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Willie "Pete" Williams Exonerated in Georgia

Posted: February 13, 2007

Since his release last month from a Georgia prison, Willie “Pete” Williams has been in legal limbo. He was awaiting a court date to find out whether he would be retried for the crime, or fully exonerated because DNA testing has shown that someone else contributed the biological evidence in the rape for which Williams was convicted more than 21 years ago.

That court date came today. At 10:30 this morning, Williams was officially exonerated when the judge granted Williams’ motion and prosecutors stated that they would drop the charges against him. He is the 195th person exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.


Read the news story here. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 02/13/07)

VIDEO: Watch a local news report on this case here. (Atlanta Channel 11, 02/13/07)

Read more about Willie “Pete” Williams, the 195th person exonerated through DNA testing.

With Williams today were three Georgia men who have been proven innocent by DNA testing: Calvin Johnson, who now serves on the Innocence Project’s Board of Directors, Robert Clark and Clarence Harrison.


(left to right - Johnson, Clark, Williams and Harrison)

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Editorial urges New York to form state innocence commission

Posted: February 15, 2007

Six states have formed innocence commissions to review their criminal justice systems and ensure that wrongful convictions are prevented in every way possible. The Innocence Project advocates for similar entities in other states. A bill currently pending in New York would create a commission, and the Utica Observer-Dispatch supports it.

(Roy) Brown was not the first and certainly not the only person to be wrongly convicted of a crime. But New York can do more than just lament this injustice, it can work to right other wrongs and prevent conviction of innocent people.

One suggestion for doing that is the creation of an innocence commission. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, has a bill to establish a commission of 10 unpaid appointees, made up of police, prosecutors, judges, crime victims, defense attorneys and educators. The panel would analyze a case after a judge has ruled that someone was wrongfully convicted.

We urge the Legislature and Gov. Eliot Spitzer to create such a commission. No human endeavor is without error, and sometimes innocent people are unjustly punished.
Read the full editorial here. (Utica Observer-Dispatch, 02/14/07)
Eight people have been proven innocent by DNA in New York in just 13 months, Roy Brown was the most recent in January.

Exonerees Alan Newton, Doug Warney, Scott Fappiano,  and Jeff Deskovic have joined the call as well. Click here for more information on innocence commissions.

The Texas legislature is also considering creating an innocence commission, read more here.

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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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Charges dropped in NYC case after DNA proves woman's confession was false

Posted: February 20, 2007

False confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful conviction. In 2006 alone, two New York men – Jeff Deskovic and Doug Warney – who had confessed to murders were exonerated by DNA evidence, proving that their confessions were false.

For every case in which biological evidence is available to prove innocence or guilt, there are many without evidence that can be tested.

In some cases, a false confession leads police to charge someone with a crime, but before the case goes to trial evidence is uncovered that proves the confession was false. In late January, prosecutors in New York City dropped charges against Lourdes Torres, a 31-year-old woman who had confessed to a murder after 18 hours in interrogation. She had been held in jail for over four years awaiting trial before charges were dropped when DNA test results pointed to two men in the murder.

In an interview from Riker's Island Penitentiary, Torres told NewsChannel 4 that she believed detectives when they promised her freedom in exchange for giving a written confession to the fatal stabbing of her lover, 49-year-old Romeo Acuna, in his Jackson Heights apartment in September 2002.

"They told me if I signed the paper, they were going to take me out of jail," said Torres. "I did not kill him. I'm innocent. I wasn't even in the apartment when that occurred."

Read the full story and watch video here. (WNBC New York, 01/25/07)

Recording custodial interrogations helps eliminate false confessions and also helps police do their job. The reform is gaining support from a diverse array of criminal justice groups around the country. Read more about it here.

Steve Drizin, a staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law in Chicago, maintains a blog on False Confessions. Read the “Bluhm Blog” here.

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Dallas DA joins Innocence Project in push to clear James Curtis Giles

Posted: February 23, 2007



Conclusive evidence has proven that James Curtis Giles was wrongly convicted of a 1982 rape in Dallas, and prosecutors said Thursday that they would not oppose the Innocence Project’s motion to overturn Giles’ sentence. He served 10 years in Texas prisons before he was paroled.

Evidence has since shown that another man, named James Earl Giles, participated in the crime. Evidence leading to James Earl Giles was collected by Dallas Police before James Curtis Giles was convicted, but never handed over the defense attorneys. The jury foreman in James Earl Giles’ case has said that the prosecutor visited the jury during deliberations and told them to put away a dangerous man, according to news reports. 

"There has been no interest in getting to the truth of his case, even though the truth has been sitting there all along," she said. "The true perpetrator was across the street. So literally the truth of the case has been staring everyone in the face for the last 20 years." ...
Read the full story. (Dallas Morning News, 02/23/07)
Giles is the 13th man proven innocent by DNA testing in Dallas County, and a court hearing is expected in the next two weeks.

New Dallas DA Craig Watkins made the groundbreaking announcement last week that his office would work with the Innocence Project of Texas to review 354 cases for possible post-conviction DNA testing.

Read more about the other 12 men proven innocent by DNA testing in Dallas County.



Tags: James Giles

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DNA testing proves Washington man's innocence

Posted: March 1, 2007

A man who had been charged with committing a February rape was cleared last week by DNA testing of biological material from the crime scene. Police dropped charges against the man and said they are continuing to investigate the crime.

This case is another example of pre-trial DNA testing helping police conduct fair investigations and avoid prosecuting innocent people. Still, in too many cases, a guilty plea is given or a trial is held without testing being conducted on key evidence. James Ochoa, of California, is an example. He pled guilty in 2005 to a carjacking he didn’t commit. After he had served one year in California prison, DNA testing on appeal cleared him of the crime.

In more than 25% of cases in a 1995 National Institute of Justice study of 10,060 cases, suspects were excluded once DNA testing was conducted during the criminal investigation.

An editorial today in Olympia, Washington, considers what might have happened without DNA testing in this case.

Thank goodness for DNA testing, otherwise an Olympia man may well have been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit…

There was a time not too long ago when police and prosecutors would have built their case against Lynch based on circumstantial evidence and analysis of physical evidence. Lynch’s fragile mental state might have helped the state get a conviction against him, and he would have lingered in jail for months before the trial. Read the full editorial here. (03/01/07, The Olympian)
Read previous news on this case. (The Olympian, 02/21/07)

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New Dallas DA wants to be "smart on crime"

Posted: March 5, 2007

From today’s Washington Post:

Craig Watkins is still settling into his 11th-floor office overlooking the city skyline, hanging up pictures, arranging his plaques -- and revolutionizing the criminal justice system he oversees.

Sworn in as Dallas County district attorney on Jan. 1 -- he is the first elected black district attorney in Texas -- Watkins fired or accepted the resignations of almost two dozen high-level white prosecutors and began hiring minorities and women.

And in an unprecedented act for any jurisdiction in the nation, he announced he would allow the Texas affiliate of the Innocence Project to review hundreds of Dallas County cases dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted to validate past convictions.

Read the full story here. (Washington Post, 03/05/07) DNA testing has proven the innocence of 13 wrongly convicted people in Dallas in the last five years. Wakins announced last month that his office will cooperate with the Innocence Project of Texas to review hundreds of cases in which a convicted person applied for testing and was denied. Read more about this groundbreaking move here.

 

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Press coverage of Roy Brown exoneration

Posted: March 6, 2007

Yesterday, Roy Brown became the 196th person exonerated by DNA evidence, and the eighth in New York State in just over a year. He wore a black T-shirt to court that read “Not Guilty” and he was accompanied by Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and Staff Attorney Nina Morrison.

Brown had served 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and it was his legal groundwork that pinpointed the man who actually committed the crime.

The prosecutor referred to three tragedies in the case: Sabina Kulakowski's murder, that her likely killer will never be prosecuted, and the "incarceration of Roy Brown for murder when newly discovered DNA evidence shows that his steadfast claims of innocence have merit, and I can honestly say I regret that, Mr. Brown." ...

(Brown) claimed prosecutors withheld from defense lawyers a contrary opinion on the bite-mark evidence that helped convict him and witness affidavits that implicated Bench and failed to investigate the jailhouse informant to who claimed Brown confessed his guilt.

"You can't frame anybody more than that," Brown said. Read the full story here (Syracuse Post-Standard, 03/06/07, LexisNexis subscription required)
 

More Coverage:

Video: News10Now, WSYR Channel 9

NY Newsday: Man officially cleared of murder charges (AP)

Auburn Citizen: Roy Brown Cleared

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Maryland expert fabricated credentials, testimony is questioned

Posted: March 9, 2007

The former head of the Maryland State Police firearms division suddenly retired days ago and then committed suicide, and police revealed yesterday that an investigation showed that he lied repeatedly on the witness stand about his credentials. Joseph Kopera, 61, had worked as a forensic expert for 37 years on state and federal cases in every Maryland jurisdiction as well as in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys told the Baltimore Sun last night that this revelation could lead to new trials for dozens of inmates that Kopera helped to convict.

"It raises huge red flags, and it's particularly disturbing because he had been doing this for so long that God knows how many cases he's been involved in," (Public Defender) Michelle Nethercott said yesterday evening in a telephone interview from Annapolis, where she was testifying in favor of a bill that would require oversight of police crime labs in Maryland.

As a firearms examiner - first with the Baltimore Police Department and then the state police - Kopera collected and then analyzed bullets, shell casings, weapons and other forensic evidence. Given the length and breadth of Kopera's work, prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys alike said yesterday that the implications of the investigation could be tremendous, with the analysis of every bullet and every weapon that has passed through Kopera's crime laboratory called into question. …
"The potential problem cannot be overstated," said Thomas J. Fleckenstein, a former Anne Arundel County assistant state's attorney. "Every case he has ever been involved in is open to question. There will be a lot of prosecutors having a lot of heartburn."
Read the full story here. (Baltimore Sun, 03/09/07)
The Innocence Project has worked on many cases in which the discovery of crime lab misconduct has led to the exoneration of innocent people. Forensic fraud is troubling because in many cases handled by these notorious experts, evidence that could have proven innocence has been lost or destroyed after conviction. Cases is which DNA evidence can lead to exoneration are rare, and they point to larger problems in the criminal justice system.
  • Former West Virginia lab chief Fred Zain testified in 12 states over the course of his career, and his faulty work led to the wrongful conviction of Gilbert Alejandro, James Richardson, William O’Dell Harris and others.
  • The Innocence Project represents Thomas Siller, who was convicted partly based on false testimony by a notorious forensic analyst, Joseph Serowik, whose forensic fraud also led to the wrongful conviction of Anthony Michael Green.
  • The Innocence Project is also involved in the case of Curtis McCarty, who has been convicted twice and sentenced to death in Oklahoma and is currently awaiting his third trial. His first two trials were tainted by the faulty forensic testimony of Joyce Gilchrist, who was also involved in the wrongful convictions of Jeffrey Todd Pierce and Robert Miller.
  • Read more about forensic science misconduct.


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Dateline NBC to feature Clarence Elkins case on Sunday

Posted: March 9, 2007

In 2005, Melinda Elkins got the break in her husband’s case she had been looking for. Her husband, Clarence Elkins, had been convicted in 1999 of killing Melinda’s mother and attacking her niece. Melinda, working with a private investigator, learned that a possible alternate suspect had been in the area at the time of the crime. And this man was now in the same cell block as Clarence.

Clarence picked up a cigarette butt that the man had smoked and mailed it to Melinda. She sent the cigarette to lawyers at the Ohio Innocence Project and they tested it for DNA. The results matched the DNA from the crime scene. Elkins was released later that year after serving more than seven years for a crime he didn’t commit. Prosecutors have said they are planning to charge the alternate suspect with this crime.

This Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, Dateline NBC reports on how Melinda Elkins helped crack Clarence’s case.

UPDATE: Watch the full show online

Check your local listings to find out when to watch Dateline this weekend.

Read more about the Clarence Elkins case.

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Massachusetts crime lab director resigns under pressure

Posted: March 12, 2007

Carl Selavka, who ran the Massachusetts State Police crime lab for nearly seven years, has resigned as his lab is scrutinized for possible misconduct. Officials said that the resignation was "an admission that he didn't meet his job responsibility."

The lab is currently undergoing an audit due to problems with the way DNA database samples have been handled in the past. The lab’s database administrator was suspended without pay in January after it was revealed that he had failed to report DNA database matches to prosecutors.

Read today's Boston Globe article on Selavka's resignation.

Read previous blog entries on the Massachusetts State Police crime lab.

Read about crime lab oversight in our Fix the System section.

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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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Dallas hires new prosecutor to oversee DNA cases

Posted: May 25, 2007

Michael Ware, the director of the Innocence Project of Texas, will become the new Dallas County special assistant prosecutor for overseeing DNA evidence and ensuring that previous county convictions are reviewed for the possibility of DNA testing. Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins announced Ware’s appointment today.

Ware, a professor at Texas Wesleyan University Law School, will lead a new department created last month to ensure the intergrity of past convictions and ensure that the county’s DNA cases are properly handled in the future. Watkins requested funds to create the new department after several recent DNA exonerations in Dallas County. Thirteen people have been proven innocent in Dallas due to DNA evidence, more than any other county in America.

Mr. Ware's "expertise and professional experience are certain to be an asset to our justice system as we focus resources toward making sure we convict people who are indeed guilty of crimes," Mr. Watkins said in a prepared statement. "Equally important is the assurance that innocent people are not wrongfully imprisoned, and having Mr. Ware on board will help us in these critical areas."

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 5/25/07)
Read about the 13 people whose convictions were overturned by DNA testing in Dallas County.

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Critics question bloodhound evidence

Posted: March 20, 2007

Police across the country frequently rely on scent-sniffing dogs and a device called a scent transfer unit to track alleged perpetrators. In a recent DNA exoneration in California, a bloodhound led police to the home of James Ochoa, relying on a scent from a baseball cap in a car. Ochoa eventually pled guilty to a carjacking he did not commit. He served 10 months in prison before DNA test results on the hat matched another man, who confessed to committing the carjacking.

Now, another California man is awaiting his second trial on arson charges. In his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors relied on evidence of a bloodhound that placed him at the scene of 21 fires. The dog handler said her dog could identify scents after eight years and even find a scent on a bottle that had been thrown into a fire and turned into molten glass. Critics were less convinced:

"If you got nothing else but a dog, you've got a bad case," said (Gary) Gibson, … an attorney with the San Diego County public defender's office. "I'm terrified for the American justice system when three people voted guilty when the only evidence came from a dog."
Read the full story here. (LA Times, 3/9/2007, Payment required for full article)
Read more about James Ochoa’s case.

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States are slow to fix crime lab problems

Posted: March 26, 2007

Oversight of forensic crime labs has developed slowly around the United States, despite a 2004 federal law that requires states to conduct inquiries into allegations of fraud, mistakes or misconduct.

Tackling critical problems in the nation's justice system, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia have each founded powerful oversight boards in the last two years that can investigate misconduct in crime labs.

But not one of the new boards has yet reopened a case — either because they have refused to do so or because they haven't been funded.

"The country has to have trust that we're convicting the guilty and not the innocent," said Texas state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat whose bill to create the Texas Forensic Science Commission became law in 2005.
The flaws in his state and elsewhere are "the tip of the iceberg," Hinojosa said. "Prosecutors are supposed to do justice. Instead, they just want notches on their belt. It permeates the whole criminal justice system."Read the full story. (San Francisco Chronicle, 3/24/07)
Read more on crime lab oversight in our Fix The System section.

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Federal appeals court finds that prosecutors are accountable for snitches

Posted: March 30, 2007

In an important 3-0 decision, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled on Wednesday that prosecutors can be sued for failing to maintain and uphold policies regarding jailhouse informants.

The ruling came in a civil damages case filed by Thomas L. Goldstein, who spent 24 years in prison for a wrongful murder conviction based largely on the testimony of jailhouse informant Edward F. Fink.

The decision marked the first time that the 9th Circuit has considered this issue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on the precise question. Because of the potential ramifications for prosecutors, Loyola Law School professor Laurie L. Levenson said she thought the case might go to the Supreme Court.

"I'm really happy with the decision," Goldstein said by telephone. "Jailhouse informants have been used by prosecutors to put a lot of innocent people in prison…. The ruling by this court is the first step toward making district attorneys accountable for their actions."

Read the full story. (LA Times, 03/29/07, Payment required for full article)
Jailhouse informants are one of the most common causes of wrongful convictions, read more about this issue here.

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Anthony Capozzi exonerated in New York

Posted: April 3, 2007

Anthony Capozzi was released from state custody early this morning, officials said. He became the 23rd New Yorker to be proven innocent by DNA testing yesterday when an Erie County judge vacated his sentence and prosecutors dropped charges against him. He served 20 years for two rapes he didn’t commit.

The assistant district attorney who prosecuted Capozzi issued an apology last week:

“I deeply regret the outcome of this case,” she wrote. “I realize it brings little comfort or consolation to Mr. Capozzi or his family. I handled this case fairly and honestly based on all the evidence and information that was available at the time. This is the most troubling and upsetting circumstance in my 25 years as a lawyer and judge, and I am truly sorry for what happened in this case.”
Read Buffalo News stories on this case:

 Read more about Capozzi’s case and other people exonerated by DNA evidence.

Previous Blog Entry: Capozzi case leads to renewed calls for a New York innocence commissions

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New Hampshire man requests 4th round of DNA testing

Posted: April 5, 2007

After three rounds of inconclusive DNA testing, a lawyer for Robert Breest argued yesterday in a New Hampshire courtroom that Breest deserves modern testing that could indicate his innocence. Breest was convicted of a 1971 murder in East Concord, New Hampshire, and has always maintained his innocence. His motions for new DNA testing have been denied since 2004; prosecutors continue to oppose testing using new technology.

Albert Scherr is representing Breest pro-bono in affiliation with the New England Innocence Project. A parallel lawsuit seeking access to DNA testing is also ongoing in federal court, in which the Innocence Project is working with attorney Ian Dumain (a former Innocence Project clinic student while at Cardozo Law School) of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP.

Read the full story here. (Concord Monitor, 4/5/07)

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James Giles is expected to be cleared of 1982 rape on Monday

Posted: April 6, 2007

In a hearing Monday in Dallas, Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin and attorneys from the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office will present evidence that proves James Curtis Giles didn’t participate in the 1982 gang rape for which he served 10 years in prison. Giles, 53, has been on parole as a registered as a sex offender for 14 years.

The crime was committed by three men who were acquaintances, and police were told that one was named James Giles. The victim identified James Curtis Giles in a lineup, even though he did not match her initial description of the perpetrator. DNA evidence now links two other men to the crime – and shows that they were both closely associated with another man, James Earl Giles, who lived near the crime scene and fits the victim’s initial description. New evidence shows that information linking the three true perpetrators to the crime – James Earl Giles and the two other men – was available to police and prosecutors before James Curtis Giles was convicted, but was illegally withheld from his defense attorneys.

Giles has fought for nearly two decades to prove his innocence. The Innocence Project began investigating his case in 2000, and the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office began reinvestigating it earlier this year after the Innocence Project filed initial legal papers to vacate the conviction. New evidence from both investigations will be presented in court Monday. He will still not be officially exonerated, however, until he is granted a writ of habeas corpus from Texas’ highest criminal court or a pardon from the governor.

On Tuesday, Giles will join Texas exonerees James Waller, Chris Ochoa and Brandon Moon, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and legislators in Austin for a press conference and legislative hearing on bills to improve the criminal justice system in Texas.

Read more on this case in today’s news:

Rape victim is for exoneration: She ID'd man, now backs DA's bid to clear him in '82 case (Dallas Morning News, 4/6/07)

Hearing set for man who claims innocence in 1982 rape (Houston Chronicle, 4/5/07)

For more information on attending the hearings and press conferences Monday and Tuesday, email us at info@innocenceproject.org



Tags: James Giles, Government Misconduct, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Editorial: Antonio Beaver exoneration should spark reforms in Missouri

Posted: April 6, 2007

Last week, Antonio Beaver was freed from prison in Missouri after serving a decade behind bars for a carjacking he didn’t commit. An editorial in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch argues that steps to long-lasting criminal justice reform should be started immediately before more injustices can occur.

Eyewitness error is the leading cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization based in New York….

The Missouri Bar Association or St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce could begin to repair this broken cog in the criminal justice system by appointing a commission made up of police, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and other experts to study reforms implemented elsewhere and formulate guidelines for more accurate identification procedures.

Read the full editorial here. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4/6/07)
Read more about Antonio Beaver’s case



Tags: Missouri, Antonio Beaver, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Law student played key role in Giles case

Posted: April 9, 2007

Lauren Kaeseberg, a third-year law student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, has worked closely with Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin on James Giles’s case for more than a year. She was standing in court this morning with Giles, Potkin and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck as the Innocence Project joined Dallas prosecutors in presenting evidence that clears James Giles of the 1982 rape for which he was wrongly convicted.

A story in today’s Dallas Observer blog highlights Kaeseberg’s role in the case.

Last summer Kaeseberg came to Dallas with Vanessa Potkin, one of the lawyers involved with the Innocence Project. “It was a great experience for me as a law student,” she says. “We found and interviewed witnesses and prepared affidavits. It was a really interesting hands-on experience that doesn’t come along too often for a law student.”

Read the full story here. (Dallas Observer Unfair Park Blog, 4/9/07)
Kaeseberg is a teaching assistant in the Innocence Project clinic, where 20 Cardozo law students work with staff attorneys on cases in which defendants are seeking DNA testing to prove their innocence. Kaeseberg is planning to work for the Innocence Project of New Orleans when she graduates in May.



Tags: James Giles

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Dallas DA aims to restore credibility with a special prosecutor for DNA appeals

Posted: April 11, 2007

New Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins was in the courtroom Monday when evidence was presented to clear James Giles 24 years after he was wrongly convicted of a rape he didn’t commit. Watkins praised Giles yesterday for his perseverance. “If it wasn’t for him putting this fight on, I wouldn’t be here,” Watkins said Monday.

Watkins announced in February that his office would work with the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than 300 Dallas convictions for possible DNA testing. And on Tuesday he asked Dallas County commissioners to fund a special prosecutor position to review post-conviction DNA cases.

"We have an opportunity here in Dallas County to make a statement ... an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past," Mr. Watkins told commissioners.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 04/11/07)




Tags: Innocence Commissions

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Massachusetts DNA database chief is fired

Posted: April 16, 2007

Robert Pino, the DNA database administrator for the Massachusetts State Police crime lab, has been fired, three months after he was suspended for allegedly mishandling DNA evidence. Officials have said that Pino allowed the collection of samples not permitted by law, reported incomplete results to police and reported database matches to prosecutors after the statute of limitations had run out. Pino has worked at the lab for 23 years, and his union is disputing his firing.

Pino’s firing is among continuing problems at the Massachusetts lab. Last month, the lab’s director resigned under pressure after his job performance received an unfavorable review. A top-to-bottom audit of the lab is currently underway.

Read the full story here
. (Boston Globe, 4/16/07)

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California Senate committee passes three reform bills

Posted: April 19, 2007

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, one of six “innocence commissions” around the country, is supporting three critical reform bills in the California legislature this year. Lawmakers heard testimony from three exonerees on Tuesday, and the Senate Public Safety Committee passed the three bills, which would improve eyewitness identification procedures, require recording of certain custodial interrogations and place requirements on prosecutors to verify information before a jailhouse informant testifies.

Two similar bills were vetoed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"This isn't a foolproof guarantee that we won't have wrongful convictions," said Gerald F. Uelman, a noted defense attorney and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law. "But it would substantially reduce the risk." Uelman and former two-term Attorney General John Van de Kamp lead the panel, formally known as the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.

Read the full story here. (San Jose Mercury News, 4/18/07, free registration required)
Read more about these reforms and others in our Fix The System section.

The San Jose Mercury News published a special series on wrongful convictions last year, entitled “Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice,” click here to read the articles.

Read the bills now pending before the California Senate:

SB756 (eyewitness identification reforms)

SB511 (recording of interrogations)

SB609 (snitch testimony reforms)



Tags: Innocence Commissions, False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, Informants/Snitches

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California panel recommends lab improvements

Posted: May 9, 2007

California’s innocence commission issued its fifth report yesterday, warning legislators and criminal justice officials that the state’s forensic science standards need improvement. The panel, officially called the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, recommended that the state create a forensic science oversight commission.

"This is long overdue," said Gerald F. Uelmen, head of the administration of justice commission and professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law. "We're in a world where forensic science is playing a greater role in all criminal cases. It puts a lot of pressure on the system — not defense lawyers, but prosecutors and the criminalists themselves," he said.

The commission recommended that local prosecutors look into allegations of irregularities in expert testimony and that a council set state standards for forensic experts.
Read the full story here. (Los Angeles Times, 5/9/07)

The Innocence Project advocates for the creation of forensic science oversight commissions in each state. Read more here.

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Oklahoma man exonerated from death row

Posted: May 11, 2007

Innocence Project client Curtis McCarty was freed this morning after more than 21 years of wrongful incarceration – including 16 on death row – when a judge dismissed the charges that would have led to his third trial for a 1982 murder. McCarty had been convicted twice but both convictions had been thrown out by appeals courts. DNA testing has now shown that semen and hairs recovered from the crime scene do not match McCarty.

McCarty was released this morning after judge Twyla Mason Gray dismissed his indictment, saying the misconduct committed in McCarty’s case was inexcusable. District Attorney Robert H. Macy and lab analyst Joyce Gilchrist both committed serious and repeated misconduct to secure McCarty’s conviction. Gilchrist was fired in 2001 due to fraud she committed in McCarty’s case and others; she was involved in at least two other convictions later overturned by DNA testing.

"I want to know, where is Joyce Gilchrist and why isn’t she in prison?" Gray said at this morning’s hearing, according to the Oklahoma Gazette.

Macy, who was the Oklahoma County District Attorney for 21 years, prosecuted McCarty in both of his trials. Macy sent 73 people to death row – more than any other prosecutor in the nation – and 20 of them have been executed. Macy has said publicly that he believes executing an innocent person is a sacrifice worth making in order to keep the death penalty in the United States.

"This is by far one of the worst cases of law enforcement misconduct in the history of the American criminal justice system," said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. "Bob Macy has said that executing an innocent person is a risk worth taking – and he came very close to doing just that with Curtis McCarty."

McCarty is the 201st person exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States and the ninth in Oklahoma. Fifteen of the 201 exonerees spent time on death row.

Read the full Innocence Project press release here.



Tags: Oklahoma, Curtis McCarty, Government Misconduct

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New Jersey man to be released after nearly two decades in prison

Posted: May 15, 2007

This morning, a New Jersey judge overturned the conviction of Byron Halsey, who was wrongfully convicted in 1988 of the brutal murders of two children. Halsey was released at 3 p.m. and he told a crowd of family and friends that he was thankful to be free. "I wasn't going to let anyone take my life from me," he told reporters. He said he kept his hopes high for release during long years in prison because his grandmother told him to "keep fighting."

DNA testing indicates that another man committed the sexual assault and murder of a 7-year-old girl and 8-year-old boy in Plainfield, NJ, and prosecutors joined the Innocence Project in filing a motion to overturn the conviction. Judge Stuart Peim granted the motion at a short hearing this morning.Read the Innocence Project press release on today's hearing.


News coverage of the hearing:

VIDEO: CBS 2 New York: DNA evidence exonerates man wrongfully convicted of child murder

NJ Star Ledger: DNA acquits man convicted of killing two children

MSNBC (via Associated Press): DNA test frees man convicted of 2 child slayings



Tags: New Jersey

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Byron Halsey released in New Jersey, news coverage

Posted: May 16, 2007

Yesterday, a tearful Byron Halsey was released from custody after serving 19 years in New Jersey prisons for the murder of two children that he didn’t commit. DNA testing has proven his innocence, and the Innocence Project joined with prosecutors in filing for his release.

Read the Innocence Project press release here, and continuing press on the Halsey’s release below:

New York Times: DNA in Murders Frees Inmate After 19 Years

MSNBC (via Associated Press): DNA test frees man convicted of 2 child slayings

Newark Star-Ledger: Freed After 22 Years

Newark Star-Ledger: Years later, the crime still shocks Plainfield

New York Post: 'Wrong Man' free after 19 yrs. - & real 'killer' was star witness

VIDEO: CBS 2 New York: DNA evidence exonerates man wrongfully convicted of child murder



Tags: New Jersey, False Confessions

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Editorial: A suspect justice system

Posted: May 17, 2007

An editorial in today's Newark Star-Ledger calls for prosecutors to act soon on the charges pending against Byron Halsey in New Jersey.

Most frightening is the lack of speed with which the criminal justice system corrects its mistakes. Prosecutors are still debating whether to retry Halsey. Though he walked into the sunlight on Tuesday, he is hardly a free man. He was released on $55,000 bail, required to wear an electronic monitor and remains under indictment.

That's the case even though both the prosecution and defense joined in the motion to vacate his conviction after lawyers from the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that became involved in Halsey's case three years ago, said DNA shows a neighbor is the source of the semen found on the little girl's underwear. That neighbor, Clifton Hall, is in prison for three sex crimes committed in the early 1990s in Plainfield.

Considering the initial DNA results came back in December and more conclusive ones followed in January, it's difficult to comprehend why it will take another two months to decide whether Halsey will be tried again or the charges dropped altogether.

Halsey deserves to know now.

Read the full editorial here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 5/17/07)
Halsey was released from prison on Tuesday after seving more than 19 years for the murders of two children that he didn't commit. Read the Innocence Project press release on the case and media coverage of Halsey's release.



Tags: New Jersey

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Byron Halsey adjusts to life outside of prison

Posted: May 24, 2007

It has been nine days since a New Jersey judge overturned Byron Halsey’s 1988 murder conviction on the grounds that DNA evidence from the scene points to another person. Today, he is adjusting to life on the outside, living in Newark, NJ. His ordeal isn’t over, however, because prosecutors in Union County, NJ, are still considering whether to retry him. In the meantime, he is wearing an electronic monitoring device on his ankle.

A story in today’s Amsterdam News catches up with Byron.

“I wasn’t going to let nobody take my life from me,” he said. “My grandmother told me that if you’re innocent, fight them, and the truth will come out.” It finally has.

Read the full story here. (Amsterdam News, 5/24/07)
Read more about Byron Halsey’s case.

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NY Times: New Dallas DA means end to old ways

Posted: June 4, 2007

The first five months in office for new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins has brought major change to the county’s justice system, and an article in yesterday’s New York Times considers the differences between Watkins and prosecutors of decades past. But political change often moves slowly:

“I encounter resistance every day,” Mr. Watkins said. “It’s part of my job. It doesn’t make any difference. Let them be on the wrong side of history.” But, he said, his critics “are just waiting for me to make a mistake.”
Since 2001, DNA testing has overturned 13 Dallas County wrongful convictions. Only the states of Illinois, New York and Texas have more exonerations than Dallas County itself. Watkins announced in February that his office would cooperate with the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than 400 cases in which an inmate applied for DNA testing to prove innocence and was denied the tests. In May, his office named a new special prosecutor to focus on this review process as well as other DNA-related cases.
“We’re getting ready to make history, not only in Dallas County and Texas but the rest of the country,” said Jeff Blackburn of the West Texas Innocence Project at Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock. “We have what no other county or state has — a D.A. determined that innocent people don’t get convicted.”
“You don’t have to be bloodthirsty to be elected,” Mr. Blackburn said. “People are not as crazy as prosecutors and judges think.”
Read the full story here. (New York Times, 6/3/07)




Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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Louisiana exoneree starts reentry program

Posted: June 6, 2007

John Thompson spent 18 years in Louisiana prison – including 14 on death row – for a murder he didn’t commit. When a prosecutor made public that he had concealed evidence at Thompson’s 1984 trial that could have proven his innocence, he got a new trial and was acquitted of the charges in 2003.

Thompson was released with a small bag of possessions and given $10 for bus fare. He says he founded Resurrection After Exoneration to make sure that no future exonerees are dropped into freedom like he was. And he was recently awarded a two-year, $60,000 grant from Echoing Green to build RAE’s capacity.

