On July 11, 2006, James Calvin Tillman was exonerated of a 1989 rape and kidnapping conviction. He walked out of the Superior Court in Hartford, a free man after serving 18 years of a 45-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.
While justice was served late, it might not have been served at all if Brian Carlow had not missed a meeting called by Connecticut’s then-Chief Defender Gerard Smythe a couple of years earlier. Smythe wanted to start a Connecticut Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence and forensics to challenge convictions, and he was looking for volunteers.
“I couldn’t make the meeting back in the summer of ’04 because I was stuck in trial,” Carlow recalls with a mock-dramatic roll of his eyes. “So I wound up being volunteered for co-chair in my absence. That’s what happens when you don’t make meetings.”
Karen Goodrow is mum on how Carlow got appointed as her co-chair for the time-consuming, unfunded project, but her assistant knows everything. Joan O’Rourke, volunteer administrative coordinator for the Connecticut Innocence Project, puts the blame squarely on Goodrow.
“Karen signs up people for things, and there was a meeting Carlow wasn’t at, and afterward Karen said, ‘Brian, you’re co-chair!’”
Two years later, Tillman walked out of jail.
Goodrow and Carlow have complementary skills. “Brian is our expert on DNA,” explains O’Rourke, “and Goodrow is the hands-on person who knows how to work the case. It’s amazing to watch them at a press conference or a meeting—they seem to just intuitively know who will answer each question and address each point without talking about it. They are brilliant together.”
The two have known each other since they joined the public defender’s office at the same time about 20 years ago; Carlow has remained in the office the whole time; Goodrow has left and come back. Today, Carlow runs the chief public defender’s office in Hartford, and Goodrow runs the public defender’s office in Tolland. Their “day jobs” involve juggling a couple of hundred files each, ranging from misdemeanors to major felonies. The staff and resources of both their offices are maxed out, and the two do not receive any compensation for the after-hours work they put in at the Innocence Project.
Carlow’s reputation as a forensics expert is well-warranted. He is a 1983 graduate of University of Illinois’ College of Law and teaches continuing legal education seminars on DNA litigation. And Goodrow, a 1983 graduate of Western New England College School of Law, teaches legal research and writing courses, and excels at working with people.
Timothy Fisher, managing partner at McCarter & English in Hartford, marvels at their approach. “It’s a tough line to be in, and credit has to go to them, to be in the trenches, to have clients who don’t always necessarily appreciate them and the work they do, and yet to always stay upbeat and maintain that energy.”
Fisher’s firm, McCarter & English, plays a champion’s role in the Connecticut Innocence Project’s work, providing office space and support services. Fisher downplays his firm’s contribution. “A mutual acquaintance was aware that we had some free space here in the office, and knew of Brian and Karen’s work and asked whether we might make use of that space for the Innocence Project,” he says. “And I saw it was just a perfect fit. We also provide support services in terms of messengers, copying and so on that they need.”
Even with the support of McCarter & English and the assistance of O’Rourke and some interns, it took nothing short of dogged legal work—and legwork—by Goodrow and Carlow to exonerate Tillman. When the project started, the two didn’t even have a chair to sit in.
“It was one of those things, our headquarters was wherever we happened to be,” Goodrow says. “Our initial meetings were at a coffee shop, where there are lots of college students around who sit for hours with a single cup of coffee, so it wasn’t conspicuous that we were sitting around all afternoon not buying anything.”
Their individual skills began to shine through at those early meetings. “I stay organized with the cases, [I have a] compulsive way of managing them … so I might lose the trees for the, what’s the expression, the bushes …” Goodrow says, laughing at herself and looking to Carlow, who mutters, “The forest, I think it’s the forest.”
“So I’m looking at the files and my checklists and putting things in categories,” she continues, “and Brian’s like, ‘Wait a second, this one could be the real thing.’”
Carlow interjects, technical details rolling off his tongue. “On Tillman, the incident happened in 1988, the trial in 1989, and lawyers were just beginning to learn about forensic DNA then.
