Innocence Blog

Gainesville Sun Editorial Cites Wrongful Convictions as Reason to End Death Penalty in Florida

Posted: July 3, 2014 1:15 pm

On Wednesday, Florida’s Gainesville Sun released an editorial criticizing the state’s ongoing use of the death penalty. Considering that “Florida leads the nation with two dozen death-row exonerations since 1979,” states the editorial, it’s imperative that the state reexamine whether its use of capital punishment and the passage of the Timely Justice Act, a law sponsored by the state’s governor that will speed up executions, are just and prudent. Florida has executed six people since January and has another execution scheduled for next week.
According to the editorial, last year the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar Association called for a comprehensive review of Florida’s death penalty process based on a 2006 report released by the American Bar Association which found problems with the fairness, impartiality and accuracy of the state’s process. The Gainesville Sun writes:

The biggest problem is the possibility of wrongfully executing someone who is innocent… .
Just last week, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and conviction of Paul Hildwin. He has spent the last 28 years in prison for allegedly strangling a woman to death in Hernando County.
DNA evidence found at the murder scene was in recent years discovered to match a former boyfriend of the victim rather than Hildwin.
One way to lessen the chances of wrongful convictions is changing the state’s sentencing system. Florida is one of two states where just a majority jury vote can recommend death.

Rather than racing toward the national lead for executions, the state should work toward no longer having the disgraceful distinction of leading the nation in wrongful death sentences.

Read the full editorial.
Learn more about Innocence Project client Paul Hildwin.

Tags: Florida, Paul Hildwin



Another Arson Case Revisited

Posted: July 2, 2014 5:25 pm

Days after we blogged about a Pennsylvania arson conviction that is poised to be overturned based on unreliable evidence, a similar case is unraveling in Texas. KTVT-CBS Dallas Fort Worth and the Associated Press report that a hearing was held on Tuesday to review the murder conviction of a 66-year-old woman found guilty of setting her uncle on fire in 1993. A decision on whether the conviction should be overturned was not yet made.
Contrary to expert testimony provided at the trial more than 20 years ago, Sonia Cacy’s Innocence Project of Texas attorneys — along with a state panel that reviewed the case — say that there was no evidence of arson in the fire that claimed the life of Bill Richardson and no proof of gasoline on his clothing.
Innocence Project of Texas President Gary Udashen said the evidence proves his client’s innocence. “Without the science, there is no case… . If there’s no gasoline poured on Bill Richardson’s clothes, there is no murder. There is no case. They’re focused on things that make no difference at all,” said Udashen, according to KTVT-CBS.
Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison but was released on parole after serving five years. The judge said he won’t make a ruling for a few months. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would have the final say on overturning Cacy’s conviction.
Read the full article.

Tags: Texas



New York City Poised for More Wrongful Conviction Suits

Posted: July 2, 2014 12:30 pm

Less than a week after New York City’s comptroller approved a settlement of $41 million for the Central Park Five, the Daily News reported that he is anticipating more wrongful conviction claims to come forward.
Comptroller Scott Stringer thinks that the recent settlement will be the first of many that he will be considering, including claims stemming from the review of 50 murder cases which were originally investigated by retired NYPD Louis Scarcella that resulted in guilty verdicts.
“Our office will be confronted with claims related to issues like this over the next many years,” Stringer said at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, according to the Daily News. “I just want everyone here to know, and this is my solemn promise, we will look at every (wrongful conviction) case on the merits.”
Last week, nearly two months after three Brooklyn brothers became the first people exonerated as a result of the wide sweeping Scarcella review, their attorneys filed notices to sue the city for $150 million each.
Read the full article.

