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Charges dropped in KY confession case after DNA proves innocence

Posted: January 11, 2007

Matthew Fields, an 18-year-old Louisville man, was charged with a sexual assault two years ago after he allegedly confessed to police. Charges were dropped Wednesday after DNA from the scene matched a convicted felon, according to press reports.

"I think he was frightened, he was scared," (Defense Attorney Rob) Eggert said. "And he was under the impression that if he said he did it, he could go home."

Click here to read the full story. (Courier-Journal, 01/11/07, Payment required for full article)
This case is an example of the thousands of wrongful convictions that can be prevented by timely DNA testing. In his confession, Fields said that he had not ejaculated. The evidence was not sent to the lab until defense attorneys requested testing. If this evidence had been destroyed, mishandled, lost or never tested, Fields may have been convicted.

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New York Times editorial: The True State of CSI Justice

Posted: January 29, 2007

An editorial running today in the New York Times argues for the creation of innocence commissions nationwide.

Modern DNA testing is steadily uncovering a dark history of justice denied. More than 190 DNA exonerations in 18 years show ever more alarming patterns of citizens, wrongly convicted, suffering in prison. Consider the eight felons finally exonerated through DNA challenges in New York State in just the last 13 months. Or the 12 people who had to fight long and hard to prove their innocence in Dallas County, Tex., alone in the past five years. New York and Texas are, in fact, the leading states in yielding these hard-fought exonerations. This is hardly a credit to their justice systems since the victories are won by dedicated pro bono lawyers, not by state monitors charged with finding injustice.

Click here to read the full editorial. (NY Times, 01/29/07, paid subscription required)
Click here to read about how innocence commissions can spark true reform.

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Several states -- and the federal government -- are considering DNA database expansions despite backlogged labs

Posted: February 9, 2007

A bill before the Arizona Senate would expand that state’s DNA database to include samples of everyone arrested (but not necessarily convicted) for a crime in the state. However, the state lab had a backlog of 80,000 samples from convicted felons as recently as 2004 and would have to spend millions of dollars to update its lab and hire additional staff to handle triple the current volume of samples. An Arizona Daily Star editorial on Thursday argues against the expansion:

…expanding the DNA database is problematic for several reasons.

First, there are concerns over the loss of civil liberties. Simply being arrested does not mean a person has committed a crime, and many people who are arrested are never charged. Yet those people's DNA would become part of the database.

A more practical concern with expanding the DNA database is that the state doesn't have the resources to test an additional 75,000 people a year — the estimate given by Senate staff that examined the possible impact of the legislation.
...Senate staff found that the bill would cost an additional $3.75 million per year for DNA tests, DPS would have to hire 15 new workers to handle the increased volume of samples, and the state would have to expand its testing facility at a cost of $8 million to $10 million.

Read the full article here. (Arizona Daily Star, 02/08/07)
Several other states are currently considering bills expanding DNA database collection, while funding for crime labs remains woefully inadequate nationwide. Congress also quietly passed an amendment in January authorizing the federal government to collect samples from anyone arrested by federal authorities. The FBI lab, which would process these millions of samples, already has a backlog of 150,000 samples.

More informations on DNA database expansion and crime lab backlogs:



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Dallas DA will work with Innocence Project of Texas to review hundreds of cases

Posted: February 16, 2007

In a groundbreaking move, new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins announced this week that volunteer attorneys and law students from the Innocence Project of Texas would begin reviewing the cases of 354 people convicted in Dallas of rapes, murders and other felonies. Most of these defendants had applied for testing and been rejected by judges on the recommendation of former Dallas DA Bill Hill. The project has drawn support from prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims groups and other innocence organizations.

Organizers are working to line up participants and hope to start the screening process in the next two months. The work is expected to take several months to complete, said Jeff Blackburn, who heads the Innocence Project of Texas.

Ms. Moore said the office is prepared to request testing in any case for which it is recommended. If the cost of testing becomes an issue, she said, private laboratories might be approached about providing a bulk rate to the county.

Barry Scheck, co-director of the national Innocence Project, said he had "no doubt" that if biological evidence is available and tests are performed, more wrongful convictions will be discovered.

"There just always are," he said.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 02/16/07)
 
  • Thirteen Dallas men have been proven innocent by DNA testing, read their stories here.
  • Broad criminal justice reforms are being considered by Texas lawmakers, read more here.
  • Visit the Innocence Project of Texas website here, or learn about other projects in Texas and nationwide.



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Editorial: criminal defense and crime labs need funding in Louisiana

Posted: March 13, 2007

Louisiana is the only state in the nation that relies on traffic tickets to pay for public defense and forensic testing. An editorial over the weekend in Shreveport demanded reform.

Louisiana has long had a history of putting its money into building more prison cells to keep pace with mandatory sentences and other societal factors that make us the nation's per capita incarceration leader.

Meanwhile, we sometimes skimp by on the cost of making sure justice is done.

Money spent on defense of the poor is but a fraction of the dollars at the disposal of parish prosecutors. Overwhelmed public defenders have been duly noted in reports and lawsuits. Yet indigent defense continues to bubble along beneath most law-abiding citizens' radar. The momentum for reform that was building prior to hurricanes Katrina and Rita was another worthy cause slowed by the focus on storm recovery.
Read the full editorial here. (Shreveport Times, 03/10/07)
Read more about bad lawyering as a leading cause of wrongful conviction.

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Debate continues over FBI policy forbidding taped interrogations

Posted: April 3, 2007

While several states and hundreds of law enforcement agencies have adopted policies on recording of custodial interrogations, the Federal Bureau of Investigation still forbis the practice, according to reports. This controversy has been at the center of the recent dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

One of the fired attorneys, Paul Charlton of Arizona, has said that the policy against recording is hindering law enforcement and justice.

Mr. Charlton said the problem was particularly acute in Arizona, a state with 21 Indian reservations, where federal law enforcement officials handle major felony cases. In essence, he said, differing investigative practices have resulted in two distinct criminal justice systems. If a crime occurred off the reservation, the confession would be taped, but if it happened on tribal land, it would not.

“That disparity in justice is unacceptable,” Mr. Charlton said in an interview.

The F.B.I., in documents defending its policy, argued that taping was not always possible, particularly when agents were on the road, and that it was not always appropriate. Psychological tricks like misleading or lying to a suspect in questioning or pretending to show the suspect sympathy might also offend a jury, the agency said.

“Perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants,” said one of the once-secret internal Justice Department communications made public as part of the investigation into the dismissals of the United States attorneys.

Read the full story. (New York Times, 4/2/07, free registration required)
Recording of interrogations has been proven to prevent false confessions from happening. Read more here.



Tags: False Confessions

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Alabama column says state can't be sure everyone on death row is guilty

Posted: April 27, 2007

Huntsville Times columnist David Person writes today that in light of the 200 DNA exonerations nationwide, Alabama should consider its death penalty "fatally flawed." Alabama is the only state in the U.S. that doesn't guarantee attorneys to death row inmates for every stage of appeal.

Thanks to DNA testing, we also know this is true of a growing number of those convicted of non-capital offenses as well. The most recent is Jerry Miller, who became the 200th person exonerated by DNA evidence on Monday.
The crime he didn't commit? The 1981 rape of a woman in a Chicago parking garage: Miller spent 25 years in prison because he was misidentified by two parking garage attendants. But Miller was lucky. The real rapist left DNA evidence on the woman's clothes, which led the Innocence Project to push for a test.

"Only 10 percent of serious felony cases, it is estimated, have any biological evidence which you can do DNA testing on and determine who's guilty or innocent," said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, on Wednesday. "You have to wonder, how many mistaken identifications, false confessions, bad lab work, there are in those cases."

...We also don't know how many innocent people have been executed in Alabama. But because seven Death Row inmates have had their capital convictions overturned or have been completely exonerated since 1975, it's natural to wonder if at least one of the 35 who have been executed may have been innocent.
Read the full column here. (The Huntsville Times, 4/27/07)


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NY Times: Spitzer's DNA proposal needs revision

Posted: May 29, 2007

A package of legislation supported by New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer was approved by the state Senate last week and is currently pending in the Assembly, but another package of reforms in the Assembly goes further to prevent wrongful convictions and protect the rights of defendants.

On Friday night, Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol, both New York City Democrats, introduced their own bill that would expand the DNA database to all misdemeanors, as the governor proposed in his bill this month. Currently DNA samples are collected from people convicted of all felonies and a few misdemeanors.
But the assemblymen felt the governor did not go far enough in ensuring that DNA would be used to exonerate those wrongly imprisoned as well as to convict the guilty. DNA evidence has led to 23 exonerations in New York State, according to the Innocence Project, a legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. The state has had a DNA database since 2000.

