Innocence Blog

Tune-In: John Thompson Featured on CNN’s Death Row Stories

Posted: April 4, 2014 5:15 pm

CNN’s Death Row Stories will air an episode on Innocence Project client John Thompson this Sunday, April 6, at 9:00 p.m. EST. Thompson, who spent 18 years in a Louisiana prison — including 14 on death row — for a murder he didn’t commit, came within 48 hours of execution in 1999. It wasn’t until a private investigator discovered scientific evidence of Thompson’s innocence — concealed for 15 years by the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office — that he was exonerated.
Sunday’s episode will be the fifth in the eight episode documentary series executive produced by Alex Gibney and Robert Redford and narrated by Susan Sarandon. Each episode chronicles the events of a death row case and uncovers shortcomings of the nation’s justice system.

Tags: Louisiana



California Bill to Expand Access to DNA Testing

Posted: April 3, 2014 3:25 pm

California legislators are considering a bill sponsored by the California Innocence Project and the Northern California Innocence Project that would expand access to post-conviction DNA testing.
Government Technology reported yesterday that Senate Bill 980 (SB 980), introduced by Senator Ted Lieu, would allow inmates convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony or other non-biological evidence to have improved access to DNA testing.
Lieu believes that SB 980 would make California a leader in post-conviction DNA testing in the United States. “Right now for a state prisoner to request to have biological evidence tested, the proof has to show that there is a reasonable likelihood that [the evidence] will change basically the outcome of the trial, and that can be a pretty high standard,” Lieu told Government Technology. “We changed the standard to simply say that a prisoner can have the biological material tested if it’s relevant to show who the perpetrator was.”
The bill, which is co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation, aims to amend the current DNA testing statute that was enacted in 2000 so petitioners can benefit from advancements in DNA technology. Among the changes, SB 980 would require law enforcement agencies to attempt to locate evidence and confirm whether it was preserved or destroyed; allow individuals’ access to the physical and biological evidence preserved in their cases; and enable courts to run unknown DNA profiles through the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System database. It would also broaden the number of laboratories authorized to conduct DNA testing.
Lieu noted that the additional costs associated with the changes would be covered by freeing inmates who have been wrongly convicted. “Because for the rest of their life, they won’t be in prison taking taxpayers’ money – they’ll be out,” Lieu told Government Technology. “So we believe this bill’s costs will be offset by the amount we save.”
The bill is scheduled for a hearing with the California Senate Public Safety Committee on April 22.
Read the full article.

Tags: California, Access to DNA Testing



Wisconsin Senate Passes Bill for Increased Compensation for Exoneree

Posted: April 2, 2014 3:20 pm

Six months after legislation was introduced that would compensate Wisconsin exoneree Robert Lee Stinson an additional $90,000 for the 23 years he spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, the Senate unanimously approved payment Tuesday.
Stinson was convicted based on the invalidated expert testimony of a bite mark analyst whose conclusions were uncontested at trial. Represented by Wisconsin Innocence Project, Stinson was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009 and received the $25,000 maximum compensation from the Claims Board a year later.
The Associated Press reported that the Senate passed a bill in November that would give Stinson $136,000, but in March that was scaled back to $90,000 by the Assembly.
Senate Bill 249, also known as the Stinson bill, now awaits a signature from Governor Scott Walker.
Read the full article.

Tags: Wisconsin



New York Woman Files Suit for Wrongful Conviction

Posted: April 1, 2014 6:25 am

Two months after a New York judge ordered the release of two women who were wrongly convicted of a shooting crime that put a man in a coma, one of them has filed a civil suit against New York City for the mistakes that sent her to prison for seven years.
Malisha Blyden was convicted by a Bronx jury of a 2005 home invasion and sentenced to 40 years behind bars for a shooting she and her codefendant, Latisha Johnson, did not commit. She was cleared of all charges in March.
The Daily News reported that Blyden’s attorneys filed a notice of claim against the city on Monday, charging false arrest, wrongful conviction, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and other civil charges.
According to her attorneys, Blyden’s and Johnson’s wrongful convictions were the result of series of multiple errors made during the investigation of the 2005 shooting and robbery of George Peseo. Johnson was wanted for questioning in Peseo’s shooting because investigators had a cell phone record that showed that the victim’s cell phone had been used to make a call to Johnson’s father. Investigators believed that it was one of the attackers who had made the call. In reality, it was a single-digit misdial made by Peseo. A misidentification by Peseo and a day-long unrecorded interrogation resulted in Blyden’s false confession.
Blyden’s innocence was reaffirmed in prison by an inmate who said that her neighbors were the real perpetrators. But it was too late; detectives had already made their case.
Earl Ward, who represents Blyden with David Lebowitz and Julia Kuan, said to the Daily News, “As a result of their screwup, the real perpetrators avoided prosecution and now the statute of limitations has run out.”
Blyden is now trying to find a job and rebuild her life after the setback of prison. Her lawyers did not include a dollar amount in the suit. She told the Daily News, “I feel like the time they took from me, there’s no amount of money that can replace that. I could have been doing so much with my life right about now. It’s just not fair.”
Read the full article.