“There were stains on the dress and on the panties. The prosecution’s theory was that the stains on the dress could have been deposited a month before, and Tillman’s DNA was excluded. The legs of the pantyhose were tested, and Tillman was consistent with that evidence, but so was 20 percent of the rest of the population. But they’d left the crotch samples alone. The logic at the time was that they figured panties would be the most likely to have mixed samples deposited on them so they didn’t like to test them. That’s really changed. Today we’d all figure that the panties were closest to the body, closest to the sample, and would have the most informative evidence. But the question was, ‘Can we find this stuff ?’”
That was a problem. No one knew where to find the physical evidence. But Goodrow was on the case.
“No one knew that we were doing anything on this case, but I’m calling around asking everyone I can think of if they know where the evidence is,” she says. “The good thing is, it’s a small state, and with how long we’ve been doing this, working in the criminal system, we know all the people. So I could just call up the people I know at the clerk’s offices and the state lab …”
Carlow interjects with a laugh, “And they all say, ‘We’d better do something, it’s the only way she’s going to go away.’ But seriously, we had some lucky breaks. We finally discovered that a Legal Aid lawyer had shipped [the evidence] off to Lifecodes, an early DNA testing firm in New York. We had the receipt that they’d shipped it via armored car. But Lifecodes was now defunct, and we had no idea where the stuff had gone.”
The line of conversation bounces back to Goodrow. “We didn’t know if it had been sent back to Legal Aid. So we contacted them and they went into their archives. And we were thinking at best they’d find a paper trail. Instead, we got this call. They found a box.”
“And a box inside the box,” Carlow says, “with the Lifecodes return address on it. When we got the call that they found something and that we should come see it, our expectations were about a two on a scale of 100. It was a Friday afternoon and we were thinking, ‘Gee, should we go see it or just wait until Monday?’ But we went out there and when we saw that box and the return address …”
Back to Goodrow: “And then we saw a manila envelope, like those inter-office envelopes with holes in them, and we could see something through it, black fabric, and we said, ‘That has to be the dress.’”
Carlow: “We left it right there. We left everything there. We didn’t touch it. We went into court and filed a motion to preserve and a motion for post-conviction DNA testing.”
Goodrow: “So we go into court, and the prosecutor on this motion was the trial prosecutor, and all of a sudden, an 18-year-old case is alive again.”
Carlow: “We go into court and there are two pieces of the case. One is the piece where we’re not looking for the state to admit admissibility at this point. If we test it and there’s no result, then there’s nothing to talk about. But the second piece …”
Goodrow: “Oh, you were so good on this. How did you phrase this in the hearing? It was fantastic …”
Carlow: “The second piece is that we’re looking for seminal stains only. The odds are pretty remote that these items would have been contaminated with seminal fluid while in storage at Legal Aid,” he says with a laugh.
“Yeah, I think Legal Aid told us that every now and then on a Friday afternoon they get a pizza or something, but that’s about as wild as they ever get there in the office,” Goodrow says jokingly.
Carlow jumps back in. “So the argument is, let’s just get it to the lab. At that point, we’re not saying to the judge, ‘He’s innocent.’ We’re saying that you didn’t have this evidence at trial and the question is whether he had a fair trial. That’s the recurring theme. Without this evidence, was the trial fair? It was a battle to keep it narrowly focused.”
On March 22, Judge Thomas Miano allowed Carlow and Goodrow’s motion to test the material at the state-of-the-art state forensic lab in Meriden. Lab personnel identified four testable stains on fabric from the victim’s dress and another from the crotch of her pantyhose.
“Our lives were changed by this,” Goodrow says. The two fall silent for a moment.
“Keeping everyone focused throughout the process was a battle,” she says, gently breaking the silence. “I was the most angry and impatient one of all. Our client is a gracious man who is deeply spiritual, and that really brought him through this. But Brian and I were both more nervous pending the initial results.”
Carlow says, “He was only 26 when this happened, he had maybe one prior conviction, something minor—and then this. Then as the results started coming back, it was a matter of keeping everyone in check.”
“I was crawling out of my skin,” Goodrow admits. “Waiting for those lab results, it’s like waiting for the deliberative process in trial. Then we get the results, or we get the call from the state lab, and I’m always looking for signs for things, so we get up there and there’s food out, there’s like cheese and crackers, it was festive, and I’m thinking, it has this air of celebration, they wouldn’t have put food out if it was bad news …”
“Yeah, I think they were having a seminar in the next room, that’s why there was food there,” Carlow interjects with another laugh.
