Elizabeth Cicogni

Conviction Overturned.

Liz spent 20 years in prison for a crime she did not commit. Her 2001 conviction was based entirely on what we now know was scientifically flawed expert testimony regarding so-called “shaken baby syndrome,” also known as “SBS.”

In 2019, after a multi-year investigation into the conviction, the AJP and pro bono partners filed a petition for post-conviction relief based on newly discovered evidence and advancements in scientific knowledge about certain medical findings since the time of trial. In 2020, the Maricopa County Superior Court applied the high bar required to satisfy the legal standard and granted post-conviction relief based on the introduction of currently available scientific evidence.

The Day That Changed Her Life

In 1999, Liz was a 24-year-old married mother of two young children. Her husband was employed outside the home and Liz began babysitting to earn extra money for her family. Liz was a law-abiding citizen with no criminal history of any kind.

On April 27, 1999, Liz’s husband was at work, her older child was at kindergarten, and Liz was at home caring for her 7-month-old son and a pair of siblings who were 3-years old and 4-months old.

Liz spent the day playing with, feeding, and otherwise caring for the three children. In the early afternoon, Liz’s son crawled into the kitchen. Liz followed him while carrying the 4-month-old up on her shoulder. Liz’s son began trying to climb Liz’s legs and when she reached down to place him back down on the floor, she bent over and the 4-month-old fell backward out of her arm and landed head-first onto the kitchen floor.

Liz immediately called 911 and reported that she had dropped a baby and needed help right away. A volunteer from the Buckeye fire department first arrived and a while later, paramedics came and rushed the baby to the hospital, where he was found to have a minor skull fracture and brain injuries. He died soon thereafter.

The 2001 Prosecution

A year after the child’s tragic death, Liz was indicted on criminal charges of murder and child abuse. Hospital physicians rejected Liz’s explanation of what happened and told police it would have been impossible to have suffered severe head injuries from a shortfall. Instead, they said the injuries must have been caused by “acceleration/deceleration” injuries forces associated with SBS. The medical examiner agreed. Liz was convicted at trial and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.

Sea Change of Scientific Understanding Leads to Post-Conviction Relief

In 2019, the AJP presented evidence dismantling the State’s expert testimony from trial based on medical and scientific developments in the understanding of SBS that have occurred over the past 20 years, including evidence that shortfalls, like the one in this case, can cause precisely the kinds of injuries that the child suffered and that led to his tragic death. Opinions and conclusions of experts in areas of biomechanical engineering, forensic pathology, and pediatric neuropathology were submitted to the Court in support of Liz’s claims.

In 2020, after reviewing the 2001 case and the new evidence submitted, the Court overturned Liz’s conviction in granting post-conviction relief, a rare occurrence, and the Court noted that the evidence presented by the State 20 years ago could not withstand scrutiny today and noted that opinions previously expressed may require retraction in their entirety.

Second Chance for Juveniles

Since the United States Supreme Court decided the landmark case of Miller v Alabama in 2012, the Arizona Justice Project has worked to identify and assist juveniles who were sentenced to life or natural life in prison.  The AJP has acted as a clearinghouse to ensure the impacted individuals had lawyers to represent them in state and federal court. 

Additionally, the AJP works with numerous individuals to help them prepare for their parole hearing before the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency.  The AJP’s Social Work Re-Entry Team works with these clients in creating an individualized release plan and continues to provide support for clients once they are released.   

We advocate for the elimination of life without the possibility of parole sentences for child offenders in Arizona and work with community organizations and stakeholder in the hope that law makers will enact policy reform and legislation.

We believe that everyone has the capacity to change, especially children, and that they should be given a second chance to show how they have matured and rehabilitated. We have seen their capacity for change and have been involved in multiple parole hearings, in which the Board granted release. Upon release they have been successful in obtaining employment, contributing to their communities and have been mentors to those around them.

Eddie Collins

Convicted Of First Degree Felony Murder

Eddie Collins has been a client of the Arizona Justice Project for more than 10 years. In 1973, Eddie was convicted of first degree felony murder and was sentenced to life in prison. Under the “Old Code” which was in place at the time, Eddie was not eligible for parole and was dependent solely on the clemency process to obtain relief. Eddie had obtained two unanimous recommendations for clemency, one in 2003 and one in 2006 – both denied by then Governor Napolitano. Eddie’s brother, the actual shooter, took a plea deal and served only 10 years. Eddie has now served nearly 43 years in prison for this offense.

Eligible For Parole

Based on an agreement AJP reached with the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Pima County Attorney’s Office this year, a Pima County Judge agreed to apply a 1973 amendment to the sentencing code to Eddie making him automatically eligible for parole. His first parole hearing was in March of 2016. AJP Staff Attorneys, Kindra Fleming and Katie Puzauskas and UofA Law Professor, Andy Silverman represented Eddie before the Board. The victim’s widow supported Eddie’s release as did Rick Unklesbay from the Pima County Conviction Integrity Unit, which recognized this case as a manifest injustice. In a unanimous decision, the five-member Board voted for parole.

