Innocence Blog

Innocence Project Attorney Fights for Testing of Evidence from 1988 Rape

Posted: January 9, 2015 4:02 am

UPDATE: The court hearing scheduled Monday before Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Reisner has been postponed.

On Monday, Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin will ask a New Jersey Superior Court Judge to order testing of evidence in the 25-year-old case of her client, Dion Harrell. 

Harrell was convicted of rape in 1992, before DNA testing was available in the state.  He reached out to the Innocence Project in 2002, years after being released on parole. As a registered sex offender, Harrell struggled to find suitable employment and housing. He knew that testing of the evidence in his case would exclude him and possibly lead to the actual perpetrator of the crime.

Last October, the rape kit was located, along with slides containing sperm which could be tested to reveal the identity of the assailant. Unfortunately, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office will not allow the slides to be tested. According to a court filing, prosecutors say Harrell’s case does not meet the criteria for testing because he is no longer incarcerated.

“It’s incomprehensible that in 2014 in New Jersey, you have a prosecutor who refuses to have slides with sperm tested to determine if there is a wrongful conviction,’’ Potkin told the Asbury Park Press yesterday. “I’m dumbfounded.’’

Potkin hopes that at a forthcoming hearing on the case, Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Resiner will force the state to grant DNA testing to Harrell.

“Put simply, Mr. Harrell’s conviction rests entirely on a single eyewitness identification and rudimentary, outdated forensic testing which has been completely replaced by DNA analysis,” Potkin wrote in her court papers. “DNA testing is capable of excluding Mr. Harrell from the semen evidence and thereby providing unprecedented scientific proof of his innocence.”

Read the Asbury Park Press story here.

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Tags: New Jersey, Access to DNA Testing, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Eyewitness Misidentification


Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic Seeks New Trial for North Carolina Man

Posted: January 8, 2015 6:21 pm

Eighteen years ago, 17-year-old Derrick McRae, a black man, was convicted in the murder of a white man in the drug-plagued projects of Rockingham, North Carolina. Despite rejecting several plea deals and being found not guilty by 8 out of 12 jurors in his first trial, McRae was found guilty when retried several weeks later and sentenced to life without parole in 1998. As reported by the Independent Weekly, new evidence suggests that McRae is innocent and his constitutional rights were violated.  

Nicole Wolfe, the forensic psychiatrist who first evaluated McRae after his conviction, described him as “one of the most severely mentally ill people I’ve ever evaluated.” She didn’t believe McRae was capable of murder. Years later, unable to shake the case from her conscience, Wolfe called the director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence, asking that the organization look into his case.

The case was referred to Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic in 2007. Attorney Teresa Newman noticed that the two witness testimonies differed wildly. One, Edward Tender, a jailhouse informant who claimed that McRae confessed to the murder, described McRae as an angry, shrewd disciple of Stokely Carmichael who targeted the victim because of his race. The other, Thurman Nelson, who was also charged with the murder, said the murder occurred when the victim gave McRae counterfeit money in a drug deal. The allegation that McRae was an erudite Black Panther also contradicted Wolfe’s psychiatric evaluation, which noted that the teen could not name five cities or spell the word “world.”  

In an unprecedented move, the prosecution called Tender to testify against McRae in the second trial while still under indictment for the murder himself.  As Newman explained to Independent Weekly, “That doesn’t happen! Either he’s lying, or his indictment can’t stand. You can’t have it both ways.”  When interviewed by Newman, Tender recanted his statement and said McRae was framed. When cross-examined in December, however, Tender said that his 1998 testimony was true, as far as he could recall.

Although both witness claimed at trial that they didn’t receive a deal in exchange for their testimony, both eventually received reduced sentences and dismissed charges after they testified.  After the two witnesses testified, they received reduced sentences in their own criminal cases.  Yet the prosecution never disclosed the existence of a deal in exchange for their testimony. 

 A brief filed by attorneys at Duke calls for McRae’s conviction to be overturned and the murder charge dropped due to the lack of evidence tying him to the crime. Judge W. David Lee is expected to decide this month whether the new evidence presented warrants a new trial.

Read the Independent Weekly article here.

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Tags: North Carolina


Brooklyn D.A. Seeks to Correct Injustice with Conviction Review Unit

Posted: January 7, 2015 6:09 pm

The New Yorker published a long piece Tuesday on Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s Conviction Review Unit.

Thompson created the unit when he took office in January 2014. He assembled a team of 10 lawyers to review wrongful-conviction claims and questionable convictions, many of which occurred under the leadership of the previous D.A., Charles Hynes.

