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Your Brain, Race, and Criminal Justice

Posted: May 22, 2015 01:58 PM

The faces of the exonerated are predominantly black and brown. In fact, more than 70% of the 329 DNA exonerees nationwide are people of color. 

Researchers have used pictures of faces like these to study something called implicit bias. University of Washington psychologist Anthony G. Greenwald and his colleagues devised an “implicit association test”—or IAT — in which people are instructed to match words and pictures that represent concepts, and response time and accuracy are used as indicators of the strength of the association between these concepts. This test is based on the premise that it is less mentally taxing to match concepts that are closely related in our minds (e.g., names of flowers like “tulip” and pleasant-meaning words like “happy”) than it is to match concepts that are not strongly related (e.g., names of insects like “wasp” and pleasant-meaning words like “happy”). People respond faster and more accurately when pairing concepts that are automatically associated. Racial bias has been measured in this way, and the test results show that participants are faster at pairing positive words with white faces than they are at pairing positive words with black faces. The converse is true with negative words. It turns out, most Americans—regardless of their own racial group—exhibit unconscious pro-white, anti-black attitudes on the IAT.

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Center on Wrongful Convictions Requests Testing of New Evidence in Savory Case

Posted: May 21, 2015 05:06 PM

Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago filed a motion in Peoria County Court last week requesting advanced testing on DNA which they say proves the innocence of Johnnie Lee Savory in the double-murder for which he was sentenced to life in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, in 1981.

In 1977, siblings James Robinson Jr., 14, and Connie Cooper, 19, were found stabbed to death in their home. A week later, Peoria police pulled Savory out of school and interrogated him for nearly two days without a lawyer or guardian present. Police extracted a confession, and Savory, who was just 14, was convicted in 1980. The conviction was overturned when the confession was thrown out by the Illinois Appellate Court in 1980 on the grounds that it was coerced. Savory was retried, convicted and sentenced the following year.

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Nebraska Legislature Votes in Favor of Repealing Death Penalty

Posted: May 20, 2015 02:54 PM

Today the Nebraska Legislature voted 32-15 to repeal the death penalty. The vote is the first to pass in 36 years and is expected to be vetoed by Governor Pete Ricketts. In the coming week an override veto will likely take place, which will ultimately determine whether the bill will become law. In order to override Ricketts’ veto, the Legislature will have to maintain a minimum of 30 votes to repeal the death penalty, reports

According to, this legislative session in Nebraska has shown a new bolstered support for ending the death penalty on the part of Republican senators. In an open letter published earlier this month by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Republican senators and other conservative supporters of the repeal provide numerous reasons to get rid of the death penalty. The letter points to conservative values that the death penalty inherently does not support such as “limited government, fiscal responsibility, [and] the right to life and liberty.”

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Defendants Convicted Because of Tainted Evidence Can Get Risk-Free Retrials

Posted: May 19, 2015 05:20 PM

In a decision today by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, defendants convicted based on evidence handled by state chemist Annie Dookhan may seek new trials without the risk of additional charges or a more severe sentence previously avoided via a plea agreement.

Dookhan pled guilty in 2013 of perjury, obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence for failing to properly test samples alleged to be illegal substances before declaring them positive, mixing up samples, forging signatures and lying about her credentials. She was sentenced to three to five years in prison and two years of probation.

More than 300 convictions were vacated after Dookhan’s plea, but according to the New York Times, thousands more could still be thrown out in light of Dookhan’s misconduct. According to Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Matthew Segal, many defendants have potentially refrained from applying for post-conviction relief because they faced being convicted of previously dropped charges and serving additional prison time.

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Supreme Court Upholds the Right to Sue Los Angeles Police for Concealing Evidence in Walker Case

Posted: May 18, 2015 04:50 PM

In an article published today, the L.A. Times reports that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a civil jury verdict against two Los Angeles police detectives for concealing evidence, causing an innocent man, Michael Walker, to be kept in jail for 27 months awaiting trial.  

Walker, who has since passed away, was arrested in August 2005 as a suspect in a store robbery after a store clerk said Walker looked like the middle-aged black man who had robbed the store just a few days prior. Although no evidence was found linking Walker to the robbery, his arrest led to him being considered a prime suspect in a chain of similar robberies in the area, writes the L.A. Times. Over a dozen robberies were connected by the thief’s pattern of giving misspelled hand-written notes to cashiers demanding money. 

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