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 5/28/07)
 

And a New York Times editorial yesterday said proposed reforms need better safeguards to allow the wrongfully convicted to file appeals.
Gov. Eliot Spitzer is right to want to expand New York State’s use of DNA evidence to solve crimes and exonerate the innocent. But, disappointingly, his proposed plan includes an unrelated — and unworthy — new provision that would seriously undermine his declared goal of minimizing injustice.

Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 5/28/07)
The Innocence Project is working with legislators to ensure that reforms reflect the lessons of DNA exonerations and meaningfully improve the criminal justice system, and we will post updates in this space throughout the week.



Tags: New York, Access to DNA Testing

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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

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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.

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)
Read more about the reform bills pending in the California legislature and a recent hearing of the California Commission on Fair Administration of Justice.



Tags: False Confessions, Informants/Snitches, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Denver lawmakers push to preserve evidence

Posted: July 26, 2007 5:13 pm

At the close of a major news series on evidence preservation in the Denver Post, Colorado legislators called today for law enforcement agencies to halt the destruction of crime scene materials collected in felony cases while new laws are being considered.

"We've got to make sure we've got the right people in prison and that victims can get justice," said state Rep. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, who is crafting a bill to preserve DNA and other forensic samples in murders and rapes for decades and provide penalties for trashing it.
Added state Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver: "We just can't tolerate negligence in this area."

Read today’s story here. (Denver Post, 07/26/2007)
This week’s investigative series covered cold cases, closed cases and exonerations nationwide in considering how evidence preservation laws differ state by state and examining reform policies that can ensure fair justice for all Americans. Read the stories, watch videos and read feedback here.

Read more about evidence preservation in our Fix the System section.



Tags: Colorado, Evidence Preservation

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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."

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)
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.



Tags: Clay Chabot

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DNA databases and privacy: A lively discussion on USAToday.com

Posted: August 9, 2007 12:08 pm

A recent USA Today article questions whether the sharing of DNA “partial matches” between states is an invasion of privacy. A Denver prosecutor is asking California officials to share information on a person whose profile partially matches evidence from an unsolved Denver rape, and California’s Attorney General has refused.

The standoff between the two agencies appears to be the first but likely not the last such clash over a new DNA technique called "familial searching," says Angelo Della Manna, chief DNA analyst for the state of Alabama and an adviser to the FBI on DNA policy.

"At some point you ask yourself as a scientist not only 'what can the science do?' but 'what are we comfortable with it doing?'" Della Manna said. "We're reaching that point now."
Since the article ran last week, 33 people have commented on the USA Today website. Read the full article and join the discussion now.

The Innocence Project supports the collection and databasing of DNA from convicted felons. We believe that any policy of collecting DNA from additional populations impedes law enforcement and violates personal privacy. Read more about the Innocence Project’s position.



Tags: DNA Databases

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Illinois man finds a difficult road to a new life

Posted: August 30, 2007 3:04 pm

Robert Wilson was released from prison in Illinois in December after serving more than nine years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, and an article in today’s Chicago Tribune considers the difficult adjustment for the exonerated upon release.

Represented by attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, Wilson was released last year after his attorneys presented evidence that he was misidentified by the victim in the case and that another man had confessed to committing similar crimes in the area. A judge granted Wilson a new trial based on these discoveries and prosecutors dropped the charges.

Now, Wilson is working to build a new life after nine years in prison.

Day by day, Wilson, 51, is trying. But he finds himself in a kind of purgatory unique to those exonerated of crimes: He isn't guaranteed the meager benefits allotted ex-felons on parole or the restitution awarded those who've been pardoned after wrongful convictions. For now, while he awaits a decision on his request for a pardon based on innocence, he's on his own.

To try to rebuild his life, he is using the same mind-set that got him through prison and childhood in a tough neighborhood: Focus on what needs to be done and ignore the rest, he said.
"If I stay focused on what happened and what I've been through, my whole attitude would change," Wilson said. "I would be bitter and angry."

Read the full story. (Chicago Tribune, 08/30/07)


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200+ exonerations are a “tipping point” in call for better public defense

Posted: November 30, 2007 10:37 am

In a column in the December issue of the libertarian magazine Reason, senior editor Radley Balko writes that we need to look no further than the 208 wrongful convictions  overturned by DNA testing to see that the American public defense system is woefully lacking. While 80 percent of defendants charged with felonies in state court get a public defender, a 1999 Justice Department study found that 97 percent of law enforcement resources in the country’s 100 largest counties goes to police, courts and prosecutors – leaving just 3 percent for public defense. Only about 7 percent of felonies go to trial – the rest end in plea bargains. Eleven of the 208 exonerees pled guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, and other wrongful convictions were clearly caused by bad lawyering.

If we’re serious about giving everyone a fair crack at justice, indigent defendants need access to the same sorts of resources prosecutors have, including their own independent experts and investigators. If we’re going to generously fund the government’s efforts to imprison people, we need to ensure that everyone the government pursues is adequately defended and protected from prosecutorial overreach. The ongoing stream of exonerations in felony cases suggests we’re a long way from that goal.

Read the full column here. (Reason, December 2007)
And the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast says this morning that there must be a crisis if the libertarian Reason is calling for an improvement in public defense.
When even Reason magazine thinks government is underspending on one of its functions, it's hard not to think we might have reached a tipping point in regards to changing public perception in the wake of 200+ DNA exonerations.

Read the full blog post. (Grits for Breakfast, 11/30/07)




Tags: Bad Lawyering

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Virginia conducts review of DNA cases, but doesn't plan to share results with inmates

Posted: January 16, 2008 5:31 pm

After a report last week revealed that Virginia officials do not plan to tell convicted defendants if an audit has revealed untested biological evidence in their case file, editorials and experts have criticized the plan as unfair to people who may be wrongfully imprisoned.

The audit began after Marvin Anderson was exonerated in 2002 by DNA evidence in his case that was uncovered in the files of a retired lab analyst. Gov. Mark Warner then ordered that 10% of cases in the analyst’s files be tested for a possible wrongful conviction. Two more men – Phillip Leon Thurman and Willie Davidson – were exonerated by this review, and Warner ordered a complete audit of all sex assault and murder convictions between 1973 and 1988 involving biological evidence. That audit turned up 2,215 cases, and officials plan to share this list of cases with police, prosecutors and the governor, but not to notify defendants if biological evidence has been found in their case.

Leading voices across the state are outraged by the plan to notify only police and prosecutors.

From an editorial in the Bristol Herald Courier:

Now, the state’s prosecutors, court clerks and police are fine, honorable people. But we’re not so certain that they will be zealous advocates on behalf of individuals that their colleagues put away years ago. It’s human nature to prefer not to kick over a hornet’s nest.

…The Department should move forward with testing and notify those whose convictions might be affected by the results of that testing. It’s the only fair way to proceed.

Read the full editorial here.

From an editorial in the Roanoke Times:

Unless Virginia is taking its lead from the White House's treatment of detainees, it should let prisoners and their attorneys know what new evidence is available. Those prisoners could then decide whether to pursue DNA testing independently of the state.

Yet the state Forensic Science Board does not think that is appropriate. On a 6-5 vote, it chose to keep prisoners and the General Assembly in the dark.

…Those opposed to notification raised concerns about the cost of testing, difficulty tracking down each felon and sending a message that the state doesn't trust police and prosecutors. None of those inconveniences is particularly convincing when the alternative is to deny a wrongfully convicted prisoner an opportunity to prove his innocence.

Read the full editorial here.

Read more about this issue in the Richmond-Times Dispatch.





Tags: Marvin Anderson, Willie Davidson, Phillip Leon Thurman

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Florida Exoneree May Finally Be Compensated

Posted: March 11, 2008 2:05 pm

Alan Crotzer, who was exonerated through DNA testing in Florida in 2006, may finally receive compensation through a special bill in the Florida Legislature that would pay him $1.25 million for the more than 24 years he spent in Florida prisons. The 2007 legislative session ended without passing the bill. Crotzer is one of nine people exonerated through DNA evidence in Florida, only one of whom has been compensated.

"From Al's perspective, finally having a glimmer of hope - to me, that's a hallelujah," said Michael Olenick, Crotzer's attorney.

Read the full article here. (Palm Beach Post, 03/11/08)
The special “private” bill applies only to Crotzer and does not include provisions for the other eight Florida exonerees who have not been compensated. It also does not create a system for compensating people who are exonerated in the future.  Florida is one of the 28 states that do not have a compensation statute.

