Citing the risk of executing an innocent person, an expert panel formed by Gov. Martin O'Malley voted this month to recommend repealing the state's death penalty.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified recently before the panel, and DNA exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth told members that he "living proof that Maryland gets it wrong."
DNA tests in the “Norfolk Four” case have already excluded the four men and implicated the real perpetrator of the crime, but three of the four defendants are still behind bars. More than two dozen FBI agents called for a pardon earlier this month, and the New York Times joined them last week.
Exonerees in Illinois aren’t able to apply for compensation until they’ve received a pardon from the governor, and Blagojevich has been heavily criticized for moving slowly to review pardon applications.
Six Convictions Overturned
DNA testing has cleared six wrongfully convicted Nebraskans of a 1985 murder and pointed authorities to the identity of the actual perpetrator. Joseph White and two co-defendants each served 19 years in prison before they were released in recent weeks due to evidence of their innocence. Three other co-defendants were released after serving several years in prison.
White has been fully exonerated, becoming the first-ever DNA exoneree in Nebraska, while the other defendants are seeking pardons.
William Dillon served 27 years in Florida prison before he was freed last week based on DNA evidence supporting his claim of innocence. His conviction was based in part on highly questionable evidence from a dog handler who was also involved in the wrongful conviction of Innocence Project client Wilton Dedge.
The Innocence Project of Florida is working with Dillon’s attorneys on the case. Read more here.
Finally Free After 20 Years
Innocence Project client Steven Barnes was 23 when he went to prison for a murder and rape he has always said he didn’t commit. Today, at age 42, he walked out of an upstate New York courthouse a free man, due to DNA test results supporting his longstanding claim of innocence. (Above, Barnes get a hug after his release this morning. Photo courtesy of the Utica Observer-Dispatch)
Several members of Barnes’ family embraced him when he was released — including his mother, who has stood by him throughout his long ordeal. For the last 20 years, the Barnes family could not celebrate Thanksgiving with him, but this year they are planning a large dinner at his sister’s home where the entire family will gather to celebrate his freedom.
Barnes was convicted in 1989 of the rape and murder of a teenage girl four years earlier in Whitestown, New York. Eyewitness testimony at his trial was shaky, but forensic testimony linked him to the crime. The forensic evidence included testimony that soil on Barnes' truck tires was similar to soil at the crime scene and testimony that an imprint on the outside of Barnes’ truck matched the fabric pattern on the jeans the victim wore when she was killed. Neither soil comparison nor jean pattern imprinting is scientifically valid, and they should not be used in court without proper bounds and/or experts testifying for both parties.
Barnes was freed after a state judge granted a joint motion from the Innocence Project and the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office to vacate his conviction. For several years, the Innocence Project has worked with the District Attorney to conduct DNA testing that could resolve Barnes’ claim of innocence, and new test results on material from the victim’s body and clothing do not match Barnes. While this strong evidence of innocence led to Barnes’ freedom, the charges against him will not be dismissed until additional investigation is conducted to identify the true perpetrator(s) of the crime.
Reforms to address and prevent wrongful convictions gained unprecedented momentum across the country this year, and 2009 is shaping up to be a banner year for the pursuit of justice.
In 2008, two more states (South Carolina and Wyoming) passed laws granting access to DNA testing in cases where it can prove innocence, bringing the total number of states with such laws to 44. Three states (Utah, Connecticut and Florida) passed laws compensating the wrongfully convicted after their exoneration; half the states in the nation now have such laws. Colorado passed a law requiring that biological evidence from crime scenes be preserved, and important reforms moved forward in several other states.
Looking ahead to 2009, there are opportunities for even more critical changes that can make our criminal justice system more effective and fair.
On a federal level, the National Academy of Sciences is expected to issue a comprehensive report next year on forensic science in the U.S. criminal justice system. The Innocence Project has shared concerns about forensic problems with the committee, and we will keep you updated when the report is released.
In the new issue of Innocence Project in Print, Executive Director Maddy deLone outlined the organization’s upcoming efforts to enact federal reforms.
She wrote: “The 2008 election shifted the landscape in Washington, D.C. presenting new and renewed opportunities to pursue federal reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions. For 15 years, the Innocence Project has worked with Republicans, Independents and Democrats in our nation’s capital and in all 50 states. We don’t support political parties or candidates we support reforms that make our criminal justice system more fair and effective, and we bring all kinds of people together to implement these reforms.”
Read her full letter in our print newsletter - released online this week.
And find out about the status of reforms in your home state on our interactive map.
Early next year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could define the constitutional right of criminal defendants to prove their innocence.
At the center of this case is Innocence Project client William Osborne, who served 14 years in Alaska prison for a sexual assault he says he didn’t commit. State courts have repeatedly denied him access to DNA testing that could prove his innocence, and the Innocence Project has sought access to DNA testing through federal litigation. Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that Osborne should be granted DNA testing. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on an appeal of this decision.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told the New York Times that DNA testing should be granted to Osborne in the interest of justice:
“Why would anyone be afraid to learn the truth in this case? There is no rational reason to deny DNA testing that could prove innocence or confirm guilt.”
Read more about the Osborne case here, and stay tuned to email updates and the Innocence Blog for more on this case.
Innocence issues were also central to two cases heard by the Supreme Court this month. In Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, the justices considered whether criminal defendants have the right to cross-examine forensic analysts who conducted tests in their cases. In Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, they heard arguments about whether chief prosecutors can be held liable for systems that allow wrongful convictions to happen. Read more about both cases here.
Why I Give: Jim Brady
Almost 60 years ago, when I was 13, a Boy Scout leader gave me a book about the Scottsboro Boys. My dad and his side of the family were from Georgia, and the story of a wrongful conviction in the South grabbed my attention. I knew then that this was a widespread problem in our country and not one that would go away soon.
I have followed this issue and read about it ever since reading about the Scottsboro boys. In my 20s, I read Edwin Borchard’s book “Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice.” It astounds me that this 1932 book covered 65 common causes of wrongful convictions, and it is still an uphill battle for groups such as the Innocence Project to address these causes. Although DNA testing has allowed our system to free hundreds of innocent people, there were wrongful convictions long before there was DNA testing, and I’m sure there are many innocent people behind bars without the benefit of biological evidence to test.
A couple of years ago, I was flipping through a copy of Cosmopolitan at my public library and came across an interview with Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin (“I Fight for Wrongly Convicted Prisoners," September, 2005). I was amazed at her dedication to the work of exonerating the innocent, and I decided then and there to donate to the Innocence Project. She said in the article that she wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about her cases, and anyone with that level of commitment to such a worthy cause deserves our support.
Reforming the criminal justice system is a big job, and everyone can play a part. I do everything I can to raise awareness about wrongful convictions. I write letters to editors and elected representatives in my home state of Ohio and across the country. I read everything I can find on this topic, and I keep my friends and family updated on the work of the Innocence Project. And I donate to the Innocence Project, because I am confident that this group’s work is helping to make the criminal justice system responsive to its citizens. If everyone in America gave just $1 to the Innocence Project, this group would have all of the resources it needs to review every innocence claim in the country.