Innocence Blog

Charges to be Dismissed in FBI Tampering Cases

Posted: November 7, 2014 1:00 pm

Yesterday we reported about drug convictions in Houston, Texas that hinged on forensic error and today we are reporting about a staggering set of federal drug indictments that will be dismissed amid an investigation of an FBI agent accused of tampering with evidence. While blame for the Houston lab mistakes hasn’t been assigned, in the case of 28 defendants in Washington, D.C. a lone FBI agent is being investigated for accusations of meddling with narcotic and gun evidence.
The Washington Post reported that newly unsealed documents revealed that 14 of those defendants have already pleaded guilty and were serving sentences — one was a year into a 10-year term. Prosecutors said based on the revelation, withdrawn guilty pleas will result in dropped charges. The documents which typically remain sealed were ordered unsealed after the Post first reported on the agent’s probe last weekend.

The judge said access to criminal proceedings “serves an important function of monitoring misconduct.” Prosecutors said they were already in the process of making the documents public.

The agent who was assigned to a D.C. police task force in the FBI’s Washington Field Office has been suspended but not charged. He is currently under investigation by the inspector general’s office at the Justice Department and the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office have confirmed that investigation began six weeks ago and that authorities are still reviewing cases the agent may have been involved with.
Read the full article.
Last week’s first article on the investigation.

Tags: District of Columbia



Lab Errors Send the Innocent to Prison

Posted: November 6, 2014 12:11 pm

A recent investigation of the Houston Police Department crime lab revealed the disturbing news that negative drug tests were withheld from defendants until very recently despite the fact that prosecutors learned the true results several years ago.

The Houston Press reported that in recent months the Harris County District Attorney’s Office notified hundreds of convicted drug offenders that forensic lab reports confirm they were wrongly convicted. Letters which were mailed out to those who took plea deals for misdemeanor and felony drug possession revealed the news that prosecutors withheld in some cases, for a decade. There is even evidence that prosecutors were notified of the actual results before a plea deal even took place. This follows the notion we reported in yesterday’s blog post about the state wielding unchecked power during plea bargaining. 

Take, for example, a man who was charged on September 25, 2008 for possessing less than a gram of cocaine, a felony. Records indicate an HPD crime lab analyst sent prosecutors a letter on October 21, 2008 saying there was no evidence of a controlled substance. Still, the DA’s office struck a plea deal with the man on October 26, 2008 — one year in county jail. Anderson’s office sent the defendant a letter on August 5, 2014, informing him that he had been convicted in error.

According to the District Attorney’s office spokesman Jeff McShan, the issue was first discovered by late DA Mike Anderson shortly after he took office last year. When he passed away, the governor appointed Anderson’s wife to take his place. Nearly a year after her husband first discovered the mess, Mrs. Devon Anderson’s office began correcting the mistakes. McShan stressed that the cases were handled by previous district attorneys.

Meanwhile, the public defender’s office says it’s still scrambling to handle the influx of defendants trying to clear their records. “Obviously, if it’s a person’s only felony offense, there are very significant collateral consequences,” said Nicolas Hughes, an assistant public defender who’s been tasked with handling the cases. “It could have changed the trajectory of someone’s life.”

For instance, even a misdemeanor marijuana conviction can have life-altering ripple effects. Defendants could have been denied student loans. “There could be job consequences,” Hughes said. “What if someone had been an educator or something like that? Even a whiff of that could end somebody’s career.”

Hughes says he’s already overturned several cases. “I know it’s a big issue for these people who have gotten out of convictions,” he said. “It’s improved their lives.”

Of the more than 300 cases that Hughes says have come into his office in recent months, he places blame on the lack of protocol in place for what happens when a negative lab report comes back after someone’s already been convicted. 

Read the full article



Los Angeles Times Explores Link Between Incarcerations, Plea Bargains and Violent Neighborhoods

Posted: November 5, 2014 6:15 pm

On the heels of two recent articles on the causes and effects of the high rate of incarceration among certain segments of the population , an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times says that despite a drop in violent crime over the past two decades, poor urban neighborhoods remain violent.
The articles observed come from academic Heather Ann Thompson for the Atlantic and New York U.S. district court judge Jed Rakoff for the New York Review of Books. Thompson primarily observed the links between the nation’s explosive rate of incarceration; the war on drugs, and the devastating effects of both that work to destabilize communities, particularly in urban neighborhoods. Rakoff surveyed a plea bargaining system that has led to a remarkably high number of people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit. The Times opinion writer Scott Martelle presents both writers’ takes on the over-incarceration of poor urban residents, but also writes:

Neither gets at an underlying but contributing phenomenon that jarred me earlier in my journalism career when I spent a lot of time talking with young African American men in Detroit. Many lived with the expectation that they eventually would wind up in jail, a function more of the street culture and their perceptions of the criminal justice system than any direct intent to commit crimes. Part nihilism, part fatalism, it’s an outlook that both feeds into and is a result of a law-enforcement system that ensnares people of color at higher rates than it does whites.

