The Innocence Project Online - November 2009
News from the innocence movement around the United States
After 18 Years, NY Man Is Cleared
A New York judge last week tossed out the conviction of Fernando Bermudez, who had served 18 years for a murder he always said he didn’t commit. Bermudez was convicted in 1992 of shooting a teenager in Manhattan, based mainly on identifications by eyewitnesses who would later recant.
The Innocence Project, in partnership with the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in Bermudez’s appeal, arguing that the eyewitness identification procedures used in the case were suggestive and could have contributed to a misidentification.
Nominate a Champion of Justice
The Innocence Network is accepting nominations for two new annual awards. The Champion of Justice award will honor a public servant who had gone above and beyond to help overturn wrongful convictions, and the Journalism Award will honor investigative reporting in the cause of justice.
Learn more and submit a nomination.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this month in the case of two Iowa men seeking to sue prosecutors for allegedly fabricating evidence to convict them of crimes they didn’t commit.
>The men served 25 years in prison before they were freed based on records that prosecutors had coerced witnesses against them and had withheld evidence pointing to an alternate suspect.
Freed After Eight Years
Dwayne Provience was freed in Detroit this month after serving eight years in prison for a murder he has always maintained he didn't commit.
Attorneys and law students at the Michigan Innocence Clinic investigated the case and found police reports, never disclosed to defense attorneys, showing that another man may have committed the crime. Based on this evidence a state judge dismissed his conviction and ordered Provience freed on bond.
An article in Reason Magazine this week examines how the case brought two very different families together in the name of overturning injustice.
Questions About "Dog Scent Lineups”
Two lawsuits filed this month in Texas challenge the reliability of “dog scent lineups,” in which dogs examine a group of scents including the suspect’s in an attempt to identify a perpetrator. Two men who were charged with crimes based on scent lineups are suing a dog handler who has testified in hundreds of cases.
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His First Month of Freedom
It has been a big month for Dewey Bozella. After spending more than 26 years in prison for a murder he always said he didn’t commit, he was finally freed when a New York judge tossed his conviction. He joined his wife, whom he had met in a prison visiting room and married in 1996, and began to build a new life.
Last week, he was recognized in the U.S. Senate for the tragic injustice he suffered, and he has begun speaking out about his case and the causes of wrongful conviction.
“DNA testing and legal help for the wrongfully convicted are so important because there are lots of innocence people in prison like me, who can’t afford an attorney and have nowhere to turn,” Bozella said this week.
The Innocence Project accepted Bozella’s case in 2007, but learned eventually that all biological evidence had been destroyed and DNA testing was impossible. The case was transferred to our pro bono partners at the WilmerHale law firm in 2008, and a team of lawyers uncovered convincing evidence the Bozella is innocent and that another man likely committed the crime. The firm dedicated more than 2,500 hours of work to Bozella’s case — worth $950,000 in a typical case — to prove his innocence and secure his release from prison.
Prosecutors announced on October 28 that they wouldn’t retry Bozella, and he walked out of an upstate New York courthouse a free man. He was 18 when he was arrested, and today he is 50 years old.
While in prison, Bozella helped start Rehabilitation Through the Arts, a prison theater company. He wrote, acted in and helped produced countless plays during his years in prison. He also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while behind bars.
Read more about his case.
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The Future of Forensics in Texas
The new chairman of a Texas panel investigating forensic negligence and misconduct told state senators last week that although the commission’s investigation into forensic science practices had slowed, it will continue. One senator, however, said there has been “a cloud over the process” of forensic review in Texas since Gov. Rick Perry abruptly replaced four members of the state’s Forensic Science Commission.
Gov. Perry shuffled the panel’s membership just two days before the commission was set to hear from an arson expert on forensic analysis in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murder based on questionable arson evidence and executed in 2004.
A state Senate committee called on Bradley last week to testify about the group’s ongoing work. He promised a continuation of work but refused to give a timeline, saying "we will work on (the cases) diligently and give you our opinion when it's ready.”
The Innocence Project asked the commission in 2006 to review the arson evidence used to convict Willingham, and the investigation was well underway when Perry intervened.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said after Bradley’s testimony that continuing the commission’s ongoing work was critical to prevent future injustice and to determine if more Texans might have been wrongfully convicted based on unvalidated science.
“We brought this allegation for one reason,” Scheck said. “We are concerned that there may be innocent people in prison in Texas based on unreliable science.”
Forensics in Texas have continued to grab headlines this month. One state senator said that the commission could emerge from this controversial shakeup stronger than it was before. A Houston Chronicle editorial urged the commission to put facts before politics.
Watch videos of the hearing and press conference, and learn more about the Cameron Todd Willingham case.
Ensuring that forensic science reliable is critical not just in Texas, but across the country. The Innocence Project has convened a growing coalition of advocates calling for the creation of a federal agency to stimulate forensic research, create standards and enforce those standards. Learn more at the Just Science Coalition website.
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Strengthening the Federal Innocence Protection Act
At a hearing before a U.S. Senate committee last week, a diverse group of criminal justice officials from across the country reported that they need more federal forensic assistance to protect the public and prevent injustice. The Innocence Protection Act, first passed by Congress five years ago, was intended to provide funding for DNA testing in state labs and training for defense attorneys. Congress is reviewing whether to renew the law and how to improve it.
Keith Findley (above), the Co-Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and President of the Innocence Network, testified Tuesday that it wasn’t until 2008 that states began receiving funds under the law. He urged Congress to take steps to make funding for DNA tests more accessible and to ensure that states and local jurisdictions preserve biological evidence that could be tested. Also testifying was Harris County, Texas, District Attorney Pat Lykos, who said more than 5,000 rape kits were untested in her county due to a DNA backlog and that federal funds could help reduce this backlog and identify the perpetrators of unsolved sexual assaults.
In separate federal funding news, the Department of Justice recently announced grants totaling more than $2.5 million for 11 organizations that work to overturn wrongful convictions through evidence other than DNA.
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Why I Give: Eric Yttri
St. Louis, Missouri
In my studies of the human brain, I’ve come across some interesting perspectives on wrongful convictions. For example, neuroscience has long accepted that human memory can be malleable and unreliable. It worries me that eyewitness evidence still plays such a central role in so many criminal cases, and I strongly support the work of the Innocence Project to ensure that eyewitness procedures are as reliable as possible. To prevent wrongful convictions, the science of memory should have a place in the courtroom.
But policy reforms alone won’t fix the system; an increase in public awareness about the issue is critical as well. Many people just haven’t thought about these issues, so they haven’t considered the plight of the wrongfully convicted. Social media platforms are helping to change this. I came across the Innocence Project’s website recently — and decided to make a donation — because a friend shared a link on Facebook. Tools like Facebook and Twitter let us share information about this cause with our personal networks, and every time we post a story or a link we’ve helped to raise the profile of this important work.
Please join me in supporting the Innocence Project with a donation this month, and in spreading the word via Facebook and Twitter.