Thompson said the wrongfully convicted have a hard time finding a place to live where they can be at peace. Most are forced to move in with family members, which can cause turmoil. Former inmates often have difficulties communicating because no one understands what they’ve been through and the effect it’s had on their psyche.

“You can’t communicate with your family. You don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing,” Thompson said. “You’re supposed to get a job but because of your record or attitude you can’t. It’s not what we wanted to come home to but we have no choice. And that’s the worst — being a grown man having to depend on someone else for help. And it all goes back to that one thing — what I experienced in that prison but no one wants to recognize it.”

Resurrection After Exoneration will offer the wrongfully convicted a place to live, jobs and courses in how to manage finances. Participants will be asked to set aside at least 25 percent of their paychecks in savings accounts. After a year, RAE will match the savings to help find independent housing.

Read the full story. (New Orleans City Business, 06/04/07)
NOTE: Because Thompson was not exonerated as a result of DNA testing, his case is not listed as one of the 202 DNA exonerations tracked by the Innocence Project.



Tags: Louisiana, Exoneree Compensation, Government Misconduct

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National Public Radio covers Larry Peterson's case

Posted: June 11, 2007 4:10 pm

When NPR’s Robert Siegel started reporting on Larry Peterson’s case in April 2005, Peterson was 54 years old and awaiting his release from Trenton State Prison. Tomorrow, NPR’s All Things Considered will air the first part of a two-day special on Mr. Peterson’s exoneration and return to society. Two years in the making, “The Exoneration of Larry Peterson” is a must-listen. Check here for a link to listen live online Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. EDT.

As Siegel reports, freedom for Peterson does not come easy. A Burlington County prosecutor commits to retrying Peterson for the same crimes, although his case quickly falls apart when a key witness, Robert Elder, recants his testimony that Peterson bragged about the crime. Elder tells Siegel, “I feel real bad about telling a white lie.” Elder says that he made up the story about Peterson to satisfy the detectives. “I was scared,” he says. “I was like – let me give these guys what they want. I’ll make up a story or something.”

Read NPR’s press release on tomorrow’s show
Read more about Larry Peterson in our Know the Cases section. 



Tags: Larry Peterson

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The "right" answer: anatomy of a confession

Posted: June 13, 2007 1:21 pm

A New York City judge dropped murder charges last week against Ozem Goldwire, a Brooklyn man with developmental disabilities who found his sister dead in 2006 and called 911 to report the crime. After 17 hours of interrogation, Goldwire confessed to the crime, and now defense attorneys, a state psychologist and the judge agree that the situation in this case was ripe for a false confession. The prosecutor agreed to drop the charges after the psychologist issued her report. Goldwire had been in jail for a year waiting for trial.

When Mr. Goldwire was in Rikers Island, his lawyer, Gary Farrell, told prosecutors that the confession was unreliable, given his background. Kenneth Taub and Robert Lamb of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office hired a psychologist, Kathy F. Yates, who found that he was highly suggestible, eager to please. “It is likely that he wanted to meet the needs of the detectives as a well as to bring the interview to an end,” she wrote.

No audio or video record exists of Mr. Goldwire’s interactions with detectives during the 17 hours leading up to his confession.

“Here we had the ingredients of the perfect storm for false confession,” Judge Gustin L. Reichbach said in court last week, dismissing the charges at the request of the prosecution and the defense. “You’re actually innocent of this crime.”

Read the story here and listen to Goldwire’s 911 call. (New York Times, 6/13/07, Membership Required)
More than one-quarter of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing involved a false confession. In countless other confession cases, like Goldwire’s, charges are thrown out before trial because the interrogation methods were questionable.

The Innocence Project supports criminal justice reforms mandating the electronic recording of all custodial interrogations nationwide. View a map of state laws requiring recorded interrogations.



Tags: New York, False Confessions

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Larry Peterson: Beyond Exoneration

Posted: June 14, 2007 3:58 pm

Click here to listen online to the two-part National Public Radio series on Larry Peterson’s exoneration and his adjustment to life outside prison.

Also in the news, Peterson filed a civil rights lawsuit on Monday against the Burlington County, NJ prosecutor and the state crime lab.

"He was falsely convicted based on perjured testimony and junk science and sent to prison for 18 years," the lawsuit states. "Luckily, he was spared the death penalty . . . and eventually exonerated in 2006 by DNA evidence."

William Buckman, Peterson's lawyer, said the lawsuit defendants engaged in "a series of misleading tactics aimed at forcing and/or inducing persons . . . to provide false testimony and false statements against Larry Peterson."

Read the full story here. (Cherry Hill Courier-Post, 06/12/07)
Read more about Peterson’s case here.



Tags: Larry Peterson

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Op-Ed: Scheck and Neufeld call for NY to enact real reforms

Posted: June 18, 2007 11:02 am

In today’s New York Daily News, Innocence Project Co-Directors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld write that recent DNA exonerations have demonstrated the urgent need for criminal justice reforms in New York state, including improved access to DNA testing and improved procedures for the preservation of evidence.

Nobody benefits from a wrongful conviction. Not the victim, police, prosecutor, judge, jury, nor the public at large. Well, maybe one person benefits: the real perpetrator, who can relax knowing an innocent person took the rap.

There have been nine DNA exonerations in New York State since 2006, putting our total at 23. And given that it's harder to find preserved evidence in New York than in most states, and that DNA can prove innocence in so few crimes, the situation is likely far worse than those numbers indicate.

Read the full article. (New York Daily News, 06/18/07)

 




Tags: New York, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing

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Unheralded exonerations

Posted: June 18, 2007 5:31 pm

The case of three Duke lacrosse players who were wrongly accused of rape last year has been making headlines nationwide for months. But a column in New York Newsday today questions why the Duke case has sparked more outrage nationwide against overzealous prosecutors than the 203 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing.

I don't want to minimize these young men's suffering over the last year, or to downplay the injustice that was done to them. But the public outcry over this case has a lot to do with the fact that these were three white guys from upper-middle-class families who got railroaded. And because they could afford first-rate, aggressive lawyers, in the end the criminal justice system worked for them.

Whatever humiliation and pain they suffered over being wrongly accused pales in comparison to what happens on a regular basis to countless other defendants, many of them black or Latino men, who are charged, convicted and spend long years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

Read the full column here. (Newsday, 06/18/07)
Read more about prosecutorial misconduct in exoneration cases.



Tags: Government Misconduct

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The legacy of the Duke case

Posted: June 19, 2007 1:55 pm

An editorial in today’s Anniston (Alabama) Star looks forward to the legacy of the case of three Duke lacrosse players falsely accused of raping a woman in North Carolina. Charges were dropped earlier this year and the original prosecutor was disbarred yesterday. The editorial says the Duke case should lead the public to hold overzealous prosecutors accountable for operating outside of the law.

As the Innocence Project’s record attests, men and women are falsely accused more regularly than one would imagine. Most of them do not have the luck of being fabulously wealthy and are not able to hire top-dollar lawyers.

These unseen victims are often set on a path to jail by zealous prosecutors who aren’t willing to look at all the facts. Those falsely accused rarely become a cause for the right or the left. They mostly languish in prison hoping someone will pay attention.

Read the editorial here. (Anniston Star, 06/19/07)
Read yesterday's blog post on this issue



Tags: Government Misconduct

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James Giles Exonerated

Posted: June 21, 2007 3:00 pm

Two months ago in Dallas, the Innocence Project joined with prosecutors in filing motions to clear James Giles of a 1982 rape for which he served 10 years in prison and 14 years as a registered sex offender on parole. The judge approved the motions, but there was one final step on Giles’ journey to exoneration. Texas rules require that the state’s highest criminal court review all exoneration before they become official. Yesterday, Giles was officially exonerated when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted his writ of habeas corpus. He became the 204th person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States and the 13th in Dallas County.

The Innocence Project began investigating Giles’ case in 2000, and DNA testing has since proven that he was not one of three men who raped a Dallas woman in her home in 1982. The crime was committed by three men, and police were told that one was named James Giles. The victim identified James Curtis Giles in a lineup, even though he did not match her initial description of the perpetrator. DNA evidence now links two other men to the crime – and shows that they were both closely associated with another man, James Earl Giles, who lived near the crime scene and fits the victim’s initial description. New evidence shows that information linking the three true perpetrators to the crime – James Earl Giles and the two other men – was available to police and prosecutors before James Curtis Giles was convicted, but was illegally withheld from his defense attorneys.

With 13, Dallas has had more convictions overturned by DNA testing than any other county nationwide. Read more about the other 12 cases here.

The Dallas District Attorney’s Office recently began working with the Innocence Project of Texas to review more than 350 cases in which defendants claim innocence and were denied DNA testing. Officials have said that this review could lead to more Dallas exonerations. Read more about the ongoing review here.



Tags: Texas, James Giles

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Alternate suspect arrested in 1986 case

Posted: August 1, 2007 12:44 pm

Clay Chabot has been in prison for 21 years for a rape and murder he has always maintained he did not commit, and new DNA evidence implicates a man who testified against him at trial. On Tuesday, police returned the alternate suspect, Jerry Pabst, to Texas after arresting him Monday in Ohio. He will face murder charges. Prosecutors, however, say they are still investigating the case to determine whether the new evidence exonerates Chabot. Pabst said at trial that he had been in the house on the night of the murder but that Chabot alone had committed the crime. Chabot has always maintained that he was not there that night, and Pabst’s testimony – now proven false by DNA  – was the primary evidence against him. There is no credible evidence even suggesting that Chabot was involved in the crime and the Innocence Project says his conviction should be vacated.

Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison told the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram that this evidence should overturn Chabot’s conviction:

"For 21 years, Clay Chabot has maintained he is innocent and that Jerry Pabst committed this horrible crime. That is exactly what the new DNA evidence shows," Morrison said.

Read the full story here. (Star-Telegram, 08/01/07)




Tags: Clay Chabot

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Duke case is unusual in terms of accountability for prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: June 25, 2007 5:00 pm

A column in Sunday’s New York Times highlights the reality of prosecutorial misconduct – noting that, unlike the prosecutor in the Duke lacross case, most prosecutors whose misconduct leads to wrongful convictions are never held accountable.  Although Michael B. Nifong, the prosecutor in the Duke case, was disbarred for his intentional misconduct, many prosecutors whose wrongdoing leads to miscarriages of justice are punished lightly, if at all.  The column turns to several leading experts on the subject for insight into this imbalance.

Mr. Gershman, a former prosecutor in Manhattan who teaches law at Pace University, said the Nifong case was handled differently because of the publicity. “The fact that it resulted in national exposure,” he said, “had to have put the disciplinary body and the entire system of justice under the spotlight.”
“You have rogue prosecutors all over the country who have engaged in far, far more egregious misconduct, and in a pattern of cases,” he added. “And nothing happens.”
The Chicago Tribune, for instance, analyzed 381 murder cases in which the defendant received a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct. None of the prosecutors were convicted of a crime or disbarred.
Read the full story here.

Prosecutorial misconduct was a contributing factor in James Giles’ wrongful conviction, which was officially overturned last week.  Prosecutors in that case withheld evidence from Giles; defense attorney that would have pointed to the true perpetrator.

Learn more about prosecutorial misconduct in our Understand the Causes section.
Read about James Giles, the 204th exoneree.

 

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Supreme Court to review justice in Louisiana

Posted: June 26, 2007 3:00 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday accepted one of three Louisiana cases, declining to hear the other two.  In Snyder v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether race played a role in the jury selection of a death row case. The all-white jury sentenced Allen Snyder, a black man, to death row in 1996. Previously, in a case from Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a black man’s death sentence because prosecutors had kept black people off the jury.

Without comment, the Supreme Court declined to hear two other Louisiana cases – both involving foreign attorneys practicing law in the United States.

At issue is a Louisiana Supreme Court decision in 2002 that said only foreigners on a path to become citizens may practice law in the state. The lawyers affected by the ruling said they went to Louisiana to help address a severe shortage of lawyers for poor defendants. One British lawyer, Emily Maw, received her law degree from Tulane University in 2003 and is director of Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents indigent clients. She also is a practicing lawyer in Mississippi.
Read the full text of the article here.
Find out about other Innocence Projects.



Tags: Louisiana

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District Attorney's report shows need for reform in New York

Posted: July 2, 2007 5:45 pm

A 35-page report issued today by Westchester County, New York DA Janet DiFiore identifies the factors contributing to Jeffrey Deskovic’s wrongful conviction and provides recommendations for reform. Deskovic was convicted of raping and murdering his high school classmate in 1990 based on a false confession that he later retracted. He spent over 15 years in prison before his exoneration in 2006.

The “Report on the Conviction of Jeffrey Deskovic” calls for access to forensic databases that can identify true perpetrators, creation of an Innocence Commission, recording of police interrogations, and proper storage and preservation of evidence. These measures could have prevented Deskovic’s wrongful conviction and enabled him to prove his innocence. In recent months, the State Legislature considered reforms that would address these same issues. The report underscores the need to pass this legislation and implement systemic reforms in New York State. When the legislature reconvenes on July 16, it will have another opportunity to pass the legislation.

Here is an excerpt of the report:

“One can imagine a situation in which police, prosecutors, defense counsel and the courts each discharged their functions in a perfectly appropriate way, yet the result achieved was calamitously wrong.  One can imagine such a case, but Jeffrey Deskovic’s case is not such a case…we attempt to analyze what went wrong for Jeffrey Deskovic in the hope that a broader understanding of his tragedy will help those in the criminal justice system take the steps necessary to protect others from his fate."
Read more about Jeff Deskovic's case.
Learn more about the reforms in New York.
Read a copy of the report here.

Read the Innocence Project press release here.



Tags: New York, False Confessions

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Prosecutors charge alleged actual perpetrator in Ohio murder case

Posted: July 5, 2007 11:19 am

Earl Mann, a 34-year-old inmate in Ohio state prison, was charged last week with committing the 1998 murder and rape for which Clarence Elkins was wrongfully imprisoned for over six years. The DNA evidence that proved Elkins’s innocence also linked Mann to the crime scene, prosecutors have said. Elkins was exonerated in 2005 and prosecutors have been re-investigating the crime since then. Mann, who is serving seven years for three unrelated rapes, has said he is innocent of the murder and rape for which Elkins was convicted. He was indicted by a Summit County, Ohio, grand jury on Friday and charged with aggravated murder, attempted murder, aggravated burglary and rape.

Elkins said he does not understand why it took prosecutors so long to seek an indictment against Mann when "it didn't take them maybe a couple of hours to come after me."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 06/30/07)
Read more about the Elkins case, and dozens of other cases in which DNA evidence has not only exonerated an innocent person but also helped authorities locate the actual perpetrator.



Tags: Clarence Elkins

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Byron Halsey hearing today in NJ

Posted: July 9, 2007 11:36 am

Byron Halsey was released from prison in May after serving 19 years for the brutal murders of two young children in Plainfield, New Jersey. At a hearing this afternoon in New Jersey, prosecutors will announce whether Halsey is officially exonerated based on DNA evidence proving his innocence.

The hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at the Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth, NJ. After the hearing, Halsey and Innocence Project attorneys will hold a press conference on the courthouse steps.

Check back on the Innocence Blog this afternoon for an update on the results of the hearing.

News Coverage of today’s hearing: NJ Man Freed by DNA Awaits Fate (Washington Post, 07/09/07)

Read more about Halsey’s case here.

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Update: Byron Halsey exonerated in New Jersey

Posted: July 9, 2007 5:25 pm

At a hearing this afternoon in New Jersey, prosecutors dismissed all charges against Byron Halsey, finally clearing him of two 1985 murders for which he was wrongfully imprisoned for nearly two decades. Read more about the case in today's Innocence Project press release, or in the news coverage below:

New York Times: All Charges Dropped Against NJ Man



Tags: Byron Halsey

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Pennsylvania appeals court hears arguments today in Innocence Project case

Posted: July 10, 2007 7:00 am

Philadelphia prosecutors filed papers in May arguing that Anthony Wright, who was convicted of murder in 1993, should not have access to DNA testing because he confessed to the crime. In these papers they cited the case of Byron Halsey, saying testing in Halsey's case was “properly denied where trial evidence, which included defendant’s confession, was overwhelming.”

The flaws in the state's argument in the Wright case became clear yesterday afternoon, when New Jersey prosecutors exonerated Halsey after DNA testing conducted in 2006 showed that another man committed the child murders for which Halsey had nearly been sentenced to death. Read more about the Halsey case here.

This morning, a Philadelphia appeals court will hear arguments in Wright's case. Prosecutors have argued for two years that Wright should be denied access to testing because he allegedly confessed to the crime. However, as Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison will argue this morning, 25% of the 205 people exonerated by DNA testing in the United States — including Halsey — falsely confessed or admitted to the crimes of which they were wrongfully convicted.

The arguments are scheduled for 10:30 this morning at the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Read more about Wright 's case in yesterday's Innocence Project press release.

A column by Elmer Smith in today's Philadelphia Daily News calls for the District Attorney's office to support testing in the pursuit of true justice:

The D.A.'s office is vigorously opposing new DNA testing. I want to believe it is fighting to keep DNA evidence out in the interest of justice.

Except that, for the life of me, I can't see how justice is served by suppressing a test result that could point to another perpetrator.

If Louise Talley's murderer is still out there, I want my D.A.'s office to go after him with the same fervor that led to Anthony Wright's conviction.

Instead, the D.A.'s office seems more interested in holding onto Wright than it is in being absolutely sure the crime is solved. That worries me.

Read the full column here. (Philadelphia Daily News, 07/10/07)
 



Tags: False Confessions

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California commission considers prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: July 12, 2007 11:18 am

The director of the Northern California Innocence Project < http://www.ncip.scu.edu/> told a panel studying the state’s criminal justice system yesterday that prosecutorial misconduct needs to be addressed.  She said studies had shown that misconduct was widespread.

"Prosecutorial misconduct occurs with some frequency in this state and prosecutors are rarely disciplined for their misconduct," Santa Clara University law professor Cookie Ridolfi said at a hearing at Loyola Law School.
Prosecutors at the meeting disagreed, saying that current rules of conduct were sufficient.
Michael Schwartz, a deputy district attorney in Ventura County, countered that a close look at the available data shows that prosecutorial misconduct occurs in less than 1% of all cases. "I am not sensing that we have a crisis of prosecutorial misconduct … it doesn't seem like we need new rules."
Read the full story here. (Los Angeles Times, 07/12/07)
The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice held the hearing yesterday as part of its ongoing review of possible flaws in the criminal justice system. The commission, one of six “innocence commissions” nationwide, was created in 2004. Currently, three bills pending before the state legislature address other issues addressed by the panel: false confessions, jailhouse informants and eyewitness identification procedure.

Read more about the reform bills pending in the California legislature.

Read more about the six Innocence Commissions nationwide.





Tags: Government Misconduct

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Inmate pleads not guilty in murder that sent wrong man to prison

Posted: July 12, 2007 2:28 pm

An Ohio inmate pled not guilty yesterday to committing the 1998 murder and rape for which Clarence Elkins was wrongfully convicted. Earl Mann, 34, is currently serving a seven-year sentence for an unrelated rape. Prosecutors say the DNA tests that cleared Elkins link Mann to the murder of Elkins’ mother-in-law and the rape of his niece. Elkins, who was in the courtroom yesterday for Mann’s hearing, served over 6 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.

Outside the courtroom after this morning's proceedings, Elkins said he had an immediate impression at the first sight of Mann sitting in the chair in jail in the moments before his arraignment began.

"I was just happy to see justice being served this time. It's a little late," he added, "but it's better late than never."

Read the full story here. (Akron Beacon Journal, 07/11/2007)
Elkins and his family brought about his exoneration by investigating the case while he was incarcerated. When Elkins was incarcerated in the same prison with Mann, a neighbor at the time of the crime, he collected a cigarette butt from Mann and sent it to investigators, who confirmed that DNA from the cigarette matched DNA from the crime scene. Attorneys from the Ohio Innocence Project represented Elkins. Read more about Elkins’ case here.



Tags: Clarence Elkins

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Innocent Florida inmate wins new trial

Posted: July 17, 2007 7:00 am

Innocence Project client Chad Heins, who has spent more than a decade in Florida prison for a murder that DNA now shows he didn’t commit, will be have another day in court. Prosecutors announced yesterday that they dropped an appeal of a judge’s 2006 decision vacating the conviction against Heins and that they would retry him for the 1994 murder of his pregnant sister-in-law. DNA testing conducted in 2004 and 2005 shows that several pieces of biological evidence from the crime scene came from a single unknown male.

Meanwhile, Heins remains incarcerated in Florida. He will be arraigned on the first-degree murder charge next week and his attorneys will seek to have him released on bond.

"We believe Chad should have been out of prison years ago," said Nina Morrison, staff attorney for the New York-based legal group that uses DNA to free the wrongly convicted. "Three years after the new DNA evidence was discovered, this conviction is finally history. But unfortunately, Chad will have to continue to battle to prove his innocence."

Read the full story here. (Florida Times-Union, 7/16/2007)
Read more about Heins’s case.


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Hearing today in Florida case

Posted: July 19, 2007 7:00 am

At a hearing today in Florida, a state judge will decide whether Chad Heins will be released on bond pending his new trial for 1994 the murder of his sister-in-law. Heins was convicted of the murder in 1996 but new DNA evidence proves that another man committed the crime.

In December 2006, a Florida judge vacated Heins’s conviction due to DNA test results, and prosecutors appealed this decision. This week, prosecutors dropped that appeal but said they intended to retry Heins on the first-degree murder charge. DNA testing in the case has shown that several pieces of biological evidence from the crime scene match a single unknown male.

Media coverage: Brother-in-law gains new trial
(Florida Times Union, 07/16/07)

Case Recap: Florida Times Union

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Virginia governor proclaims exoneree's innocence

Posted: July 20, 2007 12:46 pm

It was more than two decades ago that Virginia came within nine days of executing an innocent man. Earl Washington, Jr., was convicted at age 22 of a 1982 rape he didn’t commit after he gave police a false confession riddled with facts that didn’t correspond to the crime. He served 17 years in prison – including 10 on death row – before he was released after DNA testing proved his innocence. Upon his release, he took the state to court – and was opposed – as he sought compensation for the injustice he suffered. Last year, the lawsuit was finally settled, and this month, the state of Virginia finally admitted that he is innocent.

In a new pardon issued July 6, which revised one issued in 2000 by a former governor, Gov. Timothy Kaine wrote: "I have decided it is just and appropriate to grant this revised absolute pardon that reflects Mr. Washington's innocence." The previous pardon only admitted that a rational jury would not convict Washington.

An editorial this week in the Virginia Daily Press calls for the state to treat exonerees with dignity and to enact reforms based on the lessons of Washington’s case.

The case has also taught us some lessons — that police and prosecutors can be pursuing something other than the truth, that confessions can be false, that just because someone is on death row doesn't mean he's guilty. We should remember them every time a defendant comes to trial, and every time a life hangs in the death penalty's balance.

Read the full editorial here. (Daily Press, 07/16/07)
Read more about the July 6 pardon.

Read more about Washington’s case and exoneree compensation nationwide.



Tags: Virginia, Earl Washington, Exoneree Compensation

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Editorial: Produce the proof or set Chad Heins free

Posted: July 23, 2007 10:50 am

Chad Heins was convicted in Florida in 1996 for allegedly killing his sister-in-law two years earlier. He has now served more than a decade in prison for a crime that DNA shows was committed by another man. Heins’s conviction has been overturned due to questions raised by new DNA testing but charges are pending and prosecutors have said they will retry him in December. Last week, his bail was set at $1 million.

An editorial in Saturday’s Daytona Beach News-Journal calls for prosecutors to seek justice in the Heins case.

Unless there's new, credible evidence the state has yet to produce -- evidence that explains the DNA and doesn't rely on suspicious jailhouse snitches -- it makes far more sense to pull the plug on this wasteful, vindictive and pointless persecution.

Read the full editorial here. (Daytona Beach News-Journal, 07/21/07)


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Alabama execution scheduled for Thursday despite inmate's pleas for a DNA test

Posted: July 24, 2007 1:34 pm

Darrell Grayson was sentenced to death in Alabama in 1982 for the murder of an elderly woman two years earlier. He is scheduled to be executed on Thursday for this crime, without the benefit of DNA testing that could confirm or deny the state’s theory of Grayson’s guilt.

Grayson does not remember whether he was involved in the crime. He says he had been drinking heavily on the night of the crime and doesn’t know whether he did it. An alleged co-defendant, Victor Kennedy, was executed for the crime in 1999. There is biological evidence from the crime scene that could prove Grayson’s innocence or guilt, but prosecutors have fought testing, even with Grayson’s advocates paying for the tests.A column in the Birmingham News this week calls for Alabama Gov. Bob Riley to stay the execution and order testing.

I don't claim to know whether Darrell Grayson raped and killed Annie Orr almost three decades ago. Truth be told, Grayson himself doesn't claim to know…
But (DNA results are) one more piece of information that (are) readily available and that should be obtained before the state inflicts a punishment it can't undo. For Grayson, this is a big gamble. For state officials, who say they're convinced Grayson is guilty anyway, all that's on the line is a little time. Riley should order the test.

Read the full column. (Birmingham News, 07/22/2007)




Tags: Death Penalty, Darrell Grayson

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California officials say exoneree shouldn’t be compensated because he pled guilty

Posted: July 25, 2007 4:57 pm

James Ochoa was 20 years old when he pled guilty to a carjacking he didn’t commit in order to avoid a 25-year-to-life sentence the judge threatened him with if he was convicted. With a guilty plea, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Ten months into his prison term, DNA evidence proved that another man committed the crime. Ochoa was released and exonerated.

Now Ochoa is seeking compensation under a law in California that grants about $100 per day of wrongful incarceration to those wrongfully imprisoned and later proven innocent. The law says that exonerees who “contributed to” their conviction don’t qualify for compensation. Because Ochoa pled guilty prosecutors are saying that he contributed to his conviction.

A column in the Los Angeles Times calls for Ochoa to be compensated with no more delay:

The cops, the district attorney and a judge already have had their fun with James Ochoa, behaving like dogs with a chew toy. Now it's the attorney general's turn to snarl, take a bite or two, and fling him around some more.

All in the name of justice, of course.

Read the full column here. (06/30/2007)
Read a blog post on this topic from Reason Magazine.

A hearing on Ochoa's compensation claim is scheduled for October 11.

Read more about Ochoa’s case.



Tags: James Ochoa, Exoneree Compensation

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California public defenders get DNA training

Posted: July 30, 2007 1:11 pm

While DNA evidence is only a factor in 5-10% of all criminal cases, it is vital that both defense attorneys and prosecutors understand the science in order to help juries find the truth. Post-conviction DNA testing has shown, in dozens of cases involving unreliable or limited forensics, that juries can sometimes misunderstand scientific evidence.

A one-of-a-kind program in Sacramento, California, was created to educate public defenders on DNA evidence and the science of testing. On Friday, the program graduated its second class. Only if both attorneys in a trial are prepared to question an expert witness can the jury fully understand the implications of forensic evidence.

Speaking at Friday's graduation ceremony, county Supervisor Roger Dickinson said that anyone who has watched "CSI" or read the newspapers knows that DNA is authoritative and decisive in criminal cases. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be challenged "so justice will be the outcome," he said.
"It's very important to question what everyone else seems to accept," he said. "We have to make sure people receive the benefit of the doubt."
Read the full article here. (Sacramento Bee, 07/28/2007)


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Massachusetts, Michigan and Louisiana take aim at crime lab problems

Posted: July 31, 2007 2:35 pm

An editorial in yesterday’s Patriot Ledger calls on Massachusetts officials to focus on rectifying longstanding problems in the state crime lab in order to ensure fair justice for all. The paper says "this mess will be doubly hard to clean up"

"‘It’s not just about convictions," Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett said, a point the State Police should remember. It’s about determining the truth. That’s going to take time and money, but it must be done.

Read the full editorial here. (Patriot Ledger, 07/30/07)
Changes in the state’s forensic community were announced last week, when officials named a senior Boston prosecutor to be the new head of both the State Police crime lab and the medical examiner’s office. The former director resigned last month amid controversy over DNA testing. Read more here.

Meanwhile, Michigan lawmakers are considering a unique plan to fund crime labs and Louisiana labs have used federal grants to nearly eliminate the backlog in sexual assault cases.

 
  • Pending legislation in Michigan would add a surcharge of $1.35 to all phone bills, raising about $200 million. Some of these funds could go to state forensic labs. Read the full article. (ABC 12)
  • Louisiana’s crime lab backlog in sexual assault cases has been reduced from 3,100 unprocessed sexual assualt evidence kits in 2003 to 200 kits, according to an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Read more about the Innocence Project’s call for crime lab oversight.

Read our recent blog posts on crime lab oversight and backlogs.



Tags: Crime Lab Backlogs

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Mississippi man sent to death row by faulty forensics to get another day in court

Posted: August 2, 2007 12:38 pm

Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in Mississippi of the 1991 murder of a 3-year-old girl. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of Dr. Michael West,  forensic dentist who claimed that multiple abrasions on the child's partially decomposed body matched the upper bite of Brewer. The incorrect matching of bitemarks has been a cause of at least four wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and West’s unorthodox methods have been debunked by many experts and he has been expelled from several professional associations.

DNA testing in 2002 excluded Kennedy Brewer as the source of the semen recovered from the child. Even though the court threw out the conviction and death sentence based on the new DNA evidence, the local prosecutor announced he would re-try Mr. Brewer and use Michael West again as a bite mark expert. The  Innocence Project is co-counsel, along with Brewer's local counsel for the retrial.

In a Fox News article yesterday, Radley Balko writes about West’s questionable past and the unreliable nature of bitemark evidence.

Even in an already imprecise field, Dr. West has taken forensic odontology to bizarre, megalomaniacal depths. West claims to have invented a system he modestly calls "The West Phenomenon," in which he dons a pair of yellow goggles and, with the aid of a blue laser, says he can identify bite marks, scratches, and other marks on a corpse that no one else can see — not even other forensics experts.

Conveniently, he claims his unique method can't be photographed or reproduced, which he says makes his opinions unimpeachable by other experts.

Read the full article here. (FoxNews.com, 08/01/07)
Read more about bite mark convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and other unreliable forensic science that has contributed to wrongful convictions.



Tags: Kennedy Brewer, Bitemark Evidence

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Video interview: Developments in Dallas

Posted: August 3, 2007 2:31 pm

Watch a video interview with Mike Ware, the prosecutor who recently joined the Dallas District Attorney’s Office to lead the new Conviction Integrity Unit.

“It’s a historic time in Dallas,” Ware says. Watch the video here. (Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, 07/31/07)

And read more about recent developments in Dallas in yesterday’s blog post.



Tags: Clay Chabot

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Sunday on DatelineNBC: A second trial for an innocent man?

Posted: August 3, 2007 2:35 pm

David Lemus spent 15 years in prison for a New York City nightclub murder he swears he didn’t commit. He was freed in 2005, but is now facing trial again for the same murder. A special two-hour documentary Sunday on DatelineNBC profiles the case and asks why Lemus still faces charges in this case. Read a blog post on the case by producer Dan Slepian on Dateline’s website:

In 1990, David Lemus was offered a deal: 8 1/3 to 15 years in prison for a guilty plea. He said no, that he was innocent but was then convicted anyway. Despite spending a full 15 years in prison, despite two homicide detectives, a juror, a prosecutor, and even the victim's family saying he is innocent, the Manhattan DA is once again trying Mr. Lemus.

Think it can't happen? Think again.

Read the full post here. (DatelineNBC, 08/01/07)
The show airs at 7 p.m. EDT Sunday on NBC. Watch a video preview and view pictures and comments here.

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How common is prosecutorial misconduct?

Posted: August 3, 2007 5:35 pm

In an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Professor Richard Moran considers malicious prosecutions and government misconduct that leads to wrongful convictions. In the case of four men awarded more than $100 million last week by a federal judge for the wrongful conviction they suffered in 1965, Moran says the withholding of evidence by FBI agents was malicious and should be punished. And this type of misconduct may not be as rare as we think, Moran says.