Tags: New York



Virginia Sheriff Lobbies Local Law Enforcement to Form Justice Commission

Posted: March 31, 2014 3:50 pm

J.E. “Chip” Harding, a sheriff for Albemarle County, Virginia, is rallying the support of local law enforcement leaders around his proposal to create a government-funded commission that would establish new policies and best practices meant to prevent future wrongful conviction cases across the state. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on Saturday that Sheriff Harding, a 40-year law enforcement veteran, has personally written to and called 123 sheriffs and 247 police chiefs from across Virginia to inform them about the need for more mandatory uniform investigation practices and the win-win benefits to building a justice commission.
According to the Innocence Project, Virginia was responsible for 16 of the 314 wrongful conviction cases that were eventually cleared through post-conviction DNA testing in the United States. Of those 16 cases, the Times-Dispatch writes that all but three were based on misidentification of suspects by witnesses and victims made during criminal investigations and police line ups. Sheriff Harding believes that a justice commission can address these types of mistakes by “studying potential improvements in practices and procedures, and providing a forum for consideration of best practices by prosecutors, investigators, defense lawyers, scientists and academics.” He told the Times-Dispatch, “procedures and policies that might be studied could include the way suspect photo and in-person lineups are presented to victims and witnesses.”
Harding’s efforts appear to be paying off. He is winning support from a wide range of law enforcement stakeholders. Roanoke’s Chief of Police Chris Perkins said to the Times-Dispatch, “I’m pleased that Sheriff Harding has brought forth this idea. If you’re going to have a profession like law enforcement, you’ve got to consistently look at the things we do and how we do them.” Richmond Chief of Police Ray Tarasovic also voiced his approval of what a justice commission could achieve. While he wants to learn more details about Harding’s proposal, he said, “Our overriding focus is that justice is served in every case, and that those we charge with crimes are, in fact, responsible.” And Charlottesville Chief of Police and President of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Tim Longo, said that he feels positive that Harding’s proposed commission could help develop needed best practices.
Harding explained to the Times-Dispatch that until recently, he believed that because of this long tenure on the job, he was a “cutting edge” investigator who was doing everything right when it came to working criminal cases. But, after learning more about the causes of wrongful convictions, he says, “I now know I was wrong.”
While Virginia has adopted some best practices to prevent against eyewitness misidentification, the state has made implementation of the practices voluntary. According to the Times-Dispatch, a survey conducted in 2013 by the University of Virginia School of Law revealed that only a small number of police departments in Virginia had adopted a Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services policy for photo and in-person lineups. University of Virginia School of Law Professor Brandon Garrett said, “A justice commission like this could really make a difference” in the implementation of existing best practices.
Read the full article.

Tags: Virginia, Innocence Commissions



DNA Evidence Exonerates Man Thought to be World’s Longest Serving Death Row Inmate

Posted: March 28, 2014 4:00 pm

On Thursday, 78-year-old Iwao Hakamada was released from a Tokyo prison after DNA testing excluded him as the source of blood left on key evidence in a 1960s murder of a four-member family.  He had served nearly 50 years on death row. Activists and key people involved in the case, including the judge who originally sentenced Hakamada to death, say that the case was deeply flawed from the start and that the conviction was based largely on a coerced false confession and other evidence that may have been fabricated by the police. 

The New York Times reported on Thursday that in 1966, the owner of a miso-making business and his family were murdered in their home in Tokyo. Their house was burglarized and set on fire; all four bodies were badly burned. A month after the crime, Hakamada, a then-employee at the miso company, was arrested and made to endure a more than 20-day long police interrogation in which he was violently beaten, deprived of sleep and forced to suffer indecent living conditions. At the end of the interrogation, Hakamada confessed to committing the murders, but retracted his statement soon after.

At trial, prosecutors said that a pair of blood stained pants that had been found in a tank of miso paste following the murders belonged to Hakamada and served as evidence of his guilt. Hakamada tried on the pants in court, but they didn’t fit; the pants were too small to be his. Despite the physical evidence not supporting the prosecution’s story, Hakamada was convicted and sentenced to death based on his confession. 