AJP would like to thank the many people who have worked on Eddie’s case over the years. This includes UofA Professor Andy Silverman and the law school students, ASU professor Zig Popko and the ASU Post Conviction Clinic.

Eddie’s next parole hearing, which will hopefully allow him to go home to his supportive family, will happen on October 12, 2016.

In addition to Eddie, there are 17 remaining “Old Code Lifers” in the system. Hopefully someday they, too, obtain parole eligibility.

Click here for the News 12 story.

Glen Huggins

Glen Huggins Case

The Arizona Justice Project and the ASU Post-Conviction Clinic represented Glen Huggins in clemency proceedings. Given his terminal illness, Mr. Huggins met the imminent danger of death exception. His Phase II hearing was held on December 5, 2013. The Board unanimously recommended commutation of sentence and, on December 11, 2015, Governor Brewer granted the recommendation Mr. Huggins died at home six days later. He was home with his family when he passed away.

Michael Levy

Michael Levy Case

At the young age of 25, Michael Levy suffered a brain aneurysm and stroke while serving a five-year prison sentence for possession of methamphetamine for sale in Cochise County.

Due to his incarceration, Michael was not receiving the critical care he needed to recover from this life-threatening event. After hearing about Michael’s medical condition, we looked into whether Michael was eligible for clemency or any other type of early release. We planned to assist Michael and his family with that process. According to Michael’s sentence, however, he was not eligible for any type of early release.

Given Michael’s dire need for regular and effective medical care, we eventually negotiated with the Cochise County Attorney’s Office for Michael’s release from prison. After serving over four years of his sentence, Michael was released on January 16, 2015. Michael has since had multiple surgeries and still suffers from the after effects of the brain aneurysm, stroke, and other complications.

Had Michael remained incarcerated, he may not have survived his prison sentence.

John Watkins

Mis-Identification – Misconduct by Police – Exonerated by DNA

John Watkins was convicted for a sexual assault that occurred in Gilbert, Arizona on May 26, 2003. The victim in this case was a 48-year-old unmarried woman, who was forced off the sidewalk by an unknown person and into the bushes where she was sexually assaulted. The assailant fled as the victim’s friend came running to her aid yelling for help. Immediately after the assault, the victim went to the hospital where evidence was collected from her body. No semen or sperm was detected on the rape kit items and thus, in 2003, no DNA testing was conducted on this evidence.

Police Interrogation

Nine days after the 2003 assault occurred, John Watkins was brought to the Gilbert Police Department on an unrelated non-violent crime, where the police quickly shifted the focus of the interrogation to his involvement in the above sexual assault. The interrogators lied to Watkins, claiming his fingerprints were found at the crime scene, witnesses had already identified him, and told him that he had failed a voice stress test. After 4 ½ hours of interrogation, Watkins confessed to the rape crime.

After Watkins confessed, the police put his photo in a photo line-up showing 6 suspects. The police showed the line-up to the victim, who previously said she could not help in making a composite sketch of her assailant but could give only a general description: young, white male, white t-shirt and basketball shorts, medium build, blondish-brownish hair. Watkins was the only person pictured in a white t-shirt — the other 5 suspects wore black t-shirts. The victim chose the suspect in the white t-shirt.

Watkins Search For Justice

Watkins applied to the Arizona Justice Project for help with getting evidence from his case tested for DNA. He had asked the courts for testing twice before, but was denied each time. In 2010, under the DNA grant, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office signed onto the Arizona Justice Project’s Petition for DNA testing. The rape kit items were sent to the DPS crime lab where Y-STR testing was performed on internal and external vaginal swabs. Thanks to modern technology, namely the Y-STR testing method, DNA results were found from skin cells – invisible to the human eye – left on the rape victim by the assailant. The DNA testing on the victim’s rape kit confirmed that John Watkins was not the perpetrator that committed this crime. A partial male profile (Y-profile) was obtained, and John Watkins was conclusively excluded as the donor of the DNA.

On December 16, 2010, John Watkins was released after 7 ½ years of incarceration.

Unfortunately, at this time, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office and the Gilbert Police Department have not re-opened an investigation on this crime to find the true assailant.

Louis Taylor

Longtime Arizona Justice Project client, Louis Taylor, was freed April 2, 2013 after spending 42 years in prison.

Louis Taylor has always maintained his innocence of the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire that took 29 lives. Attorneys from the Arizona Justice Project spent years re-investigating this case, discovering evidence that was never disclosed to Taylor’s attorney and confirming the snitch testimony leading to Taylor’s conviction was false. A national Arson Review Committee, led by John Lentini, reviewed the evidence and 1972 expert conclusions used to convict Taylor and, after applying today’s standards of fire investigation, concluded there was no evidence to support the cause fire was arson. The Tucson Fire Department conducted its own review and concluded the cause of the fire was “undetermined.” In addition, the defense expert in Louis trial — long-troubled by Louis’ conviction — spent more than a decade reinvestigating the fire, and now believes that under today’s knowledge and investigative standards the cause of the Pioneer Hotel fire cannot be determined.