Mistakes are good-faith errors — like taking the wrong exit off the highway, or dialing the wrong telephone number. There is no malice behind them. However, when officers of the court conspire to convict a defendant of first-degree murder and send him to death row, they are doing much more than making an innocent mistake or error. They are breaking the law.

Perhaps this explains why, even when a manifestly innocent man is about to be executed, a prosecutor can be dead set against reopening an old case. Since so many wrongful convictions result from official malicious behavior, prosecutors, policemen, witnesses or even jurors and judges could themselves face jail time for breaking the law in obtaining an unlawful conviction.

Read the full op-ed article here. (New York Times, 08/02/07, paid subscription required)
Read more about how government misconduct has led to wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.



Tags: Government Misconduct

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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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Snitch testimony and a possible wrongful conviction in Michigan

Posted: August 8, 2007 1:13 pm

Jailhouse informants have contributed to dozens of the 205 wrongful convictions to be overturned by DNA testing. In the ongoing appeals of Frederick Freeman, who is serving life in Michigan for a murder he says he didn’t commit, defense attorneys have shown that a witness against Freeman lied on the stand in exchange for a better sentence. He told the jury, however, that he would get no special treatment in exchange for his testimony.

One of the few would-be strengths of the prosecution's case was a jailhouse snitch who had shared a holding cell with Freeman for a few hours during the week before Freeman's trial. The snitch, Philip Joplin, testified that Freeman had confessed to killing Macklem. Joplin later recanted, saying he had lied to get a better deal from prosecutors and the judge. Documents show he got favorable treatment within a month after Freeman's trial.
Read more about Freeman’s case in today’s Detroit Metro Times. (Part Two of a two-pert investigative report)

Read more about snitch cases in our Understand the Causes section.



Tags: Informants/Snitches, Frederick Freeman

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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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DNA overturns conviction in Washington

Posted: August 15, 2007 1:44 pm

Ted Bradford was convicted in 1996 of breaking into a woman’s house in Yakima, Washington, and raping her. He has completed his nine-year sentence and has been released, but is still working with the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle to prove his innocence.

In the 1995 crime, the perpetrator wore a nylon stocking over his head and also placed a mask on the victim’s face with sticky tape. DNA testing has now shown the profile of another man on the mask and the tape, and a Washington appeals court yesterday agreed with a lower court that Bradford deserves a new trial. Bradford also allegedly confessed to the crime after a lengthy police interrogation in 1995, and prosecutors have said they intend to retry him in order to ensure that he continues to register as a sex offender.

"We're just delighted that both the trial court and court of appeals found the weight of the scientific evidence would probably result in a different verdict," said Jackie McMurtrie, director of the Innocence Project Northwest, which represented Bradford. "Mr. Bradford is innocent."

Read the full story here. (Seattle Times, 08/15/07)
Read the full appeals court verdict here.





Tags: Washington

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North Carolina case review raises questions about misconduct in identification procedure

Posted: August 16, 2007 11:26 am

The City of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, released a police department review of an assault case this week – which identified possible misconduct by police and prosecutors leading to a man’s conviction 10 years ago. When the victim in the case was shown a photo lineup, she failed to identify the man who was later convicted. That lineup was videotaped and a transcript of the video was prepared before his trial. The transcript, prepared by police, does not include the photo lineup – and the man’s defense attorney says the video he was shown also excluded the lineup. A prosecutor on the case claimed that she showed the entire videotape to defense attorneys, and the prosecutor also filed a notice with the trial court saying that the transcript summarized the entire video.

Attorneys for Kalvin Michael Smith, who is serving a 22-year sentence for an assault he says he did not commit, have alleged that defense attorneys at trial were not aware that the witness had actually identified another person in the photo lineup. The review, conducted by the Winston-Salem Police Department, found that Detective Don Williams videotaped the photo lineup but then prepared a transcript of the video and failed to include the lineup in his transcript. In the review, Assistant District Attorney Mary Jean Behan claims that, regardless of the transcript, she showed the entire video (including portions that show the victim identifying another man instead of Smith) to Smith’s defense attorney. Smith’s defense attorney, William Speaks, recently signed an affidavit saying that he never saw the photo lineup on video and was never told about the photo lineup. A year later, after Smith had already been charged with the assault, Detective Williams again interviewed the victim and conducted a photo lineup; she identified Smith, but that interview was not recorded.

Read today’s and yesterday’s articles in the Winston-Salem Journal. Visit the newspaper’s special web section on this case.

Read about Darryl Hunt, who served 18 years after he was wrongfully convicted of a Winston-Salem murder and rape.




Tags: North Carolina

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It Matters to You

Posted: August 17, 2007 9:57 am

Last week, we asked people why criminal justice reform matters to them, and they responded. Watch the online video here with some responses.

Many people responded by sending us emails explaining why criminal justice reforms matter to them. It is clear that the issue of wrongful convictions is one that touches us all. Below are excerpts from two of the responses we received from advocates for reform:

"I am very much interested in criminal justice reform, because my very best friend in serving time in an Oklahoma prison for a crime that he did not committ and due to very inadequate representation by a public defender." Katy – Enid, Oklahoma
 
"The more people like us who spread this message, the more people will respond, because everyone has been mis-used in some way...either small or large.

I was one of those persons who spent time for a crime I did not do. I truly believe in my heart that if the prosecutors did their job, I would not have gone to prison. I can relate to all the wrongly convicted." Mary Ann – Port Neches, Texas
 
"Regarding why criminial justice reform matters, I would start by saying the these are people's lives we are talking about (similar to war).  As time is our most precious commodity, the notion of an innocent person spending time in prison is a tragedy of epic proportions. 

One cannot sufficiently compensate someone who has lost many years...so it is imperative to ensure beyond a shadow of a doubt that the innocent are not wrongfully convicted."  Eric  – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Do you have something to say? Send us an email (be sure to include your city and state, and to tell us if you’re willing to share your thoughts on the blog) at info@innocenceproject.org. Or record your own video and upload it to YouTube or email it to us.

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Maryland court says prosecutors must widen search for evidence

Posted: August 17, 2007 12:28 pm

In a unanimous ruling this month, Maryland’s Court of Appeals said prosecutors must conduct a thorough search for evidence before telling a defendant on appeal that they can’t find it.

The ruling came in the case of Douglas Scott Arey, who was convicted 33 years ago of killing his ex-boss. After Maryland passed a statute in 2001 allowing inmates to seek DNA testing on appeal, Arey filed a motion, only to be told his evidence could not be found in the Baltimore Police Department’s evidence storage unit. Arey’s attorneys appealed this decision, saying police and prosecutors hadn’t searched enough.The appeals court agreed with Arey.

"Because the State was the custodian of the evidence, the State needs to check any place the evidence could reasonably be found, unless there is a written record that the evidence had been destroyed in accordance with then existing protocol," Judge Irma S. Raker wrote on behalf of the court.
The state will now be required to regularly check police departments, prosecutor’s offices, hospitals and labs, the court said. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said the ruling was reasonable. Maryland is one of 42 states with a statute allowing defendants to seek DNA testing on post-conviction appeal, but standards vary widely across the country in the requirements on prosecutors to search for evidence. Now, in Maryland, the standard is clear.
"Sometimes in an older case, evidence does get moved," said Gary Bair, a criminal defense attorney and former head of criminal appeals for the state attorney general. "Because the defendant really has no control over that, it seems like the court is acknowledging that. It puts the initial burden on the prosecution for at least five or six steps."The Baltimore City State's Attorney's Office will follow the court's ruling, said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the office. Sharon R. Holback, appointed in June to direct the forensic sciences investigations unit, will head the search.

"It's certainly reasonable and understandable, given the new technology," said Burns. "If there's a need for additional staff, we are confident we can meet those challenges due to this new ruling."

Read the full story here. (Baltimore Daily Record, 8/2/07)
More coverage – Baltimore Sun: Detailed evidence search is called for (8/2/07)

Complete text of the court’s opinion. Read about the case of Alan Newton in New York, who was told for ten years that his evidence could not be located until it was finally found – in the exact location it should have been all along.



Tags: Alan Newton, Evidence Preservation

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Hearing Thursday on lost evidence in death row case

Posted: August 21, 2007 4:51 pm

Prosecutors in a Kentucky death row case have said they are not able to find crucial evidence that was alleged to place the defendant, Brian Keith Moore, at the crime scene. Moore has said that he was framed by the actual perpetrator and has been granted access to DNA testing in order to determine whether clothing found at the scene belong to the alternate suspect – who has since died.

In legal papers filed in 2006, prosecutors said pants and shoes from the crime scene were available for testing. But now, they say they can’t find the evidence – and defense attorneys are asking a judge to overturn Moore’s death sentence. A hearing in the matter is scheduled for Thursday. Although the Innocence Project is not involved in the Moore case, Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin discusses evidence preservation in an article in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader:

Old evidence was found after multiple searches in recent cases in Virginia, New Jersey and New York, Potkin said. In the New York case, Alan Newton waited 11 years for a rape kit to be located and was released in 2006 after serving 21 years of a 40-year sentence.

Maryland's highest court last week ordered prosecutors to keep searching for evidence that could be tested in a 33-year-old murder.

"Evidence just doesn't disappear," Potkin said. "You really need to be diligent. In this case, the significance could be life or death."

Read the full story here. (Lexington Herald-Leader, 08/21/07)
A major Denver Post investigation last month revealed shoddy evidence preservation standards in police departments and prosecutor’s offices around the country, and a Maryland court ruled last week that prosecutors must search more widely for evidence before reporting it missing.

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



Tags: Kentucky, Evidence Preservation, Death Penalty

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Did a secret deal lead to a Dallas wrongful conviction?

Posted: August 22, 2007 12:48 pm

Clay Chabot has already served 21 years in prison for a rape and murder that he has always maintained he didn’t commit. The main evidence against Chabot at trial was the testimony of his brother-in-law, Gerald Pabst, who claimed that he was with Chabot and helped robbed the victim, but that Chabot raped and killed her.  Pabst, who initially said he was nowhere near the victim’s home when the crime happened, ultimately testified that he was in another room at the victim’s house during the rape and murder.  Chabot has always insisted that he had no motive to commit the crime and had nothing to do with it.  But based on Pabst’s testimony, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  

New DNA testing shows that semen recovered from the victim’s body after the crime came from Pabst – not from Chabot.  No credible evidence links Chabot to the crime.  Earlier this month, Pabst was arrested for capital murder in connection with the decades-old crime.

Pabst was initially charged with murder but that charge was dropped after he testified against Chabot. This week, one of Chabot’s former attorneys questioned whether Dallas prosecutors made a deal with Pabst to secure his testimony against Chabot:

Houston lawyer Randy Schaffer, who represented Mr. Chabot from 1989 to 1995, said that he has always believed there was a deal between the state and Mr. Pabst before he testified.

"I figured the state made a deal with a killer because it gave them a witness," Mr. Schaffer said. "There was a culture of dishonesty [in the district attorney's office] that was as natural as getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth."
Chabot was convicted on a Friday afternoon and paperwork seeking to dismiss the murder case against Pabst was started on the following Monday. He Pabst eventually pled guilty to stealing and pawning the victim's radio, and he was freed after serving only 30 days in jail.. If a deal was made with Pabst, the law would have required that defense attorneys be told.

And while prosecutors prepare to try Pabst for murder, Chabot remains incarcerated, waiting for word on whether he will get a new trial. Innocence Project Staff Attorney Nina Morrison told the Dallas Morning News that Pabst’s testimony was the only evidence against Chabot:
"The new DNA testing shows Pabst was a perjurer who, at the very least, lied to the jury when he denied raping the victim and only got 30 days in jail after he testified against Clay," Ms. Morrison said. "No reasonable jury today would believe a word he says, and without him, there's no case against Clay Chabot."

Read the full story here.
Read previous blog posts on the Chabot case.



Tags: Clay Chabot

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Hearing tomorrow in Colorado case; prosecutors may have known alternate suspect

Posted: August 22, 2007 12:54 pm

Two former Colorado prosecutors involved in the conviction of Timothy Masters had ties to the alternate suspect in the case, a defense lawyer said yesterday. The defense will present evidence of the relationship at a hearing on Thursday in the case, in which Masters is seeking to have his conviction overturned due to new analysis of questionable forensic evidence at his original trial.

Masters was convicted in 1999 of a murder 12 years earlier in his hometown. He was 15 at the time and the body of a classmate was found near the home he shared with his family. Masters’s "violent" drawings were a key piece of evidence against him at trial.

"I'm alarmed that there appears to be close relationships between the ex-prosecutors and the best suspect in this case," (Masters’s attorney) said Monday. "There are social, business and religious relationships I'm just now learning about, relationships that were never disclosed.

"If they had this conflict … they should have been disqualified from prosecuting Tim." Read the full story here. (Denver Post, 08/21/2007)




Tags: Timothy Masters

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Louisiana inmate finally secures access to DNA test

Posted: August 23, 2007 12:49 pm

After repeatedly requesting a DNA test to prove his innocence over the last 11 years, Innocence Project client Archie Williams was finally granted testing this week by a Louisiana appeals court. Williams, who is serving life in prison for a 1983 rape he says he didn’t commit, was identified by the victim in the case after she had viewed 17 photo lineups –  the last three of which included him.  (Williams’s was the only photo to appear in more than one photo array shown to the victim, which is improper.)

East Baton Rouge prosecutors said they would appeal Monday’s circuit court decision because they believed the identification in the case was valid and that DNA couldn’t prove innocence. Prosecutors have argued that the sperm cells in rape kit evidence in the case must have come from the victim’s husband, but the Innocence Project has countered in legal papers that DNA testing can identify and distinguish between the perpetrator and the husband.

Read more about the case in yesterday’s press release.

Read media coverage of the case in today’s Baton Rouge Advocate.



Tags: Archie Williams

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Barry Scheck discusses wrongful convictions on NPR

Posted: August 30, 2007 8:05 am

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, author Stuart Taylor and Oregon prosecutor Joshua Marquis joined National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show this morning to discuss prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions.

Taylor, a National Journal columnist, is the co-author of a new book, Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case, which is due to be released next week. The group discussed how prosecutorial misconduct and flawed eyewitness identification procedures have led to wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing.

Listen to the show here.

Taylor’s book is already generating discussion in the media and on blogs. Pre-order it at Amazon.com or read a media roundup in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Taylor discusses the first 205 people exonerated by DNA evidence in his recent National Journal column, Innocents In Prison.


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First day of freedom for Dwayne Dail

Posted: August 30, 2007 11:02 am

In his first full day as a free man, Dwayne Allen Dail spent time with family and talked with reporters about the 18 years he spent behind bars for a 1987 North Carolina rape he didn’t commit. He became the 207th person exonerated by DNA testing on Tuesday after a judge dismissed the charges against him. Evidence from his case believed for years to be destroyed was located recently in a closet at the Goldsboro, N.C. police department. Testing on the evidence proved another man had committed the attack on a 12-year-old girl for which Dail was serving life in prison.

"I never thought I could be convicted, I thought if you didn’t do anything, then you have nothing to worry about," Dail told reporters yesterday.

Watch a video interview with Dail and his son here. (WRAL, 08/30/2007)
And the prosecutor in the case said yesterday "it was every prosecutor's nightmare that you somehow participated in putting an innocent man in jail." Read the full story here. (WRAL, 08/29/07)

More media coverage of the case:

Editorial: The wrong man…
(The News & Observer, 08/30/2007)



Tags: Dwayne Dail

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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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New book examines Duke lacrosse case and prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: September 4, 2007 1:16 pm

Until Proven Innocent, a new book by Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson released today, examines the Duke University lacrosse case, in which three men were identified and charged in a rape, only for all charges to be dropped later due to evidence of their innocence. The prosecutor in the case, Michael Nifong, was disbarred and sentenced to one day in jail for his misconduct in the case.

Until Proven Innocent covers the Duke case and the broader problem of prosecutorial misconduct. Learn more about the book, and buy it online, at Amazon.com or read an excerpt on ABCNews.com.

Co-author Stuart Taylor, a National Journal columnist, appeared on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show on Thursday with Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and Oregon prosecutor Joshua Marquis. Listen to the show here.



Tags: Government Misconduct

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Mississippi man awaits a new trial after his release from death row

Posted: September 6, 2007 6:02 pm

Innocence Project client Kennedy Brewer has been on Mississippi’s death row for almost 15 years for the 1992 rape and murder of a young girl that DNA testing now shows he didn’t commit. Brewer was released from prison on bail on August 31 after DNA results showed he was not the source of evidence collected from the victim’s body. Prosecutors, however, have refused to compare the DNA from the crime scene to the state’s database and plan to retry Brewer for this crime. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld tells the New York Times today that Brewer’s case illustrates a justice system slow to adapt to the hard science of DNA testing.

"The Brewer case illustrates that there are two Mississippi criminal justice systems,” Mr. Neufeld said. “There’s the old system that hasn’t changed at all and the new system that is trying to take the Bill of Rights seriously."

Modern forensic tools do not appear to carry much weight in Noxubee County. (Prosecutor Forrest) Allgood said DNA reversals — there have been more than 200 nationwide — did not prove innocence. Read the full story. (New York Times, 09/06/07)




Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Innocence Project seeks DNA testing in case of man executed in Texas

Posted: September 7, 2007 2:24 pm

DNA testing can prove whether Claude Jones was wrongfully executed in Texas in 2000, and the Innocence Project joined several organizations in filing motions today seeking to prevent officials from destroying the only physical evidence in the case – a hair from the crime scene -- and seeking a court order to conduct DNA testing.

Testing on the hair could prove whether Jones was innocent or guilty of a 1989 murder in San Jacinto County, Texas, but officials have said they will not approve of DNA testing on the hair unless a court orders them to do so. The Texas Observer, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Texas Innocence Network joined the Innocence Project in filing the motions today.

“The San Jacinto District Attorney, who was one of the prosecutors during Claude Jones’ trial, told us this week that he will not agree to DNA testing without a court order. We are asking for an emergency order from the court that will mandate testing and prevent officials from destroying this evidence in the meantime,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “The public has a right to know whether Claude Jones actually committed the crime for which he was executed, and whether a serious breakdown in the state’s legal and political process led to a wrongful execution. Public confidence in the criminal justice system is at stake.”

Read the full Innocence Project press release here
.

Read the story from today’s Texas Observer.



Tags: Texas, Death Penalty, Claude Jones

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California legislature passes reforms to prevent wrongful convictions

Posted: September 7, 2007 5:25 pm

This week, the California legislature approved three bills including significant reforms to prevent future wrongful convictions in the state. All three are now awaiting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s signature. He vetoed two similar bills last year, citing “drafting errors.”

The bills’ authors say the drafting issues have been addressed and they called today on the governor to sign the bills immediately. The first of the three bills passed this week would require that law enforcement agencies record interrogations of suspects, starting with Miranda warnings. This reform, already employed by several states, would prevent false confessions and help prosecutors and police officers do their jobs.

The second bill would require the state’s Attorney General to create new guidelines for law enforcement agencies to conduct eyewitness identification procedures according to accepted best practices. Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction.

The third bill would require prosecutors to present corroborating evidence before allowing a jailhouse informant to testify against a defendant.

An op-ed by three California lawmakers in today’s San Jose Mercury-News calls on Gov. Schwarzenegger to sign these vital bills:

Working to free innocent people wrongly imprisoned is a long process, often taken up by volunteer attorneys and law students who can serve only a small fraction of those who need assistance. This trio of bills would curb the most common causes of wrongful convictions and protect defendants, police, victims and the state.

Read the full story. (San Jose Mercury News, 09/07/07)
View a map of reforms underway nationwide here.

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Column: Georgia public defenders woefully underfunded

Posted: September 11, 2007 3:48 pm

Two weeks ago, the director of the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office resigned, saying that the office could not adequately represent clients facing the death penalty with the budget provided by the state. And in a column in yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ACLU death penalty stategist Christopher Hill argues that Georgia’s problems are not unique. Public defenders offices are underfunded nationwide, and those charged with capital cases are no better off.

Defendants are fighting for their lives during capital trials. The Constitution guarantees effective lawyers and a fair trial — that means lawyers with the time, resources and skill to properly represent them. It also means expert assistance, access to technology and investigators. All of this costs money. As things now stand, adequate resources are sorely lacking in many parts of the country. As a result, the death penalty is too often reserved not for the "worst" offenders, but for those defendants with the worst lawyers.

Read the full column here. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 09/10/07)
Bad and overburdened lawyers are a major cause of wrongful conviction, in capital and non-capital cases. Hill mentions cases in which attorneys slept through trials, drank four martinis at lunch, and failed to offer evidence of innocence. Read more about how bad lawyers and underfunded public defense offices can lead to wrongful convictions.
More recent coverage of public defense shortages nationwide:

Seattle Op-Ed: Mayor said to be ignoring court crisis

Wisconsin short of prosecutors, judges and public defenders while prison funding rises


New Mexico needs 45 more public defenders to meet caseload




Tags: Bad Lawyering

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Michigan DA to reopen murder case

Posted: September 13, 2007 10:40 am

The Lansing, Michigan, district attorney said yesterday he would reopen the case of Claude McCollum, a man who says he was wrongfully convicted of killing a 60-year-old woman in 2005. Biological evidence from an unknown male – not McCollum – was collected from under the victim’s fingernails in the case for which McCollum was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. McCollum was convicted, in part, because he told police during an interrogation how he might have committed the crime while sleepwalking. In a number of DNA exoneration cases, defendants were convicted partly based on “dream statements” or hypothetical accounts of how they might have committed the crime.

Now, McCollum’s attorney is requesting that the DNA evidence from his case be compared with the sample of another man, who was arrested in late August and has been charged with committing a separate murder and a rape. Police have said this man is connected to at least six other murders from 2004 to 2007. The Lansing district attorney said investigators would reconsider evidence in McCollum’s case.

"Whether or not I end up believing this information or not, in order for (McCollum) to have a fair hearing, the matter needs to be investigated and brought to the attention of the Court of Appeals," (County Prosecutor Stuart Dunning said) “If somebody got wrongfully convicted, I want to be the first person to correct that."

Read the full story here. (Lansing State Journal, 09/12/07)


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Colorado Governor creates evidence preservation task force

Posted: September 14, 2007 1:21 pm

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter this week announced the creation of a 21-member task force to examine how state law enforcement officials collect and preserve evidence and to make recommendations on potential policy reforms. A four-day Denver Post series in July investigated cases nationwide in which evidence had been lost or mishandled, and an editorial in yesterday’s Denver Post calls on the new task force to create strong state standards for evidence preservation.

Colorado does not have a comprehensive set of rules governing evidence preservation. Each police department and sheriff's office has been left to set up its own guidelines for preserving evidence in criminal cases.The panel the governor has named includes a variety of professionals who have an in-depth understanding of the criminal prosecution and legislative processes. They include current and former defense attorneys and prosecutors, lawmakers, a former judge and various law enforcement and public safety officials.

It's a strong group, and we look forward to seeing the solutions they craft.

Read the full editorial here. (09/13/2007)
Does your state have a statewide evidence preservation law? View our map to find out.



Tags: Evidence Preservation

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DNA proves Dallas man didn’t commit 1982 crime

Posted: September 17, 2007 11:01 am

Innocence Project client Steven Phillips has been in prison for 25 years for a series of sex crimes in Dallas, Texas, that has always maintained he didn’t commit. Now DNA evidence proves he is innocent of the rape for which he was convicted by a jury. The rape case is the only one for which biological evidence exists that can be subjected to DNA testing.  He would later plead guilty to several other crimes believed to have been committed by the same man. The evidence supports this theory, and a judge could clear Phillips of all of the related crimes.

Phillips is the first person to be cleared of wrongdoing by DNA tests ordered by District Attorney Craig Watkins, who took office in January. If exonerated, Phillips would be the 14th person from Dallas County since 2001 to be exonerated based on DNA testing…

Ms. Morrison said although there is no DNA evidence in those other cases, he could be cleared in those, too.
"From the very beginning, the police said all of these crimes were committed by the same man," Ms. Morrison said. "DNA now proves Steven Phillips was not that man."

But Mr. Ware said the district attorney's office is not prepared to agree Mr. Phillips did not commit the other crimes. Prosecutors are still investigating the cases to which he pleaded guilty.

"If the police were correct, that it was one person ... then it could impact those cases," Mr. Ware said.
The issue may ultimately be decided by a judge, he said.

DNA evidence can exonerate someone for related crimes that were committed by the same person even if there is DNA for only one of them, the Innocence Project said.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 09/17/07)
Read about the 13 people exonerated by DNA evidence to date in Dallas County.




Tags: Steven Phillips

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New study calls for prosecutors to open files before trial

Posted: September 19, 2007 12:15 pm

A study released this week by the Justice Project calls for a nationwide expansion in the sharing of evidence between prosecutors and defense attorneys before criminal trials. The study’s authors say that improving discovery (file sharing) procedures would prevent wrongful convictions by ensuring that exculpatory evidence is not withheld from defense attorneys.

Some states, including North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, and Arizona, have passed laws expanding discovery, but this week’s report calls for all states to make this reform a priority.

Edwin Colfax, the Justice Project’s Director of State Campaigns, wrote yesterday on the Texas Kaos blog that Texas is among the states most desperately in need of discovery reform.

Adequate discovery supports the bedrock constitutional principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. Expanding discovery prior to trial is a cost-effective way to ensure that the right people are being put behind bars as quickly as possible.  Public safety is not served when innocent people are incarcerated and the guilty remain at large with the potential to commit more crimes.

Read the full blog post. (Texas Kaos, 09/18/07)
Download the full report and read more background on the Justice Project’s website.

More Texas blog posts on open discovery:
Grits for Breakfast I Was the State
 

Several wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing were caused, in part, by prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys. In the case of Roy Brown, prosecutors had evidence before Brown’s trial suggesting that another man had committed the crime, but those documents were not given to defense attorneys.

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Discussion of new discovery laws on Texas blog

Posted: September 20, 2007 11:53 am

The Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast is the home of a lively discussion today on the recent Justice Project report advocating open file sharing between prosecutors and defense attorneys in criminal cases.

Galveston Judge Susan Criss writes today that she requires both sides to share more documents than the law requires:

I read what you wrote in (Grits for Breakfast) about discovery in criminal cases. I make both the prosecutor & defense attorney enter into an agreed discovery order when they come to court for their status conference to set the trial date. This is either the first or second appearance they make. If they do not sign it, or just one side signs it, I enter the order anyway.
Everyone knows this discovery is ordered in every case. And they know I will enforce it. I got input from several prosecutors & defense attorneys when I drafted it. If they have something unusual that is not provided for in the order, the defense can file a motion & have a hearing.
Read the full blog post, download Criss’s agreement document and make a comment. (Grits for Breakfast, 09/20/2007)
Download the Justice Project report, or read yesterday’s Innocence Blog post on open file discovery.

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DNA leads to Florida man's release

Posted: September 21, 2007 3:50 pm

After more than 19 years in prison, Larry Bostic is a free man today. He says he was coerced into pleading guilty in 1989 to a rape he didn’t commit, and now DNA testing has proven his innocence. Although Bostic only had 13 days remaining in prison, he was released on house arrest Tuesday and his sentence was vacated this morning by a Broward County judge.

Bostic told reporters today that he’s lucky his family stuck with him through the ordeal. He said he is staying with his sister in Fort Lauderdale.

More than a year ago, Bostic filed a handwritten motion asking for DNA testing of the rape kit and the victim's underwear. Such testing was not available in 1988. Bostic's motion also said he had been "coerced" into pleading guilty by the prosecutor and his own court-appointed lawyer. The DNA results came back Aug. 30. The report said Bostic was excluded as a contributor to a semen sample from a vaginal swab.

But that alone would not clear Bostic, his attorney Sandler said earlier. It would be necessary to make sure the victim had not had sex with anyone else in the days prior to the rape, because if she had, it could taint the semen sample, Sandler said.

That assurance came this week when the rape victim told an investigator for the public defender's office there had been no sexual contact just before the rape, Sandler said.

She also told the investigator that she never saw her rapist, Sandler said earlier. She picked Bostic out of a photo line-up because she remembered seeing him, a stranger, in the vicinity of the rape a few days earlier, Sandler said.

Read the full story and watch video of Bostic here. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 09/21/07)
Read about other Florida cases in which DNA proved innocence here.



Tags: Larry Bostic

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Michigan man may get new trial, 2 years after conviction

Posted: September 24, 2007 4:13 pm

A Michigan county prosecutor has asked a judge to grant a new trial to Claude McCollum, who was convicted two years ago of a rape and assault on the campus of Lansing Community College in Michigan. McCollum has always maintained his innocence and has said that his alleged confession was coerced by police asking if he could have hypothetically committed the crime. DNA evidence from the crime scene was shown at trial to exclude McCollum and come from an unknown male.

New evidence in the case has led County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings to join McCollum’s attorney is asking for a new trial, officials said. This is the first time Dunnings has asked for a retrial after a conviction. Dunnings has not spoken publicly about the nature of the new evidence, and says it is “totally independent” of charges filed recently against another man in similar assaults.

"As the evidence became more developed, and another piece popped up, I felt that the evidence was of such a compelling nature that a jury had to hear it," said Dunnings, who reopened the investigation Sept. 11. "One of the responsibilities of a prosecutor is to see that people receive justice and a fair trial, and not just to convict people."

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 09/22/07)
Read previous blog posts on the McCollum case.

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Court grants new trial in Michigan; task force calls for recording of interrogations

Posted: September 25, 2007 11:06 am

A Michigan judge yesterday granted a new trial to Claude McCollum, who was convicted two years ago of a rape and assault he says he didn’t commit. The county prosecutor joined with McCollum’s attorney on Friday in asking the court to grant a new trial based on new evidence. The Lansing State Journal is now reporting that a videotape has surfaced that may show McCollum on a different part of the Lansing Community College campus when the assault took place in a classroom.

Attorney Hugh Clarke Jr., who said he is planning to represent McCollum, was pleased with the court's ruling.
"It doesn't surprise me how fast they acted, given the potential injustice inflicted on Mr. McCollum at the hands of the government," he said.

Read the full story here. (Lansing State Journal, 09/25/07)
McCollum says he told police hypothetically that he could have committed the crime while sleepwalking. This admission contributed to McCollum’s conviction, and only part of the interrogation was recorded. He says he repeatedly denied involvement in the crime, but those statements do not appear on the videotape.

A task force formed by the State Bar of Michigan has called for legislation mandating the recording of interrogations statewide. Although recording of interrogations has been shown to prevent false confessions – a factor in 25 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing – there is currently no Michigan law requiring that law enforcement agencies record any part of any interrogation.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have some statewide requirement for recording of interrogations. Is yours one? View our map to find out.

Learn more about reforms underway to require the recording of custodial interrogation and prevent false confessions.

Read more coverage of this case in a blog post by false confession expert Steve Drizin at the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago.

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Former prosecutor calls for governor to sign California bills

Posted: September 26, 2007 3:03 pm

Three bills awaiting the signature of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would reform the state’s criminal justice system to provent wrongful convictions. In an op-ed in today’s Sacramento Bee, former federal prosecutor Thomas Sullivan calls for the state to improve its justice system for all parties involved.

I have sat on both sides of the table -- prosecuting crimes as a U.S. attorney and representing the accused as a defense lawyer. This broad experience has shown me that if we can bolster the reliability of evidence in the courtroom, we can strengthen our system of justice for everyone's benefit. California now has a vehicle for that brand of change with three significant bills. If enacted, the trio would enhance the overall accuracy of evidence -- and ensure that California heeds the lessons of (wrongful convictions).

Read the full column here. (Sacramento Bee, 09/26/07)
Read more about the pending bills in our previous blog post.

Watch a video of California exoneree Herman Atkins, explaining how these reforms would prevent others from suffering the injustice he did.




Tags: California, Herman Atkins, False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, Informants/Snitches

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Editorial: Public deserves to know if innocent man was executed

Posted: October 3, 2007 4:55 pm

An upcoming hearing in San Jacinto County, Texas, will determine whether DNA testing can proceed in the case of Claude Jones, who was executed in 2000 for allegedly killing a liquor store clerk during a robbery. Jones was convicted based on the similarity of a hair from the crime scene to his hair and the testimony of another man who admitted a role in the crime in exchange for a lighter sentence (that man has since signed a sworn affidavit saying his testimony against Jones was not true).  Jones always claimed he was innocent.

