Innocence Blog

Murder Conviction Overturned After Three Decades Based on DNA Evidence

Posted: October 16, 2014 2:05 pm

Nearly thirty years after a New York man was convicted of a 1985 homicide, he was freed from prison Wednesday when Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson vacated the conviction based on DNA evidence. David McCallum was 16 when he and codefendant Willie Stuckey, who died in prison of a heart attack in 2001, was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Nathan Blenner and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Prosecutors have concluded that alleged confessions made by the two were false.  The Daily News reported that Thompson said there “is not a single piece of evidence” that connected the two suspects to the crime. 

While making the announcement, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson slammed his predecessor for leaving behind a mess of injustice. “I inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions,” the DA said.

McCallum’s lawyer, Oscar Michelen, first brought McCallum’s case to The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit when it was under former DA Charles Hynes leadership, but his pleas went unanswered. (Elizabeth Holzman was the Brooklyn District Attorney in 1985 when McCallum and Stuckey were wrongly convicted.) 

Including McCallum and Stuckey, Thompson’s review unit has cleared 10 men, two of them posthumously, who did time for murder. The pair were cleared by DNA testing on evidence obtained from the car Blenner was kidnapped in that matched other men. 

 “I think that the people of Brooklyn deserve better and I think we shouldn’t have a national reputation of a place where people were railroaded and convicted of murders they did not commit,” he said.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions assisted in McCallum’s defense.

Read the full article


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The Los Angeles Times Calls for Recording of Interrogations

Posted: October 15, 2014 6:25 pm

One month after DNA evidence exonerated a pair of North Carolina brothers who were convicted of rape and murder based on their coerced confessions, an editorial in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times outlines how law enforcement can prevent future missteps and wrongful convictions.
 
Mentally disabled half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, spent 30 years behind bars before they were released last month. Their cases are among the roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases where innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.
 
Research shows that innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit as a result of mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics. The electronic recording of custodial interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions. The Times writes:


Outfitting all those interrogation rooms wouldn’t be cheap, and storing the interviews would take some logistical configuring. But those are minor hurdles. Since 2010, Congress has considered several bills that would have provided matching federal funds to install recording systems, but it has failed to pass them. It should do so.
 
But even if it doesn’t, the Legislature should work with Gov. Jerry Brown to recraft legislation requiring the recordings. It would protect both the integrity of the criminal justice system and the innocent.

Read the full editorial.
 
Understand the causes of false confessions and learn more about mandatory recording of interrogations.



Tags: California, North Carolina, Leon Brown, Henry Lee McCollum, False Confessions, False Confessions, Death Penalty

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California Woman Exonerated of Murder

Posted: October 14, 2014 5:15 pm

A woman who spent 17 years behind bars for the murder of a homeless man in California was exonerated Friday by a Los Angeles County judge. California Innocence Project client Susan Mellen, now 59, was convicted of planning the murder of her former boyfriend, Richard Daly, over items he allegedly stole from her mother’s house. NBCLA-Southern California reported that Judge Mark Arnold ordered Millen’s immediate release and dismissed the case. She walked out of the courtroom a free woman by 6 p.m. that evening and celebrated with her three children.
 
“This is the greatest miracle ever,” Mellen said, according to NBCLA-Southern California. “I’m just so excited; I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed. It’s just so amazing, this is huge.”
 
Mellen maintained her innocence since the very beginning and told police repeatedly that she had nothing to do with Daly’s murder. Despite witnesses’ testimony in support of her alibi for the time of the murder, Mellen was convicted in 1998 based primarily on the testimony of what the judge called “a habitual liar.”
 
“I told the judge the day I got sentenced that one day God would bring the truth to the light,” she said to NBCLA-Southern California.
 
In 2009 the California Innocence Project began interviewing people who knew Daly and Mellen and who could have had information about the murder. Last year, Innocence Matters worked with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to reexamine evidence from the case. The evidence pointed to three known gang members, one of which told investigators that Mellen had nothing to do with Daly’s murder.
 
Read the full article.



Tags: California

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Kentucky Woman Will Not Face New Trial for Murder Charges

Posted: October 10, 2014 4:25 am

Three months after murder charges against a Kentucky woman were dismissed by the state’s Court of Appeals, the state’s attorney ruled Tuesday that she won’t face a new trial. The Courier-Journal reported that Susan Jean King spent six years behind bars for a 1998 murder after pleading guilty, even though she didn’t commit the crime, because of pressure from a state police detective who told her she faced life in prison. She was released in 2012 before she had served out her sentence.
 
