Innocence Blog

Innocence Project Executive Director Co-Authors Paper on Wrongful Convictions

Posted: August 19, 2014 2:00 pm

The latest paper from the Harvard Executive Session’s New Perspectives in Policing series is a thoughtful examination of the systemic causes of wrongful convictions that offers specific, evidence-based recommendations for reducing their likelihood. Policing and Wrongful Convictions, authored by Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety Commissioner Anthony Batts, Innocence Project Executive Director Maddy deLone and Major Cities Chiefs Association Executive Director Darrel Stephens, outlines protocols based on research for improved eyewitness identification, interrogation, use of informants, evidence storage and preservation. The protocols have been shown to enhance police investigations and help investigators test their initial assumptions about a suspect.
Maddy deLone says, “We have learned a great deal about how to prevent wrongful convictions. Adopting these best practices protects the innocent and helps police better use their limited resources to focus on catching the real perpetrators. We thank the many in law enforcement who have already adopted these proven reforms and encourage them to talk to their colleagues in other jurisdictions about how they have benefited their work.”
The Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety is funded by the National Institute of Justice, as part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and sponsored in part by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.
Read Policing and Wrongful Convictions.
Learn more about National Institute of Justice’s research on wrongful convictions.
Learn more about the other papers in the series.

Tags: Dispatches



Reflections of an Exoneree Ten Years Later

Posted: August 18, 2014 5:05 pm

It has been a decade since North Carolina inmate Darryl Hunt was exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit, but he is still adjusting to a life of freedom. Hunt, who spent nearly two decades behind bars before DNA evidence proved his innocence, still struggles with worry that the nightmare can happen all over again.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that little things like leaving the house can give Hunt pause since he grew accustomed to his cell door opening and closing automatically for so many years. His concerns about the future have imposed a lifestyle that tracks his moves for him. He takes pleasure in going to the ATM every day, where a receipt of the day and time is printed for him and a surveillance camera records his actions.
“The fear of being picked up for something you didn’t do? I never leave out the door without that being on my mind,” he told the Journal.
Hunt was convicted twice of a 1984 North Carolina murder he didn’t commit. He was first convicted of the murder of 25-year-old copy editor Deborah Sykes in 1985, but a judge threw out the conviction because prosecutors used a girlfriend’s statements against Hunt at trial even after she had recanted them. While he was waiting for a second trial, he refused an offer to plead guilty that would have set him free. After nearly a year awaiting trial, Hunt was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989. DNA testing on evidence in the case excluded Hunt five years later but he wasn’t freed until a decade later when the DNA profile was run in the state database and matched a man serving time in prison for another murder.
After he was exonerated, Hunt was pardoned by the governor and was awarded more than $1.6 million from Winston-Salem and more than $300,000 from the state. None of that, however, can make up for the years he lost.
Hunt maintained his innocence from the beginning but his cries were largely ignored by the white community after a local man came forward and told police he had seen Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime and tentatively identified Hunt as the man.
“I could never understand why the courts turned me down. Now I’ve been out and working with the system on the local level and the national level, I get it,” he said to the Journal. “It’s political. Most people believe it’s about justice. It’s not. It’s the political will of someone who wants to be in power.”
Despite the DNA evidence, the victim’s husband and mother still believe Hunt had something to do with the murder. While Hunt’s doubters make it uncomfortable for him to be out in his daily life, he has chosen to remain in Winston-Salem to remind people that an injustice happened.
In an effort to help prevent future injustices from happening around him, Hunt works with the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law to help people get their criminal records expunged and serves on the board of directors for the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence. He does public speaking and talks about his case and although he admits things have changed in the past 30 years, he said he doesn’t have much trust in the criminal justice system.
Read the full article.

Tags: North Carolina, Darryl Hunt



Judge Tosses Washington Exoneree’s Jury Award

Posted: August 15, 2014 2:20 pm

A case out of Washington proves how difficult it is for the wrongly convicted to bring successful civil lawsuits for police misconduct.
The Associated Press reported that a federal judge has thrown out a $9 million jury award in the case of a former Vancouver police officer who spent two decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing his children. Charges against Clyde Ray Spencer were vacated on appeal and dismissed in 2010, and he won a false imprisonment lawsuit last February, paving the way for compensation. But that was halted Wednesday when a judge said insufficient evidence was presented at trial that proved Spencer’s constitutional rights were violated and called for a second trial if Spencer still wanted to pursue the matter. His attorneys plan to appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Read the full article.