Last month, the Innocence Project joined with the Texas Observer and other innocence organizations in Texas in filing motions asking the state to preserve the hair evidence and to allow DNA testing to proceed in the case. Oral arguments will be heard on the motions at an upcoming hearing.

And an editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News calls on a state judge and prosecutors to allow testing that could determine whether a miscarriage of justice has occurred. The public has a right to know if a person was wrongfully executed in Texas, the paper says.

The case in San Jacinto County, north of Houston, would be the first time hair analysis had been exposed as faulty after a defendant's death. County officials must be prepared for the fallout if the initial test proves wrong. After all, we need to know everything we can about cases prosecutors depicted as airtight.
Prosecutors argue that they brought evidence against the accused in addition to the hair analysis, including crucial testimony from an accomplice who was out to cut a deal. The DNA tests could lead to a rough debate over whether such self-serving testimony should have been enough to send a man to his death. (The accomplice got 10 years.)
Read the full editorial here. (Dallas Morning News, 10/03/2007)
Read a recent Houston Chronicle article on the case.

Read the Innocence Project press release.




Tags: Death Penalty, Claude Jones

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Media coverage: Houston man proven innocent 12 years later

Posted: October 4, 2007 1:05 pm

DNA testing has proven that Ronnie Taylor did not commit the Houston rape of which he was convicted in 1995. His Innocence Project attorneys are now working with prosecutors to secure his release from prison as soon as possible. Read the press release here.

Read and watch media coverage of the DNA results clearing Taylor.

Houston Chronicle: Mix-up on DNA deals HPD lab another blow

Associated Press: DA's office says DNA testing shows man innocent of rape

VIDEO: KHCW  — DNA evidence clears prisoner of sexual assault

VIDEO: ABC13 — DNA testing proves inmate innocent

VIDEO: KHOU — Innocent man serves 12 years for rape

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The Ronnie Taylor case: A chain of errors and a path to reform

Posted: October 15, 2007 3:51 pm

In 1994, when Ronnie Taylor had been in a Houston jail for a year awaiting a rape trial, he wrote a note to the judge: "I've set here for over one year without bond on charges I didn't commit. As each day passes it gets harder and harder.”

He was wrongfully convicted in 1995 and it was over 5,000 difficult days later – last Tuesday – that he finally walked free after DNA testing proved his innocence. An article in the Houston Chronicle this weekend uncovers the errors that led to Taylor’s wrongful conviction, and an editorial calls for immediate reform in Taylor’s name.

Taylor was convicted based on shoddy police work, a questionable eyewitness identification and a major error by the scandal-plagued Houston crime lab. Hours after the crime, the police had the street name of the man who is now implicated in the crime by a DNA match. Instead, they pursued Taylor and charged him after the questionable identification.

As the case against Taylor unraveled, leading to his release from prison last week, weaknesses throughout the investigation have become clear, according to a review of police and court documents.

Read the investigative report here. (Houston Chronicle, 10/14/07)
After Taylor’s release last Tuesday, he went straight to a Houston City Council meeting to ask officials to take action to ensure that no more innocent victims of crime lab error remain behind bars in Texas. The Chronicle pointed out this weekend that it has been five years since errors were first uncovered at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab, and yet hundreds of cases have never received a second look. The editorial praised a group of Houston judges for taking action last week by forming a panel to study 180 convictions for possible lab error. But private groups in Houston must work together to ensure that this effort is well staffed and moves quickly.
Among these inmates might be more Houstonians like Ronald Taylor: innocent men and women for whom each day behind bars is another robbed from their lives.

This is why it's so urgent to re-examine these documented miscarriages of justice. It's also why the job requires expert, disinterested professionals. Some judges presiding over the case reviews were prosecutors on some of the very cases in question.

The new panel must be able to publicly account for its progress by January. Ronald Gene Taylor should not have to wait one day longer to see Houston pursuing justice

Read the full editorial here. (Houston Chronicle, 10/14/07)


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Michigan man freed amid doubts about his guilt

Posted: October 17, 2007 12:23 pm

Claude McCollum, who had been incarcerated since 2005 for a murder he says he didn’t commit, walked out of a Lansing, Michigan, jail yesterday after prosecutors asked a judge to throw out the conviction due to new evidence in the case. McCollum was arrested in 2005 and convicted in 2006 for allegedly killing a professor on the campus of Lansing Community College. The judge decided this week McCollum could wear an electronic monitoring device instead of being held on bond. State Police officials told reporters yesterday that the new evidence is a confession from another man, who is also facing charges in at least five other murders.

McCollum, 30, was convicted based partially on statements he allegedly made to police about how he could have committed the crime while sleepwalking. DNA evidence from the crime scene was shown at trial to exclude McCollum and come from an unknown male. Officials have not disclosed whether this biological evidence has been compared to the profile of the new suspect.

After his release Tuesday, McCollum, 30, told reporters: "It was one of the greatest feelings in the world. There was a time when I had doubts, but something told me things were going to work out, and that I'll finally see this day."


Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 10/17/07)
Read previous blog posts about this case.

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Dispatch from Dallas: The waiting continues for Clay Chabot

Posted: October 19, 2007 4:11 pm

By: Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project Staff Attorney

Yesterday I sat in a Dallas jail visiting room with Clay Chabot, discussing with him the likelihood that he would not be released after his hearing in a Dallas courtroom this morning. He has been waiting 21 years to prove his innocence, he said, and he would wait a little bit longer.

This morning a judge granted the joint request of the Innocence Project and the Dallas District Attorney’s office to throw out Clay’s conviction based on the new DNA evidence that Clay’s brother-in-law committed the crime. We had asked that Clay be released on bail to rejoin his family in Ohio, but that decision is pending until another hearing, which is set for next Friday.

After this morning’s hearing I spent time with Clay’s brother Mark and his longtime friend Anna, who have been waiting two decades for Clay to rejoin them at home. Clay’s two sisters and his 23-year-old son, who was an infant when he was arrested, are among the family members waiting for Clay in Ohio. Family and friends are the most important support system an exoneree can have, and when Clay is released he will be welcomed home by a wonderful group of people who have stood by him for a long time. We hope this day comes soon.

Dallas has had more wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing than any other country in the nation. When he is finally freed and his name cleared, Clay will join 13 other Dallas exonerees. This is a reprehensible record, but the future for criminal justice in Dallas looks promising. Prosecutors have committed to reviewing hundreds of cases in which there may be the possibility of biological evidence to prove innocence – or confirm guilt. In January, the Dallas Police Department will begin participating in a major study of eyewitness identification practices that could reduce the number of misidentifications (11 of the 13 DNA exonerations in Dallas County were caused, at least in part, by misidentifications).

While Clay’s case is currently receiving a thorough review, we are hopeful that prosecutors and judges will do the right thing and set him free. The main evidence against him at trial was the testimony of his brother-in-law Jerry Pabst, who is now implicated by a DNA match in the case. Pabst testified at Chabot’s trial that they were at the victim’s house together and that Chabot committed the crime. The DNA evidence now proves that Pabst lied on the stand to protect himself, and there is not a shred of evidence indicating that Chabot was with him. Chabot has said for 21 years that he was asleep with his wife and infant son on the night of the murder.

Clay Chabot and his family and friends will remain strong as they wait for a final decision in his case. But for his sake, let’s hope his family is reunited soon.




Tags: Dispatches, Clay Chabot

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Houston convictions reopened due to possible lab error

Posted: October 23, 2007 5:05 pm

Houston prosecutors met with 19 inmates at a Texas state prison Monday to offer them a state-appointed legal representative to review possible lab errors in their case. Between now and Nov. 1, this option will be presented to 180 defendants whose convictions involved questionable serology testing at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab.

Prosecutor Marie Munier said the review might find that the serology lab work played very little in the conviction of an inmate.

“The question is do we have anyone in there that faulty serology work played a part or has someone that is innocent in prison. That’s the issue I’m concerned with,” she said.

Read the full story here. (KHOU, 10/22/07)
This review stems from a two-year independent audit of the lab, completed in June, that found hundreds of cases in need of review based on possible forensic error. The Innocence Project has identified more than 400 cases in need of immediate review and called upon Houston officials and private organizations to work together to address all of the cases.  The Innocence Project and local and state leaders maintain that the cases cannot be truly addressed unless independent attorneys with access to forensic expertise review them.

Read about the case of Ronnie Taylor, who was released Oct. 9 after DNA evidence proved his innocence of a rape for which he had served 12 years in prison. An error at the Houston crime lab contributed to Taylor’s wrongful conviction, and after his release he went straight to the Houston City Council to call for systemic reforms to review possible wrongful convictions and prevent future injustice.

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Charges dismissed in Michigan case

Posted: October 24, 2007 5:25 pm

Claude McCollum, of Lansing, Michigan, spent nearly two years of a life sentence in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. He was released from prison Oct. 16 on bond after prosecutors discovered “powerful evidence” of his innocence, and a Michigan judge today dismissed the charges against him at the prosecutor’s request.

Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said at a news conference this afternoon, "It's horrible for an innocent man to be convicted."

Asked what he would say to McCollum, Dunnings said, "I wish him well. And I sincerely mean that."

“The prosecutor’s office has finally awakened, and this man’s problem has come to an end,” McCollum’s attorney, Hugh Clarke Jr., said minutes after learning about the dismissal.
Read the full story here. (Lansing State Journal, 10/24/07)
Read more background on the case in previous blog posts.

 

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Virginia editorial: Crime lab review should be transparent

Posted: October 25, 2007 4:35 pm

After DNA testing on biological evidence discovered in the files of a long-retired Virginia forensic analyst led to the exoneration of five innocent people between 2002 and 2005, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner ordered a systematic review of possible DNA cases in the state lab. Officials say that review is moving forward, but the procedures have not been made public.

An editorial in today’s Virginian-Pilot calls for more transparency from the lab and prosecutors regarding their methods of reviewing cases for possible exculpatory evidence.

Lab leaders have sought assistance from local prosecutors in gathering information about the original crimes in each case. But an obvious bias exists if prosecutors are helping to decide whether a criminal case should be re-opened….Those convicted of the crimes have a right to know if new questions are being raised about their guilt, or alternatively if their guilt has been confirmed by new evidence.

 Read the full editorial here. (Virginian-Pilot, 10/25/07)
Lab officials announced last week that the first batch of 66 cases had been analyzed, and that two convicted defendants would be notified that their DNA was not found in the evidence from their case.

Read the full story here
. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 10/22/07)

While searching for evidence in the case of Marvin Anderson, Virginia lab officials discovered that retired analyst Mary Jane Burton had been saving samples of biological evidence in her files. Anderson was exonerated by tests on the evidence in 2002, and the other four men exonerated by these samples were Julius Earl Ruffin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Phillip Leon Thurman and Willie Davidson.

 



Tags: Marvin Anderson, Willie Davidson, Julius Ruffin, Phillip Leon Thurman, Arthur Lee Whitfield

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Dallas District Attorney and Barry Scheck speak Monday at NYC event

Posted: October 26, 2007 2:10 pm

On Monday, October 29, New Yorkers will have the chance to hear directly from Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck and two prosecutors who have been active in uncovering wrongful convictions in their counties and taking steps to prevent future injustice. Keynote speaker Craig Watkins will discuss his experiences in his first year as the District Attorney for Dallas County, Texas, which has seen more wrongful convictions overturned by DNA than any other county in the nation. Scheck will join Janet DiFiore (District Attorney for Westchester County, New York) and New York Lt. Gov. David Patterson for a panel discussion on reforms proposed in New York to prevent future wrongful convictions.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Harvard Club at 8 a.m. on Monday, October 29. Click here for details and to RSVP.

Read more about an Innocence Project report issued last week on the 23 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA New York State and the critical reforms needed to address the problem.

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Exoneration becomes campaign issue for prosecutors

Posted: November 1, 2007 12:45 pm

When the Innocence Project appealed Douglas Warney’s Rochester, New York, murder conviction in 2004, prosecutors opposed his right to DNA testing and a judge ruled against Warney. Meanwhile, the prosecution proceeded to conduct the testing in secret. DNA tests proved Warney’s innocence and matched the profile of a man in prison for other crimes. This man admitted that he had committed the murder for which Warney was wrongfully convicted, and Warney was freed in 2006.

Rochester District Attorney Michael Green told reporters recently that he is “extremely proud of the way that we handled that case.” But Carla Biggs, who is challenging Green in the county’s election for district attorney on Nov. 6, said she believed Green’s office had botched the case by opposing testing and then conducting the tests anyway.

"There's never a reason to hide from the truth," Briggs said.

Read the full story here. (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 11/01/07)
Read more about Warney’s case here.





Tags: Douglas Warney

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California lab report finds no error, Neufeld calls findings “hopelessly compromised”

Posted: November 2, 2007 3:28 pm

Officials announced this week that an internal investigation of alleged errors at the Santa Clara County, California, crime lab has cleared a lab technician of wrongdoing. The district attorney’s internal report was sparked by the Northern California Innocence Project’s allegation that a lab analyst had testified falsely about chemical analysis in the case of Jeffrey Rodriguez, who spent five years in prison for a robbery he says he didn’t commit. Rodriguez was freed last year amid significant evidence of his innocence.

In an article in today’s San Jose Mercury News, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld calls the district attorney’s report “hopelessly compromised,” because it was not an independent review by an outside agency. A federal program provides funding for forensic labs if they can show that they have a process in place to independently investigate allegations of serious negligence or misconduct. The Innocence Project has said that an internal investigation does not meet this standard.

The internal report, conducted by district attorney investigator Gil Vizzusi, appears to minimize Moriyama's errors - suggesting they were simply imprecise testimony - and states that Rodriguez's innocence "has not been established."

The attorney who succeeded in overturning Rodriguez's conviction, Irma Castillo, called the report "really troubling to me." …

(Innocence Project Co-Director) Peter Neufeld contended that Carr's office had a vested interest in upholding the science of the lab because (lab analyst Mark) Moriyama's examinations were used in scores of Santa Clara County cases.

Read the full story here. (San Jose Mercury News, 11/02/07)

More background:

The Santa Clara County Bar Association is hosting a special meeting today with local prosecutors and defense attorneys on the topic of forensic testing.

Innocence Project Research Analyst Gabriel S. Oberfield wrote an Innocence Blog post last week on crime lab oversight commissions and investigations.

Read more about crime lab oversight in our Fix the System section.



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Oklahoma District Attorney Bill Peterson to retire

Posted: November 6, 2007 10:41 am

Bill Peterson, the lead prosecutor in the trials that sent two innocent Oklahoma men to prison – one to death row – in 1988, announced yesterday that he plans to retire after January 1, 2008.

Peterson, who has been the district attorney for Pontotoc, Seminole and Hughes Counties in Oklahoma since 1980, will not finish his term, which had three years remaining. He was the lead prosecutor in the convictions of Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson, who were wrongfully convicted in 1988 of the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma. Two other men convicted by Peterson’s office, Thomas Ward and Karl Fontenot, are serving life in prison for a murder they say they didn’t commit.

Read the news coverage of Peterson’s announcement. (Ada Evening News, 11/05/07)

The cases of Fritz and Williamson are the subject of John Grisham’s recent book, “The Innocent Man,” and Fritz’s own book, “Journey Toward Justice.”

Read more about the cases of Thomas Ward and Karl Fontenot.




Tags: Dennis Fritz, Ron Williamson

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Editorial: Questions remain at California crime lab

Posted: November 9, 2007 12:19 pm

An editorial in today’s San Jose Mercury News calls for labs in the state to follow the intent of a federal law that requires independent investigations of allegations of forensic wrongdoing. A recent internal investigation at the Santa Clara County lab was “an inherent conflict,” the editorial says. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld has called the lab’s internal investigation “hopelessly compromised.”

In a case involving the imprisonment of a man falsely convicted of armed robbery, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office took the convenient path by ordering its own investigators to review allegations of errors by the county crime lab. In turning the matter over to her own Bureau of Investigations, District Attorney Dolores Carr apparently met the letter of federal law. But her decision certainly ran counter to common-sense reading of Congress' intent and the spirit of the law. The county crime lab reports to Carr, and prosecutors and crime lab examiners work closely together, so there was an inherent conflict.

Read the full editorial here.
Read a previous post on Santa Clara’s crime lab investigation.

Innocence Project Research Analyst Gabriel Oberfield wrote recently on the Innocence Blog that Texas was taking a step toward true independent crime lab oversight with the state’s newly funded Forensic Science Commission. Read his post here.



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Dispatch from Philadelphia: Why I tell my story

Posted: November 9, 2007 12:45 pm

By David Shephard, Exoneree; President, Northeast Council on the Wrongfully Convicted

Twenty-three years ago I was convicted in New Jersey of a horrible rape I didn’t commit, simply because I worked at the Newark airport, near where the victim’s stolen car was found. I was in prison for almost a decade before DNA testing proved my innocence and led to my release. I was 32 years old and I walked into a changed world. I had to rebuild old relationships. I had to look for a job and explain what I had been doing during my twenties. It wasn’t easy.

Now I’ve been out for 12 years and I’m proud to say I live a happy and productive life. I have a beautiful family, I work hard at my county’s Department of Citizen Services and, whenever I can, I tell anyone who will listen about my case and the causes of wrongful conviction. This morning I’m writing from Philadelphia, where I joined Innocence Project Executive Director Maddy deLone on a panel at the 29th annual conference of the National Association of Women Judges. I’m excited to be here, because telling my story is one of the most important contributions I can make to the innocence movement.

I tell my story because people in this country still have too much faith in our broken criminal justice system. They watch TV and they think the courts are just like they seem in “Law & Order.” I can tell you from experience that they aren’t. I’ve spoken to thousands of people over the years, and many of them already knew about the problem of wrongful convictions before they met me. I’ve learned, however, that they don’t really feel the depths of the issue until they meet an exoneree. It doesn’t have to be me – it can be anyone who has been through the minefield of wrongful conviction. I was speaking in southern New Jersey last week and during my speech I saw faces changing from skeptical to intrigued to devoted. Events around the world are often posted on this blog. If you read about an exoneree’s speech in your town, go hear it. You won’t regret it.

This morning, I spoke to an audience of judges from across the country, all of whom have firsthand knowledge of how our justice system works. But even among this group of insiders, I was the first exoneree many have met in person. And the same holds true for anyone I meet: you can read about this problem all you want, but until it has a human face, it isn’t real.

During this morning’s panel, I told the audience that every inmate with a valid claim of innocence should have access to DNA testing. Why should we have this all-powerful science and not use it? It’s a tragedy that eight states still don’t have laws allowing inmates to apply for DNA testing when it can prove innocence. Even in many of the 42 states with DNA access laws, defendants are still often denied access due to technicalities. If the prosecutor in my case hadn’t agreed to test the evidence, I might not be writing this today. But this issue is bigger than me, it’s bigger than the 208 DNA exonerees. It’s a national problem and we need a national standard for DNA testing access. I told my story this morning, and I will continue to speak out, because there are more innocent people behind bars and we shouldn’t rest until they are free.

David Shephard was exonerated in New Jersey in 1995. He lives with his family in Newark, New Jersey, and serves as the Founding President of the Northeast Council of the Wrongfully Convicted. Learn more about his case here.





Tags: David Shephard, Access to DNA Testing, Dispatches

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DNA tests planned in Colorado man’s exoneration bid

Posted: November 14, 2007 12:46 pm

Tim Masters has been in prison since 1999 for a murder he says he didn’t commit, and the DNA tests he has been requesting are finally scheduled. Masters was 15 when his classmate was murdered in 1987. When he was convicted of the murder 12 years later, his “violent” drawings from high school were key evidence against him.

Now, prosecutors say they are ready to move forward with DNA testing on evidence collected from an alternate suspect, who may have also had ties with prosecutors in the Masters conviction.

Defense attorneys and members of the public have criticized police and prosecutors in the Masters case, and Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson said this week that he feels his office has been unfairly attacked.

"It just needs to be emphasized that our position has always been that we want to do what's right. We want the truth to be known. But there is a process for that, rules for that," Abrahamson said. "We did everything we feel was proper and legal. It's an accusation. Just because we're accused of doing something doesn't mean we've done something wrong."

Read the full article (Fort Collins Coloradoan, 11/14/2007)
Read about the pending DNA tests in this case. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, 11/5/2007)

Read a previous blog post on Tim Masters’ case.



Tags: Timothy Masters

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Another misidentification conviction prevented

Posted: November 14, 2007 12:53 pm

Stories on this blog often focus on wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, including more than 150 convictions based on faulty eyewitness identification. We don’t often write about the thousands of cases in which a suspect is arrested and charged but cleared before trial when DNA or other evidence proves their innocence. These cases are the close calls that could have become wrongful convictions, and they number in the thousands. In a National Institute of Justice study of 10,000 cases in the 1990s, 25 percent of suspects were cleared before trial by DNA tests. How many defendants didn’t have additional evidence to refute a questionable eyewitness identification or unreliable science?

The case of Richard Houston Jr. in Modesto, California, illustrates the power of eyewitness identification to lead to a wrongful arrest. Houston spent 55 days in the county jail waiting for trial on an armed robbery he didn’t commit after an eyewitness said he was “100 percent sure” he saw Houston in the dark from 125 feet away with his shirt pulled over his nose. He identified Houston in a “show-up” procedure on the night of the crime, where police brought the eyewitness to the house where they found Houston, pulled Houston’s shirt over his nose and shined lights on him for the eyewitness.

A district attorney, however, watched a surveillance videotape recently from a store where the victim saw the gunman. The tape showed that Houston could not have been the perpetrator and Houston was released after serving nearly two months in jail.

"I felt reborn when I walked through the gate," said Houston, 20, about his release from the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center. Houston splits his time between Modesto, where his stepmother lives, and his father's home in Stockton. "I spent 55 days in jail. That time's double when you're in there for nothing."
While cases like Houston’s illustrate that eyewitness identification can often be unreliable, prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree on whether they prove that the system is broken, or that it works.
For the wrongfully accused who wind up in Houston's shoes in Stanislaus County, there's a chance their innocence could be overlooked. In her experience, situations such as Houston's happen at least several times a year, said Martha J. Carlton-Magaña, a Modesto defense attorney who worked for the Stanislaus County public defender's office for two decades before retiring in April. It's impossible to know for sure how often this happens, because DNA evidence, which isn't available in most cases, is the primary tool for exonerations.

"Our system is broken in this county because we don't have the checks and balances in place that we should," she said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said Houston's release shows the opposite.
"As much as possible, we can't have people in jail who did not commit crimes. When it happens, we want to find out as soon as possible," he said. "In all honesty, you have to say the system as a whole worked, even though he had to spend some time in jail."
Read the full story here. (Modesto Bee, 11/13/2007)
Read more about eyewitness identification as a cause of wrongful conviction.



Tags: Eyewitness Misidentification

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Dispatch from Louisville, Kentucky: Statewide Conference Examines Innocence Issues

Posted: November 16, 2007 4:10 pm

By Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project Policy Analyst

I’m writing from Louisville, Kentucky, where today I addressed attendees at “Advancing Justice,” a statewide conference on criminal justice reform issues. Hosted by the University of Louisville, and co-sponsored by the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, the University of Kentucky College of Law and Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety, today’s conference should be a national model for opening dialogue on critical reforms with all key stakeholders in a state’s criminal justice community.

The conference organizers ensured lively conversations throughout the day by bringing together a diverse group of professionals committed to the integrity of Kentucky’s criminal justice process. Attendees included judges, law enforcement professionals, legislators, lawyers from both sides of the table, civic leaders, victims’ rights advocates and members of the innocence community. I am inspired by the energy they all bring to the process of criminal justice reform in Kentucky and the inevitable cross-pollination of ideas when such a group is brought together.

State and national leaders here today identified a set of remedies that can create a more accurate and fair system. Let’s hope that the momentum continues beyond today and these reforms become reality. The primary topics covered were eyewitness identification procedures, the benefits of properly preserving biological evidence, and the value of forming a statewide innocence commission. Notable national figures were in attendance to contribute valuable insights on each issue and provide specific examples of how similar reforms have been implemented in other states.

We first heard this morning from Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a victim of rape who mistakenly identified the wrong man, Ronald Cotton, in two different trials in the 1980s. Her suffering from this crime was renewed when she learned that Cotton had spent more than a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. But Ms. Thompson-Cannino was committed to ensuring that some good come from this tragedy. She became a staunch advocate for eyewitness identification reform and has candidly and courageously spoken to audiences nationwide about the pain those misidentifications caused her personally. Several people at today’s conference told me that her story powerfully illustrates how misidentification harms not only the innocent, but crime victims, their families, and the community at large.
 
Indeed, eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to more than 75% of the wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. To address this, reforms to eyewitness identification protocols grounded in scientific research have become standard procedure in a number of states across the country. Gary Wells, a psychology scholar who has researched the issue of misidentification for more than 25 years and worked with law enforcement and prosecutors in more than a dozen states, briefed attendees today on cutting-edge advances in the field of eyewitness identification research and also about proven practices to reduce misidentifications.

As I discussed at today’s conference, another significant issue that hampers the fair administration of justice is the improper preservation of biological evidence.  Despite DNA technology having transformed the power of preserved biological evidence to solve cold cases and enable us to check credible claims of innocence, many jurisdictions’ preservation practices have not changed since before this was true. As a result, they must struggle to locate that evidence in their possession which can solve crimes or prove innocence because of the chaos in their evidence storage facilities. At the Innocence Project, we are forced to close many cases due to lost or destroyed evidence.  Similarly, law enforcement efforts to solve old or “cold” cases are also prevented.

Some jurisdictions have addressed this issue head-on and undertaken efforts to overhaul and re-inventory all of their existing biological evidence so that it may be easily accessible when requested.  The nation’s gold-standard evidence room is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, and overseen by Major Kevin Wittman, who described today how evidence custodians in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bar-coded every piece of biological evidence in the department’s possession, solving more than a dozen cold cases and clearing a path for DNA testing of crime scene evidence connected to innocence claims. 

Finally, Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Keith Findley gave an in-depth presentation about the value of establishing a statewide innocence commission. He detailed the efforts undertaken by two such commissions in Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Assembly Judiciary Committee Task Force and the Wisconsin Criminal Justice Study Commission, both of which have helped enact reforms on eyewitness identification and the electronic recording of interrogations.  Such non-partisan commissions, with broad representation from across the criminal justice spectrum, have proven beneficial in a number of states, from California to North Carolina.

Today’s conference was a big step for criminal justice reform in Kentucky, and other states would be well-served by replicating this approach. It is wonderful to observe first-hand the willingness and openness of key players from across Kentucky to examine where the state's criminal justice system may be falling short.  When problems of shared concern are identified and discussed in an open forum, thoughtful remedies that will strengthen the quality of justice are just around the corner.




Tags: Kentucky, Dispatches

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More proof of innocence in Florida case

Posted: November 20, 2007 10:55 am

Chad Heins has been imprisoned for 13 years in Florida for the murder of his sister-in-law, a crime he has always said he didn’t commit.  Based on DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project, Heins’ murder conviction was thrown out last December, but the prosecution is re-trying him for the crime. New DNA test results reported yesterday provide further proof of his innocence.

Heins has been an Innocence Project client since 2001, and DNA tests in 2003 first showed that an unknown man’s hairs were on the victim’s bed and the same man’s skin cells were under her fingernails. The new results show that semen from her bed also matches the unknown man. Prosecutors had previously argued that a stray hair from a stranger had accidentally ended up in the victim’s bedroom.

"It completely blows out of the water any notion that the sheet picked up a stray hair," (Innocence Project Co-Director) Barry Scheck said. "That is completely absurd."

Chad Heins' stepmother in Wisconsin said she is grateful for any news that bolsters his innocence but said waiting for justice has been frustrating.

"It's kind of like you don't know what to feel because he's still in there. You hate to get your hopes up," said Mary Heins. "It's like, how much more time before this is over?"

Read the full story. (Florida Times-Union, 11/20/07)
Read more about Heins’ case in previous blog posts.
 



Tags: Florida, Chad Heins

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Washington Post: FBI must move quickly to right wrongs

Posted: November 20, 2007 4:18 pm

A joint investigation by the Washington Post and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” released this week showed that hundreds of people may have been wrongfully convicted based on faulty bullet lead analysis by the FBI. The FBI has known about the problem for years, but only this week said it would release details and records of cases in which the unreliable forensic process was used. Yesterday, the Innocence Network and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers announced the formation of a joint task force to assist and monitor the case review.

Today, an editorial in the Washington Post says the FBI has finally done the right thing to promise steps to rectify these errors. This episode should remind prosecutors and law enforcement officials, the paper says, that fair justice is always the goal in a criminal case.

It is troubling that some law enforcement officials seem to have forgotten their legal and moral obligation to disclose exculpatory evidence that could help a defendant. This obligation not only ensures that innocent people are spared incarceration but also helps government to focus on capturing real perpetrators. Justice -- not victory -- should be the sole purpose of prosecutions. This principle should be foremost in the minds of FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers as they review these cases.

Read the full editorial here.
Another Washington Post story yesterday detailed the case of former Balitmore police sergeant James A. Kulbicki , who was convicted of murder in 1995 based on bullet analysis. The expert who testified about the gun has since committed suicide amid questions about his credentials and testimony in other cases. Read the full story here.

View the Washington Post’s interactive feature on this investigation here.

Learn more about unreliable science as a cause of wrongful conviction here
.

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Rocky Mountain Innocence Center works for Utah compensation law

Posted: November 26, 2007 2:43 pm

Utah is one of the 28 states lacking a law to compensate the wrongfully convicted upon their release, but the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center is working to change that. A bill that would compensate exonerees with $40,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned passed a Utah Senate interim committee this summer and is set for introduction during the 2008 session. The bill passed the House last year, but didn’t make it to a Senate vote.

Katie Monroe is the executive director of the RMIC, which is affiliated with University of Utah’s law school. She said the compensation bill’s success will rely on a unique partnership with prosecutors.

The center teamed with the Utah Attorney General's Office to promote the bill - a partnership Monroe called nearly unprecedented.

"We were able to bring two seemingly opposing sides to find the middle ground," she said. "I think that's incredible."

Read the full story here. (Salt Lake Tribune, 11/26/07)
Read more about compensation laws nationwide.

Visit a special New York Times interactive feature, published on Sunday, on the lives of exonerees after they are released.





Tags: Utah, Exoneree Compensation

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Michigan DA asks for investigation in wake of wrongful conviction

Posted: November 26, 2007 2:50 pm

In October, Michigan prosecutors dismissed murder charges against Claude McCollum, who had served 18 months in prison for a murder he said he didn’t commit. The charges were dropped after new videotape evidence came to light revealing that McCollum wasn’t near the crime scene at the time of the 2005 murder. McCollum’s attorneys also said that another man confessed to the murder.

In the wake of McCollum’s release, Ingham County District Attorney Stuart Dunnings III has asked the state attorney general’s office to investigate the convictions. McCollum’s defense attorneys have alleged that the videotape evidence was known to police before McCollum’s conviction but never handed over the defense attorneys.

“This thing was bad from the beginning,” said his attorney Hugh Clarke Jr. “It’s going to cause people to take a look, a real good look. People should do that. They have to search themselves.”

Read the full story here. (Battle Creek Enquirer, 11/24/07)
Prosecutors told the jury at McCollum’s trial that he had confessed to the murder, because he made statements during a police interrogation about the possibility of killing the victim while sleepwalking. McCollum denied that he had confessed to the crime. Read an excerpt of the interrogation here.

False confessions or admissions have contributed to more than 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing. Many false confessions can be prevented by videotaping of custodial interrogations. Read more here.





Tags: False Confessions

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Wyoming legislature considers DNA access law

Posted: November 27, 2007 6:05 pm

There’s one thing all 208 exonerees have in common – at some point they were able to secure DNA testing in their cases. Sometimes prosecutors agree to testing immediately upon request, but other times it takes a long court battle for an innocent defendant to obtain testing. Today 42 states have some form of law allowing inmates to apply for DNA testing if it could prove innocence. Eight states still have no such law, meaning inmates in those states are often unable to prove their innocence, even when key biological evidence is sitting untested in a storage facility.