Charges of murder and tampering with physical evidence were dismissed and although prosecutors could bring a new indictment, Kentucky Innocence Project’s Supervising Attorney Linda Smith said it would be impossible to retry King.
 
Despite maintaining her innocence, King pleaded guilty in 2008 to the manslaughter of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden and accepted a 10-year sentence. Breeden’s body was discovered in the Kentucky River after being thrown off a bridge.
 
In a motion filed last week demanding King be retried or charges dropped, Smith claimed that former Detective Todd Harwood perjured himself to obtain King’s indictment, covered up evidence that showed she was innocent, then tried to suppress the confession of a man who told Louisville police in 2012 that he was the real perpetrator.
 
Smith and the Kentucky Innocence Project took on King’s case after they concluded that it would have been physically impossible for King, who weighed 97 pounds at the time of the offense and has only one leg, to have committed the crime.
 
Smith said King will meet with private attorneys next week to consider bringing a lawsuit against the state.
 
Read the full article.



Tags: Kentucky

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Connecticut Governor Makes Surprising Appointment to Parole Board

Posted: October 9, 2014 12:20 pm

Kenneth Ireland spent two decades — almost half of his life — in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit before DNA proved his innocence and he was released in 2009. Now five years later, Governor Dannel P. Malloy announced his appointment to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
 
The Hartford Courant reports that Ireland’s responsibilities on the board will include deciding the future of others who claim innocence and appeal for clemency. Joining Ireland on the five- person board are people with backgrounds in nonprofit management, law and parole or probation. The Courant writes:


“Ken Ireland is a man of extraordinary character, who endured the unimaginable pain of nearly 20 years of wrongful incarceration and yet is not only without bitterness, but is incredibly thoughtful, insightful and committed to public safety and public service,” said Malloy, who announced four other appointments to the Board of Pardons and Paroles Wednesday.
 
“By long experience, Ken Ireland is intimately familiar with the criminal justice system and knows better than most that there are individuals who deserve to be in prison and there are individuals whom society should give another chance, and I believe that he will take very, very seriously the responsibility of making those judgments,” the governor said.

In a statement released by his attorney William Bloss, Ireland said he was honored by Malloy’s trust in him.
 
“Perhaps more than most, I understand the importance of fairness in the criminal justice system and the importance of public safety. I look forward to serving the people of the state of Connecticut in any way possible,” said Ireland, according to the Courant.
 
Read the full article.
 
More about Ireland’s case.



Tags: Kenneth Ireland

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Watch Now: Frontline Revisits Willingham

Posted: October 8, 2014 5:15 pm

Nearly four years after Frontline premiered “Death by Fire,” an examination of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters, the series revisited the case in “Death by Fire 2,” which aired Tuesday evening on PBS.
 
The follow-up show, which questions if Texas executed an innocent man, was prompted by new allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the case against Willingham. In August, the Innocence Project filed a detailed grievance with the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar of Texas urging investigation in to whether former Willingham prosecutor John Jackson failed to disclose a deal with jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who testified that Willingham, while in jail, confessed to the arson murder of his three children. This supposed confession became indispensable evidence on the eve of Willingham’s execution in 2004 when an expert report was filed with courts, exposing the arson evidence against Willingham as false. Current and former Navarro County prosecutors were not aware that Jackson had reduced Webb’s conviction for robbery in the first degree to robbery in the second degree based on cooperation in the Willingham case. If the plea deal between Jackson and Webb had not been hidden by Jackson prior to the execution, the prosecutor assigned to the case now says that he would have disclosed it.
 
“Death by Fire 2” includes an exclusive on-camera interview with Webb.
 
Watch the full episodes.
 
Learn more about Cameron Todd Willingham.



Tags: Texas, Death Penalty, Cameron Todd Willingham

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Capital Punishment in Kansas and Memories From an Oklahoma Death Row Exoneree

Posted: October 6, 2014 3:45 pm

Oklahoma death row exoneree Curtis McCarty recently sat down with Wichita Public Radio to discuss his wrongful conviction and life behind bars for a segment that focused on capital punishment in Kansas. Despite capital punishment being legal in the state, Kansas hasn’t executed an inmate since 1965.
 
