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Charges dropped in NYC case after DNA proves woman's confession was false
Posted: February 20, 2007
False confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful conviction. In 2006 alone, two New York men – Jeff Deskovic and Doug Warney – who had confessed to murders were exonerated by DNA evidence, proving that their confessions were false.
For every case in which biological evidence is available to prove innocence or guilt, there are many without evidence that can be tested.
In some cases, a false confession leads police to charge someone with a crime, but before the case goes to trial evidence is uncovered that proves the confession was false. In late January, prosecutors in New York City dropped charges against Lourdes Torres, a 31-year-old woman who had confessed to a murder after 18 hours in interrogation. She had been held in jail for over four years awaiting trial before charges were dropped when DNA test results pointed to two men in the murder.
In an interview from Riker's Island Penitentiary, Torres told NewsChannel 4 that she believed detectives when they promised her freedom in exchange for giving a written confession to the fatal stabbing of her lover, 49-year-old Romeo Acuna, in his Jackson Heights apartment in September 2002.
"They told me if I signed the paper, they were going to take me out of jail," said Torres. "I did not kill him. I'm innocent. I wasn't even in the apartment when that occurred."
Read the full story and watch video here. (WNBC New York, 01/25/07)
Recording custodial interrogations helps eliminate false confessions and also helps police do their job. The reform is gaining support from a diverse array of criminal justice groups around the country. Read more about it here.
Steve Drizin, a staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law in Chicago, maintains a blog on False Confessions. Read the “Bluhm Blog” here.
Press coverage of Roy Brown exoneration
Posted: March 6, 2007
Yesterday, Roy Brown became the 196th person exonerated by DNA evidence, and the eighth in New York State in just over a year. He wore a black T-shirt to court that read “Not Guilty” and he was accompanied by Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Nina Morrison.
Brown had served 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and it was his legal groundwork that pinpointed the man who actually committed the crime.
The prosecutor referred to three tragedies in the case: Sabina Kulakowski's murder, that her likely killer will never be prosecuted, and the "incarceration of Roy Brown for murder when newly discovered DNA evidence shows that his steadfast claims of innocence have merit, and I can honestly say I regret that, Mr. Brown." ...
(Brown) claimed prosecutors withheld from defense lawyers a contrary opinion on the bite-mark evidence that helped convict him and witness affidavits that implicated Bench and failed to investigate the jailhouse informant to who claimed Brown confessed his guilt.
"You can't frame anybody more than that," Brown said. Read the full story here (Syracuse Post-Standard, 03/06/07, LexisNexis subscription required)
Video: News10Now, WSYR Channel 9
NY Newsday: Man officially cleared of murder charges (AP)
Auburn Citizen: Roy Brown Cleared
Anthony Capozzi exonerated in New York
Posted: April 3, 2007
Anthony Capozzi was released from state custody early this morning, officials said. He became the 23rd New Yorker to be proven innocent by DNA testing yesterday when an Erie County judge vacated his sentence and prosecutors dropped charges against him. He served 20 years for two rapes he didn’t commit.
The assistant district attorney who prosecuted Capozzi issued an apology last week:
“I deeply regret the outcome of this case,” she wrote. “I realize it brings little comfort or consolation to Mr. Capozzi or his family. I handled this case fairly and honestly based on all the evidence and information that was available at the time. This is the most troubling and upsetting circumstance in my 25 years as a lawyer and judge, and I am truly sorry for what happened in this case.”Read Buffalo News stories on this case:
- How Capozzi’s case went terribly wrong
- Capozzi a free man after 22 years (Buffalo News, 04/03/07, LexisNexis subscription required)
Previous Blog Entry: Capozzi case leads to renewed calls for a New York innocence commissions
After Innocence screening and panel in Kansas Thursday
Posted: April 3, 2007
Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison and other panelists will discuss the issue of wrongful convictions on Thursday in a panel discussion after a screening of the documentary film After Innocence on the Kansas University campus.
Read the full story. (Lawrence Journal-World, 4/3/07)
Learn more about After Innocence and view a trailer of the film.
Actual killer in Earl Washington case pleads guilty
Posted: April 12, 2007
A 62-year-old man pleaded guilty yesterday to a 1982 rape and murder in Virginia for which Earl Washington Jr. was wrongly imprisoned and nearly executed. Kenneth Tinsley, 62, was already imprisoned for two other rapes and was sentenced yesterday to two additional life sentences. "I'm sorry for everything I did," he told the judge yesterday.
Washington, who falsely confessed to the 1982 rape, was sentenced to death in 1984. He came within nine days of execution before questions about his guilt led the Virginia governor to commute his sentence to life in prison in 1994. He would spend another seven years in prison – for a total of 17 years served – before DNA conclusively proved his innocence and led to his exoneration.
Read the full story. (Daily Press, Newport News, VA - 04/12/07, Payment required for full article)
Read more about the case of Earl Washington, Jr.
Clarence Page: The 200th reason to test DNA
Posted: April 25, 2007
In a column in today’s Chicago Tribune, Clarence Page calls Jerry Miller’s exoneration "both gratifying and horrifying."
...An Army veteran from Chicago is the 200th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit New York-based legal clinic.
That's gratifying because justice -- long denied to innocents like Jerry Miller, 48, and the 199 others who were exonerated before him -- finally has been served. But Miller's good news is also horrifying in the questions it raises about flaws in our nation's criminal justice system.
Read the full column. (Chicago Tribune, 4/25/07, Payment required for full article)
National Public Radio: DNA Evidence Frees 200th Prisoner
Posted: April 5, 2007 7:00 am
Yesterday's NPR News & Notes featured an interview with Jerry Miller, the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence. Also featured on the show were Innocence Project Barry Scheck, who said that an African-American man charged with sexual assault by a white woman (as Miller was) is still in the most dangerous place in the American legal system and a feature on documentary film "The Trials of Darryl Hunt." The film premieres on HBO tomorrow night (April 26th) at 8 p.m. Click here to watch a trailer.
Tags: Jerry Miller
Real perpetrators sentenced in two New York wrongful convictions
Posted: May 3, 2007
A New York inmate serving time for killing his landlady was sentenced to an additional 15 years to life today for a 1996 murder that sent an innocent man to prison. Douglas Warney, 45, was convicted of the murder in Rochester, New York, after he falsely confessed. When DNA testing obtained by Warney’s Innocence Project attorneys exonerated him of the crime in 2006, it also implicated the actual killer – a man named Eldred Johnson, Jr., who was serving time in prison for killing his landlady in 1998. Johnson has pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced this morning.
“I’m aware that I will spend the rest of my life in prison,” Eldred Johnson Jr. said. “Before I go, I just want to apologize. ... Because of my action, I put this court in a position to create an injustice.”In another false confession case, the actual perpetrator in the crime for which Jeffrey Deskovic was wrongfully convicted in Westchester County, New York, was sentenced yesterday to 20 years. Steven Cunningham was linked to the 1989 murder by the DNA tests that exonerated Deskovic in 2006. Cunningham was also already serving time for another murder.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 5/3/07)
In the corridor afterward, Deskovic and Vasquez shared a tearful reunion, the first time they had spoken since the days after the killing. Outside the Westchester County Courthouse in White Plains, Deskovic said he was thankful for the empathy she showed him.Deskovic published a column today in the Journal-News calling for statewide criminal justice reforms. Read it here.
"She told me she felt very badly for me. She remarked that I was very strong," Deskovic said. "It was a very emotional moment for both of us. (It was) just like I was a son to her."
Read the full story here. (White Plains Journal-News, 5/3/07)
Tags: False Confessions
Editorial: A suspect justice system
Posted: May 17, 2007
An editorial in today's Newark Star-Ledger calls for prosecutors to act soon on the charges pending against Byron Halsey in New Jersey.
Most frightening is the lack of speed with which the criminal justice system corrects its mistakes. Prosecutors are still debating whether to retry Halsey. Though he walked into the sunlight on Tuesday, he is hardly a free man. He was released on $55,000 bail, required to wear an electronic monitor and remains under indictment.Halsey was released from prison on Tuesday after seving more than 19 years for the murders of two children that he didn't commit. Read the Innocence Project press release on the case and media coverage of Halsey's release.
That's the case even though both the prosecution and defense joined in the motion to vacate his conviction after lawyers from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that became involved in Halsey's case three years ago, said DNA shows a neighbor is the source of the semen found on the little girl's underwear. That neighbor, Clifton Hall, is in prison for three sex crimes committed in the early 1990s in Plainfield.
Considering the initial DNA results came back in December and more conclusive ones followed in January, it's difficult to comprehend why it will take another two months to decide whether Halsey will be tried again or the charges dropped altogether.
Halsey deserves to know now.
Read the full editorial here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 5/17/07)
Tags: New Jersey
Families of exonerees to speak Friday in Oklahoma City
Posted: May 17, 2007
Family members of two men exonerated from Oklahoma's death row -- and relatives of the murder victim in another case - will speak at a press conference tomorrow in Oklahoma City about how a wrongful conviction affects the incarcerated person and many others around them.
In attendance will be Shirley and Joe McCarty, the parents of Curtis McCarty, who was released Friday after 21 years of wrongful incarceration - including 16 years on death row. The sister of Greg Wilhoit, who was freed from death row in 1993, will also speak, along with family members of Debra Sue Carter, who was murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1992. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were wrongfully convicted of Carter's murder. Williamson spent 11 years on death row before DNA proved his innocence, Fritz spent 11 years in prison on a life sentence.
The press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. on Friday 5/18/2007 in the 4th floor press room of the State Captiol building in Oklahoma City. For more information on attending the press conference, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about the cases of McCarty, Fritz and Williamson.
Families of exonerees and crime victims to speak today in Oklahoma City
Posted: May 18, 2007
Family members of two men exonerated from Oklahoma's death row -- and relatives of the murder victim in another case - will speak at a press conference tomorrow in Oklahoma City about how a wrongful conviction affects the incarcerated person and many others around them.
In attendance will be Shirley and Joe McCarty, the parents of Curtis McCarty, who was released Friday after 21 years of wrongful incarceration - including 16 years on death row. The sister of Greg Wilhoit, who was freed from death row in 1993, will also speak, along with family members of Debra Sue Carter, who was murdered in Ada, Oklahoma in 1992. Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were wrongfully convicted of Carter's murder. Williamson spent 11 years on death row before DNA proved his innocence, Fritz spent 11 years in prison on a life sentence.
The press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. CDT today (5/18/2007) in the 4th floor press room of the State Captiol building in Oklahoma City. For more information on attending the press conference, email us at email@example.com.
Read more about the cases of McCarty, Fritz and Williamson.
National Public Radio covers Larry Peterson's case
Posted: June 11, 2007 4:10 pm
When NPR’s Robert Siegel started reporting on Larry Peterson’s case in April 2005, Peterson was 54 years old and awaiting his release from Trenton State Prison. Tomorrow, NPR’s All Things Considered will air the first part of a two-day special on Mr. Peterson’s exoneration and return to society. Two years in the making, “The Exoneration of Larry Peterson” is a must-listen. Check here for a link to listen live online Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. EDT.
As Siegel reports, freedom for Peterson does not come easy. A Burlington County prosecutor commits to retrying Peterson for the same crimes, although his case quickly falls apart when a key witness, Robert Elder, recants his testimony that Peterson bragged about the crime. Elder tells Siegel, “I feel real bad about telling a white lie.” Elder says that he made up the story about Peterson to satisfy the detectives. “I was scared,” he says. “I was like – let me give these guys what they want. I’ll make up a story or something.”Read more about Larry Peterson in our Know the Cases section.
Read NPR’s press release on tomorrow’s show.
Tags: Larry Peterson
Study: Juries often get it wrong
Posted: June 20, 2007 3:24 pm
A new Northwestern University study shows that juries in criminal cases are reaching incorrect verdicts. The study, which looked at 271 cases in four areas of Illinois, found that as many as one in eight juries is making the wrong decision – by convicting an innocent person or acquitting a guilty one.
In each case, while the jury deliberated, the judge filled out a questionnaire detailing what his or her verdict would have been had it been a bench trial. The verdicts only matched in 77 percent of cases. The study assumed that judges are at least as likely as a jury to make a correct verdict, leading to the conclusion that juries are only correct 87 percent of the time or less.
The study was conducted by Bruce Spencer, a Northwestern statistics professor, and will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Spencer said in a statement that it would take a much larger study to truly predict the accuracy of jury verdicts nationwide in all cases.
Read the full report here.
Michigan case highlights causes of wrongful convictions
Posted: August 1, 2007 2:43 pm
A questionable eyewitness identification and the testimony of a jailhouse snitch led to Frederick Freeman’s conviction of a 1986 murder in Michigan. Now, Freeman and his attorneys are seeking to have his conviction overturned on evidence that he was wrongfully convicted, and a two-part series starting today in the Detroit Metro Times investigates his case.
Read the full story here. (Detroit Metro Times, 08/01/07)
Another story in today’s Metro Times considers the role of eyewitness identification in more than 75% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing. The story explores the case of Ronald Cotton, who was misidentified and convicted of rape in North Carolina in 1987. Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was the victim in the case and now speaks nationally about the problems with eyewitness identification.
"Not all eyewitness identification is bad. What I find is that a lot of eyewitness identification retrieves people's memory incorrectly. By the time we make identification, there's so much in our memory that, really, our memories are not pure. That's what happened to me," she says.
Raped for 30 minutes as a college student in North Carolina in 1984 after a man broke into her apartment, Thompson-Cannino says she made it a point to study her attacker at the time."I was a very convincing witness because I honestly believed that I had made the right identification. I was so sure," she says.
Read the full story here. (Detroit Metro Times, 08/01/07)
Part two of the Frederick Freeman will appear next week. Look for the link here on the Innocence Blog.
Tags: Frederick Freeman
Alternate suspect arrested in 1986 case
Posted: August 1, 2007 12:44 pm
Clay Chabot has been in prison for 21 years for a rape and murder he has always maintained he did not commit, and new DNA evidence implicates a man who testified against him at trial. On Tuesday, police returned the alternate suspect, Jerry Pabst, to Texas after arresting him Monday in Ohio. He will face murder charges. Prosecutors, however, say they are still investigating the case to determine whether the new evidence exonerates Chabot. Pabst said at trial that he had been in the house on the night of the murder but that Chabot alone had committed the crime. Chabot has always maintained that he was not there that night, and Pabst’s testimony – now proven false by DNA – was the primary evidence against him. There is no credible evidence even suggesting that Chabot was involved in the crime and the Innocence Project says his conviction should be vacated.
Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison told the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram that this evidence should overturn Chabot’s conviction:
"For 21 years, Clay Chabot has maintained he is innocent and that Jerry Pabst committed this horrible crime. That is exactly what the new DNA evidence shows," Morrison said.
Read the full story here. (Star-Telegram, 08/01/07)
Tags: Clay Chabot
California considers legislation to prevent wrongful convictions
Posted: June 27, 2007 4:00 pm
Three new bills that would help prevent wrongful convictions passed in California’s Assembly Public Safety Committee yesterday. The bills, based on the recommendations of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, call for the recording of all interrogations of suspects in violent felonies, the corroboration of any jailhouse informant testimony and new guidelines for line-up procedures. Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, sponsor of the bill on lineup procedures, underscored the importance of reforms that address the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
"When opponents" of the bill say wrongful convictions are infrequent, "I say tell that to the guy who spent 17 years in prison for something he didn't do," Ridley-Thomas said. "If we're not vigilant it will happen more frequently."Last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar bills after they had passed in both houses. This year’s bills address the governor’s concerns.
Read the full story here. (Los Angeles Times 6/27/07)
Read the full text of SB 756, which includes eyewitness identification reforms. (PDF)
Get an update on the status of SB 756.
Tags: Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification
Innocence Project of Texas hosts Mexican lawyers
Posted: June 28, 2007 2:45 pm
Two Mexican Lawyers, Diana Cristal González and Ariadna Camacho, are working to reform the Mexican criminal justice system through their studies with the U.S. Agency for International Development Program at the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. The program includes a stay at Texas Tech School of Law where the two have been invited to participate in the work of the Innocence Project of Texas. The school plans to host Mexican lawyers over the next three summers as part of the U.S. AID project.
Many lawyers say the Mexican justice system is highly corrupt. Defendants who cannot afford an attorney must represent themselves, and freedom can often be purchased from a judge, lawyers say.
Both [González and Camacho] have pledged to change the country's judicial system, along with thousands of others who are demanding reform and succeeding. Seventeen of 32 Mexican states have committed, in some way, to judicial reform, González said.Read the full article here. (Lubbock Online 6/28/07)
Innocence Project staff attorney Nina Morrison and exoneree Alan Newton to speak at Culture Project in New York
Posted: June 29, 2007 2:30 pm
Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison and Alan Newton, exonerated in July 2006, will speak at the Culture Project in New York on Sunday, July 1st, following a screening of After Innocence. The documentary follows seven wrongfully convicted men after their release and features Morrison in her struggle to win exoneration for her client, Wilton Dedge. After the screening, Morrison and Newton will answer questions from the audience.
Get tickets and find out more about the event:
To view a trailer of the movie:
Tags: New York, Wilton Dedge, Alan Newton
Pennsylvania appeals court hears arguments today in Innocence Project case
Posted: July 10, 2007 7:00 am
Philadelphia prosecutors filed papers in May arguing that Anthony Wright, who was convicted of murder in 1993, should not have access to DNA testing because he confessed to the crime. In these papers they cited the case of Byron Halsey, saying testing in Halsey's case was “properly denied where trial evidence, which included defendant’s confession, was overwhelming.”
The flaws in the state's argument in the Wright case became clear yesterday afternoon, when New Jersey prosecutors exonerated Halsey after DNA testing conducted in 2006 showed that another man committed the child murders for which Halsey had nearly been sentenced to death. Read more about the Halsey case here.
This morning, a Philadelphia appeals court will hear arguments in Wright's case. Prosecutors have argued for two years that Wright should be denied access to testing because he allegedly confessed to the crime. However, as Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison will argue this morning, 25% of the 205 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States — including Halsey — falsely confessed or admitted to the crimes of which they were wrongfully convicted.
The arguments are scheduled for 10:30 this morning at the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Read more about Wright 's case in yesterday's Innocence Project press release.
A column by Elmer Smith in today's Philadelphia Daily News calls for the District Attorney's office to support testing in the pursuit of true justice:
The D.A.'s office is vigorously opposing new DNA testing. I want to believe it is fighting to keep DNA evidence out in the interest of justice.
Except that, for the life of me, I can't see how justice is served by suppressing a test result that could point to another perpetrator.
If Louise Talley's murderer is still out there, I want my D.A.'s office to go after him with the same fervor that led to Anthony Wright's conviction.
Instead, the D.A.'s office seems more interested in holding onto Wright than it is in being absolutely sure the crime is solved. That worries me.
Read the full column here. (Philadelphia Daily News, 07/10/07)
Tags: False Confessions
Wright case may lead to more DNA testing in Pennsylvania
Posted: July 11, 2007 1:25 pm
Innocence Project attorney Nina Morrison argued yesterday before a Pennsylvania appeals court panel that DNA testing should be granted in the case of Anthony Wright, who was convicted in Philadelphia in 1993 of raping and killing a 77-year-old woman. Wright signed a confession to the crime, but Morrison told the judges yesterday that more than 25% of the 205 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.
"This may be one of those cases where it turns out he's guilty," his lawyer, Nina Morrison, of the New York-based Innocence Project, told a state Superior Court panel. But, she added, "the shame and, really, the horror would be if this was a case that he was not guilty."Read more about Wright’s case here.
Read the full story here. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 07/11/2007)
Understand the Causes: False Confessions.
YouTube: Watch a video of exoneree Chris Ochoa describing the interrogation that led to his false confession.
Tags: False Confessions
Texas column: Don't always believe your eyes
Posted: July 13, 2007 11:31 am
A column in today’s Daily Texan points to the prevalence of eyewitness misidentification among wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA and calls for reforms nationwide to both lineup procedures and the way judges instruct juries on eyewitness testimony.
The problems with eyewitness testimony are known, and guidelines to ensure unbiased eyewitness testimony are available. Incorrect eyewitness identification has condemned innocent people to life in prison and even the death penalty. Judges should make sure that juries understand the nature of eyewitness testimony, with all its caveats and pitfalls.Read more about a “blue ribbon” panel report on identification studies released this week, and learn about reforms supported by the Innocence Project.
Read the full story here. (Daily Texas, 07/12/2007)
Tags: Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification
Doing time for no crime
Posted: July 13, 2007 11:44 am
Arthur Carmona was 16 when he was convicted of two robberies in California. He would serve three years before evidence of his innocence began to mount. He was offered a plea agreement that ended his incarceration, but he would not be fully exonerated. He has now devoted himself to fighting the causes of wrongful conviction. He writes in today’s Los Angeles Times about why he supports three bills pending before the California legislature.
Senate Bill 756, sponsored by Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), would require the state Department of Justice to develop new guidelines for eyewitness identification procedures. For example, guidelines in other states limit the use of in-field show-ups like the one that led to my wrongful conviction.Read more about the reform bills pending in the California legislature and a recent hearing of the California Commission on Fair Administration of Justice.
Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would require recording of the entire interrogation, including the Miranda warning, in cases of violent felonies. Electronic recording of interrogations would not only help end false confessions but also discourage police detectives from lying during interrogations — as they did in my case by claiming to have videotaped evidence of me.
Senate Bill 609, sponsored by Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), would prevent convictions based on uncorroborated testimony by jailhouse snitches.
The Legislature should pass all three bills, and the governor should sign them. These reforms are urgently needed to prevent wrongful and unjust incarcerations.
Prison is no place for an innocent man, let alone an innocent kid.
Read the full column here. (Los Angeles Times, 07/13/2007)
Tags: False Confessions, Informants/Snitches, Eyewitness Misidentification
Innocent Florida inmate wins new trial
Posted: July 17, 2007 7:00 am
Innocence Project client Chad Heins, who has spent more than a decade in Florida prison for a murder that DNA now shows he didn’t commit, will be have another day in court. Prosecutors announced yesterday that they dropped an appeal of a judge’s 2006 decision vacating the conviction against Heins and that they would retry him for the 1994 murder of his pregnant sister-in-law. DNA testing conducted in 2004 and 2005 shows that several pieces of biological evidence from the crime scene came from a single unknown male.
Meanwhile, Heins remains incarcerated in Florida. He will be arraigned on the first-degree murder charge next week and his attorneys will seek to have him released on bond.
"We believe Chad should have been out of prison years ago," said Nina Morrison, staff attorney for the New York-based legal group that uses DNA to free the wrongly convicted. "Three years after the new DNA evidence was discovered, this conviction is finally history. But unfortunately, Chad will have to continue to battle to prove his innocence."Read more about Heins’s case.
Read the full story here. (Florida Times-Union, 7/16/2007)
Congressional panel hears testimony on criminal informants
Posted: July 19, 2007 4:19 pm
A hearing this morning of two U.S. House of Representatives judiciary subcommittees featured the testimony of several national experts on the use of criminal informants by police. Among those testifying was Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Her written testimony advocates for better oversight on the use of criminal informants:
The government’s use of criminal informants is largely secretive, unregulated, and unaccountable. This is especially true in connection with street crime and urban drug enforcement. This lack of oversight and quality-control leads to wrongful convictions, more crime, disrespect for the law, and sometimes even official corruption. At a minimum, we need more data on and better oversight of this important public policy.Read Natapoff’s full written testimony (PDF) or an abstract of her January article from the University of Cincinnati Law Review: “Snitching: The Institutional and Communal Consequences”
Read testimony of other witnesses at today’s hearing.
Read a blog post about today’s hearing on the Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast.
Read more about how snitches and informants can contribute to wrongful convictions in our Understand the Causes section.
Virginia governor proclaims exoneree's innocence
Posted: July 20, 2007 12:46 pm
It was more than two decades ago that Virginia came within nine days of executing an innocent man. Earl Washington, Jr., was convicted at age 22 of a 1982 rape he didn’t commit after he gave police a false confession riddled with facts that didn’t correspond to the crime. He served 17 years in prison – including 10 on death row – before he was released after DNA testing proved his innocence. Upon his release, he took the state to court – and was opposed – as he sought compensation for the injustice he suffered. Last year, the lawsuit was finally settled, and this month, the state of Virginia finally admitted that he is innocent.
In a new pardon issued July 6, which revised one issued in 2000 by a former governor, Gov. Timothy Kaine wrote: "I have decided it is just and appropriate to grant this revised absolute pardon that reflects Mr. Washington's innocence." The previous pardon only admitted that a rational jury would not convict Washington.
An editorial this week in the Virginia Daily Press calls for the state to treat exonerees with dignity and to enact reforms based on the lessons of Washington’s case.
The case has also taught us some lessons — that police and prosecutors can be pursuing something other than the truth, that confessions can be false, that just because someone is on death row doesn't mean he's guilty. We should remember them every time a defendant comes to trial, and every time a life hangs in the death penalty's balance.Read more about the July 6 pardon.
Read the full editorial here. (Daily Press, 07/16/07)
Read more about Washington’s case and exoneree compensation nationwide.
Tags: Virginia, Earl Washington, Exoneree Compensation
It’s not too late for DNA testing in Alabama
Posted: July 25, 2007 11:16 am
Darrell Grayson is scheduled to executed by the state of Alabama tomorrow, despite his requests since 2002 to test DNA evidence that could prove his innocence (or guilt) of a murder that happened 27 years ago. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld sent a letter this week to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley asking him to seek the full truth in the Grayson case before executing him. And an editorial in today’s Birmingham News calls for Riley to act before it’s too late.
In our view, it's the right thing to do in this case. It's never too late to check all the evidence as long as a condemned inmate remains alive. For Grayson, it's not too late yet; Riley should act before it is.Read more about the case, and the Innocence Project’s role, in today’s Birmingham News.
Read the full editorial here. (Birmingham News, 07/25/2007)
In a statement released yesterday, the Alabama state Attorney General said the state should not “delay justice” by granting a stay. Read more.
Tags: Death Penalty, Darrell Grayson
Alabama execution scheduled for Thursday despite inmate's pleas for a DNA test
Posted: July 24, 2007 1:34 pm
Darrell Grayson was sentenced to death in Alabama in 1982 for the murder of an elderly woman two years earlier. He is scheduled to be executed on Thursday for this crime, without the benefit of DNA testing that could confirm or deny the state’s theory of Grayson’s guilt.
Grayson does not remember whether he was involved in the crime. He says he had been drinking heavily on the night of the crime and doesn’t know whether he did it. An alleged co-defendant, Victor Kennedy, was executed for the crime in 1999. There is biological evidence from the crime scene that could prove Grayson’s innocence or guilt, but prosecutors have fought testing, even with Grayson’s advocates paying for the tests.A column in the Birmingham News this week calls for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley to stay the execution and order testing.
I don't claim to know whether Darrell Grayson raped and killed Annie Orr almost three decades ago. Truth be told, Grayson himself doesn't claim to know…
But (DNA results are) one more piece of information that (are) readily available and that should be obtained before the state inflicts a punishment it can't undo. For Grayson, this is a big gamble. For state officials, who say they're convinced Grayson is guilty anyway, all that's on the line is a little time. Riley should order the test.
Read the full column. (Birmingham News, 07/22/2007)
Tags: Death Penalty, Darrell Grayson
Darrell Grayson executed in Alabama without a DNA test
Posted: July 27, 2007 11:01 am
The state of Alabama executed Darrell Grayson by lethal injection shortly after 6 p.m. Thursday night, despite pleas from several fronts for DNA testing in the case that could have shown Grayson’s innocence or confirmed his guilt. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley decided not to delay the execution because "no new evidence has come to light that would warrant a reprieve or a commutation," he said in a prepared statement.
In recent years Grayson claimed he had no memory of the crime, and unsuccessfully appealed to the court to order DNA testing that wasn't available in 1981. The Innocence Project and other activists said a DNA test could prove conclusively whether Grayson raped Orr. If a test found DNA belonging to a third party, but not to Grayson or Kennedy, the case against Grayson would be undermined, they said.
In the days before the execution the Innocence Project, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other groups called on Riley to issue a stay so the tests could be conducted.
Read the full story here. (Birmingham News, 07/27/07)
Tags: Death Penalty, Darrell Grayson
Connecticut exoneree visits the prison where he spent 16 years
Posted: July 27, 2007 2:02 pm
For countless hours over 16 years, James Tillman left his prison cell to study law at the Cheshire Correctional Institution library. His efforts paid off in 2006, when he was exonerated after DNA testing proved that he did not commit the rape for which he had been convicted in 1989.
Yesterday, he returned to the prison library to join a discussion with inmates of Harper Lee’s book "To Kill A Mockingbird."
After the group broke up, Tillman approached the prison librarian, Mark Sosnowski, and they hugged across the librarian's desk.Read more about James Tillman here.
"Thank you for all of my copies and getting me to the Innocence Project," Tillman said.
The project, chaired in Connecticut by two of the state's public defenders, works toward the exoneration of wrongly convicted inmates through DNA testing and advocacy.
Tillman was the first inmate at Cheshire to work with the Innocence Project. "It was like `Oh my God it works,'" Sosnowski said.
Minutes later, Tillman exited the prison and drove away.
Read the full story here.
Tags: James Tillman
Chicago Tribune: Unscientific report on eyewitness reforms in Illinois was so flawed it is unreliable
Posted: July 30, 2007 1:13 pm
Social scientists were surprised last year when a non-scientific report from several Illinois police departments challenged the effectiveness of major eyewitness identification reforms taking root nationwide. The Illinois report was used to defeat reform legislation in several states – but a new analysis by some of the nation’s leading social scientists says the Illinois report’s methodology was so flawed that it is unreliable. The Chicago Tribune reports today that a new peer-reviewed psychology article “panned” the Illinois report and called for more research in this field to produce data that is scientifically valid and reliable.
While the debate raged on, a panel of social scientists and experts, including Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, who had no previous stake in the issue, started a peer review of the study. They analyzed the Illinois pilot program's report, as well as critiques and support of the report, before writing the review, which is being published in the APA's Law and Human Behavior journal.Read more about eyewitness identification reforms in our Fix the System section.
If the Illinois pilot program had been designed correctly, it would have compared "sequential" lineups, in which a witness is shown a person or photo one at a time, to "simultaneous" lineups, in which potential suspects are shown in a group, but it would have used an administrator who doesn't know who the suspect is in both. That method is called the "double-blind" method.
Comparing group and individual lineups, while at the same time using some administrators who knew suspects and some who didn't, was like comparing "apples to dolphins," said James Doyle, director of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Center for Modern Forensic Practice, which coordinated the panel review.
"Just putting the two of them together doesn't make it a scientific review," Doyle said. "You've changed two variables at once. You can't do that."
Read the full article here. (Chicago Tribune, 07/30/07)
Get involved: Watch a video of exoneree Marvin Anderson describing the questionable lineup procedure in his case, and send us your own video clip explaining why eyewitness identification reform matters to you.
Tags: Illinois, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification
Update: Dallas DA investigates Chabot case
Posted: August 2, 2007 10:49 am
After Monday’s arrest of an alternate suspect in the murder for which Clay Chabot has already served 21 years in Texas prison, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins said his office is considering how to proceed with the case. Thirteen people have been exonerated by DNA testing in Dallas County alone, and Watkins recently created a new Conviction Integrity Unit to examine cases like Chabot's.
"We want to make sure we've got the right characters in jail," Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said Wednesday. "This is not to say Mr. Chabot did not participate in this crime."Watch video coverage of the case. (WFAA, 08/01/07)
But the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that seeks to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA evidence, says Mr. Chabot is innocent and was convicted based on lies that Mr. Pabst told a jury.
"The entire case the jury heard 21 years ago rested on Gerald Pabst's story," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which is representing Mr. Chabot. "Clay has always maintained he had nothing to do with the crime."
Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 08/02/07)
Tags: Clay Chabot
Mississippi man sent to death row by faulty forensics to get another day in court
Posted: August 2, 2007 12:38 pm
Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in Mississippi of the 1991 murder of a 3-year-old girl. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of Dr. Michael West, forensic dentist who claimed that multiple abrasions on the child's partially decomposed body matched the upper bite of Brewer. The incorrect matching of bitemarks has been a cause of at least four wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and West’s unorthodox methods have been debunked by many experts and he has been expelled from several professional associations.
DNA testing in 2002 excluded Kennedy Brewer as the source of the semen recovered from the child. Even though the court threw out the conviction and death sentence based on the new DNA evidence, the local prosecutor announced he would re-try Mr. Brewer and use Michael West again as a bite mark expert. The Innocence Project is co-counsel, along with Brewer's local counsel for the retrial.
In a Fox News article yesterday, Radley Balko writes about West’s questionable past and the unreliable nature of bitemark evidence.
Even in an already imprecise field, Dr. West has taken forensic odontology to bizarre, megalomaniacal depths. West claims to have invented a system he modestly calls "The West Phenomenon," in which he dons a pair of yellow goggles and, with the aid of a blue laser, says he can identify bite marks, scratches, and other marks on a corpse that no one else can see — not even other forensics experts.Read more about bite mark convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and other unreliable forensic science that has contributed to wrongful convictions.
Conveniently, he claims his unique method can't be photographed or reproduced, which he says makes his opinions unimpeachable by other experts.
Read the full article here. (FoxNews.com, 08/01/07)
Tags: Kennedy Brewer, Bitemark Evidence
Deconstructing Dallas: The county with more DNA exonerations than any other
Posted: August 7, 2007 10:54 am
An in-depth investigation into the causes of the 13 Dallas County DNA exonerations so far turned up faulty eyewitnesses, overzealous prosecutors, and something positive – the possibility that these horrible injustices will lead to substantial reform. The article deconstructs the familiar factors that led to the 13 wrongful convictions and includes interviews with ex-prosecutors discussing the office’s push to convict in the 1980s and 1990s. Jeff Blackburn, the director of the Innocence Project of Texas, said the unique recipe of factors in Dallas make it the perfect place for reform.
"Dallas is ground zero for criminal justice change," says Blackburn "[Dallas County's] small enough to make it work but big enough to make a difference. The only thing that's rare about Dallas is we have this objective benchmark."Read about the 13 men exonerated by DNA testing in Dallas County, and read an update on the case of Clay Chabot, who has served 21 years for a Dallas County murder that another man is now charged with committing.
The benchmark is the result of two factors: The county's private lab, the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, had to preserve the evidence to maintain its accreditation, Blackburn says. And in case an appeals court gave a convicted felon a new trial, the Dallas District Attorney's Office wanted to maintain evidence to try to convict the accused again.
Read the full story here. (Dallas Observer, 08/02/07)
Tags: Clay Chabot
New books review wrongful convictions in Arizona and Australia
Posted: August 21, 2007 2:44 pm
Ray Krone served 10 years in prison, including four on death row, before he was exonerated by DNA testing. Now, his cousin Jim Rix has published a “startling” book on Krone’s story, titled Jingle Jangle: The Perfect Crime Turned Inside Out. Sisten Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents, says of the book:
A must for readers of true crime and anyone wondering why so many innocent people are convicted in America. The book satisfies from start to finish, from the opening of Ray Krone’s horror story, through the compelling analysis of what went wrong and on to the startling conclusion...
Read a synopsis and more comments.
Read a review of Porter’s book in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Tags: Ray Krone
Did a secret deal lead to a Dallas wrongful conviction?
Posted: August 22, 2007 12:48 pm
Clay Chabot has already served 21 years in prison for a rape and murder that he has always maintained he didn’t commit. The main evidence against Chabot at trial was the testimony of his brother-in-law, Gerald Pabst, who claimed that he was with Chabot and helped robbed the victim, but that Chabot raped and killed her. Pabst, who initially said he was nowhere near the victim’s home when the crime happened, ultimately testified that he was in another room at the victim’s house during the rape and murder. Chabot has always insisted that he had no motive to commit the crime and had nothing to do with it. But based on Pabst’s testimony, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
New DNA testing shows that semen recovered from the victim’s body after the crime came from Pabst – not from Chabot. No credible evidence links Chabot to the crime. Earlier this month, Pabst was arrested for capital murder in connection with the decades-old crime.
Pabst was initially charged with murder but that charge was dropped after he testified against Chabot. This week, one of Chabot’s former attorneys questioned whether Dallas prosecutors made a deal with Pabst to secure his testimony against Chabot:
Houston lawyer Randy Schaffer, who represented Mr. Chabot from 1989 to 1995, said that he has always believed there was a deal between the state and Mr. Pabst before he testified.Chabot was convicted on a Friday afternoon and paperwork seeking to dismiss the murder case against Pabst was started on the following Monday. He Pabst eventually pled guilty to stealing and pawning the victim's radio, and he was freed after serving only 30 days in jail.. If a deal was made with Pabst, the law would have required that defense attorneys be told.
"I figured the state made a deal with a killer because it gave them a witness," Mr. Schaffer said. "There was a culture of dishonesty [in the district attorney's office] that was as natural as getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth."
And while prosecutors prepare to try Pabst for murder, Chabot remains incarcerated, waiting for word on whether he will get a new trial. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison told the Dallas Morning News that Pabst’s testimony was the only evidence against Chabot:
"The new DNA testing shows Pabst was a perjurer who, at the very least, lied to the jury when he denied raping the victim and only got 30 days in jail after he testified against Clay," Ms. Morrison said. "No reasonable jury today would believe a word he says, and without him, there's no case against Clay Chabot."Read previous blog posts on the Chabot case.
Read the full story here.
Tags: Clay Chabot
Barry Scheck discusses wrongful convictions on NPR
Posted: August 30, 2007 8:05 am
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, author Stuart Taylor and Oregon prosecutor Joshua Marquis joined National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show this morning to discuss prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions.
Taylor, a National Journal columnist, is the co-author of a new book, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, which is due to be released next week. The group discussed how prosecutorial misconduct and flawed eyewitness identification procedures have led to wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing.
Listen to the show here.
Taylor’s book is already generating discussion in the media and on blogs. Pre-order it at Amazon.com or read a media roundup in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Taylor discusses the first 205 people exonerated by DNA evidence in his recent National Journal column, Innocents In Prison.
Report: Illinois crime lab misused funds
Posted: August 29, 2007 5:05 pm
A report by the Illinois inspector general’s office has found that money earmarked to reduce the state’s crime lab backlog was misused by lab officials, according to press reports. The report says that nearly $800,000 in state funds meant to train lab technicians instead went to two private forensic companies headed by the commander of the crime lab. Now a lawsuit brought by two former state forensic trainers also alleges that lab employees were directed to underestimate the size of the state’s backlog.
In a Feb. 6, 2005, press release, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said only 158 cases were awaiting DNA analysis, compared to 1,113 the year before.
The lawsuit cites a different inspector general's report that says the actual number of untested DNA samples should have been about 850 rather than 158, and that state police did not provide the governor with the correct information.
"The DNA backlog numbers articulated by the governor on February 6, 2005, were fabricated," (training coordinator Andrew) Wist stated in an affidavit.Funding and oversight for forensic testing and evidence storage has lagged behind the needs of law enforcement agencies nationwide. Read about the Innocence Project’s recommendations for crime lab oversight.
Read the full story here. (Chicago Tribune, 08/28/07)
Read more recent news about crime lab backlogs and evidence storage shortages:
Video: Lakewood, Colorado seeks more space to store evidence (9 News Denver, 08/27/07)
Video: Idaho State Police Forensic Lab seeks additional funding (Channel 2 Boise, 8/28/07)
Louisiana legislature adds court costs to fund state crime labs (KATC, Arcadiana, Louisiana, 8/28/07)
First day of freedom for Dwayne Dail
Posted: August 30, 2007 11:02 am
In his first full day as a free man, Dwayne Allen Dail spent time with family and talked with reporters about the 18 years he spent behind bars for a 1987 North Carolina rape he didn’t commit. He became the 207th person exonerated by DNA testing on Tuesday after a judge dismissed the charges against him. Evidence from his case believed for years to be destroyed was located recently in a closet at the Goldsboro, N.C. police department. Testing on the evidence proved another man had committed the attack on a 12-year-old girl for which Dail was serving life in prison.
"I never thought I could be convicted, I thought if you didn’t do anything, then you have nothing to worry about," Dail told reporters yesterday.And the prosecutor in the case said yesterday "it was every prosecutor's nightmare that you somehow participated in putting an innocent man in jail." Read the full story here. (WRAL, 08/29/07)
Watch a video interview with Dail and his son here. (WRAL, 08/30/2007)
More media coverage of the case:
Editorial: The wrong man… (The News & Observer, 08/30/2007)
Tags: Dwayne Dail
Nebraska Supreme Court to hear DNA testing arguments tomorrow
Posted: September 5, 2007 4:06 pm
Nebraska’s highest court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the cases of Thomas Winslow and Joseph White, who were convicted of killing a 68-year-old woman in 1985. Winslow pled guilty and was sentenced to 10 to 50 years, while White went to trial and received a life sentence. The men say that DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene can prove their innocence, but the state is opposing their request for testing, partly because Winslow pled guilty.
The state’s highest court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the case. Lower courts have denied the men access to testing. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales said that 25% of the 207 people who have been exonerated through DNA testing admitted to crimes they did not commit (including 10 people who pled guilty to crimes only to later be exonerated by DNA evidence). These exonerations show that innocent people sometimes admit guilt and plead guilty, for a variety of reasons – and that DNA testing should not be denied based on a guilty plea.
Read the full Innocence Project press release here.
Media coverage: High court to decide if conviction means no right to DNA tests (Associated Press, 09/05/07)
Read more about false confessions.
Learn about people who admitted to crimes before DNA proved their innocence.
Mississippi man awaits a new trial after his release from death row
Posted: September 6, 2007 6:02 pm
Innocence Project client Kennedy Brewer has been on Mississippi’s death row for almost 15 years for the 1992 rape and murder of a young girl that DNA testing now shows he didn’t commit. Brewer was released from prison on bail on August 31 after DNA results showed he was not the source of evidence collected from the victim’s body. Prosecutors, however, have refused to compare the DNA from the crime scene to the state’s database and plan to retry Brewer for this crime. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld tells the New York Times today that Brewer’s case illustrates a justice system slow to adapt to the hard science of DNA testing.
"The Brewer case illustrates that there are two Mississippi criminal justice systems,” Mr. Neufeld said. “There’s the old system that hasn’t changed at all and the new system that is trying to take the Bill of Rights seriously."
Modern forensic tools do not appear to carry much weight in Noxubee County. (Prosecutor Forrest) Allgood said DNA reversals — there have been more than 200 nationwide — did not prove innocence. Read the full story. (New York Times, 09/06/07)
Tags: Kennedy Brewer
California legislature passes reforms to prevent wrongful convictions
Posted: September 7, 2007 5:25 pm
This week, the California legislature approved three bills including significant reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions in the state. All three are now awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature. He vetoed two similar bills last year, citing “drafting errors.”
The bills’ authors say the drafting issues have been addressed and they called today on the governor to sign the bills immediately. The first of the three bills passed this week would require that law enforcement agencies record interrogations of suspects, starting with Miranda warnings. This reform, already employed by several states, would prevent false confessions and help prosecutors and police officers do their jobs.
The second bill would require the state’s Attorney General to create new guidelines for law enforcement agencies to conduct eyewitness identification procedures according to accepted best practices. Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction.
The third bill would require prosecutors to present corroborating evidence before allowing a jailhouse informant to testify against a defendant.