Wyoming is one of those eight states without an access law, but lawmakers there say it’s time for a change. A joint legislative committee yesterday heard testimony on the issue from a cross-section of criminal justice experts, and many are hoping to see a bill passed during the 2008 session.

Rep. Edward Buchanan, R-Torrington, who raise the issue with the committee last year, warned against rushing the bill to the full Legislature if it is not “rock solid.”

But other committee members, including Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said the committee should push the bill forward.

“For those people who may be sitting in jail or prison who are in fact not guilty, for us to sit there and say, 'We want to wait until it's absolutely perfect,' that's unacceptable in my mind," Burns said.

Read the full story here. (Jackson Hole Star-Tribune, 11/27/07)
Does your state have a DNA access law? View our interactive map.






Tags: Wyoming, Access to DNA Testing

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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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Breaking News: Chad Heins Freed in Florida

Posted: December 4, 2007 3:10 pm

Innocence Project client Chad Heins was released today in Florida after prosecutors dropped pending charges against him in a 1994 murder case. Read today's press release on the case.

Watch video coverage of the story here. (WJXT, 12/4/07)

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Applying for DNA testing in Ohio: an uphill battle

Posted: December 17, 2007 12:50 pm

A report published yesterday in the Lebanon (Ohio) Western Star examines the difficulties faced by convicted defendants in Ohio applying for DNA testing that could potentially prove their innocence. Of the 315 Ohio cases in which a defendant has requested DNA testing to prove innocence, courts have granted testing to only 19 people, with 66 cases awaiting rulings. Prosecutors have fought testing in most cases, based on legal grounds or due to lost or destroyed evidence (Ohio doesn’t have an evidence preservation law). Ohio is one of the 42 states with a post-conviction DNA testing law, but these numbers indicate that even among these states the path to testing isn’t always easy.

Ohio's DNA testing law, revised and made permanent last year, also closes the door to many potential applicants, including ex-convicts trying to clear their names and anyone who pleaded guilty. Another hurdle: Inmates must demonstrate that the testing would change the outcome of their trials.

Read the full story here. (Western Star, 12/17/07)
Does your state have a post-conviction DNA access law? What are the restrictions? Find out with our interactive map.






Tags: Ohio, Access to DNA Testing

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New York man granted new trial in murder case

Posted: December 21, 2007 1:40 pm

A New York appeals court today threw out the conviction of a Long Island man who has spent 17 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Marty Tankleff was convicted 17 years ago of killing his parents in the Belle Terre, NY, home he shared with them. Tankleff was 17 years old at the time of the crime and says he woke up one morning to find his parents murdered. After hours of questioning, Tankleff allegedly confessed to the murder, saying he may have “blacked out” or “been possessed.” He quickly recanted the alleged confession, but it was used against him at his trial. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

"It is abhorrent to our sense of justice and fair play to countenance the possibility that someone innocent of a crime may be incarcerated or otherwise punished for a crime which he or she did not commit," read the decision from Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, in part.

The ruling, by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Brooklyn, was not only a vindication for Mr. Tankleff, but it also raised questions about police and prosecutorial methods in Suffolk County. It was not immediately clear when Mr. Tankleff, 17 at the time of the murders and now 36, would be released. It also was not clear whether a new trial would be held.

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 12/21/07)
More background on the case:

Visit Marty Tankleff’s website for a case summary, legal documents and more.

Download the Innocence Project’s Amicus Curiae brief before the New York Supreme Court.

Listen to Innocence Project Staff Attorney Olga Akselrod and advocates for Tankleff in an appearance on NPR earlier this year

 



Tags: False Confessions, Marty Tankleff

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Long Island man released on bond after conviction is thrown out

Posted: December 27, 2007 6:40 pm

Marty Tankleff was released from a Long Island jail today after posting $1 million bond while prosecutors consider a new trial against him. Tankleff has served 17 years in prison for the murder of his parents, a crime he has always said he didn't commit, and a panel of New York judges last week threw out his 1990 conviction due to new evidence pointing to Tankleff's innocence.

"I was as upset when Marty was convicted as I was the day I learned that there were murders," said his aunt, Mary Anne McClure. "Now we can mourn my sister properly, because we haven't been able to for 19 years."...
The case had raised questions about coercive interrogation tactics and drew the support of the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people.

"It's a great day for justice in New York and in the country generally," said Barry Scheck, the project's executive director.

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 12/27/2007)
Tankleff was convicted partly based an alleged confession that he immediately recanted, saying he had been pressured by detectives. Evidence of other perpetrators in the murders has surfaced since Tankleff's conviction, and the Innocence Project has filed an amicus brief in his case, pointing out that false confessions or admissions have been a factor in 25 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.

Read the Innocence Project's amicus brief in the case.

 



Tags: Marty Tankleff

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Cleveland Editorial: Preserve evidence to allow for DNA testing

Posted: December 31, 2007 2:35 pm

An editorial in Saturday's Cleveland Plain Dealer calls on state lawmakers to pass a measure in 2008 requiring that biological evidence from crime scenes be preserved to allow inmates to seek post-conviction DNA testing. The editorial also calls on courts and prosecutors to support testing when it can prove innocence. Of 315 people who have applied for DNA testing in Ohio in the last four years, only 19 have received tests. Missing evidence is often a reason for the rejection, but prosecutors sometimes also oppose testing on legal grounds.

Ryan Miday, a spokesman for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, recalled officials fetching a box of evidence from the leaky attic of a local police department. It was ruined, as was the chance to prove someone's guilt or innocence.

Such sloppy handling mattered less in the days before DNA testing. Now it's practically criminal - and the Ohio General Assembly should put a stop to it.
Read the full editorial here. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 12/29/07)
Does your state have an evidence preservation law? View our interactive map to find out.

 

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Editorial calls for special prosecutor in New York case

Posted: December 31, 2007 2:50 pm

For nearly two decades, Marty Tankleff has said he was wrongfully convicted of killing his parents. Last week, the conviction was finally thrown out, due to evidence pointing to Tankleff’s innocence and the involvement of alternate suspects. He was released from prison on bail while prosecutors consider a new trial in the case.

And an editorial in yesterday’s New York Times calls for Suffolk County officials to appoint a special outside prosecutor in the case to ensure that any retrial is handled fairly.

Now that Mr. Tankleff has won another day in court, his case deserves a dispassionate, thorough and honest re-examination. Mr. Tankleff’s defenders insist that this is not possible from the Suffolk County district attorney, Thomas Spota. They are demanding that he hand the case to a special prosecutor. While Mr. Spota had no direct involvement in the Tankleff prosecution, which was tried by his predecessor, he and his office do have multiple connections to some members of the large cast of characters in this convoluted case. A detective who lied to Mr. Tankleff while taking his confession, for example, had been previously defended by Mr. Spota, then a private lawyer, in a corruption investigation, and later when the detective was accused of assault.
The law can be swift and sure when making a case against a defendant and hustling him off to prison. When it is found to have made grave errors, it must be just as honest and forceful in correcting them. We are counting on Mr. Spota to pursue the fairest case the evidence now supports. Or to back away if — as so many on Mr. Tankleff’s side insist — the evidence just isn’t there.


Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 12/30/07)
For more than a year, an official New York state inquiry has examined the investigation and prosecution of the case by Suffolk County officials, a source told the New York Times.
"The (State Investigation Committee) is viewing this as a serious and significant investigation,” said a person who works with the officials overseeing the investigation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter was confidential. “The commission is looking at how Suffolk County handled this case.”

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 12/29/07)
Read more about Tankleff’s case here.




Tags: Marty Tankleff

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Charles Chatman released - 15th person to be cleared by DNA evidence in Dallas

Posted: January 3, 2008 1:13 pm

With his siblings cheering in the courtroom, Charles Chatman was released from state custody this afternoon after serving nearly 27 years in prison for a rape that DNA now proves he didn’t commit. He is the 15th person to be cleared by DNA evidence in Dallas – more than any other county in the nation.

Chatman was convicted of a 1981 rape after he was misidentified in a photo lineup. His attorney, Michelle Moore (who was co-counsel with the Innocence Project of Texas on the case), credited Texas judge John Creuzot with pushing for DNA testing in the case. Creuzot said he became convinced of Chatman’s innocence after presiding over two previous hearings in the case. After earlier tests proved inconclusive, Chatman recently agreed to Y-STR testing, an advanced form of DNA testing that can determine a profile from a small sample. The risk was that this final test could have consumed the last of the biological evidence in the case. It proved to be the right decision, however, as the profile proved that another man committed the rape for which Chatman was serving a 99-year sentence.

Chatman said he was denied parole three times during his 27 years in prison because he refused to admit guilt in a crime he didn't commit.

"Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime," Chatman said. "I don't have a version of the crime. I never committed the crime. I never will admit to doing this crime that I know I didn't do."

...

One of the biggest reasons for the large number of exonerations is the crime lab used by Dallas County, which accounts for about half the state's DNA cases. Unlike many jurisdictions, the lab used by police and prosecutors retains biological evidence, meaning DNA testing is a viable option for decades-old crimes.

District Attorney Craig Watkins also attributes the exonerations to a past culture of overly aggressive prosecutors seeking convictions at any cost. Watkins has started a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing about 450 cases in which convicts have requested DNA testing to prove their innocence. "It is time we stop kidding ourselves in believing that what happened in Dallas is somehow unique," said Jeff Blackburn, the founder of the Innocence Project of Texas. "What happened in Dallas is common. This is Texas."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 01/03/08)
Read more about the cases of the 29 people exonerated by DNA testing in Texas here.

 

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Special prosecutors in Colorado case point to missing evidence

Posted: January 3, 2008 4:35 pm

Tim Masters has been in Colorado prison for eight years for a 1987 murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit, but a court filing yesterday by special prosecutors in the case will boost his chances at a new trial, legal experts say. The special prosecutors were appointed seven months ago to review Masters’ claims of a wrongful conviction, and yesterday marked the first time they have detailed their findings of evidence that wasn’t presented at Masters’ trial.

Masters was convicted in 1999 of murdering Peggy Hettrick when he was just 15 years old. New evidence has pointed to the guilt of a surgeon who lived across the street from the crime scene.   

The new evidence includes:

• A plastic surgeon's comments to Fort Collins police Detective Marsha Reed about the surgical nature of Hettrick's wounds. "None of the information from that conversation appears to have been memorialized by Det. Reed," the pleading states.

• An FBI profiler's memos criticizing the psychological theory that Masters' violent art renderings revealed a fantasy motive to kill Hettrick.

• Details of an unsuccessful week-long surveillance of Masters a year after the 1987 murder.

• Almost 300 pages of research compiled by the prosecution's star witness, some referring to the surgical precision of wounds inflicted on her genitalia and breast.

Hearings in Masters’ case will resume Jan. 22.
Read the full story, and view archived stories, here. (Denver Post, 1/3/08)


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Illinois man released after 21 years behind bars

Posted: January 9, 2008 4:25 pm

Herbert Whitlock was released from an Illinois county jail yesterday after serving nearly 21 years in prison for two murders he has always maintained he didn’t commit. Whitlock’s co-defendant, Randy Steidl, who was convicted of the muders based on the same evidence, was released more than three years ago but prosecutors refused at the time to drop charges against Whitlock. Prosecutors did finally agree to drop the charges, leading to Whitlock’s release yesterday. They said, however, that the case is still open and they have not ruled out a retrial.

Steidl and Whitlock were convicted of killing Karen Rhoads in 1987. Steidl was also convicted of killing Rhoads’ new husband, Dyke. A retired Illinois State Police officer was assigned in 2000 to reinvestigate the case. He concluded that the pair were innocent, based on contradictory witness statements at the trial. The officer, Michale Callahan, later won a lawsuit against his superiors, in which he alleged that he was reassigned in retaliation for accusing prosecutors of not pursuing alternate suspects in the case.

The Downstate Illinois Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network, worked on the cases of both Whitlock and Steidl.

The men are not included in the Innocence Project’s database of DNA exonerations because DNA evidence was not involved in proving the men’s innocence. This case highlights the extreme difficulty faced by defendants claiming their innocence on post-conviction appeal in cases in which there is no possibility of DNA testing.

Bill Clutter, director of investigations for the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Whitlock and Steidl should have been freed years ago. The (Downstate Illinois) Innocence Project helped free both men.

Clutter said much of the evidence that refuted trial testimony and evidence was uncovered in the spring of 1992.

“What this really says is there needs to be further reform in the post-conviction process, because it shouldn’t take this long to exonerate someone,” Clutter said. “The justice system did fail.”

Read the full story here. (Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 01/08/07)



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Prosecutors sought to downplay exculpatory evidence at trial of innocent Florida man

Posted: January 9, 2008 4:15 pm

An article in today’s Florida Times-Union reveals questionable prosecutorial tactics in the case of Chad Heins, who was exonerated last month after serving 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Before Heins was wrongfully convicted in 1996, a Jacksonville prosecutor wrote a letter to the state crime lab asking an expert to downplay evidence indicating that another person may have committed the crime. Hairs found on the bed of the victim, Heins’ sister-in-law, were shown to come from an unknown person. The prosecutor wanted to “minimize” the effect of this evidence at Heins’ trial.

"I need to structure your testimony carefully so as to convince the jury that the unknown hairs are insignificant," Assistant State Attorney Stephen Bledsoe wrote in a letter recently obtained by the Times-Union.
Bledsoe's letter was among thousands of pages of documents examined by Heins' lawyers after a judge allowed re-testing of DNA in the case. Although the attorneys don't believe it affected the outcome of the case, the letter shows a "cavalier disregard for the actual evidence," said Jennifer Greenberg, policy director of the Innocence Project of Florida, which worked for Heins' release.
"It actually made my stomach turn," Greenberg said Tuesday. "This is not a game. This is justice. These are people's lives and they matter and the truth matters."
The analyst who received the letter told the Times Union yesterday that analysts never change their findings based on conversations with attorneys. And Robert Link, one of Heins’ attorneys, said the letter had little impact on Heins’ conviction. His exoneration was based on DNA tests proving that the hairs, as well as semen and fingernail scrapings collected from the victim’s body, came from the same unknown man.

Read the full story here, and watch video of Heins’ release.

Read more about Heins' exoneration here.



Tags: Chad Heins

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Readers respond to book on wrongful convictions

Posted: January 10, 2008 5:15 pm

On Tuesday, we asked blog readers for their feedback on “The Innocent Man,” John Grisham’s book about the wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. We heard from many of you, and two of the responses are posted below.

If you ever have feedback to posts on this blog, email us here. (info [at] innocenceproject.org). Tell us if we can post your comments, and include your name (first name only is fine) and your city and state. We’ll occasionally post feedback we receive.

Helen Elliott, Edmond, Oklahoma:
 

I grew up in Southeastern Oklahoma and am a graduate of East Central University in Ada. I found the story of these wrongful convictions appalling, but not surprising. It's an example of stories I heard my whole life about the so-called justice system in our little corner of the world. I'm glad that this story was able to be told. It also brings to light the good works of the Innocence Project, with the hopes of bringing around reforms related to DNA testing. I've always been a fan of Grisham's work; I think this is his best yet.

J. Dowling, Southern California:
 

Grisham's book was excellent. It left me both angry & depressed for Ron Williamson & Dennis Fritz. As a retired police detective of 33 years from a medium sized police agency in Southern California, I am especially incensed by both the prosecutorial and police misconduct in this case. I am just sorry that the Justice Department did not go after the police and the prosecutor for massive violations of civil rights in that Oklahoma case. Anyone who truly cares about the American justice system will be very angry after they read Grisham's book. His book has now inspired me to volunteer my time and services to those in California that have been wrongly convicted. Kudos to Grisham for giving us all a huge wake-up call.

 

In an interview published in yesterday’s Jackson Free Press, Grisham says he met many wrongfully convicted people while researching the book, and “it doesn’t take too many conversations with men who are imprisoned and will probably never get out, who are innocent, to kind of flip you, to make you suddenly aware of this problem. That’s what happened to me.”

Read the full story here. (Jackson Free Press, 01/09/08)

Grisham, who serves on the Innocence Project Board of Directors, also supports the new Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi.



Tags: Mississippi, Dennis Fritz, Ron Williamson

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NY Times calls for recording of interrogations

Posted: January 14, 2008 11:12 am

“What did Martin Tankleff look and sound like when he confessed in 1988 to bludgeoning and slashing his parents to death?” the New York Times asks in a Saturday editorial. “We’ll never know. There is no video or audio recording, just an incomplete narrative, handwritten by detectives, which Mr. Tankleff signed, quickly repudiated, and spent nearly two decades trying to undo.”

DNA exonerations have proven that false confessions happen. In more than 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, a defendant confessed to a crime they didn’t commit. And electronic recording of interrogations prevents false confessions. Recording also aids prosecutors and law enforcement investigations – preserving a true account of an interrogation, allowing officers to focus on questions and not note-taking, and providing a training tool for future interrogations.

Illinois, Alaska and Minnesota – along with more than 500 local jurisdictions – record interrogations in some or most investigations. A bill stalled in the New York legislature last year, and the Times calls for passage of recording legislation this year.

The Tankleff case and the recent high-profile exoneration of Jeffrey Deskovic, who spent 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he confessed to but did not commit, both argue strongly for fixing this glaring flaw in New York’s justice system.

Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 01/13/08)
Download the Innocence Project’s 2007 report on critical reforms to the New York criminal justice system.

Read more about Marty Tankleff’s case.

Read more about Jeffrey Deskovic’s case
.

Does your state have a law requiring recording of interrogations? Find out in our interactive map.





Tags: Alaska, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Jeff Deskovic, False Confessions, Marty Tankleff

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Video: Louisiana exoneree embraces freedom and calls for access to DNA testing

Posted: January 16, 2008 5:25 pm

Yesterday in Louisiana, Innocence Project client Rickey Johnson said it felt wonderful and surreal to be free and surrounded by family. Johnson, who was exonerated on Monday by DNA tests proving his innocence after serving 25 years in prison, was reunited with his three children and surrounded by dozens of relatives. Also joining Johnson yesterday were others exonerated by DNA testing.

Johnson also spoke out yesterday in support of his friend Archie Williams, who has been fighting for DNA tests in his case for 13 years. Williams’s family members said they had waited too long for the testing they believed would set Williams free. East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has refused to cooperate with Williams’ requests for testing, and a prosecutor in Moreau’s office told reporters yesterday that she believed the victim’s recollection of a scar on the perpetrator proves Williams’ guilt just as strongly as DNA evidence.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck disagreed. “It’s foolish to believe in an eyewitness when there is scientific evidence to prove the facts,” Scheck said yesterday. Scheck noted that in Johnson’s case, the victim identified him as the perpetrator – but DNA testing ultimately proved his innocence.

Read the full story – and watch video coverage of Johnson’s statements – here. (Baton Rouge Advocate, 01/16/08)



Tags: Rickey Johnson

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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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Colorado man released after DNA points to alternate suspect

Posted: January 22, 2008 2:10 pm

Tim Masters, who served nine years in a Colorado prison for a murder he has always maintained he didn't commit, was released from prison today after a judge approved a motion from prosecutors to vacate his conviction. Prosecutors have said that new DNA results from the crime scene point to an alternate suspect. The Denver Post reported that the DNA evidence points to an ex-boyfriend of the victim, and prosecutors have said they are investigating the alternate suspect.

Masters was 15 at the time of the crime but convicted 12 years later, based partly on a psychological evaluation of violent drawings he made in high school.

Cheers and applause erupted as Masters walked out of court with his attorneys, David Wymore and Maria Liu.

..."They did a fantastic job," Masters said of his lawyers at a hastily convened news conference.

"I want to go see my family," he stated.

Wymore said he would "urge the prosecutors to dismiss all charges as soon as possible." He added, "It's an opportunity to do the right thing."

Read the full story here and watch video footage of the court hearing. (CNN, 01/22/08)
The Innocence Project has been working for several months with Colorado law enforcement officials and legislators to ensure that biological evidence in the state is preserved for possible future testing. In Masters' case, his release today is thanks in part to the retention of evidence in his case. Read more about the Innocence Project's evidence preservation work in Colorado.

More media coverage of Masters' case:

Denver Post: Release likely today as missteps surface




Tags: Colorado, Timothy Masters

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Prosecutors likely to drop charges in Tim Masters case

Posted: January 25, 2008 4:31 pm

The Denver Post reported today that Colorado prosecutors are planning to drop murder charges against Tim Masters, who was released on Tuesday due to DNA evidence of his innocence. Masters was convicted in 1989 of a murder 12 years earlier near his teenage home. He was 15 at the time of the murder and was questioned vigorously by detectives but not charged at the time. He would be charged and convicted a dozen years later partly based on his violent high school drawings.

The news follows a week of "round-the-clock" meetings between the DA and law-enforcement officials, including Adams County special prosecutor Don Quick, in which Abrahamson and his advisers have determined that not enough viable evidence exists to prove Masters killed Peggy Hettrick in 1987.

The DA also is considering whether to ask state Attorney General John Suthers to take over directing the criminal investigation to find Hettrick's killer, a process that has delayed an announcement.

Read the full story here. (Denver Post, 01/25/08)
View the Post’s multimedia special feature on Masters’ case, including footage of his interrogation when he was 15 years old.

The Innocence Project has worked with Colorado officials during recent months on legislation aimed at improving evidence preservation in the state. If evidence from the crime scene in Masters’ case was not preserved, he would still be in prison today, and in dozens of other Colorado cases, potentially exculpatory evidence has already been destroyed. Several Colorado lawmakers have announced plans to introduce preservation legislation this year.
 



Tags: Colorado, Evidence Preservation, Timothy Masters

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Michigan man sues police and prosecutors; alleges misconduct

Posted: January 25, 2008 4:40 pm

Claude McCollum, who was released from prison last year after serving more than a year in prison for a Lansing, Michigan, murder he didn’t commit, filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that his wrongful conviction was caused by misconduct by police and prosecutors. The suit says that police forced McCollum to implicate himself during an interrogation and that both police and prosecutors ignored and failed to disclose evidence suggesting McCollum’s innocence.

A new interactive timeline on the Lansing State Journal’s website examines McCollum’s conviction and release, day by day.




Tags: Michigan, Claude McCollum

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16th Dallas man is cleared by DNA testing

Posted: January 30, 2008 4:45 pm

Innocence Project client Steven Phillips, who was convicted in 1984 of a sexual assault he didn’t commit, served more than two decades in prison before he was released on parole in December. Throughout his incarceration, he wrote dozens of letters and appeals protesting his innocence. Now, DNA has proven that another man, who died in prison serving time for similar assaults, committed the attack for which Phillips was convicted. Phillips says he pled guilty to other related attacks because he feared he would be wrongfully convicted again by a jury. Innocence Project attorneys are working to clear these other charges now that DNA points to the alternate suspect in the crime spree for which Phillips was convicted. Prosecutors and police have always maintained that the same person committed all of the crimes, and the DNA testing in the 1984 conviction proves that Phillips is not that man.

Read the full story here.

Phillips is the 16th person to be cleared by DNA testing in Dallas after serving time for a wrongful conviction. View a slideshow of the others cleared by DNA in Dallas on the Dallas Morning News website.

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Real perpetrator identified in Dallas case

Posted: January 31, 2008 2:19 pm

Entre Nax Karage was exonerated through DNA testing in 2005 after serving more than six years in a Texas prison for a murder he didn’t commit. It was previously believed that the real perpetrator in the crime had died, but prosecutors said Wednesday that was a mistake. Another man has been charged in the crime after DNA from the crime scene matched his profile. Karage, now 38, was convicted in 1997 of killing his then-girlfriend in 1994 and sentenced to life in prison.

Keith Jordan, who is now charged in the case, is currently in a Texas prison after his convictions in 1997 for aggravated sexual assault of a child and aggravated kidnapping.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 01/31/2008)

Karage is one of 16 men in Dallas County to be cleared of wrongful convictions by DNA evidence. Yesterday, prosecutors announced that the DNA testing that recently proved the innocence of Steven Phillips has identified the real perpetrator in the case, a man who died ten years ago. Phillips was released on parole in December after he was wrongfully convicted in 1984 of a series of rapes he didn’t commit. Read more about his case here.




Tags: Texas, Entre Nax Karage

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Darryl Hunt marks four years of freedom

Posted: February 6, 2008 4:14 pm

Four years ago today, Darryl Hunt was exonerated in North Carolina after serving more than 18 years in prison for a brutal Winston-Salem murder he didn’t commit. Hunt was first convicted of the murder in 1985, but a judge threw out the conviction because prosecutors used a girlfriend’s statements against Hunt at trial even after she had recanted them. While he was waiting for a second trial, he refused an offer to plead guilty that would have set him free.

After 11 months outside of prison awaiting trial, Hunt was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989. Five years later, DNA evidence in the case was tested and showed that semen from the crime scene excluded Hunt. He wouldn’t be freed, however, until 2004, when the DNA profile from the crime scene was run in the state database at the request of Hunt’s attorneys. The profile matched a man serving time in prison for another murder. Finally, this evidence led to Hunt’s exoneration in 2004.

For more on Darryl Hunt’s long struggle for justice, rent or buy "The Trials of Daryl Hunt, "an award-winning documentary detailing his story, now available on DVD. View a trailer of the film and buy a copy here.

Read more about Daryl Hunt's case here.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Today: Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, Texas (Served 11 Years, Exonerated 02/06/02)

Friday: Anthony Gray, Maryland (Served 7 Years, Exonerated 02/08/99)

Saturday: Donte L. Booker, Ohio (Served 15 Years, Exonerated 02/09/05)

Lesly Jean, North Carolina (Served 9 Years, Exonerated 02/09/01)




Tags: Donte Booker, Richard Danziger, Anthony Gray, Darryl Hunt, Lesly Jean, Christopher Ochoa

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Hearing set for Friday in Mississippi cases

Posted: February 12, 2008 11:40 am

Innocence Project client Kennedy Brewer will appear in a Mississippi courtroom on Friday as a judge considers whether to dismiss charges against him based on evidence of his innocence. Brewer spent 15 years behind bars – much of it on death row -- for the 1992 rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. Now DNA evidence proves his innocence and points to the identity of the real perpetrator, Justin Albert Johnson, who confessed to the crime. If charges are dropped Friday, Brewer will become the first person exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in Mississippi.

The Innocence Project also represents Levon Brooks, who was convicted of an identical child murder that occurred in the same town 18 months earlier. Johnson has confessed to this murder as well. He was an initial suspect in both cases and lived near the victims at the time of the crimes. The Innocence Project is also seeking this week to expedite proceedings to vacate Brooks’ conviction as well, based on the evidence that Johnson committed the crime alone. Brooks’ case may be scheduled for the same hearing Friday.

Prosecutors in Mississippi have relied for years on the work of two discredited “experts” to examine forensic evidence and conduct autopsies. The Innocence Project has called for a review of forensic practices statewide. Read more in Friday’s Innocence Project press release.

Associated Press: Hearing on motion to exonerate man in child murder set for Friday (02/11/08)



Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Cross-Posted: Georgia lawmakers advance eyewitness identification reform

Posted: February 13, 2008 11:02 am

Ben Hiltzheimer wrote this week on the Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog about reforms pending before Georgia's legislature. The full post is here:

GA House Committee Approves Eyewitness ID Reforms

A Georgia House of Representatives committee recently approved two pieces of legislation designed to reform police procedures for collecting eyewitness evidence.

The Non-Civil Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 997 and 10 to 5 to approve HR 1071. The legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee for consideration with a favorable recommendation.

The bill, known as the Witness Identification Accuracy Enhancement Act, calls for the state law enforcement agency to develop a set of guidelines for the collection of eyewitness evidence in showups, photo arrays, and live lineups. It also calls on the state public safety training center to work with prosecutors to develop a training program for implementation of the procedures.

The House Resolution outlines specific best practices for conducting the identification procedures. Importantly, the resolution “strongly encourages” double-blind lineup procedures, where the administrator of the lineup would be a “neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup.” This is arguably the most important requirement of the two pieces of legislation, as social scientists are broadly in agreement that the communication of subtle cues — either inadvertent or intentional — to witnesses by lineup administrators regarding the identity of the police suspect is the primary flaw in status quo lineup practices that lead to misidentification, and ultimately wrongful conviction.

The full test of the best practices outline in the resolution are as follows:
(1) It is strongly encouraged that the administrator of a photographic lineup or physical lineup should be a neutral independent administrator, when feasible, and no person familiar with the identity of the suspect should be present during a photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(2) Prior to beginning a photographic lineup or physical lineup identification procedure, the administrator should instruct the witness that:

(A) The witness does not have to make an identification, and the identification procedure is important to the investigation whether or not an identification is made;
(B) The individuals depicted in the photographic lineup or physical lineup may not appear exactly as the witness observed on the date of the crime because features such as hairstyles and facial hair are subject to change;
(C) The perpetrator may or may not be among those shown in the photographic lineup or physical lineup;
(D) When a neutral independent administrator is conducting the photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator is not aware of whether the suspect is included in such photographic lineup or physical lineup; and
(E) Regardless of whether an identification is made, law enforcement will continue to investigate the crime; and(3) When conducting a photographic lineup or physical lineup, the administrator should preserve the outcome of the procedure by documenting any identification or nonidentification result obtained from a witness. All witness responses to the photographic lineup or physical lineup participants should be documented using the witness´s own words, either in writing or with an audio or video recording.
 

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield is the author of this welcome piece of legislation, and has made significant progress in bringing the interested parties together to move it through the legislative process over the last couple of years.

Unfortunately, law enforcement officials continue to resist the resolution, despite the systemic wrongful conviction problem that continues to plague the Georgia criminal justice system.
[Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association] told Committee Members that while the resolution is not legally binding, he still feels the State is dictating to law enforcement what to do.
Given that law enforcement agencies across the state have failed to adopt well-settled best practices on their own and the substantial cost associated with failing to do so, a legislative mandate hardly seems out of line. We’ll be following this one closely.
Read more about eyewitness identification reforms supported by the Innocence Project.

All seven people exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing in Georgia were convicted in part based on eyewitness misidentifications. Read about their cases here.

Visit the Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog



Tags: Georgia, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Report says prosecutors knew Michigan man was innocent before trial

Posted: February 15, 2008 4:20 pm

A Michigan State Police report released this week by attorneys representing Claude McCollum suggests that police and prosecutors proceeded with McCollum’s 2005 murder trial despite video evidence that he could not have been at the crime scene. McCollum was convicted of the murder despite this evidence and he served nearly two years in prison before his release last year.

The Lansing State Journal reported this week that the 2007 Michigan State Police report on the case shows that a detective knew about the video evidence and passed the information to prosecutors. Prosecutors have said they didn’t see the report until the trial was underway, and that they shared it with defense attorneys.

Read the full story here. (Lasing State Journal, 02/13/08)

View an interactive multimedia feature on McCollum’s case.





Tags: Michigan, Claude McCollum

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USA Today: DNA tests fuel urgency to free the innocent

Posted: February 19, 2008 4:24 pm

Charles Chatman is adjusting to his newfound freedom after 27 years in the Texas prison system. Each of the six rooms in his new apartment – including the bathroom – is bigger than his prison cell. Last month, he traveled to Washington last month to join Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld in calling for better federal support for DNA testing and oversight of crime labs. Now, he is thinking about going to college.

A USA Today article today chronicles Chatman’s case and examines the role of the innocence movement nationwide in reshaping America’s criminal justice system. 

As DNA technology and investigations identify a mounting number of wrongful convictions, the urgency to find others like Chatman is increasing. From Virginia to California, local prosecutors, law students and defense attorneys are combing through hundreds of thousands of old files in search of flawed convictions.
 
Read the full story here. (USA Today, 2/19/08)
Read more about Chatman’s case here

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Fallout continues after Mississippi exoneration

Posted: February 20, 2008 11:05 am

Days after Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were cleared in Mississippi, new questions are being raised about the forensic analysts and prosecutor who secured their convictions. Both men were wrongfully convicted of killing three-year-old girls in the early 1990s served 15 years behind bars before they were cleared. Brewer served several years on death row.

