6 Innocence Project Clients Win Freedom So Far in 2022
The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law has had a busy start to the year, with six clients released from prison, pardoned or both since January.
The project consists of a yearlong clinic that students take for credit, led by Professors Jennifer Givens and Juliet Hatchett ’15, and extracurricular student pro bono efforts. Through the project, students investigate and litigate wrongful convictions of inmates throughout the commonwealth.
Jervon Tillman was convicted of robbing a pizza delivery man in 2009 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Tillman’s conviction relied exclusively on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who only saw his disguised attacker for a few seconds in the dark of night at gunpoint. His attorney didn’t present an alibi for Tillman and didn’t cross-examine the victim eyewitness about discrepancies between his description and Tillman’s appearance. Also, Givens said, it appears that the prosecutor failed to turn over exculpatory evidence regarding the victim’s initial description of the assailant. Gov. Ralph Northam granted Tillman an absolute pardon Jan. 13.
Two more clients received absolute pardons in January, as Northam wrapped up his term: Eric Weakley, a member of the “Culpeper Three” who was released from prison in 2006, and Lamar Barnes, who was released Jan. 8.
Kevin “Suge” Knight was convicted of a 2002 murder in Norfolk, but there was no physical or forensic evidence connecting him to the crime. Knight’s conviction was, in large part, the product of corrupt police work of Norfolk Detective Robert Glenn Ford, Givens said. Ford was subsequently convicted of extortion and conspiracy. Knight was granted a conditional pardon in January.
Gilbert Merritt was convicted of murder in 2001 based almost entirely on the testimony of a witness who testified that Merritt had confessed to her in detail, and the corroborating testimony of Ford. In 2020, the prosecution’s star witness swore a statement recanting her testimony. Merritt was granted a conditional pardon in January. He has a state habeas petition pending in Norfolk, where he is attempting to overturn his conviction. An evidentiary hearing will be held in the case March 14-15.
“These pardons bolster the claims made by both men (Knight and Merritt) in separate legal proceedings that they never would have been convicted but for the corrupt actions of Detective Robert Glenn Ford,” Givens said.
Lamont Madison served 15 years in prison for a 1997 robbery in Virginia Beach that another man has since confessed to. The inmate, currently serving time in federal prison for multiple offenses, including murder, confessed to the robberies on at least three separate occasions, to three different lawyers and to a Newport News police detective who testified on Madison’s behalf at an evidentiary hearing in 2019. Madison was granted parole and released in February.
Both Madison and Knight previously filed petitions for writs of actual innocence and were both denied on largely procedural grounds.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.