Eighty Years Later, Scottsboro Boys Pardoned
Posted: November 21, 2013 2:50 pm
Seven months after the Alabama House of Representatives voted unanimously in favor of creating legislation to posthumously pardon nine black teens who were wrongfully convicted of raping two white women in 1931, this morning the Alabama parole board approved posthumous pardons for three of the men known collectively as the Scottsboro Boys.
The Associated Press reported that the board made the decision during a hearing in Montgomery for the three men — Charles Weems, Andy Wright and Haywood Patterson — whose convictions were never overturned. According to the board, the others were not eligible for pardon because their convictions had been overturned on appeal and the charges were dropped.
Olen Montgomery, Ozie Powell, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright’s convictions were overturned in 1937, and Clarence Norris received a pardon before his death in 1976. Since posthumous pardons were not permitted in Alabama until the legislature passed a law earlier this year, nothing was ever done for the remaining three men until today.
Read the full article.
Read more about the Scottsboro Boys and other historical wrongful convictions of African Americans.
New York State Funds Equipment for Recording Interrogations
Posted: November 20, 2013 3:40 pm
On Monday, New York State gave $700,000 to police agencies across the state to help increase their capacity to videotape interrogations, the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions.
The Times Herald-Record reported that Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York on Monday when he noted that video recording of police interrogations “ ‘helps prevent wrongful convictions and at the same time, protects investigators from false allegations.’ ”
The electronic recording of interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, will improve the credibility and reliability of authentic confessions, while protecting the rights of innocent suspects. This is a reform the New York State Defenders Association and the Innocence Project have long supported.
Orange County, which is comprised of 36 police agencies, was among the recipients to receive funding, getting a lump sum of $41,150. According to its District Attorney Frank Philips, most of the agencies already have recording capabilities courtesy of state money that started coming in 2006.
“ ‘We started initially with the most active police agencies,’ Phillips said. The county’s first cameras were installed at the state police barracks in Middletown, Monroe and Newburgh (now the Montgomery barracks); in the three cities, Newburgh, Middletown and Port Jervis; and in the towns of Newburgh and New Windsor. Now there is at least one recording setup in every town in the county. ‘There was no resistance whatsoever,’ Phillips said. ‘I think it’s a great program.’ ”
Orange County requires departments to videotape statements in all homicide cases as well as some felonies.
Read the full article.
Read more about false confessions and mandatory recording of interrogations.
Tags: Florida, False Confessions
Virginia Attorney General Joins Defense Lawyers in Effort to Clear Man’s Name
Posted: November 19, 2013 4:40 pm
A year after Jonathan Montgomery received a conditional pardon from the Virginia governor in a 2008 alleged molestation case, the state’s attorney general joins Montgomery’s lawyers on Tuesday to ask the appeals court to clear his name.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will be making one of his first public appearances since losing the governor’s race earlier this month when he appears before the Virginia Court of Appeals to ask that Montgomery be declared innocent.
The alleged victim, Elizabeth Paige Coast, claimed to have been molested in 2000 when she was 10 years old and Montgomery, who was her neighbor, was 14. Montgomery was convicted of aggravated sexual battery in 2008 and served four years before she recanted and admitted that she made the story up.
According to Coast, she fabricated the story of molestation after her parents caught her looking at pornographic websites as a teenager, so she created a tale of prior sexual abuse to explain her behavior. She was convicted of perjury in May and sentenced to two months in jail and ordered to pay $90,000 in restitution.
Papers filed by Cuccinelli’s office report that there has never been a case in which a recanting victim has been convicted of perjury. If Montgomery is cleared, this will be the first time the Court of Appeals has granted a writ of actual innocence on the basis of a recantation.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Brian Gottstein, a Cuccinelli spokesman said the attorney general will ask the court to award a writ. ‘The attorney general wants to bring any influence the office can to the table to help plead for Montgomery’s innocence and clear his name,’ he said. ‘The hope is that the weight of the attorney general’s office arguing for his innocence is a substantial influence to bring, because the office usually argues to keep people in jail; it doesn’t argue to get people out,’ Gottstein added.”
Cuccinelli has a long history of supporting actual innocence claims, advocating for the exonerations of Thomas Haynesworth and Calvin Cunningham, both in 2011, and Bennett Barbour in 2012.
