Innocence Blog

New York Man Cleared of 1989 Murder

Posted: April 9, 2014 5:15 pm

After serving 25 years in prison for a Brooklyn murder he did not commit, a New York man was released Tuesday and his conviction for murder was overturned. The New York Times reported that Jonathan Fleming was in Florida when the 1989 murder took place and new evidence proving that fact is what led to the indictment being dismissed. The valuable piece of evidence was a phone bill from the hotel where Fleming was staying during his Florida trip. In court yesterday, both parties agreed that the bill proved his innocence.
Fleming was convicted of the murder of a rival drug dealer and sentenced to 25 years to life behind bars despite his alibi of being in Orlando for a family trip to Walt Disney World. Plane tickets and video from the vacation were ignored by prosecutors who said he could have taken any number of flights back to New York to commit the murder. An eyewitness identified Fleming at trial in exchange for a dismissal of a grand larceny charge. When she recanted before sentencing, the prosecution claimed she was lying.
The Times reports that after Fleming’s attorneys presented new evidence proving that their client was out of town when the crime occurred, an assistant district attorney, Mark Hale, told the judge, Matthew J. D’Emic, “Had it [the evidence] been available at the trial, the likely outcome of the trial would have been different.”
Fleming is among dozens of wrongful conviction cases that the new Brooklyn District Attorney, Kenneth Thompson, inherited from Charles Hynes when he took office this year. It is a separate group from the 50 murder cases that resulted in a guilty verdict that were investigated by Louis Scarcella that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit reopened last year. Scarcella was not involved in Fleming’s case.
Hale said based on the evidence, the state cannot retry Fleming.
Read the full story.

Tags: New York



Listen to Jim Dwyer Talk about New iBook Collaboration with the Innocence Project and the New York Hall of Science

Posted: April 9, 2014 3:10 pm

A new ProPublica podcast features Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer talking about a new ibook, False Conviction: Innocence, Guilt and Science, that he wrote in collaboration with the Innocence Project and the New York Hall of Science.
Dwyer, who co-wrote Actual Innocence with Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, discusses eyewitness misidentification among the other factors of wrongful convictions that are covered in the new interactive book.
“We’ve all seen the people with the hazmat suits on, and the big gloves, and the crime scene tape,” Dwyer tells ProPublica, “but none of that is used when a witness is asked to look at a lineup or when a suspect is interrogated. And it’s important to recognize that things can happen that influence or contaminate the person’s identification or can be suggested to a suspect in the course of an interrogation.”
Listen to the podcast.

Tags: Dispatches



Former Ohio Attorney General Weighs in on Wrongful Conviction

Posted: April 8, 2014 5:00 pm

Ohio’s former Attorney General Jim Petro filed documents last week in Federal court in support of a man whom he believes falsely confessed to a murder he did not commit. The Morning Journal reported that Petro asked U.S. District Court Judge Jack Zouhary to hold a hearing to determine if Alfred Cleveland was wrongly convicted of murder.
Cleveland was convicted of murdering Marsha Blakely and has been behind bars since 1996, where he has been fighting for a new trial. In addition to Petro’s amicus brief, Cleveland’s lawyers have submitted new evidence of his innocence.
Blakely’s body was found in an alley in Lorain, Ohio, in 1991. She had cracked ribs, a broken neck, a slit throat and torture-type wounds on the side of her head and neck. According to a witness, a group of four men, including Cleveland, attacked and murdered Blakely. Cleveland wasn’t arrested until 1995 and he maintained his innocence throughout the trial. Numerous witnesses testified at trial that Cleveland was in New York when the murder happened and when Blakely’s body was discovered. Evidence supporting Cleveland’s claims that he was in New York were also presented at the trial.
Cleveland was convicted of aggravated murder in January, 1996, and was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.
Petro wrote in his brief that he stumbled on Cleveland’s case when he was reviewing wrongful conviction cases: “Specifically, I became concerned with the essential role that the testimony of William Avery Jr. played in Mr. Cleveland’s conviction… . As a friend of the Court, I have an interest in ensuring that the Court is aware of the full spectrum of information necessary to render a decision in this case.”
Avery had testified that he saw Cleveland and the three co-defendants kill Blakely. Nearly a decade after Cleveland and the others were convicted, however, Avery contacted the FBI and said that he lied during the trials to cover for his father, who actually committed the murder. According to Avery, his father pressured him to collect the reward money and cover up his guilt.
A couple of years later, during a 2008 hearing of a motion for a new trial in Lorain County Common Pleas Court, Avery said that he wanted to recant his trial testimony. He was informed that he could face 30 years in prison for perjury and, after being denied immunity, he pleaded the fifth amendment.
According to the Morning Journal, Petro noted in his brief that since Avery’s testimony is the only evidence linking Cleveland to the crime, it needs to be carefully examined. Petro wrote, “And while courts and prosecutors are often suspicious of a witness’ recantation, it is also possible that the recantation is a genuine attempt to do the right thing… . Simply put, Mr. Cleveland’s conviction hangs solely upon the recanted testimony of someone who was paid to give that testimony and who angled to extort more for it.”
A final oral argument was held Monday where both parties reviewed evidence. They now await the judge’s decision.
Read the full article.