An op-ed by three California lawmakers in today’s San Jose Mercury-News calls on Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign these vital bills:
Working to free innocent people wrongly imprisoned is a long process, often taken up by volunteer attorneys and law students who can serve only a small fraction of those who need assistance. This trio of bills would curb the most common causes of wrongful convictions and protect defendants, police, victims and the state.View a map of reforms underway nationwide here.
Read the full story. (San Jose Mercury News, 09/07/07)
Legal help scarce in cases uncovered by Houston lab audit
Posted: September 10, 2007 2:30 pm
Nearly five years after the Houston Police Department suspended DNA testing due to the discovery of lab errors, dozens of defendants who may have been convicted based on faulty forensic evidence have received little legal assistance. An extensive independent audit of the crime lab, conducted from 2005 to 2007, found at least 61 cases in which forensic analysts had made errors in reporting their findings. And a Houston Chronicle investigation released yesterday shows that defendants in two-thirds of these cases have received little to no legal help in determining how their convictions could be affected by the faulty testing.
The Chronicle found 24 cases among the 61 in which attorneys appointed or hired to represent people in the crime lab controversy have taken little meaningful action with new test results. In 15 other cases, defendants received no representation at all.
Robert Hayden, convicted in a 1994 assault, discovered six months ago while searching the Internet that investigators had found major issues with the DNA testing in his case.
"No one contacted me or asked me if I wanted an attorney," said 48-year-old Hayden, who completed his sentence and now lives with family near Atlanta. "All I want is to have an independent attorney look at this on my behalf."
Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 09/10/2007)
At least two people – Josiah Sutton and George Rodriguez – were exonerated after DNA testing proved that Houston lab analysts testified incorrectly in their cases. Read more about the Houston crime lab scandal and audit.
Tags: George Rodriguez, Josiah Sutton
Judge orders evidence preserved in Texas case
Posted: September 10, 2007 4:12 pm
A Texas judge today ordered officials to preserve a hair for possible DNA testing in the case of Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000. Testing on the hair, which was collected from the scene of a 1989 murder, could prove whether Jones was executed for a crime he didn’t commit. The Innocence Project joined with the Texas Observer, Innocence Project of Texas and Texas Innocence Network in filing papers on Friday requesting the evidence preservation and testing. A hearing is scheduled for October 3 on the DNA testing.
This case will be featured tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. (Tuesday 9/11/07) on Court TV’s Best Defense.
Read more in today's Innocence Project press release.
Read today’s stories on the case in the Texas Observer, Reuters Newswire and International Herald Tribune.
Tags: Claude Jones
Michigan DA to reopen murder case
Posted: September 13, 2007 10:40 am
The Lansing, Michigan, district attorney said yesterday he would reopen the case of Claude McCollum, a man who says he was wrongfully convicted of killing a 60-year-old woman in 2005. Biological evidence from an unknown male – not McCollum – was collected from under the victim’s fingernails in the case for which McCollum was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. McCollum was convicted, in part, because he told police during an interrogation how he might have committed the crime while sleepwalking. In a number of DNA exoneration cases, defendants were convicted partly based on “dream statements” or hypothetical accounts of how they might have committed the crime.
Now, McCollum’s attorney is requesting that the DNA evidence from his case be compared with the sample of another man, who was arrested in late August and has been charged with committing a separate murder and a rape. Police have said this man is connected to at least six other murders from 2004 to 2007. The Lansing district attorney said investigators would reconsider evidence in McCollum’s case.
"Whether or not I end up believing this information or not, in order for (McCollum) to have a fair hearing, the matter needs to be investigated and brought to the attention of the Court of Appeals," (County Prosecutor Stuart Dunning said) “If somebody got wrongfully convicted, I want to be the first person to correct that."
Read the full story here. (Lansing State Journal, 09/12/07)
DNA proves Dallas man didn’t commit 1982 crime
Posted: September 17, 2007 11:01 am
Innocence Project client Steven Phillips has been in prison for 25 years for a series of sex crimes in Dallas, Texas, that has always maintained he didn’t commit. Now DNA evidence proves he is innocent of the rape for which he was convicted by a jury. The rape case is the only one for which biological evidence exists that can be subjected to DNA testing. He would later plead guilty to several other crimes believed to have been committed by the same man. The evidence supports this theory, and a judge could clear Phillips of all of the related crimes.
Phillips is the first person to be cleared of wrongdoing by DNA tests ordered by District Attorney Craig Watkins, who took office in January. If exonerated, Phillips would be the 14th person from Dallas County since 2001 to be exonerated based on DNA testing…Read about the 13 people exonerated by DNA evidence to date in Dallas County.
Ms. Morrison said although there is no DNA evidence in those other cases, he could be cleared in those, too.
"From the very beginning, the police said all of these crimes were committed by the same man," Ms. Morrison said. "DNA now proves Steven Phillips was not that man."
But Mr. Ware said the district attorney's office is not prepared to agree Mr. Phillips did not commit the other crimes. Prosecutors are still investigating the cases to which he pleaded guilty.
"If the police were correct, that it was one person ... then it could impact those cases," Mr. Ware said.
The issue may ultimately be decided by a judge, he said.
DNA evidence can exonerate someone for related crimes that were committed by the same person even if there is DNA for only one of them, the Innocence Project said.
Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 09/17/07)
Tags: Steven Phillips
Sunday marks three years of freedom for Calvin Willis
Posted: September 21, 2007 3:39 pm
After serving 21 years in Louisiana prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit, Calvin Willis was exonerated on September 23, 2003, after DNA testing proved his innocence. Willis, who is one of nine people exonerated by DNA testing in Louisiana, will celebrate three years of freedom on Sunday.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Today: Gilbert Alejandro, Texas (Served 3 years, Exonerated 09/21/94)
Tomorrow: Chester Bauer, Minnesota (Served 9 years, Exonerated 9/22/97)
Tags: Gilbert Alejandro, Chester Bauer, Calvin Willis
Sign up now to get our email newsletter tomorrow
Posted: September 25, 2007 4:36 pm
We’re sending our free monthly email newsletter tomorrow to thousands of members in our online community. Tomorrow’s newsletter will include an update on the case of Thomas Arthur, who is scheduled to be executed Thursday in Alabama despite his pleas for DNA testing that could prove his innocence.
Join our online community to be the first to know about exonerations, pending reforms, online features and more. Click here to sign up now.
Already a subscriber? Invite your friends to join.
DNA testing proves Houston man's innocence
Posted: October 3, 2007 5:02 pm
DNA testing has proven that Innocence Project client Ronnie Taylor has been in prison for 12 years for a rape he did not commit. The DNA results also implicate another man, who is already in prison. Taylor is still in prison and the Innocence Project will work with the Harris County District Attorney’s office to secure his release as soon as possible.
Taylor’s wrongful conviction highlights the history of scandal at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, which came under fire in 2002 after reports raised questions about the quality of DNA testing at the lab. DNA testing has already reversed two wrongful convictions caused in part by faulty testing at the HPD lab, and there are serious questions about the testing done before Taylor’s trial.
A crime lab expert testified at Taylor’s trial that she did not find semen on a bedsheet from the bed where the rape took place. It is on that same sheet that recent testing identified semen from the rapist. It was this testing that proved Taylor’s innocence.
“Ronnie Taylor’s wrongful conviction is the result of serious problems in the Houston Police Department Crime Lab,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “The HPD Crime Lab failed to identify a stain on a sheet as semen. If the HPD Crime Lab had correctly identified the semen stain, DNA testing could have been conducted and Ronnie Taylor might not have been convicted. The faulty testing conducted in the HPD Crime Lab led to Ronnie Taylor’s wrongful conviction and prevented law enforcement from apprehending the true perpetrator.”Read media coverage on Taylor’s case:
Read the Innocence Project press release here.
Houston Chronicle: DA’s office says DNA testing shows man innocent of rape
A two-year independent audit of the HPD crime lab was completed in August. Read the reports here, or read previous blog posts on the lab.
Media coverage: Houston man proven innocent 12 years later
Posted: October 4, 2007 1:05 pm
DNA testing has proven that Ronnie Taylor did not commit the Houston rape of which he was convicted in 1995. His Innocence Project attorneys are now working with prosecutors to secure his release from prison as soon as possible. Read the press release here.
Read and watch media coverage of the DNA results clearing Taylor.
Houston Chronicle: Mix-up on DNA deals HPD lab another blow
Associated Press: DA's office says DNA testing shows man innocent of rape
VIDEO: KHCW — DNA evidence clears prisoner of sexual assault
VIDEO: ABC13 — DNA testing proves inmate innocent
VIDEO: KHOU — Innocent man serves 12 years for rape
California governor vetoes justice reforms
Posted: October 16, 2007 3:15 pm
For the second year in a row, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yesterday vetoed three bills passed by the state legislature to reduce the number of wrongful convictions in the state. The bills would have required law enforcement agencies to record interrogations in certain crimes, required jailhouse informant testimony to be corroborated and created a task force to develop guidelines on increasing the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.
The chairman of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice said in a statement yesterday that “Schwarzenegger has taken California out of the front lines of criminal justice reform.”
The vacuum of leadership in the Governor’s mansion will not make the causes of wrongful convictions disappear. We cannot insert our heads in the sand as the parade of innocents who have been wrongfully convicted continues to grow.Schwarzenegger, in his veto messages, said new state policies would “would place unnecessary restrictions on police.”
Read the full statement here. (PDF)
Read the governor’s veto statements here.
More coverage: Gov. vetoes bills on criminal procedures (Los Angeles Times, 10/16/07)
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, one of six innocence commissions nationwide, will hold its next public meeting tomorrow, October 17, at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. Click here for the meeting’s agenda.
Tags: California, Innocence Commissions, False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, Informants/Snitches
Hearing tomorrow in Dallas case
Posted: October 18, 2007 5:34 pm
For 21 years, Clay Chabot has said he had nothing to do with the brutal 1986 murder for which he was convicted. Tomorrow, his conviction is finally expected to be thrown out by a Dallas judge, after DNA testing proved that a key prosecution witness lied on the stand to protect himself and convict Chabot.
The Innocence Project, which joined with the Dallas County Districty Attorney’s office in calling for Chabot’s conviction to be vacated, is seeking Chabot’s release on bond tomorrow.
Read the Innocence Project press release here.
Read previous blog posts on Chabot’s case.
Tags: Clay Chabot
Crime victim calls for better identification practices in Georgia
Posted: October 23, 2007 4:45 pm
After Jennifer Thompson-Cannino was raped in 1984, she identified a man in a police lineup as her attacker. The officer conducting the lineup told her she had done a “good job,” confirming that she’d picked the suspect. Eleven years later, DNA evidence proved that suspect, Ronald Cotton, had been wrongfully convicted of the rape.
Before a rapt audience Monday at a legislative study committee hearing, Cannino recounted the horror of her sexual assault on June 29, 1984, and her horror when learning 11 years later she had misidentified her attacker and helped send the wrong man to prison. The real attacker, later identified by DNA evidence, had gone on to rape six more women after he attacked Cannino.Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Iowa State Psychology Professor Gary Wells also testified before the group Monday, describing lineup procedures proven to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. Download the study committee’s full schedule here.
"It's a human system," Cannino said. "We are fallible. We make mistakes. There are practices that can be put into place."
Read the full story here. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 10/23/07)
Read more about Ronald Cotton’s wrongful conviction and exoneration here.
Tags: Georgia, Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification
Charges dismissed in Michigan case
Posted: October 24, 2007 5:25 pm
Claude McCollum, of Lansing, Michigan, spent nearly two years of a life sentence in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. He was released from prison Oct. 16 on bond after prosecutors discovered “powerful evidence” of his innocence, and a Michigan judge today dismissed the charges against him at the prosecutor’s request.
Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said at a news conference this afternoon, "It's horrible for an innocent man to be convicted."
Asked what he would say to McCollum, Dunnings said, "I wish him well. And I sincerely mean that."
“The prosecutor’s office has finally awakened, and this man’s problem has come to an end,” McCollum’s attorney, Hugh Clarke Jr., said minutes after learning about the dismissal.
Read the full story here. (Lansing State Journal, 10/24/07)Read more background on the case in previous blog posts.
"The Exonerated" onstage in New York
Posted: October 31, 2007 2:26 pm
Opening tomorrow in New York City is a production of “The Exonerated,” the hit play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen in which the true stories of six people sentenced to death for crimes they didn’t commit are told in their own words.
Kerry Max Cook, who served 22 years on death row in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit, will answer questions after the performances this weekend, and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales will speak on a panel after the Nov. 10 performance.
The play runs through Nov. 11. For more information and to buy tickets visit the Red Fern Theater website or call 212-712-6322.
Each production at the Red Fern Theater supports an organization that addresses the themes of the play. A portion of proceeds from “The Exonerated” will go to Brooklyn Law School’s Second Look Program, which works on non-DNA post-conviction innocence claims. The Second Look Program is a member of the Innocence Network.
Column: new policies needed to halt unjust convictions
Posted: November 5, 2007 1:40 pm
In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland writes that wrongful convictions have uncovered flaws in the American criminal justice that need to be addressed immediately. She compares the proposed reforms to Miranda Rights, which were controversial when mandated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 but are considered standard practice today.
Of course, we should expect collateral damage within any human institution, but if we have identified ways to reduce it, we should utilize them. It is shocking that officials entrusted with public safety would worry more about technical slip-ups that might free a guilty person than about errors that repeatedly have victimized the innocent.
Read the full column here. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 11/04/07)
David Gray celebrates nine years of freedom
Posted: November 5, 2007 2:35 pm
Nine years ago tomorrow, on Nov. 6, 1998, David Gray walked out of an Illinois prison after serving 20 years for a crime he did not commit. He was wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to 60 years behind bars. He fought to clear his name for 20 years before he attained the testing to prove his innocence. In 1998, DNA testing on a quilt from the scene of the rape proved that Gray could not have committed the crime. His conviction was overturned one year later, making his exoneration official.
The first trial against Gray, which centered on the victim’s misidentification of him as her attacker, ended in a hung jury. At a second trial, however, the prosecution’s case was supplemented with testimony from a jailhouse snitch who claimed that Gray had confessed to him. Snitch testimony and eyewitness misidentification are two of the major causes of wrongful conviction. Learn more about these and other causes of wrongful conviction here.
Read more about David Gray's case here.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Wednesday: Bernard Webster, Maryland (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/7/2002)
Tags: David A. Gray, Bernard Webster
Fox News: Schwarzenegger vetoes justice
Posted: November 6, 2007 10:43 am
In a column published yesterday on FoxNews.com, Radley Balko reports on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to veto three criminal justice reform bills last month. The bills would have required law enforcement agencies to record interrogations in certain crimes, required jailhouse informant testimony to be corroborated and created a task force to develop guidelines on increasing the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.
Our criminal justice system is in dire need of repair. The spate of DNA exonerations has at least opened many Americans' eyes to the very real possibility that we're sending innocent people to prison—and even to death row.
But the number of cases in which DNA was found at the scene of a crime was properly preserved, and where testing could establish guilt or innocence, is vanishingly small. DNA testing has exposed the flaws in our system, but those flaws don't exist only in cases where DNA was significant—they also exist in the overwhelming majority of cases where it isn't. That's why we need to apply the lessons we've learned from DNA exonerations to other cases.
And it's why Gov. Schwarzenegger's refusal to adopt even modest reforms is so regrettable.Read the full column here. (FoxNews.com, 11/05/07)
Tags: False Confessions, Informants/Snitches, Eyewitness Misidentification
Dispatch from Philadelphia: Why I tell my story
Posted: November 9, 2007 12:45 pm
By David Shephard, Exoneree; President, Northeast Council on the Wrongfully Convicted
Twenty-three years ago I was convicted in New Jersey of a horrible rape I didn’t commit, simply because I worked at the Newark airport, near where the victim’s stolen car was found. I was in prison for almost a decade before DNA testing proved my innocence and led to my release. I was 32 years old and I walked into a changed world. I had to rebuild old relationships. I had to look for a job and explain what I had been doing during my twenties. It wasn’t easy.
Now I’ve been out for 12 years and I’m proud to say I live a happy and productive life. I have a beautiful family, I work hard at my county’s Department of Citizen Services and, whenever I can, I tell anyone who will listen about my case and the causes of wrongful conviction. This morning I’m writing from Philadelphia, where I joined Innocence Project Executive Director Maddy deLone on a panel at the 29th annual conference of the National Association of Women Judges. I’m excited to be here, because telling my story is one of the most important contributions I can make to the innocence movement.
I tell my story because people in this country still have too much faith in our broken criminal justice system. They watch TV and they think the courts are just like they seem in “Law & Order.” I can tell you from experience that they aren’t. I’ve spoken to thousands of people over the years, and many of them already knew about the problem of wrongful convictions before they met me. I’ve learned, however, that they don’t really feel the depths of the issue until they meet an exoneree. It doesn’t have to be me – it can be anyone who has been through the minefield of wrongful conviction. I was speaking in southern New Jersey last week and during my speech I saw faces changing from skeptical to intrigued to devoted. Events around the world are often posted on this blog. If you read about an exoneree’s speech in your town, go hear it. You won’t regret it.
This morning, I spoke to an audience of judges from across the country, all of whom have firsthand knowledge of how our justice system works. But even among this group of insiders, I was the first exoneree many have met in person. And the same holds true for anyone I meet: you can read about this problem all you want, but until it has a human face, it isn’t real.
During this morning’s panel, I told the audience that every inmate with a valid claim of innocence should have access to DNA testing. Why should we have this all-powerful science and not use it? It’s a tragedy that eight states still don’t have laws allowing inmates to apply for DNA testing when it can prove innocence. Even in many of the 42 states with DNA access laws, defendants are still often denied access due to technicalities. If the prosecutor in my case hadn’t agreed to test the evidence, I might not be writing this today. But this issue is bigger than me, it’s bigger than the 208 DNA exonerees. It’s a national problem and we need a national standard for DNA testing access. I told my story this morning, and I will continue to speak out, because there are more innocent people behind bars and we shouldn’t rest until they are free.
David Shephard was exonerated in New Jersey in 1995. He lives with his family in Newark, New Jersey, and serves as the Founding President of the Northeast Council of the Wrongfully Convicted. Learn more about his case here.
Tags: David Shephard, Access to DNA Testing, Dispatches
Wyoming legislature considers DNA access law
Posted: November 27, 2007 6:05 pm
There’s one thing all 208 exonerees have in common – at some point they were able to secure DNA testing in their cases. Sometimes prosecutors agree to testing immediately upon request, but other times it takes a long court battle for an innocent defendant to obtain testing. Today 42 states have some form of law allowing inmates to apply for DNA testing if it could prove innocence. Eight states still have no such law, meaning inmates in those states are often unable to prove their innocence, even when key biological evidence is sitting untested in a storage facility.
Wyoming is one of those eight states without an access law, but lawmakers there say it’s time for a change. A joint legislative committee yesterday heard testimony on the issue from a cross-section of criminal justice experts, and many are hoping to see a bill passed during the 2008 session.
Rep. Edward Buchanan, R-Torrington, who raise the issue with the committee last year, warned against rushing the bill to the full Legislature if it is not “rock solid.”Does your state have a DNA access law? View our interactive map.
But other committee members, including Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said the committee should push the bill forward.
“For those people who may be sitting in jail or prison who are in fact not guilty, for us to sit there and say, 'We want to wait until it's absolutely perfect,' that's unacceptable in my mind," Burns said.
Read the full story here. (Jackson Hole Star-Tribune, 11/27/07)
Tags: Wyoming, Access to DNA Testing
National Public Radio examines DNA privacy rights
Posted: December 14, 2007 5:30 pm
“The Ethics of DNA Use,” a three-part series on National Public Radio explores DNA privacy rights in criminal cases. NPR’s justice correspondent, Ari Shapiro, discusses the legal and ethical implications of DNA testing with Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck in the first of the three-part series. Shapiro also looks at expanding DNA databanks, police use of DNA to solve cold cases, and how crime lab backlogs complicate the issue.
Scheck thinks there should be a limit to what investigators can do with abandoned DNA. Comparing it to samples in a DNA database seems acceptable to Scheck, because it's "like comparing a fingerprint." But he believes "it would be quite another thing to start searching that DNA for more private information," such as familial connections or susceptibility to diseases.
To listen to the three-part series, click here. (National Public Radio, 12/12/07)
Men wrongfully convicted in the 'Central Park Jogger case' mark fifth exoneration anniversary
Posted: December 19, 2007 3:25 pm
Today is the fifth anniversary of the exonerations of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. They were wrongfully convicted of committing the brutal 1989 attack and rape of a central park jogger. Police investigations quickly focused on the five teenagers, who were in police custody for a series of other attacks perpetrated in the park that night. At the time, the defendants were between 14 and 16 years old. They were convicted in two separate trials in 1990 and sentenced as juveniles to 5 to 10 years; Wise, convicted as an adult, was sentenced to 5 to 15 years. The men were exonerated on December 19, 2002, after another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime and subsequent DNA testing excluded all five as suspects. They had served between 5 and 11 years for a crime they did not commit.
Faulty forensics and false confessions contributed to the wrongful convictions of McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana and Wise. After prolonged periods of police interrogation, all five confessed to being involved in the attack. McCray, Richardson, Santana and Wise all gave videotaped confessions. These tapes were presented as evidence at trial (despite the glaring inconsistencies among the confessions); the prosecution also presented forensic evidence that was said to link the defendants to the crime. This forensic evidence was later dismissed when DNA testing of the rape kit in 2002 matched Reyes, corroborating his confession and excluding the five as suspects.
Learn more about faulty forensics here. The convictions of these five teenagers have also raised questions regarding police coercion and false confessions, as well as the vulnerability of juveniles during police interrogations. Learn more about false confession, which have contributed to 25 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.
Matias Reyes is currently serving a life sentence for a murder and four rapes that occurred after the Central Park attack.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Monday: Clyde Charles, Louisiana (Served 17 years, Exonerated 12/17/99)
Thursday: McKinley Cromedy, New Jersey (Served 5 years, Exonerated 12/20/99)
Billy Wayne Miller, Texas (Served 22 years, Exonerated 12/20/06)
Friday: John Kogut, New York (Served 17 years, Exonerated 12/21/05)
Larry Mayes, Indiana (Served 18.5 years, Exonerated 12/21/01)
Saturday: Willie Davidson, Virginia (Served 12 years, Exonerated 12/22/05)
Dwayne Scruggs, Indiana (Served 7.5 years, Exonerated 12/22/93)
Phillip Leon Thurman, Virginia (Served 19 years, Exonerated 12/22/05)
New York man granted new trial in murder case
Posted: December 21, 2007 1:40 pm
A New York appeals court today threw out the conviction of a Long Island man who has spent 17 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Marty Tankleff was convicted 17 years ago of killing his parents in the Belle Terre, NY, home he shared with them. Tankleff was 17 years old at the time of the crime and says he woke up one morning to find his parents murdered. After hours of questioning, Tankleff allegedly confessed to the murder, saying he may have “blacked out” or “been possessed.” He quickly recanted the alleged confession, but it was used against him at his trial. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.
"It is abhorrent to our sense of justice and fair play to countenance the possibility that someone innocent of a crime may be incarcerated or otherwise punished for a crime which he or she did not commit," read the decision from Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, in part.
The ruling, by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was not only a vindication for Mr. Tankleff, but it also raised questions about police and prosecutorial methods in Suffolk County. It was not immediately clear when Mr. Tankleff, 17 at the time of the murders and now 36, would be released. It also was not clear whether a new trial would be held.More background on the case:
Read the full story here. (New York Times, 12/21/07)
Visit Marty Tankleff’s website for a case summary, legal documents and more.
Download the Innocence Project’s Amicus Curiae brief before the New York Supreme Court.
Listen to Innocence Project Staff Attorney Olga Akselrod and advocates for Tankleff in an appearance on NPR earlier this year.
Tags: False Confessions, Marty Tankleff
Editorial calls for special prosecutor in New York case
Posted: December 31, 2007 2:50 pm
For nearly two decades, Marty Tankleff has said he was wrongfully convicted of killing his parents. Last week, the conviction was finally thrown out, due to evidence pointing to Tankleff’s innocence and the involvement of alternate suspects. He was released from prison on bail while prosecutors consider a new trial in the case.
And an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times calls for Suffolk County officials to appoint a special outside prosecutor in the case to ensure that any retrial is handled fairly.
Now that Mr. Tankleff has won another day in court, his case deserves a dispassionate, thorough and honest re-examination. Mr. Tankleff’s defenders insist that this is not possible from the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas Spota. They are demanding that he hand the case to a special prosecutor. While Mr. Spota had no direct involvement in the Tankleff prosecution, which was tried by his predecessor, he and his office do have multiple connections to some members of the large cast of characters in this convoluted case. A detective who lied to Mr. Tankleff while taking his confession, for example, had been previously defended by Mr. Spota, then a private lawyer, in a corruption investigation, and later when the detective was accused of assault.
The law can be swift and sure when making a case against a defendant and hustling him off to prison. When it is found to have made grave errors, it must be just as honest and forceful in correcting them. We are counting on Mr. Spota to pursue the fairest case the evidence now supports. Or to back away if — as so many on Mr. Tankleff’s side insist — the evidence just isn’t there.For more than a year, an official New York state inquiry has examined the investigation and prosecution of the case by Suffolk County officials, a source told the New York Times.
Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 12/30/07)
"The (State Investigation Committee) is viewing this as a serious and significant investigation,” said a person who works with the officials overseeing the investigation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter was confidential. “The commission is looking at how Suffolk County handled this case.”Read more about Tankleff’s case here.
Read the full story here. (New York Times, 12/29/07)
Tags: Marty Tankleff
Readers respond to book on wrongful convictions
Posted: January 10, 2008 5:15 pm
On Tuesday, we asked blog readers for their feedback on “The Innocent Man,” John Grisham’s book about the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. We heard from many of you, and two of the responses are posted below.
If you ever have feedback to posts on this blog, email us here. (info [at] innocenceproject.org). Tell us if we can post your comments, and include your name (first name only is fine) and your city and state. We’ll occasionally post feedback we receive.
Helen Elliott, Edmond, Oklahoma:
I grew up in Southeastern Oklahoma and am a graduate of East Central University in Ada. I found the story of these wrongful convictions appalling, but not surprising. It's an example of stories I heard my whole life about the so-called justice system in our little corner of the world. I'm glad that this story was able to be told. It also brings to light the good works of the Innocence Project, with the hopes of bringing around reforms related to DNA testing. I've always been a fan of Grisham's work; I think this is his best yet.
J. Dowling, Southern California:
Grisham's book was excellent. It left me both angry & depressed for Ron Williamson & Dennis Fritz. As a retired police detective of 33 years from a medium sized police agency in Southern California, I am especially incensed by both the prosecutorial and police misconduct in this case. I am just sorry that the Justice Department did not go after the police and the prosecutor for massive violations of civil rights in that Oklahoma case. Anyone who truly cares about the American justice system will be very angry after they read Grisham's book. His book has now inspired me to volunteer my time and services to those in California that have been wrongly convicted. Kudos to Grisham for giving us all a huge wake-up call.
In an interview published in yesterday’s Jackson Free Press, Grisham says he met many wrongfully convicted people while researching the book, and “it doesn’t take too many conversations with men who are imprisoned and will probably never get out, who are innocent, to kind of flip you, to make you suddenly aware of this problem. That’s what happened to me.”
Read the full story here. (Jackson Free Press, 01/09/08)
Grisham, who serves on the Innocence Project Board of Directors, also supports the new Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi.
Tags: Mississippi, Dennis Fritz, Ron Williamson
Dispatch from Louisiana: As an innocent man is freed, why can't others get a test?
Posted: January 14, 2008 2:24 pm
By Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project Staff Attorney
(Sabine Parish, Louisiana) — This morning I sat with Rickey Johnson as a Louisiana judge ended the 26-year nightmare that has been Rickey’s adult life. He was 26 years old when he was arrested for a rape he didn’t commit. Today, he is 52.
The victim identified Rickey in a terribly misleading photo lineup – the photo of Rickey was eight years old and there were only two other pictures to choose from. Several months later, a jury convicted him of the crime and sentenced him to life in prison. He spent the next 9,136 days at Louisiana’s massive state prison at Angola.
Rickey was engulfed by family as he walked into the free world this morning– several of his relatives had come to welcome him home, and others will be reunited with him in the next few days. Watching Rickey taste freedom for the first time in more than a quarter of a century is mind-boggling. The joy was palpable, but it was impossible to comprehend that he spent nearly his entire adult life at Angola for a crime he didn’t commit.
And while this is Rickey’s day to celebrate, my mind turned to two other Innocence Project clients who will go to sleep again tonight at Angola. Archie Williams has been fighting for 13 years to simply have DNA evidence tested in his case. The tests can prove his guilt or innocence beyond any doubt, but East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has fought Archie’s appeal at every turn. The same is true for Kenneth Reed, convicted in East Baton Rouge and unable – so far – to have DNA testing conducted in his case.
Tomorrow Rickey will join other Louisiana exonerees and relatives of Archie Williams in calling for statewide access to DNA testing when it can prove innocence. An innocent man’s quarter-century behind bars will be in vain if we are not able to learn from his nightmare and correct the problems in our criminal justice system that convict the innocent and keep them behind bars without fair, fast appeals. It’s only right that Rickey’s case should lead to testing for Archie Williams, Kenneth Reed and others seeking to prove the truth.
Read today’s Innocence Project press release on Rickey Johnson’s exoneration.
Tags: Rickey Johnson, Dispatches
Cross-Posted: Georgia lawmakers advance eyewitness identification reform
Posted: February 13, 2008 11:02 am
Ben Hiltzheimer wrote this week on the Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog about reforms pending before Georgia's legislature. The full post is here:
GA House Committee Approves Eyewitness ID ReformsRead more about eyewitness identification reforms supported by the Innocence Project.
A Georgia House of Representatives committee recently approved two pieces of legislation designed to reform police procedures for collecting eyewitness evidence.
The Non-Civil Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 997 and 10 to 5 to approve HR 1071. The legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee for consideration with a favorable recommendation.
The bill, known as the Witness Identification Accuracy Enhancement Act, calls for the state law enforcement agency to develop a set of guidelines for the collection of eyewitness evidence in showups, photo arrays, and live lineups. It also calls on the state public safety training center to work with prosecutors to develop a training program for implementation of the procedures.
The House Resolution outlines specific best practices for conducting the identification procedures. Importantly, the resolution “strongly encourages” double-blind lineup procedures, where the administrator of the lineup would be a “neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup.” This is arguably the most important requirement of the two pieces of legislation, as social scientists are broadly in agreement that the communication of subtle cues — either inadvertent or intentional — to witnesses by lineup administrators regarding the identity of the police suspect is the primary flaw in status quo lineup practices that lead to misidentification, and ultimately wrongful conviction.
The full test of the best practices outline in the resolution are as follows:(1) It is strongly encouraged that the administrator of a photographic lineup or physical lineup should be a neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(2) Prior to beginning a photographic lineup or physical lineup identification procedure, the administrator should instruct the witness that:
(A) The witness does not have to make an identification, and the identification procedure is important to the investigation whether or not an identification is made;
(B) The individuals depicted in the photographic lineup or physical lineup may not appear exactly as the witness observed on the date of the crime because features such as hairstyles and facial hair are subject to change;
(C) The perpetrator may or may not be among those shown in the photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(D) When a neutral independent administrator is conducting the photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator is not aware of whether the suspect is included in such photographic lineup or physical lineup; and
(E) Regardless of whether an identification is made, law enforcement will continue to investigate the crime; and(3) When conducting a photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator should preserve the outcome of the procedure by documenting any identification or nonidentification result obtained from a witness. All witness responses to the photographic lineup or physical lineup participants should be documented using the witness´s own words, either in writing or with an audio or video recording.
State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield is the author of this welcome piece of legislation, and has made significant progress in bringing the interested parties together to move it through the legislative process over the last couple of years.
Unfortunately, law enforcement officials continue to resist the resolution, despite the systemic wrongful conviction problem that continues to plague the Georgia criminal justice system.[Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association] told Committee Members that while the resolution is not legally binding, he still feels the State is dictating to law enforcement what to do.Given that law enforcement agencies across the state have failed to adopt well-settled best practices on their own and the substantial cost associated with failing to do so, a legislative mandate hardly seems out of line. We’ll be following this one closely.
All seven people exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in Georgia were convicted in part based on eyewitness misidentifications. Read about their cases here.
Visit the Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog.
Tags: Georgia, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification
Editorial calls for NY innocence commission
Posted: February 14, 2008 12:51 pm
For the second year in a row, New York Assemblyman Michael Gianaris is sponsoring a bill in the state legislature to create a 10-member commission that would examine wrongful convictions and recommend policies to improve the state’s criminal justice system. An editorial in New York Newsday today calls for lawmakers to support the commission, saying “when it makes a horrendous mistake and imprisons an innocent person, the proper response should be something more substantive than ‘Oops!’”
For the innocent who spend years in prison, nothing can restore that lost time. But an innocence commission can at least help make wrongful convictions more rare.
Read the full editorial here. (New York Newsday, 2/14/08)
Tags: New York, Innocence Commissions
Appalachian State University hosts series on wrongful convictions
Posted: February 14, 2008 12:06 pm
A string of films, discussions and performances on wrongful convictions began this week at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. The series will include panel discussions, lectures and screenings of the films “The Thin Blue Line,” “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” “After Innocence” and “Deadline.” Exoneree Darryl Hunt will speak on Tuesday, Feb. 19, after the screening of the award-winning documentary about his case.
The university’s theater department will present the play “The Exonerated,” from March 4 to 8.
Read more about Appalachian State’s series here.
To host your own event on wrongful convictions, or to arrange for an exoneree to speak at an event, email us.
Tags: North Carolina, Darryl Hunt
Fallout continues after Mississippi exoneration
Posted: February 20, 2008 11:05 am
Days after Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were cleared in Mississippi, new questions are being raised about the forensic analysts and prosecutor who secured their convictions. Both men were wrongfully convicted of killing three-year-old girls in the early 1990s served 15 years behind bars before they were cleared. Brewer served several years on death row.
A discredited forensic dentist, Michael West, testified at both trials that marks on the victim’s bodies proved that Brooks and Brewer bit the victims – using only their top two teeth. In new statements published today by ABC News, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld says that West’s actions in these cases was “criminal.”
West "deliberately fabricated evidence and conclusions which were not supported by the evidence, the data or the rules of science but … because they were consistent with the prosecutor's theory,'' said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that examines questionable convictions and has won the exoneration of more than 200 inmates.ABC News also spoke to Noxubee County Forrest Allgood, who brought West into the case as a witness. Allgood prosecuted both Brewer and Brooks in the 1990s, and he fought Brewer’s exoneration for the last seven years.
"If you fabricate evidence in a capital murder case, where you know that if the person's convicted they are going to be executed — as far as I'm concerned that's the crime of attempted murder.''
"He's a criminal," Neufeld said of West.
The two cases were investigated by the same Noxubee County, Mississippi detective and prosecuted by the same attorney, and the same medical examiner and forensic dentist appeared in each case.
This is the first time that Neufeld or his colleagues at the Innocence Project have ever called for the criminal prosecution of a scientist, Neufeld said.
"These are not cases of sloppy forensic science,'' Neufeld said on Monday. "This is intentional misconduct. It's fabricated evidence to send people to death row.''
Allgood said that during the trials of Brewer and Brooks in the early 1990s, West's reputation was intact.
"At the time he was sitting on top of the world,'' Allgood said. "He was lecturing in China. He was lecturing in England."
"Nobody wants to put the wrong guy in jail,'' Allgood concluded, though adding that he still believes that Brewer "had a hand'' in Jackson's abduction.In fact, West had already been widely discrdited – and his membership in professional associations had been revoked – when Allgood called him to testify in Brewer’s trial. There is also no evidence that Brewer “had a hand” in the kidnapping, rape or murder of the three-year-old victim; instead, there is solid, irrefutable scientific evidence that he was not involved in the crime at all.
Read the full story here. (ABC News, 02/20/08)
Read more about the Brewer and Brooks cases and reforms proposed by the Innocence Project to prevent future wrongful convictions in Mississippi.
Tags: Kennedy Brewer
Mississippi cases continue to draw national attention
Posted: February 29, 2008 4:10 pm
Questionable forensic practices in Mississippi have remained in the national news in the wake of the hearings earlier this month clearing two men after they served 15 years for separate murders they didn’t commit. The exoneration of Kennedy Brewer and release of Levon Brooks on Feb. 15 has led to serious questions about the work of medical examiner Steven Hayne and forensic dentist Michael West, and the Innocence Project has been joined by several other organizations in calling for forensic reform in Mississippi. Here are excerpts from an Associated Press article running around the country today:
The turn of events has shocked the community, especially the victims' families, and led to accusations that West deliberately falsified evidence.
"You have people who engaged in misconduct and manufactured evidence and we've proved it," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which has won the exoneration of more than 200 inmates nationwide and assembled the expert panel that examined the Brewer case. "These two cases are going to be an eye-opener for the people of Mississippi about some of the problems they have in criminal justice and how easy it will be to make it right."
Brewer, who was released on bail last year, a few years after DNA tests excluded him as the rapist, was finally exonerated by a judge on Feb. 15.
"I ain't worried about the past. I'm thinking about the future," Brewer said. But he offered some advice to prosecutors: "They need to get the truth before they lock up the wrong somebody. It doesn't feel good to be called a rapist and murderer."
The district attorney who prosecuted both defendants, Forrest Allgood, disputed any suggestion that his office knowingly sent the wrong men to prison.
"It torments the innocent individual, undermines the public confidence in the justice system, and the bad guy is still running loose," he said. "Why people would believe that's something we would want to do is beyond me."
Allgood said he has not used West as a forensic expert since the mid-1990s. He said West was once considered one of the world's foremost authorities in his field, lecturing in China and England.
"Subsequently the whole situation turned into a train wreck," the district attorney said.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 02/29/08)
Read more about calls for reform in the wake of the Brewer and Brooks cases here.
Tags: Mississippi, Kennedy Brewer
Hearing Thursday in Mississippi for Levon Brooks
Posted: March 11, 2008 4:28 pm
District Attorney Forrest Allgood, of Noxubee County, Mississippi, has announced that he intends to drop the capital murder indictment against Innocence Project client Levon Brooks at a hearing Thursday morning in Macon, Mississippi.
Brooks spent 15 years in prison for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter – a crime he did not commit. He was wrongfully convicted with the flawed forensic analysis of medical examiner Steven Hayne and bite mark analyst Michael West. Hayne and West also helped secure the wrongful conviction of Innocence Project client Kennedy Brewer, who was exonerated in February after 15 years behind bars. DNA evidence in the Brewer case led to the identification of the real perpetrator, Justin Albert Johnson, who confessed to both the Brewer and Brooks crimes.
Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin will represent Brooks at Thursday’s hearing.
Read today’s Jackson Clarion Ledger article here.
Read more about Brooks and Brewer’s cases here.
Read about calls for reform to the Mississippi criminal justice system here.
Tags: Mississippi, Kennedy Brewer
Dispatch from the Field: Kentucky Moves Toward Eyewitness Identification Reform
Posted: March 12, 2008 4:47 pm
By Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project Policy Analyst
Today I will be providing testimony before Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee on HB 298, a bill that can greatly enhance the accuracy of Kentucky’s eyewitness identification procedures. The introduction of this bill resulted, in part, from a statewide conference held in November of last year in Louisville, hosted by the University of Louisville and co-sponsored by the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, the University of Kentucky College of Law and Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety. The conference focused on the state of Kentucky’s criminal justice system and sought to bring stakeholders from all corners of the criminal justice system under one roof for dialogue and consensus on systemic reform. Attendees heard about a range of issues, prominent among them the potential for misidentification by eyewitnesses to crimes.
Audience members were moved to tears as Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a crime victim who misidentified her rapist at two different trials in the 1980’s, described her feelings of re-victimization when she learned that flawed eyewitness identification procedures led her and the police to the wrong man. She told listeners that her misidentifications placed an innocent man, Ronald Cotton, in prison for over a decade. (DNA testing years later exonerated Mr. Cotton and a hit in the national DNA databank identified the true perpetrator, Bobby Poole.) Ms. Thompson expressed her feelings of guilt and horror after she learned how her inadvertent misidentification had created another victim, and described how her experiences drove her to become a devoted crusader to reform identification procedures.
Ms. Thompson-Cannino was followed by Gary Wells, an academic whose life’s work has focused upon the science of misidentification. Much of his research addresses the fallibility of human memory and its susceptibility to inadvertent or deliberate influence. Professor Wells described the simple, but effective reforms that are necessary to stem the tide of misidentifications in Kentucky and across the nation. These reforms can be trusted to work; they are grounded in a large body of peer-reviewed research that has been conducted over the past quarter century by respected social scientists.
These improved practices – shown to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness identifications – have been embraced by a number of jurisdictions across the nation. Just last year, laws were passed in five states to improve the reliability of eyewitness evidence. The most comprehensive of these laws came out of North Carolina, which included all of the major reform recommendations put forth by the Innocence Project. A similarly comprehensive bill stands before the House Judiciary Committee today in Kentucky, the provisions of which are bolstered by a strong and deep body of scientific literature.
HB 298 includes the following reforms:
- the blind administration of the eyewitness identification procedure;
- the provision of instructions to the eyewitness;
- the appropriate selection of non-suspect, or filler, photographs/individuals;
- taking confidence statements upon identification;
- the video-recording of the entire procedure; and
- the sequential presentation of line-up members to the eyewitness.
It is our hope that legislators will heed the lessons of wrongful conviction, and place robust science and experiential support above resistance to change. After all, traditional lineup methods are not the product of either scientific lessons or systemic validation. The unreliability of conventional eyewitness identification procedures undermines the effectiveness of public safety nationwide – and as importantly, the public faith therein. It bears repeating that eyewitness misidentification has contributed to more than three-quarters of the nation’s wrongful convictions proven through DNA testing.
The problem is well established, as are the solutions. I am testifying in Kentucky to help their legislature understand what the Innocence Project has learned – through deep study, and more importantly, through the reality of DNA exonerations – about the value of reforming their eyewitness identification procedures.
William Gregory, a Kentucky man whose innocence was proven through DNA testing, knows firsthand about the tragic implications of flawed eyewitness identification procedures; he spent seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit after two crime victims misidentified him.
Passage of HB 298 will not only protect the public and enhance Kentuckians’ confidence in their criminal justice system – it will also prove to Mr. Gregory that his suffering was not in vain.
Tags: Kentucky, Eyewitness Misidentification
Signs of prosecutorial misconduct in California exoneration case
Posted: March 14, 2008 3:07 pm
James Ochoa spent 10 months in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit before he was exonerated in 2006 because DNA proved that another man committed the crime. New evidence revealed yesterday shows that prosecutors asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab to falsify evidence that would help convict Ochoa.
An article in the Orange County Weekly details the alleged prosecutorial misconduct before Ochoa pled guilty in the case – in what he says was an effort to avoid a harsh sentence.
In the wake of a November 2005 OC Weekly article detailing how a 20-year-old Buena Park man faced prison for a robbery /carjacking he didn’t commit, prosecutors asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab to alter key exculpatory evidence.Read more about Ochoa’s case here.
Veteran forensic specialist Danielle G. Wieland made the charge last month during a civil deposition related to the December 2005 wrongful conviction and imprisonment of James Ochoa, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.
