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Justice Activists Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton Given National Honors

Posted: Apr 24, 2015 06:00 PM

On Tuesday, innocence advocates Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were honored at the annual National Crime Victims' Service Awards Ceremony as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Crime Victims' Rights Week. Cotton and Thompson were awarded the 2015 Special Courage Award in recognition of the work they’ve done to draw attention to wrongful convictions and to call on lawmakers to adopt better police lineup practices and compensation laws for exonerees. The honor is given to “a crime victim or survivor who has exhibited exceptional perseverance or determination in dealing with his or her own victimization. It may also acknowledge an individual who has acted bravely either to aid a victim or to prevent victimization,” according to the Stanly News and Press.

Thompson and Cotton’s advocacy began after Cotton was freed from prison in 1995 based on DNA testing which showed that he’d been wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary. Cotton had served 10 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit because Thomson, who had been raped in 1984 in her home, misidentified Cotton as her attacker in a police lineup. Following Cotton’s release, Thompson reached out to Cotton to say that she was sorry.  The two developed a meaningful friendship and have since traveled the country telling others about their story. In 2010 they published a book entitled Picking Cotton about their shared and individual experiences as related to the criminal case. A movie about their case is currently in production. Thompson and Cotton are the first Special Courage Award recipients from a wrongful conviction case.

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Georgia Man Convicted of Arson Murder Will Get New Trial

Posted: Apr 23, 2015 05:10 PM

The arson and murder convictions of a Georgia man were vacated on Monday by the state supreme court, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Justice Robert Benham ruled that prosecutors neglected to turn over important evidence which could have aided in the defense of Justin Chapman, who was convicted in 2007 of setting the fire that killed his landlady.

The case hinged upon the testimony of Joseph White, a jailhouse informant who testified that Chapman confessed to intentionally setting the fire.  White stated during trial that he was not offered a deal in exchange for his testimony. In Justice Benham’s ruling, however, the judge writes that  there is video evidence of White stating the opposite—that he was offered a deal by the prosecution, information withheld from Chapman’s defense team. According to the Journal-Constitution, this evidence would have shown inconsistencies in the informant’s version of the story.

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Alliances Lead to Reform in How Cops Conduct Lineups in Colorado

Posted: Apr 23, 2015 02:50 PM

Colorado recently became the 12th state in the nation to adopt uniform best practices for eyewitness identification procedures, following a trend that encompasses every region of this country, from Texas to Wisconsin to New Jersey.  All of the residents of these states are now being served by police departments that are using eyewitness identification practices that have been scientifically proven to reduce the likelihood of misidentification. This is a major development, considering misidentification is the leading contributor of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, playing a role in 72% of such cases, nationally.

In Colorado, the legislation passed without a dissenting vote.  That was the result of collaboration between prosecutors, law enforcement officials, advocates and members of the legislature.  Those members were undoubtedly moved by the harrowing testimony of exonerees Brandon Moon and Dennis Maher, both of whom were misidentified and spent decades in prison, and Jennifer Thompson, a sexual assault survivor whose misidentification of her attacker sent an innocent man—Ronald Cotton—to prison for 10 years. But even before this groundbreaking legislation was introduced, stakeholders from across the spectrum of the criminal justice system came together to tackle this issue.  Leaders from the Attorney General’s Office, the District Attorneys Council, the Defense Bar, the Chiefs and Sheriffs’ Associations and the Innocence Project teamed up to come up with practical, evidence-based procedures which eventually became the basis of the law. 

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Photographer Documents Mississippi Wrongful Convictions

Posted: Apr 22, 2015 06:26 PM

Isabelle Armand is a documentary photographer based in New York City, who has spent the past two years working on a project entitled “Levon and Kennedy.” The project is a series of photographs of Innocence Project exonerees Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer who were both wrongfully convicted of related crimes based on inaccurate forensic evidence and negligent police conduct. The exhibition “Levon and Kennedy” is set to premiere in Oxford, Mississippi in fall 2015, alongside the release of a published collection of the photographs.

When asked about how the project came to fruition, Armand told the Innocence Project that three years ago she read an article about Levon’s and Kennedy’s cases which stuck with her and compelled her to reach out to the Mississippi Innocence Project in order to connect with the two men and their families, and to raise awareness around wrongful convictions. For Armand, Levon’s and Kennedy’s cases were “mindboggling” because of the apparent lack of accountability or care shown by authorities in their small town. “In this case” Armand said, “we also have some perspective on how complex wrongful convictions can be.” In taking on this project, Armand felt compelled to better understand the complexity of what had happened to Levon and Kennedy and felt that it was important to help others try to understand their story within the context of wrongful convictions in the South and other parts of the United States.

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Eric Lander Calls For Officials to Uphold Best Forensic Practices

Posted: Apr 21, 2015 06:02 PM

In light of the announcement over the weekend  that Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) examiners gave flawed testimony about hair evidence in 96% of the criminal trials that have been reviewed so far in a review of nearly 3,000 cases and counting, Co-Chairman of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and Innocence Project Board Member Eric Lander, in an op-ed for the New York Times on Tuesday, called for law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys to insist upon high-quality forensics to avoid wrongful convictions and ensure public safety.

Lander recalled a case for which he provided testimony as an expert witness, which prompted the National Academy of Sciences and the FBI to establish new standards for DNA fingerprinting. Among the defense team for that case were Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, who soon went on to found the Innocence Project.

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