A discredited forensic dentist, Michael West, testified at both trials that marks on the victim’s bodies proved that Brooks and Brewer bit the victims – using only their top two teeth. In new statements published today by ABC News, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld says that West’s actions in these cases was “criminal.”

West "deliberately fabricated evidence and conclusions which were not supported by the evidence, the data or the rules of science but … because they were consistent with the prosecutor's theory,'' said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that examines questionable convictions and has won the exoneration of more than 200 inmates.

"If you fabricate evidence in a capital murder case, where you know that if the person's convicted they are going to be executed — as far as I'm concerned that's the crime of attempted murder.''
"He's a criminal," Neufeld said of West.

The two cases were investigated by the same Noxubee County, Mississippi detective and prosecuted by the same attorney, and the same medical examiner and forensic dentist appeared in each case.
This is the first time that Neufeld or his colleagues at the Innocence Project have ever called for the criminal prosecution of a scientist, Neufeld said.

"These are not cases of sloppy forensic science,'' Neufeld said on Monday. "This is intentional misconduct. It's fabricated evidence to send people to death row.''
ABC News also spoke to Noxubee County Forrest Allgood, who brought West into the case as a witness. Allgood prosecuted both Brewer and Brooks in the 1990s, and he fought Brewer’s exoneration for the last seven years.
Allgood said that during the trials of Brewer and Brooks in the early 1990s, West's reputation was intact.
"At the time he was sitting on top of the world,'' Allgood said. "He was lecturing in China. He was lecturing in England."
"Nobody wants to put the wrong guy in jail,'' Allgood concluded, though adding that he still believes that Brewer "had a hand'' in Jackson's abduction.

Read the full story here. (ABC News, 02/20/08)
In fact, West had already been widely discrdited – and his membership in professional associations had been revoked – when Allgood called him to testify in Brewer’s trial. There is also no evidence that Brewer “had a hand” in the kidnapping, rape or murder of the three-year-old victim; instead, there is solid, irrefutable scientific evidence that he was not involved in the crime at all.

Read more about the Brewer and Brooks cases and reforms proposed by the Innocence Project to prevent future wrongful convictions in Mississippi.



Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Mississippi man gets new trial after 15 years in prison

Posted: February 25, 2008 4:32 pm

Arthur Johnson was expected to walk out of a Mississippi courthouse this afternoon after a state judge granted him a new trial due to DNA evidence showing that he didn’t commit a rape for which he has served more than 15 years in prison. Johnson, who is represented by Innocence Project New Orleans Director Emily Maw, was expected to be released on bond after meeting the $2,500 bail while a new trial is pending. His attorneys are asking prosecutors to drop the charges against him rather than seek a new trial.

Read the full story here. (Delta Democrat Times, 02/25/08)

If charges against Johnson are dropped, he would become the second person exonerated by DNA testing in Mississippi, after Kennedy Brewer became the first on Feb. 15.





Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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New Hampshire man to get another round of DNA testing

Posted: February 29, 2008 3:05 pm

Robert Breest, who has served 35 years in a New Hampshire prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit, will get another round of DNA testing, after Breest’s attorneys reached a deal with prosecutors this month. Several rounds of DNA testing in the case have been inconclusive, but Breest’s attorneys are seeking to employ new, more sensitive, Y-STR testing on evidence from the victim’s fingernails.

Breest was convicted based on blood-type evidence showing that 10% of white men, including Breest, could have contributed physical evidence found at the scene. Also used against Breest at trial was a jailhouse informant and expert testimony that paint chips from the crime scene matched Breest’s car. Unreliable and limited science like blood-type testing and paint chip comparison – along with snitch testimony – have contributed to dozens of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.

Read the full story here. (Concord Monitor, 02/29/08)

Attorney Albert Scherr is representing Breest pro-bono in his state claims in affiliation with the New England Innocence Project.The Innocence Project is working with attorney Ian Dumain (a former Innocence Project clinic student while at Cardozo Law School) of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP on Breest’s claim to DNA testing in federal court. In January, a federal judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss Breest’s claim to DNA testing. Read the judge’s order here.





Tags: New Hampshire, Robert Breest

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New York detective suspended for speaking out on wrongful conviction cases

Posted: February 29, 2008 4:25 pm

A Buffalo, New York, cold case squad detective was suspended without pay this week for speaking publicly about two cold cases in which evidence showed that a man and woman were in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Dennis Delano, a 28-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department, has been suspended for allegedly compromising the nature of investigations with his public statements.

Delano’s work has been key to the release of two wrongfully convicted individuals in Buffalo in recent months – Anthony Capozzi and Lynn DeJac. Capozzi was exonerated by DNA evidence last year after serving two decades in prison for two rapes he didn’t commit. DeJac was officially cleared yesterday when prosecutors dropped all pending charges against her. She served 13 years for allegedly killing her 13-year-old daughter in 1933. Three medical examiners have now said the girl died of a cocaine overdose, not strangulation.

Nationwide, police officers and other law enforcement authorities can play an important role in uncovering wrongful convictions – often through investigations of other cold cases that reveal evidence of wrongful convictions.  Capozzi and DeJac have both publicly said that without Delano’s commitment to uncovering the truth in their cases, they would not have been exonerated.

The suspension of Detective Delano has caused a stir in Buffalo today, with his supporters saying he was being unfairly punished for continuing to pursue the DeJac case against direct orders from superiors.

"The charges against Mr. Delano are extremely serious in nature and his actions have compromised the integrity of the Buffalo Police Department," today’s statement (from Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson) said.

Police sources previously said Gipson had suspended Delano with pay this week for allegedly providing an investigative videotape from the Lynn DeJac case to a local television station.

Read the full story here. (Buffalo News, 02/29/08)
DeJac and her supporters do not believe her daughter died of a cocaine overdose.  They have suggested that the police and prosecutor changed the cause of death to avoid being held accountable for DeJac’s wrongful conviction.  The crime scene video that aired on local television news stations supported the theory that the girl died from violence (rather than a drug overdose).  There is no evidence that Delano provided the video to the local television station.

Read more about the Capozzi and DeJac cases.







Tags: New York, Anthony Capozzi

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Mississippi cases continue to draw national attention

Posted: February 29, 2008 4:10 pm

Questionable forensic practices in Mississippi have remained in the national news in the wake of the hearings earlier this month clearing two men after they served 15 years for separate murders they didn’t commit. The exoneration of Kennedy Brewer and release of Levon Brooks on Feb. 15 has led to serious questions about the work of medical examiner Steven Hayne and forensic dentist Michael West, and the Innocence Project has been joined by several other organizations in calling for forensic reform in Mississippi. Here are excerpts from an Associated Press article running around the country today:

The turn of events has shocked the community, especially the victims' families, and led to accusations that West deliberately falsified evidence.

"You have people who engaged in misconduct and manufactured evidence and we've proved it," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which has won the exoneration of more than 200 inmates nationwide and assembled the expert panel that examined the Brewer case. "These two cases are going to be an eye-opener for the people of Mississippi about some of the problems they have in criminal justice and how easy it will be to make it right."



Brewer, who was released on bail last year, a few years after DNA tests excluded him as the rapist, was finally exonerated by a judge on Feb. 15.

"I ain't worried about the past. I'm thinking about the future," Brewer said. But he offered some advice to prosecutors: "They need to get the truth before they lock up the wrong somebody. It doesn't feel good to be called a rapist and murderer."



The district attorney who prosecuted both defendants, Forrest Allgood, disputed any suggestion that his office knowingly sent the wrong men to prison.

"It torments the innocent individual, undermines the public confidence in the justice system, and the bad guy is still running loose," he said. "Why people would believe that's something we would want to do is beyond me."

Allgood said he has not used West as a forensic expert since the mid-1990s. He said West was once considered one of the world's foremost authorities in his field, lecturing in China and England.

"Subsequently the whole situation turned into a train wreck," the district attorney said.

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 02/29/08)

Read more about calls for reform in the wake of the Brewer and Brooks cases here.




Tags: Mississippi, Kennedy Brewer

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Colorado DA seeks to review cases for possible wrongful conviction

Posted: March 3, 2008 2:55 pm

In the wake of the release of Tim Masters in Fort Collins in January, a northern Colorado prosecutor has said he plans to review all contested cases in his county for the possibility of wrongful conviction. About 1,100 people are serving time in state prison after convictions in Larimer County, and District Attorney Larry Abrahamson recently announced that he would review all appealed cases, in case new DNA testing could overturn a wrongful conviction.

Abrahamson said he wants to ensure that convicts are truly guilty and, if any case could benefit from new DNA testing techniques, he would review it.

Read the full story here. (Fort Collins Coloradan, 02/28/08)
Read the latest on the Tim Masters case. (Denver Post)





Tags: Colorado, Access to DNA Testing

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The incalculable price of misidentification

Posted: March 5, 2008 2:05 pm

As Georgia lawmakers advance compensation for Willie “Pete” Williams, a column in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution calls for eyewitness identification reforms to prevent the injustice Williams suffered from happening to anyone else. The Innocence Project has worked with partners in Georgia (including the Georgia Innocence Project, which represented Williams) to support eyewitness identification reforms, but today’s column details the troubled road of this legislation and the compromises that appear necessary in order to get the bill passed.

You'd think that legislators would rush to find remedies that would at least lower the number of wrongful convictions.

You'd be wrong. So far, little has come from the efforts of Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Atlanta) to improve procedures for eyewitness identifications in criminal investigations. The bill is stuck, even though all seven of the exonerated were wrongly convicted largely on the basis of faulty eyewitness identifications.

Benfield first introduced a bill to standardize eyewitness IDs two years ago, but she met fierce resistance from police and prosecutors. When the legislation was assigned to a study committee, usually a sign that a bill has little support, Benfield faithfully shepherded it through, tacking and trimming to placate critics.

Now, the bill contains just two mandates: By 2009, Georgia law enforcement agencies must develop written procedures on how to administer eyewitness identifications; and by 2011, an officer trained in those best practices must supervise eyewitness ID procedures. But Benfield's bill is still stuck in the Rules Committee, where it awaits a date for a vote on the House floor.

Read the full column here. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 03/05/08)
All seven Georgia exonerees were convicted based partly on eyewitness misidentification, read more about their cases here.

Has your state enacted eyewitness reforms? Find out on our interactive map.




Tags: Georgia, Willie Williams, Exoneree Compensation

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New book examines Innocence Commissions

Posted: March 7, 2008 4:41 pm

A new book by George Mason University law professor Jon Gould examines the Innocence Commission for Virginia and the model of creating panels of experts to review the injustice of wrongful convictions and make recommendations for states to reform their criminal justice systems. The book, titled “The Innocence Commission: Preventing Wrongful Convictions and Restoring the Criminal Justice System,” received a strong review from the Library Journal.

“Written for the general public, Gould's book has important lessons for attorneys and policymakers as well,” the journal wrote.

Criminal justice reform commissions – also called innocence commissions – are a centerpiece of the Innocence Project’s reform proposals nationwide, and have been extremely effective in several states in bringing about reforms to protect the innocent and assist law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

Buy the book here via Amazon.com – a portion of your purchase will support the Innocence Project.

Learn more about Innocence Commissions here.



Tags: Virginia, Innocence Commissions

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Texas judge calls for retrial for Clay Chabot due to prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: March 13, 2008 2:10 pm

A Dallas judge ruled yesterday that Innocence Project client Clay Chabot deserves a new trial in the 1986 murder for which he served 21 years in prison. Judge Mike Snipes wrote that prosecutor Janice Warder, who is currently running for Cooke County District Attorney, withheld key evidence of Chabot’s innocence from defense attorneys at the time of Chabot’s trial. The Dallas District Attorney and another judge have already said Chabot’s conviction should be tossed, but the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’s highest criminal court, asked for further hearings in Snipes’ court. Snipes’ ruling yesterday sends a recommendation to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which will make the final decision on a retrial.

Chabot was convicted of a murder in 1986, based on the testimony of his brother-in-law, Gerald Pabst. DNA testing has now shown that Pabst committed the crime and lied on the stand in his testimony against Chabot. Pabst is currently awaiting trial for the murder, and Chabot’s conviction was tossed out after the test results showed that the primary evidence against him – Pabst’s testimony – had been false. Chabot is on bond under house arrest while efforts to vacate his conviction continue.

Judge Snipes wrote "very strong findings that Mr. Chabot didn't get a fair trial the first time, and a very strong finding that he deserved to have his conviction overturned," said Jason Kreag, one of Mr. Chabot's attorneys.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 03/13/08)
Dallas has seen more people exonerated by DNA testing than any other county in the nation. Read about the 14 Dallas exonerations here.




Tags: Clay Chabot

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Signs of prosecutorial misconduct in California exoneration case

Posted: March 14, 2008 3:07 pm

James Ochoa spent 10 months in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit before he was exonerated in 2006 because DNA proved that another man committed the crime. New evidence revealed yesterday shows that prosecutors asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab to falsify evidence that would help convict Ochoa.

An article in the Orange County Weekly details the alleged prosecutorial misconduct before Ochoa pled guilty in the case – in what he says was an effort to avoid a harsh sentence.

In the wake of a November 2005 OC Weekly article detailing how a 20-year-old Buena Park man faced prison for a robbery /carjacking he didn’t commit, prosecutors asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab to alter key exculpatory evidence.

Veteran forensic specialist Danielle G. Wieland made the charge last month during a civil deposition related to the December 2005 wrongful conviction and imprisonment of James Ochoa, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.

In a civil deposition taken last month for Ochoa’s wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Ochoa attorney Patricio A. Marquez of Morrison & Foerster asked Wieland, “Did anyone ever exert pressure on you to change your [DNA] conclusions?”
“Yes,” Wieland replied. “Camille Hill from the DA’s office . . . She called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated from [DNA found on] the left cuff of the shirt.”

According to the transcript, Hill told Wieland she “didn’t care” about the crime lab’s findings. “I want him [Ochoa] not excluded,” Wieland recalls Hill saying.

The DA’s demand alarmed crime-lab officials, who began to question why prosecutors were so “adamant” and “ranting” (Wieland’s description) about nailing Ochoa.

“I was pretty shocked and annoyed,” Wieland testified. “As a forensic scientist, we just look at the evidence.”

Read the full story here. (OC Weekly, 03/13/08)
Read more about Ochoa’s case here.





Tags: James Ochoa

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Roundup: Lawmakers in South Carolina and Colorado consider DNA reforms

Posted: March 20, 2008 2:28 pm

Lawmakers in Colorado and South Carolina yesterday heard testimony from the Innocence Project on bills to address and prevent wrongful convictions. In Colorado, Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown told legislators that the state’s proposed evidence preservation bill doesn’t go far enough to protect the innocent.

And Tim Masters, who was recently freed after serving 10 years for murder when evidence of his innocence surfaced, said that these laws affect people like him who are still behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

"If this bill is to serve as a standard for evidence-preservation practices, it will devastate innocence claims," testified Rebecca Brown, policy analyst for the Innocence Project, which has helped free 214 wrongfully convicted prisoners. "We're incredibly concerned that there will be no protections for the innocent."
…Tim Masters, recently freed by DNA testing, described how Larimer County prosecutors in his case opposed preservation of the evidence early in his appeal proceedings.

"I'd still be locked up" if the evidence had been tossed, Masters said, holding a copy of the district attorney's court motion citing current state law providing no duty to preserve the DNA.

Read the full story here. (Denver Post, 03/20/08)
In South Carolina, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told lawmakers yesterday that access to DNA testing is a vital right for prisoners. The bill, which would make South Carolina the 44th state to offer DNA access to prisoners, received preliminary approval and will head to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Read more here.

Today in Connecticut, Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom will testify on a bill to reform eyewitness identification procedures.






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

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Michigan group seeks inmate’s exoneration

Posted: March 24, 2008 11:07 am

Nathaniel Hatchett was 17 years old when he was arrested for a 1996 Detroit area rape that he maintains he didn’t commit. He was convicted two years later and has been in prison ever since. But lawyers at the Innocence Project at Cooley Law School in Michigan have filed motions showing that DNA proves Hatchett’s innocence and arguing that he should be granted a new trial. DNA testing has shown that biological evidence from the crime scene does not match Hatchett.

"We're hoping the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office will be reasonable and release Nathaniel right away because the tests show he never should have been convicted in the first place," said Donna McKneelen, an assistant professor at the law school.
Hatchett was arrested by police two days later while driving the victim's car in Detroit with four friends. The friends were eventually released.

McKneelen said there is a likely explanation for why Hatchett was in the car.

"We believe the attacker who raped the woman dumped the car at some point. Nathaniel and his friends encountered it, hot-wired the vehicle and went joy riding. That's when they were stopped by the police," she said.

Hatchett, who was driving the stolen car, later made a confession to Sterling Heights police, which was a main piece of evidence at the trial.

But the motion filed by Thomas M. Cooley Law School shows a psychological exam indicates Hatchett had a borderline mental disability. He was questioned for seven hours which added to the stress, the defense team claims.

Read the full story here. (Macomb Daily, 03/20/08)
 

The Innocence Project at Cooley Law School is a member of the Innocence Network.





Tags: Michigan

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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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Editorial: South Carolina needs a DNA access law

Posted: April 1, 2008 12:20 pm

The first sentence of an editorial in today’s issue of the Herald, a South Carolina newspaper, makes plain the critical need for a new policy:

If a DNA test can free an innocent person from prison, the state should provide a path for inmates to request a test. 
The editorial goes on to lay out the details of a bill in the state’s Senate that would provide access to DNA testing for inmates when the evidence could overturn a wrongful conviction. South Carolina is one of just seven states in the U.S. with no law providing access to testing, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified in South Carolina in support of the bill last month.
"Simply put, nobody wins when an innocent person is convicted," Scheck said. "Not the victims, the police, the prosecutors, the courts or the public."
Read the full editorial here. (The Rock Hill Herald, 04/01/08, Free Registration Required)

Read more coverage of the South Carolina bill here. (The State, 03/30/08)

Does your state allow prisoners access to the DNA testing that can prove their innocence? Find out here.



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With his license on the line, Mississippi doctor responds

Posted: April 9, 2008 3:25 pm

After the Innocence Project filed a formal complaint yesterday to revoke Steven Hayne’s Mississippi medical license due to his autopsy misconduct, the doctor broke his long silence to the media and tried to defend his record.
(Innocence Project) officials say Hayne performs too many autopsies each year – about 1,500.

The National Association of Medical Examiners limits pathologists to fewer than 250 autopsies a year.

Hayne said such a number is arbitrary. “There’s one group that says you shouldn’t do more than 350, and there are other groups that don’t have a limit,” he said. “Should I call the Innocence Project to see if I’ve done too many and stop?”

He estimates he works 110 hours a week. “Some people were put on this earth to party, and some people were put on this earth to work,” he said. “I’ve always worked very hard.”
In the article, Hayne does not cite organizations that say it’s acceptable to do 350 autopsies a year, or organizations that recommend no limit at all – likely because no credible organization or expert would say it’s acceptable to do so many autopsies, let alone 1,500 per year. In the complaint filed yesterday, the Innocence Project also notes that Hayne claims to testify in more than 300 cases a year while also serving as the Medical Director of three different medical institutions. The volume of work is important, since the quality of Hayne’s work is so poor, as evidenced by numerous cases (several of which are cited in the complaint filed yesterday).

Hayne’s questionable practices have come to light after the exonerations of two Innocence Project clients – Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer – 15 years after Hayne’s testimony helped convict them of capital crimes they didn’t commit. Forrest Allgood, the prosecutor in both the Brewer and Brooks cases, comes to Hayne’s defense in today’s article.
"My experience with Hayne is that 99 times out of 100 he testifies this guy died and this is how he died," Allgood said. "How is that in any way convicting innocent people?"

Read the full article here. (Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, 04/09/08)

In the Brewer and Brooks cases, Hayne’s testimony substantiated Allgood’s central argument: that the defendants bit the victims before killing them. But the complaint filed yesterday says Hayne testified falsely to support Allgood’s prosecution case. Marks on the victims were not human bites, and they occurred after the victims died and their bodies were dumped in the water. There was no scientific basis for Hayne’s testimony, but the testimony was critical in helping Allgood wrongfully convict Brewer and Brooks in separate trials. As a result, Brewer was sentenced to die, and Brooks was sentenced to life without parole.

Read more coverage of yesterday’s request by the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project that officials revoke Hayne’s license:

Associated Press: Attorneys ask state board to pull pathologist’s license

Read the Innocence Project’s April 8 letter to Mississippi officials.





Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Upcoming events in Seattle and New Hampshire

Posted: April 10, 2008 10:40 am

A cello concert tomorrow night in Seattle and a symposium April 17 in New Hampshire will help raise funds and awareness about the causes of wrongful conviction and the countless innocent people still waiting for justice.

Paul Rucker will perform a solo cello concert in Seattle tomorrow night (Friday, April 11) to raise money for the Innocence Project. Tickets are $5-$15. More information (and a video of Rucker performing) is here.

Exoneree Dennis Maher will speak at a symposium on April 17 at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. The discussion, entitled “When Justice Fails, Perspectives of the Exonerated Defendant and His Prosecutor,” will also feature comments from J.W. Carney Jr., who was the prosecutor in both of Maher’s convictions and also worked actively for Maher’s exoneration when evidence of his innocence came to light. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more here.





Tags: Dennis Maher

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Adequate defense counsel can prevent wrongful convictions

Posted: April 11, 2008 4:15 pm

Too many wrongful convictions are caused by the lack of experienced and available public defenders. For decades, the American criminal justice system has failed to consistently provide resources for the defense of people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer themselves. And the inequalities don’t stop with lawyers. Prosecutors have state resources to hire courtroom experts; they have police departments to act as investigators. Public defenders struggle with caseloads in the hundreds and nearly nonexistent funds for investigations and experts. To prevent wrongful convictions in our country, this has to change.

Headlines around the country this month show that budget shortfalls threaten even the low standards of public defense in many states. Lawmakers in Kentucky – where the average public defender has 436 clients in a year – recently slashed $2.5 million from the state’s public defense budget. Georgia’s public defense system is near the breaking point.


But there are signs of progress on the horizon:

This week, commissioners in Houston – the largest urban area in the country without a public defense office – voted to explore the creation of a department. Currently, elected judges appoint attorneys and set budgets for investigation and experts, creating a system with little quality control and no consistency. A public defense office would bring that consistency to the city.

Also this week, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero, Jr., praised state lawmakers for advances in public defense in recent years, and called for continued growth in the delivery of defense to the poor.

Read more about how overworked – or negligent – defense attorneys have contributed to the problem of wrongful convictions.





Tags: Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Bad Lawyering

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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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Michigan man exonerated by DNA testing

Posted: April 14, 2008 2:29 pm

Nathaniel Hatchett was released from prison today after serving 10 years in Michigan prison for a rape he didn’t commit, news organizations are reporting. Hatchett was convicted of a carjacking and rape in Sterling Heights, Michigan, in 1998. The Cooley Innocence Project in Lansing, Michigan, filed a motion for a new trial last month based on the DNA evidence of innocence, and today a Michigan judge granted a motion filed by prosecutors to drop all charges based on the new evidence.

The Innocence Project maintains a database of all people exonerated by DNA testing. We are currently researching the background of Hatchett’s case for inclusion in the database. He would become the 216th person exonerated by DNA evidence nationwide.

News Coverage of today’s exoneration:

Detroit News: Prisoner freed after DNA exoneration

Visit the Cooley Innocence Project website
.





Tags: Michigan

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A cancer within the system

Posted: April 18, 2008 4:25 pm

One of the nation’s most active innocence commissions, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice, reported yesterday on the woeful state of indigent defense in many California counties.

"This is like a cancer within the system of providing indigent defense, and it's spreading," said Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the so-called Fair Commission, calling the spread of low-bid, flat-fee private firms "a race to the bottom."
Inexperienced, overburdened and negligent defense representation has contributed to countless wrongful convictions, and inadequate defense for the poor nationwide continues to contribute to cause injustice and inequality in the system everyday.

The commission recommended that California lawmakers create a panel to oversee the way counties fund public defense, and also recommended a law to ensure that the state funds investigators and experts for poor defendants.

Read the full story here: San Jose Mercury News, 04/18/08

Read the commission’s full report here.

Read the Innocence Blog post last week on indigent defense shortages around the country and signs of hope on the horizon.

Read more about how overworked – or negligent – defense attorneys have contributed to the problem of wrongful convictions.

Read more about the work of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice and other innocence commissions around the country.





Tags: Bad Lawyering

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Mississippi man still seeking DNA testing

Posted: April 21, 2008 4:35 pm

Steve Fasano, a former Jackson, Mississippi, police officer, has served two years in federal prison for a 2005 bank robbery he says he didn’t commit. He’s seeking DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene that could prove the identity of the real perpetrator, but prosecutors have argued against allowing testing and a federal judge said he’s leaning against ordering the tests because he isn’t convinced that the DNA would prove innocence. The evidence Fasano is seeking to test includes a hat, shirt and sunglasses worn by the bank robber in the commission of the crime.

"We have done everything under the sun and still can't get it," Fasano said in a telephone interview from a federal prison medical center in Rochester, Minn. "What's the big secret? Why won't they give it to us?"
Fasano was convicted of a federal crime, and a federal law that passed in 2004 allows prisoners to seek post-conviction DNA testing in federal cases. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld, who helped craft the 2004 federal law, says Fasano should get DNA testing.
[Neufeld] said "it's a mean-spirited position to deny DNA testing to inmates asserting a claim of innocence because it's unconscionable any law enforcement person would want to keep somebody innocent in prison. I'm not saying he (Fasano) is innocent, but he's certainly entitled to have a test to provide compelling evidence of innocence."
Read the full story here. (Clarion-Ledger, 04/21/08)



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DNA tests overturn more wrongful arrests

Posted: April 22, 2008 4:32 pm

In countless cases across the U.S. each year, DNA testing conducted before trial releases an innocent person from jail, and eliminates the risk of their wrongful conviction. But months or years spent in jail – or on bond – while awaiting trial can take a damaging toll on a person’s family, career and life. And these cases point to the certainty that innocent people are still being arrested and convicted.

In Kansas City last week, 19-year-old Deangilo Minor was released from jail after serving 10 months behind bars awaiting trial on an attempted rape and a rape. He was identified by the victim in one of the crimes, but DNA testing conducted before trial proved that another man had committed the crimes. Based on the DNA results, Minor was released and the charges were dropped. During the 10 months he spent in prison, Minor lost his apartment and parted ways with his girlfriend.

“This case casts into doubt the reliability of eyewitnesses,” said Dan Ross, Minor’s defense lawyer.

Ted Hunt, assistant county prosecutor, said the case showed the link between DNA and justice.
“It convicts and also exonerates,” Hunt said. “That’s a good thing for people to keep in mind.”

Read the full story here. (Kansas City Star, 04/17/08)
Wrongful convictions are still happening in the age of DNA testing. Testing is not conducted in all cases involving biological evidence. Innocent defendants take plea bargains before expensive tests are conducted in an attempt to avoid harsh sentences at trial. And then there are the vast majority of cases – more than 90% of all criminal cases – that don’t involve any biological evidence that can be tested. The risk of a wrongful conviction based on eyewitness misidentification or snitch testimony is just as strong – or stronger – in these cases today.

In a similar case, prosecutors in Virginia dropped charges last week against Anthony Worrell, a 20-year-old man who spent 17 months awaiting trial on charges he robbed a drug store. Charges were dropped after DNA testing on specks of blood believed to be from the perpetrator did not match Worrell. Prosecutors said they decided to drop charges “With our ID being a little shaky and without DNA…”

Read the full story here. (Southwest Virginia Today, 04/16/08)


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Canadian man is cleared, and the public calls for an official investigation

Posted: April 24, 2008 3:10 pm

Robert Baltovich spent nearly nine years in a Canadian prison for a Toronto-area murder he has always said he didn’t commit, and he was finally cleared Tuesday when prosecutors dropped charges against him. He was convicted in 1992 of killing his then-girlfriend and served nearly nine years before his conviction was overturned on appeal. He has been free since 2000 while a new trial was pending. Evidence of another perpetrator’s possible guilt contributed to prosecutors deciding to drop charges.

“It’s an 18-year nightmare for me. It’s a never-ending nightmare for the (victim’s family),” Baltovich said outside court. “I just hope that one day they can come to accept the fact that I didn’t kill their daughter.

Read the full story here. (Toronto Star, 04/22/08)
A column in Canada’s National Post today calls for a permanent office charged with reviewing possible wrongful convictions and exonerating the innocent. Read the full column here.

Attorneys at the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted represented Baltovich during much of his 16 year struggle for justice. AIDWYC is a member of the Innocence Network.



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In legal limbo, NY man awaits future

Posted: April 25, 2008 12:26 pm

Marty Tankleff was released from a New York prison in December after serving 17 years for the murders of his parents, a crime he has always maintained he didn’t commit. Since his release, Tankleff has been adjusting to his newfound freedom – reconnecting with family and enduring the difficulties of learning to navigate all of the new technology since he went to prison – like cell phones and the Internet. He is enrolled in Hofstra University to study sociology and philosophy. He told the New York Times that he hopes to go to law school to work on wrongful conviction cases.

“I think I have the education for it — and the experience,” Mr. Tankleff said with a smile as he sat on the couch at his aunt’s home. Referring to letters from desperate prisoners seeking help with appeals, he said: “I know what those guys are like. I was one of them.”
But before he can focus on the future, he needs his case to finally be behind him. He was 17 years old when he woke up to find his mother dead and his father unconscious in the house he shared with them. His father would later die in the hospital, and Tankleff was  interrogated by detectives as a suspect. He was charged with the murders after allegedly making statements that he may have “blacked out” and committed the crimes. The “confession” was immediately recanted by Tankleff and he never signed the written version.

The charges against Tankleff are still pending, and New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has been appointed as a special prosecutor in the case. Cuomo will announce on June 16 whether charges against Tankleff will finally be dropped. But the case will never really be over, Tankleff told the New York Times.
“I just wish the case would be over,” he said, referring to it as “the gorilla on my back.”

But with his parents dead and 17 years of freedom lost, he said, the case “will always be part of me.”

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 04/25/08)





Tags: Marty Tankleff

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Another innocent man released in Dallas, summit set for next week

Posted: April 29, 2008 2:50 pm

James Lee Woodard, who served more than 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, walked out of a Dallas courtroom this morning a free man for the first time since 1981. He is the eighteenth man cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County, more than any other county in the nation. In the wake of his release today, Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis officially announced that a landmark Summit on Wrongful Convictions will be held May 8 in Austin. The summit will bring lawmakers, lawyers, civic leaders and exonerees together to work on addressing and preventing wrongful convictions in Texas. Read more about the summit here.

Days after he was arrested on New Year’s Day in 1981, Woodard began writing letters proclaiming his innocence and seeking to prevent a wrongful conviction. He was charged with sexually assaulting and strangling a 21-year-old woman he was dating at the time. He was convicted mainly based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses, and his lawyers at the Innocence Project of Texas say prosecutors had evidence at trial of the possible involvement of other suspects, but withheld that evidence from Woodard’s defense.

"On the first day he was arrested, he told the world he was innocent ... and nobody listened," Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said during Tuesday's hearing.

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 04/29/08)
Watch video of James Woodard's comments in the courtroom today. (WFAA, 04/29/08) 
To bring about Woodard’s release, his lawyers at the Innocence Project of Texas worked closely with the Dallas District Attorney’s Office and its Conviction Integrity Unit. Read more about the cooperation on the Dallas Observer’s Unfair Park blog.

Of the 18 people cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County to date, 14 have been fully exonerated by DNA testing. Fifteen of the 18 were convicted under former District Attorney Henry Wade. For an exoneration to be official, the defendant must receive a pardon from the governor or a writ of habeas corpus from the Court of Criminal Appeals (the state’s highest criminal court). Read about the 14 Dallas DNA exonerations here.

Two weeks ago, Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan was released in Dallas after serving 23 years in prison for a rape and burglary that DNA now proves he didn’t commit. An editorial this week in the Texas Baptist Standard says McGowan’s case illustrates why Texas should support a moratorium on capital punishment and why the possibility of executing an innocent person should prompt Christians to support a moratorium worldwide. Read the editorial here.