In a civil deposition taken last month for Ochoa’s wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Ochoa attorney Patricio A. Marquez of Morrison & Foerster asked Wieland, “Did anyone ever exert pressure on you to change your [DNA] conclusions?”
“Yes,” Wieland replied. “Camille Hill from the DA’s office . . . She called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated from [DNA found on] the left cuff of the shirt.”
According to the transcript, Hill told Wieland she “didn’t care” about the crime lab’s findings. “I want him [Ochoa] not excluded,” Wieland recalls Hill saying.
The DA’s demand alarmed crime-lab officials, who began to question why prosecutors were so “adamant” and “ranting” (Wieland’s description) about nailing Ochoa.
“I was pretty shocked and annoyed,” Wieland testified. “As a forensic scientist, we just look at the evidence.”
Read the full story here. (OC Weekly, 03/13/08)
Tags: James Ochoa
DA says Colorado prisoner shouldn’t get a new trial despite destroyed evidence
Posted: March 18, 2008 11:50 am
Last week, Colorado lawmakers introduced a bill to grant new trials to inmates when evidence in their cases was destroyed despite court orders to preserve it. The bill has drawn broad bipartisan support, and is expected to pass. Along with the bill, one lawmaker has made the case for a new trial for a specific prisoner, Clarence Moses-El, who was convicted more than two decades ago of a Denver murder and has sought DNA testing to prove his innocence. Those tests can’t be done, however, because Denver police destroyed evidence in the case after a judge ordered them to preserve it for possible DNA testing.
Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrisey said Friday that he had received a lawmaker’s request regarding Moses-El but that he doesn’t plan to pursue a new trial in the case.
"There is absolutely no indication, based on the totality of all the evidence and the thorough review conducted by myself and numerous judicial officials, that a new trial would result in any different outcome," Morrisey said in a letter responding to Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver.Read Friday’s blog post about the bill in Colorado’s legislature.
Last Saturday, Gordon hand delivered a letter to Morrisey, with a request for a new trial for Moses-El or some other relief because the DNA evidence in the case was destroyed by Denver police after a judge's ordered it preserved.
Read more here. (Colorado Rocky Mountain News, 03/15/08)
Tags: Colorado, Evidence Preservation
Innocence Project officials testify on critical reforms today and tomorrow in South Carolina, Colorado and Connecticut
Posted: March 19, 2008 4:19 pm
It has been nearly 20 years since the first DNA exoneration, and seven states still have no law allowing prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA testing that can prove their innocence. But the tide is turning in at least two of those states. Last week, Wyoming’s governor signed a bill granting DNA testing access to some prisoners, and the law will go into effect this summer.
And today in the South Carolina legislature, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified in support of a bill that would allow prisoners to apply for DNA testing if it could potentially prove their innocence.
“This kind of legislation has demonstrated again and again that it doesn’t just protect the innocent, it helps law enforcement identify the person who really committed the crime — often somebody who is a serial rapist or a serial murderer,” said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, which is based in New York. “South Carolina knows this law is long overdue.”Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown will testify today in the Colorado legislature on a bill including preservation of biological evidence from crime scenes, and Policy Director Stephen Saloom will testify tomorrow on an eyewitness identification reform package before the Connecticut legislature.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 03/18/2008)
Read more about status of criminal justice improvement in your state here.
Tags: South Carolina, Access to DNA Testing
Innocence Network Conference Day Two
Posted: March 29, 2008 3:40 pm
At today's opening session, a panel of experts explored the relationship between the innocence movement and victims of crime. There is consensus between the groups working to end wrongful convictions and others that provide services to victims that justice is not served when we send people to prison for crimes they didn't commit. Overturning wrongful convictions is a common interest of both groups.
But much of today's session focused on communication between defense attorneys, district attorneys and victims and their families while an active case is played out on appeal. In these cases, we are faced with a question: how do groups working to exonerate the innocent ensure that the victims of crimes in wrongful conviction cases are not forced to relive the crimes they suffered when a person is exonerated and, potentially, another suspect is tried?
This morning's panel offered some answers. The panel was moderated by Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director John Pray, and also included Christy Sheppard, whose cousin was murdered in Oklahoma in the case in which Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were wrongfully convicted. Also on the panel were Elizabeth Barnhill of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Mary Lou Leary of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Christy Sheppard spoke about the shock her family suffered when they learned from news reports that the two men convicted of killing her cousin had been proven innocent by DNA testing and would be exonerated. Innocence Network organizations are working to ensure that this doesn't happen in future exonerations. Although an exoneration often causes trauma for the victim and the victim's family, panel members this morning agreed that it's vital for channels of communication to be open so the news doesn't come as a surprise.
The Innocence Project has worked with Sheppard, other victims and family members, and district attorney's officers, on bringing all parties to the table to overturn wrongful convictions and attempt to communicate with victims about appellate procedures. Read more about the Innocence Project's work with victims and victims' right groups here.
The Innocence Network conference continues through tomorrow. Learn more about the Innocence Network here.
With his license on the line, Mississippi doctor responds
Posted: April 9, 2008 3:25 pm
After the Innocence Project filed a formal complaint yesterday to revoke Steven Hayne’s Mississippi medical license due to his autopsy misconduct, the doctor broke his long silence to the media and tried to defend his record.
(Innocence Project) officials say Hayne performs too many autopsies each year – about 1,500.
The National Association of Medical Examiners limits pathologists to fewer than 250 autopsies a year.In the article, Hayne does not cite organizations that say it’s acceptable to do 350 autopsies a year, or organizations that recommend no limit at all – likely because no credible organization or expert would say it’s acceptable to do so many autopsies, let alone 1,500 per year. In the complaint filed yesterday, the Innocence Project also notes that Hayne claims to testify in more than 300 cases a year while also serving as the Medical Director of three different medical institutions. The volume of work is important, since the quality of Hayne’s work is so poor, as evidenced by numerous cases (several of which are cited in the complaint filed yesterday).
Hayne said such a number is arbitrary. “There’s one group that says you shouldn’t do more than 350, and there are other groups that don’t have a limit,” he said. “Should I call the Innocence Project to see if I’ve done too many and stop?”
He estimates he works 110 hours a week. “Some people were put on this earth to party, and some people were put on this earth to work,” he said. “I’ve always worked very hard.”
Hayne’s questionable practices have come to light after the exonerations of two Innocence Project clients – Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer – 15 years after Hayne’s testimony helped convict them of capital crimes they didn’t commit. Forrest Allgood, the prosecutor in both the Brewer and Brooks cases, comes to Hayne’s defense in today’s article.
"My experience with Hayne is that 99 times out of 100 he testifies this guy died and this is how he died," Allgood said. "How is that in any way convicting innocent people?"
Read the full article here. (Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, 04/09/08)
In the Brewer and Brooks cases, Hayne’s testimony substantiated Allgood’s central argument: that the defendants bit the victims before killing them. But the complaint filed yesterday says Hayne testified falsely to support Allgood’s prosecution case. Marks on the victims were not human bites, and they occurred after the victims died and their bodies were dumped in the water. There was no scientific basis for Hayne’s testimony, but the testimony was critical in helping Allgood wrongfully convict Brewer and Brooks in separate trials. As a result, Brewer was sentenced to die, and Brooks was sentenced to life without parole.
Read more coverage of yesterday’s request by the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project that officials revoke Hayne’s license:
Associated Press: Attorneys ask state board to pull pathologist’s license
Read the Innocence Project’s April 8 letter to Mississippi officials.
Tags: Kennedy Brewer
Upcoming events in Seattle and New Hampshire
Posted: April 10, 2008 10:40 am
A cello concert tomorrow night in Seattle and a symposium April 17 in New Hampshire will help raise funds and awareness about the causes of wrongful conviction and the countless innocent people still waiting for justice.
Paul Rucker will perform a solo cello concert in Seattle tomorrow night (Friday, April 11) to raise money for the Innocence Project. Tickets are $5-$15. More information (and a video of Rucker performing) is here.
Exoneree Dennis Maher will speak at a symposium on April 17 at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. The discussion, entitled “When Justice Fails, Perspectives of the Exonerated Defendant and His Prosecutor,” will also feature comments from J.W. Carney Jr., who was the prosecutor in both of Maher’s convictions and also worked actively for Maher’s exoneration when evidence of his innocence came to light. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more here.
Tags: Dennis Maher
Tomorrow in NY: Exonerees and experts call for recording of interrogations
Posted: April 10, 2008 10:50 am
False confessions and admissions are a major cause of wrongful conviction, and both study and practice have shown us again and again that there’s a way to stop this injustice. Electronic recording of interrogations prevents false confessions and also helps law enforcement agencies – as an investigative aid and a training tool. At a public forum tomorrow on Long Island, New York state lawmakers will consider proposals to make electronic recording of interrogations standard practice in the state.
Members of the New York State Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform will hear testimony from Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent over 15 years in prison after he falsely confessed to a murder he didn’t commit. Also testifying on the merits of this legislation to prevent wrongful convictions are Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, Attorney Thomas Sullivan (who has studied and published on this topic), and representatives of Martin Tankleff, whose conviction was overturned this year after he spent 17 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit. State Sen. Eric Schneiderman chairs the task force.
Read more about the public hearing here.
Members of the public or media planning to attend can email us for more information.
Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions
California case challenges prosecutorial immunity
Posted: April 14, 2008 1:15 pm
Prosecutors nationwide have traditionally been shielded from lawsuits brought by wrongfully convicted individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this immunity is necessary to ensure that prosecutors can do their jobs without fear of personal legal implication.
But last year, the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that supervising prosecutors could be liable if they failed to create a system that safeguarded against wrongful conviction. And now a lawsuit – brought by Thomas Goldstein, who served 24 years in prison before being released on evidence of his innocence – alleges that Los Angeles’ head prosecutor can be held liable for the use of a jailhouse informant in Goldstein’s case. The U.S. Supreme Court announced today that it will hear this case during its next term.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office, the nation's largest prosecution office, once made regular use of jail informants, but at the time it had no system for sharing information among prosecutors countywide about which informants were reliable and what they had been promised.The lawsuit names John Van de Kamp, Los Angeles County’s chief prosecutor at the time of Goldstein’s conviction and now the chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, one of the country’s most active innocence commissions.
Goldstein was ordered released after 24 years in prison after the sole eyewitness recanted and doubts emerged about a supposed confession by Goldstein to an informant. Years after his conviction, Goldstein learned that his jailhouse accuser -- a three-time felon -- had lied in court when he denied having received promises of special treatment from another county prosecutor in exchange for his testimony.
"This suit is 29 years in the making, and it's about accountability," said Goldstein. "[It] will put every prosecutor's office on notice that they need a system for sharing information. And by doing so, it will result in fewer wrongful convictions."
...Van de Kamp sees a note of irony in the situation. He is the chair of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, a group set up to prevent wrongful convictions. It has pressed for a law that would require corroboration before testimony from a jailhouse informant could be used in a criminal trial.Read more about the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
The Legislature approved such a bill last year, but it in October Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He called the measure "unnecessary" because this "perceived problem . . . arises in very few criminal cases."
Read the full article here. (LA Times, 04/13/08)
Tags: Informants/Snitches, Government Misconduct
Another bad photo lineup, another wrongful conviction
Posted: April 15, 2008 4:25 pm
Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan is expected to be released from prison tomorrow in Texas after serving almost 23 years for a rape he didn’t commit. McGowan was convicted in Dallas, where 14 people have already been exonerated by DNA evidence – more than any other county and all but three states. Twelve of those Dallas exonerations involved an eyewitness misidentification, often with an improper lineup procedure, as in McGowan’s case.
When McGowan was arrested in 1985, he was in his mid-twenties, a high school graduate. The victim in the case was shown a photo array with seven photos – but there were effectively only three photos in the array, since two of them were photocopies of photographs, one was a black-and-white photo (all the others were in color), and one was marked “Garland Police Department” (while the remaining three were marked “Richardson Police Department,” which is where the crime took place)..
McGowan’s photo was on record from a traffic violation. The victim told the officer conducting the lineup that she “thought” McGowan was the perpetrator. “You have to be sure, yes or no,” she was told. After hearing these instructions, she said McGowan was “definitely” the perpetrator. With this as the main evidence against him, he was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in prison.
Decades of social science research have led to significant improvements in the way lineups are conducted in many towns, cities and states. Tomorrow, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck plans to join Thomas McGowan outside the Dallas Courthouse in calling for better lineup procedures in Texas. Last year, an eyewitness reform bill was approved by the Texas Senate and the House Law Enforcement Committee but did not pass the full House before the session ended. It will be introduced again in the next session.
Read today’s press release on McGowan’s expected release and stay tuned tomorrow for more news. We will send an email to our breaking news subscribers as soon as McGowan is free. Subscribe today to make sure you get tomorrow’s email – www.innocenceproject.org/signup.
"The first day of my life"
Posted: April 17, 2008 10:22 am
Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan walked out of a Dallas courtroom yesterday, a free man for the first time in 23 years. McGowan was convicted of a rape he didn’t commit in the mid-1980s, based mostly on an eyewitness misidentification. He was in his mid-20s when convicted and will turn 50 later this year. He is the 17th person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas – more than any other county in the country.
"Words cannot express how sorry I am for the last 23 years," said state District Judge Susan Hawk, moments after overturning his convictions. "I believe you can walk out of here a free man."Media coverage of McGowan’s release:
…McGowan, wearing a button-down shirt and slacks, looked trim and relieved. He said he prayed frequently and was benefiting from some "powerful forces." While in prison, one of McGowan's sisters died, and he said he missed watching his sibling's children grow up.
"I know God forgives, so hey, I've got to forgive, too," McGowan said. "It's not going to benefit me to be harboring anger or resentment."
"I've been living a life of a living hell and my nightmare is finally over with," McGowan said after the hearing. "This is the first day of my life. I'm going to go forward."
Video: KVUE: Man exonerated for rape gives forgiveness
Associated Press: DNA frees man who spent almost 23 years in prison for rape
Dallas Morning News: Richardson man cleared by DNA
Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog: Another Flawed Lineup, Another Exoneration in Dallas County, and a Glimmer of Hope
Read about the misidentification that led to McGowan’s wrongful conviction and reforms proposed to prevent future injustice.
Illinois man released after attorneys reveal another man’s confession
Posted: April 21, 2008 4:48 pm
Alton Logan served 26 years in Illinois prison for murder before he was released on Friday based on new evidence of his innocence. While DNA evidence is not involved, Logan joins a vast group of people released from prison years after an apparent wrongful conviction. His family members collected $1,000 for bond in the courthouse lobby on Friday and he is now awaiting a decision from the Illinois Attorney General on whether to retry him.
Logan was convicted of a 1982 murder in a McDonald’s restaurant and sentenced to life in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty. His release was sparked by an affidavit provided by two Illinois attorneys, revealing that their client in another murder case, Andrew Wilson, had confessed to them that he committed the McDonald’s murder alone. The confession came before Logan was sentenced in the case. The attorneys had Wilson sign an affidavit admitting his guilt, but kept it locked away because they weren’t allowed to break attorney-client privilege. Wilson told them they could release the affidavit if he died, and he passed away last year in prison.
CBS News’ “60 Minutes” reported on the case last month, including interviews with Logan and Wilson’s two lawyers, one of whom says in the interview that he thought about Logan’s case almost every day for 26 years, but he felt obligated to maintain his attorney-client privilege with Wilson.
“There might be other attorneys who have similar secrets that they’re keeping,” attorney Jamie Kunz said. “What makes this case so different is that (we) came forward… and (talked) to Wilson before his death, and get his permission: ‘If you die, can we talk?’ Without that, we wouldn’t be here today.”But Logan says in a prison interview that he can’t understand why the two attorneys didn’t release the information sooner. He also says the system is built to convict people and often misses the truth.
“They are quick to convict, but they are slow to correct their mistakes,” Logan said.The “60 Minutes” segment is a must-see for anyone interested in the issue of wrongful convictions. Watch it here.
Read the extensive media coverage of Logan’s release:
Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, Chicago Reader Blog, and more…
In November, “60 Minutes” covered another possible wrongful conviction involving attorney-client privilege. An attorney for a man who committed suicide in prison has revealed that his client committed a murder for which Lee Wayne Hunt is still incarcerated in North Carolina. Hunt was convicted based on bullet lead analysis by the FBI, which has been shown to be faulty and inaccurate evidence. The Innocence Network is currently working with other groups to review cases of possible wrongful convictions based on faulty bullet lead analysis.
Watch the “60 Minutes” segment and read the Innocence Network’s press release on the review of all bullet lead analysis convictions nationwide.
DNA tests overturn more wrongful arrests
Posted: April 22, 2008 4:32 pm
In countless cases across the U.S. each year, DNA testing conducted before trial releases an innocent person from jail, and eliminates the risk of their wrongful conviction. But months or years spent in jail – or on bond – while awaiting trial can take a damaging toll on a person’s family, career and life. And these cases point to the certainty that innocent people are still being arrested and convicted.
In Kansas City last week, 19-year-old Deangilo Minor was released from jail after serving 10 months behind bars awaiting trial on an attempted rape and a rape. He was identified by the victim in one of the crimes, but DNA testing conducted before trial proved that another man had committed the crimes. Based on the DNA results, Minor was released and the charges were dropped. During the 10 months he spent in prison, Minor lost his apartment and parted ways with his girlfriend.
“This case casts into doubt the reliability of eyewitnesses,” said Dan Ross, Minor’s defense lawyer.Wrongful convictions are still happening in the age of DNA testing. Testing is not conducted in all cases involving biological evidence. Innocent defendants take plea bargains before expensive tests are conducted in an attempt to avoid harsh sentences at trial. And then there are the vast majority of cases – more than 90% of all criminal cases – that don’t involve any biological evidence that can be tested. The risk of a wrongful conviction based on eyewitness misidentification or snitch testimony is just as strong – or stronger – in these cases today.
Ted Hunt, assistant county prosecutor, said the case showed the link between DNA and justice.
“It convicts and also exonerates,” Hunt said. “That’s a good thing for people to keep in mind.”
Read the full story here. (Kansas City Star, 04/17/08)
In a similar case, prosecutors in Virginia dropped charges last week against Anthony Worrell, a 20-year-old man who spent 17 months awaiting trial on charges he robbed a drug store. Charges were dropped after DNA testing on specks of blood believed to be from the perpetrator did not match Worrell. Prosecutors said they decided to drop charges “With our ID being a little shaky and without DNA…”
Read the full story here. (Southwest Virginia Today, 04/16/08)
More misconduct in Mississippi: Pathologist lied about his credentials
Posted: April 28, 2008 1:05 pm
Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne has sworn under oath repeatedly in recent years that he is certified by the American Board of Forensic Pathology. But the board, which was never recognized by the National Association of Medical Examiners, ceased to exist in 1995. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld pointed out this weekend that this is several of many instances in which Hayne’s testimony under oath has misrepresented the facts.
"This shows Hayne has misrepresented his credentials under oath," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which has called for Hayne to be stripped of his medical license.Hayne, who says he works 110 hours a week and conducts 1,500 autopsies a year, gave incorrect and misleading testimony at the trials of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, both Innocence Project clients who were exonerated this year after serving a combined three decades in prison for murders they didn’t commit. Brewer spent much of his time on death row.
Lawyers and inmates in Mississippi have begun to envision major legal repercussions as Hayne’s questionable practices come to light.
Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Matthew Eichelberger has questioned Hayne under oath about his credentials.
"We as a state need to brace ourselves for a tidal wave of innocence claims as a result of what's been uncovered regarding Steven Hayne," he said. "And the scariest part of all of this isn't the thousands of hours of extra work we in the legal community will have to face. It's the stark realization that there are innocent people behind bars, some of whom have been there a very long time."Read the Innocence Project’s recent letter calling for Hayne’s license to be revoked.
Read the full story here. (Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 04/27/08)
Read Reason Magazine’s investigation of Mississippi forensics – “CSI Mississippi”
Tags: Kennedy Brewer
Dallas DA will push for conviction reviews across Texas
Posted: April 30, 2008 5:10 pm
In the wake of yesterday’s release of James Lee Woodard, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins said he will lobby for the creation of Conviction Integrity Units across the state. Watkins took office in 2007 as Texas’ first African-American District Attorney, and quickly created a Conviction Integrity Unit to review past cases for possible wrongful convictions. The unit was instrumental in overturning Woodard’s conviction. Before his release yesterday, Woodard had served 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
"This is a perfect time to do it," Watkins said (of conviction reviews across the state). "We have to look at it. We have to balance that time when we are being a politician, and when we are a human being."
…Before walking out of the courtroom to "breathe in fresh, clean air," Woodard praised Watkins' office for having a public integrity unit that was willing to work with the Innocence Project to prove his innocence.
"I used to have nightmares about the DA's office, but now they are among my best friends," Woodard said in an earlier interview.Read more media coverage of his case here.
Read the full story here. (Star-Telegram, 04/30/08)
Woodard was represented by the Innocence Project of Texas, a member of the Innocence Network. Read a blog post on the case by IPOT Executive Director Natalie Roetzel here.
Tomorrow night, May 1, IPOT will host a benefit event in Dallas featuring four leaders in the legal community – District Attorney Craig Watkins, IPOT Chief Counsel Jeff Blackburn, Judge John Creuzot and Southern Poverty Law Center Founder Morris Dees. Learn more here.
Two weeks ago, Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan was released in Dallas. Read more about his case here.
In light of the unprecendented number of wrongful convictions in Texas overturned by DNA testing, state leaders are holding a Summit on Wrongful Convictions at the capital in Austin on May 8. Learn more here.
New York exoneree: "making sure this doesn't happen to anyone else"
Posted: May 2, 2008 2:29 pm
Innocence Project client Roy Brown spent 15 years in New York prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. Yesterday he shared his story with a group of New York high school students, telling them about how he identified the real perpetrator from his prison cell by poring over legal documents.
"When they gave me 25 to life, that's 25 to death, because I'm never going to confess to something that I had nothing to do with," Brown said. "You know, I know that in 25 years, if I live that long, if I make it to parole, I'm not going to go in there and say I'm sorry for something I didn't do."Read more about Roy Brown’s case here.
Read more and here. (Utica Observer-Dispatch, 05/01/08)
Want to host an exoneree speaker in your school or community? Click here to get started.
Tags: Roy Brown
Massachusetts man marks eight years of freedom
Posted: May 9, 2008 3:32 pm
Neil Miller spent almost the entire 1990s in Massachusetts prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his exoneration on May 10, 2000. Tomorrow, he marks the eighth anniversary of his release.
Miller is one of more than 160 exonerees whose wrongful convictions were caused, at least in part, by eyewitness misidentification. The victim in Miller’s case identified him in a book of mug shots, and again at trial. He claimed his innocence throughout the ordeal but was convicted and sentenced to 26-45 years.
Read more about Miller’s case here.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Sunday: Glen Woodall, West Virginia (Served 4.5 years, Exonerated 05/04/92)
Wednesday: Jeffrey Pierce, Oklahoma (Served 14.5 years, Exonerated 05/07/01)
Tags: Neil Miller, Jeffrey Pierce, Glen Woodall
James Woodard adjusts to life on the outside
Posted: May 16, 2008 5:40 pm
Two weeks ago, James Woodard walked out of a Dallas County courtroom a free man for the first time in 27 years. He was arrested days after New Year’s Day in 1981, and was convicted of a rape he didn’t commit based on an eyewitness misidentification. Now Woodard, who was represented by his attorneys at the Innocence Project of Texas, is working to reclaim his life.
"It's sort of like waking up from a dream," Woodard said, walking through the corridors of Dallas City Hall, trying to track down his birth certificate. "When you first wake up you are first kind of groggy and then as time passes you get more coherent."Woodard is the 18th person cleared by DNA evidence in Dallas County to date – more than any other county in the nation. Fourteen of them have been officially exonerated – read their stories here.
Watch video with Woodard and read some of his letters to former Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade in an online feature new today on CNN.
Innocence Project client set to be exonerated Wednesday
Posted: May 20, 2008 5:50 pm
Walter Swift is expected to be released from custody in Michigan tomorrow after serving 26 years in prison for a rape that a wide range of evidence now shows he didn’t commit. A hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. in a Detroit courtroom, where prosecutors will join the Innocence Project is asking a judge to dismiss all charges against Swift, and he will be released. A press conference is scheduled for 3 p.m.
Email us for details on attending the press conference.
And stay tuned to the Innocence Blog for more news on Swift’s case tomorrow. We’ll be sending an email alert after he’s released. If you aren’t already a subscriber, sign up here.
Exonerated Chicago man works to help free the innocent
Posted: May 22, 2008 4:40 pm
Dana Holland served 10 years in Illinois prison for a rape and an armed robbery he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his exoneration in 2003. Today, Holland works to raise awareness of problems in the criminal justice system in order to ensure that other people in Illinois don’t suffer the horror of a wrongful conviction. His attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago, Karen Daniel, said she recommended that he speak to audiences about his case.
"Dana is a wonderful speaker and very personable,” Daniel says. “He has a very positive message, and I felt he had a lot to give."Holland has been free for five years, but he is still working with Daniel to expunge his criminal record.
For example, Daniel says, on the Easter after he was freed from prison, Holland went back there to spend time with, counsel and comfort the inmates still behind bars. “He’s really great in the role of a mentor,” Daniel says.
"After everything I’ve been through, it’s not always easy,” Holland says. “But it’s all been worth it. There’s no place like home."Daniel and her colleagues at the Center on Wrongful Convictions got more good news today when the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the conviction of their client, Alan Beaman, who has served 13 years in prison for a downstate Illinois murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Read more about Beaman’s case here.
Read the full story here. (Windy Citizen, 05/21/08)
Tags: Dana Holland
Chicago man set to be freed tonight, press conference tomorrow
Posted: May 27, 2008 5:20 pm
Innocence Project client Dean Cage is expected to be released from a downstate Illinois prison late tonight after serving more than 12 years in Illinois prison for a rape that DNA now proves he didn’t commit. Charges against Cage have already been dismissed, and he will become the 217th person exonerated by DNA evidence when he is released. He will speak at a press conference tomorrow in Chicago with his family and attorneys.
Cage’s wrongful conviction is another case of eyewitness misidentification due to flawed procedures. In November of 1994, a 15-year-old girl was abducted on her way to school and raped by an African-American man. She worked with police to create a composite sketch of the perpetrator, and police received a tip a week later that a man matching the sketch worked at a meat-packing plant nearby. Officers brought the victim to the meat-packing plant and asked her if she recognized the perpetrator. She pointed to Dean Cage and later identified him based on the sound of his voice. The officer leading the rape investigation also conducted the identification procedure. Research and experience have shown that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is.
Tomorrow’s press conference will be held at 1:30 p.m. CST at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, 750 N. Lakeshore Dr., 8th Floor, Chicago (entrance on Superior St.).
Read today's Innocence Project press advisory on Cage's case. We’ll post more on the blog tomorrow after Cage is released.
Today’s news coverage of Cage’s case:
Chicago Tribune: DNA exonerates man convicted of sexual assault
Chicago Sun-Times: DNA frees man convicted of rape 14 years ago
Dispatch from Michigan: A Perfect Day
Posted: May 29, 2008 5:45 pm
By Ken Wyniemko, Michigan Exoneree
May 21, 2008 was a perfect day. It was the day that Walter Swift walked out of prison a free man after 26 years of wrongful incarceration. I know the feeling, just through my own experience; I know how it feels to walk out of prison, in my case after almost ten years, and have absolutely nothing. Both Walter and Nathaniel Hatchett, who was released on April 14, are going through the same thing I did. It felt so good to be there to help Walter, just as it was to help Nathaniel Hatchett when he was released last month. I gave each of them a big hug and a check for $500 from the Kenneth Wyniemko Foundation, which I have established to help people who have been exonerated after serving time for a wrongful conviction.
In Michigan, currently, anyone who is wrongfully imprisoned and freed doesn’t have access to compensation. I’m trying to correct that problem. I’m going to Lansing next week to testify before the House Judiciary Committee again on behalf of a bill that would provide $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment. It would also provide all lost wages during the time that you were wrongfully imprisoned as well as reimbursement for any attorney fees, and it would provide ten years of healthcare covered by the state of Michigan.
I have also testified about a bill that would extend and expand the current DNA statute in Michigan. House Bill 5089 would remove any time limits, any expiration date, because the current statute it is set to expire in January 2009. Another good thing about this bill: it would remove the restriction that people who pled guilty are not eligible for post-conviction DNA testing. In 11 of the DNA exonerations around the country, an innocent person pled guilty. And 25% of the DNA exonerations involved false confessions or admissions, including the case of my friend Eddie Joe Lloyd who was exonerated in Michigan in 2002. So if you look at the numbers, you can see that post-conviction DNA testing should be provided wherever it could prove innocence. Also under the current law, if you were convicted of a crime after January 8, 2001, you are currently barred from applying for DNA testing, and we’re trying to get that roadblock removed also.
If Michigan’s DNA access statute wasn’t passed originally, in 2001, I would still be in prison. I read that statute for the first time as a law librarian at the correctional center, and I actually started crying because I was thinking to myself, “This is exactly what I need to prove my innocence.” It has been a main goal of mine to never let the law expire. I testified about it on three separate occasions, and it’s already passed in the House and hopefully it will pass in the Senate either this week or next.
I’m so happy and blessed to be able to help. It makes my life worthwhile. I don’t want anyone to have to struggle like I did.
Read more about the cases of Ken Wyniemko, Walter Swift and Nathaniel Hatchett.
Tags: Nathaniel Hatchett, Kenneth Wyniemko
Eight years of freedom for Texas man
Posted: May 30, 2008 4:15 pm
A.B. Butler served 16 years in Texas prison before DNA proved his innocence and led to his release in 2000. Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of his exoneration.
After a woman in Smith County was abducted from a parking lot and raped by an African-American man, police asked her to review books of photos. She identified a photo of Butler as the perpetrator. Police then conducted a live lineup including Butler, and she identified him again. She identified him a third time at trial, and he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing. More than 75 percent of the 217 people exonerated by DNA testing were misidentified before their convictions.
Read more about A.B. Butler’s case here.
Read about reforms proven to reduce the number of eyewitness misidentification and find out if your state has implemented any of these reforms.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Monday: Larry Peterson, New Jersey (Served 16.5 years, Exonerated 05/26/06)
Willie Jackson, Louisiana (Served years, 17 Exonerated 05/26/06)
Tuesday: Paul Kordonowy, Montana (Served 13 years, Exonerated 05/27/03)
Tags: A.B. Butler, Willie Jackson, Paul D. Kordonowy, Larry Peterson
Exoneree Alan Newton earns college degree tomorrow
Posted: June 6, 2008 1:05 pm
After serving 21 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Alan Newton was ready to start his new life on the day he was released – July 6, 2006. Repeatedly requesting DNA testing since he first learned of the technology in 1994, Newton was told over and over that evidence collected at the crime scene had been lost or destroyed by the New York Police Department. In 2005, the Innocence Project asked property clerks at the NYPD storage facility to conduct one final search before Alan’s case was closed. They found the evidence – in the exact spot marked on the evidence report all along. The rest is history – evidence was tested and it proved that Newton didn’t commit the 1984 rape for which he was behind bars.
Almost immediately after his release, Newton began taking classes at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, with the help of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and supporters at the college and at Moët Hennessy USA. Tomorrow, he graduates with honors and a bachelor’s degree in business. But he’s not done. Now, he plans to attend law school.
Moët Hennessy CEO Mark Cornell is throwing Newton a party in the company’s New York headquarters June 9.
Cornell said he was proud to honor Newton:Watch a four-minute video interview with Alan here.
"Alan Newton is an inspiration to all America. He has overcome enormous obstacles by focusing on the positives rather than allowing himself to think like a victim. A lesser man might have succumbed to the negative forces of anger and bitterness – but not Alan. We are proud to honor this brave man and celebrate his achievements."
Read more. (Moët Hennessy press release)
Tags: Alan Newton
NYC book signing: wrongful arrest and forensic error in a post-Sept. 11 world
Posted: June 9, 2008 11:15 am
Steven Wax’s new book “Kafka Comes to America: Fighting for Justice in the War on Terror,” describes the cases of innocent people wrongfully charged by the U.S. government with committing terrorist acts. Wax, a federal public defender in Portland, Oregon, writes about his representation of Brandon Mayfield, a Portland-based lawyer who was wrongfully arrested as a suspected perpetrator of the 2004 Madrid train bombing after the FBI incorrectly matched a fingerprint from the crime scene to Mayfield.
Mayfield was arrested in connection with the Madrid bombing and spent 18 days in government custody before officials announced that the arrest was a mistake and released him. Wax’s book focuses on the loss of civil liberties in post-Sept. 11 America, but the Mayfield case also reveals the threat of faulty forensics in such a high-profile prosecution.
Wax will be reading from his book and signing copies in New York City tomorrow, June 10, at 7 p.m at Book Culture. He will be in Boston on June 11 and Philadelphia and Washington DC on the following days. View his full schedule – and more about the book.
In another interesting examination of forensic error in the Mayfield case, a 2006 study by social scientists at the University of Southampton illustrated contextual bias in fingerprint examination. They asked five fingerprint examiners to compare the crime scene print with Mayfield’s print, to determine whether the “match” was an error. But they didn’t actually send the Mayfield samples to these examiners, however. They sent a pair of prints that each of the fingerprint examiners had determined to be matches in previous criminal cases. So the analysts were examining their own sworn matches but thinking they were looking at someone else’s debunked error. Of the five examiners studied – three said that on retrospect the prints were not matches. One held fast that they were matches – effectively ignoring the context. Another said there was not enough information. This result, the study authors say, shows that in a subjective forensic examination, the context in which the evidence is presented can influence the result.
Read more about the study here.
Three Texas men face retrial despite claims of innocence
Posted: June 12, 2008 5:31 pm
Anthony Graves was first convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death for his alleged role in the horrific murders of two women and four children in rural Sommerville, Texas. Graves became a suspect when another man, Robert Earl Carter, told police that the two men committed the crime together. Carter was also sentenced to death row and was executed in 2000. In 1997, however, Carter began saying publicly – and to state officials – that Graves had no role in the crime. Minutes before his execution, he said it a final time: “Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court.”
Graves’ conviction was overturned by a federal court in 2006 and he is now facing a retrial. But at the heart of legal battles leading up to the retrial is the question of whether Carter’s original testimony that Graves was involved can be presented at trial as evidence against Graves. An article in today’s Austin Chronicle considers this question, and provides an update on Graves’ case.
In a separate high-profile Texas case that has seen years of legal wrangling, two men convicted of killing four teenage girls in Austin in 1991 are also facing a retrial despite DNA evidence that they say proves their innocence. Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott allegedly confessed to their roles in the crimes in 1999, but the men say the confessions were coerced. An infamous photo of the interrogation shows an officer with a gun to the back of Scott’s head.
Both men were convicted – Springsteen was sentenced to death and Scott to life. Springsteen’s death sentence was commuted after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that defendants 17-year-old and younger couldn’t be executed. Springsteen’s conviction was thrown out by an appeals court in 2006 and Scott’s was tossed in 2007. The men are now facing retrials, but Springsteen’s lawyer said yesterday that DNA evidence proves his client and Michael Scott innocent.
Read the full story here. (Austin American-Statesman, 06/12/08)
Real perpetrator identified in Texas exoneration
Posted: June 18, 2008 3:53 pm
Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan was freed in April, but today his case is fully closed. Dallas County prosecutors announced last night that the DNA profile that proved McGowan’s innocence also led to the identity of the real perpetrator, a man named Kenneth Wayne Woodson, who is already serving in Texas prison for another crime.
When told that his DNA profile matched evidence from the 1985 rape, Woodson confessed to committing the crime, prosecutors said. Like many wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, McGowan’s conviction not only sent an innocent man to prison but also allowed the perpetrator of a violent crime to evade arrest. Woodson was convicted of a separate rape in 1986 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. If he – and not McGowan – had been apprehended after the 1985 attack, the 1986 rape could have been prevented.
Woodson was paroled after 20 years, but was convicted of robbing a bank 14 months after his release. He was sent back to serve the remaining 10 years of his sentence. He will not be prosecuted for the 1985 rape, officials said, because the statute of limitations has expired.
The real perpetrator has been identified in 83 of the 218 DNA exoneration cases to date.
McGowan, who was officially exonerated last week by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, said this news brings full closure to his case.
McGowan said that with all of the publicity surrounding the new information in the case, he sympathizes with the victim. "I'll be praying for her," he said.
Regarding Woodson, McGowan said: "I feel sorry for the dude. I can't understand what was running through his mind. I'm amazed the dude got caught. I'm just glad the truth is out now."Read more about McGowan’s case here.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 06/17/08)
Tags: Thomas McGowan
Events this week in Connecticut and Florida
Posted: June 19, 2008 4:30 pm
A new production of the award-winning play “The Exonerated” opens tonight in Middletown, Connecticut, and tonight’s show will end with a panel discussion featuring exoneree James Tillman and his attorneys. The play, which tells the stories of six wrongfully convicted people, runs through June 29. The June 26th performance will also feature a discussion with Tillman’s lawyers. More info is available here.
Tomorrow night, the Innocence Project of Florida will host a fundraiser concert and silent auction in Talahassee, Florida. More information is available here.
Have an event to share with us? Send it to info [at] innocenceproject.org. Want to host your own event? Start planning today with our events guide.
Tags: James Tillman
DNA tests lead to new trial for NY man
Posted: June 20, 2008 3:10 pm
A New York judge threw out the 1995 murder conviction of Sammy Swift yesterday based on DNA results showing that blood from the crime scene did not come from Swift. At Swift’s trial, prosecutors pointed repeatedly to blood-type tests that included Swift – and a huge percentage of the population – among the people who could have potentially contributed blood found at the scene. Traditional ABO blood tests were a predecessor of DNA testing in courtrooms across the country, and this limited science played a part in dozens of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Blood found at the victim’s house in Swift’s case could have come from someone with type-A blood or type-O blood. More than 60 percent of Americans have one of these blood types, but prosecutors pointed to the test results as evidence confirming Swift’s guilt.
Now DNA testing on the same evidence has shown that the blood at the scene did not come from Swift. Cayuga County Judge Thomas Leone announced his ruling yesterday, saying there was “a reasonable probability the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant” had jurors known the DNA results. Swift now faces the prospect of a new trial if prosecutors decide to pursue it.
This is the second Cayuga County conviction overturned by DNA testing in 18 months. Innocence Project client Roy Brown was exonerated in 2007 after DNA tests proved his innocence of the murder for which he was in prison.
Roy Brown said he and Swift knew each other - they were both at Elmira Correctional Facility at the same time - and he shared information with Swift about filing appeals. Brown said he was glad Swift will get a new trial and said someone should look at how the system works.
"If you look at it, it's the same sheriff, Peter Pinckney. It's the same judge, Peter Corning. It's the same cabal," Brown said. "They need to look at every single case they prosecuted."Read more about Roy Brown’s exoneration here.
Read the full story here. (Syracuse Post-Standard, 06/20/08)
Tags: Roy Brown
Texas exoneree says Governor's pardon is the key to a new life
Posted: June 20, 2008 3:12 am
Ronnie Taylor was released from Texas prison eight months ago after serving 12 years for a rape he didn’t commit. This week, he received a pardon from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and he said this step will finally let him get started with his life.
"It's been hard to get restarted," Taylor said in a telephone interview from Atlanta. "Little things, like filling out a job application or renting an apartment are hard when you have to say you are a convicted felon. Now, I am officially a free man. I am so relieved."Taylor was convicted of a 1993 rape in Houston after an analyst from the Houston Police Department Crime Lab incorrectly told jurors that no semen was discovered on the victim’s bedsheet, despite a large damp spot identified by police immediately after the crime. After the Innocence Project accepted his case, lab analysis showed that there indeed was semen from the perpetrator at that spot. DNA testing not only cleared Taylor, but led to the identity of the real perpetrator, who was briefly a suspect at the time of Taylor’s arrest.
Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 06/20/08)
Watch Ronnie Taylor tell his story in his own words in an Innocence Project video on Texas exonerations.
Tags: Ronald Taylor
SC editorial: Grant prisoners access to DNA testing
Posted: June 25, 2008 4:02 pm
At a hearing today in South Carolina, lawmakers are considering making their state the 45th in the country to allow prisoners access to DNA testing that can prove innocence. An editorial in The State today says it is time for legislators to take action on this important bill.
When an innocent person goes to prison, a guilty person roams our streets, free to victimize again.
That is the practical reason we need to do all we reasonably can to make sure that the innocent aren’t convicted and that, if they are, those convictions are reversed and an investigation re-opened. The moral reason, of course, is that it’s wrong to imprison the innocent.
We will never get those initial convictions correct 100 percent of the time, but there is a way we can improve our chance of identifying and correcting the errors. Our Legislature will have the opportunity to put it into place today.
A bill awaiting final approval by the House and Senate would add our state to the 44 others that allow people convicted of murder, rape and a handful of other violent crimes to have DNA testing done if they can convince a judge it would likely prove them innocent. That’s something that, in most cases, cannot happen today.
Read the full editorial here. (The State, 06/25/08)
Tags: South Carolina, Access to DNA Testing
15 years of freedom for Kirk Bloodsworth
Posted: June 27, 2008 11:32 am
Tomorrow marks the fifteenth anniversary of Kirk Bloodsworth’s exoneration in Maryland. After serving nearly nine years in Maryland – much of it on death row – for a crime he did not commit, Bloodsworth became the first person exonerated by DNA testing in the U.S. who had spent time on death row.
Today, Bloodsworth works to ensure that others don’t suffer the same fate he did. In addition to being a public advocate, Bloodsworth is a Program Officer for The Justice Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to criminal justice reform. Through his work, Bloodsworth helped get the Innocence Protection Act – which includes the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Grant Program – passed in 2004.
Although the program was authorized to provide up to $25 million over five years to help the wrongfully convicted pay for post-conviction DNA testing, access to both the grant money and to DNA evidence has not yet reached those in need. As of January, when Bloodsworth wrote a blog for the Huffington Post, Congress had approved $14 million in funding for states to conduct post-conviction DNA testing under the Bloodsworth program. The Department of Justice, however, had never approved any state applications, and therefore had not sent a dollar of grant money in the over three-year life of the law.
But recent congressional attention to this program (from both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees) may pave the way for progress. The Innocence Project is working with all parties to help make sure these critical funds reach states that need and deserve them.
In addition, seven states – Alabama, Alaska, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota – have no state laws guaranteeing DNA access, and many other states have access laws with problematic stipulations. In Arkansas, a person cannot apply for DNA testing if a direct appeal is available. In Idaho, a person must apply for testing within one year of being convicted. If that had been the case in Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth would still be in prison.
Sign the Innocence Project’s petition for universal DNA access.
Read more about Kirk Bloodsworth’s case here.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Monday: David A. Gray, Illinois (Served 20 years, Exonerated 6/23/99)
Tuesday: Verneal Jimerson, Illinois (Served 10.5 Years, Exonerated 6/24/96)
Tags: Kirk Bloodsworth, David A. Gray, Verneal Jimerson
Friday news roundup
Posted: June 27, 2008 4:16 pm
Below are the stories on criminal justice reform, wrongful convictions and forensic science that we didn’t get to on the blog this week:
Crime lab reform, investigations and funding were in the news this week. The Houston Police Department Crime Lab resumed DNA testing after a six month suspension due to discovery of misconduct. A new Michigan State Police budget set aside $1 million for crime labs to ease backlogs across the state, outsourcing to private labs has helped Florida’s state lab cut its backlog in half since 2005, and a Wisconsin state lab has added two dozen analysts and tripled its space to decrease backlogs.