Critics of Japan’s criminal justice system say that the injustice of Hakamada’s case is a byproduct of the country’s flawed interrogation practices.  David T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Hawaii and an author of books on criminal justice in Japan, told the New York Times, “When something goes wrong in Japanese criminal justice, it tends to happen in the interrogation room.” Japan’s current conviction rate is almost 100 percent, a rate that, according to critics, prosecutors can maintain given that the country’s criminal justice system relies heavily on coerced confessions as opposed to hard evidence.  

Over the past several years, Japan has begun to usher in reforms to its criminal justice system.  In 2009, the country introduced a jury system for most criminal cases. But, critics and activists say Hakamada’s case speaks to the need for more rapid change. David T. Johnson told the Times, “Things are turning in the Japanese criminal justice system. But Japan is traveling that road very slowly.”
In Thursday’s announcement to release Hakamada, Hiroaki Murayama — the presiding judge— said, “the possibility of [Hakamada’s] innocence has become clear to a respectable degree, and it is unbearably unjust to prolong the defendant’s detention any further.”

Described as bewildered as he exited the prison doors, Hakamada, according to this family, shows signs of having a poor mental state.  They fear that the near half century of wrongful imprisonment took an inevitable toll on his wellbeing. Over the years, they say that his letters to the family devolved into little more than gibberish.  When his lawyers told him that he was finally being released from prison on Thursday, he said, “You lie. I’m finished.”

According to local media, prosecutors are planning to appeal the court’s decision to release Mr. Hakamada.

Read the full story here.

Tags: False Confessions



Tune-In: 48 Hours Double Feature on the Wrongly Convicted

Posted: March 27, 2014 4:45 pm

CBS’s 48 Hours will air an episode on Innocence Project client Damon Thibodeaux this Saturday, March 29, at 10:00 p.m. EST. The episode, which features interviews with Thibodeaux and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, examines the wrongful conviction that resulted in Thibodeaux spending 15 years on Louisiana’s death row for a murder he did not commit. His conviction was vacated based on DNA evidence of his innocence in 2012.
If you tune in to CBS an hour earlier, you’ll catch 48 Hours’ episode on Ryan Ferguson, who spent nearly a decade behind bars for a Missouri murder he did not commit before his conviction was overturned in November of last year.

Tags: Louisiana, Damon Thibodeaux, Death Penalty



CBS Crimesider Features Two Stories of Compensation for Wrongfully Convicted

Posted: March 27, 2014 2:45 am

Following up on the Innocence Blog’s Wednesday post about a USA Today guest editorial calling for greater compensation for the nation’s exonerees, today’s post highlights a CBS News Crimesider story that also discusses compensation for the wrongfully convicted and explains the hurdles that many exonerees must overcome before the government will rightfully compensate them for time lost.
Crimesider details the cases of Marty Tankleff of New York and Anthony Graves of Texas, two exonerees who were awarded compensation by their respective states. Tankleff served 17 years for the murder of his parents before new evidence proved his innocence in 2007. Seven years later he won a settlement of nearly $3.4 million in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against New York State, but he has yet to receive the money. Graves served 18 years in prison — 12 of them on death row — after being wrongfully convicted of playing a role in the horrific murders of two women and four children before evidence of his innocence freed him in 2010. Six months later, he received $1.45 million under Texas’ wrongful conviction compensation statute.
Crimesider writes:

Rebecca Brown, Director on State Policy Reform for the Innocence Project, told Crimesider that of the states that do have compensation statues, each differs, and some impose restrictions that could prove problematic.
For example, several states require that the person did not “contribute to their own conviction” in order to reap the benefits of the state’s compensation statute. In other words, a person who falsely confessed or pleaded guilty to a crime they didn’t commit could be prohibited from receiving compensation.

The Innocence Project recommends that the government compensate exonerated people immediately after release with a fixed sum or a range of recovery for each year of wrongful incarceration that meets the federal standard of $50,000 for each year a person spends in prison, with no exclusion of people who pled guilty or falsely confessed. Under the federal statute, exonerees could also receive up to $100,000 per year spent on death row. Additionally, the Innocence Project says that states should reimburse exonerees’ attorney fees, make subsistence funds available immediately and offer a range of social services, including mental health services, medical and dental care, and access to housing and education.
Graves agrees. He said that Texas should provide free healthcare benefits to the wrongfully convicted. He told Crimesider that he had to pay $500 monthly for health insurance upon his release. “That’s the biggest disappointment. There was nothing in place to help me make a transition,” Graves told Crimesider. “I walked out from solitary confinement out onto the streets with nothing.”
For the 21 states that have yet to pass a compensation statute, exonerees can pursue a civil rights lawsuit or a private compensation bill. Both options require long legal battles. Graves, who established a law school scholarship in the name of the attorney that helped to free him from prison, says that no amount of money can make up for lost time.
“A billion dollars would not buy back those 18 years that I could see my kids growing up,” Graves told Crimesider.
Brown, of the Innocence Project, agrees. “But,” she told Crimesider, “it is incumbent upon the state to ensure that we do all that we can to make a person as whole as we can after they have lived through that horrific experience.”
Read the full article.

