After a Decade of Fighting, The Last Resort Exoneration Project Finally Frees Two Wrongfully Convicted of Murder
The Last Resort Exoneration Project, headed by Lesley C. Risinger and her husband, D. Michael Risinger, worked tirelessly for nearly a decade to attack the credibility of the evidence, utilizing every resource available, including investigators, ballistic analysts, forensic pathologists, and a host of other experts.
Lesley Risinger had previously won the exoneration of two men in two previous cases without the luxury of faulty DNA analysis, and she did so prior to attending law school. Her husband, John J. Gibbons Professor of Law Emeritus at Seaton Hall University School of Law, is considered one of the foremost evidence scholars in the United States. Together, they make up The Last Resort Exoneration Project. Leslie, who understands the complexity of exoneration where no DNA exists, stated, “[w]ithout DNA evidence the road to justice and freedom is uphill—and it’s a very big hill. But if the DNA exonerations have taught us anything, it’s that the system can be fundamentally flawed, and all too often innocent men and women pay the ultimate price.”
Baker and Washington were convicted of a 1995 double murder near a Camden, New Jersey, housing complex after testimony was considered from a lone witness, Denise Rand, “who said she was high on crack cocaine when she witnessed the slayings,” nj.com reported. Although Rand’s cousin insisted she was with Rand at the time of the shooting, and that neither could possibly see the shooting from their vantage point, she was never invited to testify by the defense.
Beyond that, forensic experts testified that Rand’s account of the shootings, which described the assailants as running up and shooting the victims point blank in the head, were inconsistent with the victim’s wounds. The experts went as far as to say that the wounds would be consistent with bullets that struck the ground, then ricocheted up, hitting one of the victims.
The Baker/Washington murder conviction was subsequently brought to bear against the two men without DNA analysis, without ballistic evidence, and without a reliable motive. The conviction relied almost exclusively on the single eyewitness testimony despite having credibility issues.
Risinger suggests that “statistically it is likely that there are more convictions of the innocent in cases without DNA proof—and like this one, are primarily reliant on flawed witness testimony.”
In an AP story, which exposed flaws in the state’s case, writer David Porter uncovered additional inconsistencies associated with Rand’s eyewitness account, including her description of the shooting as a “run-by shooting,” when in fact, the forensic evidence presented it as an “execution-style” murder “in which at least one victim was forced to lie on the ground before being shot.” Also, there existed additional exculpatory evidence, including a distraught 911 call made by one of the suspects, Sean Washington, reporting the murders himself. And finally, the existence of a video clip from a television newscast, which actually corroborated the alibi of Kevin Baker.
Several teams combined their efforts to assist in the exoneration. Defendant Baker was represented by the Risingers and The Last Resort Exoneration Project; Washington was represented by Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons PC.
After a thorough review of all of the findings of these innocence representatives, the New Jersey Appeals Court unanimously overturned the lower court’s decision. The Camden County Prosecutors Office confirmed, “in consultation with the Office of Public Integrity and Accountability within the Attorney General’s Office,” the Prosecutor’s office agreed to “dismiss the indictment against [the two men] and retract its notice of intent to appeal this case to the New Jersey Supreme Court.”
Counting the two individuals from this case, and an individual each from two separate cases, The Last Resort Exoneration Project now boasts that it has successfully freed four innocent individuals from custody. With regard to Washington and Baker, D. Michael Risinger commented, “[i]t’s taken nearly ten years of our lives and the help of many, but it’s done.”
Risinger goes on to note, “the world has changed significantly while these two men were buried under an unjust verdict and a life sentence.”
Sources: Seton Hall University (shu.edu), nj.com