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