While Thompson concluded that incarceration levels are tied to the war on drugs and other policies that disproportionately affected poor African American men, Rakoff contends that many people in impoverished communities land in prison because they have been strong-armed by prosecutors offering deals that seem like the lesser of two evils. The incentive to avoid a potentially harsher sentence after trial is what Rakoff says leads the innocent to plead guilty.
Last year in the federal system, fewer than 3% of cases went to trial and 30 of the 321 people exonerated by DNA evidence had entered a guilty plea. To circumvent the high rate of plea deals and provide oversight of prosecutors, Rakoff suggests bringing in a third party to oversee the plea bargaining system.

Still, better and broader solutions must be found. We need to look more closely at these relationships, and at stabilizing neighborhoods. Justice is about more than just punishing criminals; it is about fairness and equitable treatment, something we’re sorely lacking. Rethinking incarceration policies and taking a saner approach to policing is a start.

Read the full editorial.

Tags: California



Fighting for Justice Even After Exoneration

Posted: November 4, 2014 4:36 pm

It has been more than six years since Walter Swift was exonerated of rape based on DNA evidence, but he still doesn’t feel justice has been served. WJBK- FOX Detroit reported that Swift, who spent nearly 26 years behind bars before being freed in 2008, and is now bankrupt, has yet to be compensated for his wrongful conviction from the city of Detroit. According to human rights attorney Julie Hurwitz, who is fighting for Swift’s justice, his current bankruptcy could stand in the way of receiving compensation.

Swift was convicted of a 1982 rape based in part on a highly questionable eyewitness identification and incomplete forensic testimony and sentenced to 20-40 years behind bars. The Innocence Project accepted Swift’s case in 1998 and began requesting searches for the biological evidence in the case. Although all evidence in the case had been lost or destroyed, the investigation began to uncover solid evidence of Swift’s innocence. He was freed a decade later when the prosecutor who originally convicted him and the former police officer who testified at his trial, filed affidavits in support of vacating his conviction. 

He describes his release as a whirlwind and though he was finally free and able to celebrate with his grown daughter who was only a year old when he was convicted, reality set in quickly and the adjustment to a free life was challenging. 

“I was ill-equipped to handle it,” Swift said. “I didn’t know how to drive a car. I learned how to drive a car at 47-years-old - the first time I’d ever been behind the wheel.”

“Very simple things like smoke detectors and thermostats gave me monumental problems.”

Swift started self-medicating to deal with his overwhelming emotions. It was a rocky few years. He is currently living in a court ordered rehab facility and is battling with the city for restitution for its grave mistake. 

In 2010, Swift’s attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Detroit police claiming false arrest, malicious prosecution and false imprisonment. While civil suits like Swift’s could bring a reward as high as a million dollars for every year of wrongful imprisonment, the city is resisting.

Instead, WJBK reported that because of bankruptcy and the city’s plan of adjustment, the case was ordered into confidential mandatory mediation to reach a liquidated value. Hurwitz is challenging the city.

“Walter’s case along with every case that arises directly under the Constitution, trumps the bankruptcy code,” she said. “It’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy - that debt does not go down.”

“We still live in a Constitutional democracy - at least for the moment and the Constitution is supreme.”

Swift has been clean and sober for six months is optimistic and poised to continue the fight for justice.

“This sort of crime against innocent people is rife - it is not a rarity.”

“At some point, there must be some accountability for it, or it will continue.”

“I feel as though my cause is just - my cause is right,” Swift said. “I have an excellent team supporting me and I have no doubt that in the future there will be vindication.”

Read the full article and watch the clip

More about Swift’s case and compensating the wrongly convicted



Oklahoma Exoneree Celebrates Freedom

Posted: November 3, 2014 6:00 pm

Nearly two months after Michelle Murphy was exonerated in Oklahoma of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence, her church congregation welcomed her home with a celebration of her freedom Sunday.
Tulsa World reported that as the choir sang “Amazing Grace,” Murphy wept as she was surrounded by the All Souls Unitarian Church congregation.

“It’s grace that got me through this,” Murphy said after the ceremony, nervously facing a crowd of television cameras.

The emotional ceremony celebrated Murphy’s new life after serving 20 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Now, 38, Murphy is just starting her adult life. In the past few weeks, she has obtained her driver’s license and enrolled in computer classes.