The U.S. Supreme Court had a busy week on criminal justice issues, issuing a decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana overturning state laws that allow the death penalty for child rape, and in Indiana V. Edwards, in which the justices decided 7-2 that mentally ill inmates can be denied the right to represent themselves at trial.
An Indiana judge denied DNA testing access to Roosevelt Glenn, who has been in prison for nearly two decades for a rape he says he didn’t commit. Glenn is represented by the attorneys at the Indiana University School of Law’s wrongful conviction clinic.
South Carolina legislators approved a bill to allow prisoners claiming innocence to seek DNA testing through the courts. The bill will now go to the governor – who could sign it into law or veto it. If the bill becomes a law, South Carolina will be the 44th state with a DNA access statute.
Tags: Crime Lab Backlogs
The weekly roundup
Posted: July 3, 2008 8:30 am
Here are some of the stories we were following this week, but just didn’t get around to blogging about.
The Innocence Project filed for DNA testing in the case of client Robert Conway, who has served nearly two decades in Pennsylvania prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit.
New evidence surfaced in Texas, suggesting that Lester Leroy Bower is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, but he hasn’t been able to get DNA testing approved in the case. He is scheduled to be executed this summer, and the blog Grits for Breakfast asked how prosecutors “could even consider opposing DNA testing of old evidence before they put a defendant to death this summer who's claiming actual innocence.”
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report calling the state’s administration of the death penalty "dysfunctional" and "close to collapse." Read media coverage here and download the full report here.
Funding was approved for a new state crime lab in Missouri, an upstate New York county planned a new $30 million crime lab, and Massachusetts children got a hands-on experience with forensics when a state lab investigator visited a local library.
Tags: Innocence Commissions, Death Penalty
Wisconsin case calls bite mark evidence into question again
Posted: July 10, 2008 2:20 pm
Faulty bite mark evidence has played a part in at least five wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Robert Stinson in Wisconsin could become the sixth. New DNA testing indicates that Stinson is in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and his case is again calling the field of forensic dentistry into question.
Dr. L Thomas Johnson, a Wisconsin bite mark analyst, testified at Stinson’s trial for a 1984 murder that bite marks on the victim’s body matched Stinson’s teeth. Now, DNA testing on saliva from the victim’s shirt have shown that another man left the bite marks. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, which represents Stinson, has filed for his release based on the new evidence.
While Johnson stands behind his work in the Stinson case, other forensic dentists have found not only that Johnson’s analysis was wrong, but also that he went too far in saying that there was “no doubt” the bite marks came from Stinson.
The case also was examined by forensic experts from Texas, California and Illinois. In their report, the experts said that while some modern methods were not available in 1984, "it should be emphasized that Drs. Johnson and Rawson should have excluded Robert Lee Stinson even based on methods and standards available at the time ... because there is little or no correlation of Robert Lee Stinson's dentition to the bite marks."Johnson is also leading a project to build a computer database of bite marks, attempting to bring scientific rigor to a discipline that has been criticized for lacking it. He says his research shows that bite marks have six distinct identifying points that distinguish them. But other forensic dentists are skeptical of his work.
The report also criticized Johnson's testimony that there was no doubt Stinson's teeth left the marks. "That statement has no evidence-based, scientific, or statistical basis and drastically overstates the level of certainty attainable using bite mark analysis," the report said.
"This is the epitome of junk science cloaked as academic research," said Dr. Michael Bowers, a California odontologist and a frequent critic of bite-mark comparisons. "I don't think his claims are supported. The study just doesn't pass muster."
Read the full story here. (Chicago Tribune, 07/10/08)
The Innocence Project has called for scientific oversight in all forensic fields, and has criticized bite mark analysis for years because there are no national standards or acceptable certification procedures. Earlier this year, two Innocence Project clients originally convicted based on bite mark comparison – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks – were exonerated when DNA testing led investigators to the real perpetrator of the murders for which the two men had been convicted.
Read more about wrongful convictions overturned by bite mark evidence here.
Tags: Wisconsin, Bitemark Evidence
Slate.com column: Ramsey case and new technology cast doubt on death penalty
Posted: July 11, 2008 4:16 pm
William Saletan writes on Slate.com today that although he “viscerally” supports the death penalty, DNA exonerations have begged the question: "How confident are (we) that none of the 1,100 people we've executed (since 1976) will end up being exonerated by a technology we didn't use or possess at the time?"
Touch DNA, the method of testing that led Colorado prosecutors to announce this week that JonBenet Ramsey’s parents had been cleared in her murder, was also instrumental in clearing Tim Masters in Colorado after he had served 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit. With new methods of forensic testing constantly evolving, there is no room for the finality of the death penalty, Saletan writes.
I was about to write that we haven't yet executed anyone exonerated by DNA. But that's the wrong way to write the sentence. Here's the right way: We haven't yet exonerated by DNA anyone we've executed. The discovery comes after the act. … There's always more to be learned from a technology you haven't yet tried. You still have to make the best judgment you can at the time. You can't expect that judgment never to be corrected. But you have to leave it open to correction.Read more about Touch DNA in the Denver Post, and watch a video on Touch DNA in the Jon Benet case on CBSNews.com.
Read the full column here. (Slate.com, 07/11/08)
Tags: Timothy Masters
'McJustice' - the crisis of indigent defense in America
Posted: July 15, 2008 4:10 pm
“The death sentence - not for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer” — Stephen Bright, President, Southern Center for Human Rights
It’s not shocking to learn that many of the 218 DNA exonerees were represented by public defenders at trial. They were all innocent, but they all lost. In some cases, overburdened, inexperienced and underfunded public defenders were simply not equipped to stand up against the state. And the system hasn’t improved much in the last three decades. It wasn’t always the lawyer’s fault, of course. In many cases a talented defense attorney did all he or she could to represent their innocent client, but lost to a broken system that convicts the innocent based on flawed evidence.
Indigent defense in the U.S. is a state-by-state system with no national standards. Criminal defendants are often forgotten when it comes time to trim a state budget, and indigent defense services feel the pinch. A recent report on Michigan’s indigent defense services found a system that is wholly incapable of upholding a defendant’s constitutional right to adequate defense counsel.
The report, prepared by National Legal Aid and Defender Association, found:The report found a culture that emphasized speed and revenue over justice to such an extent that employees of the system in Ottawa County referred to the days devoted to arraignments of low-income people as “McJustice Day.” Inadequate defense counsel provided by the Michigan system led to the wrongful convictions of innocent men like Eddie Joe Lloyd and Walter Swift, who were later exonerated with the Innocence Project’s help.
“. . . judges handpicking defense attorneys; lawyers appointed to cases for which they are unqualified; defenders meeting clients on the eve of trial and holding non-confidential discussions in public courtroom corridors; attorneys failing to identify obvious conflicts of interest; failure of defenders to properly prepare for trials or sentencings; attorneys violating their ethical canons to zealously advocate for clients; inadequate compensation for those appointed to defend the accused …”
Download the report and hear an NPR story on the findings here.
Unfortunately, the situation in Michigan is all too common. Across the country, people are regularly being denied their constitutional right to adequate representation, and this system of sub-par representation is causing wrongful convictions. Although many public defenders are dedicated and competent, publicly-appointed attorneys are overworked and under-funded in even the best jurisdictions. The worst jurisdictions are tolerating lawyers who are incompetent and poorly trained, apathetic and condescending to their clients, insufficiently independent from judges and prosecutors; or even occasionally bullies and drunks. Institutional deficiencies in how the public defense system is structured and funded perpetuate these problems.
It’s difficult to improve indigent defense across 50 diverse states and for the federal government when there’s no uniform set of standards. To fill this vacuum, NLADA and the American Bar Association published The Ten Commandments of Public Defense Delivery Systems, calling for speedy appointment, competent representation and adequate funding of public defense offices.
Funding for indigent defense also varies by state. Even though states are constitutionally obligated to provide defense counsel to those who can’t afford it, many states leave the funding to unreliable local sources, including court fees and traffic tickets. To find out how public defense is doled out in your state, visit the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ state-by-state listing of indigent defense delivery structure and funding.
Here are a few of the most pressing indigent defense crises around the country:
• In Minnesota, the state legislature has just cut indigent defense funding by $1.5 million which will lead public defender offices to cut staff, delaying criminal cases and causing some types of cases not to be represented at all.
• Last August, the director of the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office resigned, saying that the office could not adequately represent clients facing the death penalty with the budget provided by the state. Then, in June, budget cuts in that state forced the closing of an important public defender office that takes on defendants when there are conflicts of interest with other public defenders.
• A U.S. Department of Justice report on California’s system found that low-bid contractors are providing inadequate representation to low-income defendants. In one rural county in 1997, three attorneys – with no help from paralegals or investigators – took on 5,000 cases.
• In 18 states, including Michigan, indigent defense is paid for by individual counties who often get the funds through property taxes or court fees paid by defendants.
More on indigent defense:
Read about bad lawyering as a cause of wrongful convictions.
Seattle Times three-part series: An Unequal Defense: The failed promise of justice for the poor,
Hastings Law Journal: The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases, A National Crisis
The Fair Defense Report: Analysis Of Indigent Defense Practices In Texas
Gideon at 44: Fighting for the Right to Counsel
Tags: Bad Lawyering
U.S. Congresswoman to hold panel on wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations in Dallas tomorrow
Posted: July 18, 2008 1:00 pm
U.S. Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) will host panel discussions tomorrow in Dallas on wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations. The first panel will feature Texas exonerees James Woodard, Charles Chatman, and Billy Smith and the second will feature U.S. Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan), Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis (who also chairs the Innocence Project’s Board of Directors), Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and Jeff Blackburn of the Innocence Project of Texas.
Dallas County has had 19 wrongful convictions exonerated by DNA evidence, second in the nation only to Cook County, Illinois. The state of Texas as a whole leads the nation with 32 DNA exonerations.
Read the press release on the Innocence Project of Texas blog.
Tags: Texas, Charles Chatman, Billy James Smith, Innocence Commissions
Hearing tomorrow in NJ: Darrell Edwards should get a new trial
Posted: July 28, 2008 1:51 pm
After two mistrials and a third trial that ended with a hung jury, Darrell Edwards was convicted of a 1995 Newark murder in his fourth trial. The main evidence against him was eyewitness testimony. The prosecution argued that Edwards shot the victim in a sandwich shop and then fled down the street, tossing a hooded sweatshirt and gun.
New DNA testing has revealed a mixture of male profiles on the sweatshirt and gun, none of which match Edwards. And an eyewitness who testified at trial that she identified him from 271 feet away (at night) without wearing her glasses now says she was “just guessing.” There is significant evidence that the crime was actually part of a Newark-Atlanta drug-trafficking ring (completely unrelated to Edwards) but police ignored evidence that could have led to the real perpetrator years ago. Innocence Project attorneys will argue at a hearing tomorrow afternoon in Newark, New Jersey, that the new evidence is more than enough to overturn Edwards’ conviction and grant him a new trial.
"The person who committed this crime left their DNA on the sweatshirt and the DNA does not belong to Darrell Edwards," (Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa) Potkin said. "From our perspective, the new DNA test results are powerful evidence showing what Darrell Edwards has been saying for nearly 13 years, that he is not responsible for this crime."At tomorrow’s hearing, the Innocence Project will also present new scientific findings on the unreliability of eyewitness identifications from long distances, showing that a person can not identify anyone’s face from 271 feet – even if the witness has perfect eyesight and they are identifying an acquaintance.
Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 07/27/08)
A video on WABC News Friday explored the new discoveries on identification research, and features an interview with Edwards from New Jersey State Prison. “I believe that my day is coming,” Edwards says. Watch the full video here.
Get details on attending the hearing here.
A new day for Dallas justice
Posted: July 29, 2008 3:31 pm
The steady pace of DNA exonerations in Dallas recently has cast a dark shadow over the county’s justice system, and officials say they are digging out from the “win at all costs” mentality set during the 36-year tenure of former prosecutor Henry Wade. Now, seven years after Wade’s death, DNA is beginning to show that many of the defendants convicted by Wade were innocent. Nineteen people have been freed by DNA testing in Dallas since 2001, more than any other county – and all but three states, and 250 more cases are currently under review.
Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the first elected African-American chief county prosecutor in Texas history, said the atmosphere needed to change in Dallas to ensure fair justice.
"There was a cowboy kind of mentality and the reality is that kind of approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant," said Watkins, who is 40 and never worked for Wade or met him.
..."I think the number of examples of cases show it's troubling," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal group affiliated with the Texas effort. "Whether it's worse than other jurisdictions, it's hard to say. It would be a mistake to conclude the problems in these cases are limited to Dallas or are unique to Dallas.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 07/29/08)Watch video of a speech by Watkins about his “smart on crime” approach.
New developments in Alabama case; Governor should stay execution to conduct DNA testing
Posted: July 30, 2008 11:55 am
Tommy Arthur has been on Alabama’s death row for a quarter-century for a murder he says he didn’t commit. He is scheduled to be executed tomorrow night, and the Alabama Supreme Court rejected one of his final appeals yesterday by a 6-2 vote. But new evidence surfaced yesterday, and it makes an irrefutable case for conducting DNA testing in the case.
Another Alabama inmate has confessed to killing Troy Wicker in exchange for $2,000, according to court papers filed yesterday, and DNA testing could prove whether his claim is true. Bobby Ray Gilbert says he killed Wicker in exchange for $2,000 from Wicker’s wife, with whom he was having an affair at the time. He says he had sex with Wicker’s wife after the crime and that he also wore a wig that day. Police collected the wig, and a rape kit containing biological evidence was collected from Wicker’s wife at the hospital. Both items of evidence are still available for testing.
The State Attorney General discounted the new evidence and said the execution should go forward.
More than 3,000 people have sent emails to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urging him to stay Arthur’s execution in order to conduct DNA testing. It takes just one minute and your voice can make the difference – send your letter today.
More news coverage of developments in Arthur’s case:
Birmingham News editorial: Thomas Arthur is to be executed Thursday for a murder another prisoner now claims he committed. Clearly, these claims must be investigated before the execution occurs. (07/30/08)
Birmingham News: Convicted murderer serving life says he, not Thomas Arthur, killed Troy Wicker Jr. in 1982 (07/30/08)
Letters to Birmingham News
Associated Press: AG, victim’s wife dismiss claims in Wicker death
Tags: Alabama, Tommy Arthur
Alabama execution stayed
Posted: July 30, 2008 8:30 pm
The Alabama Supreme Court voted 5-4 today to stay the execution of Tommy Arthur, which had been set for 6 pm CST tomorrow.
Read today's breaking news here. (Gadsden Times, 07/30/08)
There is still no plan to test the DNA evidence that could prove Arthur's innocence. Send Gov. Bob Riley an email urging him to order the testing here.
Tags: Tommy Arthur
Steven Phillips expected to be cleared tomorrow in Dallas
Posted: August 4, 2008 2:50 pm
Twenty-five years after he was wrongfully convicted of a string of sexual assaults he didn’t commit, Innocence Project client Steven Phillips is finally set to be cleared. At a hearing tomorrow in Dallas, Innocence Project attorneys will show that DNA test results and other evidence prove that another man committed a string of sexual assaults for which Steven Phillips was convicted in the early 1980s.
DNA tests now prove that a man named Sidney Allen Goodyear committed a 1982 rape for which Phillips was sentenced to 30 years in prison. And other evidence shows that Goodyear committed a string of sexual assaults in 1982 to which Phillips pled guilty to avoid a possible life sentence. A Dallas judge is expected to recommend that the Court of Criminal Appeals fully exonerate Phillips in all of the cases.
“This is one of the worst cases of tunnel vision we’ve ever seen. Police seized on Steven Phillips as a suspect and refused to see mounting evidence that someone else actually committed these crimes,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “Sidney Goodyear was a one-man crime spree who could have been stopped much sooner if police had followed the evidence instead of locking onto an innocent man.” After the Dallas crimes for which Phillips was wrongfully convicted, Goodyear committed at least 16 other sexual assaults and related offenses in multiple states.News coverage of tomorrow’s hearing:
Read today’s Innocence Project press release here.
Dallas hearing set for man shown innocent by DNA (Associated Press, 07/31/08)
Tags: Texas, Steven Phillips
The surprising truth in Dallas
Posted: August 8, 2008 4:10 pm
In a column in today’s Dallas Morning News, Jacquielynn Floyd writes of the “visceral horror of undeserved punishment” suffered by Steven Phillips, who was cleared Wednesday 25 years after he was wrongfully convicted for a string of sex assaults he didn’t commit. With 19 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, Dallas is a hotbed of exoneration. But one of the reasons for this may surprise you…
There are a lot of questions still to be answered about how and why these errors occur. But it's sometimes dismaying to see Dallas so prominently cited for its wrongful-conviction rate, to hear cynical references to "Texas justice" in general and "Dallas justice" in particular as shorthand for unfair and abusive criminal-justice tactics.Listen to a radio interview with Phillips and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Jason Kreag. (KRLD, 08/07/08)
So there was a certain comfort this week in the words of Innocence Project attorney Barry Scheck, who is probably the most visible face of the nationwide movement to clear wrongfully convicted prisoners.
He said the high incidence of local exonerations is due, at least in part, to a local willingness to identify and recognize error.
"There would be far more exonerations in cities, in other places – I assure you in New York we'd probably have 200 to 300 exonerations – if just the evidence were preserved," Mr. Scheck said during a news conference after Mr. Phillips' hearing .Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 08/08/08)
Read more about Steven Phillips’ case here.
Tags: Steven Phillips
Four years of freedom for former death row inmate
Posted: August 8, 2008 5:10 pm
At age 19, Ryan Matthews was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Due mostly to faulty eyewitness identification, Matthews spent five years on death row before being exonerated on August 8, 2004—making him the 14th person proven innocent by DNA after serving time on death row. Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of his exoneration.
Matthews was convicted with his friend, Travis Hayes, who falsely confessed to the pair’s involvement in the crime after hours of interrogation. Hayes was finally exonerated in 2007.
Like Matthews and Hayes, many exonerees who missed out on young adulthood had to start their lives almost from scratch. Because one-third of exonerees in the United States were between the ages of 14 and 22 when they were arrested, many never got a college education or job experience. These exonerees served a combined 947 years in the prime of their lives for crimes they didn’t commit.
The Innocence Project is working with youth leaders and youth groups around the country to raise awareness about wrongful convictions and take action to prevent future injustice. Visit our “947 Years: In Their Prime. In Prison. Innocent,” campaign to get involved today.
Tags: Travis Hayes, Ryan Matthews
Posted: August 8, 2008 5:20 pm
It’s time for this week’s roundup of news on wrongful convictions and forensic science we missed this week. It was a busy week for the Innocence Project – with Steven Phillips cleared in Dallas, rogue medical examiner Steven Hayne fired in Mississippi and a joint filing for DNA testing in Austin on behalf of a man in prison and the family of a murder victim – so there’s a lot to cover:
Evidence preservation was in the public eye and on the radio this week:
Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown told Oregon Public Radio that states in the Northwest U.S. are lacking in guidelines for law enforcement evidence preservation, which can help exonerate the innocent and solve cold cases. Listen here.
USA Today ran a front page story on the state of evidence preservation around the country, and a Las Vegas Sun editorial today called on Nevada lawmakers to pass an evidence preservation law. View our map to see what your state does with crime scene evidence.
Our colleagues around the country are busy as well. This week, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, an Innocence Network member, announced that their client Aaron Michael Howard was released from prison after serving nearly 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit.
The group is also working with state officials to review thousands of cases in which DNA evidence could be tested on appeal. And a feature checked in with students at the University of British Columbia Law School Innocence Project.
The causes of wrongful conviction continue to be examined by experts, the press and the public. An In These Times article focused on the role of snitch testimony in wrongful death sentences and a new book asks if bad science is corrupting criminal justice.
Prosecutor says real perpetrator identified in 2003 exoneration case
Posted: August 20, 2008 5:15 pm
A Michigan prosecutor will hold a press conference tomorrow at 10 a.m. to announce that law enforcement officials believe they have identified the actual perpetrator of a rape for which Kenneth Wyniemko was wrongfully convicted in 1994. Wyniemko served nearly nine years for the crime until DNA testing exonerated him in 2003. My Fox News Detroit reported on the planned the press conference.
54-year-old Kenneth Wyniemko was wrongly convicted in 1994, before DNA tests exonerated him in the rape and robbery of a 28-year-old Clinton Township woman.Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith says the statute of limitations has expired for the 1994 rape case, but the man will be charged for other sex crimes.
He served 9 years of a 40-to-60-year sentence, but he was freed in 2003 after testing was done at the urging of the Innocence Project at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
The press conference will be held at the Clinton Township Police Department.
See My Fox News Detroit’s preview coverage
Tags: Michigan, Kenneth Wyniemko
Are you in the know?
Posted: August 26, 2008 2:49 pm
We’ll be sending our August e-mail newsletter tomorrow, recapping exonerations, policy reforms and all kinds of other developments for the month of August. Are you on the list? If not, sign up here and get your first newsletter tomorrow.
If you’re a die-hard Innocence Blog reader, we also invite you to subscribe to daily email updates of the blog, or add our RSS feed to your feed reader.
Thanks for helping us spread the word about wrongful convictions.
Innocence Project Co-Director testifies on death penalty
Posted: September 8, 2008 2:14 pm
On Friday, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified before the final hearing of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment about the pronounced risk of an innocent person being executed if states continue to sentence people to death.
(Former Prosecutor Matthew) Campbell relayed to the commission testimony of another prosecutor who said that, with today's forensic science, it is unlikely that an innocent man could be executed.And Kirk Bloodsworth, a commission member who was sentenced to death in Maryland for a crime he didn’t commit and served eight years before DNA testing proved his innocence, testified that he is “living proof that Maryland gets it wrong.”
"I couldn't disagree more," Scheck said. He warned that post-conviction DNA testing is "not a panacea" that can right all wrongful convictions.
Read the full story here. (Baltimore Sun, 09/06/08)
Scheck will also testify tomorrow before a committee in the Tennessee legislature examining the state's death penalty system.
Tags: Death Penalty
From gold standard to fool's gold?
Posted: September 9, 2008 1:55 pm
As DNA is used in more criminal cases and crime lab budgets are stretched thin, will DNA testing become a less-reliable form of evidence?
A defense attorney told the Washington Post this week that he’s worried false matches and plea bargains will increase in the next era of DNA testing, raising the possibility of wrongful conviction.
Laura Chase, a deputy state's attorney (in Maryland), said defense lawyers have feared challenging DNA evidence before a jury. As DNA evidence moves to less-violent crimes, she said, "I think it will encourage pleas. It always has encouraged pleas, and that will make the system more efficient."Defense lawyers, the article says, fear that innocent defendants will be persuaded to plead guilty when confronted with DNA evidence – even if that evidence doesn’t necessarily connect the defendant to the crime scene. And as law enforcement agencies call for DNA testing in more minor cases – like burglaries and robberies – crime lab budgets could be stretched too far, increasing the possibility of mistakes.
"It runs the risk of turning the gold standard of evidence into fool's gold," said Stephen Mercer, a Montgomery lawyer.The Innocence Project supports the establishment of state forensic oversight commissions and advisory boards to ensure that crime labs are properly managed and funded. When analysts are overburdened, underpaid or poorly trained, the risk of forensic error – and wrongful conviction – are increased.
Read the full article here. (Washington Post, 09/08/08)
Read more about forensic oversight here.
Gov. Schwarzenegger can’t wait another year
Posted: September 11, 2008 4:00 pm
Cross-posted from The California Progress Report
By Herman Atkins
Over 20 years ago, a woman was brutally raped and robbed in a shoe store in Riverside. To this day, no one knows who committed the crime. But because of other people’s mistakes, I spent almost 12 years in prison for his crime—until the Innocence Project used DNA to prove I was innocent. Even though I lost 12 years of my life and suffered the indignities and horrors of more than a decade in California’s prisons, I am one of the lucky ones. For most people, there is no DNA to prove their innocence and no free lawyers to help them.
Four bills that would help reduce wrongful convictions in California were introduced in the legislature this year, and two have finally made it to the Governor’s desk. The state’s budget crisis killed the other two bills even though they had very moderate price tags. Nonetheless, the two bills on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s desk are important first steps and he must sign them now.
Failing to enact these reforms puts public safety at risk. As in my case, when an innocent person is convicted, the investigation stops and the real perpetrator is often never found. We cannot wait one more year to take action to reduce wrongful convictions.
The first bill, SB 1589, would require corroboration for jailhouse informant testimony. Informants have good reasons to lie: they are getting something in exchange for what they say. Yet, they are persuasive. In fact, informants are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases. We already require corroboration for co-defendant informants; SB 1589 simply extends that same precaution to jailhouse informants.
The second bill, AB 2937, would provide more services to wrongfully convicted people and remove some of the hurdles to compensation for the innocent. Currently, wrongfully convicted people receive even less assistance than parolees who actually committed the crime. Indeed, my wife and I have established a foundation to provide assistance to wrongfully convicted people because the state does nothing. As the chair of the Council for the Wrongfully Convicted, I had the opportunity to testify before the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice about the difficulties we face after exoneration. My testimony led the Commission to recommend the reforms in this bill.
Also known as the Arthur Carmona Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted Act, AB 2937 is named after a brave young man who was wrongfully convicted at just 16 years old, and whom I had the opportunity to work with before he was tragically killed earlier this year. Arthur and I shared a couple of things in common: we were both wrongfully convicted based on mistaken eyewitness identification and police misconduct, and we also both had loving and dedicated families who fought for and supported us. Even with our strong support systems, we both struggled to cope with life outside of prison with virtually no help from the state that took our best years from us.
The Arthur Carmona Act would change that by ensuring that wrongfully convicted people have the same access to resources that ex-offenders receive when released from prison. It would also require that criminal records relating to a wrongful conviction are sealed, and would remove procedural hurdles to compensation for the factually innocent.
All of these reforms are based on recommendations by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, which spent the last three years studying our justice system and developing recommendations to make it better and more accurate. The Commission was created by the Senate in 2004, and the legislature has even passed similar bills based on the Commission’s recommendations in the last two sessions. But Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed these bills in the past, causing even a commentator on Foxnews.com to lead with the headline: “Schwarzenegger Vetoes Justice.” Now the Governor can redeem himself, at least partially.
The bills that did not make it to the Governor this year, SB 1591 and SB 1590, would have addressed two other common causes of wrongful convictions – eyewitness misidentification and false confessions. Mine was a case of eyewitness misidentification, so I understand the need for reform, and am disappointed that our budget crisis has once again gotten in the way of justice.
Every year that goes by without these reforms, we risk sentencing more innocent people to prison or even the death penalty, we let guilty people go free, and we continue the cycle of injustice by failing to help the wrongfully convicted who are released. Justice cannot wait one more year; Gov. Schwarzenegger must sign the bills in front of him today.
Please contact Gov. Schwarzenegger and urge him to sign SB 1589 and AB 2937.
Herman Atkins lives with his family in Fresno California. He is the founder of the LIFE Foundation, which provides immediate support to wrongfully convicted people on release from prison. He is also the chair of the Council for the Wrongfully Convicted, a coalition of innocent men and women who were wrongfully imprisoned. His story is one of eight featured in the acclaimed documentary, Life After Exoneration. He is a frequent lecturer and public speaker on wrongful convictions and the struggles of the wrongfully convicted on release.Read Herman's last post on the Innocence Blog.
Tags: California, Exoneree Compensation, Informants/Snitches
New film on wrongful convictions premieres in Toronto
Posted: September 11, 2008 3:55 pm
“Witch Hunt,” a new film about wrongful sexual assault convictions in California, premiered this week at the Tornoto Film Festival, with its final screening set for tomorrow. The film, narrated by Sean Penn, features the cases of several people freed from prison after serving years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The filmmakers were joined at the premiere by lawyers from the Northern California Innocence Project and nine parents and (now grown) children featured in the film.
Watch a trailer on YouTube
Read a Q & A from Toronto with filmmakers Dana Nachman and Don Hardy.
Visit the film’s website
Friday links: the week behind and the weekend ahead
Posted: September 12, 2008 10:45 am
Crime labs and forensic science continued to make news this week.
The Baltimore Sun ran a comprehensive story on the reliability of forensic science and the process of accreditation and oversight across the country.
The Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project are reviewing hundreds of cases for potential forensic fraud and wrongful conviction, and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger profiled two death row cases in Forrest County involving testimony by discredited medical examiner Steven Hayne and forensic dentist Michael West.
CBS News’ “60 Minutes” Sunday night will provide an update on an investigation it aired in late 2007 about nearly four decades of faulty ballistic testimony by FBI analysts. Watch the full “60 Minutes” segment here.
A letter to the editor from a candidate for Attorney General of Vermont responded to an editorial in the paper that criticized a bill in the state that would impose mandatory minimums on convicted sex offenders without improving crime lab funding and standards.
And Chicago officials are seeking to begin collecting DNA profiles from police officers to eliminate them when testing samples they may have touched, but the police union is opposing the measure.
Innocence Network urges U.S. Supreme Court to maintain safeguards against prosecutorial misconduct
Posted: September 16, 2008 3:18 pm
In a new Supreme Court brief, the Innocence Network is arguing that top-level prosecutors must be held accountable when they set policies that ignore or violate people’s rights and lead to wrongful convictions. False testimony from a jailhouse informant was central in the 1980 murder conviction of Thomas Goldstein, who is suing the former Los Angeles County District Attorney because the office had no safeguards in place at the time of Goldstein’s conviction to prevent snitches from testifying falsely.
Read today’s Innocence Project press release on the Innocence Network’s friend-of-the-court brief in the Goldstein case and download the full brief.
Also today, the Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast focuses today on the difficulty to prove innocence in non-DNA cases, especially those involving snitches and informants.
A situation involving a mendacious jailhouse snitch out of Orange, Texas shows how such cases play out when DNA evidence doesn't exist to prove innocence to a certainty. KPRC-Channel 2 in Houston recently told the story of Daniel Meehan (Sept. 4) whose 1998 conviction and 99-year sentence was based in part on testimony by an informant who now says he lied to get his own cases dismissed and that prosecutors told him what to say.A bill passed this year by the California legislature and currently awaiting Gov. Schwarzenegger’s signature would require corroboration of jailhouse snitch testimony. Send Schwarzenegger an email today urging him to sign the bill and prevent wrongful convictions in his state.
Read the full Grits post here. (9/16/08)
“The Snitch System” – a report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago.
Learn more about the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.
Tags: California, Informants/Snitches, Government Misconduct
Troy Davis set to be executed Tuesday despite evidence of innocence
Posted: September 22, 2008 3:32 pm
Nearly two decades ago, a Savannah, Georgia, police officer was killed in a fast food parking lot. Troy Davis was arrested for the crime, and nine non-police eyewitnesses testified that they saw him shoot the victim. Based almost exclusively on eyewitness testimony, Davis was convicted of the murder and sentenced to death.
His execution is set for 7 p.m. tomorrow, and despite mounting evidence of Davis’ innocence, and pleas from around the world supporting a new trial to determine the real facts in his case, the execution is still set to go forward.
Here’s what you can do to support a new trial for Davis:
Visit Amnesty International’s website to send a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardon and Parole.
Call the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole.
Read news and commentary on the case from Davis’ sister, the Huffington Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, National Public Radio, and hundreds of other news outlets.
Tags: Arizona, Eyewitness Misidentification, Death Penalty
Dispatch from Austin: The Criminal Justice Integrity Unit meets
Posted: September 29, 2008 5:40 pm
The Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit held meetings in Austin on Thursday and heard from witnesses on a variety of topics, including snitch testimony and evidence collection and preservation. The Integrity Unit was created earlier this year by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals to review criminal justice practices in the state and its members include a cross-section of the criminal justice community.
Scott Henson, who writes the blog Grits for Breakfast and works as a consultant with the Innocence Project of Texas, attended the meeting and wrote about his reactions on Grits. Here’s what he found:
Pat Johnson, who's the field supervisor for DPS' state-run crime labs and a member of the Integrity Unit panel, performed an informal survey of non-DPS crime labs in Texas operated by local jurisdictions. Respondents said that less than 10% of evidence collected at crime scenes was gathered by lab personnel, with most of it being collected by cops. Austin PD is the main exception, he said, with an entirely civilian Crime Scene Investigation unit.
A majority of labs, when asked how good a job they were doing, replied that some improvements were needed.
One lab said they did not believe they were receiving all available evidence that should be examined, while a majority said "we don't know."
John Vasquez from the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians (TAPEIT) gave an interesting presentation about evidence preservation failures and the need for greater professionalism and implementation of best practices by police department property rooms. TAPEIT has about 600 active members who work in law enforcement agencies around the state, he said. (See their rather active message boards.)
One of the CCA "Integrity Unit" members, Texas House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, posed a question to Justice Project President John Terzano regarding snitches during his presentation yesterday that inspired me to (perhaps rudely?) interject from the audience a response to his concerns. (I was attending as part of my consulting gig with the Innocence Project of Texas.)
Terzano was arguing that informants whose testimony will be compensated by money, reduced charges or more lenient sentences for other crimes they've committed should be subjected to a pre-trial reliability hearing in which a judge, outside the purview of the jury, makes an independent determination whether the informant is a reliable source.
Read the three posts on the meeting. (Grits for Breakfast, 09/26/08)
Tags: Texas, Innocence Commissions, Evidence Preservation, Informants/Snitches
The week in review
Posted: October 3, 2008 5:50 pm
A roundup of stories we didn’t get to on the Innocence Blog this week.
Charges were dropped this week against Arthur Johnson, a Mississippi man who spent 16 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Johnson was represented by attorneys at the Innocence Project New Orleans. More on his case next week.
Claude McCollum was released in 2007 after serving more than a year in Michigan prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was released when evidence of his innocence began to surface, but it wasn’t until this week that he heard an apology from prosecutors. "I truly am deeply sorry," County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said Sunday to McCollum during a talk at a local church attended by McCollum and about 30 others.
And New York exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic protested outside the taping of a new reality show featuring Jeanine Pirro, the district attorney who refused to grant DNA testing in Deskovic’s case while he was in prison. He was exonerated in 2006 when DNA proved his innocence of the 1989 murder for which he had been wrongfully convicted.
In addition to exonerating Arthur Johnson, Innocence Project New Orleans issued a report detailing cases in which New Orleans prosecutors failed to disclose critical evidence to defense attorneys, and calling on candidates for the office to improve evidence sharing practices in the future.
And an editorial in the Tuscaloosa News praised the Alabama Supreme Court for denying the state Attorney General’s request to set a new execution date for Tommy Arthur.
Tags: Jeff Deskovic
DNA tests point to Ohio man’s innocence
Posted: October 6, 2008 4:19 pm
Robert Caulley has been in prison since 1997 for the murder of his parents – a crime he says he didn’t commit. He was the first to report the crime, calling police to tell them he found his parents bludgeoned to death in their Grove City, Ohio, home. But three years after the crime, police focused on Caulley as a suspect. Although he repeatedly asked for an attorney, he was interrogated for 12 hours, and allegedly made a statement admitting guilt. He says that statement was coerced and he is innocent.
Now new DNA test results in the case could prove that he’s right. DNA from an unknown person has been found on a gun found in the house, which also had blood from Caulley’s father on it. Caulley’s attorneys are seeking to run the new unknown profile in a federal database and also test it against two possible alternate suspects.
Caulley said watching another Columbus man freed in August (Robert McClendon) after DNA proved him innocent put his own "uphill battle" in perspective.
"It does give me hope, because you see things do change and get corrected," Caulley, 43, said in an interview yesterday at the North Central Correctional Institution.Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 10/04/08)
Also in Ohio, authorities are planning to run in the database a DNA profile from a 1990 rape case in which Brian Piszczek was wrongfully convicted. Piszczek spent three years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence, but it wasn’t until recently that a Columbus Dispatch investigation again sparked interest in checking the database for the real perpetrator in the case. In nearly 40 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA, the evidence also leads to the identity of the real perpetrator.
Today marks the 14th anniversary of Piszczek's exoneration. Read more about his case here. (Columbus Dispatch, 10/05/08)
Read about dozens of other possible wrongful convictions in the Dispatch’s five-part series “Test of Convictions”.
Tags: Ohio, Brian Piszczek
New York man marks second exoneration anniversary
Posted: October 10, 2008 3:40 pm
After spending two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Scott Fappiano was exonerated on October 6, 2006. Tuesday marked his two-year anniversary.
Fappiano was convicted of a Brooklyn, New York, rape in 1983 and sentenced to 20-50 years in prison. The victim of the crime was the wife of a New York City police officer, and the officer witnessed the attack. While the victim identified Fappiano in a photo lineup and a subsequent lineup, the officer identified one of the lineup “fillers” as the perpetrator. (Fillers are the lineup participants who are not suspects.)
Fappiano was granted access to DNA testing in 1989, four years after he was convicted, but tests at the time were inconclusive. The Innocence Project accepted his case in 2003, and secured more advanced testing. The tests, conducted in 2005, proved that Fappiano could not have been the perpetrator. Greeting his family after his conviction was vacated in October of 2006, he said, "I missed having a family. I feel like I never left. Maybe I'm in shock. I feel like I could go on like tomorrow is just another day."
If the Innocence Project had been unable to locate evidence from the crime scene in 1983, Fappiano may never have been cleared. New York City has had a history of problems with evidence preservation; when Fappiano was exonerated, the Innocence Project had six open cases and 17 closed cases where evidence could not be found.
Find out if your state requires the preservation of evidence.
Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week
Brian Piszczeck, Ohio (Served 3 years, Exonerated 1994)
Douglas Echols, Georgia (Served 5 years, Exonerated 2002)
Samuel Scott, Georgia (Served 15 years, Exonerated 2002)
Kevin Byrd, Texas (Served 12 years, Exonerated 1997)
William Harris, West Virginia (Served 7 years, Exonerated 1995)
Calvin Washington, Texas (Served 13 years, Exonerated 2001)
Tags: Kevin Byrd, Scott Fappiano
Seven years of freedom for Ohio man
Posted: October 17, 2008 4:40 pm
Tomorrow, Anthony Michael Green will mark the seventh anniversary of his exoneration in Ohio. Although he was freed in 2001, he and the Innocence Project had been working since 1997 to clear his name. In all, he spent 13 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence.In 1988, a Caucasian woman in a health clinic was raped at knifepoint. The attacker cleaned himself with a washcloth before fleeing the room, and threw it on the floor. The victim immediately rinsed herself off and called security. The police collected the washcloth and brought the victim to a medical center, where a rape kit was prepared. Green, who had previously worked for the clinic, became a suspect because a security officer said the victim's physical description of the attacker reminded him of Green.
The prosecutor's main evidence at trial relied on the victim's misidentification of Green and on misleading blood type testing from a state expert. The expert testified that Green could have contributed the semen found on the washcloth – along with only 16 percent of the male population. But the percentage of the population that could have contributed the sample was actually much higher. Based in part on this faulty testimony, Green was convicted and sentenced to 20-50 years in prison.
Green’s stepfather, Robert Mandell, investigated his case relentlessly in an attempt to overturn the wrongful conviction. It was not until Mandell located the washcloth in a courthouse storage room in 2001 that DNA testing could be conducted, proving Green’s innocence. After proving his innocence, Green said, "You can't get the lost years back. You just have to pick up the pieces and go on with your life."
The DNA testing in Green’s case didn’t only exonerate him, but also led to the identity of the real perpetrator. A man named Rodney Rhines confessed to the rape after reading an Ohio newspaper article that documented Green's ordeal. Also, the city of Cleveland agreed to compensate him and created the "Anthony Michael Green Forensic Laboratory Audit." The audit addresses the causes of faulty and falsified forensics, a factor that played a significant role in many wrongful convictions. Read more about unreliable and limited forensic science here.
Other Exoneree Anniversary This Week:
Thursday: Troy Webb, Virginia (Served 7.5 Years , Exonerated 10/16/1996 )
Tags: Anthony Michael Green, Troy Webb
Posted: October 17, 2008 5:18 pm
News from the innocence movement this week:
Patrick Waller officially became the 223rd person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States when Texas’ highest criminal court granted his writ of habeas corpus. He served 15 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release in July.
Several cases pointed this week to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which is often the only evidence used to convict a defendant – especially in those cases without biological evidence:
A Kentucky man was convicted in 2007 of a robbery he says he didn’t commit, and he is appealing based on evidence that the “show-up” procedure used to identify him was flawed.
Charges were dropped in a Hartford, Connecticut robbery case when police learned the defendant had been arrested based on a nickname mix-up and then misidentified by two eyewitnesses.
A Pennsylvania judge denied the Innocence Project’s request for additional DNA testing in the case of Kevin Siehl, who has been in prison since 1992 for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Testing in ongoing on several items, but the judge denied further tests.
A Kentucky judge denied further DNA testing in the case of Brian Keith Moore, who is on death row for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
And a new execution date is set for October 27 for Troy Davis, who is on Georgia’s death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Davis was convicted based on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses. Seven of them have recanted in recent years, saying they were coerced by police. Read more about Davis’ case here.
But in a week with so much case-related news, there was plenty of reform momentum to as well.
Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis said he wants lawmakers to improve the way identification procedures are handled in the state, calling for a statewide ban on “show-up” identifications.
Baltimore courts are demanding that police and prosecutors conduct a complete search for biological evidence from a 1975 rape case.
Outgoing Chicago prosecutor Dick Durbin told the Chicago Bar Association that police and prosecutors must work hard to corroborate confessions and admissions to ensure that they aren’t false.
An editorial in Tennessee called for immediate reforms before executions could continue.
And a newly exonerated Mississippian registered to vote for the first time in two decades.
Report reveals forensic flaws in LA labs
Posted: October 22, 2008 4:10 pm
Reports over the last week have revealed problems with DNA testing and fingerprinting in the Los Angeles Police Department crime lab. An investigation into the department’s fingerprint unit has revealed that faulty analysis led to the arrests of at least two innocent people, and the extent of the problems is still unclear. Another audit found a backlog of 7,000 untested rape kits in the lab. LA Times columnist Tim Rutten wrote that the city has compromised its justice system by failing to fund badly needed forensic improvements:
Public safety begins with justice, and the LAPD's continuing inability to guarantee the integrity of its scientific evidence fundamentally undermines the criminal justice system. That's clear, but the problem won't be resolved until the department makes correcting this failure a high priority and the council realizes that, in the 21st century, it's just as important to put white coats in the crime labs as it is to put blue shirts on the street.And read Rutten’s column today about the rape kit backlog here. (10/22/08)
Read the full column here. (LA Times, 10/18/08)
Tags: California, Crime Lab Backlogs
A pattern of prosecutorial misconduct
Posted: October 22, 2008 4:35 pm
A column in the New York Times explores a pattern of misconduct from a New York City prosecutor’s office, and the pattern doesn’t end with conviction. Prosecutors in the borough of Queens, Jim Dwyer writes, are reluctant to admit their misconduct and they rarely punish their own. In 80 Queens cases overturned by appeals courts between 1989 and 2003 for prosecutorial misconduct, senior officials took no disciplinary action.
Last week New York City settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit filed by a defendant, Shih-Wei Su, for $3.5 million – one of the biggest payments the state has ever made to a wrongfully convicted person. Su served nearly 13 years in prison for an attempted murder he has always said he didn’t commit. He was freed after his lawyers proved that prosecutors lied about a deal they made with a witness who testified against him.A prosecutor admitted in an investigation that she had been “naïve, inexperienced and, possibly, stupid” in allowing a witness to lie on the stand. She received a written admonition.