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Wisconsin man still working to prove his innocence, 27 years later

Posted: April 30, 2008 4:50 pm

For 27 years, Ralph Armstrong has proclaimed his innocence, to no avail. But evidence disclosed this month pointing to the real perpetrator’s identity, combined with DNA test results from 2005, casts serious doubt on his conviction.

Armstrong was 28 years old when he was convicted of killing a 19-year-old college freshman in Madison, Wisconsin; today he is 55. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court threw out his conviction after DNA test results excluded him as the source of biological evidence from the crime scene. He is currently awaiting a new trial.

The Innocence Project has worked for years on Armstrong’s case with lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project and other private attorneys. A new brief filed this month by the Innocence Project and Armstrong’s local counsel reveals two affidavits showing that Armstrong’s brother, Steve, has admitted that he committed the crime. The brief goes on to allege that the Dane County prosecutors knew of Steve Armstrong’s confession in 1995 but failed to share this information with Ralph Armstrong or his lawyers.

“[T]he state deliberately suppressed and withheld, for approximately the last thirteen years, information that a known third party confessed to the rape and murder of the victim in this case,” states the brief, filed on April 17 by Armstrong’s defense attorneys, Jerome Buting of Brookfield and Barry Scheck of New York. The brief to Wisconsin’s Dist. 4 Court of Appeals calls this confession “exculpatory evidence supporting the claim of Ralph Armstrong that he is innocent of this crime.”

Read more about Ralph Armstrong’s case here. (Madison Isthmus, 04/25/08)


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New suspect in North Carolina rape

Posted: May 6, 2008 4:10 pm

A North Carolina man was indicted yesterday in the 1987 rape for which Dwayne Dail spent nearly two decades in prison. Dail was wrongfully convicted of raping a 12-year-old in Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1989 and freed last year when DNA testing proved that semen recovered from the victim’s nightgown did not match Dail’s DNA profile. Dail had been told for years that the evidence was lost before his lawyers at the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence found the evidence in a police station closet.

Yesterday, prosecutors charged William Neal with committing the 1987 crime, saying the semen recovered from the victim’s nightgown matched Neal’s DNA profile. Neal is serving time in prison for another conviction.

Read the full story here. (News-Observer, 05/05/08)

Watch a new Innocence Project video interview with Dwayne Dail
.





Tags: Dwayne Dail

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As executions resume in U.S., so does the risk of executing the innocent

Posted: May 7, 2008 3:15 pm

Last night, Georgia ended a seven-month national moratorium on executions when William Lynd was executed by lethal injection. The de-facto moratorium came about while the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the constitutionality of lethal injections. The court ruled last month that lethal injections could continue.

Meanwhile, Levon Jones was released from death row last week in North Carolina after his lawyers revealed new evidence of his innocence and showed that he received an inadequate defense at trial. Several death row inmates across the country are seeking to prove this innocence in the courts – including Innocence Project client Tommy Arthur, who has been seeking DNA testing from death row for years, and Georgia inmate Troy Davis.

Innocence Project client Paul House is still waiting in legal limbo for a decision after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the jury in House’s case may have acquitted him. House has been in prison for 22 years – much of it on death row – for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors in his case said this week they would retry House, who remains in jail awaiting a new trial or his release. Read the full story here. (Tennessean, 05/07/08)

An article in today’s New York Times considers the state of legal representation for indigent Americans charged with capital crimes.

Georgia’s new public defender system came under attack by politicians and was recently forced to cut more than 40 positions.

That system, established after a series of lawsuits, was patterned after one North Carolina put in place in 2001, which was considered a national model. But not many other states have followed suit, said Robin Maher, director of the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Representation Project.

“I wish I could say that things have gotten a lot better, but in fact I can say with confidence that things have changed not much at all,” Ms. Maher said. “We are seeing the same kinds of egregiously bad lawyering that we saw 10 or 15 years ago, for a variety of reasons, including inadequate funding.”

Of the 36 states that allow the death penalty, only about 10 have statewide capital-defense systems, one of the practices recommended by the Bar Association.

 Read the full story here. (New York Times, 05/07/08)
And CBS reported on Monday that 14 executions are scheduled across the U.S. in the next six months and five states are considering expansions to the death penalty – allowing them to execute people for crimes other than murder. Meanwhile, five states are seriously considering repealing the death penalty. Watch the CBS News video here, featuring an interview with Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent 8 years on death row before DNA proved his innocence of a Maryland murder.

 



Tags: North Carolina, Kirk Bloodsworth, Death Penalty

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Live webcast - Texas Summit on Wrongful Convictions at 2 pm EST

Posted: May 8, 2008 12:59 pm

Texas has seen more wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing than any other state. Today, key leaders from across the state will gather in Austin for a Summit on Wrongful Convictions to address the causes of these wrongful convictions. Judges, lawmakers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, exonerees, professors and many others are expected to attend the event – which begins at 2 p.m. EST and is open to the public. State Sen. Rodney Ellis is spearheading the event, and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck will also attend.

Watch the event live on the web at 2 pm EST (1 pm CST).

“We’ve reached a tipping point on wrongful convictions in Texas. Nobody can seriously doubt that there’s a problem, and next week leaders from across our criminal justice system will come together to start solving it,” Ellis said. “We will bring a wide range of leaders, experts and exonerees together for a full day to develop concrete, common-sense remedies to make our system of justice more fair and accurate. We won’t solve these serious problems in one day, but we will make historic strides toward restoring confidence in our criminal justice system.”

New Innocence Project video: Three Texan exonerees tell their stories [video: 04:24]



Tags: Innocence Commissions

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Friday links

Posted: May 9, 2008 3:10 pm

More stories from across the country this week on wrongful convictions, forensics and criminal justice reforms.

Dallas Morning News editorial: Bad prosecutors should face prison

NPR Morning Edition: Dallas man exonerated after 27 years in prison

Fingerprint error leads to wrongful arrest in Georgia case

American Bar Association Journal: Bite-Mark Evidence Loses Teeth

Innocence Project files for testing in Pennsylvania case (Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, 05/08/08)

Lack of funds stalls Virgina DNA testing project
(Associated Press, 05/08/08)

Texas exoneree Brandon Moon blogged this week about spending Cinco de Mayo in Texas prisons, and his trip to Texas for the Summit on Wrongful Convictions.





Tags: Brandon Moon

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Dallas Morning News editorial calls on lawmakers to support innocence commission in Texas

Posted: November 30, -0001

The editorial board of the Dallas Morning News today called on lawmakers to support Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis’ proposal to form a state innocence commission in Texas. The influential paper’s editorial comes just four days after the historic Texas Summit on Wrongful Convictions, which brought together lawmakers and criminal justice leaders to examine why so many innocent people are ending up in Texas prisons.

Texas has had more DNA exonerations than any other state with 31 in ten counties. In Dallas alone the 18th person, James Lee Woodard, was freed two weeks ago after serving 27 years for a murder he did not commit.

“No county has borne more shame than Dallas County for the outrage of miscarriage of justice,” the Dallas Morning News wrote. “No county has a greater responsibility to change Texas law to prevent tragic mistakes in the future.”

An innocence commission would examine what went wrong in each of these cases and make recommendations on how the system could be fixed to prevent more wrongful convictions. Among the problems a commission could address in Texas are eyewitness misidentification, harsh interrogation tactics that result in false confessions, unethical prosecutorial practices, and proper DNA testing. The Morning News said such a commission was “needed badly in Texas.”

The concept is a sound one and has been adopted by at least five states.
News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253 other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of other law enforcement procedures.

The editorial called for “robust support” for Sen. Ellis’ bill and recommended that a Dallas Republican should sponsor it in the House where a similar bill last year was killed before making it to the floor.

Read the editorial. (The Dallas Morning News, 5/11/08)


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Dallas Morning News editorial calls on lawmakers to support innocence commission in Texas

Posted: May 12, 2008 2:00 pm

The editorial board of the Dallas Morning News yesterday called on lawmakers to support Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis’ proposal to form a state innocence commission in Texas. The influential paper’s editorial comes just four days after the historic Texas Summit on Wrongful Convictions, which brought together lawmakers and criminal justice leaders to examine why so many innocent people are ending up in Texas prisons.

Texas has had more DNA exonerations than any other state with 31 in ten counties. In Dallas alone the 18th person, James Lee Woodard, was freed two weeks ago after serving 27 years for a murder he did not commit.

“No county has borne more shame than Dallas County for the outrage of miscarriage of justice,” the Dallas Morning News wrote. “No county has a greater responsibility to change Texas law to prevent tragic mistakes in the future.”

An innocence commission would examine what went wrong in each of these cases and make recommendations on how the system could be fixed to prevent more wrongful convictions. Among the problems a commission could address in Texas are eyewitness misidentification, harsh interrogation tactics that result in false confessions, unethical prosecutorial practices, and proper DNA testing. The Morning News said such a commission was “needed badly in Texas.”

The concept is a sound one and has been adopted by at least five states.
News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253 other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of other law enforcement procedures.

The editorial called for “robust support” for Sen. Ellis’ bill and recommended that a Dallas Republican should sponsor it in the House where a similar bill last year was killed before making it to the floor.

Read the editorial. (The Dallas Morning News, 5/11/08)




Tags: Texas, Innocence Commissions

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South Carolina's most influential paper supports post-conviction DNA testing bill

Posted: May 13, 2008 5:00 pm

In its lead editorial today, South Carolina’s largest and most influential paper, The State, urged the legislature to pass a bill that would provide access to post-conviction DNA testing for people convicted of violent crimes.

Under current law, there’s no mechanism for such testing; in most cases, judges can’t order DNA testing — or do anything about it if such testing is somehow done and demonstrates the convict’s innocence — unless the solicitor agrees to the request.
That wouldn’t be a problem in an ideal world, because the job of prosecutors is to do justice, and so they would be just as anxious as anyone to make sure the wrong person isn’t in prison. The reality is different. Prosecutors are human and dislike admitting their mistakes; and besides, they grow cynical from hearing the inevitable claims of innocence from criminals who really aren’t innocent, so with rare exceptions, they fight tooth and nail against those claims.
The Senate bill (S.429) passed last month and is headed to the House. It would make South Carolina the 44th state with a law on the books explicitly granting post-conviction DNA testing . In March, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck told lawmakers that access to DNA testing is a vital right for prisoners.

And The State agrees that denying that right can harm all of us.
When the wrong person is convicted of a crime, the only clear winner is the actual criminal — although police and prosecutors might appear to be winners, since they were able to score a conviction. The person wrongly convicted certainly doesn’t win, and in fact we do incomprehensibly grave harm to that person. Neither do the rest of us, who are less safe because the real criminal remains free to harm others.
Read the editorial. (The State, 5/13/08)




Tags: South Carolina, Access to DNA Testing

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Innocence Project client set to be exonerated Wednesday

Posted: May 20, 2008 5:50 pm

Walter Swift is expected to be released from custody in Michigan tomorrow after serving 26 years in prison for a rape that a wide range of evidence now shows he didn’t commit. A hearing is set for 10:30 a.m. in a Detroit courtroom, where prosecutors will join the Innocence Project is asking a judge to dismiss all charges against Swift, and he will be released. A press conference is scheduled for 3 p.m.

Email us for details on attending the press conference.

And stay tuned to the Innocence Blog for more news on Swift’s case tomorrow. We’ll be sending an email alert after he’s released. If you aren’t already a subscriber, sign up here.



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Interview with Dallas DA Craig Watkins

Posted: June 2, 2008 3:23 pm

In the June issue of Reason Magazine, Editor Radley Balko interviews Craig Watkins, the Dallas District Attorney who gained national attention in 2007 through his role in the release of several people wrongfully convicted by his predecessors. Watkins says the Dallas DA’s office operated too long on a “convict at all costs” philosophy, and he is working to change the office from one that is “tough on crime” to one that is “smart on crime.”

Among other projects, Watkins started a Conviction Integrity Unit in his office, which played a key role in the recent release of James Woodard after 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Q: You’re critical of the mind-set of winning convictions at all costs. The legendary law-and-order Dallas prosecutor Henry Wade, who for 35 years held the job you now hold, embodied that philosophy. He’s alleged even to have boasted about convicting innocent people—that putting an innocent man in jail proved his prowess as a prosecutor.

A: It was a badge of honor at the time to knowingly convict someone that wasn’t guilty. It’s widely known among defense attorneys and prosecutors from that era. We had to clean out all the remnants of that older way of thinking.

Read the full article here. (Reason, June 2008)
Watch a recent “60 Minutes” segment on Craig Watkins’ role in James Woodard’s release.

Watch more video of Watkins on YouTube.



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Executions set to resume tonight in Texas

Posted: June 3, 2008 3:55 pm

After a nine-month hiatus from executions, Texas is set to execute Derrick Sonnier tonight for two Houston murders for which he was convicted in 1993. Texas officials have scheduled 12 executions between now and the end of the year, reclaiming Texas’ place as the nation’s most active death penalty state.

Texas also leads the country in the number of inmates exonerated by DNA testing after serving years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, and last week brought DNA proof of a death row inmate’s innocence. Innocence Project client Michael Blair has been on Texas’s death row for 14 years for a murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit. Prosecutors agreed with the Innocence Project in requesting that Blair’s conviction be tossed, and a judge ruled that the request should move forward. The state’s highest criminal court could now fully exonerate Blair from death row.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Austin American-Statesman, the sister of Carlos De Luna wrote that her brother was executed in Texas two decades ago for a crime he didn’t commit and that she believes Texas hasn’t learned critical lessons from her brother’s case.

Unfortunately, in the 19 years since his execution, the numerous problems that led to his wrongful conviction have never been addressed and continue to plague the Texas capital punishment system. With executions in the state about to resume, I hope that legislators and the courts will learn lessons from my brother's story.

Read Rose Rhoton’s full op-ed here. (Austin American-Statesman, 06/02/08)
More coverage:

Background on the Michael Blair case


Grist for Breakfast: Texecutions resume tonight

Amnesty International’s list of scheduled executions nationwide

Previous Innocence Blog posts:

Supreme Court decides lethal injection case


As executions resume in U.S., so does the risk of executing the innocent






Tags: Death Penalty

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Bail hearing Friday for Tennessee inmate

Posted: June 4, 2008 3:01 pm

Paul House spent 22 years on death row for a crime he has always said he didn’t commit. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that new evidence, developed since trial, undermines his conviction. He is still behind bars in legal limbo, and prosecutors have delayed action on a new trial. On Friday, a judge has the chance to release House on bail while legal delays continue. On Sunday, Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr wrote that it’s too late for justice, but not too late for mercy.

Joyce House gets angry when she hears prosecutors argue that her son, whose legs don't work, will run: "Where is he going to run? I don't have the funds to run overseas. I don't speak any languages."

It's too late for justice to prevail in this case. Too late for House, who had 22 years of his life sucked away unfairly. Too late for the victim's family, who will probably never know for sure who killed their mother. Too late for prosecutors, who screwed this case up from the start.

But it is never too late for mercy. Send Paul House home with an ankle monitor. After all, he won't be able to feel it.

Read the full column here. (Tennessean, 06/01/08)
Read more about House’s case and the Innocence Project’s role in his Supreme Court victory.





Tags: Death Penalty, Paul House

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New panels study wrongful convictions in Texas and New York

Posted: June 4, 2008 3:20 pm

Texas’ highest criminal court today announced the creation of a new Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to address concerns of injustice in the court system and work with inmates who say they’ve been wrongfully convicted. The group’s initial invited members include Court of Criminal Appeals judge Barbara Hervey, Texas State Sen. Rodney Ellis (also the Innocence Project Board Chairman), members of Gov. Rick Perry’s staff, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges.

"This is a call to action to address the growing concerns with our criminal justice system," Hervey said.David Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston and director of the Texas Innocence Network, said the integrity unit could have a huge impact. Unreliable eyewitness evidence is the top contributor to wrongful convictions, he said, Better preservation of evidence could help wrongfully convicted inmates use emerging technologies to win their case.

"I think this is fabulous," Dow said. "I think the court's recognition of the problem by itself is noteworthy."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 06/04/08)
A Summit on Wrongful Convictions in Austin last month added momentum to the push for a state innocence commission to study wrongful convictions. Read more about the summit here.

Meanwhile, the New York State Bar Association has also established a 22-member task force to study wrongful convictions. Members of this group will also come from across the legal spectrum – both inside and outside the state’s criminal justice system.

Read more here. (Newsday, 06/04/08)

Download the Innocence Project’s report on stalled reforms in New York.





Tags: Texas, New York, Innocence Commissions

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Texas prosecutors reflect on their role in wrongful convictions

Posted: June 9, 2008 12:05 pm

A groundbreaking article in this week’s issue of Texas Lawyer tells of a dozen Dallas exonerations through the eyes of the trial prosecutors. Their reflections on these cases represent a range of perspectives, but common themes emerge. There is consensus that eyewitness identification is unreliable on its own and that cases resting on a single eyewitness are a recipe for wrongful conviction. Prosecutors agree that forensic science has improved the quality of justice in American courtrooms. Many prosecutors remembered every detail of these convictions years later, and worked for the defendant’s release soon after learning of new DNA evidence proving innocence.

Prosecutors call these wrongful convictions “tragic” and one says that hindsight is 20-20.

"I don't fault anyone for doing what they're doing," Prosecutor Douglas Fletcher says. "But you can look back on any profession. Doctors can look back at doctors 30 years ago and say . . . "Why were they treating cancer that way?'"
Another prosecutor, James Fry, says the unreliable nature of eyewitness identifications has been exposed by these exonerations.
… "In the criminal justice system, people are being convicted on one-witness cases. And what this says to me is we've got an inherent problem about how many of these cases we're getting wrong. And it's still going on today," says James Fry, a former Dallas prosecutor who helped send a man to prison for 27 years for a crime he didn't commit. "My question to everybody involved in this across the state and across the nation is what are we going to do about this? I don't know."
Read the full story here. (Texas Lawyer, 06/06/08)

 



Tags: Charles Chatman, Wiley Fountain, Larry Fuller, James Giles, Donald Wayne Good, Andrew Gossett, Billy Wayne Miller, David Shawn Pope, James Waller, Gregory Wallis, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Week in review

Posted: June 13, 2008 1:30 pm

Criminal justice stories that made headlines this week:

A federal judge recommended a new trial for Albert Woodfox, a member of the “Angola Three” – three Louisiana prisoners who spent three decades each in solitary confinement after they were convicted of murder. Woodfox and his attorneys argue that his defense attorney made serious errors in his previous trial. (CNN, 06/11/08)

The U.S. Supreme court ruled that prisoners at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can challenge their incarceration under federal habeas corpus protections. (New York Times, 06/13/08)

An ex-spokesman for the Texas prison system has begun testifying for the defense in capital cases, explaining security systems for prisoners sentenced to life. He has met with resistance from prosecutors and said that because the death penalty has come under such scrutiny, there’s a “with us or against us mentality.” (Chicago Tribune, 06/12/08)

New York State Police officials are reviewing the forensic work of a scientist who committed suicide last month after lab audits found inconsistencies in his work. District attorneys across the state are being notified that cases could be compromised by questions about the analysts work. (New York Times, 06/12/08)



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Innocence Project client to get DNA testing in Pennsylvania

Posted: June 17, 2008 1:32 pm

Kevin Siehl has been in prison since 1992 for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Last week, a judge approved a joint request from Innocence Project lawyers and Cambria County, Pennsylvania, prosecutors to order DNA testing on biological evidence from the apartment where Siehl’s estranged wife was found stabbed to death in 1991.

Siehl is represented by Innocence Project Staff Attorney Craig Cooley. The Innocence Project will pay for DNA testing in the case.

Cooley praised the prosecutors and police for locating the evidence and for their cooperation.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” he said of the on-going efforts by the project on Siehl’s behalf.

Read the full story here. (Jonestown Tribune-Democrat, 06/13/08)




Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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Real perpetrator identified in Texas exoneration

Posted: June 18, 2008 3:53 pm

Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan was freed in April, but today his case is fully closed. Dallas County prosecutors announced last night that the DNA profile that proved McGowan’s innocence also led to the identity of the real perpetrator, a man named Kenneth Wayne Woodson, who is already serving in Texas prison for another crime.

When told that his DNA profile matched evidence from the 1985 rape, Woodson confessed to committing the crime, prosecutors said. Like many wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, McGowan’s conviction not only sent an innocent man to prison but also allowed the perpetrator of a violent crime to evade arrest. Woodson was convicted of a separate rape in 1986 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. If he – and not McGowan – had been apprehended after the 1985 attack, the 1986 rape could have been prevented.

Woodson was paroled after 20 years, but was convicted of robbing a bank 14 months after his release. He was sent back to serve the remaining 10 years of his sentence. He will not be prosecuted for the 1985 rape, officials said, because the statute of limitations has expired.

The real perpetrator has been identified in 83 of the 218 DNA exoneration cases to date.

McGowan, who was officially exonerated last week by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, said this news brings full closure to his case.

McGowan said that with all of the publicity surrounding the new information in the case, he sympathizes with the victim. "I'll be praying for her," he said.
Regarding Woodson, McGowan said: "I feel sorry for the dude. I can't understand what was running through his mind. I'm amazed the dude got caught. I'm just glad the truth is out now."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 06/17/08)
Read more about McGowan’s case here.
 



Tags: Thomas McGowan

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DNA tests lead to new trial for NY man

Posted: June 20, 2008 3:10 pm

A New York judge threw out the 1995 murder conviction of Sammy Swift yesterday based on DNA results showing that blood from the crime scene did not come from Swift. At Swift’s trial, prosecutors pointed repeatedly to blood-type tests that included Swift – and a huge percentage of the population – among the people who could have potentially contributed blood found at the scene. Traditional ABO blood tests were a predecessor of DNA testing in courtrooms across the country, and this limited science played a part in dozens of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Blood found at the victim’s house in Swift’s case could have come from someone with type-A blood or type-O blood. More than 60 percent of Americans have one of these blood types, but prosecutors pointed to the test results as evidence confirming Swift’s guilt.

Now DNA testing on the same evidence has shown that the blood at the scene did not come from Swift. Cayuga County Judge Thomas Leone announced his ruling yesterday, saying there was “a reasonable probability the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant” had jurors known the DNA results. Swift now faces the prospect of a new trial if prosecutors decide to pursue it.

This is the second Cayuga County conviction overturned by DNA testing in 18 months. Innocence Project client Roy Brown was exonerated in 2007 after DNA tests proved his innocence of the murder for which he was in prison.
Roy Brown said he and Swift knew each other - they were both at Elmira Correctional Facility at the same time - and he shared information with Swift about filing appeals. Brown said he was glad Swift will get a new trial and said someone should look at how the system works.

"If you look at it, it's the same sheriff, Peter Pinckney. It's the same judge, Peter Corning. It's the same cabal," Brown said. "They need to look at every single case they prosecuted."

Read the full story here. (Syracuse Post-Standard, 06/20/08)
Read more about Roy Brown’s exoneration here.





Tags: Roy Brown

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The 'CSI effect' on both sides of the courtroom

Posted: June 20, 2008 3:28 pm

The increased reliance on forensic science in courtrooms over the last decades has been a positive development in many ways. DNA testing has freed 218 innocent people, prevented countless wrongful convictions and helped apprehend the actual perpetrators in thousands of cases that may have not been solved otherwise. DNA evidence has also revealed vulnerabilities of traditional investigation techniques, like eyewitness identification procedures and admissions of guilt. The hard science of DNA testing has also led the way in creating momentum to standardize forensic science, finally banishing misleading and unreliable practices from the courtroom and bringing more reliability to criminal trials.

But improved forensic science has also caused a dilemma for prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants. Prosecutors complain about a ‘CSI effect,’ resulting from the popular – and seemingly omnipresent – television crime dramas. In the TV show, lab technicians identify a suspect through analysis that isn’t – or shouldn’t be – possible in the real world. They match bullets to guns to gun owners, they track footprints and fingerprints in unlikely places, they match fibers from the crime scene to a car or piece of clothing. These unreliable methods usually aren’t available, and when they are they’ve led to wrongful convictions. Prosecutors are right to tell a jury that there’s no forensic evidence rather than stretching to make a connection that isn’t there (as the scientists in CSI might). But then they say juries are skeptical of a case without fancy forensics.

"The 'CSI' effect is a real phenomenon in the courtroom," Anchorage District Attorney Adrienne Bachman told the Anchorage Daily News this week . "(A jury's) expectations might be too high in a given case -- that's certainly a possibility -- but that's something that prosecutors have to face head-on. We can't ignore it or avoid it."
On the other side of the courtroom, defense attorneys find it hard to challenge scientific evidence when prosecutors take pseudo-scientific findings too far. If a prosecutor claims that scientific methods have “matched” a fiber to a suspect’s sweater, jurors tend to believe it, because they’ve seen it on TV.
"Juries are so impressed with scientific evidence," said Rex Butler, a prominent Anchorage defense attorney. "And, of course, scientific evidence is so much harder to challenge than the statements of witnesses and things of that nature."

Read the full Anchorage Daily News article here. (06/15/08)
A major facet of the Innocence Project’s mission is to apply the lessons of DNA exonerations to bring about reform in the criminal justice system. One reform we’re actively seeking is to standardize the forensic science in American courtrooms. Many forensic practices, such as bite mark analysis and fiber comparison, operate outside of any set of regulations. The Innocence Project is working  – often in conjunction with mainstream forensic science leaders and law enforcement – to bring about strong oversight standards in this critical area.



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Former NYC prosecutor threw case to help innocent prisoners

Posted: June 23, 2008 3:12 pm

A story in today’s New York Times reveals that former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Daniel Bibb did something in 2005 that few prosecutors will ever do, or admit to doing – he helped the defense win a case. When mounting evidence indicated that David Lemus and Olmedo Hidalgo were serving 25 years to life for a 1990 murder they didn’t commit, Bibb was charged with reinvestigating the case within the prosecutor’s office. Together with two NYPD detectives, Bibb spent two years investigating the case, and came back to tell his superiors that he believed Lemus and Hidalgo to be innocent and recommended that their charges be dropped, the Times reported today. He was ordered to argue the case anyway.

So he stayed on the case, but he began to work closely with defense attorneys, he says.

“I did the best I could… to lose,” he said. “I had always been taught that we made the decisions, that we made the tough calls, that we didn’t take things and throw them up against the wall” for a judge or jury to sort out. “If the evidence doesn’t convince me, then I’m never going to be able to convince a jury.”

“I didn’t work for the other side,” he said. “I worked for what I thought was the right thing.”
Finally, Bibb convinced his bosses to drop the charges against Hidalgo, but they continued with their case against Lemus. In October 2005 a judge ordered a new trial for Lemus, and Bibb resigned from the DA’s office, starting a new career as a defense attorney. In December 2007, Lemus was acquitted at his second trial.

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 06/23/08)

Read previous Times coverage and watch videos from an 11-part Dateline NBC documentary on the case
.



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Dispatch from Maryland: The generation that could end injustice

Posted: June 25, 2008 12:22 pm

By Jason Kreag, Innocence Project Staff Attorney

DNA testing has brought sweeping changes to our criminal justice system, proving that wrongful convictions aren’t rare at all and exposing the weakness and unreliability of evidence that many people have trusted for too long – including eyewitness testimony, snitch testimony, unreliable science and alleged admissions of guilt.

The Innocence Project is working to make sure DNA exonerations will lead to the construction of a stronger system, one that prevents injustice by relying only on solid evidence and reliable law enforcement procedures. These changes, like everything in the law, take time. While there is exciting progress in courts and statehouses today, I think it will be the generation of young people sitting today in elementary and high school classrooms that ushers in a new era of justice in America.

I’m in Maryland and Virginia today to meet with two groups of high school students who are already making a difference. At the University of Maryland, I’ll be meeting with about 70 students at the National Student Leaders Conference in Forensic Science to talk about the role of forensic science in criminal law. Later in the day, I’ll give a speech on the role of evidence in the law to the National Youth Leadership Forum on the Law in Fairfax, Virginia. It is truly inspiring to see these young audiences taking an interest in our criminal justice system, and it means good things for the future of the system.

Kellie Davis of Alaska posted on our Facebook page recently that she was excited to see young prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges beginning to leave a mark on the system by treating each case with an open mind and seeking justice for all Americans. There’s only more of this to come.

If you’re in high school or college – or you know someone who is – you can get involved today. Join our Facebook and MySpace pages and invite your friends. Start a group at your school, invite an exoneree of Innocence Project staffer to speak, or collect signatures for our petition for DNA testing access. You can get started here.



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Texas death row conviction overturned

Posted: June 26, 2008 3:40 pm

Michael Blair spent 14 years on Texas’ death row for a murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit before the state’s highest criminal court overturned his conviction yesterday based on DNA evidence of his innocence. Prosecutors joined with Blair’s defense team – which includes the Innocence Project – in requesting that the conviction be tossed after DNA test results also indicated that another man, now deceased, committed the crime. Blair now faces the prospect of a retrial in the case, but he will be officially exonerated of this crime if charges against him are dropped. In the meantime, he will be transferred from death row, but will remain in prison on three other sex assault convictions, for which he was sentenced to life.

Less than a year after Blair was sentenced to death, then-Governor George W. Bush signed “Ashley’s Laws,” named after the victim in the case, expanding punishment and registration for sex offenders. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said Blair’s wrongful conviction – and community’s rush to expand punishment in the wake of his case – illustrates serious flaws in the criminal justice system.

“Troubling questions about our criminal justice system are raised any time DNA testing shows that someone on death row is innocent,” Scheck said. “But in this case, the community rushed to judgment because Michael Blair had a record as a sex offender — while the apparent real perpetrator, who had no record, evaded justice. More than just an irony, this should give everyone pause about legislating or reaching court decisions based on community fear and outrage.

“This case starkly shows that the system makes mistakes, and that those mistakes can have chilling consequences. Michael Blair was almost executed for a crime that DNA testing shows he did not commit. Even more troubling is the reality that the kind of evidence that led to Michael Blair’s wrongful conviction is used in countless cases nationwide every day. Eyewitness misidentification and unreliable forensic science convicted Michael Blair, but DNA has finally shown the truth.”

Read more:

Associated Press: Court overturned conviction in Ashley’s Killer case



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DNA identifies apparent perpetrator in Michigan case

Posted: June 27, 2008 9:40 am

Ken Wyniemko was exonerated five years ago in Michigan after serving nearly nine years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. This week, prosecutors announced that the DNA profile that led to Wyniemko’s exoneration has identified a new suspect in the case, a man who is currently incarcerated for other crimes. They refused to release the identity of the individual while the investigation was ongoing.

Wyniemko, who testified Wednesday before the State House Judiciary Committee in support of a bill to compensate the wrongfully convicted upon their release, discussed the new developments in his case with reporters.

"I'm real curious to see if the guy committed any other crimes during the time I was in prison," Wyniemko says.

Read the full story here. (Detroit MetroTimes, 06/25/08)
Of the 218 DNA exonerations in the U.S. to date, real perpetrators have been identified in 83 cases. Those perpetrators were convicted of at least 74 additional violent crimes after the conviction of the innocent person – crimes that could have been prevented if the right person had been identified and apprehended earlier.

Read a recent blog post by Wyniemko on his work to prevent wrongful convictions and to help the recently exonerated build new lives after release.

 




Tags: Kenneth Wyniemko

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DNA clears another Dallas man

Posted: June 27, 2008 3:21 pm

New DNA testing shows that Patrick Waller was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life for a 1992 Dallas rape, and he may be released as soon as next week, Dallas County prosecutors said yesterday. Waller was 22 when he was arrested in connection with the rape, and he has served nearly 16 years in prison to date.

Waller was one of the first Dallas prisoners to request DNA testing after the state passed a DNA access law in 2001, but the office of former District Attorney Bill Hill refused to agree to testing. He was again denied in 2005. The office of current District Attorney Craig Watkins has taken a different approach, investigating the cases of prisoners previously denied access to testing and conducting new tests when appropriate. It was the investigation of Watkins’ Conviction Integrity Unit that has cleared Waller in this case.