In addition to the bill to compensate Crotzer, the Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would pay $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration for exonerees, but only if they have no prior felony record. The Innocence Project of Florida is urging legislators to drop the provision about prior felonies.  None of the 22 states with compensation laws have provisions about prior felonies that prevent innocent people from being compensated for the years or decades they lost to a wrongful conviction.

Read more about Crotzer’s case here.





Tags: Florida, Exoneree Compensation

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How many innocent behind bars? Nobody knows.

Posted: March 25, 2008 4:25 pm

An article in today’s New York Times asks a question often heard by the Innocence Project: How many people convicted in the United States are innocent?

Observers from across the criminal justice system have weighed in.

Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan, has found the rate of wrongful conviction in death row cases to be somewhere between 2.3 and 5 percent.

A recent review of biological evidence in 31 randomly chosen Virginia cases led to DNA testing that could yield results in 22 cases, two of which resulted in  exonerations – a small sample size but an indicator that the rate could be as high as 9 percent.

A couple of years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia cited questionable and discredited calculations from Oregon Prosecutor Joshua Marquis (who divided the number of DNA exonerations by the total number of felony convictions) to make his claim that the wrongful conviction rate is .027 percent.  As Gross points in a recent law review article: “By this logic, we could estimate the proportion of baseball players who’ve used steroids by dividing the number of major league players who’ve been caught by the total of all baseball players at all levels: major league, minor league, semipro, college and Little League — and maybe throwing in football and basketball players as well.”

Today’s Times article notes that while there is disagreement about which calculations might help suggest the magnitude of the problem, there is a consensus that nobody ruly knows how many innocent people are in prison – and we may never know.

The Innocence Project has always said that DNA exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg, since only 5-10% of all criminal cases involve biological evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing (and even in those cases, the evidence is often lost, destroyed or too degraded to yield results in DNA testing).  But the 215 wrongful convictions overturned to date by DNA testing illustrate the broader causes of wrongful conviction and show the need for reforms that can prevent injustice.  As today’s Times article says:

…a few general lessons can be drawn nonetheless. Black men are more likely to be falsely convicted of rape than are white men, particularly if the victim is white. Juveniles are more likely to confess falsely to murder. Exonerated defendants are less likely to have serious criminal records. People who maintain their innocence are more likely to be innocent. The longer it takes to solve a crime, the more likely the defendant is not guilty.

Read the full article here. (New York Times, 03/25/08)



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Virginia lawmakers approve measure to tell prisoners about old evidence

Posted: March 26, 2008 3:40 pm

A budget amendment awaiting the signature of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine would require the Virginia Forensic Science Board to alert prisoners when biological evidence is found in their old lab files. The measure, already approved by lawmakers, was introduced by Virginia State Crime Commission Chairman David Albo.

In January, (Virginia Forensic Science Board) members expressed concern about the burden on state agencies searching for the felons, many presumably released from prison.

As a result, it is largely up to authorities to determine whether DNA testing is warranted and to interpret whether the results have any bearing on innocence -- even though qualified felons have a right to petition the court for testing.

Some advocates and experts are concerned that for the most part, only authorities are being told the evidence exists and not those who potentially have the most at stake.

Read the full story here. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 03/25/08)
In January, two newspaper editorial boards joined the call to support notification of prisoners when evidence was found. Read those editorials here.





Tags: Virginia

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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.

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."
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.
...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.

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)
Read more about the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.





Tags: Informants/Snitches, Government Misconduct

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Editorial: Fair, straightforward compensation needed in Florida

Posted: April 29, 2008 2:10 pm

Florida is one of 27 states with no law compensating the wrongfully convicted upon their exoneration. Last month, lawmakers approved a bill compensated Alan Crotzer $1.25 million for the 24 years he spent in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, but the bill was for him only, making him the second Floridian to receive state compensation after exoneration. Another Florida exoneree, Wilton Dedge, received a similar state compensation package.

The state desperately needs a universal compensation law, and lawmakers are considering one right now. But there are serious problems with the Florida bill in its current state, and an editorial in today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal details some of these problems:

Both House and Senate versions deny compensation to anyone with another felony conviction -- even if the other conviction is relatively minor. This so-called "clean hands" provision is a cruel excuse to perpetrate injustice.
The fact that someone has a prior conviction does not make a wrongful conviction any less wrong. In fact, the existence of a prior conviction increases the possibility of injustice: Police sometimes focus an investigation on someone who's already been in trouble with the law, to the exclusion of other more likely suspects.

Crotzer's case provides a perfect example of how unfair this provision can be. Before he was wrongfully convicted of robbery and rape, he stole beer from a store. While in prison, he was convicted of a drug offense. Both crimes were relatively minor and would draw relatively short prison terms -- if any. Yet under this proposal, he would be barred from compensation for his 24 years behind bars.
Read the full editorial here. (Daytona Beach News-Journal, 04/29/08) 
 



Tags: Florida, Alan Crotzer, Wilton Dedge, Exoneree Compensation

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“Fatally flawed” compensation bill advances in Florida, California exoneree settles for $500K

Posted: May 1, 2008 4:22 pm

Florida lawmakers voted on Tuesday to advance a bill compensating the wrongfully convicted for each year they spent in prison before their exoneration, but restrictions on the bill exclude too many people. The bill would pay some exonerees $50,000 per year served, but it excludes anyone with a prior felony conviction. This would include Alan Crotzer, who spent almost 25 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was convicted of stealing beer from a convenience store before his wrongful conviction, and that would disqualify him. Crotzer will be paid $1.25 million by the state after lawmakers passed a bill specifically written for him. While the Innocence Project has commended Florida legislators for addressing this important issue, the provision about unrelated prior felony convictions falls far short of the state’s obligation to compensate the wrongfully convicted.

Eric Ferrero, spokesman for the national Innocence Project, said the clean hands provision is a ''fatal flaw.'' He said that of the 23 states that have compensation laws for the wrongfully incarcerated, none disqualify people based on unrelated prior felony convictions.

''Prior convictions have nothing to do with the fact that an innocent person was wrongfully convicted,'' Ferrero said. ``They have paid their debt to society for prior convictions but society has not paid its debt to them for a separate and unrelated wrongful conviction.''

Read the full story here. (Miami Herald, 04/29/08)
 

In other news, California exoneree James Ochoa has reached a tentative settlement in his lawsuit against Buena Park, California for his wrongful conviction. Ochoa spent 10 months in prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit before DNA cleared him. He also received approval recently to receive $30,000 in state compensation. Read more here.

Does your state have a compensation law? Find out here.




Tags: Florida, Alan Crotzer, Exoneree Compensation

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Florida's Wrongful Incarceration Act restricts compensation for exonerees

Posted: May 13, 2008 5:00 pm

The Wrongful Incarceration Act which recently passed in the Florida Legislature and is pending signature from the Florida Governor, offers $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration to exonerees. Only three of the nine people exonerated through DNA testing in the state of Florida have received compensation for the time they served unjustly. Both Wilton Dedge and Alan Crotzer endured months of battling with the State Legislature before receiving compensation through private bills that applied only to them. A third Florida exoneree, Jerry Frank Townsend, just received a settlement last week after fighting for compensation since his release in 2001.

Several of those who have not yet been compensated would be restricted from receiving funds through the Wrongful Incarceration Act because of a “clean hands” provision which disallows compensation for anyone with an unrelated prior felony conviction. None of the other 23 states that provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted restrict funds in this way.

An article in the Tallahassee Democrat outlines the controversy around the bill:

Advocates for the wrongfully incarcerated say they will wait to see how the process works, but they have doubts whether all the proven innocent will be compensated.
"You're innocent when we release you but you're not innocent enough to be compensated?" said Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida. "These two ideas just don't jibe together."

Read the full story here.




Tags: Florida, Exoneree Compensation

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Editorial: Florida compensation law falls short

Posted: June 2, 2008 4:38 pm

An editorial in yesterday’s Orlando Sentinel says that Florida lawmakers didn’t go far enough when crafting the state’s new law compensating the wrongfully convicted upon exoneration. The bill would pay some exonerees $50,000 per year served, but it excludes anyone with a prior felony conviction. The Innocence Project has called this provision a “fatal flaw,” and the Orlando Sentinel agrees, calling it unfair.

It's not as if giving automatic compensation to these people would cost the state a lot. Only nine Floridians have been freed by DNA evidence. But seven won't qualify for automatic compensation because of that provision.

There's a chance to make it right during the next session by eliminating that clause. Why? Because it's the right thing to do.

Read the full editorial here. (Orlando Sentinel, 05/31/08)
Does your state have a compensation law? View the map here.