Mr. Su was outraged. “Is 13 years worth of my life worth only an admonition?” he wrote to the committee. “Even jaywalking can get prison time. So can stealing a loaf of bread.
“With all due respect, the message that this committee is sending out is loud and clear: Don’t worry about using false evidence; you will only get an admonition if you are stupid enough to admit it.”
Read the full column here. (New York Times, 10/21/08)
Tags: New York
Dispatch from Dallas: Looking Inside the Lab
Posted: October 23, 2008 2:50 pm
By Huy Dao and Maggie Taylor
We’re in Dallas, Texas, this week for a tour of the Orchid Cellmark DNA lab and meetings with our colleagues at the Innocence Project of Texas. Yesterday, we had a chance to see what goes on inside a working forensic laboratory.
In our day-to-day work at the Innocence Project, we evaluate cases submitted to the Innocence Project for potential legal representation. As we review and investigate these cases, we are often called on to determine whether DNA testing would be possible on a specific piece of evidence from a specific crime scene. While we have been to DNA labs before, and we’re always exploring literature on new forensic technologies, it was invigorating to tour the laboratory where many of our actual tests are done. Orchid Cellmark conducts DNA testing for some Innocence Project cases (and some of these tests are done pro bono by the lab).
We were hosted by Cassie Johnson, a forensic analyst and the leader of one of three testing teams at Cellmark. Yesterday, she showed us around the facilities, from the evidence room, through to the staging areas where evidence is analyzed, extracted, and prepared for testing, and ending up gazing at the imposing "3100" machine that runs the actual samples. Along the way, we were introduced to many of the staff, including familiar names from many Innocence Project laboratory reports. Having sated our curiosity regarding what the laboratory actually looks like and what really happens to evidence once it is boxed and shipped, Cassie spent hours with us discussing new technologies that will open up even more options for post-conviction testing and giving us a refresher on the more recent technologies that have been incorporated into Cellmark's impressive array of DNA testing options, including Y-STR and mini-STR testing.
Most importantly, we were able to discuss the potential applications of these testing methods to our evaluation of cases, especially complicated cases where we may have to use different types of testing on varied sources of evidence. Of course, we also learned about some of the especially unusual evidence they've processed. We’re appreciative of Cassie and the staff at Orchid Cellmark for opening their doors to us and for a wealth of knowledge imparted.
Today, we’re meeting with Jason Partney, the case director at the Innocence Project of Texas, to discuss how both organizations work and how they might work better together. We’ll post more about that tomorrow morning.
Huy Dao is the Innocence Project’s Case Director and Maggie Taylor is the senior Case Coordinator.
A Needed Reform: Compensation in Wisconsin
Posted: October 24, 2008 5:25 pm
The Wisconsin Law Journal this week highlighted the work of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and several reforms being considered in the state.
The article featured Mike Piaskowski, who served nearly six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was cleared on appeal (by non-DNA evidence), but has yet to be compensated.
Seven years after his exoneration, Piaskowski recalls how his elation quickly evolved into frustration because of insufficient support from the state after his release.The current Wisconsin compensation law grants only $25,000 in total compensation to those who qualify as wrongfully convicted. It ranks last among the 25 states that offer compensation. In addition, Wisconsin provides no educational, professional or emotional assistance to exonerees.
“I lost everything I worked 46 years of my blue-collar life to achieve,” said Piaskowski, now 59. “And I have received nothing from the state. Zero.”
State Sen. Lena C. Taylor, who chairs the Wisconsin Senate Judiciary and Corrections Committee, said the time has come for lawmakers to improve exoneree compensation.
“A review of the compensation levels for persons wrongfully incarcerated is certainly past due. The Judiciary Committees in both houses will need to commit themselves to a serious review of those statutes, and be prepared to have a constructive dialog on the subject, including its implications for the state’s budget.”
Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Law Journal, 10/20/08)The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network.
Tags: Wisconsin, Fredric Saecker
California DA Wins Partial Control of Crime Lab
Posted: October 29, 2008 11:04 am
The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 yesterday to award oversight of the country’s forensic labs to a three-member panel comprised of the District Attorney, County Sheriff and County CEO. The Innocence Project has argued that if prosecutors oversee forensic testing, politics could take precedence over science. And a report in the OC Weekly made it clear that the prosecutor’s office inappropriately pressed an analyst to alter the forensic report – despite DNA testing that clearly exonerated Ochoa.
Veteran forensic specialist Danielle G. Wieland made the charge last month during a civil deposition related to the December 2005 wrongful conviction and imprisonment of James Ochoa, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.Before its vote yesterday, the board received a letter from Ochoa, who served nearly two years in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit. He wrote:
In a civil deposition taken last month for Ochoa’s wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Ochoa attorney Patricio A. Marquez of Morrison & Foerster asked Wieland, “Did anyone ever exert pressure on you to change your [DNA] conclusions?”
“Yes,” Wieland replied. “Camille Hill from the DA’s office … She called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated from [DNA found on] the left cuff of the shirt.”
The fact that the prosecution proceeded with my case in order to protect their image when they knew they had insufficient evidence demonstrated to me that the District Attorney’s office is willing to go too far. After what happened to me, it is pretty clear that the District Attorney doesn’t care about guilt or innocence; he cares about his career.Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas disputed the allegation of impropriety at Tuesday’s hearing:
Read Ochoa’s full letter here.
Rackauckas explained to the board that his prosecutor merely questioned the analyst about her conclusion and did not try to influence her.And an editorial in the OC Register before the board meeting said “Orange County's efforts to safeguard the public and protect the innocent have been caught up in an ugly turf war between the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department”
"(But) once an allegation is made, it can be pretty hard for the other party to disprove it," Rackauckas said.
Read the full article here. (OC Register, 10/28/08)
Officials at the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to free the wrongly convicted, rightly told the newspaper that it's a conflict of interest for district attorneys to control DNA and other forms of evidence. "Just like we wouldn't want a defense attorney to call the shots in a lab, we wouldn't want a prosecutor," said one Innocence Project spokesman.
That's exactly right. Prosecutors are interested parties in legal proceedings. They are seeking convictions, so it would be unwise to let any D.A. control such important evidence. In fact, as the Register also reported, "A senior [Orange County]prosecutor is alleged to have pressured a sheriff's analyst to change her conclusion in a carjacking case that kept an innocent man imprisoned for 16 months." That's chilling.Read the full editorial here. (OC Register, 10/23/08)
Tags: California, James Ochoa
Exonerees to Call for Moratorium on Texas Executions
Posted: October 31, 2008 1:30 pm
A group of exonerees will come together in the Texas State Capitol building this afternoon to call for a statewide moratorium on executions. More than 20 people – who served time on death row before evidence of their innocence led to their release – are expected to attend the event, which is being organized by Witness to Innocence, an advocacy organization spearheaded by exonerees. The group argues that exonerations should be halted so state officials can study the “broken death penalty system, which has exonerated nine people from death row since 1987, third only to Florida and Illinois in death-row exonerations.." (Witness to Innocence includes people who were exonerated through DNA testing, as well as many others whose convictions were overturned based on other evidence.)
A column by Bob Ray Sanders in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram considers the prospect of innocent people on death row, and agrees with Witness to Innocence.
More and more leaders are recognizing that we do have a broken system in the Lone Star State.Watch the press conference live here (on LiveStream 8) at 2 p.m. Central Time.
Last summer the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals announced the creation of a Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to examine weaknesses in the criminal justice system. And, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court is among those calling for a statewide innocence commission.
It makes sense that while we recognize an imperfect system with weaknesses that must be examined and corrected, there ought not to be any more executions in Texas until those issues have been fully addressed.
The Star-Telegram is on record supporting a moratorium on executions.
Read Sanders’ column here. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 10/29/08)
And visit the Witness to Innocence website here.
Meanwhile, the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit held hearings yesterday on problems with eyewitness identification procedures in the state. Richardson Police Chief Larry Zacharias and Iowa State Psychology Professor Gary Wells were among the speakers.
Innocence Events Around the Country
Posted: November 6, 2008 3:10 pm
Tonight at Baruch College in New York City, Scott Fappiano will tell students and members of the public about the 21 years he spent in New York prison before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence. He will be joined by Barry Gibbs, another Innocence Project client freed after evidence of his innocence was uncovered. The event is in Manhattan at 6:30 p.m. RSVP here to attend.
Last night, students at the University of Texas at Dallas heard from North Carolina exoneree Darryl Hunt about his two decades in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The documentary film about his ordeal, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” was also screened at the event. Read more about Hunt’s case here.
And this weekend in upstate New York, exonerees Roy Brown, Alan Newton and Dennis Maher will speak at the “Art of Innocence” speaker series about their cases, along with attorneys and other leaders in the field. Learn more about attending “The Art of Innocence” here.
Organizer Lawrence Golden wrote a column yesterday about the event in the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
Imagine the horror of being wrongly accused of rape or murder, being arrested and tried and found guilty. Imagine the devastation of being sentenced to life in prison or death by lethal injection when you had absolutely nothing to do with the crime involved. Literally hundreds — perhaps thousands — of individuals are experiencing just that in this country today.Want to host an event in your community? Get started here.
Read his full column. (Utica Post-Dispatch, 11/05/08)
Twenty Years Later, Man Faces Charges in Rape Case
Posted: November 13, 2008 4:42 pm
Duane Foster is expected to be arrainged tomorrow in Connecticut for a kidnapping and rape he allegedly committed in 1988. It took 20 years for him to face these charges because another man – James Calvin Tillman – was in prison for the crime.
Tillman served over 16 years for the crime before DNA testing finally proved his innocence and led to his exoneration in 2006. Prosecutors say the same DNA profile that proved Tillman’s innocence points to Foster as the perpetrator.
Read the full story here. (Newsday, 11/13/08)
Read more about James Tillman’s wrongful conviction.
In 88 of the DNA exoneration cases, DNA tests have led to the identity of the real perpetrator. These perpetrators committed at least 74 additional violent crimes after an innocent person was convicted of their earlier crime.
Tags: James Tillman
Posted: November 17, 2008 1:45 pm
A profile of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins in the Wall Street Journal this weekend examined his role in exonerating innocent prisoners from Dallas County. More wrongful convictions have been overturned since 2001 in Dallas County than anywhere else in the U.S. during that time, and Watkins has taken an active role in reviewing questionable convictions through his new Conviction Integrity Unit.
Of course, Watkins’ approach has its critics as well, who call him "a criminal-loving DA, a hug-a-thug DA." But Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told the Journal that Watkins’ openness to pursue claims of innocence often helps find the real perpetrator in these cases and create leads in other cold cases.
"Many times, you bring these cases to district attorneys and they say, 'You can't go see my file. I won't do anything.' There's a knee-jerk reluctance to revisit anything," says Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project. He thinks this will eventually change, and that Dallas County's aggressive approach will serve as a model for others. "Watkins takes the view that if he can correct a wrongful conviction, that's a good thing."
Read the full story here. (Watt Street Journal, 11/15/08)
New York Man Could Be Freed Tomorrow
Posted: November 24, 2008 1:44 pm
Innocence Project client Steven Barnes is expected to be released from prison tomorrow after serving nearly two decades for a rape and murder that he has always maintained he didn’t commit. A hearing is expected to be held in Oneida County Court, and the Innocence Project released a joint statement with county prosecutors today.
Read the full statement and media coverage of the case here.
We’ll post more on the blog as the case develops today and tomorrow.
Tags: Steven Barnes
DNA Tests Could Clear Ohio Man
Posted: November 24, 2008 5:20 pm
New DNA test results could clear Ohio inmate Raymond Towler, who has served 27 years in prison for a sexual assault he has always said he didn’t commit.
Towler’s lawyers at the Ohio Innocence Project say that DNA testing on semen from the underwear of the child victim in the case proves Towler’s innocence. But questions about the test results and evidence handling in the case remain to be resolved, and Towler remains in prison.
"They've always said, 'Do you have more evidence?' " Towler said in an interview at the Grafton Correctional Institution. "Now, I have it."DNA testing in Towler’s case was conducted as part of a joint project between the Dispatch and the Ohio Innocence Project. Robert McClendon, another defendant granted testing as a result of the project, was exonerated in August. Read the full series – “Test of Convictions” – here.
Towler, 51, smiled and gave a thumbs-up as he was led back to his cell after hearing the news.
"It confirms what I've been saying for 27 years."
Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 11/22/08)
Carlos Lavernia Marks Eight Years of Freedom
Posted: November 28, 2008 4:15 pm
Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of Carlos Lavernia’s exoneration in Texas. He spent 15 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before he was finally exonerated by DNA testing in 1998.
In June 1983, a Texas woman was walking to a park for her daily jog. On her way to the park, she walked past a Latino man, who she would later describe as about 5'6” tall, wearing a maroon shirt and baggy pants. When she began her jog, the same man began jogging behind her. Suddenly, he attacked her and dragged her off the trail. The perpetrator held her at knifepoint and raped her.
Although police stopped Lavernia four times, he did not become a suspect until one year after the crime. Police showed the victim three rounds of photo lineups before she identified Lavernia as her attacker. She testified that Lavernia was the only one in the lineup who "anywhere near resembled" the police sketch. Based on the victim’s identification, Lavernia was convicted and sentenced to 99 years.
Writing his own appeals, Lavernia repeatedly claimed ineffective counsel and problems with the victim's identification, and he repeatedly lost. It was not until 1999, when he asked for DNA testing, that his case was finally revisited. A detective and a police officer visited Lavernia in prison. They took a sample of his DNA, and compared it to the victim's stained running shorts and hospital swabs from the rape kit. Lavernia was exonerated in 2000, when the test results excluded him as a suspect.
Since his exoneration, Lavernia still thinks about his time in prison: "I dream too much about it all. Too much. Almost every day. All the pain. I don't want to go nowhere. I still got it on my mind."
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
John Dixon, New Jersey (Served 10 years, Exonerated 2001)
Ronnie Mahan, Alabama (Served 11.5 years, Exonerated 1998)
Dale Mahan, Alabama (Served 11.5 years, Exonerated 1998)
Tags: Carlos Lavernia
The Danger of Courting Informants
Posted: December 9, 2008 2:15 pm
False testimony from jailhouse snitches is a leading cause of wrongful convictions, involved in 15% of the 225 DNA exonerations cases to date. When someone receives an incentive to testify against a defendant – whether that incentive is money or a reduced sentence – the witness will often lie for his or her own benefit.
Some police departments across the country have taken steps to corroborate any snitch testimony they use in investigations. California lawmakers have passed bills two years in a row requiring that snitch testimony be corroborated for it to be used at trial, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed the bills both times.
And, as we reported previously, the Albuquerque Police Department ran a newspaper ad recently seeking paid informants. USA Today has an article today on the controversy over Albuquerque’s program and changes that other police departments are making to avoid false testimony from snitches misleading criminal investigations and causing wrongful convictions.
"Make some extra cash! Drug use OK. Criminal record? Not a problem." The ad in the Weekly Alibi prompted 93 calls during its two-week run before it was taken down last week, police spokesman John Walsh said…
The ad is drawing criticism from legal analysts who say it could lead to inaccurate information when some agencies are re-evaluating how they deal with paid informants…
"In an economy when jobs are scarce, this is just asking people to make up information for money," said Ellen Yaroshefsky, a legal ethics professor at New York's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law. "This is extremely dangerous."
Read the full story here. (USA Today, 12/09/08)
New York Man to Receive State Compensation
Posted: December 10, 2008 4:50 pm
In a settlement announced yesterday, Roy Brown will receive $2.6 million from the state of New York. Brown sued the state in May 2007 after spending 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was freed in January 2007 after DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence and pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator.
"It's some sort of justice. It doesn't correct things or make things right. I can still feel the weight of those chains, but they're not that heavy anymore," said Brown, now 47.Read more about Roy Brown’s case here.
"I think I would like it to be a lot more, but I don't have that much time to hang around waiting. I have a lot of medical bills to pay," said Brown, who had a liver transplant last year and said he has about $250,000 in medical bills.
Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 12/9/08)
Tags: Roy Brown
Three Years of Freedom for Georgia Man
Posted: December 10, 2008 5:17 pm
Robert Clark spent nearly a quarter of a century in Georgia prisons for a rape he did not commit. Three years ago this week, he was exonerated and released from prison based on DNA testing proving that another man was the perpetrator. (Left, Clark on the day of his exoneration, with Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin)
Since the day of his arrest, Clark maintained his innocence. He was arrested one week after a woman was abducted and raped in Atlanta. Clark was arrested after he was spotted driving the victim's car. He was initially not a suspect because he didn’t match the description of the perpetrator. The victim had said the attacker was 5’7”; Clark is 6’2”. He was included in a photo lineup and a subsequent live lineup, however, and the victim chose him as the perpetrator. Clark was the only person included in both the photo and live lineups.
During the trial, the victim testified there was no doubt in her mind Clark was her attacker, saying, "I will never forget the face, the skin color, and his voice." Clark said he had borrowed the car from his friend Tony Arnold, but police never followed the lead. Clark was convicted and sentenced to two life terms plus 20 years.
Twenty-one years after Clark was convicted, the Innocence Project was able to secure court-ordered DNA testing on biological evidence collected from the victim’s body after the attack. The test results showed that Clark could not have been a source of the sperm cells found on the victim. Furthermore, prosecutors searched state and federal DNA databases of convicted felons. The DNA profile taken from the rape kit matched Tony Arnold, who was serving time for an unrelated conviction. Upon Clark's exoneration, Arnold was charged with the rape for which Clark had been wrongfully convicted.
In 2007, Clark received $1.2 million in state compensation, in individual legislation written specifically for him. Georgia is still one of 25 states without a law compensating the wrongfully convicted upon release.
Today, Clark has a steady job, owns an apartment and says that support from his community and the Innocence Project Exoneree Fund helped him get on his feet: "People have been very supportive. They've donated money, gifts, sent letters. I appreciated that a lot. I say thank you and God bless you and show my appreciation by trying to do what is right."
Learn more about the Innocence Project’s proposed reforms to eyewitness identification procedures to prevent wrongful convictions like Robert Clark’s.
Watch a video interview with Clark here.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:
Timothy Durham, Oklahoma (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 1997)
Alejandro Hernandez, Illinois (Served 10.5 years, Exonerated 1995)
Richard Alexander, Indiana (Served 5.5 Years, Exonerated 2001)
Kerry Kotler, New York (Served 10.5 years, Exonerated 1992)
James O'Donnell, New York, (Served 2 Years, Exonerated 2000)
Marlon Pendleton, IL (Served 10 years, Exonerated 2006)
Billy James Smith, Texas (Served 19 Years, Exonerated 2006)
John Jerome White, Georgia (Served 10-22.5 Years, Exonerated 2007)
Nicholas Yarris, Pennsylvania, (Served 21.5 Years, Exonerated 2003)
Tags: Robert Clark
Houston Man on His Way to Exoneration
Posted: December 11, 2008 6:00 pm
After spending five years in prison, a Houston man is set to be released tomorrow because DNA testing shows he did not commit a 2002 child rape. The Harris County District Attorney's Office announced this afternoon that it would make arrangements for a bond hearing to take place December 12 in Houston.
Convicted in 2003, Ricardo Rachell was originally sentenced to serve 40 years after being charged and convicted of sexually assaulting an eight-year-old child. Despite having been denied a DNA test in his original trial and subsequent appeals, Rachell's case is one of 540 currently under investigation by Harris County District Attorney Kenneth Magidson and his office as a result of Houston's crime lab debacle.
DNA evidence collected by Houston police during their investigation of Rachell was never tested, which was a mistake, Magidson said. He said his office has reopened the case and identified a new suspect, who has not been charged.
Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 12/11/2008)In a press release today, Magidson made assurances that his office would continue to investigate cases where DNA testing could prove innocence. Over the last several years, the Innocence Project has called for the review of several hundred Harris County cases that may have been tainted by improper work in the Houston crime lab. Read the Harris County DA's Office press release here and a timeline of events in the Rachell case here.
Read more about the Houston Crime Lab on our blog or view a list of Texas exonerees here.
Tags: Texas, Access to DNA Testing, DNA Databases
Update on Ricardo Rachell Case in Houston
Posted: December 18, 2008 12:17 pm
A report in today’s Houston Chronicle offers more details on what went wrong in the case of Ricardo Rachell, a 51-year-old Houston man who was freed last week after serving six years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. It appears that police investigators, defense attorneys and prosecutors all missed signs that another man committed the attack, and missed an opportunity to test DNA evidence from the case that could have proved Rachell’s innocence before trial and implicated the real perpetrator – possibly preventing future attacks on children.
Rachell was arrested in October 2002 for allegedly luring an eight-year-old boy into an abandoned house and sexually assaulting him. But in the months after his arrest, two more children were assaulted in the same area. Rachell sent the news story of these continuing assaults to his defense attorney, who decided not to investigate. The same police officers arrested Rachell also investigated the next two attacks – and they didn’t draw a connection.
Business owners plastered their stores with police sketches of a suspect. Apartment managers warned their tenants of the predator at hand. FBI officials and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee held community meetings. And at least one news story quoted HPD officer Lisa Clemons, the same officer who arrested Rachell, on the details of the attacks. She also has declined comment.And Rachell told the Houston Chronicle on Sunday that he is struggling to adjust to life outside of prison.
Rachell sent a copy of that story to his trial attorney, Ron Hayes, who acknowledges he received it in December 2002 — six months before Rachell was to face a jury — but decided not to investigate.
"I received from Mr. Rachell the newspaper article about other sexual assaults," Hayes said in an affidavit provided for one of Rachell's appeals. "Since there were very few similarities and connection between the sexual assaults and the sexual assault Mr. Rachell was accused of committing, I did not believe that this information from Mr. Rachell merited much investigation."
Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 12/18/08)
"It is not easy, but I handle it. I fend for myself," Rachell said in an exclusive interview Saturday with the Houston Chronicle, less than 24 hours after walking out of the Harris County jail following a rare exoneration.
His first night of freedom didn't bring any drinking, partying, star gazing or even a long walk. Instead, Rachell stayed inside with Robert Trimmer, his 82-year-old stepfather, and spent much of the night watching television.
"I didn't have anywhere else to go," Rachell said as he sat on a couch in Trimmer's living room in south Houston, where he likes the curtains closed because he fears the streets. He also worries those who wrongfully put him away will again try to snatch him up.
Read more. (Houston Chronicle, 12/14/08)
Three years later: Restivo, Halstead and Kogut
Posted: January 2, 2009 6:00 pm
In 1986, three New York men were arrested and convicted in New York on charges of abduction, rape and murder based on a false convention and faulty scientific testimony at trial. It wasn’t until 2005, 17 years after they were first convicted, that John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and John Kogut were rightfully exonerated.
Restivo, Halstead and Kogut were loosely connected before their convictions. Both Halstead and Restivo had been interrogated by police as part of their investigation and Restivo would sometimes hire Kogut to help with his family’s moving business. However, after the police gave Kogut a polygraph exam and subsequently interrogated him for 12 hours, all the while telling him that he, Restivo and Halstead were responsible for the victim’s rape and death, that Kogut signed a confession provided to him and written by a police officer. By the time Kogut signed the confession, he had, given five other versions of the crime. In this sixth account of events, Restivo, Kogut, and Halstead were in Restivo’s van when they came across the 16-year-old girl, who they would later supposedly rape and strangle near a local cemetery.
Because of Kogut’s confession, Restivo’s van was searched and police would soon find two hairs that were deemed microscopically similar to those of the victim. The prosecution relied heavily on testimony from hair comparison expert Dr. Peter DeForest, who testified that the hairs could not have been deposited in the vehicle while she was alive. According to Dr. DeForest, the hairs found in Restivo’s van displayed “advanced banding,” a condition caused by bacteria eating away at the interior of the hair shaft.
After his confession, Kogut was tried separately in March 1986. Restivo and Halstead were tried together in November 1986 on the grounds that the two hairs corroborated Kogut’s confession. All three were convicted of rape and murder.
It wasn’t until 2003 that attorneys for the three men obtained property records from the police department that would eventually lead to the discovery of an intact vaginal swab from the original rape kit that had never been tested. The Innocence Project represented Restivo and worked closely with attorneys for Halstead and Kogut. Test results of the swab excluded all three men as perpetrators. In addition, after years of research of the hair bonding technology, the state’s expert witness at the time of the original convictions provided the defense with an affidavit declaring that the hairs could not have been shed by the victim during the time that she would have allegedly been in the van.
In light of these revelations, John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and John Kogut had their convictions vacated in June 2003. Prosecutors retried Kogut two years later, and he was found not guilty on December. 21, 2005. Little more than a week later, the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, having declared that it could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, dismissed all charges against Dennis Halstead and John Restivo on December. 29, 2005.
Other Exoneree Anniversaries Last Week
Leonard McSherry, California (Served 13 Years, Exonerated, 2001)
Tags: New York, Dennis Halstead, John Kogut, John Restivo, False Confessions
Hearing Tomorrow Could Exonerate Steve Barnes of All Charges
Posted: January 8, 2009 2:30 pm
After serving nearly 20 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit, Innocence Project client Steven Barnes may be fully exonerated tomorrow. Barnes and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Alba Morales will appear in Oneida County court tomorrow in Utica.
Barnes was released from prison in late November after DNA testing showed he is innocent. His conviction was vacated, but the indictment against him was not dismissed, meaning he could be retried for the crime at any time. The Oneida County District Attorney’s Office, with cooperation from the Innocence Project, has been reinvestigating the case since Barnes was released.
If the indictment against Barnes is dismissed, he will become the 227th person exonerated by DNA evidence.
Barnes' conviction is just one example of how improper or invalid forensic science can lead to wrongful convictions. His conviction was largely based on unvalidated forensic science, including soil comparison and analysis of an imprint allegedly left on the outside of Barnes’ truck by the victim’s jeans. He was found guilty of second-degree murder, rape and sodomy of a teenage girl 1985. However, test results conducted last year on materials collected from the victim’s body and clothing did not match Barnes, which led to his release from prison in November and tomorrow’s hearing that may exonerate him officially.
We’ll post more on the blog tomorrow after the hearing.
Read more on the Barnes case on the Innocence Blog.
Today’s news coverage of Barnes’ case:
Utica Observer Dispatch: Barnes’ charges to be dismissed Friday in teen's '85 murder
WKTV: Friday hearing could exonerate Steven Barnes for 1985 rape and murder
Tags: New York, Forensic Oversight, Steven Barnes
DNA Tests in Texas Case May Prove Two Men Innocent
Posted: January 8, 2009 2:00 pm
New DNA evidence may exclude two men long considered to be guilty of one of the most controversial homicide cases in Austin, Texas. Robert Springsteen, Michael Scott, Maurice Pearce and Forrest Welborn were all charged in 1991 for the murder of four teenagers, but only Springsteen and Scott were tried and convicted.
The four teenage girls were murdered at an I Can't Believe its Yogurt shop 17 years ago, but preliminary forensic DNA evidence from three of the four victims is reported be from multiple sources, none of which match Springsteen or Scott (nor do they match Maurice Pearce or Forrest Welborn ). Although both men also made admissions of guilt, they have since told the court that the confessions were coerced by investigating police officers.
Both Springsteen and Scott were in court this week, and although the final DNA test report will not be ready until next week, the judge told Springsteen and Scott that he would allow two more attorneys to help the defendants with their case.
Read the full story here. (News 8 Austin, 1/7/09)
Read background on the case here.
Tags: Texas, False Confessions, Access to DNA Testing
An End to Plea Bargains
Posted: January 13, 2009 2:27 pm
Of the 227 wrongful convictions overturned in the United States by DNA testing, 12 defendants pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. Almost always, they pled guilty to avoid the threat of longer sentences – or in some cases the death penalty. False confessions and admissions of guilt are a leading cause of wrongful convictions, and one Nebraska prosecutor recently said the possibility of injustice was one reason he would stop accepting plea bargains altogether starting February 1.
Randall Ritnour, the district attorney for Gage County, Nebraska, saw first-hand in recent months how plea bargaining can lead to injustice. His county is the home of the “Beatrice Six” case, in which six defendants were cleared of murder last year by DNA testing. Five of them had pled guilty and testified against a sixth, Joseph White. Although Ritnour wasn’t the prosecutor in 1985 when the six were convicted, he said presiding over the defendants’ exonerations has opened his eyes to the possibility of injustice.
White’s co-defendants have said they testified against him to avoid the possibility of execution or longer sentences. White has been fully exonerated; Nebraska officials will meet on January 26 to consider pardon applications from his five co-defendants.
"You can't help but have something like that influence your thinking to some extent," Ritnour told The World-Herald Friday. "Hopefully, this would limit the potential for that kind of mistake to happen again. Our point is to do the right thing, and the right thing is to charge people with the crime they actually committed, not to bounce around making deals."
Read the full story here. (Omaha World Herald, 01/03/09)Even if prosecutors across the country wanted to follow Ritnour’s course, however, the American court system couldn’t handle the spike in jury trials without drastic increases in funding. More than 90 percent of felony convictions in state courts across the U.S. are obtained by guilty plea. As Scott Greenfield writes on Simple Justice:
Plea bargaining, for all its many flaws and horribly coercive nature, has a purpose. Our legal system lacks the facilities and finances to try most cases, and depends on the vast majority of cases to "go away" via a plea to allow it to work. While this may not necessarily be desirable, it is a reality that government relies upon in budgeting and building. Change the equation by forcing the vast majority of cases to trial and the system can't withstand the burden.
Tags: Joseph White, False Confessions
New Hope for DNA Testing in Ohio
Posted: January 20, 2009 3:54 pm
Saying that a 2008 exoneration in his county changed his mind about the power of DNA testing, an Ohio District Attorney has agreed to allow DNA testing in the case of a man in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.
Charles Dumas has been in prison for a decade for a rape he says he didn’t commit. He is seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence but had been told that evidence was lost. Now, after prosecutors renewed their search, the evidence has been found and will likely be sent for testing this week.
The roots of Dumas’ success in achieving DNA testing lie in Robert McClendon’s 2008 exoneration. Last year, Franklin County District Attorney Ron O’Brien agreed to testing in the McClendon case after a private lab offered to conduct the testing for free. Although DNA testing at McClendon’s trial had been inconclusive, newer testing proved his innocence and led to his release.
"What we found with the McClendon case is it makes us more willing to take a second look at evidence that may have been previously tested," O'Brien said.McClendon’s case was appealed as part of a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch. Dumas’ case was also reviewed by the project but not appealed because evidence was believed to have been lost.
"This test means my life; it's my last chance to prove to my children I didn't do this," said Dumas, an inmate at the North Central Correctional Institution near Marion.
Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 01/20/2009)
Tags: Robert McClendon
Georgia Improves Identification Training
Posted: January 21, 2009 1:49 pm
The group that oversees law enforcement training in Georgia has said it will significantly increase its courses for officers on eyewitness identification procedures this year.
Departments across the state have been working to improve identification procedures since a House of Representatives study committee found a lack of statewide standards. Rep. Stephanie Stuckley Benfield, a sponsor of identification reform efforts, said training is the key to improvement and that law enforcement agencies have been receptive.
"So much of this comes down to training," said the DeKalb County Democrat. "If you've got good training, then you're less likely to make mistakes."
…Keith Howard supervises the criminal investigations section of the Georgia Police Academy and helped expand the course for Georgia POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training Council)….
The training outlines correct preparation for the lineup when choosing participants or their photographs, the best practices for presenting the lineup and preserving the results through good documentation of what the witness intended.
A major point that both Rep. Benfield and Innocence Project officials have pushed for is a "blind administrator" to conduct the lineups. That's a police officer who has no knowledge of the investigation and could not influence a victim or eyewitness to select a suspect.
"You don't want to indicate the suspect to the witness," Chief Parker said. "They may feel undue pressure to identify the person."
Read the full story here. (01/19/08)A 2007 study by the Georgia Innocence Project found that 82% of Georgia law enforcement agencies had no policies in place for eyewitness identification procedures. Read more and download training materials at the POST website.
Tags: Georgia, Eyewitness Identification
Do False Confessions Contribute to Misidentifications?
Posted: January 29, 2009 4:21 pm
A new study has found a link between false confessions and the confidence in incorrect identifications made by eyewitnesses. The study, conducted by psychologists at Iowa State University and John Jay College and published in the January issue of Psychological Science, found that the eyewitnesses became more confident in their identification when they learned that someone confessed to the crime.
The study was conducted by staging a fake crime in front of students in a university laboratory:
At some point, a person walked in, picked up a laptop from the desk, and walked out of the room. A few minutes later, the research assistant entered the room and announced, with obvious distress, that her laptop was missing. The group of students were the eyewitnesses and were asked to help solve the crime. The students were first asked to identify the thief from a line-up (however, unbeknownst to them, the actual thief was not in the lineup) and rate the confidence of their answers. The students returned two days later, to continue helping with the investigation. When they returned, they were told either that all of the suspects denied involvement or that a specific suspect confessed to the crime. The students were then to reconsider their original identification and rate how confident they were.
The vast majority of study volunteers identified an innocent man as the criminal, and many did so with confidence. That's disturbing in itself, but it gets worse. While few were persuaded by claims of innocence - that happens all the time - a disturbing number changed their mind when a suspect confessed. An astonishing 60 percent who had fingered one suspect flip-flopped when a different man confessed. Even those who had been very sure of their original identification experienced a steep drop in confidence. When asked to explain their change of heart, most said they had been mistaken earlier, that their memories had fooled them.
Read more here. (Science Daily, 01/29/2009)
Tags: False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, False Confessions, Eyewitness Misidentification
Wisconsin Man Freed After 23 Years
Posted: January 30, 2009 2:26 pm
Robert Lee Stinson walked out of a Wisconsin prison today after serving 23 years behind bars for a murder DNA shows he didn’t commit. Lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined with the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office in asking a judge to throw out Stinson’s 1985 conviction today, based on new DNA evidence of his innocence and a new analysis showing that bite mark evidence used to convict Stinson was wrong.
Just after 1 p.m., Stinson walked out of New Lisbon Correctional Institution a free man for the first time in more than two decades. While his conviction his vacated, Stinson is not completely exonerated. Prosecutors said they will review whether to retry him.
"We are thrilled that the truth has finally come out," says Byron Lichstein, the lead attorney on the case for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Law School. "Lee has been an inspiration to work with, and the evidence supporting his longstanding claim of innocence has always driven our devotion to the case. He has waited a long time for this day."
Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on evidence purporting to match bite marks found in the victim's skin to his teeth. Since the time of Stinson's trial, new evidence has come to light that strongly supports his claim of innocence. First, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists -- David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann, and Norman Sperber, who all volunteered their time -- evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bite marks found on the victim. Furthermore, DNA evidence corroborated these conclusions — male DNA found on the victim's sweater also excluded Stinson.
Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Innocence Project, 01/30/09)
Tags: Bitemark Evidence
Friday Roundup: News from Connecticut, Texas, Maryland and More
Posted: January 30, 2009 6:05 pm
Connecticut exoneree James Tillman, who served 16 years in Connecticut prison for a rape he didn’t commit, told members of a Greenwich church this week that he is “blessed to be alive.”
Also in Connecticut, Pedro Miranda pled not guilty on Tuesday to three murders between 1986 and 1988. Investigators say DNA from the crime scene of at least one of these murders matches Miranda’s profile. Another man, Miguel Roman, served 20 years in Connecticut prison before he was freed based on the same DNA tests. Roman is still awaiting a final decision in his case.
Two arson cases made news this week. Texas officials are investigating whether the state executed Cameron Todd Willingham based on flawed arson science. And investigators in Maryland were able to conduct DNA testing for the first time on evidence left behind at the scene of an arson fire.
With several states considering abolishing the death penalty – and the issue of wrongful convictions a factor in each – Amnesty International considered the question of innocence and the death penalty.
And the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case in which an undercover informant allegedly heard incriminating statements from his cellmate.
Tags: James Tillman
Hearing Tomorrow in NYC to Address Causes of Wrongful Conviction
Posted: February 12, 2009 2:50 pm
Three men who served a combined 58 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit will testify tomorrow before a New York State Bar Association task force investigating the causes of wrongful convictions in the state. The group released a report last week that found identification procedures and government practices to be the two leading causes of wrongful convictions.
Among those testifying will be Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, the co-founders of the Innocence Project, and three exonerated Innocence Project clients: Scott Fappiano, Jeffrey Deskovic and Alan Newton.
Another hearing is scheduled for February 24 in Albany.
Read more about tomorrow’s event here.
Download the Bar Association report here.
Tags: Jeff Deskovic, Scott Fappiano, Alan Newton
Media Coverage of NAS Report
Posted: February 18, 2009 6:40 pm
Below is a sample of media coverage of today’s groundbreaking forensics report from the National Academy of Sciences. We’ll post more coverage tomorrow.
LA Times: Report Questions Science, Reliability of Crime Lab Evidence
Associated Press: Real World CSI's Lack Consistent Standards
CNN: Crime Labs Need Major Overhaul, Study Finds
MSNBC: Crime Labs Are Seriously Deficient, Report Finds
ProPublica: Government-Funded Study Calls for Overhaul of Nation’s Crime Labs
Tags: Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics
Maine Art Show Benefits the Innocence Project
Posted: March 5, 2009 2:22 am
An exhibit this month in Portland, Maine, featuring the works of photographer Donald Verger will benefit the Innocence Project. Verger said he was inspired to support the Innocence Project’s work after he was wrongfully accused of a crime two months ago.
On the afternoon of New Years Eve, Verger was shopping in Portland, Maine, when two police officers stopped him. A salon had been robbed hours before and Verger was similar to the victim’s description of the perpetrator. The officers conducted a “show-up” identification in which the victim viewed him on the street and said he was the robber. Verger was arrested and spent two nights in jail before friends bailed him out.
Verger said he had nothing to do with the crime, and the charges were finally dropped a month later – but not before his eyes were opened that anyone can be wrongfully accused (or convicted) of a crime they didn’t commit. He tells the Portland Press Herald that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
(Verger’s attorney Peter) DeTroy also noted that not all people accused of serious crimes have the means to hire a top-shelf defense team. Had Verger been indigent, DeTroy said, "I think he would have been indicted (and gone to trial), I truly do."
That same thought occurred to Verger even as he was riding to jail in the back of the police cruiser. It was an epiphany of sorts, he said, knowing that he was innocent, that he had a lot of well-placed people who would (and did) write letters on his behalf, and that however traumatizing the whole thing was, he would soon get his life back.
But what, he wondered, if he were poor? Or homeless? Or not Caucasian? Or uneducated?
"I don't know that that person would be out of jail and not prosecuted for a crime they did not commit," he said.
The incident inspired Verger to devote his show this month to raising money for the Innocence Project. The show’s opening reception is scheduled for tomorrow night at the North Star Music Café in Portland, and 100% of proceeds through the month will benefit the Innocence Project.
Above: Verger’s photo “Dawn of Peace”
Read a story on Donald Verger’s case in today’s Portland Press Herald.
Learn about the event and see more of Donald Verger’s artwork.
More coverage: Munjoy Hill News - Photographer Donald Verger Helps Himself by Helping Others
My Father's Innocence Project (Blog post by Donald's son Rob Verger)
Tags: Maine, Eyewitness Misidentification
Friday Roundup: Fighting for Freedom
Posted: March 6, 2009 6:00 pm
News from around the country that we didn't get to on the Innocence Blog this week:
An Ohio man could be freed as early as Tuesday, nearly 25 years after being convicted of a rape DNA now proves he didn’t commit. A joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch led to DNA testing in the case of Joseph R. Fears, Jr., who was convicted of an Ohio rape in 1984. A judge today called for a hearing in his case Tuesday. Stayed tuned to the Innocence Blog for developments.
Innocence Project Staff Attorney Craig Cooley argued this week in a Pennsylvania court for DNA testing in the case of client Robert Conway.
A federal judge in California said Bruce Lisker was wrongfully convicted of stabbing his mother in 1983 and should be set free or retried.The systemic failures that caused many of these wrongful convictions are still present today and continuing to cause injustice. Exonerees, organizations and lawmakers were working this week to fix the system:
The Innocence Project of Florida is seeking a new trial on behalf of Billy Joe Holton after DNA results in the case excluded him as a possible contributor of evidence at the crime scene.
And a Detroit man who has spent 36 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit is seeking a new trial with the help of Proving Innocence and the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.
An editorial in Colorado called on lawmakers to protect the advances they made last year on the preservation of DNA evidence.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has officially opened its doors at Temple University School of Law – filling a crucial need in planning to handle wrongful conviction cases in the state.
Just 16 days after he was released from prison, Joshua Kezer told an audience at the University of Missouri about his wrongful conviction and release. He was joined by exoneree Dennis Fritz.
Recent exoneree William Dillon will speak tomorrow in Florida.
New York DNA Exoneree Steven Barnes began this week working for Oneida County Workforce Development, helping released prisoners find work and housing. He told WKTV that “to come out into the community and try to get out on the right foot sometimes...you need assistance and help."
Tags: William Dillon, Dennis Fritz, Evidence Preservation
Guest Blog: Writing Cotton
Posted: March 19, 2009 5:18 pm
By Erin Torneo
Co-Author, "Picking Cotton: A Memoir of Injustice and Redemption"
Writing Picking Cotton has taken me from a hotel lobby in Greensboro to the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the abolition of the death penalty, from the lethal injection chamber in Raleigh’s Central Prison to the streets of Savannah, GA. Once, while in San Francisco for the Soros Fellowship Conference, I even found myself at Alcatraz with Jennifer and Ron, sightseeing. When the tour invited us to step inside a solitary confinement cell, Ron hung back. “Not going in?” I asked, after Jennifer and I took our turns inside the dark cramped cell. “Hell no,” he replied, laughing. It was just one of many moments that reminded me that their seemingly ordinary, decades-old friendship is just as improbable as Ron, who spent nearly eleven years of his life wrongfully incarcerated, wanting to visit a prison on his day off. The journey, suffice to say, has been incredible, bringing me deep into some of the complex issues surrounding wrongful convictions and forever changing the way I will think about crime and punishment in the United States.
“I don’t know if I’ll be of any help at all,” Jennifer’s rape crisis counselor told me the spring afternoon I went to interview her at Elon College. What could she remember, after all this time? But it became very clear as we spoke that she had one particularly strong memory: the day she accompanied Jennifer to the physical lineup. “I remember it was one of the most take-your-breath away things, the fear,” she said. She vividly recalled the details of the physical lineup, mentioning the one-way window. I interrupted her to tell her in fact, there had been no glass, nor wall at all, as verified by the police report and the investigating officer. The seven suspects were standing merely feet away from both of them. She was astounded. “Isn’t that strange? In my mind, I had given us the distance of at least having a wall there. I had given us that safety.” She paused and then said, “How frightening. I think I prefer the safety of my memory.”
It was just a small example of the undercurrent that runs through the book— the fragility of memory itself. Their case has become a hallmark of the relationship between eyewitness misidentification and wrongful convictions because of how little we really understand about how memory works. I have seen Jennifer — and more recently Michele Mallin — vilified by people for their mistaken eyewitness testimony. It is further proof of the need to educate people about the many variables that can contribute to misidentification. By putting the reader in Jennifer’s shoes, I hope Picking Cotton helps to illuminate just how difficult making an eyewitness identification is—even when you are sure—and remind people everywhere that she was a victim of a brutal crime that derailed her life. Jennifer pursued justice in the hopes that her assailant — whom she knew had gone off to rape a second woman an hour after she escaped—would never be able to hurt another woman. The failure was systemic—not personal—and her brave decision to forfeit her privacy (many victims never come forward in other wrongful conviction cases) is the reason many states have adopted reform measures.