Read the full article.
Tags: Virginia, Bennett Barbour, Thomas Haynesworth
Three of ‘San Antonio Four’ Expected to be Released
Posted: November 18, 2013 4:15 pm
More than a decade after four San Antonio women were convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse, based largely on what is now considered discredited medical testimony, three of the women are expected to be released from prison on bail today. The fourth woman was released on parole last year.
Collectively known as the “San Antonio Four,” Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez were charged with molesting two young sisters. They refused to plead guilty to the crime, but after multiple trials were held in 1997 and 1998, the four women were convicted.
The Innocence Project of Texas, which has represented the women since 2010, recently presented evidence that the medical testimony used against them at trial has since been discredited and that one of the alleged victims has come forward and confirmed that the crimes of which she and her sister accused the women never actually occurred.
KENS 5-CBS San Antonio reported that all parties are expected to make an agreement that would pave the way for the release of Ramirez, Rivera and Mayhugh.
Anna Vasquez, now 37, spent 13 years in jail before being paroled last year. She is nervous about the hearing and hoping for the best. She said to KENS 5-CBS, “ ‘We were charged and convicted and I was still in doubt… . I could not believe that this has happened.’ ” She went on to explain, “ ‘It’s a huge injustice to us, we had many years taken away from us… . I was angry, I would say I was in shock, disbelief.’ ”
According to the Innocence Project of Texas, the writs of habeus corpus that introduced the new evidence are among the first filed to invoke a recently passed junk-science bill in Texas. Senate Bill 344 expands the law to give inmates convicted by outdated or “junk” science the ability to appeal those convictions.
Read the full article.
Brooklyn District Attorney Ordered to Release Files in Murder Case Review
Posted: November 15, 2013 12:50 pm
Eight months after the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office ordered an investigation into whether a retired Brooklyn homicide detective fabricated confessions of suspects that he interrogated in approximately 40 murder cases, District Attorney Charles Hynes has refused to disclose any case information about the convictions. His refusal to cooperate contrasts
In a response to a subpoena filed by lawyers for one of the men whose conviction is under review, a Brooklyn judge ordered the DA to provide him with all the case files, two at a time.
The Daily News reported that the chiefs of the Appeals Bureau and the Conviction Integrity Unit, who are responsible for ordering the review of Louis Scarcella’s cases, seemed surprised by the judge’s ruling on Wednesday. The prosecution said the judge will receive the first boxes of documents by the end of this week.
Read the full article.
More on Scarcella’s review.
Tags: New York
Science News - November 14, 2013
Posted: November 14, 2013 3:00 pm
For years, scientists have known that non-coding DNA is part of the genome that does not directly determine physical features. A new study led by Axel Visel at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s genomics division, however, finds that non-coding DNA plays a role in fine tuning facial features in mice.
Generally, DNA provides our genetic blueprint; certain parts of DNA have different roles. Specific sequences of DNA, commonly called genes, code our recognizable facial features such as eye color, nose size and skin pigmentation. Between these genes are long sequences of non-coding DNA. For many years, its biological function has been unknown.
Visel and his group have conducted a pioneering study: after intentionally knocking out certain sequences of non-coding DNA, they measured the impact of certain facial features, such as facial length and width in mice. As a result, they identified more than 4,000 small regions of non-coding DNA that work as “transcriptional enhancers” that amplify specific facial feature genes.
Although the non-coding DNA may enhance how specific genes are expressed, the transcription enhancers do not independently contain identifying information. They only alter how the identifying genes are displayed.
This research is particularly interesting within forensic science because the small differences between non-coding DNA sequences within populations is used in the DNA testing that helps exonerate wrongly convicted people and identify true perpetrators. It also raises a concern, especially in the area of biometrics.
While Visel’s findings demonstrate that non-coding DNA enhancers play a prominent role in how genetic information is translated into facial features, developing facial reconstructions solely from coding genes, as written about in a previous “Science Thursday” blog post, may prove impossible. Even though the specific traits can be identified from coding DNA sequences, the lack of information regarding the enhancers could create an open-ended picture with too many uncertainties. More research, similar to that conducted by Visel, is necessary to understand the limits of biometric methodologies before widespread adoption.
To learn more about the work of Axel Visel at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, check out: http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2013/10/24/what-is-it-about-your-face/
Tags: Science Thursday
In the Land of the Rising Sun
Posted: November 13, 2013 5:15 pm
By Fernando Bermudez
In 2009, after having served more than 18 years in a New York prison for a murder he did not commit, Fernando Bermudez was exonerated. This week marks his four-year anniversary as a free man.
Today, Bermudez is a public speaker and advocate for criminal justice reform. He travels internationally, telling his story and calling on governments to implement better laws to prevent new wrongful convictions.
To reflect upon and celebrate his new life, Bermudez wrote this post for the Innocence Blog about his recent lecturing tour in Japan.
“Exonerated?” asked an immigration official, peering at me, wearing a creepy surgical mask. “E-X-O-N-E-R-A-T-E-D,” I responded. “Proven innocent,” I repeated, anxious and alone, two hours after being denied entry into Japan because I had checked a box indicating that I had been arrested before.
Darn; my tendency to be a “truth stick” had got me detained. It’s a common symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder. I over explain myself and say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am” to anyone wearing a uniform, even teenagers working at fast food restaurants. I suspect it’s the residual effect of being forced to respect authority during my more than 18 years in New York prisons, until I was exonerated in 2009. Or maybe it’s because I had told the truth in 1991 — that I was innocent of murder — but was convicted anyway. Judging by the fact that a fellow exoneree who was meeting me in Japan had also been detained twice for admitting his arrest, I wonder if this “truth stick” symptom is just a part of life for people who have been wrongfully convicted. Fortunately, my situation was resolved; sweet relief came when I was finally met by welcoming friends at Narita airport.
I had been invited to Japan to share my wrongful conviction story at a number of universities, bar associations and civic centers. My mission for my trip was to advocate for criminal justice reform in Japan and to promote abolishing the country’s death penalty. Also, I wanted to work with various institutions to establish an Innocence Project there.
Japan is certainly not immune to wrongful convictions or serious problems within its criminal justice system. It’s legal there to conduct 23-day-long interrogations. Suspects are interrogated without the right to counsel and interrogations are not recorded. It isn’t surprising, then, that most wrongful convictions in Japan are the result of false confessions.
In the nine cities where I presented, from Tokyo to Kobe, I addressed Japan’s 99 percent conviction rate. I also discussed how four people, who had been wrongfully convicted based on false confessions, had been exonerated from death row since the “Fukuoka incident,” in which an innocent man — Takeo Nishii — was executed in 1975, despite the real perpetrator — Kenjiro Ishii — declaring that Mr. Nishii was completely innocent.
Mr. Nishii’s case had been introduced to me by the Rev. Ryuji Furukawa, who I’d met while lecturing in Italy. He had invited me to Japan to present on improving Japanese laws to prevent another Fukuoka incident. While on my Japanese tour, I reunited with Rev. Furukawa. We campaigned in the streets and sought petition signatures to grant Mr. Nishii posthumous exoneration after Japan’s minister of justice broke his promise to enact a bill that would clear Mr. Nishii. We also urged Japanese legislators to establish newly discovered evidence standards for all innocent prisoners in Japan.
As my 14-day mission in Japan ended, I felt that I had accomplished something important. People said that my lectures had improved their lives. I am certainly better for it, for in the “Land of the Rising Sun” I have new and generous friends who care about Japan’s future and understand my passion for human rights.
Japan isn’t the last country where I will scatter seeds for justice. Public speaking is how I have chosen to live my life as an exoneree. My wife has even joined me on my mission; she speaks about the effects of wrongful convictions on families.
I have a message to share: love, justice and freedom are some of the greatest gifts we can receive. As I celebrate my fourth year of freedom this November, I will continue to speak this truth.
Tags: Fernando Bermudez
Two Pennsylvania Men Ordered Released
Posted: November 12, 2013 6:05 pm
One month after a Philadelphia judge dismissed the murder convictions of two men serving life sentences, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office announced they would not appeal the decision, clearing the path for both men to be released.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that after 15 years behind bars, Eugene Gilyard and Lance Felder were both released on a $20,000 bail bond on Friday and will be electronically monitored at home.
