Waiting for justice: Hearing Friday in Dallas case
New York's Lessons Not Learned
Houston man’s release prompts review of lab cases
Why I Give: A Donor Profile
Below you'll find a roundup criminal justice reform news from around the country.
To see what's happening in your state, view our interactive reform map.
Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown testified last week before the Colorado DNA Task Force on the issue of state standards in evidence handling.
Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed three major criminal justice reform bills last week. This is the second year in a row he has blocked the reforms.
The bills proposed:
– Recording of interrogation in certain crimes
– Corroboration for informant testimony
– A new panel to study eyewitness identification
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified Oct. 22 before a Georgia panel reviewing statewide eyewitness identification practices.
Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill to compensate the wrongfully convicted upon exoneration.
The bill would provide exonerees with $50,000 per year served, plus other services, including medical care. Michigan would join 22 other states with compensation laws in place.
Percentage of first 205 exonerees who have not received any compensation: 53%
Average payment received through state compensation laws:
Average time an exoneree waited to be compensated: 3 years
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For more than two decades, Clay Chabot has been serving time in Texas prisons for a brutal murder he didn’t commit. DNA testing now proves that Chabot’s former brother-in-law, Jerry Pabst, testified against Chabot to hide his own guilt, and a Dallas judge last week ruled that Chabot’s conviction should be thrown out. Pabst, who was living in Ohio, has now been arrested and charged with the murder.
Clay Chabot remains incarcerated, however, while prosecutors decide whether to retry him on a new theory of the crime. At a hearing this Friday in Dallas, the judge could set bail for Chabot while a new trial is pending. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin, who will be in Dallas for the hearing, will ask the judge to allow Chabot to rejoin his family. It is not clear, however, whether Chabot will walk out of prison on Friday, despite the lack of evidence against him in this 1986 murder.
"If the District Attorney’s office intends to retry Clay Chabot, it’s going to be an extremely short trial because there is not one shred of evidence connecting him to this crime," Potkin said last week. "Clay Chabot was convicted based on Jerry Pabst’s testimony, and the DNA results don’t just prove that Pabst lied to hide his own guilt – the DNA also shows that Chabot did not commit this crime."
Coming this Friday: Read the Innocence Blog for an update from Vanessa Potkin in Dallas.
More people have been wrongfully convicted and later exonerated through DNA in New York State than in almost any other state in the nation, but New York lags behind most states in enacting critical reforms to prevent injustice. An Innocence Project report released last week reveals disturbing patterns behind the state’s 23 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence and outlines a clear path to reform.
Key facts from the report:
– In 9 of the 23 exoneration cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went on to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison.
– In 10 of the 23 cases, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.
But while other states have passed reforms proven to address these issues and prevent future injustice, New York lawmakers have failed to act.
– Six states – but not New York – have formed Innocence Commissions to identify the causes of wrongful convictions and develop remedies to prevent them.
– Nine states – but not New York – require at least some interrogations to be recorded (either through state statute or ruling of the state high court). In addition, more than 500 local jurisdictions record at least some interrogations. Even though more people have been exonerated by DNA after falsely confessing to crimes in New York than in any other state, only two of these 500 local jurisdictions are in New York State.
When Innocence Project client Ronnie Taylor (above, right, with Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck) was released from prison earlier this month after serving 12 years for a rape he didn’t commit, he didn’t go straight home to his family or to enjoy his favorite foods at a restaurant. Within minutes of being released from custody, he went to a Houston City Council meeting to urge officials to address hundreds of other cases like his.
Taylor was wrongfully convicted in 1995 after the Houston Police Department crime lab failed to identify the biological material at the crime scene that would eventually clear him this year. His case is the third in Houston (uncovered so far) in which errors or misconduct at the city crime lab contributed to the conviction of an innocent person. Coinciding with Taylor’s release from prison, the Innocence Project laid out a plan for city agencies, local leaders and the private sector to review hundreds of cases that may involve similar mistakes.
We’ve focused the community on addressing these cases once and for all – and we’re getting results. An independent audit identified 180 cases that need to be reviewed because of faulty testing in the lab, and the Innocence Project identified more than 400 cases where thorough testing was not even conducted. In the last few days, as a result of Taylor’s case and the Innocence Project’s advocacy, local prosecutors and judges have begun to establish mechanisms to reopen and review these cases. This is a huge step in the right direction – but we are still pressing to make sure that the Houston Police Department and the District Attorney’s office provide full cooperation, that top-notch attorneys review these cases and have the resources they will need to take on such a large task, and that forensic experts are involved throughout the process.
Five years ago, my husband, Neil, and I learned about the case of Sterling Spann, who was on death row in South Carolina for a murder he didn’t commit. We were familiar with the Innocence Project through news reports and we saw immediately that Mr. Spann’s case showed many of the signs of a wrongful conviction. We made contact with Mr. Spann and offered to help with his appeals. We helped him by hiring an investigator and supporting his legal representation. Finally, after he had spent 17 years on death row and several more years in legal limbo, he was released on parole in 2006.
Mr. Spann is not one of the 208 people exonerated by DNA testing because his release did not involve biological evidence. His case showed me that DNA exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg – there are countless innocent people who will never have the airtight evidence of DNA on their side. We became supporters of the Innocence Project because the group works to free the innocent and reform the system to prevent people like Mr. Spann from falling through the cracks. If we don't fix our criminal justice system now, we'll continue sending innocent people to prison, and we can't let that happen.