News from the innocence movement around the U.S.
Nathaniel Hatchett is the 216th DNA exoneree
Last week, Nathaniel Hatchett in Michigan became the 216th person exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.
Hatchett was convicted of a rape he didn’t commit, and he served 10 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. He was represented by the Cooley Innocence Project in Michigan.
Released after 26 years
Alton Logan, who served 26 years in prison for a murder he had always said he didn’t commit, was released from an Illinois prison on Friday due to new evidence of his innocence.
For more than two decades, attorneys for another man, Andrew Wilson, held a signed affidavit in which Wilson confessed to committing the murder alone. They were bound by attorney-client privilege to keep Wilson’s confession a secret, but released the information after Wilson’s death last year.
Exonerees and experts call for reform
Jeffrey Deskovic, who served more than 15 years in New York prison after he falsely confessed to a murder he didn’t commit, told a panel of New York lawmakers earlier this month that the state needs to enact reforms to prevent false confessions from happening in the future.
More than 500 jurisdictions already record police interrogations in major crimes, and studies have shown that this practice prevents wrongful conviction and helps police investigations. New York lawmakers are considering making the procedure mandatory for certain interrogations.
U.S. Supreme Court allows lethal injections
In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court decided this week that lethal injections could continue in Kentucky, sending a signal to other states to resume executions. A de facto moratorium on the death penalty was effectively lifted with this decision.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his concurring opinion about the need for a review of the death penalty and the real possibility of executing an innocent person.
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A turning point in Texas
Thomas McGowan served nearly 23 years in Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was released last week due to DNA evidence proving his innocence. He is among more than 30 Texans who have been proven innocent through DNA testing after serving years or decades in prison for crimes they did not commit. As a result of the unprecedented number of exonerations in Texas, key leaders from across the state will gather in Austin on May 8 for a landmark Summit on Wrongful Convictions to determine the causes of wrongful convictions in Texas and identify reforms that can prevent them.
(Above, L to R, Texas exonerees James Giles, Thomas McGowan, James Waller and Charles Chatman)
Judges, lawmakers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, exonerees, professors and many others will come together for the Summit. The Summit will mark the first time any state’s criminal justice leaders have initiated a high-level meeting themselves to address wrongful convictions. Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis, who chairs the Innocence Project’s Board of Directors, is spearheading the Summit, and Co-Director Barry Scheck will attend. The Summit will be open to the public.
McGowan’s release highlights the need for immediate eyewitness identification reform in Texas and across the country. He was convicted in the mid-1980s when the victim of a rape identified him in a flawed photo lineup. When she told a police officer she “thought” McGowan’s photo looked like the attacker, the officer told her: “Yes or no, you need to be sure.” Suddenly, she was sure it was him.
Eyewitness misidentification has been a factor in more than 75% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, and the procedure in McGowan’s identification was not unusual. Several states have passed eyewitness identification reforms in recent years, and improvements were approved last year by the Texas Senate and the House Law Enforcement Committee but did not pass the full House before the session ended. The bill will be introduced again in the next session.
Young people build momentum to fix the criminal justice system
The Innocence Project’s new “947 Years” campaign is reaching thousands of high school and college students across the U.S. each week. Students from all 50 states have signed the petition for DNA access, and thousands of people have watched our new two-minute video: “Freed by DNA.”
Young people are affected by wrongful convictions, and they are uniquely positioned to help prevent injustice if they learn about these issues and get involved now. More than one-third of the 216 people exonerated by DNA testing were 22 or under when they were arrested. They served a combined 947 years in prison, losing the prime of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project’s new campaign is increasing youth awareness of the causes of wrongful convictions and engaging young people in efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
On Thursday, Brandeis University student Cindy Kaplan wrote on the Innocence Blog about the club she started at Brandeis to raise awareness about wrongful convictions. “Groups like this can’t just exist at Brandeis,” she wrote. “We need to see students mobilizing around this issue on college campuses and high schools around the country. Innocent people are having their lives torn away from them every day, and we have the power to voice the need for change.” Read her full blog post here.
You can help the Innocence Project reach young people with this campaign. Visit our site to send a call to action to young people you know, as well as teachers and parents.
When the Innocence Project learned that flawed autopsies contributed to the wrongful convictions of two of our clients in Mississippi, we took a closer look at the pathologist who handled the autopsies and we discovered a widespread crisis in the state. For years, Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne has conducted the vast majority of autopsies in the state. He claims to conduct 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies a year, and he is not subject to any oversight. In case after case, he has reached conclusions that are not rooted in science or medicine but serve prosecutors’ interests. There’s no way to know how many more innocent people were convicted based on Hayne’s words. But his years of practicing fraudulent forensic science unchecked could be near an end.
Last week, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour appointed a new Commissioner of Public Safety, who said filling the job of State Medical Examiner is his top priority. The position has been vacant for more than a decade, meaning district attorneys and coroners could hire private medical examiners like Hayne with no official oversight. Meanwhile, Mississippi lawmakers have advanced critical legislation on handling DNA evidence, and are also moving toward fully funding the State Medical Examiner’s office for the first time in a decade.
This month, the Innocence Project filed a formal request with a state board to revoke Hayne’s license to practice medicine.
“Steven Hayne’s long history of misconduct, incompetence and fraud has sent truly innocent people to death row or to prison for life. This is precisely why regulations are in place to revoke medical licenses. Steven Hayne should never practice medicine in Mississippi again, and the complaint we filed today is an important step toward restoring integrity in forensic science statewide and restoring confidence in the state’s criminal justice system,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project.
I learned about the Innocence Project in the news last year after Jerry Miller in Chicago became the 200th person exonerated by DNA testing nationwide. I’m 24 years old, and I’m an officer in the U.S. Army. I was shocked when I went to college and learned that many of my fellow students had never considered the problem of wrongful convictions and thought that our criminal justice system was perfect. If we can raise awareness about this problem among my generation, we can be the ones to fix this broken system. For this reason, I was excited to learn about the Innocence Project’s "947 Years" campaign reaching out to young people about these issues. I hope it’s the spark that creates a new youth movement in our country.
I’ve been interested in these issues for years, but in college I started to learn the details. I took a psychology class where the professor discussed problems with human memory and demonstrated the effects of this on eyewitness identification in criminal cases. It scares me to think about the number of people convicted on this questionable evidence every year in our country, but it’s good to know that the Innocence Project and partners around the country are working on reforms to prevent misidentifications.
I grew up in a religious family and then went to the U.S. Military Academy, and both taught me the importance of honor, integrity and giving. I became a supporter as soon as I learned that there was an organized, successful group addressing wrongful convictions. The criminal justice system is a human endeavor, so it can make mistakes. I can’t reconcile a person being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, and I wanted to do something about it. I spend a great deal of time deployed overseas, so I’m not able to volunteer as much as I would like. I believe strongly in supporting the causes I care about, so I became a monthly Innocence Project donor. I can’t give a lot of money, but I believe that giving isn’t something you do once, it’s something you do consistently. I give every month because I want to make sure the Innocence Project keeps working for years to free the innocent and bring checks and balances to the system.