Two men, Barry Jones in Arizona and Lamont Hunter in Ohio, walked off death row the same day earlier this month, each wrongly convicted of first-degree murder of a child in their care.
Barry Jones, sentenced to death in Arizona in 1995 for the murder of his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter, Rachel, was released June 15 after Pima County Attorney Laura Conover issued a statement admitting that “medical re-examination of the evidence does not support a finding of proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Barry Lee Jones caused the injury” to the child.
That re-examined evidence was at the heart of Jones’s argument in Shinn v. Ramirez, a complicated case involving Jones and David Ramirez, who were convicted in Arizona of separate murders. Both men argued their state-appointed lawyers failed to present meaningful evidence to bolster their defense.
Because of this ineffective representation, Ramirez and Jones had the right to contest their sentences in federal court under Martinez v. Ryan. And, in fact, in 2018, a federal judge ordered Jones’ release, and in 2019, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Ramirez’s case back to the district court.
But, instead of simply retrying the two men, Arizona asked the U.S. Supreme Court to void Martinez in favor of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).
And, in May 2022, in a 6-3 decision, in an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court did just that, a decision that Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, called “perverse and “illogical.”
But the county attorney did take a second look at the evidence and found that Jones had not killed Rachel, but had “allowed [the child], who was under his care and custody, to die as a result of the injuries she suffered,” and was therefore guilty of second-degree murder.
As a result, he pled guilty, was resentenced to the maximum term of 25 years, and was released since he had already served more than that time.
In an additional statement, Conover noted that “some of the most difficult decisions we face as prosecutors, [is] trying to balance the rule of the law and in this case holding someone accountable for the death of an innocent 4-year-old child. What’s also important is having the courage to re-evaluate these cases thoroughly while staying true to our responsibility of charging them accordingly with what is right in the eyes of the law. To that end, Mr. Jones has been held more than accountable.”
(David Martinez remains on death row despite his severe intellectual disability and legitimate Ineffective Assistance of Counsel claim.)
Lamont Hunter also walked out of prison on June 15 in Ohio, after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported.
Hunter was convicted of the 2006 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s son, three-year-old Trustin Blue, and sentenced to death in 2007. He always maintained his innocence, insisting the child fell down the basement stairs.
But in 2021, according to the Enquirer, the county deputy coroner, who had ruled the child’s death a homicide, testified during a hearing on Hunter’s appeal that a review of the case revealed that the cause of Trustin’s death was undetermined. And, injuries she had believed were evidence of a sexual assault were actually caused by hospital staff attempting to insert a thermometer into Trustin’s rectum.
After Hunter pleaded guilty to the reduced charges — which did not include sexual assault — he was sentenced to 17-1/2 years, and was released for time served.