During a videotaped message to the church, Innocence Project co-Director Barry Scheck said Murphy “suffered immeasurably” during her trial and incarceration.
“Thank you for your story, your presence, your life. We know that tomorrow it could be any one of us,” Scheck said.

Other speakers at Sunday’s celebration reminded congregants about the frequency of wrongful convictions and that what happened to Murphy can happen to anyone.

“DNA technology has now exonerated so many people,” said Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at All Souls. “Cases like Michelle’s are not anomalies or even rare events.”
Lavanhar said Murphy “was robbed of her life by our society and some of the most respected people in our society — by judges, and police detectives and a jury of her peers.”

Read the full article.
More on Murphy’s case.

Tags: Oklahoma



Kansas Exoneree Releases Album

Posted: October 31, 2014 4:25 pm

Kansas exoneree Eddie James Lowery is poised to release his debut album Can’t Touch My Soul tomorrow, November 1. Since his exoneration more than a decade ago, music has been a constant part of Lowery’s life and he’s proud to have written every track on the album. In the years following his release, he’s performed with other exonerees at Innocence Network conferences and benefits, and continues to express his freedom through music.
The song “All in the Name of Justice,” was inspired by the many wrongful convictions where police or prosecutorial misconduct played a role.
In July 1981, Lowery, then 22, was arrested for the attack and rape of an elderly resident of Ogden, Kansas. He was questioned all day without food and was told he did not need a lawyer after requesting one. Investigators supplied Lowery with details of the crime – the house, the entry, the weapon, and specifics about the rape. The details were incorporated into a confession, which Lowery immediately said was coerced and false. Lowery’s first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted in the second. After his parole in 1991, Lowery financed DNA testing in his case and was ultimately proven innocent. He spent nearly a decade in prison as a result of his wrongful conviction.
Preview and purchase Can’t Touch My Soul and read more about Lowery’s case.

Tags: Kansas, Eddie James Lowery



Study Reveals African-Americans Wait Longer To Be Exonerated

Posted: October 30, 2014 11:49 am

A new report from a Loma Linda University biostatics professor reveals that African-Americans are exonerated at a slower rate than any other race in the country. The HuffPost reported that according to Professor Pamela Perez’ data, blacks who are exonerated after a wrongful conviction have served an average of 12.68 years compared to 9.4 years for whites and 7.87 for Latinos.

Perez’ findings are based on an examination of the 1,450 exonerations listed on the National Registry of Exonerations through October 20, 2014. While she notes the racial disparity in years served, she concedes that she can’t explain the reasoning.

“All we can do is infer,” Perez told HuffPost. “You can’t prove a darn thing.”

Her sentiment was echoed by University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, who is the exoneration registry’s editor. Gross cautioned people about reading too much into the findings without conducting additional research.

The Innocence Project looked at a smaller set of 212 cases in which DNA proof freed their clients. (The national registry includes exonerations due to other contributing factors like false confessions and perjury.) The project found a similar racial disparity, with black inmates serving 14.3 years before being exonerated compared to 12.2 years for all other racial groups.

“These two numbers are statistically different, suggesting that the difference between them isn’t due to chance,” Innocence Project research analyst Vanessa Meterko told HuffPost. “It’s notable, but it’s hard to say what the difference is.

The study was funded by the consumer research group

Read the full article



Murder Convictions Vacated for Two Washington, D.C. Men

Posted: October 29, 2014 1:33 pm

A decade after Gary Gathers and Keith Mitchell were convicted of murder, a Washington, D.C. appeals court reversed their convictions Wednesday, finding that prosecutors relied on false evidence at trial. 

The Legal Times reported that the pair was first found guilty in 1994 of the fatal shooting of Wayne Ballard while he was sitting in a car at a traffic light. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the convictions in 1997. This time when the case was reviewed by the appeals court, a three-judge panel found that prosecutors repeatedly made use of false testimony from a police officer about the defendants’ alleged motive. 

At trial, the prosecution claimed that the men wanted to kill Ballard in an effort to prevent him from testifying against Gathers’ brother in a murder case.  A police officer testified that Ballard’s name was mentioned as a cooperating witness in an early hearing in the brother’s case.   But this was not true. Ballard’s name was never used.  He was only referred to as “the driver.”  The trial prosecutor cited the officer’s testimony as proof of a and the government repeated the false information in its brief during the first appeal.

“It is markedly disquieting to think that appellants should stand convicted on what is plainly false evidence highly prejudicial to the outcome where the government knew or should have known of the falsity, however belatedly this falsity may have come to the forefront,” Senior Judge John Steadman wrote in the Oct. 23 opinion.

Lawyers for Gathers and Mitchell say they’ll continue fighting for full exonerations. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has been involved in Gathers’ post-conviction defense since 2010. 