Tags: Washington



Twenty-Five Years of Freeing the Innocent

Posted: August 14, 2014 5:10 pm

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the first wrongful conviction to be overturned based on DNA testing, Northeastern University School of Law Professor Daniel Medwed penned an op-ed about the landmark dismissal that continues to have an impact on the criminal justice system today.
The op-ed, which appears on the WBUR website, Boston’s NPR station, notes that since Gary Dotson’s rape conviction was vacated in 1989, 316 additional people have been exonerated by DNA. While those exonerations shed light on contributing factors to wrongful convictions and give way to fixes that can prevent them, people continue to be wrongly convicted. Medwed writes:

Beyond DNA exonerations, there is the issue of wrongful convictions that cannot be overturned with DNA testing. Biological evidence such as blood, saliva, skin cells and semen is found in only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases. What’s more, this evidence is occasionally lost, destroyed or degraded.
Even when biological evidence is available, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are not always forthcoming in disclosing it to the defense. Add to this the hurdle of testing the evidence in compliance with legal requirements, and the challenge of proving a wrongful conviction using DNA technology is even greater.
For this reason, DNA testing has not and cannot solve the problem of wrongful convictions.? The same factors that led to the initial miscarriages of justice in the DNA exonerations appear in cases without any available biological evidence. Absent the authority of science, it is exceedingly difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction in these so-called non-DNA cases. Attorneys litigating them must often rely on subjective evidence of innocence. In doing so, they tend to encounter strict time limits, cumbersome burdens of proof and the pervasive skepticism of prosecutors and judges.

It may be fair to say that the Dotson exoneration a quarter century ago helped launch a revolution in criminal law: a legal, political and social campaign to rectify injustices that some have labeled a civil rights movement for this century. This revolution is far from over.

Read the full op-ed.

Tags: Illinois, Gary Dotson



Georgia Legislators Consider Setting Compensation Standard

Posted: August 14, 2014 4:50 pm

Georgia legislators eager to set a compensation standard for the wrongly convicted gathered in Atlanta on Wednesday to hear testimony about the range of past payments to eight exonerees from across the state. The Morris News Service reported that the amount of compensation for each year behind bars in Georgia has ranged from about $17,000 to $750,000, with stipulations about employment and drug testing being made in one case.
The Morris News Service reports that Representative Rahn Mayo of Decatur believes that compensation should be given without conditions. “Is it not true that the state is in the wrong … that the state has some responsibility to compensate these people unconditionally?” he said, according to the new service.
Currently, there are no guidelines in Georgia for how much money a wrongly convicted person should be compensated, but Columbus Representative Carolyn Hugley, head of the study committee, wants to change that. Hugley would like to see Georgia match the federal standard of $50,000 per year, which has been adopted by several other states.
The state’s eight exonerees who received compensation all saw their convictions overturned based on DNA testing in rape cases.
Read the full article.

Tags: Georgia, Exoneree Compensation



Arson Conviction Overturned

Posted: August 13, 2014 1:40 pm

Almost 25 years ago, a Pennsylvania man was convicted of setting a fire that claimed the life of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter. Last week, his conviction and life sentence were overturned based on advances in arson science.
The Times Tribune reported that a judge dismissed Han Tak Lee’s conviction and ordered that he be retried within four months or released. Lee’s dismissal follows the June recommendation from a federal magistrate judge to retry or release him. On Friday, Lee’s attorney filed a motion seeking he be released on bail, but no ruling has been issued yet.
Lee, who is 79 years old, has been serving a life sentence since he was convicted based largely on a fire marshal’s testimony that the fire patterns found at the scene indicated arson. At that time, it was believed that fire from arson burned hotter than other fires. In the years since, that theory, along with what were once considered tell-tale signs of arson, has been debunked based on a lack of credible science to support them.
The Legal Director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Marissa Bluestine, told the Times Tribune that the ruling in Mr. Lee’s case is important as it supports the argument that a defendant’s due process rights were violated if the evidence used to convict the person is invalid.
The Times Tribune reports that according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 11 people exonerated of arson since 1992.
Read the full article.

Tags: Pennsylvania



New York Exoneree Launches Youth Boxing Program

Posted: August 12, 2014 4:42 pm

Nearly five years after Dewey Bozella was exonerated of a crime he did not commit, his foundation launched a six-week summer program for middle school-aged children. CHAMPS Camp aims to provide young boys and girls the opportunity to be physically active, learn important life skills and connect with positive role models to develop their confidence and self-esteem.

The Times-Herald Record reported that memories of rejection and isolation from his 26 years behind bars came flooding back during the first few weeks of camp at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center when he dismissed a few campers who repeatedly ignored the rules and were disruptive.

“It bothered me because I didn’t want them to leave,” Bozella said, according to the Times-Herald Record. “I didn’t want them to feel left out. I didn’t want them to feel that no one cared.”

Bozella was initially arrested for the 1977 burglary and murder of a 92-year-old woman, but the charges were dropped because there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Then six years later, he was rearrested and ultimately convicted of the crime based solely on the strength of the testimonies of two informants, who were released from prison for their cooperation. When he contacted the Innocence Project, it was discovered that the DNA evidence in the case was destroyed. The case was referred to Wilmer Hale who was able to prove Bozella’s innocence by uncovering additional evidence that was previously withheld.