Tags: Ohio



Death Row Exoneree Explains Why Capital Punishment Will Never Work

Posted: April 7, 2014 5:05 pm

Kirk Bloodsworth spent eight years in prison — including two on death row — for a murder and rape he did not commit before becoming the first person to be exonerated from death row through postconviction DNA testing. In Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, Bloodsworth took to the paper’s Opinion Pages’ Room for Debate column to explain why capital punishment will never work.
Having been wrongfully convicted based largely on eyewitness misidentification and spending time on death row, Bloodsworth knows firsthand that it’s possible to execute an innocent man. He writes: “If you want to know if capital punishment is cruel and unusual, ask Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu or Cameron Todd Willingham. Oh, that’s right. You can’t ask those guys. They were executed even though they were probably innocent.”
Bloodsworth, who is among 18 death row prisoners that have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States, also points out the shift the country has been making regarding capital punishment, noting that six states have ended the practice in the past six years. According to Bloodsworth, the Death Penalty Information Center reports that the number of death sentences and executions has declined drastically since the 1990s.
“Next time the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether the death penalty is constitutional, the justices will have to take notice of where the country is heading. If it can happen to me, it could happen to you,” writes Bloodsworth.
Read the full opinion piece.
More on Bloodsworth’s case.

Tags: Kirk Bloodsworth



Tennessee Man Exonerated of Rape after Serving 11 Years

Posted: April 7, 2014 12:00 pm

The Marshall County District Attorney General’s Office dismissed the remaining charges against Randy Mills on Friday, exonerating him of a 1999 rape. The dismissal was in response to a November 2013 decision by the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals decision ordering a new trial for Mills based on new DNA evidence proving his innocence.
“Randy Mills spent more than a decade locked up for a crime that more thorough investigation and careful forensic work would have revealed that he shouldn’t have been charged with in the first place,” said Bryce Benjet, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project. “This day was a long time coming, and I know Mr. Mills was happy to have been with close friends when it finally came.”
Mills was convicted in January 2000 of rape of a child and aggravated sexual battery for an incident that was said to have occurred on March 15, 1999, when the accuser, CM, was 12 years old. Mills and his two teenage sons lived next door to CM in a public housing duplex. On the day of the alleged crime, CM was under the care of her then 16-year-old sister. After CM was caught having snuck out of the house, she claimed that Mills had lured her into his bedroom to smoke pot and then raped her.
Mills’s conviction was based on CM’s testimony, who gave inconsistent statements about the attack. This incredible story, however, was bolstered by a state lab analyst who performed DNA testing on sperm found on CM’s underwear. The analyst claimed that Mills “couldn’t be excluded” as the source. He was convicted of one count of child rape and three counts of aggravated sexual battery.
Mills sought post conviction relief and (with the assistance of the Marie-Anne Moyes at the Federal Public Defender’s Office) was eventually able to have another lab conduct DNA testing on the underwear. This round of testing definitively excluded Mills as the source of the sperm. The Innocence Project’s review of the data from the state’s original DNA testing also showed that the state misrepresented the results of those tests, and there was evidence before trial that definitively excluded Mills. Based on this new evidence, the circuit court judge dismissed the rape charge but allowed the three counts of aggravated sexual battery to remain. The Innocence Project then secured Mills’ release from prison through an agreement that didn’t require Mills to admit guilt or waive his appeal, but required him to register as a sex offender with the state.
The burdens of sex offender registration significantly limited Mills’ ability to work as well as his home life. Mills could not see his grandchildren and was prohibited from leaving the state to visit the grave of his son, who died during Mills’ decade-long incarceration. Mills continued to fight his conviction and, on November 19, 2013, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals found that all of Mills’ convictions must be overturned based on the new DNA evidence.
Friday, the Marshall County prosecutor announced that he would not retry Mills for the crime. “Randy’s wrongful conviction is a stern reminder to all parties in the criminal justice system that, just as with all other evidence, you must be vigilant when there is DNA evidence in a case.” said Benjet. “It also proves the need for better defense access to experts in order to protect clients like Mr. Mills from state witnesses who provide false analysis, whether through carelessness or intentionally.”
Mills and the Innocence Project also acknowledge and thank local counsel Hershell Koger of Pulaski, Tennessee, and Bill Ramsey with the Nashville firm Neal and Harwell for their extraordinary assistance in righting this miscarriage of justice.

Tags: Tennessee



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



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