Innocence Blog

Watch Now: Frontline Revisits Willingham

Posted: October 8, 2014 5:15 pm

Nearly four years after Frontline premiered “Death by Fire,” an examination of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young daughters, the series revisited the case in “Death by Fire 2,” which aired Tuesday evening on PBS.
The follow-up show, which questions if Texas executed an innocent man, was prompted by new allegations of prosecutorial misconduct in the case against Willingham. In August, the Innocence Project filed a detailed grievance with the Chief Disciplinary Counsel of the State Bar of Texas urging investigation in to whether former Willingham prosecutor John Jackson failed to disclose a deal with jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who testified that Willingham, while in jail, confessed to the arson murder of his three children. This supposed confession became indispensable evidence on the eve of Willingham’s execution in 2004 when an expert report was filed with courts, exposing the arson evidence against Willingham as false. Current and former Navarro County prosecutors were not aware that Jackson had reduced Webb’s conviction for robbery in the first degree to robbery in the second degree based on cooperation in the Willingham case. If the plea deal between Jackson and Webb had not been hidden by Jackson prior to the execution, the prosecutor assigned to the case now says that he would have disclosed it.
“Death by Fire 2” includes an exclusive on-camera interview with Webb.
Watch the full episodes.
Learn more about Cameron Todd Willingham.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty, Cameron Todd Willingham



Capital Punishment in Kansas and Memories From an Oklahoma Death Row Exoneree

Posted: October 6, 2014 3:45 pm

Oklahoma death row exoneree Curtis McCarty recently sat down with Wichita Public Radio to discuss his wrongful conviction and life behind bars for a segment that focused on capital punishment in Kansas. Despite capital punishment being legal in the state, Kansas hasn’t executed an inmate since 1965.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Four years later, the high court reversed the ruling and allowed states to carry out executions under certain guidelines. Since Kansas reinstated the death penalty a decade ago, there have since been 85 charges of capital murder and 13 convictions, nine of which still stand.
Just across the state border, McCarty spent more than 20 years behind bars in Oklahoma. Since 1976, 111 individuals convicted of murder have been executed by lethal injection in that state. Had it not been for DNA evidence, McCarty could have been added to the list.
McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after serving 21 years — including 19 years on death row — for a 1982 Oklahoma City murder he didn’t commit. He was convicted twice and sentenced to death three times based on prosecutorial misconduct and testimony from a forensic analyst whose lab misconduct has contributed to at least two other convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Before DNA proved his innocence, McCarty spent most of his prison sentence in a 9 x 9 cell.
McCarty says in his interview with Wichita Public Radio: “Imagine being locked in your bathroom for a decade… . It’s that kind of existence, but surrounded by violence, indifference and mental illness in the people around you… . I had to get over that shock, the disbelief that I’m not supposed to be here… . Because nobody wants to here that and the truth is, that’s where you live now, that’s your home.”
Listen to the full interview.
More about McCarty’s case.

Tags: Kansas, Oklahoma, Curtis McCarty, Death Penalty



Do New Legal Changes Give Prosecutors a Potentially Dangerous Amount of Power?

Posted: October 3, 2014 4:00 pm

A new article in the Economist examines how recent legal changes have placed, perhaps, an overabundance of power in the hands of American prosecutors. According to the article, the changes include “an explosion” of cases ending in guilty pleas and a high number of cases in which defendants become informants, speaking out against one another in exchange for deals that will lessen their charges or sentences.
The Economist reports:

… American prosecutors are more powerful than ever before.
Several legal changes have empowered them. The first is the explosion of plea bargaining, where a suspect agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge if the more serious charges against him are dropped. Plea bargains were unobtainable in the early years of American justice. But today more than 95% of cases end in such deals and thus are never brought to trial.
Jed Rakoff, a district judge in New York, thinks it unlikely that 95% of defendants are guilty. Of the 2.4m Americans behind bars, he thinks it possible that “thousands, perhaps tens of thousands” confessed despite being innocent. One reason they might do so is because of harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing rules can make such a choice rational. Rather than risk a trial and a 30-year sentence, some cop a plea and accept a much shorter one.