Tags: Texas, New York, Exoneree Compensation, Marty Tankleff



USA Today Column Says Exonerees Deserve Greater Compensation

Posted: March 26, 2014 4:00 pm

A recent guest column in USA Today written by Dallas-based freelance writer Joyce King called for more compensation for the nation’s wrongly convicted. King, who grew up in Louisiana, was raised with an awareness of the nearby notorious Angola state penitentiary and the notion that anyone who survived a sentence there was “beyond tough.” Years later she now thinks about former Louisiana inmate Glenn Ford, who was exonerated and freed from prison just two weeks ago.  He served three decades on death row for a murder he did not commit. King writes: “While I’m thrilled to see another innocent man freed, I don’t understand why some states do not meet the basic federal standard — $50,000 of compensation for every year of wrongful incarceration — after people are proved innocent of crimes that shattered their lives.”

Although Louisiana is among the 29 states, plus Washington, D.C., that has a compensation statute, it falls below the federal standard, providing for $25,000 per year with a cap of $250,000.

King writes: “Not only is it an insult to cap Ford’s compensation, he will have to pay state taxes on the money and may have legal fees. Some states require an exoneree to apply for a full pardon from the governor, which can take longer than a year, before he or she is eligible for compensation.”About one-third of the people exonerated after proving their innocence have not been compensated for the injustice they suffered and the time they spent incarcerated. In several states, inmates must file civil lawsuits in order to be compensated. In others, the legislature will consider a “private bill” to compensate one individual, rather than creating a policy for compensation any time someone is proven innocent. King points out that paroled guilty offenders are entitled to more services than exonerees when released, including job training, housing and counseling.

The first non-attorney to serve on the Innocence Project of Texas’ board of directors, , King was part of the team that lobbied for legislation that became the Tim Cole Act. Passed in 2009, the act has made Texas the most generous in the nation by increasing the compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 per year wrongly imprisoned. King says that other states should follow Texas’ lead when it comes to compensating the wrongly convicted.

“Ford is among more than 130 people released from death row since 1973 after new evidence, a fact that should remind us that no amount of money can give a man his life back,” says King.

Read the full column

Learn about compensation for the wrongly convicted and see if your state has a compensation statute. 


Tags: Louisiana



DNA Evidence Points to Rhode Island Man’s Innocence

Posted: March 25, 2014 4:25 pm

More than two decades after a Rhode Island man was found guilty of murder, he is seeking to overturn his conviction based on DNA evidence that points toward his innocence.

Raymond D. “Beaver” Tempest, Jr., was convicted in 1992 of beating and strangling 22-year-old Doreen C. Picard in the city of Woonsocket a decade earlier, but according to his attorneys at the New England Innocence Project, recent DNA testing proves that someone else committed the murder.

The Providence Journal reported that Tempest’s legal team filed a 70-plus page motion Monday in Superior Court asking that his conviction be vacated on grounds that DNA testing revealed that hair clutched in Picard’s hand didn’t belong to Tempest and that the prosecution’s key witness, Ronald Vaz, fabricated his accounts of Tempest’s alleged confessions.

At trial, his lawyer argued there was no physical evidence linking Tempest to the crime and questioned the credibility of several witnesses, but Tempest was convicted anyway. 

Tempest’s conviction was upheld in 1995 and about a decade after that, he sought help from the New England Innocence Project to get DNA testing. When testing was ordered in 2004, it marked the first time a judge in Rhode Island had mandated DNA testing as part of a defendant’s attempt to overturn a conviction. 

In the motion filed this week, Tempest’s attorneys accused the investigators of pressuring and coaching witnesses, whom may have been vulnerable to coercion because they were alleged drug users and criminals.

The Journal reports that Tempest’s attorneys wrote in the motion: “The state’s case against Tempest was based on the testimony of drug addicts and criminals… . These witnesses implicated Tempest years after the crime, and their allegations evolved as the state’s case against Tempest developed.”

Read the full article

New England Innocence Project 

Tags: Rhode Island



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