Based largely on these findings, the Arizona Justice Project team sought relief for Louis Taylor.

Granted release

On April 2, 2013, Taylor was granted his freedom after the Pima County Attorney’s Office offered him a deal to plead no contest in exchange for his immediate release from prison.

“For Louis, freedom has been a long time coming, for too long,” said Larry Hammond, founder of the Arizona Justice Project and attorney for Louis Taylor. “Louis has spent his entire adult life in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The fire at the Pioneer Hotel was a tragedy — and our hearts, and Louis’, go out to the victims and their families — but no credible expert today could conclude that the fire was arson, let alone that Louis was the arsonist.”

The Team Who Made This Possible

The Arizona Justice Project is extremely thankful to the dedicated volunteer attorneys Ed Novak, Noel Fidel, Mike Piccarreta, Stanley Feldman, Jefferson Keenan, and Arizona Justice Project faculty advisors Andy Silverman and Bob Bartels. A big thank you to our investigators, Ian Burnett and Randy Downer, from Inter-State investigations. We also thank the many volunteer law students who worked on Louis’ case over the years, predominantly from the James E. Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona.

Betty Smithey

Absolute Discharge

The Arizona Justice Project and Middle Ground Prison Reform achieved amazing success when – after a unanimous recommendation by the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency – the Arizona Governor agreed to commute Betty Smithey’s sentence to 48 years. On August 13, 2012, Smithey was in front of the same Board on a request for parole and ultimate release from incarceration. The Board granted her absolute discharge and she walked free that afternoon.

Betty went to prison when John F. Kennedy was president (1963) for murder. She had major mental problems at the time stemming from her tumultuous upbringing in orphanages, foster homes – suffering physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Had this evidence been produced at her trial, she would likely have received a 2nd degree murder conviction and been released years ago.

Betty’s Incarerated Life Transformation

In her 5 decades of incarceration, Betty has transformed herself. In 1963, at age 20, she hated herself, tried to kill herself numerous times and escaped four times in the first 15 years of incarceration. In 1983, she received a letter from the victim’s mom forgiving her. The letter changed Betty’s life and – though it took years – this letter gave Betty the strength to forgive herself and transform into a caring, wonderful human being who wants nothing more than to help and care for others.

Professors Bob Bartels of ASU and Andy Silverman of UofA, as well as Arizona Justice Project Founder Larry Hammond, have dedicated years to this case and their work, along with Betty’s optimism, show the importance of perseverance.

Khalil Rushdan

Granted Relief on the Claim of Vindictive Prosecution

The Federal District Court overturned Khalil Rushdan’s conviction on evidence of vindictive prosecution. Khalil was convicted March of 1997 in Pima County for 1st degree felony murder. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Four years earlier, in November of 1993, Khalil had introduced a drug seller to a drug buyer and departed. Unbeknownst to Khalil, the buyer and his 2 friends decided to rob the seller by killing him and taking the drugs. Later, Khalil returned to the house and found the buyer/killer moving the seller’s lifeless body to the car. When the victim’s body was found, police turned to Khalil for help in the investigation. Khalil cooperated and led police to the buyer / killer. Meanwhile, Khalil and his family received death threats. Police and the prosecutor promised to protect Khalil, but did not. The killer went to trial on robbery and murder. Khalil had not been subpoenaed and therefore was not present to testify at the killer’s trial. The killer was acquitted. Prosecutor Ken Peasley, angry with losing the case, turned around and filed a first degree murder charge against Khalil.

Exercised His Constitutional Right To Not Testify

Ultimately, the District Court granted relief to Khalil on the claim of vindictive prosecution, finding (1) “it is clear Khalil was prosecuted for no other reason” than Khalil’s decision to exercise his constitutional right to not testify which resulted in the acquittal of the real killer; (2) prosecutor failed to advise Khalil of his constitutional rights – specifically his right to an attorney to advise him on any potential criminal charges related to the drug transaction; (3) prosecutor failed to grant Khalil immunity in exchange for his statements against the killer – which composed the state’s case; (4) police and prosecutor promised to protect Khalil’s family from death threats – but never gave any protection; (5) police promised Khalil would not go to jail; (6) police gave Khalil untimely and inadequate Miranda warnings. The court noted that vindictive prosecution cases always involve circumstances where the prosecution is acting within its power; but, it’s his / her motive for charging that is at issue. The court went on to say, “Here, by playing fast and loose with the truth and a man’s constitutional rights, Peasley [prosecutor] lost his star witness and Sandford [real killer] walked out a free man.