Tags: Exoneree Compensation

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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."

Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 06/20/08)
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.

Watch Ronnie Taylor tell his story in his own words in an Innocence Project video on Texas exonerations.





Tags: Ronald Taylor

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Dispatch from Chicago: An education in justice and advocacy

Posted: September 12, 2008 10:15 am

By Lauren Kaeseberg, Attorney, Stone & Associates, LLC, Waukegan, Ill.
Former Innocence Project Clinic Student

Working as a Cardozo School of Law student the Innocence Project showed me firsthand the real-life effects of a broken criminal justice system. Time and resources are extremely scarce, and cases are hurried through the courts. In an age where 95 percent of cases resulting in felony convictions are settled in a plea bargain, evidence is rarely tested and the government is rarely held to its burden of proof. I learned that the maxim “innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t survive outside of law books.

In my first year of defense practice, I have been forced to face the reality that by the time an individual has been indicted, the cards are stacked – often irreversibly – against them. The de facto presumption of guilt in our system is pervasive and incredibly hard to shake. Then, once a defendant is convicted, a system already stacked against them becomes that much more difficult to navigate. Appellate standards of review are seemingly insurmountable, long sentences have become the norm, and prisons are far away from family and home.

To represent an individual accused of a crime is a humbling experience. I am grateful for what I learned in the Cardozo clinic at the Innocence Project. My education and experience working to overturn wrongful convictions continues to inform my work on a daily basis. I learned the importance of being up-front and honest with my clients – I am careful to never give false hope, and to include them in the process and ensure their understanding of the system as it engulfs them.

While I am frustrated by the failings of our system, I am kept alive professionally by a different, yet parallel, emotion – empowerment. I chose to study at the Innocence Project clinic in order to learn from the best at how to be both a lawyer seeking justice and an advocate seeking change. My time there embedded in me a deep sense of purpose and hope. I find inspiration in the knowledge that a relatively small group of lawyers can ensure that justice is done. Moreover, as the policy work of the Innocence Project has established, a small group of people can turn the system on its head and open up the eyes of the public so that they may catch a glimpse of the problems within the system.

The lessons learned through the 220 exonerations to date are undeniable, and they force us all to be better lawyers and advocates. Each exoneration is another reminder that we must not allow the standard to be lowered in the criminal justice system. In order for there to be real justice, we cannot forget that the standard must remain innocent unless proven guilty.


From 2005 to 2007, Lauren Kaeseberg worked at the Innocence Project as a student in the legal clinic and then as a teaching assistant. She graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 2007, and today works as a criminal defense lawyer in Waukegan, Illinois.


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Two Men Mark One Year of Freedom

Posted: September 18, 2008 5:35 pm

In 1991, Marcus Lyons dressed in his old Navy uniform, carried a large wooden cross, and attempted to crucify himself on the courthouse steps. He had recently been paroled, and these were the same steps where he was tried and wrongfully convicted three years earlier. "I needed someone to listen," he said in a recent interview. However, it would take another 16 years before he was exonerated.

In November of 1987, Lyons was a recently engaged Navy Reserve Officer living in suburban Chicago when a white woman was raped in the neighboring apartment complex. While Lyons maintained he had been home that night, the victim and the neighbors matched Lyons to a police composite sketch.  Although Lyons weighed 160 pounds and the victim identified the perpetrator as weighing 200 pounds, he was brought in for questioning.

Lyons permitted police to search his apartment where they found brown polyester pants  similar to the victim's description of the perpetrator's clothing. The victim identified Lyons as the perpetrator in a photo lineup and testified at his trial, and the jury convicted him. Lyons hired a private lawyer to file an appeal on his behalf, but the attorney never filed it. He was released on parole three years after his convicted, but says he struggled with the stigma of a felony conviction for a crime he didn’t commit. He was exonerated one year ago today when DNA testing proved he wasn’t the man who raped the victim.

Sunday will also mark the one-year anniversary of Larry Bostic's exoneration. Accused of a rape he didn’t commit in 1988, Bostic pled guilty to avoid a possible harsh sentence at trial. He was sentenced to eight years in prison, and was released on parole after three years. He would later be convicted of an unrelated assault and sentenced to 17 years in prison as a repeat offender. When he was exonerated on September 21, 2007, after DNA testing proved he never committed the rape, he was just 13 days from the end of his sentence.

After his release, Bostic said: "If you got an attorney telling you to take a plea agreement, and you might not win if you go to trial, what seems better to you? A little bit of time or a whole bunch of time?"

Both Lyons and Bostic sought DNA testing in their cases for years before they were finally exonerated. None of the 220 people exonerated by DNA evidence would be free today if they didn’t have access to DNA tests to clear their names. Seven states have no statute under which a defendant can apply for DNA testing. Is yours one? View our interactive map to find out.

Thousands of Innocence Project supporters have signed our petition for DNA access. Add your name today

Other exoneration anniversary this week:

Gilbert Alejandro, Texas (Served 3.5 Years, Exonerated in 1994)





Tags: Gilbert Alejandro, Larry Bostic, Marcus Lyons

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Mississippi man still fighting for DNA test

Posted: October 20, 2008 12:37 pm

A former Jackson, Mississippi, police officer has been seeking DNA testing since 2006 to prove that he was wrongfully convicted of robbing a bank. Steve Fasano is currently in federal prison, and could be released to a halfway house next year. But even if he is released, he says, he will continue to fight to prove his innocence.

Fasano was convicted of robbing a Citizens Bank branch in 2002. Eyewitnesses identified Fasano as the perpetrator, who was wearing a hard hat, sunglasses and a T-shirt during the crime. The perpetrator discarded this disguise, and police collected the items as evidence. Now, Fasano’s attorney is seeking DNA testing on the clothing under the federal Innocence Protection Act of 2004, but a district judge has already denied his request for testing. Fasano is appealing the ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He vowed to continue to fight to clear his name. "I will pursue this till I'm an old man," he said. "I can't live knowing a felony is placed on my shoulders for something I didn't do.

"A great injustice has been done. I want to get home because I'm an innocent man, not because my time has run out."

Read the full story here. (Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 10/19/08)




Tags: Mississippi

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New South Carolina law requires evidence preservation and access to DNA testing

Posted: October 23, 2008 4:51 pm

South Carolina this week became the 44th state in the U.S. with a law allowing convicted defendants to seek DNA testing when it has the potential to prove innocence. The  State House voted 86-25 Tuesday to override a veto by Gov. Mark Sanford, and the Senate voted 36-0 to override the veto on Monday.

The bill also ensures that crime scene evidence will be preserved in most serious felony convictions until the defendant is released from custody (unless they pled guilty, in which case the evidence would only be preserved for seven years).

Sanford said he vetoed the bill because he didn’t support a provision that allows law enforcement agencies to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested for a felony. This is a provision that the Innocence Project also does not support, as we believe that collecting DNA from people who were not convicted of felonies violates personal privacy and impedes law enforcement.

Read more here. (The Greenville News, 10/22/08)

What are the DNA access and evidence preservation laws in your state? Find out on our interactive map.




Tags: South Carolina, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing

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Crime Labs Suffer Under Backlogs and Budget Crunches, Help on the Way

Posted: November 10, 2008 4:30 pm

Towns and cities in Arizona are refusing to pay the state for forensic tests that used to be done for free. After the Arizona state legislature cut the state crime lab’s budget by half in July, lab officials announced that they would bill law enforcement departments for forensic tests, hoping to collect $2.5 million this fiscal year. But law enforcement officials say they can’t afford the fees for testing.

Police in Douglas, a border town in southeastern Arizona, owe about $23,000 in lab fees. To pay the Department of Public Safety would mean Douglas police could not hire an officer or buy a squad car, Chief Alberto Melis said. The department has four vacancies.
Melis of Douglas said, "For me to come up with this money, I'm going to have to do without something. In a profession where 95 percent of your cost is personnel, I might not be able to hire somebody."
Officers in Payson, Arizona, said they are sending less evidence for testing, which is slowing down investigations.  
Detective Matt Van Camp said he uses every aspect of the crime lab, from firearm testing to its criminalists.

“We used to send everything, but now we have to screen what we send out automatically,” Van Camp said. “This limits the tools available for the prosecutor and police.”

Prosecutors may now have to decide if they want to go to trial before they have the necessary evidence in hand.

“This makes the prosecutor’s job harder,” he said. “Crime labs also prove people innocent, not just guilty.”

