Joseph Fears Exonerated
Joseph Fears was freed from an Ohio prison March 10 after serving more than 25 years behind bars, and his case has sparked new momentum for criminal justice reforms in the state.
Although he had previously been told that biological evidence in his case had been lost, the district attorney ordered a new search and the evidence was located. DNA testing proved Fears' innocence of a 1984 rape and he was cleared.
Innocence Network Conference
Approximately 350 people from around the world - more than a quarter of them exonerees - attended the Innocence Network’s 10th annual conference last weekend in Houston, Texas. The conference, which took place at South Texas College of Law, was organized by the Innocence Project of Texas.
Participants attended workshops, training sessions, panel discussions and other events on a wide range of subjects, including new and emerging legal issues, policy reform tactics and organizational development. A special track of workshops and events for exonerees focused on rebuilding their lives after exoneration and creating a community of people who served time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
The 2010 Innocence Network conference will take place in Atlanta, Georgia.
Supreme Court Hears DNA Case
Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this month that prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.
Innocence Project client William Osborne is seeking DNA testing on evidence from a rape he was convicted of in 1993. Prosecutors agree that the results could prove his innocence or guilt, but have denied access to testing on procedural grounds. A decision is expected from the court by the end of June.
All proceeds from an art exhibit this month in Portland, Maine, will benefit the Innocence Project. Artist Donald Verger is generously donating all sales from his March show to help free the innocent and prevent future wrongful convictions.
Verger said his eyes were opened to the issue of wrongful convictions after he was arrested in January and charged with a robbery he didn’t commit based on an eyewitness misidentification.
The Innocence Project's Third Annual Benefit — A Celebration of Freedom & Justice — will be held in New York City on May 6, 2009.
This year we are honoring director, producer and actor Bob Balaban, Innocence Project Board Member and Lava Records President Jason Flom, and the law firm of Weil Gotshal. Blue Man Group will perform.
Major Legislative Victories in Two States
In just the last two weeks, the Innocence Project helped secure major breakthroughs in Mississippi and South Dakota. Both states passed laws granting post-conviction access to DNA testing, leaving just four states in the nation without such laws.
When the Innocence Project began working in 1992 to overturn and prevent wrongful convictions, not a single state in the country had a law allowing prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA testing. Today there are 46 states with DNA access laws.
On March 16, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour signed a law providing post-conviction access to DNA testing and requiring that biological evidence collected at crime scenes be preserved as long as a case is unsolved or a convicted defendant is under state supervision in connection with the case. Less than a week earlier, on March 11, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds signed a law granting DNA testing in that state.
The four states without DNA access laws are Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. But some of the 46 states with these critical laws are also unnecessarily restrictive. A couple of states allow testing only for prisoners on death row, and the wording of laws in some other states leads judges to deny requests for testing. Meanwhile, only about half of the states have laws requiring evidence preservation, and DNA testing can’t happen unless the evidence exists.
With your help, the Innocence Project is intensifying our efforts across the country this year to ensure that evidence is preserved in all criminal convictions and all prisoners have access to DNA testing when it can prove innocence.
Innocence and the Death Penalty
Citing the ever-present and unacceptable risk of executing an innocent person, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signed a law last week repealing the state’s death penalty.
Seventeen people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing after spending time on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project supports a moratorium on capital punishment while the causes of wrongful convictions are fully identified and remedied. Read more about the Innocence Project’s policy on the death penalty here.
Kennedy Brewer (above, center, with his family and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin, second from right) is one of the 17 people who have been exonerated in the U.S. after spending years on death row for crimes they didn't commit. In Brewer's case, unvalidated forensic testimony contributed to a death sentence in Mississippi for a child murder that DNA now shows he didn't commit. Read more about his case here.
Former federal judge Harry Edwards testified last week before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that “there’s an obvious need to overhaul the existing system of forensic science in the United States.”
Edwards was the co-chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee that released a report last month calling for the creation of an independent federal agency to oversee and support forensic science in the nation’s criminal justice system. After hearing from a wide range of experts, the committee found resounding proof that the forensic science system needs immediate and fundamental reform. The Innocence Project has begun working with Congress and other key stakeholders to implement the report’s recommendations. Download the National Academy of Sciences report here, and read more about the Innocence Project’s work to improve forensic standards and oversight.
In other forensic reform news this month, the Innocence Project released a report on the program created by Congress nearly five years ago to address forensic misconduct. An Innocence Project survey found that just 13% of designated forensic oversight entities meet all federal requirements. The report outlines serious problems with the U.S. Department of Justice’s management of the program over the last several years and includes concrete improvements the Obama Administration can make.
“Congress wanted to ensure that serious forensic negligence or misconduct was properly investigated. Instead, the Bush Administration’s Justice Department essentially ignored federal law and let serious problems in crime labs go unaddressed,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project.
Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and University of Virginia Law Professor Brandon Garrett also published an article this month in the Virginia Law Review on invalid forensic testimony and its contribution to wrongful convictions. Read more and download the new paper here.
While the suffering caused by a wrongful conviction is impossible to imagine, I believe these injustices are the tip of the iceberg and point to deeper problems in the system. It’s obvious to me that poor people and members of minority groups are more likely to face injustice in our courts and prisons, but we’re a soundbite society and the problems with courts and law enforcement often fail to enter the public conversation. Thankfully, wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing have raised the level of this discourse and have contributed to real reform. The common-sense solutions supported by the Innocence Project are inspiring and could provide a platform for change throughout the system.
I always want my donations and efforts to have as big an impact as possible, and sometimes this stops me from making small gifts. I think I was holding back from supporting groups like the Innocence Project because I couldn’t afford to fully fund an individual case or make a major contribution. My friend helped open my eyes to the power of every dollar. I started making a monthly donation to the Innocence Project, and now I realize that every gift has an exponential impact. This is the first time I’ve set up an automatic monthly gift, and I’m proud to say that the Innocence Project can count on my continuing support. In these economic times, consistency helps organizations be as effective as possible.
My career is focused on helping others maximize this opportunity called life. I like to think that the Innocence Project does this as well - it helps give new lives to people who have lost their most precious asset - their freedom. My support of the Innocence Project means so much to me, because now I realize that even when you can’t do something big, it’s doing something that matters.