“According to [Assistant District Attorney] Hale, the unit has accepted about a hundred cases for review since March, 2014, and has made a determination in thirty-one. Most of the cases that the unit has handled so far involve crimes that were committed in the early nineteen-nineties, during the highest period of criminal activity in the history of Brooklyn, which were also Hynes’s first years as D.A. The highest priority for the unit, Thompson says, is to give freedom to people who were convicted during the concomitant era of mass incarceration but don’t belong in prison. He likens the work of the C.R.U. to that of a hospital’s triage center.”

Read the full article here.

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Tags: New York, Conviction


Another Brooklyn Man to be Exonerated

Posted: January 6, 2015 4:51 pm

On Monday, another Brooklyn man, Derrick Hamilton, learned that he would be exonerated for a murder for which he served nearly 20 years. The case is one of the many cases handled by retired detective Louis Scarcella that is being reinvestigated by Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson.  
The conviction review unit formed by Thompson found major problems with the testimony of the only eyewitness to the 1991 murder of Nathaniel Cash. The eyewitness was Cash’s girlfriend. She told the first detective on the scene that she didn’t see the shooting. However, after being interviewed by Scarcella and his partner, her story completely changed with her naming Hamilton as the shooter. The review unit found that her testimony clashed with other evidence in the case. For instance, she claimed that Cash was shot in the chest, but a consultation with the medical examiner’s office showed that Cash was shot in the back. Ballistics also showed that more than one gun was used. 
According to an article in the New York Times, Hamilton said “it was very touching,” when he was told by Thompson that the he was being cleared of the crime.  
You can read the full article here.  

Tags: New York, Government Misconduct



New York District Attorney Endorses Reforms to Prevent Misidentification

Posted: January 5, 2015 4:20 pm

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara is urging New York to adopt reforms that would help prevent wrongful convictions based on misidentification. McNamara’s interest in the issue stems from the 2008 exoneration of Innocence Project client Steven Barnes. According to the Utica Observer Dispatch, after DNA evidence proved that Barnes was innocent of the murder of Kimberly Simon, McNamara vowed to do whatever he could to fix what had gone wrong to send an innocent man to prison.
Last year, McNamara served on a committee for the National Academy of Science that released Identifying the Culprit, a landmark report on misidentification urging states to adopt best practices to prevent misidentifications. McNamara told the Observer Dispatch that one of the problems with misidentifications is that the confidence a witness possesses when identifying a suspect in the court room often doesn’t reveal the doubts that the witness might have had when initially identifying the suspect soon after the crime occurred. In Barnes’ case, a key eyewitness couldn’t identify him from a photo lineup days after the murder, but the witness did identify Barnes in the courtroom during his trial three years later. The NAS report recommends that police solicit a confidence statement from the witness immediately after an identification.
McNamara told the Observer Dispatch, “It won’t always help the prosecution, but what it does do is it helps ensure that we’re not wrongfully convicting people. We want to hold people accountable for their crimes, but at the same time we want to ensure that what we’re doing does not convict innocent people, and this procedure would clearly accomplish that goal.”
You can read the full article here.
You can watch a video of Barnes discussing his wrongful conviction here.

Tags: New York, Steven Barnes, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



Innocent Alabama Couple Jailed for Failing to Pay Court Fees

Posted: December 30, 2014 12:48 pm

PBS News Hour ran a disturbing story about an Alabama couple who were found innocent of violating a traffic violation but were nevertheless jailed for failing to pay approximately $500 in court costs imposed by the judge.  The couple became indigent after giving birth to a child with a rare brain disease who needed constant medical attention.  The Childersberg municipal court engaged a private for profit company, Judicial Corrections Services, to collect the court fees.  While the couple paid off a substantial amount of the fees, they became unable to pay after their child died.  The couple ended up spending several hours in jail before a relative came and paid off some of the fees.  The couple, which has already paid nearly $1300 toward what they owe, racked up nearly $2500 in fees associated with the original case.  This doesn’t include additional fees imposed by Judicial Corrections Services.

You can watch the segment here.  

Tags: Alabama



Nathan Brown’s First Christmas As a Free Man

Posted: December 29, 2014 1:00 pm

Recent exoneree Nathan Brown was interviewed on Christmas day by New Orleans news channel WWL.  Brown and his family discuss how it feels to be celebrating Christmas together for the first time in 17 years.  Brown was exonerated back in June of 2014 for an attempted rape that DNA evidence eventually proved he didn’t commit. 

According to Brown, “It’s a sweet day because I am free and it’s Christmas and I’m with my family, but it’s a bitter day because I wasn’t able to do and buy the things I wanted to buy and get the presents I wanted to get.” 