Read the full story here. (Payson Roundup, 11/4/08)
Lab backlogs are hurting police investigations in Texas, as well. Results from state labs can take months.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley explains that in today's 'CSI world' where jurors see scientific evidence easily gleaned from most crime scenes in TV dramas, they expect to see the same in court cases. But because there are so many requests for testing, and too few state technicians to keep up with demand, he says, "When you ask for DNA testing and results, you're buying in to a six month to one year delay in your case."

Read the full story here. (Key TV, 11/06/08)

Federal assistance should help to defuse the crisis somewhat in Arizona and Texas. The two states, along with Washington, Kentucky and Virginia, recently received a combined $7.8 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice to help with DNA testing in serious felony cases. The DOJ’s grant program requires states to comply with standards for storage and testing of evidence, and also to significantly reduce backlogs through improved training and technology. Read more about the DOJ grant program here.

 



Tags: Arizona, Texas, Access to DNA Testing

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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

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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

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The Day After Osborne

Posted: March 3, 2009 1:30 pm

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld argued yesterday before the Supreme Court that prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence. Innocence Project client William Osborne is pursuing DNA testing that can prove his innocence but has been denied access to the evidence by Alaska authorities. Visit our Osborne resource page for yesterday’s oral argument transcript, briefs in the case and more.

Below is a sample of the national media coverage of the oral arguments:

USA Today: Supreme Court considers convicts' right to evidence

New York Times: Convict Asks Justices to Find a Right to DNA Testing

Associated Press: Supreme Court Closely Divided on Felon’s Right to DNA Test

Talk Left: Supreme Court Hears Arguments in DNA Case

Truthout: The Supreme Court Confronts a Mystery





Tags: William Osborne

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New Montana Law Requires Recording of Interrogations

Posted: April 17, 2009 5:55 pm

With strong bipartisan support in the State Legislature, Montana recently enacted a law requiring police statewide to electronically record custodial interrogations in felony criminal cases, becoming the 14th state nationwide to require the recording of interrogations, a reform increasingly seen as an easy and effective way to ensure fair justice for suspects and defendants and to help law enforcement agencies apprehend perpetrators of crimes.

A number of cities and counties across Montana already have adopted recording policies on their own, but HB 534 expands the practice statewide and ensures uniform procedures across jurisdictions. The new law requires police to electronically record custodial interrogations that occur in felony cases. If a statement is not recorded, a judge may reject it as evidence unless it satisfies exceptions provided in the law, such as equipment failure and statements made spontaneously or during routine booking.  

Across the nation, about 25 percent of people convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence were wrongly convicted based on false confessions or admissions.  This reform also aids law enforcement by preventing disputes about how an officer conducted himself or treated a suspect; creating a record of statements made by the suspect, which advances prosecutions; and capturing subtle details that may be lost if unrecorded, which help law enforcement better investigate the crime.

Two other major benefits of recording interrogations include saving court time and expense for the justice system by helping judges, juries and attorneys settle disputes about what happened during an interrogation and helping to convict guilty defendants who are less likely to contest officers' reports when faced with independent evidence of their statements.

To date, legislation has been enacted in Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia requiring the recording of interrogations, and state supreme courts have taken action on the issue in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Legislatures in Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Ohio are considering reforms to mandate the recording of interrogations. Five hundred jurisdictions nationwide have voluntarily adopted policies to record interrogations.   

Click here for the full text of the new Montana law.

Read more about the Innocence Project's work supporting the recording of interrogations.



Tags: False Confessions

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NY Exoneree: Now Is the Time for Criminal Justice Reform

Posted: June 3, 2009 3:25 am

New York exoneree Korey Wise writes in the Spanish-language daily newspaper El Diario today about the years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and his disappointment that New York still has not addressed the factors that contributed his wrongful conviction. He writes:

I was incarcerated for nearly 15 years before I was finally exonerated. When I share my story with people now, they almost always ask if I am angry. I would be lying if I said I’m not angry sometimes for the time I lost and can never get back. But more than anything, I am angry that more hasn’t been done to fix our criminal justice system so this doesn’t happen to other people.

My case and the 23 other DNA exonerations in New York reveal serious problems in the state’s criminal justice system – problems that profoundly impact individuals’ lives and entire communities, and demand serious solutions.  

Right now, Governor David Paterson and leaders in the State Legislature are considering reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions and help exonerate innocent people. Before the end of June, they will decide whether to act on reforms that can make our justice system more fair, accurate and reliable.

It is critical that our elected officials take action this year. They should pass a package of legislation that would make it easier for prisoners to prove their innocence, improve eyewitness identification procedures and require that interrogations be recorded.
Included in the package of legislation under consideration is a requirement that state law enforcement agencies videotape interrogations in felony cases. Wise was a teenager when he was convicted and he and his four co-defendants allegedly confessed to involvement in the crimes. Although their confessions were videotaped, the complete interrogations were not. Recording of interrogations is standard practice in more than 500 jurisdictions around the country and has been proven to assist law enforcement in investigation and prevent false confessions.

Read Wise’s editorial in Spanish or English.

If you live in New York State, you can take action today by voicing your support for this package of reforms. Send an email right now to Gov. David Patterson and leaders in the Senate and Assembly.





Tags: Korey Wise

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New York Exonerees Call for Reform

Posted: June 18, 2009 4:25 pm

A group of New York exonerees and their families sent letters today to elected state officials urging them to take action this session to address the causes of wrongful conviction. A group of 13 exonerees sent a joint letter to lawmakers, writing:

Each one of us was convicted of serious felonies before DNA testing finally proved our innocence. We are from every part of New York State, and we served a combined 163.5 years – approximately 59,677 days – in prison before we were exonerated.

We are living, breathing proof that New York’s criminal justice system has failed again and again. Our cases show how the system is falling short and how it can be fixed.

The injustice we endured is compounded by knowing that reforms have not been adopted to prevent this from happening to other people. You can change that. A series of common-sense reforms would make our justice system more fair, accurate and reliable. These reforms would help law enforcement identify and apprehend true perpetrators of crime, while protecting other innocent people from wrongful convictions.
Read the letters here.

Also this week, New York State Bar Association President Michael E. Getnick urged state lawmakers to establish a commission on the provision of quality defense services in the state.





Tags: Bad Lawyering

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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

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Three Years Free, After Half His Life in Prison

Posted: November 5, 2009 5:35 pm

This week marks the third anniversary of Jeffrey Deskovic's exoneration in New York. Deskovic was just 16 years old when he was arrested for the murder of a classmate, a crime DNA now proves he didn't commit. He served 16 years before advanced DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project helped him finally walk free.

In November, 1989, a 15-year-old girl in Deskovic's high school class went out after school to take pictures for a photography class. She never returned home. When her body was discovered days later, she appeared to have been raped, beaten, and strangled.  Her clothes and cassette player were collected.

Deskovic, then 16 years old, became a suspect because he was late to school the day after the victim disappeared. Police also believed he seemed overly distraught at the victim's death.  

After six hours of intense questioning and three polygraph tests, Deskovic allegedly confessed to committing the crime. According to trial testimony, one officer had been brought to the interrogation specifically to "get the confession."  Deskovic was held in a small room with no lawyer or parent present. He was provided with coffee throughout the day but no food. In between polygraph sessions, detectives interrogated Deskovic.  

The first DNA exoneration in the country had occurred in 1989 and DNA testing had just begun to play a role in criminal cases in the U.S.  Tests were conducted before Deskovic's trial on semen recovered from the victim's body during her autopsy. The results showed that he was not the source of semen collected from the victim's body. Prosecutors improperly explained that the semen may have come from a consensual sex partner, rather than her murderer - even though they never investigated whether she had a consensual sex partner. The trial went forward on the strength of Deskovic's alleged confession.   

In January 2006, the Innocence Project took Deskovic's case. Because the DNA tests that excluded Deskovic before trial were conducted using older technology, the results couldn't be entered in the New York State DNA databank of convicted felons. The Innocence Project sought to retest the evidence using technology that would allow the DNA profile to be compared against the database, and Westchester Country District Attorney Janet DiFiore agreed to the testing.

In September 2006, the DNA profile showed that the semen came from a man named Steven Cunningham, who was in prison for another murder conviction. Deskovic was freed on September 22, and on November 2, he was fully cleared. Cunningham has since confessed to the crime.

In 2007, the New York Times profiled Deskovic, who spoke about the difficulties of building a new life after exoneration. Today, he speaks frequently about criminal justice reforms and writes a column for the Westchester Guardian newspaper. Read his columns and contact him through his website.

Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Rolando Cruz, Illinois (Served 10.5 Years, Exonerated 11/03/95)

David A. Gray, Illinois, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/06/99)

Bernard Webster, Maryland, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/07/02) 



Tags: Jeff Deskovic

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Lab Backlogs and Untested Evidence

Posted: November 17, 2009 5:18 pm

Last week, a U.S. Senate committee examined the effectiveness of a 2004 law in supporting crime labs across the country. Experts testified that while some progress has been made, significant hurdles remain to helping the nation’s forensic system function more effectively.

One goal of the federal 2004 Innocence Protection Act was to provide funding to allow crime labs to conduct post-conviction DNA tests that can exonerate the innocent and to reduce backlogs of untested evidence. When evidence from cold and unsolved cases goes without testing, perpetrators of crime sometimes manage to avoid capture.

Pat Lykos, the district attorney for Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the Houston Police Department Crime Lab has more than 5,000 untested rape kits in its backlog.

"Felons go undetected and undeterred because reliable forensic capabilities are either scarce or unavailable to the criminal justice system," Lykos said.
And this problem doesn’t only affect Houston. A report published by CBS News last week found thousands of rape kits untested in jurisdictions across the country.  Fourteen percent of open murder cases and 18 percent of open rape cases have forensic evidence that has not been sent to crime labs for testing, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Office of Justice Programs.

Proposed improvements to the 2004 law would increase the number of lab technicians across the country and require labs to report their backlogs to the federal government. A New York Times editorial last week urged Congress to strengthen the law, calling untested evidence “a huge insult to rape victims.”Backlogs and untested evidence can also lead to wrongful convictions – when a piece of evidence that could potentially determine the identity of a perpetrator isn’t tested, the chances of an innocent person being implicated are higher. Backlogs and cutbacks can also stand in the way of tests on evidence that can free the innocent from prison.

Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Keith Findley, who is the President of the Innocence Network, testified before the Senate panel that funds earmarked in 2004 for DNA testing in post-conviction appeals didn’t start flowing to states until last year. Better procedures are needed to fund and expedite post-conviction DNA testing, Findley said, and law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to preserve biological evidence collected in criminal cases. Fewer than half of police departments nationwide (43 percent) have computerized systems to track inventory of forensic evidence.

Watch video of the Senate hearing, and learn more about the Innocence Project’s work to expand access to post-conviction DNA testing.





Tags: Access to DNA Testing, Crime Lab Backlogs

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Advocates Seek Innocence Commission and Compensation Reform in Florida

Posted: February 22, 2010 6:10 pm

Efforts to pass significant wrongful conviction reforms are gaining steam in steam in Florida.

We reported earlier this month that State Sen. Mike Haridopolos had asked the Florida Supreme Court to form an innocence commission, which would review exonerations in the state and recommend measures to prevent future injustice.

Another effort is underway to repeal a so-called “clean hands” provision, which restricts exoneree compensation only to people who had a felony conviction before or during their wrongful incarceration.

The Miami Herald last week called on the state legislature to remove the clean hands provision from the law, saying that a minor felony shouldn’t lead an exoneree from missing their due compensation. The Herald also made a strong call for the creation of an innocence commission.

Another editorial last week, in Florida Today, also called on the state Supreme Court to create an innocence panel, saying “one wrongful conviction is too many, but the growing number in Brevard (County) and across Florida is a plague that can't be ignored.”

The Innocence Project of Florida, a member of the Innocence Network, is advocating on behalf of both of these reforms. Visit the IPF blog here.




Tags: Innocence Commissions, Exoneree Compensation

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Ohio Legislators Urged to Pass Key Criminal Reform Bill

Posted: March 9, 2010 5:00 pm

With an important bill to improve the criminal justice system in Ohio already passed by the Senate six months ago, many people are wondering why isn’t it law yet.  An editorial in today’s Columbus Dispatch says there isn’t a good reason -- and urges the House to pass it into law. 

Senate Bill 77 would make it easier to use DNA evidence and exonerate the wrongly convicted.  If passed into law, it would also prevent wrongful convictions by improving eyewitness identification procedures and interrogations. The Columbus Dispatch said these reforms are critical, and the Ohio House Speaker should call the bill for a vote.

By requiring DNA samples to be taken from anyone arrested for a felony, it would significantly expand the pool from which law-enforcement agencies can look for matches when DNA evidence from a crime is being analyzed.

It would make post-conviction DNA testing more available in cases where new technology or evidence warrants such testing. It would end a senseless prohibition on such testing for parolees, and would require DNA evidence to be saved for up to 30 years in the most serious cases, unless the defendant pleaded guilty; then evidence need be saved only five years. Just in Ohio, even with the roadblocks that currently exist, eight men have been found innocent of crimes for which they spent many years in prison. How many more innocent people might be exonerated if testing were made more available?

With a requirement that witness identifications be conducted by an officer who doesn't know who the suspect is - easily accomplished with a method in which subjects' photos are put in folders and shuffled - it would reduce the likelihood of faulty identifications, which former Attorney General Jim Petro, who also worked on the bill, has noted are at the root of 75 percent of wrongful-conviction cases.

Read the full editorial.

Although the bill enjoys strong bipartisan support, it has not been brought for a vote on the House floor. The Akron Beacon-Journal also called on the House Speaker to break this logjam and bring the bill for a vote. Ohio’s governor has said he will sign it if the House calls it for a vote and passes it.

The Innocence Project and the Ohio Innocence Project have worked to pass the legislation, and the groups are urging people who live in Ohio to contact their state representatives and urge them to bring Senate Bill 77 for a vote in the House. People in Ohio can find contact information for their representatives here.




Tags: Ohio

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Friday Roundup: Following (and Sometimes Ignoring) DNA Evidence

Posted: April 30, 2010 5:20 pm

Since 2003, North Carolina has had a statute requiring anyone convicted of a felony to submit a DNA sample for a statewide database. A pending bill would expand that to collecting samples from anyone charged with a felony despite the result of their cases. The bill is supported by the Attorney General, but is opposed by the ACLU who says it is an invasion of privacy.  They argue it is waste of money to log DNA in labs that are already backlogged. 

Just a few hours after an Oregon suspect provided a DNA sample, he committed suicide.  The man was suspected of murdering a young woman over 30 years ago and went undetected all that time until the police recently received a tip.  His DNA matched a sample from the victim's clothing.


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A Decade Free

Posted: May 14, 2010 3:04 pm

Moreover, in 2004, Suffolk County and the Boston Police Department announced the formation of a Task Force on Eyewitness Evidence in order to review faulty procedures and adopt appropriate changes. Later that year, both departments adopted a variety of new practices, including requiring investigators to use blind and sequential lineup procedures when practical and to explain any deviation when not. Significantly, prosecutors are required to investigate and document the identification evidence in great detail and must present all potential felony prosecutions involving “complex investigations, difficult issues and close calls on charging decisions” to a panel of senior prosecutors.

A report released in December by the Boston Bar Association called for sweeping reforms to improve the accuracy and reliability of the criminal justice system in Massachusetts, including trainings for judges and law enforcement agencies on recommended identification procedures.

Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Curtis McCarty, Oklahoma (Served 21 Years, Exonerated 5/11/07)

Josiah Sutton, Texas (Served 4.5 Years, Exonerated 5/14/04)


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Byron Halsey's Stolen Decades

Posted: July 9, 2010 2:44 pm

Beginning in 1993, Halsey repeatedly requested access to post-conviction DNA testing, but it wasn’t until July 2002, when New Jersey’s law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing took effect, that Halsey’s pursuit of post-conviction DNA testing finally moved forward. In 2006 the Innocence Project secured testing of evidence from the crime scene; the test proved Halsey’s innocence while implicating another man, Clifton Hall, who had briefly been a suspect at the time of the crime. When the test results came back, Hall was already in prison for three separate sex crimes.

In about 25 percent of the 255 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing to date, the defendant has given a false confession or admission. The videotaping of custodial interrogations can prevent false confessions and help law enforcement improve investigations and conduct training. In 2005, a special committee appointed by the New Jersey State Supreme Court recommended that custodial interrogations in major felony cases be recorded.

Other reforms are making significant progress in New Jersey as well. On June 21, a Special Master appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark report strongly endorsing the Innocence Project’s recommendation for a new legal architecture to evaluate the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Read more about the report here.
   
Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:
Keith Brown, North Carolina (Served 4 Years, Exonerated 7/7/97)

Alan Newton, New York (Served 21 Years, Exonerated 7/6/06)




Tags: Byron Halsey

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Friday Roundup: Forensics and Interrogations

Posted: August 20, 2010 1:45 pm

A California man who was accused of raping a fellow hospital patient in June was cleared by DNA evidence yesterday.

An attorney defending a Pennsylvania man who was convicted of a double homicide in 1986 said that trial exhibits assumed missing show that his client was wrongly convicted.