Working on the book has also taught me that newly won freedom can be as bewildering as the first days of incarceration, which you can see once you shift to Ron’s point of view. Though many exonerees today make headlines for the millions of (well-deserved) dollars they receive after winning lawsuits, it is important to know that Ronald Cotton is not one of those exonerees. When he first got out, he tried to return to school to get his GED, but eventually quit so he could take a second job and earn more money. He wanted to move out of his sister’s home and into an independent life. Now he works five, sometimes six days a week at an insulation plant, where the heat and the fumes take their toll on his sinuses. Lately, the faltering economy has impacted the work available at the plant. Ron’s regular shifts are no longer guaranteed, and he struggles to make ends meet.
As the first post-conviction DNA exoneree in North Carolina, Ronald Cotton’s case paved the way for many of the progressive measures the state later adopted. Jennifer actually helped to lobby the state to create the compensation bill that entitled Ron to roughly $110,000. Since that time, North Carolina has updated its compensation law twice, but Ron was excluded from the improved benefits (which, in addition to significantly more money, also include job training and tuition). Perhaps North Carolina officials will reconsider the terms of the statute and offer the same benefits to all six of its exonerees.
The State v. Cotton case touches on many important issues in the innocence movement — the fact that the DNA was not destroyed though Ron had exhausted all of his appeals, the access he had to DNA testing, how simple changes to photo array and physical lineup procedures can reduce eyewitness identification errors, the importance of having state resources in place that can help the exonerated back on their feet, but most of all, it shows that the effects of wrongful convictions are devastating on both sides.
Ron waited 11 years for justice to prevail, but in the end, so did Jennifer.
Erin Torneo is the coauthor of "Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption," the true story of an unlikely friendship forged between Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, the man Cannino incorrectly identified as her rapist and sent to prison for eleven years.
Tags: Ronald Cotton
Oklahoma Exoneree Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment
Posted: March 23, 2009 4:29 pm
Oklahoma exoneree Curtis McCarty will speak tomorrow at an annual two-day conference on Catholic Social Teaching and Criminal Justice at Villanova University.
McCarty served two decades on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit. Since DNA proved him innocent and led to his exoneration in May 2007, he has spoken around the world against the death penalty and to raise awareness about the problem of wrongful convictions. The Villanova conference focuses on contemporary issues through the lens of Catholic social thought and is sponsored by Villanova's Office for Mission and Ministry and the Journal for Catholic Social Thought. Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and founder of the non-profit organization Witness to Innocence, will be the keynote speaker.
Read more about the conference, and get the full schedule and registration information.
Read more about McCarty's case here.
Tags: Curtis McCarty, Death Penalty
DNA Clears Virginia Man of 1984 Rape
Posted: March 24, 2009 4:46 pm
When Thomas Haynesworth was arrested for rape in 1984, he told police that he was innocent and that he believed an acquaintance, Leon Davis, could be the perpetrator. Now, after Haynesworth has served 25 years in prison, DNA testing has implicated Davis in the crime and cleared Haynesworth, according to media reports.
Haynesworth, represented by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, will not be released immediately because he is also serving for another rape he says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors involved in the other case are searching for evidence to test.
Testing in the case was conducted as part of a state-run review of possible Virginia wrongful convictions that was sparked after Marvin Anderson’s exoneration in 2002.
Reached last week by telephone at the Greensville Correctional Center, Haynesworth said of Davis, "I knew all along he was the man. I told my lawyer. I told [police]. He lived right down the street from me."
"I told them: 'This man fit the description.' But nobody ever listened to me," he complained. "Everybody said we looked alike. Only difference between me and him, he is taller and weighed more," said Haynesworth.Read the full story here. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 03/24/09)
Tags: Virginia, Marvin Anderson
Friday Roundup: What’s Next?
Posted: April 3, 2009 6:06 pm
Miguel Roman was officially exonerated in Connecticut this week, and there are dozens of additional cases around the country in which exculpatory evidence – DNA or otherwise – has surfaced and may lead to exoneration. Here’s a roundup of cases and other news that we’re watching closely:
A comprehensive review of thousands of Virginia cases is ongoing, and testing has uncovered evidence of innocence in at least two additional cases there. Victor Anthony Burnette is seeking a pardon from Gov. Tim Kaine and lawyers for Thomas Haynesworth say DNA clears him as well.
Articles in the Wall Street Journal and Slate considered new forensic research aiming to determine physical characteristics from DNA tests. While investigators say this could be a helpful tool to corroborate other evidence, others worry that this discipline, which is not 100% accurate, could lead to wrongful convictions.
The new Pennsylvania Innocence Project officially opened this week and has begun working to uncover injustice in the state.
Mississippi adopted a new exoneree compensation law this week, and Georgia lawmakers awarded $500,000 to John Jerome White, who spent 22 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted. There’s momentum in several other states to pass compensation laws – will your state be next?
The exonerated continued working to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and press for criminal justice reform this week. Several exonerees, including Innocence Project client James Waller, testified on behalf of a package of reforms in the Texas legislature.
Marty Tankleff, who was freed in 2007 after serving 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, spoke about a new book on his case in a City University of New York podcast. And British exoneree Michael O’ Brien will discuss his book “The Death of Justice” at a festival in May in the United Kingdom.
Tags: James Waller
Seventeen Years in Prison, Four Years Free
Posted: April 6, 2009 5:19 pm
Today marks the fourth anniversary of Brandon Moon’s exoneration in Texas. After spending 17 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Moon was freed in 2004 and officially exonerated on April 6, 2005.
On the morning of April 27, 1987, an El Paso woman was attacked and sexually assaulted in her home. She contacted police and biological evidence was collected at the hospital. Days after the crime, the victim viewed a photographic array that included Moon's picture. She indicated that Moon looked like the perpetrator but that she couldn't be sure. Days later, the police arrested Moon, and the victim identified him in a live lineup as the perpetrator of the crime. Moon was the only person in both the photographic and live lineup procedures.
At his trial, the victim testified that she was able to remember much of the perpetrator’s appearance, but could not determine his eye color or whether he had a moustache. The prosecution also presented testimony from a serologist who said that Moon was a possible contributor of the semen recovered from clothing at the victim’s home but incorrectly said that the semen could not have come from the victim’s husband or son. Moon testified that he was on his college campus at the time of the attack, and the defense presented evidence that Moon had been excluded as the source of hairs from the crime scene. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 75 years in prison.
In the years after his conviction, Moon continued to proclaim his innocence and began filing motions to have the evidence tested. He also contacted the Innocence Project, which accepted his case and obtained DNA testing on his behalf. The results proved Moon's innocence, and also pointed to serious flaws in the serology used in the trial.
After 17 years in prison, he was freed in December 2004 and his exoneration became official four years ago today.
Read more about Brandon Moon’s wrongful conviction here, visit his website exoneree.net, or watch a video interview with Moon and two other Texas exonerees.
Tags: Brandon Moon
Tennessee Lawmakers Consider Recording Interrogations
Posted: April 7, 2009 4:50 pm
Tomorrow, the Tennessee Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to record custodial interrogations in murder cases. The bill, however, would not render statements inadmissible in court if law enforcement officials fail to record the interrogation and preserve the recording.
Read the full text of the bill – SB261 – and watch video of the Senate Judiciary Committee discussion of the bill last week.
Over 500 jurisdictions nationwide, including the states of Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia require the recording of interrogations, and state Supreme Courts have taken action on the issue in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey.
With mental health issues of perpetrators and aggressive law enforcement tactics to contend with, it is not uncommon for innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit. The electronic recording of interrogations, from the initial arrest and reading of Miranda rights forward, can help prevent false confessions.
Tags: Tennessee, False Confessions
Untested Evidence and Unsolved Crime
Posted: April 10, 2009 1:45 pm
According to a new investigative report, the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department crime lab had untested biological evidence in its possession for months that could have identified a notorious serial killer and possibly prevented as many as seven murders. The North Scottsdale Times story, “Justice Delayed,” alleges that the Phoenix police lab conducted preliminary testing in a sexual assault believed to be connected to a crime spree but then failed to conduct follow-up tests or request outside assistance from labs capable of conducting more advanced forms of testing.
In 2006, nine months after the sexual assault, the unknown “Baseline Killer” suspect was believed to have committed seven additional murders. The Phoenix lab then asked the state crime lab to conduct further testing on the partially tested sex assault evidence. According to media reports, the DNA profile matched a man who had served 13 years in prison for aggravated assault, armed robbery and kidnapping. The man, Mark Goudeau, is now charged with 15 sexual assaults and nine murders.
Despite a new $34 million crime lab, the Phoenix Police Department is still facing an enormous backlog of cases to be tested, and it routinely takes three months to conduct DNA testing. Some observers have alleged that the lab has failed to learn from mistakes and attempted to cover up its failure to request outside assistance in the Baseline Killer case.
Billy Coleman, a representative for the (police) department’s union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, says rather than addressing and correcting the problems, the Phoenix Police Department is ignoring the situation by dismissing complaints from investigators and even going as far as to punish detectives who speak negatively about the lab.
“Those people did not deserve to die. I think we could have saved one or as many as seven if we would have just done it right,” an emotional Coleman says, pounding his fist on the desk.
Read the full story here. (Times Publications, 04/09/09)The Innocence Project doesn’t evaluate the performance of particular labs, and has not independently confirmed these media reports. We do, however, support a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences to create a new federal agency that would direct comprehensive research and evaluation in the forensic sciences, establish scientifically validated standards and oversee their consistent application nationwide.
Crime lab backlogs and untested evidence can allow cold cases to remain unsolved while perpetrators commit additional crimes, and they can also lead to wrongful convictions – when exculpatory evidence sits untested, the wrong person could be convicted of a crime based on circumstantial evidence.
Tags: Forensic Oversight
Innocence Project Advocates for DNA Testing in PA Supreme Court
Posted: April 14, 2009 10:28 am
This morning in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison will argue that client Anthony Wright should get DNA testing that could prove his innocence of a 1993 murder he says he didn’t commit.
In 2002, Pennsylvania enacted a law that allows convicted people to seek DNA testing to prove their innocence. The law applies to people convicted before 1995 or cases where DNA testing was not previously conducted, and the law says courts that are weighing requests for testing should presume that the DNA testing would be exculpatory (meaning the results would favor the defendant). However, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has opposed Anthony Wright’s efforts to secure DNA testing for the last four years.
“The District Attorney does not dispute that DNA testing could prove Anthony Wright’s innocence. Testing would be conducted at no cost to the state and could be completed in a matter of weeks,” said Morrison.
Read more on the Wright case and today’s arguments here.
Media coverage of the case:
Philadelphia Inquirer – April 14, 2009
Donate by April 30 for a Chance to Win a Signed Copy of "Picking Cotton"
Posted: April 16, 2009 5:03 pm
"Picking Cotton," the best-selling new book by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, has raised the level of conversation across America about wrongful convictions and eyewitness misidentification. Today, the Innocence Project announced a chance to win a signed copy of the book – make an online donation before April 30 and you’ll have a chance to win.
"Picking Cotton" tells the story of the horrible circumstances under which Thompson-Cannino and Cotton met, and the extraordinary path that brought them together again to work for criminal justice reform. Thompson-Cannino was raped in her home in 1984, and she identified Cotton in a photo lineup – and then a live lineup and at trial – as the perpetrator. He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.
Eleven years later. Thompson-Cannino got a knock on her door. Police officers told her DNA testing has been conducted in Cotton’s case and had proven him innocent and implicated the real perpetrator, a man named Bobby Poole. She was shocked at first, but soon came to realize that eyewitness misidentifications aren’t at all uncommon.
Cotton was exonerated and released, and today the two are close friends. They travel around the country working to raise awareness of wrongful convictions and criminal justice reforms – especially to eyewitness identification procedures – that can prevent future injustice. Their story shows how eyewitnesses testimony can lead to wrongful convictions and it makes the case for simple changes to identification procedures that are proven to decrease inaccurate identifications.
Donate today and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of “Picking Cotton”
Learn more about their story and the book here – and watch video interviews with Cotton and Thompson-Cannino.
Tags: Ronald Cotton
Friday Roundup: Identification and Informants
Posted: April 17, 2009 6:45 pm
A Georgia death row inmate lost his federal appeal this week and a Chicago man goes to trial next week for the third time for a murder he says he didn't commit. Here are stories of injustice and reform from the week:
A federal court rejected Troy Davis’ appeal this week and announced a 30-day stay of execution so he could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis has been on Georgia’s death row for two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit and has come within hours of execution three times before receiving stays.
Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote that Juan Rivera’s third trial for a murder he says he didn’t commit – set to begin on Monday – sounds eerily similar to the wrongful conviction and repeated trials and appeals of exoneree Rolando Cruz.
The Texas Senate passed bills this week requiring law enforcement agencies in the state to establish written identification procedures, and requiring corroboration for testimony from jailhouse informants. Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reported that Ontario has nearly phased out the use of jailhouse informants.
The Constitution Project released a groundbreaking report on the state of indigent defense in America. The report, “Justice Denied,” says that public defense systems are struggling across the country, and that many are failing. Read more about the effects of bad and overburdened lawyers in wrongful conviction cases.
Tags: Informants/Snitches, Bad Lawyering, Eyewitness Misidentification
Innocence Project Seeks DNA Testing in Another Pennsylvania Case
Posted: April 21, 2009 6:28 pm
Last week, Innocence Project staff attorney Nina Morrison argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that client Anthony Wright should be granted DNA testing that could prove his innocence or guilt of a 1993 murder he says he didn’t commit.
Meanwhile, the Innocence Project filed a brief seeking DNA testing in the case of John Kunco, an Allegheny County man who was convicted in 1992 of a murder he didn’t commit. His conviction rested in part on bite-mark comparison testimony, which has been a factor is several wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing.
"Simply put, Kunco's trial was polluted and contaminated with false, misleading and grossly unreliable bite mark evidence, and as a result this court can have no confidence in the jury's decision to convict Kunco," states the appeal written by Innocence Project lawyer Craig M. Cooley.Read about wrongful conviction cases involving bite mark evidence.
Read the full story here.
New Discovery Channel Series, 'Dallas DNA,' Premieres Tomorrow
Posted: April 27, 2009 1:00 pm
A new television series premiering tomorrow explores the importance of DNA testing and how a group of prosecutors in Texas are working to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
Chronicling the efforts of local Dallas prosecutors to review possible wrongful convictions, “Dallas DNA” takes a look at the work of the county’s conviction integrity unit, which was created by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins in January 2007 in response to the county's 19 DNA-based exonerations. The show premieres on Investigative Discovery on Tuesday, April 28 at 10 p.m. EST (check your local listings).
Tonight there will be a special screening of the new series at 6 p.m. at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where both Watkins and Innocence Project Executive Director Madeline deLone will speak and take questions about the importance of post-conviction DNA testing.
Special screening of “Dallas DNA”The event is free to the public. To attend, please RSVP by e-mailing DallasDNA_NewYork@discovery.com.
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University
Greenberg Center for Student Life, Third Floor
55 Fifth Avenue (map)
Learn more about “Dallas DNA” here.
Tags: Texas, Reforms, Access to DNA Testing
Chicago Man is Freed, 16 Years After Wrongful Conviction
Posted: May 4, 2009 1:31 pm
Thaddeus Jimenez was just 13 years old in 1993 when he was arrested in Chicago for a shooting murder he swore he didn’t commit. He spent 16 years in prison before he was freed on Friday due to new evidence that another man committed the murder.
Despite evidence at his trial that another man had committed the crime, Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. His conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was convicted again by a jury in 1997 and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago have been working on Jimenez’s appeals for more than three years with pro bono attorneys from the firm Muchin Rosenman. Although courts had already reviewed a confession by another man and other strong evidence of innocence, Jimenez’s legal team presented prosecutors with further evidence in 2007 and the case was reopened. The investigation culminated on Friday when a judge overturned Jimenez’s conviction and ordered him freed.
He walked out of Hill Correctional Facility a free man for the first time since he was 13 years old.
“When I first reviewed TJ’s letter, I was floored that he had ever been convicted of this crime…There were so many red flags pointing the police and prosecutors in the direction of this true perpetrator” at the time of the crime, says Center on Wrongful Convictions Legal Director Steve Drizin. “We had to do that again, 16 years later. We located the true perpetrator, we have a picture and an address to the State’s Attorney’s office and, to their credit, they followed up on that information and they arrested him.”
Read more about the case here.
Watch a moving new video of Jimenez’s release here.
Young people are particularly susceptible to wrongful convictions. One-third of the 237 people exonerated by DNA testing were arrested before their 22nd birthday. Learn more about their stories and take action here.
Criminal Defense and Wrongful Convictions
Posted: May 6, 2009 6:00 pm
In a recent speech accepting the Federal Bar Council’s Leaned Hand Medal, federal judge Lewis Kaplan focused on wrongful convictions and one of their leading causes – the quality of representation available to criminal defendants.
Bad or inadequate defense representation has played a role in many of the wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. In his speech, Kaplan identified four factors that contribute to this problem: the overworked and under-funded indigent defense system, the staggering economic cost of private representation, the lack of information available to defendants about their options, and the competence of hired lawyers
“We know from the Innocence Project that 237 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence alone of crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced. So we now know with scientific certainty what many have suspected for years. Our criminal justice system, no different from anything else that depends on inherently fallible human beings, makes mistakes. How many? No one knows. But consider this. In 2008, the number of persons incarcerated in the United States substantially exceeded 2 million. So if even one in 1,000 of those inmates was convicted mistakenly, there are more than 2,000 people behind bars in this country for crimes they didn't commit,” Kaplan said.
“We pride ourselves on the American system of justice, and we have much to be proud of. But we do not have a right to be smug or complacent. Our system of defending the poor is in a state of crisis in many parts of the country. We must respond to that crisis.”
Read the full text of Kaplan’s speech here. (The New York Law Journal, 05/06/2009)
Learn more about how inadequate defense contributes to wrongful convictions.
Tags: New York, Bad Lawyering
A Celebration of Freedom and Justice
Posted: May 8, 2009 6:02 pm
More than 600 people joined us in New York City on Wednesday for our third annual Celebration of Freedom & Justice. The event honored Bob Balaban, director, producer and actor for producing and directing the play The Exonerated; Jason Flom, a long-standing Innocence Project board member and President of Lava Records; and the law firm of Weil Gotshal for their extensive pro bono support of the Innocence Project. The night included performancesby Blue Man Group and Phoebe Snow and readings by Aidan Quinn and Brooke Shields.
CNN anchor Jami Floyd blogged about the event:
There were more than 600 people in the room, all supporting the mission. But it’s not enough.At the event, Innocence Project Board Member John Grisham announced the formation of the Innocence Project Artists’ Committee, a group of writers, directors, actors, visual artists and musicians who support the Innocence Project and are helping raise awareness about wrongful convictions. The committee includes Stephen Colbert, James Gandolfini, Nora Ephron, Judy Collins, Nia Long, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick and many more. Read more about the new group here.
If you do the numbers, there are probably thousands more innocent people in prison; and fighting to win the release of an innocent person is the noblest thing a lawyer can do. If Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld retire tomorrow, they’ve done more good work than most lawyers do in a lifetime. But the heroism of two men is not enough.
Read Floyd’s full post here and watch video here.
Screening and Discussion Tuesday in New York
Posted: May 11, 2009 6:20 pm
Innocence Project client Alan Newton, who served 21 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, will speak tomorrow night in Huntington, New York, following a screening of the award-winning documentary film “After Innocence.”
Newton will be joined by Innocence Project Publications Manager Elizabeth Webster at the screening. The event is open to the public and more information is available here.
Tags: Alan Newton, Life After Exoneration
NY Times: Plugging Holes in Forensic Science
Posted: May 12, 2009 1:37 pm
A special series today in the New York Times examines the findings of the recent National Academy of Sciences report entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” A cross-section of stakeholders in the forensic science community, the Times reports, support the NAS recommendation of federal and state government support, research and oversight for forensic sciences.
Barry Fisher, a past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a former director of the crime laboratory at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said he and others had been pushing for this kind of independent assessment for years. “There needs to be a demonstration that this stuff is reliable,” he said.Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will testify tomorrow before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary subcommittee. More on his testimony tomorrow.
It’s not that there hasn’t been any research in forensic science. But over the years much of it has been done in crime labs themselves. “It hasn’t gotten to the level where they can state findings in a rigorous scientific way,” said Constantine Gatsonis, director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University and co-chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee. And rather than being teased out in academic papers and debated at scientific conferences, “a lot of this forensic stuff is being argued in the courtroom,” Mr. Fisher said. “That’s not the place to validate any kind of scientific information.”
Read the full story: Plugging the Holes in the Science of Forensics (05/12/09)
Tags: Forensic Oversight
Three Years of Freedom
Posted: May 15, 2009 4:01 pm
Three years ago tomorrow, Doug Warney was freed from a New York prison after serving nine years for a murder he didn’t commit. Warney, who has a history of mental health issues, was convicted based in part on a false confession he allegedly made after 12 hours of questioning. About 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing nationwide have involved false confessions or admissions.
At the time of Warney’s exoneration in 2006, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said it should lead law enforcement agencies across the state to begin recording interrogations. Three years later, although many individual agencies in the state have begun to record interrogations, New York is still one of 36 states with no law requiring recordings.
“These DNA results don’t just show that Doug Warney is innocent – they reveal criminal conduct on the part of at least two Rochester police officers, and they demonstrate tunnel vision on the part of police and prosecutors who ignored compelling evidence that the confession was bogus,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “This case should be a clarion call for every law enforcement agency in the state to begin recording police interrogations for serious crimes.”Earlier this month, the chief judge of New York’s highest court said he would create a new permanent task force to examine causes of wrongful convictions – like false confessions – and recommend reforms to prevent wrongful convictions like Warney’s.
Neufeld said this task force could be a driving force to finally bring about changes like recorded interrogations in New York, but that it is also critical that the state legislature take action.
“While this is a major step forward, it is one piece of the whole. There are major systemic weaknesses demanding immediate action, and we will continue working with the Governor, Attorney General and Legislature to advance critical reforms in this legislative session that can prevent wrongful convictions. The task force Judge Lippman is creating does not supplant other efforts – it complements them and makes them even more critical.”Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:
Sunday: Neil Miller, Massachusetts (Served 9.5 Years, Exonerated 5/1/0/2000)
Monday: Curtis McCarty, Oklahoma (Served 21 Years, Exonerated 5/11/2007)
Thursday: Josiah Sutton, Texas (Served 4.5 Years, Exonerated 5/14/04)
Tags: Douglas Warney, False Confessions
Join the Discussion: The Struggle for DNA Access
Posted: May 18, 2009 11:20 am
A story in the New York Times today examines the cases of several prisoners who have met with resistance from prosecutors and judges in obtaining DNA testing that could prove their innocence. Innocence Project client Kenneth Reed has been in Louisiana’s Angola prison for 17 years for a rape he has always said he didn’t commit. DNA testing could prove his innocence, but prosecutors have resisted his appeals – saying he was identified by witnesses and convicted by a jury so doesn’t have the right to DNA testing.
In Mr. Reed’s case in East Baton Rouge Parish, the district attorney who first prosecuted the case and now his successor, Hillar C. Moore III, have appealed every DNA-related ruling in Mr. Reed’s favor and objected to even a hearing on the matter.Learn more about the Innocence Project’s work to improve DNA testing access when it can prove innocence – and find your state's DNA access law on our interactive map.
They have argued that Mr. Reed’s identity was not an issue in the trial because he was identified by (witnesses), even though DNA evidence has repeatedly contradicted eyewitness identifications. They have argued that there was no way of knowing whether the evidence would yield a usable DNA profile — a question that would be settled by testing it.
…(Innocence Project Staff Attorney) Nina Morrison … said: “The one thing I’ve learned in doing this for seven years is there’s no reason to guess or speculate. You can just do the test.”
Read the full story here and join the discussion on the New York Times website. (New York Times, 05/18/09)
Tags: Access to DNA Testing
Friday Roundup: Unvalidated Forensics
Posted: May 22, 2009 2:09 pm
As the new Just Science Coalition calls for forensic reform in the United States, cases involving unvalidated forensics continued to make news this week:
Joseph Ramirez has been convicted four times in Florida for a 1983 murder, and each trial involved a form of unvalidated forensic evidence – from toolmark comparison to shoeprint identification. Reporter Maurice Possley wrote about his case this week at the Crime Report.
Meanwhile, an Oklahoma man was charged with murder based on bite-mark evidence.
For more stories on forensic science and calls for reform, remember to check the news page at the new Just Science Coalition website. Innocence Project supporters continued to sign the coalition’s petition this week calling for a federal agency to support and oversee forensic science in the U.S. Add your name today.
A column in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram this week praised Dallas for its Conviction Integrity Unit and called on Tarrant County (which includes Fort Worth) to improve its reviews of possible wrongful convictions and its evidence preservation practices. On Thursday, Tarrant County DA Joe Shannon, Jr., responded to the column, writing: “Because of our history of integrity, openness and discretion, Tarrant County has been spared the rash of wrongful convictions that have made headlines elsewhere.”
Guardian columnist Eric Allison wrote this week about his theory on why prisoners seem to be good at determining when a fellow inmate has a legitimate claim of innocence.
A civil jury recently found “clear and convincing evidence of innocence” in the case of Massachusetts exoneree Ulysses Charles, making him eligible for up to $500,000 in damages.
Many readers of this blog are already members of our Facebook Cause, but we now have a Facebook page, too. Join here – and let us know if there are other social network sites where you’d like the see an active Innocence Project presence.
Tags: Ulysses Rodriguez Charles
Growing Calls to Reopen Florida Cases
Posted: June 23, 2009 1:45 pm
Florida exonerees William Dillon and Wilton Dedge were both convicted based, in part, on the testimony of John Preston, a now-discredited dog handler. The Innocence Project of Florida is now working on another case involving Preston, and calls are increasing for officials to reexamine any possible wrongful convictions from the early 1980s – especially those involving Preston.
An editorial on Saturday in Florida Today listed some of the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in Brevard County in the 1980s and called on Governor Charlie Crist to launch an official investigation into questionable convictions from the county.
-- Titusville attorney and former Brevard prosecutor Sam Bardwell, who encountered Preston in a 1981 rape case, says then-State Attorney Doug Cheshire … as well as the Brevard Sheriff’s Office and most law enforcement officers at the time knew Preston was a charlatan.
“I left the State Attorney’s Office because I could not abide by the fabrication of evidence,” Bardwell says.
-- Retired 18th Circuit and appellate Judge Gil Goshorn confirmed Cheshire relied heavily on Preston in a number of cases, along with questionable jailhouse snitches.
“Cheshire’s office often relied on such evidence of dubious reliability,” Goshorn said in a sworn affadavit in 2008.Dedge, an Innocence Project client, was exonerated in 2004. Dillon, represented by the Innocence Project of Florida, was cleared last year. The Innocence Project of Florida is now working on the case of Gary Bennett, who was convicted of murder based in part on Preston’s testimony. Preston, who testified in 60 cases in Brevard County and many more elsewhere in the U.S., is now deceased.
Read more about Bennett’s case on the Innocence Project of Florida website. And set your DVR for a special report on Dillon’s case from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 – scheduled to air tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 10 p.m. ET.
Read the Florida Today investigative article and editorial.
Tags: Florida, Wilton Dedge, William Dillon
The Osborne Case: A Misguided Decision and the Path Forward
Posted: June 24, 2009 4:43 pm
In a guest post today on the American Constitution Society blog, Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison analyzes last week's Supreme Court decision on DNA access and how it will affect efforts to obtain DNA testing for prisoners seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. She writes:
In an already much-criticized decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that Innocence Project client William Osborne could not use the federal civil rights law to obtain DNA testing for the purpose of proving his innocence of the rape for which he was convicted and sent to prison in 1994. The decision was disappointing and surprising given the broad national consensus about DNA testing's unprecedented capabilities to exonerate the innocent. But the court ultimately decided that principles of finality and deference to state law trumped fundamental fairness, even where scientific proof of actual innocence is concerned.
Read the full post at the ACS Blog.
Tags: William Osborne
Painting the Exonerated
Posted: July 9, 2009 2:06 pm
By: Dan Bolick, Artist & Retired Art Teacher
[Editor’s Note: Below is a guest post from Dan Bolick, whose solo exhibition “Resurrected” is currently on view at the Westmoreland Museum in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. In Part One of his post today, he writes about how he came to paint portraits of exonerees. Tomorrow, in part two, he writes about the experience of getting to know the exonerated and the power of art to open people’s eyes to injustice. He is speaking about the project tonight at the gallery. Images of several paintings are available here and details on tonight’s lecture are available by calling (724) 837-1500. At left is Bolick’s portrait of Drew Whitley, who was exonerated through DNA evidence after 16 years in prison or a crime he didn’t commit.]
I taught art for the inner-city Pittsburgh Public Schools for many years, and during that time I worked with many kids who wound up on the wrong side of the law. Some got caught up in the legal system and found themselves being accused of petty crimes that they didn’t commit. After being gone from my class for awhile they would return wondering “Why me?” I tried to explain that the criminal justice system is not always fair, is somewhat broken and is simply best to be avoided. I would tell them that sometimes the easy people to blame get fingered for crimes they didn’t commit.
The same kids would often get into trouble over and over again. They were caught up in a viscous cycle and their crimes escalated as their anger over their situation increased. During my final few years of teaching I saw more angry students than ever before. Eventually the anger was directed at me, the school became a physically unsafe place to work, and I retired.
I became a full-time painter. I attempted to paint that anger. It was a cathartic experience for me. Eventually, I was given the opportunity to have a solo exhibition of my paintings at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. But what to paint? Having removed myself from the classroom and painted the angry portraits eliminated the tension that I had felt, I wanted to paint something that could help people.
I decided to focus on the wrongfully convicted, to help make ordinary citizens aware of this terrible problem in society. I first reached out to several exonerees and got no response. But I wasn’t going to let the project die. After a month went by I began to research the Innocence Project and similar organizations across the country and came across a play called “Voices of Innocence,” written by four death row exonerees in New Orleans. I figured that if they had already turned their horrible experiences into art they would be more open to my project. I was right. They agreed to allow me to come down to New Orleans to meet with them.
I would eventually paint portraits of ten men who suffered the unimaginable injustice of wrongful conviction, and my exhibition is currently up at the Westmoreland Museum. In another post tomorrow, I will discuss the memorable experience of working with exonerees and my hopes to keep this project alive.
[UPDATE: Read part two of this post here.]
Tags: Drew Whitley
Friday Roundup: Hoping for Justice
Posted: July 17, 2009 4:46 pm
Several stories in the media this week examine the legal limbo many defendants face while seeking to clear their names – and the uphill battle faced by others to get their day in court.
At a hearing next Tuesday in Michigan, Davontae Sanford will seek to withdraw his guilty plea in a case involving four 2007 murders. Sanford was 16 years old – and read at a third-grade level – when he signed a confession he says he couldn’t read. Another man has now said he was a hit man and committed the murders alone.
In Texas, Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen are awaiting word on whether they will be retried in a multiple murder they say they didn’t commit. DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene recently excluded both men, and they were released pending a reinvestigation. Scott has a hearing scheduled from August 12, and the Austin Chronicle this week ran an in-depth investigation and update on the case.
Also in Texas, the debate continues over the question of whether Gov. Rick Perry has the power to grant Timothy Cole a posthumous pardon based on DNA evidence proving his innocence of a 1985 rape.
The New York Justice Task Force held its first meeting last week to begin the process of evaluating the causes of wrongful convictions in the state and recommending reforms. State Assemblyman Joe Lentol, a member of the task force, said: “It is our profound belief that we can truly free our criminal justice system of wrongful convictions. It is vital that the public trust that we, the state, are locking up the truly guilty. When dealing with people’s lives, it is essential that we act with precision,” Lentol said. “And as we all know; when an innocent person is in prison, the real criminal is still walking the streets.”
A citizens’ review committee held its final meeting in the case of Kalvin Smith, who says he was wrongfully convicted of attacking a woman in 1997. The committee will present its findings to prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Alternet reported this week on the benefits and risks of collecting DNA profile information from everyone arrested for felonies. The Innocence Project position on DNA databases is here.
In an editorial today, the Dallas Morning News called for state and federal oversight of forensic science to prevent wrongful convictions caused by faulty forensics.
The Innocence Project continued to advocate for federal forensic reforms this week as well. For a roundup of forensics news from around the country, visit the Just Science news page.
Tags: Timothy Cole
Australian Prisoner Could Become First to Get DNA Tests
Posted: July 23, 2009 4:42 pm
Shane Sebastian Davis has spent nearly two decades in Australian prisons for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Blood evidence collected in the case was long believed lost or destroyed – but that changed in March, when prosecutors informed Griffith University Innocence Project Director Lynne Weathered that 12 vials of blood had been located.
Davis and his attorneys are now seeking access to the evidence to conduct DNA testing that could prove Davis’ innocence.
Attorney Chris Nyst, who is working with Weathered on the case, said the government’s action in locating the evidence should be applauded and hopes for a decision soon on whether DNA testing can proceed. Nyst told the Courier Mail:
"We don't know whether Davis is innocent or not. He says he is. What we do know is that we now have the technology to ascertain that. It should happen and we want it to happen quickly."Learn more about the Griffith University Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network.
Read the full story here. (Courier Mail, 07/23/09)
[Update, 7/24/09 – This post has been corrected. Davis would not be the first Australian prisoner granted access to DNA testing, as was reported in the Courier Mail. Frank Alan Button was exonerated through DNA testing in Queensland in 2001 after serving 10 months in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.]
Tags: Access to DNA Testing
Another Chapter in a Notorious Chicago Murder Case
Posted: July 28, 2009 6:18 pm
Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez spent more than 10 years on Illinois death row before DNA tests proved their innocence of a child murder in 1995. The DNA tests at the time implicated a man named Brian Dugan, who had been convicted of two other murders and was charged with the murder in 2005. Yesterday, he pled guilty and told a judge he committed the crime alone. He has yet to be sentenced.
"A little girl died a horrible death, a family was twisted and tormented by the criminal justice system for a quarter century, but it's time to move on," said Scott Turow, a best-selling author and lawyer who handled the appeal of one of the men convicted in the slaying.DNA testing doesn’t only exonerate the wrongfully convicted, it helps to identify the people who actually committed the crimes in question. The Cruz / Hernandez case is among 104 DNA exoneration cases in which the real perpetrator of the crime has been apprehended.
Read the full story here. (MSNBC, 07/28/09)
Tags: Rolando Cruz, Alejandro Hernandez
Texas Man Expected to Walk Free Tomorrow
Posted: August 6, 2009 5:50 pm
Innocence Project client Ernest Sonnier has been in Texas prisons for 23 years for a rape DNA now shows he didn’t commit. He is expected to be freed tomorrow following a hearing at the Harris County Court.
“We fully expect Ernest Sonnier to be home with his family on Friday night for the first time in more than 23 years,” said Alba Morales, the Innocence Project Staff Attorney handling the case. “This is a complicated case, but the bottom line is simple: Ernest Sonnier is innocent, and his long nightmare is coming to an end. We have conducted nine rounds of DNA testing on multiple pieces of evidence for the last 18 months. Not a shred of evidence ties Ernest to this crime, but DNA testing has identified the two apparent perpetrators.”
Read today’s press release in the case here.
Sonnier was convicted in 1986 based in part on a questionable eyewitness identification and forensic evidence that was improperly tested and presented. His is the latest in a string of cases where faulty forensics in the Houston Police Department Crime Lab contributed to the wrongful conviction. A comprehensive audit of cases in the lab found in 2007 that serology testing there from 1980 to 1992 was “generally unreliable.” Read more and download the full audit report here.
But the problem isn’t isolated in Houston. Among the nation’s 241 DNA exonerations to date, approximately 50% involved unvalidated or improper forensic science. Earlier this year, an unprecedented report from the National Academy of Sciences found serious deficiencies in forensic science and called for the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Sciences. Learn more and join the call for federal oversight and support of forensics at the Just Science Coalition website.
Tags: Ernest Sonnier
U.S. Supreme Court Orders Hearing for Troy Davis
Posted: August 17, 2009 1:33 pm
In a highly unusual step, the U.S. Supreme Court today ordered a new hearing in the case of Troy Davis, who has been on Georgia’s death row for nearly two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Ruling on a habeas corpus petition from Davis, the court ordered a federal judge to “receive testimony and findings of fact as to whether evidence that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis’] innocence.”
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
But Justice John Paul Stevens cited prior court precedent that said it would be “an atrocious violation of our Constitution and the principles upon which it is based” to execute an innocent man.Last year, the Innocence Project joined with the Innocence Network in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in federal court on Davis’ behalf, arguing that eyewitness identification – a major contributor to Davis’ conviction – is often unreliable and that the case should be subject to review on appeal. Download the Network brief here. (PDF)
“Imagine a petitioner in Davis’s situation who possesses new evidence conclusively and definitively proving, beyond any scintilla of doubt, that he is an innocent man,” Stevens wrote. “The dissent’s reasoning would allow such a petitioner to be put to death nonetheless.”
Read the full story here. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 08/17/09)
UPDATE: Innocence Project Staff Attorney Ezekiel Edwards discussed the case on DemocracyNow! on August 19 with Davis' sister Martina Correia and others. Watch his appearance here.
Tags: Troy Davis
Virginia Lawmakers Consider Improved Exoneree Compensation
Posted: August 18, 2009 6:11 pm
Arthur Lee Whitfield served more than 22 years in Virginia prisons for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release. He has not received state compensation, however, because the state Supreme Court denied him a writ of actual innocence, which is required to receive compensation under state law.
Lawmakers are returning tomorrow for a special session and will review proposals for bills that would pay Whitfield between $445,000 and $750,000. Delegate Kenny Alexander said he would propose a bill next year to compensate people who are exonerated but don’t receive a declaration of innocence.
Read the full story here. (Virginian-Pilot, 08/18/09)
Virginia is one of 27 states with compensation laws, but it is among several states that exclude certain populations of people even after DNA testing proves them innocent. The Innocence Project works to pass fair, just compensation laws across the country. Find your state’s law on our interactive map here.
Tags: Arthur Lee Whitfield
Friday Roundup: Arson, ID and Exoneration
Posted: August 28, 2009 2:30 pm
An independent investigator delivered a report this week to the Texas Forensic Science Commission finding serious flaws in the evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004 in Texas for an arson murder he always said he didn’t commit. The investigator’s report is consistent with the findings of a panel of arson experts commissioned by the Innocence Project to review the case in 2006. We’ll have much more on Willingham’s case next week.
Richard Sturgeon was freed in Houston after nearly 11 years in prison for a crime he has always said he didn’t commit. He was convicted based in part on an eyewitness identification resulting from an improper lineup including three suspects. The two other men implicated in the crime have said Sturgeon was innocent.
A North Carolina man serving life in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit will have a hearing next week before the state’s innocence commission. An investigator has said DNA from the crime scene doesn’t match the prisoner’s profile.
Matthew Gerrie, a researcher at New Zealand’s Victoria University and a manger at the Innocence Project of New Zealand, was named a “Young Scientist of the Year” for his work examining eyewitness identification practice and the decision-making processes of witnesses.
Tennessee exoneree Clark McMillan said this week that he is struggling to make ends meet under the annuity he receives as part of his compensation from the state.
Connecticut lawyer Karen Lee Torre wrote a column praising the work of the Connecticut Innocence Project, which represented Kenneth Ireland, who was cleared by DNA and freed this month after two decades in prison.
News and Opinion on a Wrongful Execution in Texas
Posted: September 1, 2009 6:30 pm
We posted yesterday on the New Yorker’s exhaustive investigation showing that Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for a crime he didn’t commit. Below are links to some coverage of the story, along with reaction and opinion from across the web:
Bob Herbert wrote today in the New York Times that “it was inevitable that some case in which a clearly innocent person had been put to death would come to light.”
Jonah Lehrer writes at The Daily Dish blog that the Willingham case brought to mind the Just World Hypothesis, which suggests that we “rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world.”
Allan Turner wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the Willingham case may bolster federal forensic reforms.
Desiree Evans asked at Facing South: “How many more Willinghams exist on Texas’ death row?”
Tomorrow (Wednesday, September 2) at 3 p.m. EST, New Yorker reporter David Grann will take readers’ questions in a live chat. Join in here.
Watch Live: Senate Judiciary Hearing on Forensic Reform
Posted: September 8, 2009 5:56 pm
Watch online tomorrow at 10 a.m. EST as Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for a National Institute of Forensic Science. He will be joined by Law Professor Paul Giannelli, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, a lab director and two prosecutors.
Visit this link at 10 a.m. EST to watch live.
The Innocence Project has called for the creation of an independent federal agency to support and oversee forensic science practices across the country. Learn more and voice your support for forensic reform at the Just Science Coalition website.
Tags: Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics
NJ: Critical Hearings on Eyewitness Identification
Posted: September 23, 2009 5:35 pm
Starting tomorrow, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Staff Attorney Zeke Edwards will urge New Jersey to adopt improvements to the state’s procedure on presenting eyewitness evidence in court.
Tomorrow’s hearing stems from the 2004 conviction of Larry Henderson for reckless manslaughter and weapons possession charges. Henderson was identified in a lineup procedure, and he appealed his conviction on the grounds that officers failed to follow state guidelines on conducting identification procedures.
As a result of Henderson’s appeals, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered a complete inquiry into eyewitness procedures conducted in the state. In the days ahead, Innocence Project attorneys and Henderson’s public defenders will present a wide range of evidence and research on eyewitness identification procedures and the factors that contribute to misidentifications.
New Jersey was one of the first states in the nation to adopt reforms on how lineups are conducted, and the changes advocated in tomorrow’s hearing could move New Jersey even further to the forefront of preventing wrongful convictions based on eyewitness misidentifications.
The hearings start tomorrow and continue on non-consecutive days until October 9.
Read more here.
Tags: Larry Henderson
Friday Roundup: A Troubling Development in Texas
Posted: October 2, 2009 6:50 pm
We wrote this week about Gov. Rick Perry’s troubling move to remove three members from a panel charged with reviewing arson evidence that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s 2004 execution. Because of the shakeup, the panel's meeting scheduled for today was cancelled.
The fallout continues -- here are stories from The New York Times, Wall Street Journal Law Blog, USA Today, Volokh Conspiracy and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Join the conversation about this case on our Facebook page.
This week’s move by Gov. Perry, together with other forensic stories in Texas and around the country, have underscored the need for an independent, science-based federal entity to support and oversee forensic science:
An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigated questions about the reliability of autopsies.
The Houston Chronicle published an editorial about wrongful convictions and dog scent lineups. “We love dogs, but we have our limits. We don't think they should be allowed to vote, hold public office or provide court testimony,” the paper's editors wrote.
David Scott of Indiana is seeking to clear his name. He was freed last year after serving 23 years for a murder he didn’t commit, but he still has the crime on his record.
Wilder “Ken” Berry, a wrongfully convicted Illinois man who was cleared in 2006 was appointed to serve on a board that advises the state department of corrections on its policies.
KPBS public radio profiled the work of the California Innocence Project.