According to the Economist, it is perhaps a rise in the number of “incomprehensible” new laws that are providing prosecutors with more latitude to interpret laws as they see fit, enabling them to overcharge defendants, and, in turn pressure them into plea bargaining.
In terms of the increase in reliance upon informants to help solicit guilty verdicts, the article says:

The same threats and incentives that push the innocent to plead guilty also drive many suspects to testify against others. Deals with “co-operating witnesses,” once rare, have grown common. In federal cases an estimated 25-30% of defendants offer some form of co-operation, and around half of those receive some credit for it. The proportion is double that in drug cases. Most federal cases are resolved using the actual or anticipated testimony of co-operating defendants.
Co-operator testimony often sways juries because snitches are seen as having first-hand knowledge of the pattern of criminal activity. But snitches hoping to avoid draconian jail terms may sometimes be tempted to compose rather than merely to sing.

In some instances, prosecutors may actually encourage informants to embellish testimonies for their own benefits, hoping to “parlay courtroom victories into lucrative partnerships at law firms or platforms to run for public office,” says the Economist.
But these false testimonies can result in real jail time for people who are actually innocent. The article cites a study by Northwestern University Law School’s Centre on Wrongful Convictions which found that “46% of documented wrongful capital convictions between 1973 and 2004 could be traced to false testimony by informants — making them the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death-penalty cases.” And data provided by the Innocence Project says that of the 318 Americans exonerated by DNA evidence, 57 involved informants — and 30 entered guilty pleas.
Some prosecutors argue that “without co-operation deals and plea bargains… the system would buckle under the weight of extra trials.” Others in the criminal justice system, however, are calling for change, demanding reform that would get rid of mandatory-minimum sentences and reduce the prosecutor’s role in plea-bargaining. A number of states are taking action by requiring third-party corroboration of informants’ testimonies, while others no longer permit testimony by informants with drug addiction or mental-health issues.
Read the entire article.

Tags: New York, Guilty Pleas



Join Us in Congratulating Our Recent Exonerees

Posted: October 3, 2014 5:20 am

To mark yesterday’s first international Wrongful Conviction Day, the Innocence Project asked our online community members to take a minute to congratulate our two recent exonerees – Nathan Brown and Michelle Murphy – and send them best wishes for their future. Thanks to the many online supporters who took part by writing email messages to Nathan and Michelle. We know that they’ll be really excited to get them!
It’s not too late to send your message of support if you haven’t already. You can read a paragraph about each case below, then click the link to go to our Action Center, where you can send your message.

Michelle Murphy was exonerated last month of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence and other previously undisclosed evidence pointing to her innocence. Michelle was just 17 at the time of the murder and woke up one morning to any mother’s worst nightmare: Her 15-week-old son murdered in the kitchen of their apartment. That nightmare only became worse when police accused her of the crime, conducting a long interrogation while she was still in shock and coercing her into a false confession that she had killed her own son by accident after a confrontation with a neighbor. Michelle was exonerated last month after crime scene evidence identified blood from an unknown male just below blood from the victim on a curtain separating the kitchen and living room. Michelle’s lawyers also learned that the prosecution had falsely implied to the jury that blood recovered from the scene matched Michelle’s blood type.
Join us in congratulating Michelle on her exoneration and sending her best wishes for her future!

When a white woman was attacked by a black man in Nathan Brown’s apartment complex, a security guard directed police to Nathan’s apartment, even though the victim stated she didn’t think her attacker lived in the complex. Although just minutes after the attack, police found Nathan in his bedroom wearing pajamas, rocking his young daughter to sleep, he was made to participate in a one-on-one “show-up,” a highly-suggestive identification procedure in which a single suspect is presented to the witness. The victim identified him as her assailant and Nathan was convicted and sentenced to 25 years for attempted rape, despite the fact that four of Nathan’s relatives testified at trial that he had been home with them at the time of the crime. Nathan was exonerated in June after DNA testing of the victim’s clothing uncovered the DNA of a black male with a felony record who was 17 and living within blocks of the complex when the crime occurred.
Join us in congratulating Nathan on his exoneration and sending him best wishes for his future!

If you’d like to receive future actions like this in your email on the day we send them, sign up for our online community email list here.