Tags: New York



Advances in Science a Factor in Pennsylvania Arson Case

Posted: July 1, 2014 11:10 am

Nearly 25 years after a Pennsylvania man was convicted of setting a fire in a small cabin at a Korean Christian retreat that claimed the life of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter, advances in arson science could soon lead to his release. Han Tak Lee, 79 years old, is serving a life sentence. He was convicted of murder based on outdated indicators of arson.
In the years since Lee’s conviction, what were once considered tell-tale signs of arson have been debunked based on a lack of credible science to support them. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Lee won his most significant legal victory last month when a federal magistrate judge in Harrisburg recommended that he be retried or released. A U.S. district court judge is reviewing that recommendation and could rule soon.
According to Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Lee is among a handful of Pennsylvania inmates — including Daniel Dougherty of Northeast Philadelphia — seeking freedom in an arson case.
“It’s plausible to think he could get out soon,” said lawyer Peter Goldberger, who has represented Lee for 14 years, according to the Inquirer.
Last week, the prosecution filed objections to the magistrate’s report, but on Friday, Goldberger called those objections “insubstantial” and filed a motion for bail.
During Lee’s trial, fire investigators and police analysis said there were burn patterns in the cabin that indicated several points where the fire started, with one investigator even saying traces of a flammable liquid were found on Lee’s clothing which matched remnants found on a glove and jug at the scene.
The Inquirer reported that John Lentini, a fire science expert who reviewed evidence in the high-profile Cameron Todd Willingham case, wrote an article in 1999 that said Lee’s conviction was the “ultimate triumph of junk science” and argued that the fire was mistakenly categorized as arson. Lentini disagreed with the assertion that more than 60 gallons of fuel oil and gas had been used to start the fire, because no trace of either was ever found in the cabin.
More than a decade after Lentini published that article, Goldberger called on him to help with Lee’s appeal. In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded, in a precedent-setting decision, that Goldberger had presented a “convincing claim of innocence” on Lee’s behalf and that Lee deserved a chance to challenge the conviction based on the evolving science. Lentini analyzed the evidence and concluded that the clothing did not contain the same mix of oil and gas that was alleged by the prosecution at trial.
Read the full article.

Tags: Pennsylvania



Florida Judge Demands New Treatment of Eyewitness Expert Testimony

Posted: June 27, 2014 5:10 pm

A Florida Supreme Court judge is publically calling for the state to update its 31-year-old law regarding how it handles the admissibility of eyewitness expert testimony in court.
According to CBS Miami, Justice Barbara Pariente, along with Justice Peggy Quince, issued comments on Thursday in an eight-page concurring opinion regarding the case of Florida death row inmate Charles Peterson. The inmate argued that he received ineffective counsel because his lawyer neglected to call an eyewitness identification expert to the stand at his trial. Pariente and the other judges unanimously denied Peterson’s claim, but in her comments, Pariente stated that, in general, juries should be allowed to hear from experts on eyewitness identification, especially for those cases that rest almost entirely or completely on the testimony of eyewitnesses. She noted that eyewitness misidentification has been a contributing factor in approximately 75 percent of the convictions later exonerated through DNA testing.
Pariente wrote: “As the burgeoning body of scientific research indicates and courts across the country increasingly recognize, expert witness testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identifications can be a ‘powerful tool in helping the criminal justice system achieve its goal of convicting the guilty while acquitting the innocent,’” according to CBS Miami.
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, told CBS Miami that eyewitness identification is often successful in leading to convictions, but that it is “naïve” to think that jurors know enough to evaluate whether or not an eyewitness is reliable.
“Jurors can be prejudiced and overly compelled by that seminal moment in a trial where the defendant points at a person and says, ‘That is the person who raped me.’ And that can overshadow all of the other infirmities that exist with how the eyewitness identification may have happened… . That’s the kind of stuff these experts talk about and testify to. And these are things that jurors don’t know about… . but they’ve been studied and proven in an uncontradicted way by people within the social science community over the past 30 years,” said Miller, according to CBS Miami.
Read the full article.