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, credited the U.S. attorney’s office with making some progress over the years in being careful about mistakes during trial and in meeting its obligations to turn over favorable information to the defense. Still, she said the case was a reminder of the need to be vigilant.

“It just means that even when an office has the best of intentions, even when people have the best of intentions, sometimes people do the wrong thing,” Armbrust said. “It’s a sign we need procedures in place to make sure that doesn’t continue to happen.”

Read the full article (You may need to create an account with Legal News or sign into LinkedIn for access). 



Two Dallas Men Released After Serving 15 Years

Posted: October 28, 2014 4:28 pm

Photo: Stanley Mozee (left) and Dennis Allen (right) are greeted by family, supporters and the media after being released in Dallas Tuesday. (Credit: Lara Solt)
Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee walked out of a Dallas County courtroom today after the judge ruled that their murder convictions from 2000 should be overturned based on previously withheld evidence.  The Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas had petitioned for the pair’s release based on evidence that indicates serious prosecutorial misconduct, which was discovered in the prosecutor’s original file under the “open file” policy adopted by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2008, as well as the favorable results of recent DNA testing on bloodstains and other key evidence from the crime scene.  District Attorney Watkins and his Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence and joined the lawyers for Mozee and Allen in seeking today’s ruling that the pair did not receive a fair trial on that basis.
Among the contents in former Assistant District Attorney Rick Jackson’s file were letters from jailhouse informants seeking reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. At the trial, the informants, Zane Smith and Lonel Hardeman, claimed to have heard Allen and Mozee admitting to the murder, and in response to questioning by Jackson, swore to the jury that they didn’t receive, or even seek, any favorable treatment for their testimony. These letters were never disclosed during the 2000 trial, despite orders from the judge to turn over prior statements made by all witnesses, and the two inmates have since told defense attorneys their initial testimony was false.
Allen and Mozee were convicted of the 1999 murder of Reverend Jesse Borns Jr., despite a lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime. Borns was stabbed to death outside a store where he worked. In addition to a lack of evidence linking Allen and Mozee to the murder, there were no witnesses who placed them at the scene of the crime. Ultimately, the two men were convicted based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants and an unrecorded confession from Mozee, who has a history of mental illness. Shortly after he confessed, Mozee recanted and said he was coerced into signing a statement written out for him by police.
The legal organizations performed DNA testing on a trove of physical evidence recovered from the scene, and none of the items came from the two defendants. However, DNA from one or more persons that does not match the defendants or the victim was identified on several items including a bloodstain from the scene, a hammer found next to the victim’s body, and a hair underneath the victim’s fingernails, potentially from a close-range struggle in which the victim suffered numerous defensive wounds to his hands.
In today’s proceeding, Dallas County District Judge Mark Stoltz issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, and recommended that the convictions be overturned.  These findings will now go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for review. 
KTVT - CBS Dallas Ft. Worth spoke to Mozee and Allen after the hearing.

“I have no animosity toward anyone,” stated Mozee on Tuesday. “As a matter of fact, I give the Dallas County judicial system a positive note, if the court of criminal appeals will act and do the just thing in this matter.”
“It feels wonderful,” said Allen. “I mean, it’s kind of hard to explain, but try to imagine the greatest joy you have ever experienced in your life, and that’s what I’m feeling right now.

Allen and Mozee were surrounded in court by family members and other Dallas area exonerees when they were released today.  Among the Dallas area exonerees were Mr. Mozee’s childhood friends Cornelius Dupree and Keith Turner; all three men attended Lincoln High School together in the 1970s, and all three were later freed from prison based on newly discovered evidence of their innocence.
Read the full article and more in today’s press release



Wide Reach of Wrongful Convictions

Posted: October 27, 2014 1:09 pm

Twenty years ago, Jennifer Thompson was a college student when she was sexually assaulted in her North Carolina apartment and burglarized. The following month, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty-four years. Cotton remained behind bars for a decade until DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator as Bobby Pool.  The DNA testing also revealed that Thompson had misidentified her attacker. Thompson describes the traumatic experience of the attack and the haunting effects of wrongful conviction in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s edition of The Hill. She writes:

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong.  I had sent an innocent man to prison.  A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me.  I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.

Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim.  I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done.  The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.

This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted.  The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

In the years following Cotton’s release, he and Thompson forged an unlikely friendship and co-author the memoir Picking Cotton, about the harrowing experience of Thompson’s misidentification.  Her experience as a victim and the role she played in Cotton’s wrongful conviction has shed light on the need for legislation to protect the innocent. Thompson writes:

The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty.  Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did.  I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.

Read the full op-ed.
More on Cotton’s case

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