Goodrow joins in. “Oh stop, it was a sign, it was a happy thing.”
The lab concluded that Tillman could not have been the source of the stain on the pantyhose, and three of the four stains on the dress, but testing on the fourth stain was inconclusive.
“So we get the results,” Carlow says, “and he’s excluded, except—and I really can’t fault the scientists for this—there was more testing the state wanted to do. But it almost didn’t make any difference at that point. We filed the petition for a new trial. And we waited for the last result.”
After all conceivable tests were run on the last sample, none of the results could tie Tillman to the case.
“The judge really wanted to make the right decision,” Goodrow says. “When we got the results, the state didn’t object to the motion. The state took no position.”
“The judge is the presiding judge in Hartford. The look on his face when he’d see Karen coming, he was like, ‘Oh my God, not again,’” Carlow says, wrinkling his nose playfully in Goodrow’s direction. “And you should have seen this hearing. On the last day, July 11, another defendant had punched his public defender in the courtroom, and pepper spray was still lingering in the air when we started our hearing. Everyone’s eyes were burning. The judge granted the motion to dismiss, and wished Mr. Tillman well in his life. The way it had worked was the conviction was vacated so the matter was effectively remanded. It’s a civil proceeding that takes the process back to the point of plea entry, which was scheduled for a pretrial—was it July 11 or 12?”
“Oh stop, he’s just pushing my buttons with this—do you even remember your anniversary?” Goodrow (who is single) lobs at her married colleague, then continues, “I’ve known the prosecutor since law school days. We kept calling him saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ He never actually said we have the wrong guy here. He just said, ‘I can’t prove my case.’ We moved to dismiss and he didn’t object.”
In granting the motion for a new trial, Judge Miano held that the new evidence was so strong that a jury might well deliver a different verdict than the one in 1989. He also said the case raises the sobering possibility that other innocent people are serving prison time, a remark that has served as an inspiration for Goodrow, Fisher and others to press the Connecticut Legislature to pass a compensation statute. More than 20 states plus the federal government have compensation laws. “Part of the reason that Connecticut doesn’t is that it just hasn’t come up before, or not in this light. No one has seen the need for it,” Fisher says. “Now they do.”
“The first half of the Tillman case is done now,” Fisher says. “He got out, and got the criminal issue behind him. Now comes the second half, which is helping him, and Karen and Carlow are still there with that. They’ve inspired a whole team, which includes our firm and others, including a public relations firm, trying to help Mr. Tillman regain some of the lifetime that was taken from him.”
In the months since his release from prison, Tillman continues to adjust to ordinary life. He works out. He reads the Bible. He holds a job with the Capitol Region Education Council. Moved by the number of teenagers he saw in prison, Tillman works with a youth-mentoring program and has begun a string of speaking engagements to encourage young people to make positive choices. “Things are coming along, but I’m still getting used to everything,” he told the Hartford Courant. “I can’t dwell on what happened, because that doesn’t get me anywhere. I’d rather do what I can to help these kids.”
Meanwhile, Carlow and Goodrow have returned to their stacks of files, poring over applications from inmates, searching for the next case that might lead to an exoneration. It’s exhausting work, but knowing what they know, how can they not?
THE HISTORY OF THE INNOCENCE PROJECT
The first Innocence Project was founded at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York in 1992 by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. Today there are more than 30 Innocence Project programs across the country, the work of which has resulted in more than 180 exonerations of wrongfully convicted inmates since advanced DNA testing became available in 1988. Of those 183 cases, approximately 57 percent are black, 26 percent are white, 10 percent Hispanic, 6 percent unknown, and 1 percent Asian. Most of the cases involve sexual assault charges, and a substantial portion include murder charges. At least three-quarters of the convictions were based on faulty eyewitness identifications, mostly by witnesses of one race identifying a defendant of another race.
For more information about Innocence Projects around the country, as well as volunteer and employment opportunities and information about donating to the Life After Exoneration program, see www.innocenceproject.org.