Tags: Florida



Florida Supreme Court Reverses Murder Conviction of Man Who Has Served 28 Years on Death Row

Posted: June 26, 2014 6:05 pm

Today the Florida Supreme Court reversed the capital murder conviction of Paul Hildwin based on DNA evidence pointing to his innocence of a murder for which he has served nearly 30 years, 28 of those on death row. DNA testing performed by the Innocence Project proves that critical evidence used to tie Hildwin to the crime belonged to the victim’s boyfriend, who the defense argued all along must have been the real killer and who is currently incarcerated for the sexual assault of two minors.
Paul Hildwin was convicted of the 1985 murder of Vronzettie Cox whose naked body was found in the trunk of her car in Hernando County. Investigators suspected that she had been sexually assaulted, and her death was ruled a strangulation. Hildwin became a suspect in the murder after stolen property from the vehicle was found in his possession. When questioned, he told investigators that he had hitched a ride with the victim and her boyfriend, William Haverty, several days earlier and admitted stealing property from the vehicle, including the victim’s checkbook. But he denied assaulting or murdering her, and insisted that he left the victim with her boyfriend, with whom she had a volatile relationship, by the roadside after the two got into a heated argument and pulled over the car.
At trial, the prosecution presented a serology expert who wrongly claimed that bodily fluids found on two pieces of crime scene evidence (women’s underwear and a washcloth) matched Hildwin. That evidence came from a FBI forensics expert who claimed that Hildwin was among only 11% of the world’s white male population who could have left the fluids behind. The expert also claimed that the fluids couldn’t have come from Haverty.
In 2003, DNA testing excluded Hildwin as the source of semen and saliva found on the two pieces of evidence in Cox’s car. The Innocence Project fought prosecutors for the next seven years to get the state to run the DNA profile into the CODIS DNA database to determine the source of the DNA. In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court finally ordered a DNA database search on the DNA profile, which matched to Haverty. This new evidence supports statements made by Hildwin to the police and at trial that Haverty was the likely perpetrator.
In addition to the DNA evidence, the Innocence Project also uncovered evidence of Hildwin’s innocence that was never turned over to the defense. The victim’s nephew and another witness told investigators that they saw Cox with Haverty nearly 12 hours after the prosecution maintained Hildwin killed her, yet neither were called to testify during trial.
This is the fourth time in just over a year that the Florida Supreme Court has reversed a death sentence based on new evidence pointing to innocence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, with 24 exonerations, Florida leads the nation in the number of people on death row who have been exonerated. In 1990, a death warrant was issued for Mr. Hildwin and an execution date was set.
Now that the Florida Supreme Court has reversed the conviction, the case will return to the trial court where prosecutors must decide whether to retry the case.
Read today’s decision.

Tags: Florida, Paul Hildwin, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics



Louisiana Exoneree Reflects on His 17 Years of Wrongful Imprisonment and on Vindication

Posted: June 26, 2014 6:00 pm

Nathan Brown (left) with fellow exoneree Calvin Duncan.
Nathan Brown was released yesterday from a Louisiana state penitentiary after serving nearly 17 years for an attempted rape that he did not commit. The Innocence Project and Innocence Project New Orleans presented results from recent DNA testing of crime scene evidence which excluded 40-year-old Brown as the actual perpetrator, proving that he is innocent. Based on the DNA results, Jefferson Parish District Court Judge Ray Steib vacated Brown’s 1997 conviction of attempted rape.
According to the Times-Picayune, Brown was met yesterday by his daughter, his uncle and a group of other relatives as he arrived at the office of Innocence Project New Orleans yesterday afternoon. The Times-Picayune reports that Brown held his 1-year-old grandson for the first time yesterday. He said, “It’s really a relief mentally, physically, to be free from serving time for a crime that you did not commit… . It was hard. It wasn’t no easy task being in prison for 17 years for something you had no knowledge of… . Being in prison is just stressful living. You’re constantly being oppressed.”
Brown was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison based largely on the victim’s misidentification of Brown, which was made during a one-on-one show-up identification procedure — known to be problematic because of its highly suggestive nature — conducted by the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. Brown had an alibi for the time for the crime; he had been with his family, but the jury still found him guilty during his one-day trial in late 1997.
Vanessa Potkin, senior attorney with the Innocence Project and one of the lawyers to represent Brown, told the Times-Picayune: “A lot went wrong in this case. A crime happened, and there was a rush to judgment. No one stopped and scrutinized on any side. People just didn’t hear his screams that he was innocent.”
Brown was unsuccessful in getting assistance from the various judges, attorneys and legal schools and clinics he contacted to appeal his case. He finally reached out to the Innocence Project in 2013. He told that he never gave up faith that he would eventually be exonerated. His eldest daughter told the Times-Picayune that her father always maintained high spirits.
Brown said that he doesn’t hold any bitterness against the victim, despite the challenging life he faced in prison. He said, “She was attacked. It was a terrible thing that happened to her. She was a victim, and I harbor no hard feelings to her. I wish her well. I wish she could find comfort in knowing that the guy that really committed this crime will be brought to justice.”
As for his plans now that he is a free man, his first order of business yesterday was to enjoy a good barbeque dinner with his family.
Innocence Project New Orleans said that it will help Brown to file for compensation from the state.
Read the entire article.
Watch a video on the case.

