Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Dec. 13 - 2006
Evidence questioned ahead of execution
Jenny Greenburg didn't mince words when talking about the execution of
Angel Nieves Diaz, scheduled today at Florida State Prison.
"Putting someone to death on the word of a jailhouse snitch is
un-American," said Greenburg, director of the Florida Innocence
Nieves, 55, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing Miami topless
club manager Joseph Nagy in 1979. The conviction was largely based on the
testimony of a jailhouse informant, Ralph Gajus, who occupied a nearby
cell and said Nieves who spoke poor English admitted he was the
triggerman by miming the shooting.
Gajus later said he made up the story. But unless the Supreme Court steps
in, Nieves will be executed at 6 p.m. today in the Bradford County prison.
State and federal appeals courts have found the evidence has already been
considered and also rejected Nieves's claim that lethal injection is cruel
and unusual punishment.
Greenberg, who runs the nonprofit seeking to overturn wrongful
convictions, said the case illustrates that jailhouse informants are
notoriously unreliable. Such informants often trade testimony for lesser
sentences or favorable treatment, she said.
Jailhouse informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in U.S.
capital cases, according to a report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions
at Northwestern University. The report found that 51 death row inmates
have been exonerated who were initially convicted on the word of jailhouse
State Attorney Bill Cervone, prosecutor for the 6-county district
including Alachua County, said he's reluctant to rely on the word of a
jailhouse informant. He said he'd be unlikely to base a case on an
informant's word if there was no other evidence.
"We're very cautious about it because there are obvious agendas involved,"
In the Nieves case, Gajus said police promised to help him with his own
case. He was later sentenced to 20 years for second-degree murder.
Greenburg said one of Florida's best known wrongful convictions was due to
a jailhouse informant. Based on the testimony from convicted murderer
Clarence Zacke, Wilton Dedge was sentenced to life in prison for sexual
battery and other changes in Brevard County.
An investigation by the New York-based Innocence Project found Zacke
received a drastic reduction in his sentence by claiming Dedge confessed
while they were being transported together. DNA evidence proved Dedge
didn't do it, leading to his release after 22 years in prison.
Carolyn Snurkowski, who is representing the state in the Nieves case, said
it's up to a jury to decide whether an informant is reliable. She said she
doesn't have a problem with such testimony being used if jurors are
informed of any deals being given.
"It's in their hands to make a credibility determination," she said.
But Greenburg supports allowing judges to determine credibility before
allowing such testimony.
"The presumption should be this is not credible evidence unless the state
proves otherwise," she said.
Nieves was convicted of 1st-degree murder, 4 counts of kidnapping, 2
counts of armed robbery, 1 count of attempted robbery and 1 count of
possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony for a holdup at a
Nieves' prior record includes a 2nd-degree murder conviction in his native
Puerto Rico and escapes there and in Connecticut. In 1981, he escaped from
the Hartford Correctional Center by holding 1 guard at knifepoint while
another was beaten as he and 3 other inmates escaped, according to court
(source: The Gainesville Sun)