Innocence at the Supreme Court
The Growing Awareness of False Confessions
Success in South Carolina
Why I Give: A Donor Profile
News from the innocence movement around the United States
Freed After 15 Years
Arthur Johnson was exonerated and released this month after serving 15 years in Mississippi prison for a rape he didn’t commit. His attorneys at Innocence Project New Orleans obtained the DNA tests that proved his innocence.
Read more here.
Deadline Nears on DNA Access
The law allowing innocent prisoners to apply for DNA testing in Michigan is set to expire January 1 if state lawmakers don’t act soon.
There are just a few days left in the legislative session, and Innocence Project supporters in Michigan are urging state senators to act before time runs out.
Read more and take action.
DA Gets Partial Control of Crime Lab
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 yesterday to grant the District Attorney partial control over the county’s crime lab, despite reports last year that his office asked an analyst to change test results in the case of exoneree James Ochoa.
The Innocence Project has argued that neither defense attorneys nor prosecutors should have control of crime labs, and an editorial last week in the OC Register agreed.
Read news coverage of the lab dispute and a letter from James Ochoa to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
For nearly two decades, Troy Davis has sat on Georgia’s death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He came within days of execution for the third time last week before a federal court granted him a stay.
Davis was convicted based mainly on unreliable eyewitness testimony, but despite mounting evidence of his innocence, several courts have refused to grant him a hearing. The Innocence Network filed a brief urging the Georgia Supreme Court to consider the serious problems with eyewitness testimony in the case. Read more.
Examining Eyewitness Identification
A three-part series in the Dallas Morning News this month explored eyewitness misidentification as a cause of wrongful convictions and the role of eyewitnesses in today’s criminal trials. More people have been exonerated in Dallas since 2001 than in any other county in the nation. Read their stories and watch video interviews here.
And 37 people have been cleared by DNA testing statewide in Texas, more than any other state. Texas Monthly’s November issue includes a feature story on the exonerated. Watch videos on Texas Monthly’s website.
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Innocence at the Supreme Court
Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether prosecutors can be held accountable when their office-wide policies lead to wrongful convictions. A few days later, the justices will hear another case centering on defendants’ rights to challenge forensic evidence. The outcome of these two cases could have a lasting impact on the rights of defendants and the wrongfully convicted in America, and the Innocence Network has filed briefs in each.
In the first case, Van de Kamp vs. Goldstein, false testimony from a jailhouse informant was a central factor in the wrongful conviction of Thomas Goldstein in Los Angeles in 1980. He served 24 years for a murder he didn’t commit before he was finally released due to evidence of his innocence in 2004. Goldstein is suing the former L.A. District Attorney in civil court because his office had no system in place to track deals with jailhouse informants testifying for the state. Individual prosecutors already have absolute immunity from lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for their trial-related “adversarial” conduct but not for “investigative” or “administrative” actions.
Snitch testimony is a major cause of wrongful conviction — more than 15% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing involved testimony from informants. The Innocence Network’s friend-of-the-court brief in the Goldstein case argues that if the U.S. Supreme Court extends absolute immunity to cover prosecutors’ managerial and administrative functions, critical safeguards could be eroded — physical evidence could be destroyed, forensic analysis could become more secret and snitch testimony could become more common and less regulated.
The court will hear arguments in the second case, Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, on November 10. Luis Melendez-Diaz is challenging his 2002 Massachusetts drug conviction because his attorney was denied the chance to cross-examine a state analyst who prepared a report on forensic testing in his case. In its brief, the Innocence Network argues that a ruling in favor of Melendez-Diaz would help prevent wrongful convictions by allowing defendants to expose faulty forensic evidence presented at trial.
The Growing Awareness of False Confessions
False confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions, but many Americans — and even many people working in the criminal justice system — have a hard time believing that innocent people confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
This month, the Innocence Project filed an appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on behalf of a client who is being denied DNA testing because he confessed. And, in the last two weeks, the nation learned about the issue of false confessions through an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show and a high-profile op-ed from a Washington, D.C., police detective.
