Friday, May 18, 2018

Do right, Ohio, by the wrongfully convicted

The following editorial was published by the Beacon Journal/ on May 16, 2018.

The state can commit few more grievous errors than wrongfully convicting and imprisoning a man or woman. When discovered, such an error requires swift and adequate compensation, a financial package offering some cushion against the blow of altered lives and lost liberty. In 1986, Ohio took the lead among states when the legislature enacted a process for addressing wrongful convictions.

Unfortunately, the process has broken down, especially since an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in 2014. Now the legislature has an opportunity to advance improvements. House Bill 411 cleared committee with strong bipartisan support last month. It deserves a floor vote this week or next, before lawmakers recess.

What has gone wrong? The story goes back to the initial law, the legislature allowing compensation only for those who proved “actual innocence,” an extremely high standard. So, in 2003, lawmakers made a helpful adjustment. They expanded eligibility to cover wrongful convictions due to “errors in procedure,” or constitutional violations.

The change represented an advance, six of the 31 claims since 2003 involving errors in procedure, the rest going to innocence. Then, Mansaray v. State of Ohio landed before the high court, and the justices seized on a substantial legislative drafting error. The court ruled that as written, the law permitted compensation only for errors in procedure after sentencing and during or after imprisonment.

That all but gutted the advance. Most errors in procedure occur before sentencing.

House Bill 411, sponsored by state Reps. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, and Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, provides an overdue correction. It serves someone like Dale Johnston, now age 84, wrongfully convicted in 1982 of murdering his daughter and her boyfriend. He spent six years on death row until an appeals court reversed his conviction. Prosecutors withheld evidence about witnesses who had a different version of the killings.

Johnston sought compensation, but the courts found him unable to prove his innocence. Now he faces the obstacle of the procedural error occurring before sentencing, making him ineligible under the high court ruling.

In the meantime, the actual killers have been identified. Johnson has been waiting nearly three decades for the state to right its wrong. The compensation hardly is excessive at $52,000 for each year wrongfully imprisoned. The state has more than a moral obligation. Its actions have wrecked innocent lives, most at financial bottom when released.

House Bill 411 is narrowly constructed. The error in procedure is limited to those instances when prosecutors commit a constitutional violation in withholding evidence that could benefit the defendant. It allows for offsets if a defendant wins an award in a related civil lawsuit. It establishes eligibility if the prosecution doesn’t file new charges within a year.

All of this deserves the support of prosecutors. Unfortunately, they are not there. That shouldn’t slow the House from approval, sending the measure to the Senate, the state needing to do better by those wrongfully convicted.

Monday, May 07, 2018



On Tuesday, April 24, around 5:30 pm, Virginia prisoner advocate Dale Pughsley, aka Askari Danso, was handcuffed by guards and removed from his cell at Sussex II Virginia State Prison, along with his cellmate, Mr. D. Braxton.  Mr. Danso assumed he was being taken to the watch commander, but instead was taken to Sussex I, a higher-level security prison, and put into solitary confinement, without any explanation.

Mr. Pughsley is now being held at Sussex I in 3D 15. His supporters are asking that people call the Unit Manager there and ask why he has been transferred and why he is in being held in solitary. The prison’s phone number is 804-834-9967.

Mr. Pughsley is a well-known, highly respected prisoner-organizer and the founder of VAPOC (Virginia Prisoner of Conscience), a prisoner-led group that works to educate prisoners on their rights and also works from the inside out for prison reform.  VAPOC is sponsored by the Coalition for Justice, a 501c3 in Blacksburg. Mr. Pughsley is on the CFJ steering committee and also is a member of the Richmond-based organization, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.

Mr. Pughsley had been at Augusta Correctional Center, a Level 3 security facility, but was transferred to Sussex II, a level 4 facility, on March 2, 2018. Sussex I is a Level 4-5.  He had filed an appeal against his transfer from Augusta to Sussex II, because the reason given for the transfer was without substance. Mr. Pughsley is still waiting for that appeal to be heard.  He believes that his role as an organizer and the fact that he has filed multiple grievances both at Augusta and at Sussex II is the real reason for transfers to successively higher-level security facilities, which has now landed him in solitary at Sussex I.

Mr. Pughsley has launched over 30 grievances to the Virginia Department of Corrections. The most recent challenges, while at Sussex II, were over mental health for long-term offenders, water quality, grievance procedures, access and upkeep of the law library, prisoner rights to access the court, and property transfer issues. He also created a Sussex II Human Rights Committee in order, not just to educate prisoners on their rights, but to work in a coordinated way to make sure their rights are observed. At Augusta Correctional, he launched grievances regarding religious freedom, racial justice issues, free speech issues, and the grievance procedures for prisoners.

Mr. Pughsley has not been accused of any prison violations since 2009, which involved a cell phone case.  His repeated transfer to higher-security facilities is extremely troubling.  No explanation has been given for his transfer and, as he has not violated prison rules, the transfer to Sussex I is illegal.  In what appears to be an emergency transfer, the Regional Administrator may authorize a temporary transfer to any equal or higher security level institutional bed. Such decisions may be made for security and health reasons only, and must conform to the definition of Emergency Transfer in Operating Procedure 830.5 (11/1/14).  Mr. Pughsley is not a security risk, as he has no infractions against him. Emergency transfers can only be done when it has been found necessary to protect offenders and staff from imminent danger of physical harm, or to prohibit offenders from destruction of State property, and/or escape. This does not apply to Mr. Pughsley. 

All temporary, emergency transfer decisions are subject to review and approval by CCS (Central Classification Services), and the institutional administrator must provide a detailed written explanation of the rationale for the offender’s assignment to segregation/ restrictive housing, and the need for their immediate transfer from the current housing institution,  Mr. Danso was given no such explanation. He was also not given his personal property.We call on the CSS to provide an explanation for the transfer of Mr. Pughsley and Mr.Braxton and for Mr. Pughsley to be removed from solitary confinement and have access to his personal property.

For more information, contact VAPJN members Margaret Breslau at or Phil Wilayto at: