Court Orders Testing in Death Row Case
An Alabama judge ordered DNA testing last week on several items that could prove the innocence or guilt of Tommy Arthur, who has been on death row for more than 25 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit.
Arthur has come within hours of being executed three times before receiving stays so courts could consider his appeals. The Innocence Project has worked with Arthur's attorneys in attempts to secure DNA testing.
Miguel Roman was officially exonerated in Connecticut this month, becoming the state’s second DNA exoneree. He served 21 years for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence. The Connecticut Innocence Project represented him.
Roman is a native Spanish speaker and didn’t have a translator for parts of his interrogation and trial. A column in the Hartford Courant considered the role of race and language in his wrongful conviction.
Read more about his case, including a surprising connection between Roman and the other Connecticut DNA exoneree - James Tillman.
DNA Testing Continues, Two Receive Pardons
Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine pardoned two former prisoners this month based on DNA evidence of their innocence. Arthur Lee Whitfield was exonerated in 2004 but has remained in a legal limbo until his pardon became official this week. Victor Anthony Burnette, who served eight years in prison, was cleared by DNA testing in 2006 and officially exonerated with this pardon.
Meanwhile, Virginia officials continue to evaluate past convictions involving biological evidence for possible DNA testing.
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. John Grisham and Susan Sarandon are Honorary Co-Chairs of the benefit.
Visit our new interactive annual report for updates and features on the work of the Innocence Project over the last year.
Pennsylvania Prisoner Still Seeking DNA Tests
Innocence Project client Anthony Wright has been in Pennsylvania prison for nearly 20 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit. DNA testing could prove his innocence or guilt but prosecutors have blocked his efforts to get testing for the last four years.
Last week, Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that Wright should get DNA testing under state law. In 2001 in response to several DNA exonerations in Pennsylvania the state legislature passed a law explicitly granting post-conviction DNA testing. But prosecutors are opposing Wright’s effort to get testing. They first claimed that because he confessed to the crime, he should not get DNA testing and now claim that prisoners should be denied testing there unless there is reasonable doubt about their guilt, a standard none could meet because they have already been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
"If there's one thing DNA testing has taught us, it's what appears to be overwhelming evidence can all be trumped," Morrison told the justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week. "Once the results are in, they speak for themselves."
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision in the months ahead on whether Wright should get DNA testing.
This case is proof that even in the 46 states with statutes providing DNA access, it isn’t always straightforward for a prisoner with a valid claim of innocence to obtain DNA tests. Many laws are interpreted too narrowly or are applied inconsistently. Learn more about the Innocence Project’s work to expand access to DNA testing for prisoners with valid claims of innocence.
Years after Cole’s death, an investigation by the Innocence Project of Texas led to DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. The test results proved Cole’s innocence and implicated another man, Jerry Wayne Johnson, who had begun writing letters in 1995 confessing to the crime. Unfortunately, his letters didn’t have an impact until after Cole’s death.
This month, a Texas judge posthumously cleared Cole based on the DNA results. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck served as co-counsel on the case with the Innocence Project of Texas. Cole is now one of 37 Texans exonerated by DNA testing and the first to be cleared posthumously.
Also this month, several Texas exonerees testified in support of bills to reform the state’s criminal justice system to prevent injustice including changes to the state’s eyewitness identification procedure and a requirement that jailhouse informant testimony be corroborated. Last week, both of those bills passed the state Senate and now move to the House.
This month, Montana became the 14th state in the country to require law enforcement agencies to record interrogations when possible. A number of cities and counties across the state had already seen the benefits of recording and had begun this practice voluntarily, but the new law mandates it and directs judges to reject confessions in some cases where interrogations weren’t recorded.
One-quarter of the 237 people exonerated by DNA testing gave a false confession or admission to crimes they didn’t commit. Research and experience have proven that the electronic recording of interrogations can prevent false confessions and provides tools to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes. Recording also helps resolve disputes about statements allegedly made during interrogations and can serve as a training and investigatory tool for law enforcement agencies.
Tennessee lawmakers also heard testimony on a similar bill this month, which would require recording of interrogations for murder cases. Legislatures in many other states including Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Ohio are considering reforms to require the recording of interrogations as well.
What’s the status of recording laws in your state? View our interactive map to find out.
Why I Give: Molly Chrein
Former Public Defender
The Innocence Project is making progress every day toward a better system. I’m proud to support their work.
I attended Cardozo Law School in New York City on my way to becoming a public defender myself, and studied with Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck in Cardozo’s criminal law clinic in 1991 (the year before the Innocence Project was officially created). At the same time, my husband, Andrew Hyman, took trial advocacy with Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld at Fordham Law School.
In my work as a public defender over more than a decade, I saw up-close the possibilities of wrongful convictions and the opportunities for reforms to prevent them. We’re at a crossroads in our system I am starting to see some important progress, but there’s a long way to go. The work of the Innocence Project is raising awareness across the country about the critical need for criminal justice reform, and that’s why Andrew and I support their work.
Andrew’s employer, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, generously matches our gifts to the Innocence Project, so our donations are able to go further to free the innocent from prison and reform the criminal justice system. We’re glad that we have this opportunity to help.
But every donation, large and small, helps the Innocence Project continue their work in this critical time. We’ll continue to give and to help raise awareness of this issue as long as we are able. Will you join us?