Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Helps Free Wrongfully Convicted DC Man
After considering new evidence undermining Aaron Michael Howard’s 1990 conviction, lead prosecutor withdrew from case
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CONTACTS: Franki Fitterer, American University Washington College of Law, work: 202-274-4279, cell: 202-321-6183; firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Wilkins, Venable LLP, 202-344-8253, Cwilkins@venable.com
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON, D.C., Aug. 7, 2008 – Venable LLP and the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project at American University Washington College of Law announced today that Aaron Michael Howard walked out of prison this week, freed after serving years for a murder he did not commit. New evidence, uncovered by Howard’s attorneys, disproved the eyewitness testimony used to convict Howard at trial and established Howard’s innocence. It alsoled the lead prosecutor to withdraw from the case, stating he could no longer defend the jury’s verdict against Howard. Howard was released Tuesday evening.
"Mr. Howard's case shows once again that innocent people areconvicted of crimes they did not commit," said Eily Raman, assistant director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. "Unfortunately, in the vast majority of these cases, there is no possibility of DNA evidenceto prove the truth.We are thrilled that Mr. Howard's legal team was able to prove his innocence by other means. Although it took far too long, Mr. Howard has finally regained his liberty."
“I did not kill Bobby Parker in 1988, nor was I involved in his murder in any way,” said Howard, who is now home with his family. Howard added, “while I was not responsible for his death, I can only imagine how much pain it caused his family. I extend my deepest sympathies to them.”
Howard's release is the result of an agreement with the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia. The agreement resolved a motion Howard filed several years ago challenging his conviction under the District of Columbia's Innocence Protection Act, which was enacted in 2002. Judge James Boasberg accepted the agreement on Monday, Aug. 4, and ordered Howard's immediate release. Howard is represented by Seth Rosenthal, a Venable partner and Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project board member, Moxila Upadhyaya, a Venable associate, and Zack Rosenburg, a Washington, D.C., criminal defense attorney (both Upadhyaya and Rosenburg are Washington College of Law alumni). The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project provided strategic assistance and valuable investigative support to Howard's legal team. Venable devoted extensive pro bono resources to the case.
After a month-long trial in 1990, Howard and three co-defendants were convicted of the first-degree murder of Bobby Parker. On Feb. 8, 1988, Parker was shot and killed while in his car at the corner of Chesapeake Street and Southern Avenue, SE in Washington, D.C. Howard was sentenced to 21-years-to-life in prison. The prosecution’s evidence against two of Howard's three co-defendants was very strong, but the evidence against Howardwas scant,consisting solely of the severely compromised accounts of two witnesses (an acquaintance of Howard’s and the acquaintance's sister) who claimed to have seen Howard at the scene of the crime.
Compelling new evidence uncovered by Howard's lawyers and investigators conclusively disproved the testimony of the two witnesses and affirmatively proved Howard's innocence. At the same time, it confirmed the guilt of Howard's three co-defendants and established the involvement of a fourth individual other than Howard -- an individual the government was aware of shortly after the murder but failed to investigate diligently. Howard’s attorneys obtained detailed written statements from all of Howard’s co-defendants, who confessed their participation in the murder, affirmed that Howard was not involved, and disclosed the identity of the fourth participant. These statements, which decisively undermined the accounts of the two witnesses who testified against Howard, were corroborated by a vast amount of other evidence, including forensic evidence and testimony introduced at trial, eyewitness accounts the government possessed but did not present at trial, and new eyewitness and documentary evidence that emerged in the past two years.
“While the thought of re-investigating a 20-year-old murder seemed all but impossible at first, the evidence was all there," said Upadhyaya. "We got to the truth because of the courage and candor of numerous witnesses who valued doing the right thing.”
On the strength of the newly discovered evidence, the lead prosecutor and the detective assigned to the case became convinced of Howard's innocence. Last Wednesday, July 30, several days before Howard and the government reached their agreement, the prosecutor took the extraordinary step of withdrawing from the case in open court. He stated that, consistent with his ethical responsibilities, he could no longer represent the government in defense of the jury's 20-year-old verdict against Howard.
"What is remarkable about this case is the courage shown by the lead AUSA and the cold case detective," said Rosenthal, a former federal prosecutor. "After carefully reviewing all of the evidence, both men concluded that Mike was innocent, and they held true to their convictions. Their recognition that an injustice had been done helped bring justice about."
While vacating Howard's murder conviction, ensuring his immediate release and permitting him to maintain his innocence, the agreement Howard reached with the government did not produce Howard's full exoneration. Despite all of the evidence that emerged, and despite the views of the lead prosecutor and the case detective – the two government officials who know the most about the case – a conviction of manslaughter will remain on Mr. Howard's record.
"The agreement … is not perfect," Howard said in a written statement. "It is not perfect because, although it allows me to maintain my innocence, it requires me to accept a conviction for a crime I did not commit. That is not something I have done lightly, especially with all the evidence of my innocence that now exists. But I feel like I have little choice, because after 20 years in prison, the agreement gives me my freedom immediately. I have a wife. I have children. I have a family. … They have been doing time for me for all the years I’ve been locked up. I need it to end for them, as well as for me. The justice system failed me once; it could fail me again. I cannot take a chance, and I cannot wait any more, not when I am being given the opportunity to begin my life again, with my family, right away."
Rosenthal entered the case after Rosenburg, who had been court-appointed, asked the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project for assistance. By referring the case to Rosenthal, the Project ensured that Howard would have the resources needed to fully investigate a 20-year-old crime. “By connecting me with Seth, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project played a vital role in securing Mike’s freedom," Rosenburg said. "It is exceedingly difficult to build the kind of case we built for Howard without the help of a firm like Venable, which has proven itself to be a role model for others."
Howard will now live with his wife of 12 years. She is a small business owner. Howard plans to find work as a youth mentor and physical trainer. “Although I did not deserve to be in prison all these years, I have become wiser, more mature and more compassionate," Howard said. "I am a better man. And as a free man, I plan to start giving to my family and to society as soon as possible.”
Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, American University Washington College of Law
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has been at American University Washington College of Law (WCL) since it was established in 2001.In addition to offering classes on wrongful convictions and supervising students in field investigations, WCL students receive training and assist in screening the hundreds of cases from prisoners who contact the project each year for legal assistance. The work performed by the Project is but one component of the law school’s on-going commitment and dedication to using the rule of law to protect the human rights of disenfranchised and marginalized populations in the United States and around the world. Professor Binny Miller, director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at the Washington College of Law, was instrumental in the creation of the project and current board vice-president, Professor Cynthia Jones, who teaches at the law school, was the former executive director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. www.exonerate.org
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