Tags: Louisiana, Nathan Brown, Eyewitness Misidentification



Louisiana Man is Freed from Prison after DNA Results Prove His Innocence in Attempted Rape Conviction

Posted: June 25, 2014 2:35 pm

Photo: Nathan Brown (white shirt) with exoneree Michael Williams (black hat) and his legal team.
Nathan Brown walked out of a Louisiana state prison a free man today after a Jefferson Parish judge overturned his conviction for attempted rape. Results from DNA testing of crime scene evidence proved that he is innocent and matched to an alternative suspect, a man who is currently serving a sentence for a felony in Mississippi and who, at the time, lived only a few blocks away from the crime scene. Brown served nearly 17 years of a 25-year sentence for a crime that he did not commit.
In August 1997, a woman was walking through the courtyard of her apartment building when she was attacked from behind and thrown to the ground. The assailant bit the victim’s neck, ripped her dress open and took her purse before she was able to fend him off by striking him with her high heels, which she was carrying. The victim saw him flee on a bike shortly before reporting the incident to a police officer who had been called by neighbors who heard her screams.
The victim, who was white, told police that she had been attacked by a black man who was wearing black shorts and no shirt. She also said the man had a very strong body odor. The victim believed her attacker lived outside of the apartment complex, but a security guard for the complex directed police to Brown, one of few black people living in the apartment complex.
Police knocked on Brown’s door just minutes after the crime. He was in his bedroom wearing pajamas, rocking his young daughter to sleep. The officers conducted what is called a one-on-one “show-up,” a highly-suggestive identification procedure in which a single suspect is presented to the eyewitness at either the site of the arrest or near the site of the crime.
Brown was told to get dressed. He changed out of his pajamas into black shorts and was taken outside to the victim who was waiting in a patrol car. Brown had no shirt on. The victim was asked to get out to take a closer look and to smell Brown, at which point she identified him as her assailant. Although Brown did not have strong body odor, but rather smelled of soap, she explained at trial that she believed he must have taken a shower and that meant he was her attacker.
Brown’s mother retained a private lawyer to represent him. His lawyer met Brown for the first time on the day his trial was set to start. At trial, the victim claimed that she recalled seeing a tattoo with the letters “LLE” on the assailant’s chest, but a police officer testified that the victim didn’t mention anything about the tattoo until after the show-up (during which Brown did not have a shirt on exposing a “Michelle” tattoo on his chest). Brown testified in his own defense and told the jury that he was at home caring for his “fussy infant daughter” at the time of the crime. Despite the fact that four relatives who were at home with Brown that night testified as alibi witnesses, Brown was convicted in less than a day. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole for the crime of attempted aggravated rape.
“Mr. Brown’s mother paid for an attorney who it appears did almost nothing to prepare for the trial,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans. “Unfortunately we have seen that happen far too many times here in Louisiana. Of the 41 people who have been exonerated in Louisiana, more than two-thirds had less than effective defense lawyers.”
Brown has maintained his innocence throughout the past 16 years and contacted the Innocence Project to help prove that he was wrongly convicted. With the consent of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing of a stain where she was bitten on the shoulder of the dress the victim was wearing. The stain tested positive for saliva and yielded a full male DNA profile that excluded Brown. This profile was consistent with male DNA found on three other areas of the dress, including the front where the assailant ripped it open. The profile was entered into the federal DNA database and there was a match to an offender convicted of a felony in Mississippi, who is a black male and, at the time the crime happened, was a 17-year-old living within blocks of the complex where the victim was attacked.
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75 percent of the 316 convictions overturned through DNA testing. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said Brown was “another victim of an unduly suggestive police show-up procedure.”
“There are best practices to minimize the risk of misidentification from a one-on-one show-up, and we’re hopeful that this case will inspire law enforcement in Louisiana to adopt the procedures recommended by the International Associations of the Chiefs of Police,” says Scheck.
Brown was represented by Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project and assisted by local counsel Emily Maw of Innocence Project New Orleans.

