Exonerated Missouri man speaks about wrongful conviction after 25 years on death row

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 | 10:13 p.m. CDT; updated 12:20 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 30, 2014

COLUMBIA — Twenty-five years is a long time to look death in the eyes. It's an even longer time when you're innocent.

Reggie Griffin was sentenced to death in 1988 for the fatal stabbing of an inmate with a knife in the yard of the Moberly Correctional Center, where he was serving time for armed assault. But Griffin didn't kill the man.

Timeline of Griffin's sentencing and exoneration

Here's a look at Griffin's charges and the events that eventually brought his freedom:

1981: Griffin was convicted and sent to prison for an armed assault.

1983: James Bausley was murdered in a correctional facility in Moberly.

1988: Griffin had his first trial after being accused of capital murder. Inmates Paul Curtis and Wyonne Mozee testified against Griffin after accepting offers to get out of prison sooner. There was no physical evidence in his case.

1988: Griffin was sentenced to death. Doyle Franks, who was also accused, was sentenced to life in prison, and Arbary Jackson was acquitted.

1993: The wrong criminal record was supplied — it belonged to a person named Reginal Griffin, but with a different social security number. As a result, Griffin was given life sentence.

2007: Curtis recanted, and Jackson testified it was Smith who committed the murder. The prosecutor failed to disclose the knife was found on Smith.

2011: The Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial because the prosecution violated Griffin's constitutional right to a fair trial by withholding evidence.

Dec. 2012: Griffin was released on bond while the new trial was pending.

Oct. 2013: DNA evidence found on the murder weapon did not match Griffin. All charges against him were dismissed.

He served 25 years before DNA evidence proved his innocence in October. But he's not bitter about his experience in prison or being placed on death row, he said. Instead, Griffin uses his experiences to teach others.

"You cannot hold on to the hurt, the pain, the anger, because if you do, it'll consume you," he said. "You have to let go and just go on, because I can't get that time back. I can't harbor bad feelings because I'm free, I'm healthy, I'm strong — I'm moving on."

Griffin spoke at the MU School of Law on Tuesday night about his experience with the judicial system, death row and moving on from a false conviction and the certainty of death. MU Professor Paul Litton, co-chair of the Missouri Death Penalty Assessment Team, spoke about the law surrounding the death penalty and the faults in the system.

The stabbing Griffin was convicted for took place in the yard, he said. He was in the institution when the stabbing occurred, he said, but he wasn't outside.

"That afternoon I decided to stay in. And when the guys started coming in, they said someone got stabbed and I was like, 'no big deal, that happens all the time,'" he said. "I didn't even think about it twice."

Griffin said he wasn't worried — he knew he was innocent, and there was no way that he would be falsely convicted of capital murder.

He was wrong — in his trial he was convicted and sentenced to death.

"I was lost, confused, worried, searching for answers. I didn't know where to look. It was the strangest thing, one of the most confusing times," Griffin said. "Nobody knows how to get ready to die, OK?"

After many refused petitions, Griffin's lawyers made him face his future. His lawyers would come to visit, he said, and explain that his case was denied and that his death was inevitable.

"I was on death row for about five years, and my attorney came to see me, and he asked what I wanted in my petition," Griffin said. "And to begin with, I was like, 'I ain't done nothing.'"

Unknown to him, the state conducted a DNA test which later proved his innocence. Griffin was the 143rd person sentenced to death to be exonerated in the U.S. In the state of Missouri, he was the fourth.

Litton said the consequences of falsely convicting people are far greater than most people think.

"There's no question that innocent people have been executed," Litton said. "Reggie Griffin's case involves two of the major causes of wrongful convictions — one, snitch testimony, and second, prosecutorial misconduct."

Litton showed a video Tuesday night where witnesses could clearly see the face of a man stealing money. Next, six men were lined up and the witnesses were asked to identify which man was the criminal. In an audience of more than 100 people, the entire room would have falsely convicted the man had they pointed at any of the people in the lineup — the criminal wasn't there.

"Most people pick the person who most resembles their memory," Litton said. "It's a public safety problem — when we catch the wrong person and convict the wrong person, the right person is still left free."

Griffin said he speaks against the death penalty because everyone makes mistakes. But when death is the consequence, there is no undo button, he said.

"Men make mistakes, women make mistakes, but I'm saying, there ain't no room for that when it comes to life," Griffin said.

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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