enable RED! to come alive in a fresh new way.

If you currently rely on the RED! rss feed to stay informed, as part of the transition you may need to sign back up on our new page. We recommend you also subscribe. There will always be new posts.

So, here’s what’s coming soon:
• more regularity of news, features, Jeff’s Blog, and columns – with additional columnists forthcoming
• heightened multi-media
• new work (including inmate art) in the next few days and weeks by columnists, The Legend – columnist Demetrius “Hook” Mitchell – Karyn B. Alexander, Angela Derrick, and Melissa Vanover; drawings by inmates Jimmy Brown and Matthew Moore; stories by writers Melissa Parnell and Drew Fox; and “Action Words” essays by Brian Crawford, Dale E. Jones, and “Irish” Johnny Harvey; video interviews and more
• look for a video feature by Grant McDonald
• intensified coverage of two organizations with which RED! partners: Sonje Ayiti and MissionRise
• quicker updates on urgent issues facing the criminal justice system globally

I thank you endlessly for your support. I thank you for your dedicated reading. Thanks for spreading the word on, what we believe, is one of the most unique and original internet magazines in the world. It’s because of your belief in stories of transformation, hope, positive life-changes and breakthroughs, and innovative leadership that RED! generates the thousands of readers it cherishes.


Jeffrey Hillard
Editor & Publisher / RED! the breakthrough ‘zine