Attorneys and family members in attendance at last week’s hearing expected the prosecution to announce whether or not they would order a new trial and were stunned to learn Gilyard and Felder were ordered released. “ ‘That’s not something you see in this building every day,’ said veteran Center City civil-rights lawyer David Rudovsky, who represented Gilyard.”
As the Innocence Blog wrote last month, Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi said the original trial evidence was weak against the pair who were 18 years old when they were convicted of the 1995 shooting death of a restaurant owner. The victim’s daughter was the single eyewitness to identify Gilyard and Felder. The two young men were convicted based on the eyewitness testimony despite its inaccuracies in the age and height of the perpetrators.
Gilyard maintained his innocence and previously told police he knew the real perpetrators by their street names “Rolex” and “Tizz.” The Pennsylvania Innocence Project took on Gilyard’s case and uncovered new evidence of their innocence, including a confession to the murder by another man. Ricky “Rolex” Welborn confessed that he and another man had tried to rob the victim and shot him and that Gilyard and Felder had nothing to do with it.
Read the full article.
Michael Morton’s Prosecutor Enters Plea to Contempt for Misconduct
Posted: November 8, 2013 5:30 pm
Today, former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson entered a plea to criminal contempt for deliberately withholding exculpatory evidence pointing to the innocence of Michael Morton, who was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2011 after serving 25 years for his wife’s murder. Anderson, who sent Governor Rick Perry a letter of resignation on September 23rd, will receive 10 days in Williamson County Jail, a $500 fine, 500 hours of community service and will surrender his license to practice law. This marks an extremely rare instance, and perhaps the first time, that a prosecutor has been criminally punished for failing to turn over exculpatory evidence.
The Associated Press reported that Morton was sitting in the front row of the courtroom’s gallery watching as his former prosecutor sat at the defense table.
“‘In a case like this, sometimes it’s hard to say what meets the ends of justice and what doesn’t. There is no way that anything we can do here today can resolve the tragedy that occurred in these matters,” Judge Kelly G. Moore said Friday. “I’d like to say to Mr. Morton, the world is a better place because of you.’”
When the hearing was adjourned, Morton smiled as he was embraced by his family.
Read more from the Associated Press.
Read more in the press release.
Tags: Michael Morton
The Importance of DNA Evidence
Posted: November 8, 2013 3:20 pm
A feature article in the November/December issue of Evidence Technology Magazine focuses on DNA evidence being used to overturn wrongful convictions and the importance of proper testing.
Huy Dao, the director of case intake and evaluation for the Innocence Project, told the magazine that while the organization has to “ ‘turn down the vast majority of people who write… because DNA is not going to be a factor in establishing identity, or resolving the question of guilt or innocence’ … DNA testing has become more refined in recent years.” Hence, the organization still looks into every type of case because there may be “potential DNA to be obtained and tested.”
Although it sounds like a simple test is all it takes to prove a client’s innocence, the process can be lengthy and arduous because of privacy issues and long waits for testing.
“ ‘Our mission statement makes this process sound simple, but it may take years to deal with the volume and quality of review for each defendant whose case might progress,’ Dao said. Meanwhile, the Innocence Project is also working with the federal government and states to help bring forth policy that will prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.”
Another organization highlighted in the article is the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state funded agency that investigates and evaluates post-conviction innocence claims.
Sharon Stellato, the Commission’s associate director, says, “ ‘In cases that involve physical evidence, we first determine what was originally collected and then work with law enforcement agencies to determine what has been preserved and what can be tested.’ ”
DNA evidence can only be helpful in these cases if reliable lab management systems are in place and a proper chain of custody for DNA samples is established. In Colorado, for example, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office uses automated software to track the evidence being tested and where it will be stored.
Before evidence can be tracked, it must be preserved. Despite many state laws enabling inmates to seek DNA testing, performing a test years after a conviction can be challenging or impossible if the evidence has been lost, destroyed or contaminated due to improper storage.
The Innocence Project recommends that all physical evidence in all criminal cases be properly maintained as long as the defendant is incarcerated, under supervision or in civil litigation.
Read the full article.
More on preservation of evidence.
Tags: Evidence Preservation