Tags: Louisiana, Nathan Brown



DNA Testing Reveals Michigan Man’s Innocence

Posted: June 24, 2014 4:19 pm

Almost seven years after a Michigan man was convicted of a 2006 rape, postconviction DNA testing has revealed his innocence. Donya Davis was found guilty of raping a Detroit woman in 2007 and sentenced to 67 years in prison, despite testing conducted before his trial that excluded him. He was convicted based largely on the victim’s identification.

The Detroit Free Press reported that Davis, 36, was released from the Wayne County Jail Friday after Wayne County Circuit Judge Ulysses Boykin granted him a new trial and set bail at 10% of $75,000. 

Last year, Davis’ attorneys at the Thomas M. Cooley Innocence Project sought DNA testing and those results excluded him as the source of DNA and pointed to another perpetrator. Even with the new results, the Wayne County Prosecutor has not moved to dismiss the charges.

Read the full article



DNA Access Law to be Expanded in Illinois

Posted: June 23, 2014 5:25 pm

Legislation to expand Illinois’ postconviction DNA testing access law to inmates that have pleaded guilty is expected to be signed by the governor before the close of this session. The bill, which has already been approved by the Senate and the House, acknowledges that innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid a severe punishment.
The Chicago Tribune reported that Philip McDowell, who has spent two decades in prison maintaining his innocence for a 1989 fatal stabbing, is poised to be the first person to take advantage of the new law. McDowell says he pleaded guilty after courtroom deputies beat him and he feared he would be assaulted in Cook County Jail.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a little more than 10% of 1,378 people pleaded guilty before seeing their convictions overturned and of those 145 exonerations, DNA evidence cleared 29 of them—four of which took place in Cook County.
State Sen. Kwame Raoul, the Chicago Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that although he doesn’t expect many inmates to meet the law’s requirement that there be “reasonable probability” that DNA testing would have led to an acquittal at trial, the legislation is still worthwhile.
“I think it’s important that, as we look at criminal justice reform, that we don’t just do it for the big hits,” he said. “Even if there’s not a huge number, it’s worth doing if you have somebody in prison who may not have committed the crime they pled guilty to.”
Joseph Freeman Pankey was found stabbed in a motel after he and McDowell had driven from Alabama to Illinois in a car to be sold at an auto auction. McDowell never confessed to the murder, and no physical evidence linked him to the crime. Court records showing that he was taken to the jail hospital for bruising and abrasions confirm his claims that he was beaten by deputies. Fearing the death penalty, McDowell entered a plea even though his lawyer never made a deal in exchange for an admission of guilt. He was sentenced to 60 years in prison and soon after tried to withdraw his guilty plea. 
Once Gov. Pat Quinn signs, Illinois will become the 45th state to allow inmates who pleaded guilty to seek DNA testing.
Read the full article.



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