The Last Resort Exoneration Project in the Star-Ledger
Professor Lesley Risinger: "The facts show that they're both innocent."
Star-Ledger investigative reporter Sean Sullivan presents an in-depth and interactive two-part feature on the cases of Kevin Baker and Sean Washington, imprisoned for 20 years for a double murder, and the work of Seton Hall Law’s Last Resort Exoneration Project to prove their innocence.
Professor Lesley C. Risinger founded Last Resort in 2011 with her husband, Professor Michael Risinger, one of the nation's preeminent authorities on innocence, evidence, and proof. Lesley Risinger has been instrumental in securing the exoneration of two men previously; in the first case, in partnership with her mother and in the second, in tandem with her husband.
In the case of Baker and Washington, Professor Lesley Risinger sums up her conclusion simply: "The facts show that they're both innocent." Professor Michael Risinger concurs: “They were victims of a total breakdown of the criminal justice system at every point.”
In the early morning hours of January 28, 1995, Rodney Turner and Margaret Wilson were shot dead in a Camden neighborhood. The only evidence used to convict Baker and Washington of this crime was the testimony of a drug addict who had admitted to smoking crack cocaine a few hours prior and was only outside at the time of the killings to buy more crack. She claimed that the two men each had a gun and each shot one of the victims. Washington’s original attorney suspects that Baker’s and Washington’s speedy conviction of these murders, despite the prosecution’s weak case, is due to political pressure to resolve those murders quickly, enabling authorities to explain the spike in homicides in Camden that January as the work of isolated madmen on a killing spree.
The Last Resort Exoneration Project has uncovered a great deal of evidence that the two men were not involved in the murders. They have also secured assistance from defense attorney Joseph Fortunato ’81, who is representing Sean Washington; former prosecutor James Gerrow; ballistics expert Lucien Haag; and forensic pathologist Michael Baden.
The Star-Ledger provides readers with access to much of the evidence Last Resort has gathered in defense of Baker and Washington, including recordings of witness testimony, letters written, and orders issued. The Risingers have demonstrated, for example is that the voice recorded in a desperate call to 9-1-1 recording belonged to Washington, who discovered the bodies. Baker had a reliable alibi placing him at home with his girlfriend at the time of the killings. The prosecution would not allow his girlfriend to be deposed; as the Risingers continued to fight for the right to secure her deposition, she died of breast cancer. Also, the forensic evidence establishes that, contrary to what the sole eyewitness testified to, the female victim was shot as she lay face down on the ground and furthermore strongly indicates that only one gun was used in both killings, and that there was no second shooter.
When the professors bring the case before Judge Samuel Natal, the same judge who presided over the original trial, they will present new evidence in the case. They will demonstrate that Baker and Washington received ineffective assistance of counsel and that their constitutional rights were violated. Most important, however, is their “claim of actual innocence” which should ultimately serve to release the men from prison. As Professor Michael Risinger commented, "Anybody who challenges their conviction faces this uphill battle. But the system owes anybody making a credible claim of innocence an honest evaluation."