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Four years later, the high court reversed the ruling and allowed states to carry out executions under certain guidelines. Since Kansas reinstated the death penalty a decade ago, there have since been 85 charges of capital murder and 13 convictions, nine of which still stand.
 
Just across the state border, McCarty spent more than 20 years behind bars in Oklahoma. Since 1976, 111 individuals convicted of murder have been executed by lethal injection in that state. Had it not been for DNA evidence, McCarty could have been added to the list.
 
McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after serving 21 years — including 19 years on death row — for a 1982 Oklahoma City murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted twice and sentenced to death three times based on prosecutorial misconduct and testimony from a forensic analyst whose lab misconduct has contributed to at least two other convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Before DNA proved his innocence, McCarty spent most of his prison sentence in a 9 x 9 cell.
 
McCarty says in his interview with Wichita Public Radio: “Imagine being locked in your bathroom for a decade… . It’s that kind of existence, but surrounded by violence, indifference and mental illness in the people around you… . I had to get over that shock, the disbelief that I’m not supposed to be here… . Because nobody wants to here that and the truth is, that’s where you live now, that’s your home.”
 
Listen to the full interview.
 
More about McCarty’s case.



Tags: Kansas, Oklahoma, Curtis McCarty, Death Penalty

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Do New Legal Changes Give Prosecutors a Potentially Dangerous Amount of Power?

Posted: October 3, 2014 4:00 pm

A new article in the Economist examines how recent legal changes have placed, perhaps, an overabundance of power in the hands of American prosecutors. According to the article, the changes include “an explosion” of cases ending in guilty pleas and a high number of cases in which defendants become informants, speaking out against one another in exchange for deals that will lessen their charges or sentences.
 
The Economist reports:


… American prosecutors are more powerful than ever before.
 
Several legal changes have empowered them. The first is the explosion of plea bargaining, where a suspect agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge if the more serious charges against him are dropped. Plea bargains were unobtainable in the early years of American justice. But today more than 95% of cases end in such deals and thus are never brought to trial.
 
Jed Rakoff, a district judge in New York, thinks it unlikely that 95% of defendants are guilty. Of the 2.4m Americans behind bars, he thinks it possible that “thousands, perhaps tens of thousands” confessed despite being innocent. One reason they might do so is because of harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing rules can make such a choice rational. Rather than risk a trial and a 30-year sentence, some cop a plea and accept a much shorter one.

According to the Economist, it is perhaps a rise in the number of “incomprehensible” new laws that are providing prosecutors with more latitude to interpret laws as they see fit, enabling them to overcharge defendants, and, in turn pressure them into plea bargaining.
 
In terms of the increase in reliance upon informants to help solicit guilty verdicts, the article says:

The same threats and incentives that push the innocent to plead guilty also drive many suspects to testify against others. Deals with “co-operating witnesses,” once rare, have grown common. In federal cases an estimated 25-30% of defendants offer some form of co-operation, and around half of those receive some credit for it. The proportion is double that in drug cases. Most federal cases are resolved using the actual or anticipated testimony of co-operating defendants.
 
Co-operator testimony often sways juries because snitches are seen as having first-hand knowledge of the pattern of criminal activity. But snitches hoping to avoid draconian jail terms may sometimes be tempted to compose rather than merely to sing.

In some instances, prosecutors may actually encourage informants to embellish testimonies for their own benefits, hoping to “parlay courtroom victories into lucrative partnerships at law firms or platforms to run for public office,” says the Economist.
 
But these false testimonies can result in real jail time for people who are actually innocent. The article cites a study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions which found that “46% of documented wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004 could be traced to false testimony by informants — making them the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases.” And data provided by the Innocence Project says that of the 318 Americans exonerated by DNA evidence, 57 involved informants — and 30 entered guilty pleas.
 
Some prosecutors argue that “without co-operation deals and plea bargains… the system would buckle under the weight of extra trials.” Others in the criminal justice system, however, are calling for change, demanding reform that would get rid of mandatory-minimum sentences and reduce the prosecutor’s role in plea-bargaining. A number of states are taking action by requiring third-party corroboration of informants’ testimonies, while others no longer permit testimony by informants with drug addiction or mental-health issues.
 
Read the entire article.