National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

Posted: October 2, 2014 4:10 am

Today the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitness identification. For the report, researchers conducted an in-depth review of three decades of basic and applied scientific research on eyewitness identification and provided recommendations for improving police identification procedures and for how courts handle eyewitness evidence.
The Innocence Project, which has long advocated for many of the reforms recommended in the report, is urging states and courts across the nation to enact the recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions.
“This report should serve as a powerful incentive for states and courts around the nation to enact reforms that will prevent eyewitness misidentifications. We’ve known for quite some time that eyewitness testimony is simply not as accurate as juries often believe, but we now have a definitive report that has analyzed three decades of science and makes proven recommendations for how law enforcement and the courts can prevent innocent people from being wrongly arrested and convicted,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project.
Eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 72% of the 318 wrongful convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence. The real perpetrators were eventually identified in 90 of these cases. While the innocent where languishing behind bars in these cases, the real perpetrators committed an additional 98 additional violent crimes (63 rapes, 17 murders, and 18 other violent crimes).
Recognizing that police eyewitness identification procedures can have a big effect on the accuracy of identifications, the report endorsed numerous best practices as means to reducing the likelihood of wrongful convictions, including that lineups be conducted “blindly,” meaning the officer who conducts the procedure be unaware of the identity of the suspect and that police collect a confidence statement from the witness at the time he or she makes an identification.
Ten states have already uniformly adopted these best practices through law, policy or court action, and many jurisdictions around the country have voluntarily adopted policies embracing these important best practices. Just last year, the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, the world’s oldest and largest organization of police executives, came out in support of these reforms.
The report also notes that the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted. Landmark decisions by the New Jersey and Oregon Supreme Courts have taken note of the robust research on memory and identification and have overhauled the way courts in those states deal with identification evidence. Today’s report makes recommendations for courts that will hopefully accelerate this trend.
For more detail about the report, read the Innocence Project’s press release.
A copy of the report is available here.
Additional information about eyewitness misidentification is available here.

Tags: False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, False Confessions, Eyewitness Misidentification, NAS Report



New Orleans Exoneree Will Receive State Compensation

Posted: October 1, 2014 1:20 pm

Nathan Brown, 40, was released from a New Orleans prison in June after serving more than 16 years for a 1997 attempted rape of which he was innocent. On Tuesday, Judge Ray Steib of the 24th Judicial District Court apologized to Brown for the years that he lost while being locked away for a crime that he did not commit, and told Brown that he is entitled to $330,000 in wrongful conviction compensation from the state of Louisiana.
The Times-Picayune reports that Brown will receive the maximum amount that the state will pay to exonerees. According to Louisiana’s compensation law, exonerees are allowed up to $25,000 for up to 10 years in prison, regardless of how long the wrongfully convicted person was incarcerated, with a cap set at $250,000. Brown is entitled to request an additional $80,000 to compensate him for the opportunities he lost while imprisoned.
Brown was wrongly convicted in 1997 of attempting to rape a woman, then 40, who lived in his apartment complex. Though Brown had an alibi for the time of the crime, he was tried, convicted and sentenced in one day. His conviction was based entirely on the identification by the victim who claimed that she was positive that Brown was her assailant.
In December of last year the Innocence Project requested DNA testing of crime scene evidence. Results confirmed what Brown had insisted all along, that he was innocent. The DNA profile matched to a man who lived near the apartment building in 1997 and is now serving time in Mississippi for an unrelated crime.
According to the Times-Picayune, Assistant Attorney General Colin Clark was in court on Tuesday to speak to Brown’s innocence and to request that the state compensate him for the time he spent in prison.
Clark said, according to the Times-Picayune, “When the state makes a grievous mistake, such as here, it’s altogether fitting and proper that the state take responsibility for the wrong that was committed. Although the attorney general did not prosecute the case, the attorney general’s office is here to make it right and asks this court to compensate Mr. Brown to the maximum extent allowed by law.”
Read the full story.

Tags: Louisiana, Nathan Brown, Exoneree Compensation



Senator Rodney Ellis, Exoneree Michael Morton, Innocence Project and Other Lawyers Urge Legislature to Fix Texas’ DNA Testing Law

Posted: October 1, 2014 12:40 pm

Photo: Bryce Benjet and Barry Scheck join Rodney Ellis and Michael Morton at the Texas state capitol.
On Tuesday morning, Senator Rodney Ellis, exoneree Michael Morton and Innocence Project and other lawyers gathered at a press conference at the Texas state capitol to urge lawmakers to amend Texas’ DNA testing law.

The state legislature amended the Texas statute in 2011 after the Court of Criminal Appeals denied testing to death row inmate Larry Swearingen, who has argued for years that he is innocent of the murder of a 19-year-old college student. The new law, Chapter 64 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, was amended to provide the broad right to conduct DNA testing on essentially all crime scene evidence that can yield probative evidence of innocence. Specifically, the revisions sought to address advances in DNA technology that now enable scientists to identify DNA profiles from skin cells and other microscopic biology recovered from crime scene evidence. The 2011 revisions also required that profiles be uploaded to both the state and federal DNA database to see if they matched to a known criminal offender.