While behind bars, Bozella took up boxing which ultimately helped to channel his anger over being wrongfully convicted. He eventually became the light heavyweight champ of the prison and even got the opportunity to fight Golden Gloves champ Lou Del Valle. Three years ago, he was honored with ESPN’s prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2011 ESPYs. 

Having founded the Dewey Bozella Foundation and CHAMPS, Bozella is now fulfilling his dream of helping at-risk kids reach their potential. 

“That is what I’m trying to teach them. You have a choice,” he told the Times-Herald Record

Both the children and the staff at the camp have learned from Bozella over the past several weeks. Whether it’s a jab combination or incorporating life experiences to teaching, Bozella has a profound impact at the camp. And he’s admitted he’s learning too.

“How to be patient, not to be so aggressive… . . What I’ve learned is that each kid has his own value and each kid looks at life differently,” he told the Times-Herald Record.

Read the full article



Shaken Baby Cases to be Reviewed

Posted: August 11, 2014 5:45 pm

In response to the growing number of cases dealing with shaken baby syndrome, the New England Innocence Project is reviewing several cases in Massachusetts where adult caregivers were convicted after children in their care died as a result of internal symptoms that doctors once believed could result only from shaking the child.
The Boston Herald reported that the advocacy group doesn’t believe the science used in shaken baby convictions has been sound.
“The reason is that the scientific underpinnings of shaken baby syndrome have been called into question,” said Denise McWilliams, executive director of the project, according to the Boston Herald.
McWilliams said that injuries that have long been associated with shaken baby syndrome — brain bleeding, retinal hemorrhaging and brain swelling — can also be associated with other medical problems and may not be inflicted by an adult like some cases alleged. That is the case for Irish nanny Aisling Brady McCarthy, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of 1-year-old Rehma Sabir. The shaken baby diagnosis in McCarthy’s case has been questioned by her defense lawyer but sustained by a well-known pediatrician and supported by the executive director of a nonprofit child welfare group in the Bay State.
Although many physicians and prosecutors remain confident in their judgments, a growing number of critics argue that the syndrome has been overly diagnosed and that innocent people have been sent to prison as a result.
Read the full article.

Tags: Massachusetts



Lee Daniels to Direct Film about California Exoneree

Posted: August 8, 2014 1:30 pm

More than two years after kidnapping and rape charges against a former Southern California high school player were dismissed in Los Angeles, famed director Lee Daniels is set to direct a film about the case. Brian Banks was a prospect to play college football at the University of Southern California and ultimately go professional, when he was accused by a classmate of forcing her to the school’s basement and raping her. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, Banks took a plea deal and was forced to register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet when he was released from prison after serving five years. He was exonerated in 2012 with the help of the California Innocence Project.
Entertainment Weekly reported that Daniels’ next film will be about Banks’ promising football career and how it was derailed by a false accusation of rape.
“All I ever wanted was to prove my innocence,” said Banks, in a statement, according to Entertainment Weekly. “Telling my story in the form of a feature film is beyond my wildest dreams. Having Lee Daniels come on board to direct the film is so exciting, and such an honor.”
While there is no script yet, the film’s working title is The Brian Banks Story and will be produced by Daniels and Amy Baer.
Read the full article.

Tags: California, Brian Banks



Innocence Project of Texas to Review Arson Cases

Posted: August 7, 2014 5:50 pm

More than 20 years after Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three young daughters, and a decade after his execution, Texas is still trying to get a handle on arson convictions. The Innocence Project of Texas has received 24 cases from the state fire marshal’s office to review for possible wrongful convictions similar to Willingham’s.
The Associated Press reported that Fire Marshal Chris Connealy, who sent cases between 2002 and 2004, plans to share all of his office’s cases up until this year.
According to the Associated Press, Connealy said in a recent interview, “Why not? We serve the public. And I want the public to have confidence in the criminal justice system.”
Willingham always claimed his innocence, and the arson investigation used to convict him was questioned by leading experts before Willingham was executed. Since his 2004 execution, further evidence in the case has led to the inescapable conclusion that Willingham did not set the fire for which he was executed. And just this week, the Washington Post reported on new evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in the case. While the case presses on, Connealy and the Innocence Project of Texas are hoping to weed out problems with fire investigations overall.
Connealy created a panel of fire experts to review cases brought by the group who then send its findings to the prosecutors of those cases.
The Associated Press reports:

Nick Vilbas, executive director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the fire marshal’s office and advocates have the same goal of seeking justice.
“As long as we trust each other and work together, I don’t think there’s any issue there,” Vilbas told the Associated Press on Tuesday. “We both have a common goal of seeing that justice is done for those who have been convicted on the basis of outdated arson science.”

Read the full article.

Tags: Texas



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