You can watch the full interview here.  

You can watch a video of Nathan discussing his wrongful conviction here.  

Tags: Louisiana, Nathan Brown



Fernando Bermudez Reaches Settlement with New York For Wrongful Conviction

Posted: December 24, 2014 12:00 pm

Exoneree Fernando Bermudez will receive $4.75 million from the state of New York in compensation for the 18 years he was wrongly incarcerated for a murder he didn’t commit. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, this is the largest settlement the state has ever paid for a wrongful conviction.  

Bermudez was convicted of second degree murder for a shooting that took place outside of a Manhattan night club in 1991.  A federal judge reversed Bermudez’ conviction in 2009 after several witnesses recanted their testimony, saying they were coerced by police into identifying Bermudez.  

In a statement Bermudez said, “”Of course, the settlement will never erase the injustice that I experienced as an innocent man in prison for 18 1/2 years. The mental and physical toll, which began 23 years ago, continues for me.”

Bermudez also has a pending civil rights lawsuit against New York City.  

Bermudez has shared his experience of being wrongly convicted with audiences around the globe. You can watch a video featuring Bermudez and his family talking about the injustice they endured here

If you are interested in inviting Bermudez to speak, please contact our exoneree speakers bureau

Tags: New York, Exoneree Compensation, Fernando Bermudez



Texas Rep Wants Interrogations Recorded

Posted: December 23, 2014 12:49 pm

Representative Terry Canales of Texas introduced two bills on Wednesday which he says would promote transparency and ensure responsible law enforcement practices in the state. 

House Bill 541 would require police to record custodial interrogations, the questioning led by police once a suspect has been taken into custody, either in audio or video format. The current law only requires that any confessions resulting from interrogations be recorded in writing.

“Full recordings of interrogations provide more accurate representation of what actually occurred during an interrogation and clarify what was said or not said, rather than the current practice of police typing a statement and giving it to the defendant to sign,” Rep. Canales told the Valley Town Crier. 

“As various innocence groups have found, about 25 percent of DNA exonerations involved false confessions,” Canales said. “Additionally, three of Texas’ 36 DNA wrongful convictions involved false confessions.”

However, the bill lists several exceptions to the requirement including spontaneous confession, problems with the camera, or an error in making the recording.

Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia currently require the recording of confessions.

Canales also pre-filed House Joint Resolution 62 which would require The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stream live broadcasts of their trials through its website.

Canales said that broadcasting high court proceedings would help educate the public and build trust among the citizens of the state regarding the courts’ practices and procedures.

“If the state’s highest courts are to maintain the public’s trust, they must be visible and accessible to all Texans and televising arguments would go far toward achieving that end,” Canales said.

Read the full story here.

Tags: Texas, False Confessions



Compensation difficult for wrongfully convicted to obtain - even in states with statutes

Posted: December 22, 2014 4:20 pm

Stories in the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit Free-Press this weekend highlighted the immense challenges that exonerees, in California, Michigan and states around the country, can face when seeking compensation for wrongful convictions. 
Although 30 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that provide for some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted, a number of barriers often stand in the way. In California, the Times reported, some who have been wrongfully convicted never filed a claim because they cannot afford a lawyer or one who is willing to take on the case. Additionally, applicants seeking compensation in California not only have to prove actual innocence, they must also show that they had not ‘”contributed to their conviction’ … by pleading guilty, running from police or belonging to a gang.” (According to data compiled by the Innocence Project, nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 325 DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. This exemplifies the faultiness of the requirement that an applicant not have pled guilty, as an innocent person who was, say, coerced or tricked into a guilty plea would not be eligible for compensation under California’s law.)  And, if compensation is granted, it must be approved by the state legislature, which can and has scuttled payment that was OK’d by the state compensation board. California provides $100 per day in prison, or an annual maximum of $36,500. Michigan has no statute providing for compensation, and a recent bill that would have codified compensation at $60,000 a year plus damages died at the end of session, according to the Free-Press. 
The articles highlighted a number of cases in California and Michigan, including those of Rafael Madrigal, and Thomas and Raymond Highers, whom were wrongfully convicted for murders they did not commit and are trying to rebuild their lives without the benefit of any form of compensation, or even social services, which are available to parolees but not exonerees.   
“If you’re an exoneree, you get nothing. You don’t get any of that. You don’t have a parole officer. You walk out. That’s it,” Caitlin Plummer, a staff attorney with the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic told the Free Press. “They treat you as if it never happened and just send you out the door with nothing.”
Read the full Times article
Read the full Free-Press article

Tags: California, Michigan, Exoneree Compensation



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