A Michigan bill that would require police to record interrogations of suspects in serious felony cases was passed by the House on July 1 but still needs approval from the Senate.



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Cornelius Dupree and Tim Cole's Brother Plead for Eyewitness Identification Reform in Texas

Posted: January 10, 2011 5:36 pm



One small but important thing that the Legislature did last session was to create the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions to investigate the causes of, and ways to prevent, wrongful convictions.

The most important recommendation of the Tim Cole Advisory Panel was to reform the state's eyewitness identification procedures. We know from personal experience how mistaken eyewitness identifications can ruin people's lives. It is the greatest cause of wrongful convictions in Texas, accounting for more than 85 percent of DNA exonerations. The Tim Cole Advisory Panel recommended that all law enforcement agencies adopt written eyewitness identification procedures based on science and best practices. The report also recommended that to prevent false confessions, the state should adopt a mandatory electronic recording policy for custodial interrogations in high-level felonies.

Reforming eyewitness identification procedures will cost nothing, but could improve the dependability of our justice system, prevent us from destroying numerous innocent lives, and save the state millions in reduced spending on compensating the wrongfully convicted.

Read the full op-ed.

Read about eyewitness misidentification as a cause of wrongful conviction and reforms to prevent misidentifications.






Tags: Timothy Cole

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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.


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New York Can Do Better to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Posted: May 19, 2011 5:59 pm

Criminal justice reforms that are needed in New York include: identification policies requiring that lineups be conducted by an officer who doesn’t know the identity of the suspect and informing the witness that the officer doesn’t know, mandatory recording of entire interrogations in felony cases and compensation for the exonerated who have plead guilty or falsely confessed. But there has been resistance from law enforcement.


Initial opposition from law enforcement to these reforms is not uncommon. They represent a departure from accustomed practice and raise fears about practicability and cost. But these time-tested techniques have proven effective, cost-neutral and are now generally embraced by law enforcement where they have been mandated in state after state.



For years the Assembly has passed legislation to embrace these changes, but the powers that be have persuaded the Senate and our recent governors to prevent their enactment. Could it be that the dysfunction of Albany has so crippled the state that we cannot adopt the same best practices being adopted by states across the nation to protect the innocent and in doing so, increase the accuracy of criminal investigations, and strengthen criminal prosecutions?

If New York can't even get this done, then we're all in a lot of trouble.

Read the full op-ed here.



Tags: New York

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Streamlining Capital Punishment Endangers the Innocent

Posted: June 1, 2012 4:40 pm

This fall, residents of California will vote on an initiative to abolish capital punishment in the state. Proponents of the abolition argue that capital punishment is far too costly; opponents argue that the costs could be drastically decreased by streamlining the system. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, James Liebman argues that streamlining the process of capital punishment increases the risks of executing an innocent person.
 
Liebman is the co-author of a recent Columbia Human Rights Law Review report challenging the conviction of Carlos DeLuna, a young Latino man, who was executed by the state of Texas in 1989 for the murder of Wanda Lopez. The report highlights systemic flaws in the criminal justice system that assisted in securing DeLuna’s conviction. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the case was the speed with which it advanced through the court system. The process—from arrest to execution—took only six years.
 
From the time of his arrest, DeLuna consistently maintained his innocence, and even gave the name of the man who he saw commit the crime: Carlos Hernandez. This claim was dismissed entirely, with a federal judge concluding that Hernandez had likely never existed. With further investigation—and therefore more time and money—police would have discovered that Hernandez was not only real, but a violent felon who was well-known to the police. Writes Liebman:


“DeLuna's case disproves the myth that we can save the death penalty by generating more ‘quick and dirty’ executions. The death penalty is broken. At great effort and expense, states such as California have tried every measure to fix it, but they have failed. The only solution is to end it.”

Read the full article.
 
Read more about the DeLuna case.
 
Read about cases of people exonerated through DNA testing who served time on death row.



Tags: California, Texas

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New Evidence Could Free North Carolina Man

Posted: June 29, 2012 4:15 pm

A North Carolina man who has spent nearly 17 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit could be freed Friday afternoon if a judge releases him and orders a new trial.

LaMonte Armstrong was convicted of the 1988 murder of one of his former professors at North Carolina A&T State University and sentenced to life in prison in 1995. At a hearing at the Guilford County Courthouse today, Armstrong’s attorneys and an assistant district attorney will recommend his release based on evidence that implicates a convicted murderer. Investigators identified a palm print belonging to another suspect, Christopher Caviness, at the victim’s home near where the body was discovered. Caviness, who was convicted of murdering his father in 1989, died in a traffic accident in 2010 after being released from prison. The Associated Press reports:


The print doesn't prove Caviness' guilt, but if jurors had known about the match, they probably wouldn't have convicted Armstrong, Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said.

Neumann said he expects the judge to vacate Armstrong's conviction and release him from prison shortly after Friday's hearing. Prosecutors don't plan to seek bond guaranteeing Armstrong will appear for future court hearings, Neumann said.

No physical evidence linked Armstrong to the crime scene, just the testimonies of four convicted felons—one of whom claimed to be a witness to the murder and received a sentence of five years as an accessory to the murder. He has since recanted citing pressure from police. The other three informants claimed that Armstrong confessed to them.  Armstrong’s attorneys at the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic and the Duke Law Innocence Project said that prosecutors withheld information favorable to the defense.

Read the full article.




Tags: North Carolina

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Towards a Repeal of the Death Penalty

Posted: July 16, 2012 3:45 pm

by Barry Sheck
 
(Originally posted at UN DPI-NGO Youth Exchange)
 
An extraordinary movement towards repeal of the death penalty has swept the United States in the past few years – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, and Connecticut have all taken this step legislatively and a repeal referendum is now on the ballot in California that has an excellent chance of passing. This momentum has come about largely because of a shift in the public discourse on the issue. Past repeal efforts have focused on moral arguments. But reasonable people can differ as to whether capital punishment is a morally appropriate sanction for the most heinous of crimes or an immoral license for state sanctioned killing. But few want to be part of a government that is responsible for executing an innocent person.
 
To that end, the DNA exonerations have had a game changing impact on the death penalty debate. Since 1989, 292 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence — 17 involved inmates who served time on death row. The significance of these post-conviction DNA exonerations, even in non-capital cases, is that the public has come to realize that the state doesn’t always get it right in capital or non-capital cases. The DNA exonerations have generated hundreds of dramatic “learning moments” about the root causes of wrongful convictions – eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, unreliable forensic science, prosecutorial and police misconduct, inadequate defense counsel, jailhouse informant testimony, witness perjury and racial bias. At the same time, in 42% of these cases the real perpetrator is identified by DNA but often, tragically, after committing more crimes while an innocent man was imprisoned.
 
Unfortunately, DNA testing is not a panacea for the inadequacies of the criminal justice system because only 5% of serious felony cases have any biological evidence where DNA testing could be used to solve the crime. The other 95% of prosecutions turn on much less reliable evidence. Eyewitness testimony and confessions are two of the most common forms of evidence, and they have proven to be leading causes of wrongful conviction.
 
Forensic error is another leading cause. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, offered a sobering critique of traditional forensic science fields, noting that, with the sole exception of DNA evidence, none of traditional forensic science disciplines, including hair microscopy, fingerprint, bullet and bloodstain analysis, have been scientifically verified.
 
Obviously, the unreliability of traditional forms of evidence carries serious consequences in capital cases. Take the case of Troy Davis who was executed by the State of Georgia last year. Unfortunately, DNA evidence wasn’t available in his case, but substantial evidence had come to light since his original trial pointing to his innocence. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations conceded that the ballistics evidence used against Davis was unreliable, and one of the jurors who sat on the case said that if she had known about that she would not have voted to give Davis the death penalty. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified him as the shooter recanted their testimony. One of the two witnesses who maintain that Davis was the shooter is thought by many to be the real perpetrator and has made admissions to others that he committed the crime. The other remaining eyewitness had been up for 24 hours straight at the time he observed the shooting and reported on the night of the crime that he “wouldn’t recognize [the shooter] again.” Yet two years later, this witness identified Davis in an in-court identification that required him to simply identify the only African-American sitting at the defense table. The board of pardons and paroles ignored this evidence and allowed the execution to go on anyway.
 
The case made international headlines and protests around the globe. This outpouring of support for Davis illustrates the public’s growing concern on the unreliability of the system. It also showed that this isn’t just an issue that we are grappling with as Americans. The injustice that Davis faced forced people around the world to examine their feelings about the use of the death penalty and opened their eyes to the fact that their own criminal justice systems are fallible too. As we’ve seen here in the U.S., it’s only a matter of time before this lack of trust in the system causes other countries to abandon the death penalty.