Despite the fact that the 2011 revisions were passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry, the Court of Criminal Appeals again denied Swearingen access to testing in a February 2014 decision. Although the court acknowledged that courts must consider testing of skin cells (which are microscopic), the court placed an impossible burden on the defendant that he or she prove that the microscopic materials exist before testing is granted. The court also refused to acknowledge that having the ability to upload profiles to the state and federal databases can produce critical proof of innocence, as it did in the Michael Morton case and many others.

According to Senator Ellis, “When the legislature amended the DNA testing law in 2011, we intended to give people broad access to DNA testing that could prove innocence. Unfortunately the Court of Criminal Appeals has issued decisions narrowly interpreting the statute, so we need to make it crystal clear that those accused and convicted of crimes should have broad access to this important evidence.”

Michael Morton, who wrongly served 20 years for the murder of his wife before he was exonerated by DNA testing, added, “I had to fight over a decade while in prison for the testing that not only proved my innocence but also solved another subsequent murder. If DNA testing can shed light on a criminal case, by all means, it should be permitted.”

Read more here.

Tags: Texas, Access to DNA Testing, Michael Morton



Inside Look on Freeing the Innocent

Posted: September 30, 2014 4:20 pm

Nearly a month after two North Carolina half brothers were declared innocent and ordered released from prison based on DNA evidence that implicated another man, two people who played pivotal roles in overturning their convictions spoke about the case to North Carolina’s Public Radio.

Henry Lee McCollum, 50, who spent 30 years on death row, and Leon Brown, 46, were convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl and languished behind bars until the North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission started an investigation into their case. Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, the Commission’s executive director, and Sharon Stalleto, the chief investigator, reviewed the brothers’ case and uncovered evidence that revealed both men were wrongly convicted.

Listen to Montgomery-Blinn and Stalleto describe their experience working on the case and read more about it.

Tags: North Carolina



Washington Man Compensated for Ten Years Behind Bars

Posted: September 29, 2014 5:15 pm

An Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) client was awarded nearly a half a million dollars in compensation at a hearing on Friday. Brandon Olebar spent 10 years behind bars after being wrongly convicted of robbery and burglary based solely on eyewitness identification.
The Seattle Times reported that Olebar is the organization’s first client to receive compensation under a law passed last year. He was granted $546,690 — $49,671 of which will go toward covering attorney fees.
Olebar, who was joined at the hearing by his wife and newborn daughter, told the Times he plans to use the money to get an apartment, buy a car and go back to school.
The victim in the case said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes and that they had tattoos of feathers on their faces. Two days after the attack, Olebar was identified from a photo montage despite the fact that he did not have a facial tattoo and had an alibi. In light of the new evidence, two IPNW law students tracked down and interviewed three of the assailants, who signed sworn statements admitting their involvement and denying that Olebar was present during the attack. The evidence was ultimately presented to the chief criminal deputy prosecutor. The district attorney’s office moved to vacate Olebar’s conviction in December.
Under the law that was passed in 2013, people who were wrongfully convicted in Washington are now able to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state and receive up to $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial. Prior to the passage of the law, the wrongly convicted in Washington could only sue based on something other than their wrongful conviction, such as police or prosecutorial misconduct.
Read the full article.

Tags: Washington, Exoneree Compensation



Innocence Project Applauds Outgoing Attorney General

Posted: September 26, 2014 5:25 am

Following the announcement on Thursday by Attorney General Eric Holder that he will be stepping down as the nation’s attorney general, the Innocence Project commends his tremendous leadership in helping to uncover and prevent wrongful convictions. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld had the following to say about his service:

Attorney General Holder has been an outstanding advocate for justice in many ways, but under his tenure several things stand out in his leadership to protect the innocent. He took a critical first step in validating and developing scientific standards for forensic practices by helping to establish the first ever National Commission on Forensic Science. Similarly, when it was learned that FBI analysis may have given improper testimony in cases involving hair analysis, he agreed to an unprecedented review of thousands of cases and has steadfastly kept to that promise. And breaking a 20-year stalemate, he has initiated a policy where for the first time government law enforcement officers are required to electronically record interrogations in most instances. His tenure will be unquestionably remembered for his unwavering commitment to fairness and justice.

In addition to his work to protect the innocent, Holder should be commended for his work to improve the criminal justice system more broadly. Just this week, he appeared at a forum hosted by the Brennan Center for Justice where he called for sweeping changes to end over- incarceration. He has been a staunch advocated for fairer sentencing, seeking to end mandatory minimums. Additionally, he has often spoken out about the racial problems that plague the criminal justice system, most recently addressing the killing of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.



Read more