Innocence Project client Anthony Wright has been in prison for 15 years in Pennsylvania for a crime he says he didn’t commit. He was convicted of murdering a 77-year-old woman and narrowly avoided the death penalty, instead getting a life sentence. Since 1995, he has sought DNA testing that could prove his guilt or innocence, but judges have repeatedly denied his appeals, saying that since he confessed to the crime, DNA can’t prove his innocence. But DNA testing can prove whether a confession was true or false, as the Innocence Project argued in a brief on Wright’s behalf filed in state Supreme Court. Learn more about his case here.
Last week, millions of Americans watched an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show about the false confession of Marty Tankleff (above), who served 17 years in New York prison for the murder of his parents before new evidence proved his innocence and led to his release. Tankleff said he is determined to work for changes in the system, including advocating for state laws that require the recording of interrogations, which has been shown to prevent false confessions:
"There are so many faults with (the system),” Tankleff said. “There shouldn't be any more Marty Tankleffs. Society suffers when an innocent person goes away, and we can change the system."
And Jim Trainum, a 25-year veteran with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., agrees with Tankleff that it’s time for the system to change.
“Videotaping interrogations is proven to decrease wrongful convictions based on false confessions,” Trainum wrotes in an LA Times op-ed, adding that it helps law enforcement, too. “When the entire interrogation is recorded, attorneys, judges and juries can see exactly what led to a confession. Police officers become better interviewers over time, as they review tapes of their interrogations, and confessions are easier to defend in court. The only police officers I've met who don't embrace recording interrogations are those who have never done it.”
Learn more about reforms to prevent false confessions.
Success in South Carolina
South Carolina just became the 44th state in the U.S. with a law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing. State lawmakers overrode a veto from Gov. Mark Sanford, who expressed reservations (shared by the Innocence Project) about a provision in the bill that would expand DNA databases.
The six remaining states without DNA access laws are Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
The South Carolina bill also ensures that crime scene evidence will be preserved in most serious felony convictions until the defendant is released from custody (unless they pled guilty, in which case the evidence would only be preserved for seven years).
223 people exonerated DNA testing would be where they are today if their cases had been lost or destroyed by authorities. The Innocence Project works around country support of evidence preservation practices will help exonerate innocent and solve cold cases. What’s law your state? reforms in that the to>What's the evidence preservation law in your state? Find out on our interactive map.
Why I Give: Dave Chernow
I’m inspired and encouraged every time I hear about another person freed by DNA testing. It’s devastating to hear the story of someone whose whole life has been taken from them, but it can also give us new hope to see exonerees rebuilding their lives.
And they need your help now more than ever before.
The work of the Innocence Project is about more than these 223 exonerated individuals, however. Every innocent person in prison left a community behind. The wrongfully convicted are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, uncles, employees, employers and neighbors. When someone goes to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, the ripples are felt throughout the community. And the ripples of injustice go even further. Americans are beginning to learn about the problems with our criminal justice system, and the Innocence Project is working to fix this broken system.
The Innocence Project’s successes over the last several years have brought the organization to a critical juncture — they have built powerful momentum to free countless innocent people, and also to help enact long-lasting reforms to our broken system. Even though the economic situation in our country is bleak, I feel strongly that the Innocence Project needs the continued support from us — the group’s supporters around the world — in order to keep this precious momentum alive.
I learned about the Innocence Project when I saw the documentary “After Innocence,” a couple of years ago. I remember watching the film and thinking — this could happen to my kids. I made my first donation the next day. I would like to think that our criminal justice system errs on the side of caution, that it truly does presume all defendants innocent until proven guilty, but that’s just not the case. After conviction, even more doors are closed to the innocent. They often can’t even get a court to grant them the DNA test that could prove innocence or guilt. I support the Innocence Project because they help these defendants who are the most in need &mdash and because it is clear that the group’s work affects a wider community everyday.
Make an online donation today via our secure website.