Tags: New York, Guilty Pleas

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Join Us in Congratulating Our Recent Exonerees

Posted: October 3, 2014 5:20 am

To mark yesterday’s first international Wrongful Conviction Day, the Innocence Project asked our online community members to take a minute to congratulate our two recent exonerees – Nathan Brown and Michelle Murphy – and send them best wishes for their future. Thanks to the many online supporters who took part by writing email messages to Nathan and Michelle. We know that they’ll be really excited to get them!
 
It’s not too late to send your message of support if you haven’t already. You can read a paragraph about each case below, then click the link to go to our Action Center, where you can send your message.

Michelle Murphy was exonerated last month of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence and other previously undisclosed evidence pointing to her innocence. Michelle was just 17 at the time of the murder and woke up one morning to any mother’s worst nightmare: Her 15-week-old son murdered in the kitchen of their apartment. That nightmare only became worse when police accused her of the crime, conducting a long interrogation while she was still in shock and coercing her into a false confession that she had killed her own son by accident after a confrontation with a neighbor. Michelle was exonerated last month after crime scene evidence identified blood from an unknown male just below blood from the victim on a curtain separating the kitchen and living room. Michelle’s lawyers also learned that the prosecution had falsely implied to the jury that blood recovered from the scene matched Michelle’s blood type.
 
Join us in congratulating Michelle on her exoneration and sending her best wishes for her future!

When a white woman was attacked by a black man in Nathan Brown’s apartment complex, a security guard directed police to Nathan’s apartment, even though the victim stated she didn’t think her attacker lived in the complex. Although just minutes after the attack, police found Nathan in his bedroom wearing pajamas, rocking his young daughter to sleep, he was made to participate in a one-on-one “show-up,” a highly-suggestive identification procedure in which a single suspect is presented to the witness. The victim identified him as her assailant and Nathan was convicted and sentenced to 25 years for attempted rape, despite the fact that four of Nathan’s relatives testified at trial that he had been home with them at the time of the crime. Nathan was exonerated in June after DNA testing of the victim’s clothing uncovered the DNA of a black male with a felony record who was 17 and living within blocks of the complex when the crime occurred.
 
Join us in congratulating Nathan on his exoneration and sending him best wishes for his future!

If you’d like to receive future actions like this in your email on the day we send them, sign up for our online community email list here.


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National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

Posted: October 2, 2014 4:10 am

Today the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitness identification. For the report, researchers conducted an in-depth review of three decades of basic and applied scientific research on eyewitness identification and provided recommendations for improving police identification procedures and for how courts handle eyewitness evidence.
 
The Innocence Project, which has long advocated for many of the reforms recommended in the report, is urging states and courts across the nation to enact the recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions.
 
“This report should serve as a powerful incentive for states and courts around the nation to enact reforms that will prevent eyewitness misidentifications. We’ve known for quite some time that eyewitness testimony is simply not as accurate as juries often believe, but we now have a definitive report that has analyzed three decades of science and makes proven recommendations for how law enforcement and the courts can prevent innocent people from being wrongly arrested and convicted,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project.
 
Eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 72% of the 318 wrongful convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence. The real perpetrators were eventually identified in 90 of these cases. While the innocent where languishing behind bars in these cases, the real perpetrators committed an additional 98 additional violent crimes (63 rapes, 17 murders, and 18 other violent crimes).
 
Recognizing that police eyewitness identification procedures can have a big effect on the accuracy of identifications, the report endorsed numerous best practices as means to reducing the likelihood of wrongful convictions, including that lineups be conducted “blindly,” meaning the officer who conducts the procedure be unaware of the identity of the suspect and that police collect a confidence statement from the witness at the time he or she makes an identification.
 
Ten states have already uniformly adopted these best practices through law, policy or court action, and many jurisdictions around the country have voluntarily adopted policies embracing these important best practices. Just last year, the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, the world’s oldest and largest organization of police executives, came out in support of these reforms.
 
The report also notes that the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted. Landmark decisions by the New Jersey and Oregon Supreme Courts have taken note of the robust research on memory and identification and have overhauled the way courts in those states deal with identification evidence. Today’s report makes recommendations for courts that will hopefully accelerate this trend.
 
For more detail about the report, read the Innocence Project’s press release.
 
A copy of the report is available here.
 
Additional information about eyewitness misidentification is available here.



Tags: False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, False Confessions, Eyewitness Misidentification, NAS Report

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