A Test of Convictions
Posted: October 26, 2009 2:05 pm
CNN.com reports today on the inspiring case of Innocence Project client Dean Cage and his fiancée, Jewel Mitchell. The two became engaged in 1994, just a few months before Cage was arrested for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. Mitchell spoke with CNN about the pain of losing her fiancé to prison and the difficult years of waiting for him:
"It was almost like he was dead," Jewel says. "That's how bad it hurt."
Last year, DNA testing proved Cage’s innocence and he was set free, after serving more than 12 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He and Mitchell were reunited, and CNN will post part two of its story tomorrow. We’ll post a link here when it’s live.
CBS News also posted a story today on Cage's case.
Read more about Cage’s case here.
Tags: Dean Cage
Willingham's Stepmom: It's Time for Truth
Posted: October 30, 2009 4:06 pm
An op-ed in today’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram from the stepmother of Cameron Todd Willingham calls for the state to continue seeking answers in the case of her stepson, who was executed in Texas in 2004 despite evidence of his innocence. For more on Willingham’s case, visit our Willingham Resource Center.
Another article in the Houston Chronicle today by Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis urges the Texas Forensic Science Commission to continue its work of investigating allegations of forensic negligence of misconduct.
Eugenia Willingham writes that there are many unanswered questions in her stepson’s case, and that only rational, independent review can address them. She writes:
My family has lost three beautiful little children and their loving father. We want answers. We want to know how the justice system got so badly off-track in Todd’s case, and we want to know how many other families have been devastated by erroneous evidence in arson cases in Texas.Meanwhile, Barry Scheck and State Senator Rodney Ellis (who also serves as the Innocence Project Board Chairman) write that it’s important for the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) to stick to its mission of investigating forensic issues -- not just in Willingham’s case, but in many others as well. At a hearing on Nov. 10, the new chairman of the TFSC will update the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee on his plans for continuing the commission's work. Scheck and Ellis write:
Attacking my son won’t change the troubling lack of evidence in his case, and it won’t answer questions that refuse to go away.
Read Eugenia Willingham’s op-ed. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 10/30/09)
As we turn toward the next steps for the commission, it's critical to remember why the commission was created — and what the investigation of the Willingham case and other arson cases is really about. The commission was never investigating whether an innocent man had been executed; that's not its role. Instead, the commission is trying to determine whether the forensic analysts in the Willingham case negligently used unreliable methods, whether there are other past cases where unreliable arson analysis was employed, and what, if any, corrective action should be taken.
Read their full op-ed. (Houston Chronicle, 10/30/09)
Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham
Jailhouse Snitch Recants in Florida Case
Posted: November 2, 2009 5:30 pm
A Florida man said today at a legislative hearing that he was coerced into testifying falsely against William Dillon 28 years ago, contributing to Dillon’s wrongful conviction for a murder he didn’t commit. The hearing was focused on state compensation for Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project of Florida proved his innocence and led to his release one year ago this month.
Roger Dale Chapman, who was in jail on a drug charge when Dillon was arrested, said at the hearing that Brevard County law enforcement officers offered to set him free in exchange for his coached testimony against Dillon. Two officers sat with him during a recorded interview and wrote answers in a notebook for him to read on tape, he said. Chapman apologized to Dillon today for his role in the injustice, and Dillon forgave him, saying: "I know you were used. I know they pressured you."
Another Brevard County exoneree, Innocence Project client Wilton Dedge, was convicted based in part on the testimony of a notorious jailhouse snitch, who testified that Dedge confessed to him while the two men were in jail. Informant or snitch testimony has played a role in at least 15% of the 245 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing to date.
Dillon is seeking $1.35 million in compensation for the 27 years he spent in prison.
Read the full story here. (Florida Today, 11/2/09)
Read more about Dillon’s case.
Read more about Dedge’s case.
Visit the Innocence Project of Florida website.
Tags: Wilton Dedge, William Dillon, Informants/Snitches
Wrongful Convictions and Prosecutorial Immunity
Posted: November 4, 2009 5:42 pm
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in a case centered on wrongful convictions and the issue of whether prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity, even when their misconduct extends beyond the courtroom.
Two men filed a civil rights lawsuit against Iowa prosecutors who allegedly coerced false testimony and fabricated evidence to convict them of crimes they say they didn't commit. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that they are protected by absolute immunity, and have stated outright that there is no constitutional "right not to be framed.”
During arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern about creating a “chilling effect on prosecutors” by allowing them to be sued. Justice John Paul Stevens, however, said it was “perverse” that a prosecutor can be sued if he or she fabricates evidence and then hands it to another prosecutor to conduct a trial, but can’t be sued if he or she completes that trial. He wasn’t the only justice to raise concerns:
"So the law is the more deeply you're involved in the wrong, the more likely you are to be immune? That's a strange proposition," Justice Anthony Kennedy said.The case comes to the Supreme Court following a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the men could sue because they had presented evidence that the prosecutors in the case had violated their right to due process. In reviewing the Eighth Circuit decision, the Supreme Court is essentially considering the extent of prosecutorial immunity under historical precedent and the Constitution.
The two men at the center of the case, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, served 25 years in prison for a murder they’ve always said they didn’t commit. On appeal, the men discovered records showing that prosecutors had coerced a witness to testify against them and that police and prosecutors had withheld evidence pointing to another suspect. They were freed this year.
One argument raised by the prosecutors is that allowing these men to sue will open floodgates for prisoners to allege misconduct by prosecutors. Attorneys for Harrington and McGhee argue that this case is so egregious that it would meet even a strict standard under which defendants could sue prosecutors.
In an editorial this morning, the Washington Post agrees:
The vast majority of prosecutors perform honorably and understand that they are duty-bound not just to secure convictions but to seek justice. Those who don't often suffer no consequences at the hands of state or bar organizations, as a brief in support of Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington convincingly argues. For these few renegades, perhaps the prospect of being held liable will help to keep them in line or, at least, hold them accountable.News coverage of the case, Pottawattamie County v. McGhee:
Associated Press: Court Worries About Stifling Prosecutors
NPR Morning Edition: Can Prosecutors Be Sued by the People They Framed?
Washington Post Editorial: The Right Not to Be Framed
Analaysis of the Case by SCOTUSblog
Transcript of today’s oral arguments.
Briefs and filings in the case at SCOTUSwiki.
Tags: Government Misconduct
Tune in Online: Hearing Tuesday on Texas Forensics
Posted: November 9, 2009 3:24 pm
In Austin tomorrow morning, the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee will question John Bradley, the newly appointed chairman of the state Forensic Science Commission, about the panel’s ongoing work. Before Gov. Rick Perry replaced four commission members, the panel was in the process of reviewing forensic evidence used against Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004.
Click here to watch the hearing live Nov. 10 at 10 a.m. CST (11 a.m. EST)
Click here to watch the press conference live Nov. 10 at approximately 10:30 a.m. CST (11:30 p.m. EST)
(You will need Real Player to watch the events above online. Download it for free here).
Learn more about the Willingham case and the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Texas Commission’s Email Policy Comes Under Fire
Posted: November 23, 2009 1:45 pm
A new policy directing Texas Forensic Science Commission members to destroy all old emails relating to the commission is being criticized by a state Senator, who says the move takes the panel “in the wrong direction.”
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram obtained an email from the commission’s staff coordinator asking all members to “delete all commission correspondence” as a matter of policy. New TFSC chairman John Bradley suggested at a November 10 hearing that he may seek to keep some of the commission’s work confidential, drawing sharp questions from lawmakers.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa said he disagreed with the email policy, asserting that commission members are independently appointed and should decide what email they want to keep. Keith Elkins, the director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, also questioned the policy.
"If you have a policy to routinely destroy information, that doesn’t sound transparent to me," Elkins said. "It just strikes me as being very unusual, especially in light of all the controversy surrounding that agency recently."Bradley was appointed in October by Gov. Rick Perry to take over as the commission’s chairman, just two days before the panel was scheduled to hear testimony from an independent arson expert on forensic evidence used in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004.
Read the full story here. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 11/23/09)
Learn more about the Willingham case and the work of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham
Friday Roundup: From Australia to the U.S., Public Defense Falls Short
Posted: December 11, 2009 6:20 pm
Farah Jama, a 22-year-old Australian man, was freed this week after a court found that he had been convicted based on contaminated DNA evidence. He had served over a year in prison, and an editorial today in the Sydney Morning Herald said funding for public defense is below 1997 levels and is contributing to injustices.
Indigent defense funding shortfalls have been a prominent issue in the U.S. this year as well, and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck will join a panel of experts Monday in Detroit at a hearing organized by the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
A New York man was cleared this week after four years in prison for a rape evidence now shows he didn’t commit. William McCaffrey was cleared of rape charges after the victim in the case recanted her testimony.A former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association called on Florida’s Supreme Court to form a panel to review wrongful convictions and recommend measures to prevent injustice. Wilder “Ken” Berry served eight years in Illinois prisons before he was freed on evidence pointing to his innocence. Today he works as a senior paralegal at one of Chicago’s biggest law firms and serves on an Illinois Department of Corrections advisory board.Bruce Lisker was freed in August after 26 years in prison when his murder conviction was overturned based on evidence of innocence. LA Observed published its third article this week in a series following Lisker’s return to society.
The Minnesota Daily profiled the work of the Innocence Project of Minnesota and the case of Sherman Townsend.
Cedric Willis, who served 12 years in a Mississippi prison before he was exonerated, will receive $500,000 from the state. While he’s happy to receive the compensation, Willis told the Jackson Free Press: “You just can’t get back those years.” An editorial in the Free Press called for prosecutors to be held accountable.
27 Years Later, Donald Gates is Declared Innocent
Posted: December 23, 2009 4:30 pm
Donald Eugene Gates was freed from prison and his conviction was vacated last week when a D.C. Superior Court judge acted at the prosecutor’s request and acknowledged Gates was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years. DNA testing and other evidence showed that Gates was innocent. The U.S. Attorney’s Office initially said it would block Gates’ exoneration, but backed down late Friday.
The Washington Post writes:Read the full article here.
“The court finds by clear and convincing evidence that Mister Gates is actually innocent,” Judge Fred B. Ugast wrote in his opinion issued Friday, clearing Gates of all charges.…
Prosecutors also acknowledged in a letter Friday to Ugast that they had found correspondence alerting them in 1997 to 12 discredited FBI crime analysts, including one whose testimony they had relied on heavily during Gates’s trial. Prosecutors previously indicated in court that they had not been told about the analysts, a mistake that Ugast had called “outrageous.” Also, prosecutors had relied on testimony from a paid informant who testified that Gates confessed the killing and rape to him.
Gates, who is now 58, was released from an Arizona prison last Tuesday. A hearing in his case that was scheduled for today was canceled once prosecutors agreed to drop the case – and admitted that they have known for 12 years that the forensic expert who testified at his trial has been discredited.
The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia handled Gates’ post-conviction case. The Innocence Project has called for thorough review and follow-up of other cases involving the discredited FBI analysts who testified in Gates’ case.
Ten Great Moments of the Decade
Posted: December 30, 2009 11:00 am
It goes without saying that DNA testing and the issues surrounding wrongful convictions have left their mark on the criminal justice system in the last ten years. When the decade began, DNA testing had been used in American courtrooms for more than 11 years, but exonerations were still fairly rare.
In the last ten years, 182 people have been exonerated through DNA testing and states have passed dozens of laws addressing the causes of wrongful convictions. Yet there is plenty of work to do — countless innocent people remain behind bars as we pass into 2010 and the threat of wrongful convictions in today’s courtrooms is still very real.
As we look forward to freeing more innocent people than ever in the decade ahead and enacting major reforms to prevent wrongful convictions, here is a list (in chronological order) of 10 seminal moments from the 2000s.
"Actual Innocence” is published (2000)— Written by Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, with Jim Dwyer, this groundbreaking book examines the emergence of DNA testing and the causes of wrongful conviction it unveiled. During the decade, it became a blueprint for overturning wrongful convictions and reforming the criminal justice system.
Larry Mayes becomes the 100th Exoneree (2001) — Mayes spent 21 years in Indiana prisons before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project at the Indiana University School of Law proved his innocence and led to his release.
Illinois clears death row (2003) — Pointing clearly to the frightening rate of exonerations in his state (since 1977, 13 death row prisoners had been cleared while 12 had been executed), Gov. George Ryan granted blanket clemency to all 167 people on death row on January 10, 2003.
Congress passes the Justice for All Act (2004) — The JFAA is the most significant legislation to ever address wrongful convictions in the United States. It provides an avenue for federal prisoners to seek DNA testing and funds incentives for states to offer similar testing and to improve DNA testing capacity. It also provides compensation for federal exonerees.
“After Innocence” premieres (2005) — An award-winning documentary chronicling the lives of seven men released from prison after serving years for crimes they didn’t commit, After Innocence brought the issue of wrongful convictions to America’s movie theaters and living rooms. Watch a trailer here.
“The Innocent Man” published (2006) — John Grisham’s first non-fiction book tells the heartbreaking story of a murder in Oklahoma and an unimaginable injustice suffered by two innocent men. The book reached best-seller status around the world and a film version is in development. Following the book’s publication, John Grisham joined the Innocence Project’s board of directors. Several other excellent books also chronicled wrongful conviction cases during the decade, check back tomorrow for the decade's must read list.
Jerry Miller becomes the 200th Exoneree (2007) — It took 12 years to exonerate the first 100 people through DNA testing. It was just seven years later that Innocence Project client Jerry Miller became the 200th person exonerated through DNA. He served 25 years in Illinois prisons before he was cleared.
Dennis Fritz and Peggy Carter Sanders Dance on Stage (2008) — the history of criminal justice in the United States is filled with poignant moments of injustice overturned, from tear-filled homecomings to stirring speeches and courtroom victories. One of the most memorable is the moment Dennis Fritz, who was exonerated after 11 years in prison for an Oklahoma murder he didn’t commit, unexpectedly danced onstage with the mother of the murder victim at a New York event. Watch this touching moment on video here.
50th Member Joins the Innocence Network (2008) — the Innocence Network is an international affiliation of groups working to overturn wrongful convictions. As the field has broadened over the last 10 years, more organizations have been created to meet the growing need for pro bono legal services and advocacy. In 2008, the Innocence Network reached a membership of 50 organizations, today there are 54.
National Academy of Sciences releases forensic report (2009) — Faulty forensic evidence played a role in more than half of the wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. Many forensic techniques used in courtrooms today have never been subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report calling for the U.S. federal government to create a federal entity to oversee and support the forensic disciplines. Learn more here.
Photo: Innocence Project client Luis Diaz was exonerated in Florida in 2005 after 25 years in prison for a series of crimes he didn't commit. Courtesy South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Tags: Innocence Commissions, Exoneree Compensation, False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, Forensic Oversight, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing, False Confessions, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Informants/Snitches, Bad Lawyering, Government Misconduct, Eyewitness Misidentification
Ten Great Books of the Decade
Posted: December 31, 2009 12:26 pm
As we wrote yesterday in our post on ten great moments of the decade, it has been an eventful and successful 10 years for individuals and groups working to overturn wrongful convictions – but there’s plenty of work left to do.
As we embark on a new decade, here’s a roundup of 10 must-read books on wrongful convictions and criminal justice reform from the last 10 years, in no particular order. There were many more great books on the issue in the 2000s than we can name here, however, so please visit our book list for more good reads.
“Picking Cotton” by exoneree Ronald Cotton and crime victim Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, with Erin Torneo. Set to come out in paperback on January 4, this book was a highlight of 2009 and tells the moving story of a wrongful conviction and the fight for reform from the perspectives of an exoneree and crime victim.
“Actual Innocence”, by Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, with Jim Dwyer, this groundbreaking book examines the emergence of DNA testing and the causes of wrongful conviction it unveiled.
“Exit to Freedom,” an autobiography by Georgia exoneree Calvin Johnson, with Greg Hampikian of the Idaho Innocence Project, describes Johnson’s 1983 wrongful conviction, his fight for freedom and the challenges of building a new life after exoneration.
“The Innocents,” is a visually stunning collection of exoneree photos by Taryn Simon, with commentary by Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld.
“Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated,” includes first-hand accounts of injustice and exoneration from 13 men and women who were wrongfully convicted. Edited by Dave Eggers and Lola Vollen.
“Journey Toward Justice,” is Dennis Fritz’s personal account of his conviction in Oklahoma for a murder he didn’t commit.
“True Stories of False Confessions,” gathers articles and stories of false confessions, one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction. Edited by Rob Warden and Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
“Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town,” by Nate Blakeslee, explores injustice and the drug war through the lens of a wrongful conviction scandal in Texas.
“The Innocent Man,” John Grisham’s first non-fiction book tells the heartbreaking story of a murder in Oklahoma and an unimaginable injustice suffered by two innocent men: Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz.
“Bloodsworth,” by Tim Junkin, is the story of Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S. after serving time on death row.
Friday Roundup: New Year Edition
Posted: January 1, 2010 10:15 am
Happy New Year from all of us at the Innocence Project!
Here’s a holiday edition of the Friday roundup:
An editorial on Sunday in the Washington Post pointed to the recent exonerations of James Bain and Donald Gates, and said" "As appalling as the two cases are, what's even scarier is the thought that imperfections in the criminal justice system will go uncorrected and more people could be wrongly jailed."
A man named Kevin Benefield was arrested in New York on Wednesday and charges with committing the murder for which another man, Kenneth Ireland, served nearly 20 years in prison before he was exonerated this year.
Also in Connecticut, a team of attorneys and forensics experts are beginning a review of hundreds of cases to determine if DNA testing could overturn wrongful convictions.
Maryland's highest criminal court ordered prosecutors to continue searching for biological evidence in the case of a former corrections officer who has served 26 years for a crime he says he didn't commit.
The New York State Bar called on state lawmakers to take decisive action in 2010 to prevent wrongful convictions.
Last week, an Iowa judge ordered a new trial for David Flores, who has served 13 years in prison for a gang-related murder he says he didn't commit.
Learning from Injustice
Posted: January 4, 2010 4:11 pm
A recent editorial in the Washington Post examines two high-profile exonerations and asserts that Donald Gates and James Bain aren't alone. Gates served 27 years in prison for a 1981 murder in Washington, D.C., that DNA now proves he didn't commit. James Bain served 35 years in Florida prisons, more than any other exoneree in American history, before DNA set him free on December 17.
"As appalling as the two cases are, what's even scarier is the thought that imperfections in the criminal justice system will go uncorrected and more people could be wrongly jailed,," the Washington Post editorial says.
This is why the Innocence Project works to address the root causes of wrongful convictions. For every person freed through DNA testing, countless others remain behind bars without the evidence needed to prove their innocence.
Donald Gates was convicted in 1981 based on improper forensic testimony, and in 2010 we still haven't addressed the lack of consistent forensic standards and oversight in this country. Learn more about the need for federal forensic reform and take action today at the Just Science Coalition website.
Tags: James Bain, Donald Gates
The Cost of Faulty Forensics
Posted: January 13, 2010 6:40 pm
Two years ago this week, Ronald Gene Taylor (left) was officially exonerated of a Texas rape after serving 12 years in prison.
DNA testing could have been conducted before his trial, but an analyst from the Houston Police Department Crime Lab testified incorrectly that there was no biological evidence to test. It would be more than a decade before this error was corrected.
Early in the morning of May 28, 1993, a woman awoke in her Houston apartment to find a man holding a knife to her neck. She was unable to break free, and the man raped her on her bed before fleeing the apartment. During the investigation, Houston police officers collected the sheet from the victim’s bed, specifically noting a wet spot. Although the woman initially said she could not identify the perpetrator, she was allowed to watch a videotaped lineup at her home nearly six weeks after the crime, where she picked Taylor, after suddenly remembering that the perpetrator had a missing tooth. In 1995, Taylor was convicted by a jury of sexual assault and sentenced to 60 years in prison.
The Innocence Project took on his case in 2006 and sought DNA testing on the same sheet that reportedly contained no evidence to test. Semen was identified on the sheet and, and the results didn’t only exonerate Taylor, they also pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator.
Taylor’s case underlined ongoing forensic problems in Houston. In 2002, the HPD Crime Lab came under scrutiny for faulty forensic practices and the DNA lab was shut down while an independent review was conducted. The review revealed startling deficiencies in the DNA unit, ranging from poor documentation to serious analytical and interpretive errors that resulted in highly questionable results through the use of inaccurate and misleading statistics.
According to the review, standard operating procedures “consisted of procedures and reference materials cobbled together over time without periodic re-evaluation and reorganization. There were few technical reviews of analysts’ work, including review of their test results, interpretation of data, and reporting.” The lack of oversight likely resulted in serious misconduct, including at least four cases of fabrication of scientific results, called “drylabbing,” which the report called the “the most egregious form of scientific misconduct that can occur in a forensic science laboratory,” and a “hanging offense” in the scientific community. Read the full independent report here.
Although the Houston lab has made strides since 2002, such as receiving national accreditation in 2006, it still has a long way to go. The lab closed again in 2008 after its chief resigned over staff training problems. Recently, new questions have been raised about the lab’s fingerprinting procedures. Taylor is one of three people exonerated through DNA testing after being wrongfully convicted based on faulty tests from the lab, and another pending case could lead to an exoneration.
Meanwhile, in the two years since his release, Taylor has begun to build a new life. Shortly after being freed, he married his long-time fiancée, Jeanette Brown. The couple lives in Atlanta.
Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:
Larry Fuller, Texas (Served 19.5 years, Exonerated 1/11/07)
Gregory Wallis, Texas (Served 17 years, Exonerated 1/10/07)
Ricardo Rachell, Texas (Served 5.5 years, Exonerated 1/14/09)
Rickie Johnson, Louisiana (Served 25 years, Exonerated 1/14/08)
Dale Brison, Pennsylvania (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 1/14/94)
Tags: Ronald Taylor
Taking Aim at the Causes of Injustice in New York
Posted: January 28, 2010 6:14 pm
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said yesterday that his office is taking steps to prevent wrongful convictions before they happen.
Vance, who took office three weeks ago following former DA Robert Moganthau’s retirement after 35 years in the office, said he has already set up working groups to address the most common causes of wrongful convictions. He said he is working to address eyewitness misidentifications and forensic problems, and that he had formed a prosecution integrity panel "to make sure we follow best practices at the beginning of cases and in training."
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck joined Vance on a panel yesterday at the New York Bar Association’s annual “President’s Summit.”
Read more here.
Tags: Government Misconduct, Eyewitness Misidentification
Freddie Peacock's Long Journey to Exoneration
Posted: February 5, 2010 3:15 pm
By Maggie Taylor, Senior Case Coordinator
Yesterday, I had the honor of sharing an incredible day with a person who had previously lived in my mind as handwriting, case documents and a very memorable name — Freddie Peacock. I first heard Freddie’s name in 2005 when I evaluated his case for potential acceptance at the Innocence Project, and I was thinking of his letters yesterday as he finally achieved the exoneration he sought for so long.
In two weeks I'll celebrate my sixth anniversary with the Innocence Project, where I work in the intake and evaluation department. My job, and the job of eight wonderful colleagues in my department, is to help determine which cases the Innocence Project can accept. To do so, we reconstruct a case as best we can through documents: from the often-heartbreaking letters of prisoners and from lab reports, police reports, trial transcripts and other legal documents. We examine a case from every angle, looking for two things: a viable innocence claim and biological evidence that, if tested, should tell us if the person asking for our help is innocent. Our jobs, though fascinating and challenging, focus almost exclusively on lives on paper.
When Freddie first wrote to us, his request was different from many of the pleas we read. He needed our help to restore his good name. When I worked up Freddie's case in 2005, it was compelling not only for the biological evidence that could prove his innocence, but because he had been out of prison since 1982, and still fought for exoneration. In fact, Freddie had been off parole since 1992, and before that had voluntarily remained on parole because he thought he would have a better chance of proving his innocence.
He existed in my mind for years as a compelling story but he came to life when I met him on Wednesday. We arrived at his apartment on Wednesday afternoon and were greeted by Freddie, his sister Edith and his longtime friend and advocate Bill Marshall. Freddie, now 60, is a very tall man, with a genuine smile and brown tortoise shell glasses. Edith had just taken Freddie to the barber and they were planning his court outfit. Freddie picked up the tie he planned to wear the next day and handed it to Bill, who put it around his own neck, tied it, and put it on Freddie to check the length.
Freddie sat quietly as staff attorney Olga Akselrod and Cardozo student Jess Smith walked him through what would happen on exoneration day. As Edith, who was to be the family's official spokesperson at the press conference, prepared for difficult questions, we heard about how Freddie's wrongful conviction had affected the family. She talked about how worried she had been when Freddie went into prison. She feared Freddie's mental illness would make him a target of violence, and I thought about the scores of other inmates with mental illnesses who write to us for help.
The courthouse the next day was flooded with reporters and camera operators. The hearing was brief. Edith cried with relief as soon as the judge began signing the paper vacating Freddie's conviction. Olga asked for just three or four minutes to talk about Freddie's ordeal on the record; the judge granted two. No apologies were offered to Freddie. At the end of the hearing the judge wished Freddie luck, and we filed out of the courtroom just ten minutes after we had entered. Edith turned to her friend Jeanette, who had accompanied her, and said how glad she was it was all over, Jeanette silently tucked Edith's hair behind her ear.
At the press conference Olga praised Freddie for his spirit and tenacity in proving his innocence. She noted how terrifying it is to keep reaching out for relief to the same system that wronged you. Innocence Project Co-director Peter Neufeld pressed for laws mandating the recording of interrogations to help prevent false confessions, like the one Freddie allegedly gave police over three decades ago. Freddie sat with his head down, staring at his hands in his lap, as his sister described the burden of his wrongful conviction.
After the press conference we called the Innocence Project office so the staff and students could congratulate Freddie, an Innocence Project ritual. When Freddie said hello he was greeted with applause and cheers. He beamed, and laughed, and his sister told everyone on the line, "Y'all are family now." I've been one of those voices cheering from the other end of the line on many occasions, and it was great to see that call from the other end, how happy it seemed to make Freddie and his sister.
Freddie’s family held a party after the hearing in the rec room of Freddie’s apartment complex. Freddie's family and friends gathered for lasagna, chicken, fruit and sandwiches. Freddie joked with everyone and talked about basketball with Peter, who noted that he and Freddie were the same age and had the same basketball heroes. Freddie's pastor, who was out of town and couldn't make it to the exoneration, called in with congratulations. Freddie cut a white sheet cake with blue roses that said, "Congratulations, Freddie, it's been a long journey."
Tags: Freddie Peacock
Friday Roundup: 250 And Counting
Posted: February 5, 2010 5:50 pm
It was a momentous week at the Innocence Project, but aside from Freddie Peacock becoming the 250th DNA exoneree in the nation, stories of injustice, exoneration and reform continued to pop up around the world.
The Griffith University Innocence Project in Australia is moving forward with DNA testing in the case of Shane David, who has been in prison for 20 years for a murder he says he didn't commit.
Innocence Project client Dean Cage appeared on the Dr. Phil show this week to discuss life after exoneration and the issue of eyewitness misidentification.
The widow of a murder victim in Albuquerque is suing the city police department, alleging that her husband was killed in part because the department had arrested the wrong people for a crime committed by the alleged perpetrator of the murder. If police hadn't been sidetracked by a false confession, she says, they could have prevented her husband's murder.
Innocence Project client Marvin Anderson was included in the NAACP's Unsung Heroes of Black History Month website.
Three exonerees spoke at a Midwest Innocence Project fundraising on Wednesday. Ken Kezer talked about the difficulties of building a life after exoneration.
The award-winning play "The Exonerated" premieres tomorrow in Long Beach, California.
For more forensic news, check out the Just Science Coalition's weekly forensic roundup, updated each Friday.
Tags: Dean Cage
North Carolina Prisoner Seeks Freedom
Posted: February 10, 2010 3:27 pm
A three-judge panel in North Carolina is holding hearings this week to determine if Greg Taylor’s 17-year-old murder conviction should be tossed out based on evidence of innocence.
North Carolina is the only state in the country with an Innocence Inquiry Commission charged with reviewing claims of innocence from people convicted of crimes and determining if they deserve another hearing. The panel voted unanimously last year to refer Taylor’s case to a panel of three judges, the final step in the process. The judges are conducting hearings this week, and will decide whether Taylor’s attorney have proven his innocence by clear and convincing evidence.
Another man has allegedly confessed to committing the crime and no physical evidence ties Taylor or a co-defendant to the victim.
At today’s hearings, a crime scene expert testified that a substance found in Taylor’s truck after the 1991 crime was not human blood. Crime scene analysts testified incorrectly at Taylor’s trial that the substance was blood, according to today’s testimony. Further evidence shows that analysts conducted tests on the substance before Taylor’s trial to determine if it was blood but didn’t include the result in reports.
Taylor has testified for eight hours this week, explaining his whereabouts on the night of the crime and denying prosecutors’ accusations that he is lying about his memory of the night.
Read more. (News & Observer, 02/10/10)
An editorial in the Salisbury Post today praised the work of the Innocence Inquiry Commission and urged North Carolinians to support efforts to overturn wrongful convictions in the state.
Read the full editorial here.
Tags: North Carolina
After Posthumous Pardon in Texas, a Resolve to Help Fix the System
Posted: March 2, 2010 4:00 pm
This week, Timothy Cole became the first person in Texas to be exonerated and fully pardoned posthumously as a result of DNA testing. The heartbreaking case begs the question: How many others are there, and how can they be prevented?
DNA testing more than two decades after Cole’s wrongful conviction finally cleared him in 2008 and pointed to convicted rapist Jerry Wayne Johnson, who had already confessed to the crime in letters to court officials, as well as other rapes dating back several years.
A year ago, in an unprecedented legal move, Cole's family and lawyers appeared in an Austin courtroom in pursuit of a posthumous ruling to clear his name. According to advocates for the wrongfully convicted, the strategy was unique in Texas and rare in the U.S. The Innocence Project served as co-counsel with the Innocence Project of Texas in that hearing. A judge declared Cole innocent, and he was exonerated.
On March 1, 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry fully pardoned Cole. The development gives comfort to his family, but it is also a painful reminder of an innocent man’s life lost.
Cole’s mother said the pardon was a long time coming.
"I am so happy," Ruby Session, Cole's mother, said from her home in Burleson. "I just know that Tim is up there smiling."
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to recommend the posthumous pardon for innocence.
Under state law, Perry had to wait for the board's recommendation before he could sign the pardon."There was overwhelming evidence. It was very clear that he was wrongly imprisoned," Perry said after a campaign event in San Antonio.
He called Session to tell her the news.
"It was really awesome," the governor said, adding that he and Session have formed a warm relationship over the past year or so.
Cole's family is eligible for state recompense, which amounts to just over $1 million based on his 13 years of wrongful incarceration
Read the full Dallas Morning News story.
Texas leads the country with 40 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing—only half of the exonerated in Texas received compensation for time spent behind bars.
Eyewitness misidentification, which contributed to Cole’s wrongful conviction, is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Faulty forensic science also played a role in Cole’s wrongful conviction. Eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 33 of Texas’s cases and unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to 17 of the wrongful convictions.
A growing number of Texas legislators, led by State Senator Rodney Ellis (who also serves as chairman of the Innocence Project Board of Directors) are determined to improve the state’s criminal justice system to prevent more wrongful convictions.
Ellis said more work remains to be done to guard against similar situations, such as pushing to require every law enforcement agency in Texas to have written eyewitness identification procedures based on best practices.
“While this is the first posthumous pardon in Texas,” Ellis said in a statement, “we have a long way to go if we are going to make sure it is the last.”
Read the full Houston Chronicle story.
Cole’s family said they will continue working to make sure other people don’t suffer the same injustice he did.
During the 2009 Legislature, Cole's prom night picture was posted at legislative committee hearings as relatives traveled repeatedly to Austin on behalf of bills designed to correct flaws in the state's criminal justice system. Even amid her euphoria over the pardon announcement, Ruby Session said there is still much to do.
"We will be doing this work as long as I'm able," said Session, who is scheduled to undergo surgery this week for an arterial aneurysm. "We're on the forefront of a new day in the criminal justice system."
Read the full Star-Telegram story.
Read more about Texas exonerees here.
Coverage of Cole’s pardon:
Houston Chronicle (3/1/10)
BBC News (3/2/10)
BBC News (3/2/10)
Fort Worth Star Telegram (3/1/10)
Associated Press (3/2/10)
AOL News (3/2/10)
Tags: Texas, Timothy Cole
Tune In: Exonerees on Dr. Phil and America’s Most Wanted
Posted: March 10, 2010 4:00 pm
Illinois exoneree Dean Cage will appear on “Dr. Phil” tomorrow, March 11, in a third installment about wrongful convictions. The host will be checking in with Cage and the victim who misidentified him over a decade ago. She first identified Cage as her attacker after the police department created a sketch of the perpetrator and then brought Cage to a grocery store so the victim could identify him. Officers then conducted another lineup at the police station, where the victim identified Cage by the sound of his voice. The show united them on-air last month for the first time since he was wrongfully convicted of a rape he didn’t commit in 1986. Cage, an Innocence Project client, spent nearly 12 years in prison and was exonerated on May 27, 2008. “Dr. Phil” is a syndicated program; please check your local listings for the station and time.
Read more about Dean Cage’s here.
For more information on the “Dr. Phil” program, click here.
New York exoneree Steven Barnes will be featured on “America’s Most Wanted” this Saturday, March 13. The program focuses on searching for the real perpetrator in the rape and murder of Kimberly Simon, for which Barnes was wrongfully convicted in 1989. His conviction was the result of eyewitness misidentification and unvalidated forensic science. The supervising criminalist testified that she conducted a photographic overlay of Simon’s jeans and an imprint on Barnes’ truck and determined the patterns were similar. She also testified that two hairs collected from the truck were similar to the victim’s hairs. The lab compared soil samples taken from his vehicle with dirt samples from the crime scene a year after the murder and stated that they had similar characteristics. Fabric print analysis, microscopic hair analysis and soil comparison and have not been scientifically validated. Represented by the Innocence Project, Barnes was exonerated 20 years later on January 9, 2009. The segment will include interviews with Barnes and his mother, details about his exoneration and information about the unsolved crime. “Americas Most Wanted” airs Saturday night at 9 p.m. on FOX.
Read more about Steven Barnes case here.
For more information on the program, click here.
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Learn about eyewitness identification reform here.
Unvalidated or improper forensic science is a leading cause of wrongful convictions. In approximately 50% of the DNA exonerations nationwide, unvalidated or improper forensic science contributed to the underlying wrongful conviction. Learn about unvalidated or improper forensic science here.
Tags: Steven Barnes, Dean Cage
Former Prosecutor Calls for DNA Testing in Texas Case
Posted: March 10, 2010 4:30 pm
A former prosecutor in Texas today called for DNA testing in the case of a man who is set to be executed later this month. Hank Skinner, who has been requesting DNA testing for a decade, is scheduled to die on March 24 – even though critical evidence in the case has not been subjected to DNA testing that could prove his innocence. In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Sam Millsap writes that DNA testing only works if it is used.
If DNA tests could remove the uncertainty about Skinner's guilt — one way or the other — there's not a good reason in the world not to do it.
Some taxpayers may grumble at spending the public's money on DNA tests for individuals on death row. That argument doesn't hold water in Skinner's case. In 2000, the investigative journalists at the Medill Innocence Project offered to pay for the DNA tests. Ten years later, that offer still stands. There may be other objections to testing the evidence, but they don't outweigh the potential horror of executing an innocent man.
Skinner's execution date is just a few days away, but key pieces of evidence have never been tested, including two knives, one of which might be the murder weapon; a man's windbreaker, which had blood, sweat and hair on it and was found next to the victim's body; the victim's fingernails, which may have DNA evidence under them; and samples from a rape kit.
Skinner has maintained his innocence since his arrest and his attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court asking to stop his execution so DNA testing can be conducted.
Read the full op-ed here. Houston Chronicle (03/10/10)
Read more about Hank Skinner’s case here.
Learn more about the Innocence Project’s position on the death penalty and people who have been exonerated after spending time on death row here.
Texas Man Set to Be Executed Despite Untested DNA
Posted: March 15, 2010 6:01 pm
In an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck joined others in calling on Texas Gov. Rick Perry to order a stay in Skinner’s case so that DNA testing can proceed. Skinner’s attorneys made a similar request in a letter to Perry last week.
Scheck was joined in the op-ed by Cory Session, whose brother Timothy Cole was exonerated posthumously in Texas last year, and Rodney Ellis, a Texas state senator and the chairman of the Innocence Project Board of Directors. They wrote:
In Tim Cole’s case, solid science came too late. Perry was right to pardon him, but he would do well to learn from this case and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.
One such person might be Hank Skinner, who is set to be executed March 24. Skinner has requested DNA testing for 10 years, and there is no good reason for state officials to continue blocking these efforts.
We don’t know whether Hank Skinner is guilty or innocent. But we know the governor has the power to step in and delay the execution so DNA testing can be done to resolve this case once and for all — before Skinner is executed.
Read the full op-ed here.
Last week, former Texas prosecutor Sam Millsap wrote in the Houston Chronicle that Texas should conduct testing in Skinner’s case in order to avoid the possible “horror of executing an innocent man.”
Calls for testing in Skinner’s case come after months of worldwide attention to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 despite evidence of his innocence. Since Willingham’s execution, several independent scientific studies have determined that the forensic analysis used to convict him was wrong. A 16,000-word story in the New Yorker magazine last year went on to discredit all of the evidence used against Willingham, including the forensic analysis, the informant's testimony, other witness testimony and additional circumstantial evidence.
Learn more about Hank Skinner’s case.
Learn more about Willingham’s case.
Seventeen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. Learn about their cases here.
Photo: Texas Tribune
86 Exonerees in One Room
Posted: April 19, 2010 2:50 pm
The weekend continued with sessions on a huge variety of topics, from legal storytelling to false confessions, to life after exoneration and ethics (a full agenda and list of speakers is here). One track of sessions was dedicated to the exonerated attendees; facilitator Chris Corrigan wrote a blog post about his experience at the conference.
To see what others were saying about sessions during the weekend, visit the twitter hashtag #ATLinnocence.
Stay tuned in the days ahead for more from the conference, including video and more photos.
Texas Defense Lawyers Blame Politics for Derailing Forensic Science Commission's Work
Posted: May 4, 2010 5:00 pm
The Houston Chronicle reports that an appellate court in a San Antonio case found that meetings of a city council subcommittee should have been open to the public.
“Because evidence ... indicated that the subcommittee actually made the final decisions and the City Council merely ‘rubber stamped’ them,” the attorney general’s handbook says, the meetings should have been open.
“Here,” Schneider said of the forensic board, “you have the (subcommittee) hearing evidence and deciding what evidence will be presented. So, just because you don’t have a quorum doesn’t mean it’s not doing the full commission’s work.”
Bradley countered that “no binding decisions are made by the committees, only recommendations that must be reviewed, debated and ultimately voted on by the entire Forensic Science Commission in a public forum.”
Several separate expert reviews have found that the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was incorrect and that experts who testified at his trial should have known it was wrong at the time. Willingham maintained his innocence until his execution in 2004.
Read the full story here.
Learn about the Willingham case and the Texas Forensic Science Commission here.
Tags: Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham
Research Focuses on False Confessions
Posted: May 10, 2010 5:12 pm
It may be that police lost track of what happened during a complicated interrogation. At trial, police might say that this person was not told these details about the crime.
What’s crucial is how the narrative unfolds during the conversation [between police and a suspect]. We’ve had cases where in jurisdictions that do videotape them, police realize that they contaminated the confession only after they saw videotape. Those cases did not turn into false confessions because of the safeguard of the videotape.
I was surprised to the degree to which eyewitnesses not only said they were certain at trial, but how many of them admitted that although they were certain at trial, they had earlier been uncertain or that police had used suggestive photo arrays. I didn’t expect them to talk about the ways their identifications were unreliable.
Garrett concluded that confessions often trump other evidence at trial. He also noted the momentum for reform to help prevent false confessions, primarily through the mandatory recording of interrogations.
There should be more meaningful reliability review. That review can happen if there is a record of the interrogation. Courts should more carefully scrutinize the reliability of forensic testimony. They should more [rigorously scrutinize] the reliability of eyewitness identification procedures.
We have incorrect outcomes, which raise accuracy concerns. In many respects, the reform out of these wrongful convictions will be much more useful at preventing false negatives.
Read the full story here.
Garrett is currently finishing his book, “Misjudging Innocence,” which will examine the first 250 DNA exoneration cases.
Read here to understand the causes of false confessions and admissions.
Learn about recording of interrogations here.
Crime Lab Problems Continue to Plague Houston
Posted: June 28, 2010 6:19 pm
Defense attorney Patrick F. McCann wrote in an op-ed this weekend that the problem in Houston’s lab makes clear the need for forensic oversight:
Our leaders should create a regional crime lab, actually run by scientists, perhaps under a university, and not under any elected sheriff or appointed law enforcement officer, that can run actual, neutral and competent forensic testing untainted by pressure and uncorrupted by malfeasance or negligence. The people accused of crimes are owed that much. We as taxpayers are owed that much.
The Innocence Project is a member of the Just Science coalition, which supports federal and state support, research and oversight of forensic disciplines in the United States to ensure public safety and prevent wrongful convictions. Learn more about federal forensic reform efforts here.
Tags: Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Fingerprints
30 Years Later, DNA Tests Prove Virginia Man Innocent
Posted: August 12, 2010 2:20 pm
The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and pro bono lawyers at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP have filed a writ of actual innocence on Cunningham’s behalf. Prosecutors haven’t responded to the writ yet. Cunningham is currently incarcerated on unrelated nonviolent crimes and is scheduled to remain behind bars until 2012 even if he is exonerated of the rape.
Read more at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project’s blog.
Fighting Police Misconduct in New Orleans
Posted: August 30, 2010 5:19 pm
“If you lie, you die,” Superintendent Serpas said in announcing the new standard. “If you tell this Police Department a lie about anything, you will be terminated.”
The new rule is part of a larger strategy announced by Serpas and New Orleans to repair the city’s police department. Department-wide reviews by the U.S. Justice Department and an audit of questionable crime statistics are also part of the plan.
While most law enforcement officers and prosecutors are honest and trustworthy, the possibility for corruption exists. Even if one officer of every thousand is dishonest, wrongful convictions will continue to occur. The police misconduct in the NOPD taints the reputation of their honest colleagues.
Supreme Court Hears Death Row DNA Case Tomorrow
Posted: October 12, 2010 2:55 pm
Texas prosecutors, on the other hand, argue that the evidence Skinner is seeking to test would not be sufficient to establish his innocence, and that he doesn’t have the right to testing because he didn’t ask for tests during his original trial.
"He made this new claim on the eve of his execution," Ed Dawson, an attorney for the state, told the Fort Worth Star Telegram. "His attorneys say that there's a chance that he's factually innocent. We don't think there's a real possibility of that.”
We’ll post transcripts of the argument tomorrow when they’re available online.
Read media coverage of the case below:
CNN: High Court Asked to Give Death Row Inmate Chance to Prove Innocence
Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Supreme Court to Rule on Access to DNA Tests
SCOTUS Blog: Texas Death Row Case
Texas Tribune coverage of the Skinner case
Image Credit: Caleb Bryant Miller, Texas Tribune
Grisham's "Confession" Hits Bookstores Today
Posted: October 26, 2010 6:05 pm
In a review from The Washington Post, Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," said “The Confession” is a superb work of social criticism.