Tags: Death Penalty

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NY Law Expanding DNA Database Takes Effect

Posted: August 2, 2012 5:30 pm

Beginning Wednesday, almost anyone convicted of any crime in New York—felony or misdemeanor—will be required to submit a DNA sample to the state's criminal database.
 
Previously, only those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors were required to submit genetic samples. But earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo reached a deal with state lawmakers to expand the DNA database.
 
Though touted as a wrongful conviction reform, an earlier version of the bill was criticized  for not providing defendants with access to the database. The version that was passed includes a provision that allows defendants access in some cases, including murder and rape, which may help some wrongly convicted people prove their innocence if crime scene evidence matches to someone in the database.
 
Nevertheless, New York State has not shown initiative in adopting reforms to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place. Though New York has one of the highest wrongful conviction rates, it has not implemented many of the criminal justice reforms that other states have, such as recording interrogations and improving police lineup procedures. Addressing these concerns, Gov. Cuomo has promised to pursue additional measures.
 
Read Wednesday’s Reuters article about the DNA database expansion.
 
Read about the criminal justice reforms the Innocence Project advocates for New York State here and here.

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Help Bennie Starks Get a Full Exoneration

Posted: August 8, 2012 5:20 pm

By Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin
 
In May, Bennie Starks was exonerated of a 1986 rape conviction after DNA evidence showed that he could not have been the perpetrator. Yet the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office is fighting efforts to exonerate him of a battery conviction from the same crime. Write the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office and ask them to vacate the battery charge against Bennie Starks.
 
Bennie Starks’ case was one of the first that I took on as an Innocence Project Staff Attorney in 2000. I could never have imagined that we would face such extreme adversity. Just when we thought his quarter-century struggle might be over, prosecutors stunned us again.
 
At a hearing in March, prosecutors agreed to drop the charges on the rape conviction. This summer, however, we were dismayed to learn that the prosecution intends to continue to defend a battery charge from the same incident, even after an appeals court issued a ruling saying that the DNA evidence undermines this conviction as well. The victim, now deceased, testified that she was attacked and raped by the same man. The DNA that proves Bennie’s innocence of the rape, proves that he is innocent of the battery too.
 
The Chicago Tribune quotes Bennie saying that this is “just another stall tactic.” He’s right. Bennie’s case shows the extraordinary power of the prosecution to delay, or deny, justice in a case. I’ve been fighting for justice for Bennie for 12 years, but Bennie’s been fighting even longer. Half of his life has been caught up in this wrongful conviction case. Until he’s vindicated, he remains convicted of a felony that he didn’t commit, meaning that he cannot file for state compensation, get his record expunged or clear his name.
 
Please join me in urging Lake County Prosecutors Office to vacate the battery conviction and allow Bennie to finally be exonerated.
 
Bennie Starks is also represented by Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and by local attorneys Jed Stone, John Curnyn and Lauren Kaeseberg, a former Cardozo clinic student, and Ron Safer, partner at Schiff Harden LLP, along with Associate Brooke Schaefer.



Tags: Illinois, Bennie Starks

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NYPD Slow to Record Interrogations

Posted: August 14, 2012 4:25 pm

Over two years after New York City’s Police Commissioner announced that the department would launch a pilot program to record interrogations in their entirety, only two precincts have actually tested the procedure, reported the Wall Street Journal. The police department limited the program to a precinct each in Brooklyn and the Bronx, but has recently announced that the program will be expanded to include one precinct in each of the five boroughs.
 
The pilot program is further limited because it records only felony assault interrogations and not interrogations from rape or murder investigations. The NYPD was unable to provide The Wall Street Journal with the total number of fully recorded interrogations or a comparison of conviction rates.
 
In approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions, admissions or statements to law enforcement officials. The electronic recording of interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions. From the Wall Street Journal article:

Currently, 341 of the state's 509 police agencies are recording suspect interviews in some crimes, typically in at least murder and rape investigations, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. By virtue of its pilot program, the NYPD is included among them.
 
Nationwide, 18 states and Washington, D.C., mandate the complete recording of interrogations for some crimes, said Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform for the Innocence Project. A bill requiring either audio or video taping of interrogations in New York has passed the state Assembly but not the Senate.

Although other police departments across the country have embraced the policy of recording interrogations, a spokesman for the NYPD cited the financial and logistical challenge to record an array of interrogations in precincts across Manhattan, and the president of the NYPD's Detective Endowment Association is wary of juries viewing gritty police interrogations.
 
Ultimately, the mandated electronic recording of the entire interrogation process protects the innocent, ensures the admissibility of legitimate confessions, and helps law enforcement defend against allegations of coercion.
 
Read the full article.
 
Read a Center on Wrongful Convictions report: Police Experiences with Recording Custodial Interrogations
 
Read more about false confessions and mandatory recording of interrogations.



Tags: New York

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NYPD to Video Record Interrogations

Posted: September 21, 2012 12:05 pm

In a speech delivered before the Carnegie Council Wednesday, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said the city will begin video recording criminal interrogations as recommended by the New York State Justice Task Force and the Innocence Project.
 
The NYPD joins over 800 other jurisdictions that have voluntarily adopted the policy. Under Kelly's new proposal, New York City will become the biggest law enforcement agency in the country to undertake video recording. As an expansion of the NYPD’s 2010 pilot program, every precinct in the city will now record entire interrogations in murder, assault and sexual assault cases. Across the state, more than two-thirds of police departments require officers to tape interrogations, according to the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services.
 
Still, it is unclear whether the NYPD will video record only those interrogations that occur after an arrest, or all qualifying custodial interrogations. Reuters writes:


The practice has grown increasingly common in recent years, as digital technology has enabled videotaping to become far more affordable. Kelly said the non-profit New York City Police Foundation will help pay to install video capacity in the city's 76 precincts with a $3 million grant.
 
Stephen Saloom, the policy director for the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law, called the proposal a "good first step" but said that all custodial interrogations, not merely those that come after arrest, should be videotaped to prevent false confessions.

A growing awareness about the risk of false confessions has motivated jurisdictions and states nationwide to adopt the reform. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia now mandate that certain felony interrogations be recorded in their entirety, from the reading of the Miranda rights onward.
 
New York State has a legacy of wrongful convictions based on false confessions. Twelve people from New York have been exonerated through DNA testing after a false confession led to their wrongful conviction, including the high-profile case of the Central Park Five.
 
Here’s an excerpt of Kelly’s statement:

“Recording can aid not only the innocent, the defense and the prosecution but also enhance public confidence in the criminal justice system by increasing transparency as to what was said and done when the suspect agreed to speak with the police. Furthermore, electronic recordings may help lessen the concern about false confessions and provide an objective and reliable record of what occurred during an interview. As the task force also notes, this prevents disputes about how an officer conducted him or herself or treated a suspect.”

Read the full article.
 
Read additional coverage.
 
Read about how mandatory recording of interrogations can help prevent wrongful convictions based on false confessions.



Tags: New York

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Science Thursday - September 27, 2012

Posted: September 27, 2012 5:45 pm

Colorado develops a new forensic science research center, crime labs in Texas are overcoming backlog, and experts suggest caution with testimony on fingerprint evidence. Here’s this week’s round up of forensic news:
 
The St. Paul crime lab in Minnesota, which suspended drug testing in July for lack of protocols, is now under scrutiny for similar issues with its fingerprint analysis. Currently the lab has “no standard operating procedures or formal protocols” that guide how fingerprints are analyzed.
 
To overcome a backlog of forensic evidence at state crime labs, the Texas Department of Public Safety will prioritize the testing of drug and blood-alcohol evidence in felony cases. As a result, crime labs will only analyze drug and blood-alcohol evidence for misdemeanors if a prosecutor requests a lab report.
 
The Colorado Mesa University continues building a new Forensic Investigation Research Station that will house research space, labs and classrooms. The new facility, the fifth of its kind in the country, will conduct original forensic research including decomposition.
 
Various legal and science experts across the country are examining the limits of using fingerprint evidence in court. As studies are only underway to determine how fingerprints vary within populations, experts suggest that testimony should not guarantee accuracy, provide statistics, or comment on print uniqueness as of yet.
 
Though the FBI adopted new Rapid DNA technology that allows DNA field testing, it will be some time before it passes National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standards and can be used by public law enforcement. Additionally, the DNA Identification Act of 1994, which only allows accredited labs to test DNA, does not extend to the new technology.



Tags: Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Science Thursday

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