Freed After 23 Years
Robert Lee Stinson, a client of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, walked out of prison after serving 23 years for a rape DNA testing now shows he didn’t commit. Stinson was convicted based largely on the testimony of a forensic dentist who said his teeth matched marks on the victim’s body.
Bite mark comparison was among the unvalidated disciplines that the National Academy of Sciences pointed to this month in its report calling for more oversight and standardization of forensic sciences.
Stinson’s conviction was vacated and he was released, but the charges against him are still pending. Prosecutors said they are actively reviewing whether to retry him.
A Texas judge heard emotional testimony this month from the family of Timothy Cole, who died of an asthma attack in a Texas prison in 1999. DNA now proves that another man committed the rape for which Cole was convicted, and the rape victim joined Cole’s family in requesting that his name be cleared. The judge ruled that Cole should be fully exonerated. It will take action from either Gov. Rick Perry or the state’s highest criminal court for his exoneration to become official.
Compensating the Exonerated
Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown testified before a Nebraska legislative committee about the importance of compensation laws for the wrongfully convicted.
Also testifying were Joseph White and JoAnn Taylor, two defendants from the “Beatrice Six” case who spent two decades behind bars for a murder and rape they didn’t commit before DNA freed them last year.
At a hearing yesterday in Albany, exoneree Steve Barnes (above) told a panel of New York attorneys and criminal justice experts about the 20 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and the desperate need for statewide reforms to prevent a similar injustice from happening to someone else.
Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom also testified at the hearing about a range of statewide criminal justice reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions. The hearing was the second of two held this month by the New York State Bar Association, which released a report finding errors by prosecutors, judges and law enforcement among the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the state.
Working Together to Prevent Injustice
The trail of an unlikely friendship between Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino began more than two decades ago, when she misidentified him as the man who raped her. Cotton was wrongfully convicted in 1985 based largely on Thompson-Cannino’s testimony, and he spent 10 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. Today, they are close friends and travel the country speaking about the case and advocating criminal justice reforms especially relating to eyewitness misidentification.
On Tuesday, the two will release a major new book about their experience “Picking Cotton” written with author Erin Torneo. Cotton and Thompson-Cannino’s incredible and inspiring story will be featured on “60 Minutes” and in People Magazine in March.
Late one night in 1984, a man broke into Thompson-Cannino’s home and raped her at knifepoint. During the attack, she focused on studying the attacker’s features so she could identify him later. After the assault, she worked with police to create a composite sketch and would eventually identify Ronald Cotton in a lineup as the perpetrator. She was 100% sure it was him, she says, and was happy and relieved the day he was sentenced to life in prison. There was only one problem: she had the wrong man.
More than a decade later, DNA testing in the case proved Cotton’s innocence and implicated another man in the rape. Thompson-Cannino was shocked at the news. She couldn’t believe that she had chosen the wrong man and that her misidentification had played a role in such an injustice. Two years later, however, the two met face-to-face. They both had come to know that eyewitness misidentification is a common cause of wrongful convictions, and they agreed to work together prevent misidentifications and injustice. The new book tells the story of the case, Cotton’s exoneration and the unlikely friendship it sparked.
Visit the Innocence Blog to preorder a copy of the book (with a portion of proceeds going to the Innocence Project) and to watch a video of Thompson-Cannino and Cotton telling their stories.
Supreme Court Hears DNA Case Monday
Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday that the federal Constitution allows prisoners access to DNA testing that could prove their innocence. With oral arguments just days away in the case of Innocence Project client William Osborne, a growing number of supporters have lined up behind the right to testing saying DNA access is a matter of public safety. When an innocent person is allowed to languish behind bars without a DNA test to prove the truth, the real perpetrators of the crime could remain free.
“Everyone prosecutors, defendants, crime victims, the government and society has an interest in making sure people have access to DNA testing that can prove innocence,” Neufeld said. “Alaska is the only state in the nation with no known case of a prisoner receiving DNA testing, either through court order or a prosecutor’s consent. This case involves a very important constitutional protection one that is the only option for William Osborne.”
Tomorrow in Washington, D.C., the Innocence Project will hold an unprecedented gathering of exonerees and legal experts to discuss the the case before it goes to the justices. Get more information on this free, public event here, and forward an invite to friends in the Washington, D.C., area.
Visit our Osborne Resource Center for briefs filed in the case, media coverage, events, comments and more.
Last week, the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization released a report calling for a “massive overhaul” of forensic science in the United States.
The report, which was produced by the National Academy of Sciences over the last two years at the request of Congress, found that many forensic disciplines used by law enforcement agencies and courts have not been adequately validated or standardized by empirical research. In order to reliably identify perpetrators of crimes and avoid wrongful convictions, the panel urged Congress to create a National Institute of Forensic Science, independent from the Department of Justice, to conduct research into forensic disciplines and oversee their consistent application nationwide.
The report emphatically calls for a change. But where do we go from here?
In the hours after the NAS report was released last week, lawmakers began pledging to take action on this pressing issue. U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said he would take action to address this issue.
"People’s lives hinge on the results of these forensic tests and scientific rigor must be applied in each and every case to make sure that justice is truly served,” Rockefeller said. "I will study the National Academy’s recommendations very carefully and propose legislation to address the need for standards, including best practices and certification and accreditation of forensic professionals.”
I’m active in several social and environmental causes, but only learned about the Innocence Project recently. Now I’m doing all I can to spread the word.
The stories of people spending decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit are simply devastating, and I don’t think most Americans know about the issue of wrongful convictions or the Innocence Project. People see a person on the local news charged with rape or murder, and that’s it; they’re convicted in the public’s eyes. If you don’t seek out the other side of the story, you might never hear it. But with criminal justice, there is another side - poor people and minorities are more likely than others to be singled out by police and wrongfully convicted. People can be convicted with very little evidence and sent away for life.
When I heard about the Innocence Project recently on National Public Radio, I wanted to learn more. I searched for the group and came across the Innocence Project Facebook page. I donated immediately and sent emails to all of my Facebook friends about this important cause. Two of my friends then made a donation, and others emailed me to thank them for passing on this cause they had never heard about it. I’m new on Facebook and hadn’t seen how powerful social networks could be until that day. Now I know that these sites can really help to spread the word about important causes like that of the Innocence Project.
I’m going to continue spread the word about the Innocence Project on Facebook and in my community, and I hope you’ll join me.
Join the Innocence Project Facebook cause page here, or tell friends about us through the Innocence Project website.