For more than a decade, in his novels ("The Chamber," "The Innocent Man") and on editorial pages, Grisham has ruminated over the efficacy and morality of the death penalty. "The Confession" bangs the gavel and issues a clear verdict. As an advocacy thriller, it will rile some readers, shake up conventional pieties and, no doubt, change some minds.
Grisham sits on the Innocence Project Board of Directors.
Read the review from The Washington Post.
CT Supreme Court Excludes Key Eyewitness Testimony
Posted: November 11, 2010 5:25 pm
The judge allowed testimony about the risk of misidentification resulting from the way an identification procedure is conducted. But the expert was not allowed to testify that a misidentification can occur if the perpetrator was disguised or had a weapon. Nor was she allowed to testify that there is no correlation between the confidence with which an identification is made and its reliability, that stress associated with seeing a crime can affect the reliability of the identification and that collaboration between witnesses may lessen the reliability of the identification.
The court was unanimous in affirming Outing's guilt but was divided 4-3 about whether or not to consider Kemp. Since the expert testimony came during a pretrial hearing, the majority didn't think Kemp factored in to Outing's case.
But Justice Richard N. Palmer disagreed, saying that the argument in Kemp had been discredited by several eyewitness misidentification studies conducted since the ruling. Palmer also said that for the majority to ignore the issue was "indefensible" since eyewitness testimony is "notoriously unreliable." Cameron continues:
Reversing Kemp won't eliminate the risk of wrongful convictions based on mistaken eyewitness identifications. Much more is needed - either legislation mandating improvements in current eyewitness identification procedures or, failing that, administrative issuance of best practice guidelines. But reversing that thoroughly discredited precedent would be an important step in the right direction.
Read the full article.
Read about eyewitness misidentification and how it can be prevented.
Tags: Connecticut, Eyewitness Misidentification
Anthony Graves and the Long Struggle to Freedom
Posted: November 19, 2010 3:20 pm
Our brief conversation not only sealed my friendship with the man I had gotten to know second hand through transcripts, reports and interviews, but it confirmed for me what everyone who worked on the case already suspected: he was innocent. Meeting him reminded me that Anthony never compromised his integrity; he never admitted guilt for the sake of a lesser sentence. His family, especially his ever-faithful mother Doris, never doubted him and was steadfast in their belief that he wasn't capable of the crimes for which he was convicted. The facts conveyed a similar conclusion.
Plenty of journalists and broadcasters have reported on Anthony's case, but to make a very long and complicated story somewhat short: Anthony was charged as a result of testimony by one Robert Earl Carter, father to one of the murdered children and the state's main suspect. Carter was pressured by investigating officers to name other suspects, since the officers' theory was that no one person could kill two adults and four children on his or her own. Carter gave officers two unverifiable names and the names of two people that prosecutors would pursue: Carter's wife and her cousin, Anthony. Prosecutors, namely District Attorney Charles Sebesta, agreed to drop the indictment against Carter's wife if Carter would testify against Anthony. Carter did.
Sebesta, however, introduced Carter's testimony at trial without ever disclosing to Anthony's attorneys that Carter recanted his original claim about Anthony's involvement. If Carter was consistent in anything in his last years before his execution in 2000, it was his retraction that Anthony was not involved in the murders. So consistent, in fact, that in his dying declaration before his execution he confessed one last time: "It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court."
It wasn't until 2006 (six years after Carter's execution and fourteen since Carter first admitted he lied) that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Anthony's original conviction and demanded he be taken off death row. The state, however, decided to retry Anthony and shunted him to a Burleson County jail. Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett, daughter of the same Judge H.R. Towslee who presided over Anthony's original trial, set bail at $1,000,000. The state brought in a number of special prosecutors to retry Anthony, including Patrick Batchelor-the former Navarro County District Attorney who secured Cameron Todd Willingham's death sentence and, in the course of his work on Anthony's case, attempted to convince Anthony and his attorneys to take a plea in return for a life sentence.
(Note: There's a slew of jaw-dropping facts outlining the miscarriage of justice that was Anthony's case, all of which are better explored in other write-ups: from Sebesta intimidating Anthony's then-girlfriend by announcing minutes before she took the stand that she would be investigated as a co-defendant if she testified as an alibi witness; to a now-retired medical examiner who testified that he "scientifically" matched a knife that Anthony owned to the one used at the crime by placing a duplicate of the knife in one of the victim's skull caps while on the stand, damaging the evidence; to an alibi witness who refused to testify on Anthony's behalf since it would mean having to admit that she as a Caucasian was dating his brother, a much younger black man. Read Pamela Colloff's profile on Anthony's case from October's Texas Monthly for what I believe has been the most comprehensive account of the case.)
As Anthony's attorneys continue to point out to this day, there was no new evidence connecting Anthony to the murders. The many prosecutors who looked at Anthony's case were dealing with the same information that both convicted him and, ironically, convinced District Attorney Bill Parham and special prosecutor Kelly Siegler that Anthony is "an innocent man." Such an uncompromising statement of Anthony's innocence is a pronouncement by prosecutors that rarely (if ever) happens in non-DNA cases.
While the facts of the case convinced Parham and Siegler of Anthony's innocence, it didn't stop earlier special prosecutors from attempting to pursue a case based on bad science. The Austin Chronicle reported in 2009 that "prosecutors…brought in Fort Bend County Deputy Keith Pikett to conduct a 'scent lineup'" and allegedly testify to Graves' guilt based on his basset hound's ability to pick up smells more than a decade after the crime was committed. Thankfully, the state decided to drop that angle. (The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals actually concluded in late 2010 that dog-scent lineups are insufficient evidence to secure a conviction in the state on the heels of a report by the Innocence Project of Texas debunking the unvalidated procedure.)
Despite his release, Anthony still has a lot to contend with. Men and women who are able to prove their innocence are forced to suddenly readjust to a society that all but forgot them, and they have to make up for years of lost personal and professional experiences. In Anthony's case, however, he has an enormous support system with an overwhelming number of family and friends standing behind him.
I spoke with him briefly the day of his press conference in Houston, following his release on October 27. It was four years since I first heard his voice. We spoke by phone, not terribly unlike the first time except the obvious major difference being we weren't in a rusty, paint-chipped booth anymore. He was free, and I did what everybody tends to ask men and women who survive what Anthony survived: I asked him how he felt.
"I don't know," he responded, the most honest answer I could have expected.
Anthony's attorneys are working with Siegler and Parham as of mid November in pursuit of compensation for him under the Tim Cole Act. While Texas is home to the largest number of exonerations in the country, it also leads in its exoneree compensation policy. If approved, Anthony is eligible for $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated and college tuition. He plans to use the latter to take communication classes in order to help other wrongfully convicted men and women, classes not unlike the one that introduced a group of wide-eyed journalism students to his case.
Friends and colleagues still ask how I feel about having worked on the case, and I keep responding the same way: It's utterly surreal for me to not worry about Anthony after doing nothing but for seven years. I don't have to worry about new junk science being used to convict him, and I don't have to worry about the state using nothing more than circumstantial evidence as a means to execute him.
Relieved as I may be, the lessons we learned were nonetheless stark and jarring. The students I worked with-my friends-we can laugh about it now, but two of us received threats of litigation, others were chased and threatened with a gun and most of us experienced firsthand the grim racial reality that exists in small towns like the ones we visited in the course of our work.
We were laypeople, for all intents and purposes-young journalism students digging extensively into a case that the state of Texas didn't deem worthy of revisiting at the time. Those locals and witnesses who agreed to talk with us usually understood that we were working to prove what so many of them already believed: that Anthony was innocent and that the state made a harrowing mistake. It's nothing short of humbling to realize that some of the work we did helped prevent it from becoming a deadly mistake.
Above, Nicole Casarez and Anthony Graves moments before his release. (Photo courtesy of Nicole Casarez.) Below, watch raw footage of Anthony's release from prison.
Science Thursday: DC Considers an Independent Crime Lab
Posted: February 10, 2011 4:16 pm
After its collaboration with NPR and Frontline on medical examiners aired last week, ProPublica provides reporters a list of points to consider when investigating a local forensic pathologist.
An Indian crime lab tried to add closed circuit surveillance television cameras to address concerns regarding unauthorized visits of family members of suspects, but two of the three cameras were disengaged after laboratory staff complained.
An audit of the Indiana State Department of Toxicology showed errors in 200 of the 2000 positive marijuana tests that were reviewed. About 50 of the erroneous tests demonstrated "a conscious manipulation of results."
University of California Davis researchers concluded that cognitive factors affect the interaction between a dog and a handler, impacting the dog's performance. In the study, certified dogs used for detecting drugs or explosives made incorrect identifications, especially when the handler believed that there was scent present.
Compensating the Wrongly Convicted in Hawaii
Posted: February 24, 2011 3:22 pm
Hawaii law makes no promises to victims like Alvin Jardine: no financial compensation, no services, no assistance of any kind. The most he can currently hope for is an apology from the officials who made the mistake that stole 7,000 days of his life. But "Oops, sorry!" is not enough, and suing is unlikely to gain him anything because the U.S. Supreme Court has made it all but impossible to recover damages from the people responsible for miscarriages of justice.
Hawaii's law needs to be changed. So does the tendency of criminal justice officials to deny the reality of ruinous mistakes about guilt and innocence -- sometimes in the absence of malice, and sometimes in its presence.
Jardine, who was granted a new trial after his conviction was overturned in January, maintained his innocence throughout his trials, claiming that he was at home at the time of the attack. He gave up the possibility of parole a decade earlier by refusing to enter sex-abuse treatment that would have required him to admit guilt, according to the Star Advertiser.
Read the full editorial.
27 States Have Compensation Statutes: Is Yours One?
Wrongfully Convicted Virginia Man Released After 27 Years
Posted: March 21, 2011 5:56 pm
While DNA and other evidence proves that Haynesworth is innocent, his conviction can only be overturned by either the Virginia Court of Appeals or by a pardon. Earlier this year, the Innocence Project, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and Hogan Lovells US LLP filed paperwork to the Court of Appeals requesting that Haynesworth be exonerated. The court will hear oral arguments in the case on March 30th.
In his statement lauding Haynesworth’s parole, McDonnell emphasized the uniqueness of the case and wrote that he is still considering granting a pardon.
"The Parole Board thoroughly reviewed this case according to their standard procedures and policies. Mr. Haynesworth is being conditionally released according to terms set by the Parole Board and will remain under the supervision of the Department of Corrections. I will follow the Writ of Actual Innocence process as it moves forward and will consider a petition for pardon, should one be filed."
Post-conviction DNA has already exonerated 12 men in Virginia; find out how many men and women have been exonerated in your state here.
U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Compensation for Former Death Row Inmate
Posted: March 29, 2011 5:03 pm
Of the 16 federal judges, eight held that the jury had already spoken after hearing the facts, while the dissenters said it is an outrageous burden to hold a district attorney's office accountable for employees' misdeeds.
The ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, means that Thompson will not collect the money.
In response to the ruling, the Innocence Network released a letter signed by 19 innocent people who were wrongfully convicted in part because of the bad acts of prosecutors demanding greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct. In the letter, the exonerees explain:
In many of our wrongful conviction cases prosecutorial misconduct was found but later declared “harmless” by the courts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our cases, each act had profoundly harmful effects on our lives. Together we represent hundreds of years in prison, separated from our wives, husbands, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and other loved ones, who suffered their own shame and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and spent countless sleepless nights worrying about our well being. The misconduct contributed to nearly unbearable depression and unhappiness, loss of jobs and career opportunities, the derailing of educations and forever destroyed hopes and dreams. Each of us has worked long and hard to repair what has happened to us, but we will never regain the lives we had before we were wrongfully convicted at the hands of careless or deceitful prosecutors.
Read the full article.
Read the decision.
Read the Innocence Network press release on the decision.
Read the letter urging action to stem prosecutorial misconduct.
Science Thursday: A Michigan Prosecutors Claims Testimony Trumps Science
Posted: April 21, 2011 4:49 pm
A Michigan prosecutor dismisses the fact that flawed serology evidence may have imprisoned an innocent man in Michigan by saying, "Science does not trump the testimony of individuals."
Chinese researchers have developed a technique to process fingerprints to make them visible using a nanofiber mat incorporated with a fluorescent dye that is treated with heat.
A clinical forensic physician trains other physicians to correctly diagnose non-fatal gunshot wounds.
The Next Generation Identification System (NGI), developed by IBM and Lockheed Martin, will incrementally replace the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). It claims to enhance latent print matching accuracy and will introduce palm print matching.
A forensic psychologist has been banned by the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists from performing the unscientific test he used to inflate IQ scores of defendants to qualify them for the death penalty.
Closing the UK’s Forensic Science Service will reduce the number of forensic analyses taken on investigations because private providers do not find them profitable.
The Michigan State Police plan to use the bulk of the money appropriated to reopen a full service crime lab in Detroit to support other sites.
48 Hours: Mystery Airs Special on Anthony Graves Case This Saturday
Posted: April 21, 2011 5:12 pm
The Innocence Blog has previously covered the Anthony Graves case and has linked to the extensively researched Texas Monthly article by Pamela Colloff. CBS’s 48 Hours: Mystery was on the scene for Anthony’s reunion with his family, and will air their special, "Grave Injustice" this Saturday, April 23, at 9 p.m. (CST).
Correspondent Richard Schlesinger talks to both Siegler and Colloff, as well as Houston journalism professor Nicole Casarez and some of the students who originally reinvestigated Graves’ case.
Watch 48 Hours’s raw video of Anthony’s release below:
Road to Justice for One of Norfolk Four
Posted: April 25, 2011 5:22 pm
The Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the federal appeals court’s decision.
"I think it's just one more piece of a huge puzzle that shows that these guys — all of them — really deserve justice here," said Des Hogan, Tice's lawyer. "These other guys have suffered the same injustices and should be cleared as well," he said.
"The time has come for Virginia to correct a travesty of justice and announce that it will not appeal or seek to retry Derek," Hogan said.
A spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General's Office said they were disappointed by the ruling and exploring all their options.
U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams originally overturned Tice's conviction in 2009 on the grounds that Tice’s trial lawyers failed to ask the judge to suppress his confession since it was made after he invoked his right to remain silent.
Read the full article.
Read more about the Norfolk Four case.
Read The New York Times Magazine story on the Norfolk Four.
Learn more about recording of interrogations, a reform shown to prevent false confessions and assist in law enforcement investigations.
States' Financial Obligations to the Wrongfully Convicted Struggle under Budget Deficits
Posted: April 27, 2011 2:33 pm
Statutes providing for some form of compensation for the wrongfully convicted are in place in 27 states plus Washington, D.C., but even some of these laws don’t meet society’s moral obligation to help exonerated people recover from the injustice they suffered and the years of freedom they lost.
In 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law a requirement that wrongfully convicted federal inmates should receive up to $50,000 per year spent behind bars, and $100,000 per year for time spent on death row.
But draft legislation in Washington that would provide up to $20,000 per year to Northrop, failed to pass a Senate committee this year.
“These people have suffered more than any of us can imagine, on every level,” said Brown. “The horror of prison when you're wrongfully convicted is just a new level of injustice. And, obviously, we ought to do everything we can to make people as whole as we can.”
The Innocence Project is working with lawmakers to help pass or improve compensation laws in several states this year. Michigan, where a number of exonerated people wait for state financial support, is poised to become the 28th state with a compensation law.
Read the full story.
Read about compensating the wrongfully convicted.
Read more about Northrop’s case and release.
Evidence in Detroit Rape Case Points to Man's Innocence
Posted: May 4, 2011 2:18 pm
“The reaction by authorities is to preserve a conviction at all costs,” said clinic co-director David Moran. “Besides the injustice to Vinson, there's a rapist who might still be out there, and no one seems to give a damn.”
The prosecutor said that “science does not trump the testimony of individuals,” which ignores the fact that eyewitness misidentification contributed to nearly 80% of wrongful convictions nationwide.
An appellate court order mandating that a new jury hears all the evidence offers the best chance of assuring justice and restoring faith in the criminal justice system's capacity to correct its mistakes.
Read the full article.
Read about forensic oversight.
National Academy of Sciences Report Calls for Overhaul of Forensics in U.S.
Friday Roundup: Innocence and Invisible Gorillas
Posted: June 10, 2011 5:35 pm
"The Invisible Gorilla,” a book chronicling some surprising research in human attention, perception, memory and reasoning, came out in paperback this week. Buy the book by tomorrow and the authors will donate $5 to the charity of your choice (and we’re on the list of choices!). If you haven’t seen it, you might also enjoy the video that gave the book its name.
The government of Western Australia paid $425,000 to a man who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but the payment came 35 years after his release.
Unraveling a Closed Murder Case in D.C.
Posted: June 27, 2011 6:10 pm
A central claim of the defense is that the government withheld evidence of two other possible suspects who did not corroborate the government’s “Lord of the Flies” theory of the crime. One of these suspects — identified by a witness as leaving the scene where [the victim] was attacked — had committed two other violent assaults on women and subsequently beat, sodomized and murdered another woman in an alley a few blocks from where [the victim] was killed. The Innocence Project also obtained affidavits from four witnesses — including two defendants who testified for the government as part of plea agreements — recanting their testimony, which they allege was shaped by police and coerced.
Despite evidence of other possible suspects, the U.S. Attorney’s Office contests the notion of police or prosecutorial misconduct.
Read the full article.
Visit the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project website.
Judge Overturns Virginia Death Sentence Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct
Posted: July 15, 2011 1:32 pm
In his ruling, the judge calls attention to prosecutors Paul Ebert and Richard Conway for depriving the jury of critical information.
The judge wrote, "Essentially, in an effort to ensure that no defense would be 'fabricated,' Ebert and Conway's actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury's verdict. The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to judicial process."
If the Virginia Attorney General appeals Monday’s ruling, Wolfe could remain in prison for another year while the federal appeals court considers the appeal.
Read more in the Washington Post.
Read the UVA press release.
Florida Exoneree Gets Help from Veteran Music Producer
Posted: October 19, 2011 11:09 pm
Tullio learned that Dillon was wrongfully convicted in 1981 based on a questionable eyewitness identification, unreliable testimony from the handler of a scent-tracking dog and testimony from a jailhouse informant. Dillon was sentenced to life and moved to Florida State Prison.
"I thought if anybody needs a break in this world, this is the guy," Tullio said.
Tullio finally tracked down Dillon and offered to fly him to Chicago to record an album at no cost. It was exactly what Dillon had been hoping for – to finally record the songs he’d written in prison that he’d written out on toilet paper.
Dillon performed and wrote with Tullio during a two-week visit this past summer. The songs they recorded address his experience being wrongfully convicted and also look toward the future.
"Ultimately what he wants is to be recognized as an artist, like anybody, not just a guy that spent 27 years in prison," Tullio said. "I want a fan out there to go, 'Wow, I can't wait to hear William Dillon's next record,' like they would say about Van Morrison or anyone. I never want Bill to lose the fact that this is really quality stuff. It's not pity coming from anybody."
Dillon plans to return to Evanston later this month to finish work on his album.
Read the full article.
Watch Dillon perform with Justified Freedom in New York City, May 2011.
Visit Dillon’s website to buy his CD and learn more about his story.
Tags: William Dillon
Former Texas Governor Urges Reform to Prevent Executing Innocent People
Posted: May 25, 2012 1:20 pm
Recent news of the possible wrongful execution of Texas inmate Carlos DeLuna has caught the attention of former Texas governor Mark White, who oversaw 19 executions while in office. White has become an unlikely proponent of the case for DeLuna’s innocence. In a recent Houston Chronicle op-ed, White urged Texas to improve its criminal justice system to prevent innocent people from going to prison, or even worse, being executed.
While Texas has certainly taken some steps forward since 1989 with regard to eyewitness identification reform and other innocence-related issues, the problems that plagued DeLuna's case continue to plague criminal - including capital - convictions in our state and across the nation. DeLuna's case should give us all pause as we realize that the possibility of executing an innocent individual is very real. And it should strengthen our resolve to ensure that convictions, particularly capital convictions, are accurate.
If we are going to continue to execute individuals, we must be absolutely certain of those individuals' guilt. Texas must implement best practices when it comes to criminal investigations and trials.
White hails the passage of an eyewitness identification reform bill but says Texas must go further and continue to improve all aspects of the justice system including providing adequate defense counsel for the poor, improving crime labs procedures and preventing government misconduct.
I continue to believe some crimes are so heinous, some actions so abhorrent, that society is justified in demanding the perpetrator's life be forfeit. But I also believe if Texas is going to continue to impose the death penalty, we must take every possible precaution to ensure there is never another Carlos DeLuna.
Read the full op-ed.
How to Make the Criminal Justice System More Fair
Posted: June 4, 2012 1:50 pm
By Fernando Bermudez
The following is an op-ed about the need for wrongful conviction reforms in New York State by exoneree Fernando Bermudez, which appeared in today's El Diario in Spanish.
Leer el articulo en El Diario.
After spending 18 years in New York prisons for a crime that I didn’t commit, it is deeply disappointing to me that New York continues to lag behind other states in protecting its citizens against wrongful convictions.
In the summer of 1991, just as I aspired to enter the medical profession, I was wrongfully convicted of a New York City murder and languished for over 18 years in maximum-security prisons. My “actual innocence” was proven in late 2009, and I was released and reunited with my wife and family. Mistaken eyewitness identification, accounting for 75% of all wrongful convictions, initiated my ordeal; police and prosecutorial misconduct, including failure to investigate key leads and admitted use of false testimony, worsened it.
Until top-flight, pro bono attorneys helped dismiss my indictment and secure a judicial apology, I existed in a small, 6 x 9 foot cell for 6,700 days. These 18 stress-laced years in prison exposed me to physical attacks by inmates and correctional staff alike, let alone mental anguish close to suicide. Prison humiliated, degraded and forced me to question my existence amid daily danger, misery and sadness. After prevailing in my eleventh, exhausting appeal, I regained my freedom. Non-DNA cases, like mine, are harder to resolve than DNA-based cases (which are hard enough). They require more investigation and overcoming complex and demanding legal hurdles. DNA only solves a small fraction of all wrongful convictions; the majority face obstacles as I did.
It is hard to believe that the New York Senate refuses to enact eyewitness identification reforms to protect the innocent. Better reforms and protections in 1991 likely would have prevented my wrongful incarceration. The teenage witnesses were exposed to a suggestive live line-up. In order to hide my height and weight - which differed from what witnesses had described - I was forced to sit, rather than stand. The identification procedures advocated by all identification experts are based on strong social science research and would never have produced such a biased procedure.
False confessions, another leading cause of wrongful convictions, can also be addressed through reform. Many other states have mandated that law enforcement record interrogations from start to finish. Recording interrogations preserves an accurate record of what transpired so that juries can gauge the reliability of the confession. New York State has a well-documented history of convicting innocent defendants due to a false confession and should not hesitate to adopt this reform.
On May 1st, the Innocence Project and I met with the Puerto Rican and Black Legislative Caucus in Albany to urge the state legislature to enact reforms that would create a better criminal justice system for all New Yorkers. We discussed the problems of eyewitness misidentification as a public safety issue because what happened to me can happen to anyone. I told the caucus that every time a wrongful conviction occurs it allows the real perpetrator to walk free. In the end, we all pledged to work together again.
Tags: New York
Australian Coroner Makes a Ruling in 32-Year-Old Case
Posted: June 12, 2012 1:30 pm
In 1980, an Australian woman who was camping with her family reported to police that a wild dog snatched her infant baby from the tent never to be seen again. On Tuesday, after 32 years and multiple legal proceedings, a coroner ruled that a dingo, a wild dog native to Australia, had indeed caused the death of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s daughter, Azaria.
At the time of the disappearance, there were no other accounts of babies being taken or harmed by dingos, and detectives quickly turned their attention to Azaria’s parents.
CNN reported that Azaria's body was never found, but her blood-stained clothing and baby blanket were discovered near the campsite one week after her disappearance. Her mother long maintained that a dingo took her baby—a line made famous in the 1988 Meryl Streep film "A Cry in the Dark."
Although Azaria’s death was initially attributed to a dingo in 1981, the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory refuted the findings and requested a new trial. It was then that the prosecution claimed Chamberlain-Creighton slit Azaria’s throat before she and her husband buried the body near the campsite. Chamberlain-Creighton was convicted of her daughter’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Her then-husband Michael was given a suspended sentence for being an accessory after the fact.
Four years later, a jacket believed to belong to Azaria was discovered near a dingo lair near the scene of the disappearance. A Royal Commission reviewed the evidence and vacated the Chamberlains’ convictions. In 1995, a third trial into Azaria’s death ended with an open verdict.
The now-divorced couple set out on a fourth inquest earlier this year. Evidence included reports of attacks by dingoes that resulted in the deaths of three children in Australia.
“The cause of her death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo,” Elizabeth Morris, coroner for Northern Territory, announced to Darwin Magistrates court early Tuesday. “Dingos can and do cause harm to humans.”
Read the full article.
Exonerated Prisoners Speak out on Solitary Confinement
Posted: June 19, 2012 2:45 pm
At a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing today exploring solitary confinement as inhumane treatment, a death row exoneree testified, and six others submitted written testimony. Anthony Graves spent 18 years in Texas prisons for a murder he didn’t commit. Graves testified to the horrors of his experience of extreme isolation: “Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system criminal….It dehumanizes us all.”
The Innocence Project also submitted testimony from just a few of the many exonerated people who spent time in solitary confinement. Julie Rea, of Illinois, describes being tormented by an audio cassette of a women screaming; Nick Yarris, of Pennsylvania’s death row, tells of his own suicide attempt during his 23 years in solitary confinement; and Clarence Elkins describes being numb while being released because he had endured three months of solitary confinement just before his exoneration.
Read their testimony.
For more about the Senate Judiciary hearing.
From the Wrongful Convictions Blog: International Innocence Round-up
Posted: June 27, 2012 1:45 pm
Exoneree Anniversary: Kirk Bloodsworth
Posted: June 28, 2012 1:40 pm
Tags: Kirk Bloodsworth
Posted: June 28, 2012 4:45 pm
Colorado Exoneree Struggles without Compensation
Posted: July 6, 2012 6:30 pm
(Photo: Robert Dewey (center) with his Innocence Project team – Social Worker Karen Wolff and Staff Attorney Jason Kreag.)
Robert Dewey, recently exonerated through DNA testing after 17 years of wrongful imprisonment, demonstrates the importance of state support for the wrongfully convicted. Dewey has received nothing from Colorado, which lacks a compensation law, and is currently living off food stamps and financial assistance from the Innocence Project’s Exoneree Fund. Dewey spoke to the Denver Post about his experience:
"I didn't even get the 'gate money.' All I got was an apology. The prosecutors said 'we're really sorry, have a nice life'," Dewey said two months after his release from prison, when new DNA testing identified a new suspect in the 1994 killing of a young Palisade woman.
About half of the states already have compensation laws in place, though the assistance that they provide varies wildly. Texas provides $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment and $25,000 per year on parole or as a registered sex offender as well as social services including tuition, health care and reentry services. Wisconsin provides a maximum of $25,000 regardless of the time served and offers no social services. On average, the exonerated wait three years to receive the funds, and exonerees in states without compensation laws may never receive any assistance.
The Innocence Project is also lobbying for other types of help for Dewey and others wrongly imprisoned. The organization wants to see immediate re-entry funds and access to job training, affordable housing, counseling, educational, health and legal services upon an innocent person's release.
Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform with the Innocence Project, said she is beginning preliminary work in Colorado to push for passage of compensation legislation.
"I'm in the process of reaching out to a range of stakeholders to see what might be possible in the next legislative session," she said.
Read the full article.
Read more about exoneree compensation.
Donate to the Exoneree Fund.
Tags: Colorado, Robert Dewey
Posted: July 12, 2012 3:40 pm
National Post-Conviction Case Review to Examine Forensic Flaws
Posted: July 11, 2012 5:20 pm
Steven D. Benjamin, president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the review “an important collaboration” and a departure from one-sided government reviews that left defendants in the dark.
“Mistakes were made. What is important now is our working together to correct those mistakes,” Benjamin said, adding that his organization will “fully assist in finding and notifying all those who may have been affected.”
Indiana Police Cut Down DNA Backlog
Posted: July 17, 2012 2:45 pm
In the nearly two decades that DNA testing in criminal cases has become commonplace, Indiana State Police crime labs suffered a backlog high of nearly one thousand cases that needed DNA testing. As of December, that number is down to 389, according to the police department’s annual report.
The combination of a bigger lab in Indianapolis, new technology and the hiring of more biologists has contributed to a decrease in the forensic backlog in all cases, reported The Journal Gazette.
“Every crime lab has a backlog. The issue really is what’s your turnaround time,” said Eric Lawrence, director of forensic analysis who has been with the state police for 28 years.
“Our goal is to complete 75 percent of our cases in 45 days,” Lawrence said. “At the same time, if a police agency has some sort of rush, some high-profile case, or something that can be an immediate threat to public safety, we want to meet those needs too.”
Before Indiana’s crime labs caught up on DNA testing, they were among a handful of crime labs across the country that asked the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directories for an extension to meet new standards to remain accredited.
With most of the lab’s shortcomings being administrative, the department has already corrected itself and expects to be fully reaccredited next month, according to Lawrence.
Read the full article.
Oklahoma Man Exonerated by DNA Testing
Posted: July 19, 2012 5:15 pm
An Oklahoma man who served 16 years for a 1995 burglary and robbery he did not commit was exonerated today by DNA testing.
With the consent of the Tulsa District Attorney’s Office, District Court Judge William C. Kellough overturned Sedrick Courtney’s conviction after DNA testing excluded him as the source of hairs that were recovered from ski masks worn by the two perpetrators who committed the crime.
After Courtney’s lawyers were repeatedly told by the Tulsa Police Department that the crime scene evidence was destroyed, the Innocence Project was finally able to locate the evidence in 2011 and conducted testing that definitively excludes Courtney as the source of the hairs found on the ski masks.
Barry Scheck, Co-director of the Innocence Project and a member of Courtney’s legal team said:
"We are grateful for District Attorney Tim Harris' help in quickly bringing an end to the terrible injustice faced by Mr. Courtney," said Scheck. “Mr. Courtney was able to get the DNA testing that has cleared his name. Undoubtedly there are many others who have not been so fortunate because Oklahoma has the unfortunate distinction of being the only state in the nation that doesn't have a DNA testing law. Hopefully this horrible miscarriage of justice will spur state lawmakers to do the right thing and make it easier for those who have been wrongly convicted to get access to the DNA testing that can clear their names.”
Courtney was paroled in 2011 and joined in court today by family members and other exonerees who have been cleared by DNA testing.
Read today’s press release.
Send a message of congratulations to Sedrick Courtney.
Read more about access to post-conviction DNA testing.
Tags: Oklahoma, Sedrick Courtney
A Short History of Police Lineup Reform
Posted: July 25, 2012 10:30 am
By Gary Wells, Professor of Psychology, Iowa State University
More than ever, legislators and law enforcement are realizing the importance of adopting lineup procedures that are based on solid scientific research. A groundswell of reform to eyewitness identification procedures swept the country last year—from New Jersey to Texas and police departments nationwide. Still, the change has been gradual. My own career is a testament of that.
I have been conducting experiments on eyewitness identification since 1975, while I was still a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University. Along with a fellow student, we designed this simple experiment where we staged a theft repeatedly and had people try and pick the thief out from a lineup. Not only did they make a lot of mistakes, but sometimes they were quite certain that they were right when in fact they were wrong.
After the first DNA exonerations in the early 1990s, I began to see how relevant those cases were to my research. For the first time ever, we had a litmus test that would help establish that eyewitness misidentification is not just a hypothetical problem. Before that, the work that I and other scientists were doing was largely ignored by the justice system. Many people in the legal community took the position that—“No one is actually serving time in this country for a crime they did not commit. It just doesn’t happen.” So, the DNA exonerations had the impact of getting the legal system to start paying attention to the science that we were doing.
In this area of eyewitness science we had explored a number of important factors that contribute to mistaken identifications, such as the problem of cross-racial identifications and the ways in which a culprit’s use of a weapon reduces memory for the culprit’s face. But among the most useful discoveries were finding that ways in which lineups are conducted affects the reliability of identifications that are made. This includes the instructions that witnesses are given before viewing a lineup, the quality of the fillers (non-suspect lineup members) used in the lineup, and the potential influence of a lineup administrator who can inadvertently influence the witness’s identification decision.
A number of jurisdictions began to take note of these findings and make reforms to how they conducted lineups. Other jurisdictions, however, showed some reluctance to make changes based on laboratory experiments that used simulated crimes. Accordingly, we launched an experiment with police departments in San Diego, Tucson, Austin and Charlotte using laptop computers to administer lineups in actual cases to test one of our main ideas, namely that sequential lineups (witnesses view each lineup member one at a time) would produce fewer mistaken identifications than would the traditional simultaneous lineup (lineup members viewed as a group). Unlike our lab studies, we could not be sure whether the suspected person in the lineup was in fact the culprit. But, each lineup included only one suspected person and the remaining members were known-innocent fillers. Hence, whenever a witness identified a filler, we could score that as a mistake. The Innocence Project was an important partner in this research.
The results of the study, released last year, corresponded well to what we had learned from the controlled laboratory research—that the rate of misidentification drops when witnesses view a sequential lineup. A key component was that the officer administering the lineup did not know which lineup member is being investigated by police.
The Innocence Project has been critical to bridging the gap between practices and procedures that are used by law enforcement and the social science recommendations. That’s a gap that social scientists alone cannot fully bridge, and the Innocence Project has been an incredible broker in that process.
Once law enforcement investigators are exposed to the research, they are quite receptive to it. The more lineups they’ve done in their career, the more they can appreciate the idea that there are limitations to eyewitness evidence, which they’ve observed in their own professional experience. Once they know there’s a problem, they’re eager to find a solution.
Read more about the field study.
Read more about the recent widespread reforms to eyewitness identification procedures.
Read more about Gary Wells’ research.
Tags: Eyewitness Identification
Overhaul of New Orleans Police Department
Posted: July 25, 2012 5:15 pm
In an effort to clean up a police force that has been plagued by decades of corruption and mismanagement, a federal agreement to implement police reforms within the New Orleans Police Department was signed Tuesday, reported the Associated Press.
The agreement lists several requirements aimed at improving the current policies and procedures, including recording of interrogations, which has been shown to prevent wrongful convictions based on false confessions. According to United States Attorney General Eric Holder, the 124-page proposed overhaul is the most wide ranging in Justice Department history.
"There can be no question that today's action represents a critical step forward," Holder said. "It reaffirms the Justice Department's commitment to fair and vigorous law enforcement at every level."
A federal judge is to approve the agreement and then manage its implementation. But Holder said Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas didn't wait for the agreement to be signed before establishing the reforms.
"The problems that we have identified were many years in the making and preceded this current administration," Holder said. "They are wide-ranging and they are deeply-rooted. Sustainable reform will not occur overnight, but we can all be encouraged that it is already happening here thanks to the leadership of Mayor Landrieu, Chief Serpas and so many others."
In previous years, the Justice Department has reached similar agreements with police departments in Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Detroit. Mayor Landrieu estimates the city will spend roughly $11 million per year for the next four or five years to implement the reforms.
Read the full article.
Read about the Innocence Project’s recommendations for recording interrogations.
Of Teens and Tunnel Vision
Posted: August 3, 2012 10:45 am
By Liz Webster
From the day he discovered Peggy Hettrick’s body in a field behind his home, Timothy Masters began his 24-year fight to be cleared of the murder. In his newly released book, Drawn to Injustice, Masters—with co-author Steve Lehto—recounts his emotional odyssey from 15-year-old daydreamer, to principal suspect in a murder investigation, to convict, to exoneree.
Masters’ experience emphasizes the vulnerability of young people to wrongful prosecution and conviction and the importance of educating teens about their rights. Still a juvenile, Masters withstood days of interrogation from veteran investigators without an attorney or a parent present. Investigators took advantage of their legal right to mislead Masters, saying that the evidence implicated him, and that he had failed a polygraph examination.
Young people are particularly prone to confessing to crimes they didn’t commit—of the 32 juveniles whose wrongful convictions were later overturned through DNA testing, the majority (66%) falsely confessed. Masters resisted the accusations and continued to insist on his innocence. However, he and his father did consent to a search of their trailer. The items recovered from this search would come to constitute the entirety of the state’s circumstantial case against him.
Fort Collins Police Officer Jim Broderick uncovered a large collection of Masters’ drawings and writings, and used these as evidence of Masters’ violent intentions, zeroing in on him even when evidence incriminating other suspects began to surface. Masters’ doodles involved violent scenarios reminiscent of military battles or horror movies. None of the drawings depicted the kind of sexual violence perpetrated against Hettrick.
Broderick’s relentless pursuit of Masters continued for over ten years until Masters’ arrest in 1998. As well as the writings and drawings, the prosecution used as evidence the fact that Masters’ dead mother had the same hair color as the victim. (She did not.)
Despite the egregiousness of the injustice, Masters and Lehto approach the narrative with a level hand. Over 400 pages, the book is nevertheless a quick read, wonderfully clear and chronological. The story will enlighten any reader, but will particularly resonate with young people. Drawn to Injustice should be recommended reading in high schools across the country.
To order the book online.
To read more about how young people are effected by wrongful convictions.
For a list of other books about wrongful conviction, see our reading list.
Tags: Timothy Masters
To Thank You for Your Letters of Support
Posted: August 6, 2012 11:50 am
I’m writing to thank the 535 Innocence Project supporters who wrote me letters after my DNA exoneration on July 19. I’m thankful for all the support. If I could, I would shake each hand and hug everybody. I appreciate it sincerely.
I spent 16 years in prison for a Tulsa burglary that I did not commit. I came home on June 6, 2011, on parole, but being exonerated feels different. I’m still working every day, but now I don’t have to check in and get permission from a DOC officer. If I want to leave the state or the country, I can. I’m free now. I live with my wife and our two-year-old son. He’s a blessing. But he won’t let me just sit there and read; he has to be in my lap. So I’ve been reading the letters after he goes to sleep.
They’re from all over the world and they say congratulations, welcome home, and we’re sorry that you had to go through what you went through. They say “tears of joy for you.” I had a few invitations from people in the state or in my town saying I would love to meet you. Some of the people who wrote to me told me stories of their loved ones that had been to prison and had to go through the same thing. Thanks to your letters and the Innocence Project’s support, I know I’m not alone. I’m truly blessed.
Tags: Oklahoma, Sedrick Courtney
Florida Death Row Prisoner Fights to Overturn Conviction
Posted: August 8, 2012 1:30 pm
"Now we know as a result of the (recent) upload that information was false," said McClain during Monday's hearing. "That's the problem in this case."
In the eyes of jurors, the old forensic evidence excluded Haverty as a legitimate suspect in Cox's slaying. The new findings — along with more information that has since surfaced — would likely result in a different outcome if the trial were held today, said McClain.
Tags: Paul Hildwin
DNA Clears Texas Man of Rape
Posted: August 21, 2012 12:00 pm
A Fort Worth man who was sentenced to life in prison for a rape that DNA evidence now proves he did not commit is expected to be released on Friday. David Lee Wiggins has spent more than two decades in prison for the 1988 rape of a 14-year-old girl and was convicted by a Tarrant County jury largely based on the victim’s identification.
Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Nina Morrison filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing in 2007 but earlier attempts at testing were inconclusive. At the urging of the Innocence Project, more sophisticated testing was done on the victim’s clothing earlier this month, and the lab that conducted the testing excluded Wiggins as a donor. A press release from the district attorney’s office has requested Wiggins be immediately returned to Tarrant County and released on bond.
"If current state-of-the art DNA testing had been available in 1989, there is no doubt Mr. Wiggins would have been acquitted," District Attorney Joe Shannon said in the news release. "We will continue to cooperate with legitimate requests for post-conviction testing. The job of this office is not just to convict, but to see that justice is done."
The hearing is scheduled for Friday at 11:00 am in the 213th District Court.
Read the full article.
Read more about the case.
Tags: Texas, David Wiggins
"Give Up Tomorrow" to Screen at the Brooklyn Museum
Posted: August 22, 2012 3:00 pm
Thursday night, the award-winning documentary “Give Up Tomorrow,” about a miscarriage of justice in the Philippines will screen at the Brooklyn Museum. The filmmakers will be present to answer questions afterwards.
The documentary, which won the Audience Award at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the bizarre story of Paco Larranaga who was convicted despite overwhelming evidence of innocence in a politically charged double murder trial and sentenced to life in prison.
For more about the screening.
For more about the documentary.
"Herman's House" to Screen at Harlem International Film Festival
Posted: September 18, 2012 5:20 pm
A new documentary about the unlikely friendship between Louisiana inmate Herman Wallace and New York artist Jackie Sumell will be screened at the opening night of the Harlem International Film Festival on Wednesday.
Co-presented by The Correctional Association of New York, “Herman’s House” explores the injustice of solitary confinement and the transformative power of art. It attempts to answer the question: “What kind of house does a man who has been imprisoned in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?” The film will screen at 9 p.m. in the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
Wallace and two other men are known as the Angola Three, named for the Louisiana prison where they collectively spent over 100 years in solitary confinement. Wallace was already serving time for a bank robbery when he came under investigation for the 1972 murder of a prison guard. According to court records, more than 200 inmates were questioned, none of whom were white. Wallace was convicted based largely on the testimony of another inmate who received special treatment in exchange for his testimony and sentenced to solitary confinement where he remained for more than three decades when he was moved to another prison where he is still confined to his solitary cell for 23 hours a day. The physical evidence that was collected from the crime scene was never tested and other evidence was lost. Another inmate has since confessed to the murder.
Learn more about the film.
San Antonio Express-News Joins Prosecutorial Misconduct Dialogue
Posted: September 19, 2012 5:35 pm
An editorial in Tuesday’s San Antonio Express-News welcomes the public discussion over wrongful prosecution in Texas criminal cases that heated up last week when the Texas District and County Attorney Association issued a report on prosecutorial misconduct that mischaracterized data released by the Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition (that includes the Innocence Project).
The Prosecutorial Oversight Coalition released data about 91 court findings of prosecutorial misconduct between 2004 – 2008 in Texas in advance of a forum in Austin on the issue in March 2012. When releasing the data, the coalition acknowledged that the data was not a final report and cautioned that the lack of transparency and accountability on the issue made it extremely difficult to provide data fully illustrating the problem. The purpose of the forum was to spark a conversation with prosecutors and other policymakers about the role of prosecutorial misconduct in wrongful convictions and systemic solutions to the problem.
The San Antonio Express-News writes:
Recent high-profile cases involving Texas death row inmates have focused much-needed attention on the way the state's criminal justice system operates.
If prosecutors feel defensive and feel as if they are under attack, that's understandable. But no one is saying there has been widespread or rampant intentional prosecutorial misconduct over the years.
A close look at the Innocence Project data indicates courts made 91 findings of error during the five-year review period. The findings were deemed harmless in 72 of those cases.
Considering the high number of criminal cases that go through the criminal justice system each year, that is a relatively low number, but even one case in which one defendant has been wrongfully convicted based on a prosecutor's conduct is one too many.
While it is easy to become defensive and downplay the merits of adverse findings, we are encouraged to see acknowledgment of past problems and steps being taken to correct them.
There are many lessons to be learned to keep history from repeating itself.
Read the full editorial.
Read the Innocence Project’s press release responding to “Setting the Record Straight on Prosecutorial Misconduct.”
Tags: Texas, Government Misconduct
Doubt Grows for Death Row Inmate’s Guilt
Posted: June 3, 2013 5:00 pm