Waller was convicted and sentenced to life in prison as one of two men who raped a woman in an abandoned Dallas building in 1992. DNA testing approved by Watkins’ office led to the identity of one of the two perpetrators – Byron Bell, 38, who is serving time in prison for a burlary committed months after the rape for which Waller was wrongfully convicted. Prosecutors have said that Bell admitted to his involvement in the case and disclosed the identity of the other perpetrator, Leonardo Simmons, who has also admitted to his role in the crime.

Waller is the 19th person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County to date. He is represented by Dallas defense attorney Gary Udashen. The Innocence Project of Texas and the Innocence Project have consulted on the case.

Read today’s news report on the case. We will post more on the Innocence Blog next week as the case develops.

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Tennessee prosecutors plan to retry Paul House despite evidence of innocence

Posted: June 27, 2008 3:15 pm

Drawing the ire of federal judges, defense attorneys and legal onlookers, a Tennessee prosecutor announced at a hearing recently that the state plans to retry Paul House for a 1985 murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit. Mounting evidence in the case – including important DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene – points to House’s innocence. House spent 22 years on death row for the murder before his appeals finally led to his conviction being overturned. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that “no reasonable juror” would convict House based on the current evidence. Then, last year, a federal judge ordered the state to retry House, who has chronic multiple sclerosis and is unable to bathe and feed himself without help.

“This is the first time in our history, so far as I know, that it has ever happened that the Supreme Court has made such a ruling and the state has gone forward to prosecute the guy anyways,” U.S. Circuit Judge Gilbert S. Merritt tells the Nashville Scene. The Nashville-based judge sits on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has reviewed the convoluted case several times over the years, as recently as last week. “Why, after all this evidence has poured in that House is innocent of the crime, does the state continue to so zealously defend the situation? The reason is because state prosecutors typically never admit error.”

Read the full story here. (Nashville Scene, 06/26/08)

Read the Innocence Project’s friend-of-the-court brief in House’s Supreme Court case
.





Tags: Tennessee, Paul House

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Charges dropped against New York man

Posted: June 30, 2008 4:32 pm

More than 17 years after Marty Tankleff was convicted of killing his parents, his ordeal is finally over. Prosecutors announced this afternoon that they would not retry Tankleff in the 1988 murder of his parents, which sent him to prison at age 17. Tankleff was released in December, but he had to wait in legal limbo as state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was appointed as a special prosecutor and charged with producing a report on the case.

Tankleff, who woke up one morning in the Long Island home he shared with his parents to find his mother dead and his father unconscious, allegedly told police he may have “blacked out” and committed the crimes. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 50 years to life in prison. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said today that Tankleff should never have been tried in this case.

“This is a clear case of a false confession. If Marty Tankleff’s interrogation had been videotaped, there would be no ambiguity about his innocence,” Scheck said. “The evidence clearly shows that Marty Tankleff’s confession was coerced, and he should never have been prosecuted in the first place. Electronic recording of interrogations in New York State should become mandatory, as it is in several other states and hundreds of jurisdictions nationwide. In New York State, 17 people were wrongfully convicted based on false confessions and later exonerated (10 of them were exonerated through DNA testing).”

Read press coverage of today’s announcement here:

Associated Press: NY drops case vs LI man in murder of his parents

On Wednesday, Tankleff will join Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom and others at a public forum coordinated by the New York Senate Democratic Task Force on Criminal Justice Reform. The forum will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the Malcolm X & Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center at 3940 Broadway (at 165th St.) in New York City. 



Tags: Marty Tankleff

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Disagreements arise in Colorado over the meaning of a new evidence law

Posted: June 30, 2008 5:45 pm

Colorado District Attorneys have begun adding language to guilty plea agreements that allow them to destroy evidence after a conviction is final, and a state lawmaker said this negates the spirit of a new state law requiring the preservation of evidence for us in future appeals.

"They're thumbing their noses at us," says state Rep. Terrance Carroll, House Judiciary chairman. "The DAs are arrogant enough to believe that they can circumvent laws they don't like and get away with it." …

Prosecutors immediately began adding language to plea deals requiring defendants to waive their right to preserve evidence. More than 90 percent of criminal cases end in pleas rather than trials.

Ted Tow of the Colorado District Attorneys' Council guesses most of the state's DAs are asking defendants to sign off on destruction.

"To mandate saving every piece of evidence on every conviction, regardless of its future value, is an unfunded mandate . . . that simply cannot be sustained," he says.

Tow adds that a plea deal "automatically means" a defendant is guilty, in which case prosecutors see no identification issues or need to preserve DNA.

Read the full story here. (Denver Post, 06/28/08)
Of the 218 people exonerated by DNA testing to date, eleven pled guilty – usually to avoid the risk of a harsher sentence at trial. Because of cases like this, the Innocence Project recommends that all physical evidence in all criminal cases be properly maintained as long as the defendant is incarcerated, under supervision or in civil litigation. Read more about the Innocence Project’s evidence preservation reforms here.




Tags: Colorado, Evidence Preservation

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New task force will review forensic shortcomings in Mississippi

Posted: July 2, 2008 12:26 pm

A new panel created by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood will meet next month to review critical needs in the state’s death investigation system and its crime lab. The Innocence Project has led calls in recent months for the appointment of a state medical examiner, who would oversee criminal autopsies. Steven Hayne, the medical examiner who currently conducts 80 percent of the state’s autopsies (more than 1,500 a year) has been widely discredited and his testimony has led to at least two wrongful convictions later overturned through the work of the Innocence Project.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers allotted $500,000 for a state medical examiner’s office, but the position has yet to be filled. The former head of the Mississippi State Medical Association said “it’s high time” that the position be filled, and the director of the Mississippi Innocence Project said the task force should include diverse perspectives.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said the task force needs to include more voices. "We ought to include as many people as we can. Nobody can tell more stories about the lack of a medical examiner's office than victims and defense lawyers."

Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Matthew Eichelberger applauded Hood's task force, but said he wishes it included someone to represent public defenders.

"This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, not a state versus city issue, not a prosecutor versus defense lawyer issue - it's a public safety issue," he said. "It's a Mississippi issue."

Read the full story here. (Clarion–Ledger, 07/02/08)
Read more about the Innocence Project’s work in Mississippi.
 



Tags: Mississippi

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The weekly roundup

Posted: July 3, 2008 8:30 am

Here are some of the stories we were following this week, but just didn’t get around to blogging about.

The Innocence Project filed for DNA testing in the case of client Robert Conway, who has served nearly two decades in Pennsylvania prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

New evidence surfaced in Texas, suggesting that Lester Leroy Bower is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, but he hasn’t been able to get DNA testing approved in the case. He is scheduled to be executed this summer, and the blog Grits for Breakfast asked how prosecutors “could even consider opposing DNA testing of old evidence before they put a defendant to death this summer who's claiming actual innocence.”

The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice issued a report calling the state’s administration of the death penalty "dysfunctional" and "close to collapse." Read media coverage here and download the full report here.

Funding was approved for a new state crime lab in Missouri, an upstate New York county planned a new $30 million crime lab, and Massachusetts children got a hands-on experience with forensics when a state lab investigator visited a local library.




Tags: Innocence Commissions, Death Penalty

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Dispatch from Dallas: The growing impact of ultra-sensitive DNA testing

Posted: July 10, 2008 12:51 pm

By Cassie Johnson, Forensic Supervisor at Orchid Cellmark, DNA Laboratory


DNA testing is the most powerful type of identity testing available, and it is used for many different purposes: to establish paternity and lineage, or in criminal investigations. With DNA testing, we can uniquely identify every person in the world, unless that person has an identical twin.

Thanks to major improvements in DNA testing technology over the last few years, the tiniest shred of biological evidence can assist in almost any type of crime. Most of the criminal cases we’ve traditionally worked on have been homicides and sexual assaults, but DNA testing is now being used around the world in nonviolent crimes such as burglaries. We could test a pinpoint of biological evidence, whether it’s blood, semen, saliva, or skin cells, and develop a DNA profile. The potential sources of DNA are almost limitless. As DNA testing has progressed, it has become substantially more sensitive, and it works increasingly well on compromised or degraded samples. We’re now able to generate a DNA profile from a sample in which testing would previously never have been attempted.

The criminal justice system uses four main types of DNA testing: STR, Y-STR, mini-STR, and mitochondrial:

• STR testing has been around the longest and is the type of testing most commonly used by crime labs, defense attorneys and prosecutors.

• Mitochondrial DNA testing is often used to generate a DNA profile from hair, bones, or teeth, and is a specialized type of testing that has been used since the mid-1990s.

• The Y-STR test uses the same technologies and principles as STR testing. However, Y-STR testing only looks at areas that are on the Y chromosome, which makes it male-specific. In our experience, it is also more sensitive than STR testing, so we may be able to obtain a profile with less starting material.

• Mini-STR is the newest form of DNA testing and is especially useful on samples that are highly degraded. It is perhaps even more sensitive than STR or Y-STR testing. This year, Rickey Johnson became the first person to be proven innocent through mini-STR DNA testing.

In every case, our job is to develop profiles from evidence regardless of the eventual outcome. We have conducted testing in the cases of several Innocence Project clients, and these are cases that truly demonstrate the potential of DNA testing to change people’s lives. In James Waller’s case, a state lab attempted to conduct DNA testing several years earlier and couldn’t get a result—but the process of testing used up the evidence, which is not uncommon.

We didn’t have any of the original evidence like the rape kit or the bedsheet to go back and test. The only thing that was left over for testing was a liquid “extract,” meaning a leftover lab sample of the evidence. Fortunately, the state lab preserved the liquid extract and made it available to us for Y-STR testing. We were able to obtain a DNA profile from the extract; it did not match his profile and therefore showed that he could not have contributed the sample. Something similar happened in Scott Fappiano’s case. In that instance, it was Orchid Cellmark that had retained the extracts from the early 1990s. Those extracts ultimately led to Mr. Fappiano’s freedom.

Orchid Cellmark is very proud to be able to donate its expertise in DNA testing to the Innocence Project, which continuously fights for those who have been wrongfully convicted. Working on these post-conviction cases reminds us how powerful DNA testing can be, whether it be in solving a cold case or exonerating the wrongfully accused.

 

Orchid Cellmark, based in New Jersey with laboratories all over the country – including Johnson’s lab in Dallas, has conducted DNA testing in Innocence Project cases for years and provides some testing pro bono. Their laboratories have conducted testing that exonerated several Innocence Project clients in recent years. In many of these cases, Orchid Cellmark’s testing has also helped identify the true perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were convicted.

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Prosecutor may drop charges in Paul House case

Posted: July 10, 2008 3:25 pm

A Tennessee prosecutor told the Associated Press yesterday that further DNA testing could persuade his office to drop charges against Paul House, who spent more than two decades on Tennessee’s death row before he was released on bond last week – for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. District Attorney William Paul Phillips said he will seek DNA testing of a hair found in the victim’s hand.

If it's not his (House's) and not hers and (belongs to) some third party, then we would have to evaluate that along with all the other evidence, and we would determine if that raised a reasonable doubt," Phillips told the AP. "If at any time that (hair) or any other evidence raised a reasonable doubt, then we would not prosecute."

Read the full story here. (The Tennessean, 07/10/08)
Mounting evidence in the case – including important DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene – points to House’s innocence. House spent 22 years on death row for the murder before his appeals finally led to his conviction being overturned. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that “no reasonable juror” would convict House based on the current evidence. Then, last year, a federal judge ordered the state to retry House, who has chronic multiple sclerosis and is unable to bathe and feed himself without help.




Tags: Paul House

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Slate.com column: Ramsey case and new technology cast doubt on death penalty

Posted: July 11, 2008 4:16 pm

William Saletan writes on Slate.com today that although he “viscerally” supports the death penalty, DNA exonerations have begged the question: "How confident are (we) that none of the 1,100 people we've executed (since 1976) will end up being exonerated by a technology we didn't use or possess at the time?"

Touch DNA, the method of testing that led Colorado prosecutors to announce this week that JonBenet Ramsey’s parents had been cleared in her murder, was also instrumental in clearing Tim Masters in Colorado after he had served 10 years for a crime he didn’t commit. With new methods of forensic testing constantly evolving, there is no room for the finality of the death penalty, Saletan writes.

I was about to write that we haven't yet executed anyone exonerated by DNA. But that's the wrong way to write the sentence. Here's the right way: We haven't yet exonerated by DNA anyone we've executed. The discovery comes after the act. … There's always more to be learned from a technology you haven't yet tried. You still have to make the best judgment you can at the time. You can't expect that judgment never to be corrected. But you have to leave it open to correction.

Read the full column here. (Slate.com, 07/11/08)
Read more about Touch DNA in the Denver Post, and watch a video on Touch DNA in the Jon Benet case on CBSNews.com.







Tags: Timothy Masters

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Dispatch from Ft. Lauderdale: A shared interest

Posted: July 14, 2008 4:50 pm

By Milton Hirsch, Criminal Defense Attorney

In addition to being the answer to a lot of history-of-law questions that begin, “Who was the first ... ?”, Thurgood Marshall is the answer to the question, “Who was the last Supreme Court justice who ever tried cases to juries?” In his days as head of the NAACP Defense Fund, Marshall traveled the south, defending indigent and usually innocent black men in small-town courtrooms where the verdict was, more often then not, a mere formality.

It is, therefore, entirely appropriate that the National Black Prosecutors Association “NBPA”) has named its most prestigious award after the late Justice Marshall. It is equally appropriate that this afternoon the NBPA presented the Thurgood Marshall award to the Innocence Project. I accepted the award on the Innocence Project’s behalf (my principal qualification to do so being that I was free for lunch).

I've worked closely with the Innocence Project on several cases, including the group's first three cases in Florida: one in Tampa; one in a very small town in central Florida (I believe the town was named either “Reduce Speed” or “Road Narrows,” but perhaps I misremember); and one in Brevard County, which lies on the Atlantic Coast a couple of hours north of Palm Beach. The prosecutor whom I telephoned in Tampa was a model of professional integrity. She told me without hesitation that if we had a good-faith basis to believe that an innocent man was in prison and that a then-novel scientific test would resolve the matter, she would stipulate to the testing at once. The prosecutor in Reduce Speed (or whatever) was less eloquent and more suspicious but, ultimately, not less ethical. He, too, agreed to DNA testing. The prosecutor in Brevard County fought DNA testing for three years. When we finally got the test results and they exonerated our client, the Brevard prosecutor spent three more years arguing that – yes, he actually said this on the record – it no longer mattered whether the client was innocent or not.

From a statistical standpoint, three isn’t much of a sample size. Based on the foregoing, two-thirds of prosecutors act in pursuit of justice, and of the highest standards of our profession. Given a larger sample, my guess is we’d get a much higher percentage. I began my legal career as a prosecutor, working under Miami-Dade State Attorney Janet Reno (who is now a member of the Innocence Project Board of Directors). There was never any doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of my colleagues, that if we had a reason to believe we might have convicted the wrong man and simply did nothing about it, Ms. Reno would have thrown us out the nearest window.

And apart from ethical considerations, a prosecutor’s most pragmatic concerns militate in favor of the work of the Innocence Project. If the man who didn’t really commit the murder, or the rape, or the mugging, is sitting in jail, then the man who really did commit the murder, or the rape, or the mugging, is out there somewhere, probably emboldened by his success in evading discovery. We won’t start looking for the right man till we realize we’ve got the wrong man. We’ve all heard it from cocktail-party critics of the legal profession: You slimy lawyers will resort to anything to get your slimy clients out of jail. But DNA testing, like any scientific refinement, isn’t about getting clients – slimy or otherwise – out of jail; it’s about making the law a less blunt instrument for separating the innocent from the guilty. When DNA testing proves that the man who was convicted is the man who actually committed the crime, no one is better pleased than I. It means that the system to which we’ve devoted our lives worked as advertised.

It is, I think, a coming of age for the Innocence Project that a national organization of prosecutors honors us with its Thurgood Marshall award. It is a recognition of the tautology that all lawyers (all the good ones, anyway), whether north or south of the “v,” have a shared interest in seeing the truth unearthed and justice done.

Also, I got a free lunch. Did I mention the lunch?

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'McJustice' - the crisis of indigent defense in America

Posted: July 15, 2008 4:10 pm

“The death sentence - not for the worst crime, but for the worst lawyer” — Stephen Bright, President, Southern Center for Human Rights

It’s not shocking to learn that many of the 218 DNA exonerees were represented by public defenders at trial. They were all innocent, but they all lost. In some cases, overburdened, inexperienced and underfunded public defenders were simply not equipped to stand up against the state. And the system hasn’t improved much in the last three decades. It wasn’t always the lawyer’s fault, of course. In many cases a talented defense attorney did all he or she could to represent their innocent client, but lost to a broken system that convicts the innocent based on flawed evidence.

Indigent defense in the U.S. is a state-by-state system with no national standards. Criminal defendants are often forgotten when it comes time to trim a state budget, and indigent defense services feel the pinch. A recent report on Michigan’s indigent defense services found a system that is wholly incapable of upholding a defendant’s constitutional right to adequate defense counsel.

The report, prepared by National Legal Aid and Defender Association, found:

“. . . judges handpicking defense attorneys; lawyers appointed to cases for which they are unqualified; defenders meeting clients on the eve of trial and holding non-confidential discussions in public courtroom corridors; attorneys failing to identify obvious conflicts of interest; failure of defenders to properly prepare for trials or sentencings; attorneys violating their ethical canons to zealously advocate for clients; inadequate compensation for those appointed to defend the accused …”
The report found a culture that emphasized speed and revenue over justice to such an extent that employees of the system in Ottawa County referred to the days devoted to arraignments of low-income people as “McJustice Day.” Inadequate defense counsel provided by the Michigan system led to the wrongful convictions of innocent men like Eddie Joe Lloyd and Walter Swift, who were later exonerated with the Innocence Project’s help.

Download the report and hear an NPR story on the findings here
.

Unfortunately, the situation in Michigan is all too common. Across the country, people are regularly being denied their constitutional right to adequate representation, and this system of sub-par representation is causing wrongful convictions. Although many public defenders are dedicated and competent, publicly-appointed attorneys are overworked and under-funded in even the best jurisdictions. The worst jurisdictions are tolerating lawyers who are incompetent and poorly trained, apathetic and condescending to their clients, insufficiently independent from judges and prosecutors; or even occasionally bullies and drunks. Institutional deficiencies in how the public defense system is structured and funded perpetuate these problems.

It’s difficult to improve indigent defense across 50 diverse states and for the federal government when there’s no uniform set of standards. To fill this vacuum, NLADA and the American Bar Association published The Ten Commandments of Public Defense Delivery Systems, calling for speedy appointment, competent representation and adequate funding of public defense offices.

Funding for indigent defense also varies by state. Even though states are constitutionally obligated to provide defense counsel to those who can’t afford it, many states leave the funding to unreliable local sources, including court fees and traffic tickets. To find out how public defense is doled out in your state, visit the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ state-by-state listing of indigent defense delivery structure and funding.

Here are a few of the most pressing indigent defense crises around the country:
• In Minnesota, the state legislature has just cut indigent defense funding by $1.5 million which will lead public defender offices to cut staff, delaying criminal cases and causing some types of cases not to be represented at all.

• Last August, the director of the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office resigned, saying that the office could not adequately represent clients facing the death penalty with the budget provided by the state. Then, in June, budget cuts in that state forced the closing of an important public defender office that takes on defendants when there are conflicts of interest with other public defenders.

• A U.S. Department of Justice report on California’s system found that low-bid contractors are providing inadequate representation to low-income defendants. In one rural county in 1997, three attorneys – with no help from paralegals or investigators – took on 5,000 cases.

• In 18 states, including Michigan, indigent defense is paid for by individual counties who often get the funds through property taxes or court fees paid by defendants.

More on indigent defense:

Read about bad lawyering as a cause of wrongful convictions
.

Seattle Times three-part series: An Unequal Defense: The failed promise of justice for the poor,

Hastings Law Journal: The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases, A National Crisis

The Fair Defense Report: Analysis Of Indigent Defense Practices In Texas

Gideon at 44: Fighting for the Right to Counsel



Tags: Bad Lawyering

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Judge orders state to hand over DNA results in Texas case

Posted: July 17, 2008 11:05 am

An Austin judge told prosecutors on Tuesday that they had 72 hours to hand over DNA test results in the infamous 1991 “yogurt shop murders” case for which two men say they are wrongfully imprisoned.  The results could help identify the actual perpetrator(s) in the crimes.

Prosecutors said they were waiting for a full report before handing over the evidence, but defense attorneys are seeking access to the test results sooner, saying they deserve to know immediately whose DNA was found on new tests of evidence from the crime scene. Prosecutors have said that the two defendants – Michael Scott and Robert Springsteen – could not be the source of the DNA, and two other men formerly arrested and released have also been excluded.

Both men were convicted in 1999 after they allegedly confessed (they now say the confessions were coerced) – Springsteen was sentenced to death and Scott to life. Springsteen’s death sentence was commuted after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that defendants 17-year-old and younger couldn’t be executed. Springsteen’s conviction was thrown out by an appeals court in 2006 and Scott’s was tossed in 2007.

Springsteen’s attorney, Joe James Sawyer, blasted the state after the pretrial hearing for not letting the public know whose DNA was identified in the testing. “The silence is deafening,” Sawyer said.

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 07/15/08)



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DNA testing points to Ohio man's innocence

Posted: July 24, 2008 10:57 am

Robert McClendon has been behind bars in Ohio for 18 years for a rape he has always said he didn’t commit. On Tuesday, he got the DNA test results he’s been waiting for – tests on semen found on the underwear of the 10-year-old female victim showed that McClendon could not have been the attacker. The test results were shared with prosecutors, who are reviewing the case and may request additional tests. But McClendon celebrated the news immediately:

"Hello, truth!" he exclaimed. With steely eyes and a choked voice, he added, "I never, ever raped anyone."

…"I knew it wouldn't be a match for me," McClendon said. "My worst fear was it being inconclusive."

Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 07/23/08)
McClendon’s case was featured in a Columbus Dispatch series in January highlighting 30 cases where a defendant seemed a prime candidate for DNA testing but had been denied access to the tests. Prosecutors have granted testing in 15 cases, and a private lab provided the testing for free. McClendon’s is the first result announced.

Read the full series here
.




Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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A new day for Dallas justice

Posted: July 29, 2008 3:31 pm

The steady pace of DNA exonerations in Dallas recently has cast a dark shadow over the county’s justice system, and officials say they are digging out from the “win at all costs” mentality set during the 36-year tenure of former prosecutor Henry Wade. Now, seven years after Wade’s death, DNA is beginning to show that many of the defendants convicted by Wade were innocent. Nineteen people have been freed by DNA testing in Dallas since 2001, more than any other county – and all but three states, and 250 more cases are currently under review.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, who in 2006 became the first elected African-American chief county prosecutor in Texas history, said the atmosphere needed to change in Dallas to ensure fair justice.

"There was a cowboy kind of mentality and the reality is that kind of approach is archaic, racist, elitist and arrogant," said Watkins, who is 40 and never worked for Wade or met him.
 ..."I think the number of examples of cases show it's troubling," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based legal group affiliated with the Texas effort. "Whether it's worse than other jurisdictions, it's hard to say. It would be a mistake to conclude the problems in these cases are limited to Dallas or are unique to Dallas.
 Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 07/29/08)
Watch video of a speech by Watkins about his “smart on crime” approach.





Tags: Texas

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Alabama authorities can’t find evidence in Arthur case

Posted: August 4, 2008 3:05 pm

Tommy Arthur came within hours of execution for the third time last week, before the Alabama Supreme Court blocked the execution so it could review new evidence that another inmate confessed to committing the murder for which Arthur is in prison. And a state prosecutor has now admitted that the rape kit – including key biological evidence from the crime scene – is lost.

An editorial in Sunday’s Tuscaloosa News calls on Alabama officials to improve evidence preservation to avoid injustices like this in the future.

The lapse is stunning. Alabama has never provided adequate funding for criminal investigation — the Department of Forensic Sciences has been particularly shortchanged — yet we have one of the highest-paid attorneys general in the country. Arthur's attorney, Suhana Han, wants to know why King's office is only now inquiring about the rape kit when defense lawyers have been litigating for it since 2002.

Read the full editorial here. (Tuscaloosa News, 08/02/08)

The Innocence Project has consulted on this case with Han and Arthur’s other attorneys. There is other evidence to be tested in the case even if the rape kit is not found, and thousands of Innocence Project supporters have spoken up on Arthur’s behalf in recent days, sending emails to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urging him to order testing in the case. Send your email now.
 
Read more:

Times Daily: Arthur’s legal battles far from over
 



Tags: Tommy Arthur

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Important progress - but a long way to go - on evidence preservation

Posted: August 6, 2008 4:30 pm

A story on the front page of USA Today details efforts in 25 states to ensure that biological evidence collected from crime scenes is stored by law enforcement agencies for use in future investigations or appeals. But there are still 25 more states to go. In many of these states, there are no guidelines for evidence preservation, and critical crime scene evidence is often lost or destroyed before it can be tested on appeal or used to solve a cold case.

Defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, police officers and the public have shown support for evidence preservation, which helps to solve cold cases and to exonerate the innocent when new technology or information becomes available.

Preserving DNA also has helped secure convictions. "We're becoming more successful in identifying perpetrators in cold cases than we were when we didn't have this technology," says Scott Storey, district attorney in Jefferson County, Colo.

Larry Pozner, former head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says states have shown a "shocking" disinterest in keeping DNA: "Innocent inmates are going to die in prison."

Read the full story here and join an active reader discussion. (USA Today, 08/06/08)
What’s the law in your state? Find out on our interactive map.




Tags: Evidence Preservation

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Victim’s family joins inmate in filing for DNA testing

Posted: August 6, 2008 1:47 pm

In a filing yesterday in federal court, the Innocence Project advocates for DNA testing in the case of Michael Morton, who has served two decades in Texas prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. And Morton is joined in the lawsuit by the family of a woman who was killed in a remarkably similar unsolved crime.  DNA testing and fingerprint analysis in both cases could exonerate Morton and solve McKinney’s murder, the Innocence Project says.

Morton was convicted of killing his wife in Williamson County, Texas in 1986, and sentenced to life in prison. Just a few years earlier, Mildred McKinney was killed in her home less than a mile from the Morton home in a strikingly similar crime. Now, McKinney’s daughter is joining Morton in pursuing DNA testing on evidence from both crime scenes.

“For more than three years, the local prosecutor has fought DNA and fingerprint testing that could prove Michael Morton’s innocence and finally solve both of these crimes,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. The Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law in New York, represents Morton with co-counsel John Raley of the Cooper & Scully law firm. “Patricia Stapleton and Michael Morton come from very different backgrounds, but they have a common goal to use science and every available law enforcement tool to finally reveal the truth in these cases and find justice for their loved ones.”

Read today’s Innocence Project press release here.





Tags: Michael Morton

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Philadelphia editorial: Give Darrell Edwards a new trial

Posted: August 11, 2008 4:00 pm

Innocence Project client Darrell Edwards has served nearly a decade in New Jersey prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. DNA testing and other substantial new evidence shows that he’s telling the truth, but prosecutors have refused to grant him a new trial.

After two mistrials and a hung jury, Edwards was convicted of a Newark shooting murder at his fourth trial in 1999 and sentenced to life in prison. Eyewitnesses told police after the crime they saw Edwards flee the crime scene and dispose of a sweatshirt and gun. DNA testing on those items has revealed male profiles that do not match Edwards, and new statements from the key crime scene witness show that she was “just guessing” in her identification of Edwards. New scientific research confirms that one witness could not have possibly recognized Edwards from 271 feet, the distance from which she said she saw him. The Innocence Project sought a new trial for Edwards at a July 29 hearing, and the judge requested further filings before Edwards’ appeal could be considered.

An editorial in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer calls for the judge to grant Edwards a new trial so the facts of his case can be heard.

It happens too often. Innocent people are convicted and spend years in prison because of faulty eyewitness identification, sloppy or improper police work, and the lack of DNA testing.
Take the case of Darrell Edwards. He was convicted of murder in a New Jersey state court in 1999 - after four trials and the acquittal of a co-defendant. Four bites at the apple is a good indication that prosecutors had a shaky case from the start. Now, new evidence has emerged that raises the possibility that Evans was wrongfully convicted - or worse, may have been railroaded. Edwards' attorneys at the Innocence Project are seeking a fifth trial. He deserves it.

Read the full article here. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 08/10/08)




Tags: Darrell Edwards

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Ohio man to be released tonight

Posted: August 11, 2008 5:10 pm

Robert McClendon will be released from prison this evening in Ohio after DNA tests proved he didn’t commit the rape he was convicted of in 1991 according to news reports. McClendon served 18 years in prison before a joint investigation by the Columbus Dispatch and the Ohio Innocence Project identified his case as a candidate for DNA testing. He first filed for testing in 2004, but never got a decision from the judge.

An Ohio lab agreed to conduct DNA testing pro bono in 30 cases identified by the Ohio Innocence Project and the Dispatch. McClendon’s is the first case to end with test results, and the results exonerated him. He is represented by the Ohio Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network.

He was granted a new trial today by a Franklin County judge, who agreed for him to be released on his own recognizance. Prosecutors will now decide whether to retry McClendon or dismiss charges against him, which would officially exonerate him.

Read the full story here.

Read the Dispatch’s five-part series “Test of Convictions” here
.



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Fourth anniversary of Florida exoneration

Posted: August 12, 2008 4:05 pm

When Wilton Dedge was arrested for a December 1981 rape, he weighed 125 pounds and stood at 5’5” — not at all like the tall, muscular, 160-pound man the victim had originally described to the police. Despite the mismatched between her description and Dedge, she identified him as her attacker. Due to the misidentification and other unreliable evidence, Dedge would serve 22 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Finally exonerated on August 11, 2004, he marks the fourth anniversary of his exoneration today.

Dedge’s case underscores not only the fallibility of eyewitness identification, but also the importance of granting access to DNA testing when it can prove innocence and overturn a wrongful conviction. Once the tests are conducted, state laws must also ensure that the new evidence can be heard in court.

It took Dedge five years to obtain access to the DNA testing that proved his innocence, but then It took three more years for his release. Prosecutors argued that the test results were not permissible in court because they had been obtained before a new DNA access law was in place. According to the law, they argued, he had proven his innocence too early.

Seven states still don’t have a law guaranteeing inmate access to postconviction DNA testing—meaning more inmates could suffer the same injustices as Dedge. Click here to learn if your state allows access to testing.

Help us ensure DNA access for inmates across the country by signing our petition for DNA testing access today.

Dedge’s case is featured in the award-winning documentary “After Innocence.” Buy a copy of the film today from Amazon.com (a portion of proceeds benefits the Innocence Project) or rent it from Netflix.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Thursday: Gary Dotson, Illinois (Served 10  years, Exonerated 08/14/89 )
Roy Criner, Texas (Served 10 years, Exonerated 08/15/2000)

Friday: Eduardo Velasquez, Massachusetts (Served 12.5 years, Exonerated 08/15/01)
 

 



Tags: Roy Criner, Wilton Dedge, Gary Dotson, Eduardo Velasquez

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Robert McClendon freed in Ohio

Posted: August 13, 2008 1:06 pm

After 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Robert McClendon was freed Monday night due to DNA evidence of his innocence. McClendon’s attorneys at the Ohio Innocence Project said they expected prosecutors to formally drop charges within two weeks. Testing in his case was obtained as part of a joint project between the Columbus Dispatch and the Ohio Innocence Project. An Ohio lab provided DNA testing pro bono.

News coverage of McClendon’s release:

NBC4 Columbus, Ohio – with photos and video: McClendon’s first taste of freedom

Columbus Dispatch: Hello freedom: Robert McClendon rejoins his family as a free man

Five-part Columbus Dispatch Investigation: Test of Convictions

Associated Press: Judge frees convicted Ohio rapist after DNA test



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Virginia DNA tests point to real perpetrator and could clear a wrongful conviction

Posted: August 13, 2008 1:10 pm

New DNA tests could posthumously exonerate Curtis Jasper Moore, who was convicted in 1978 of killing and raping an 88-year-old Virginia woman three years earlier. Moore, who suffered from schizophrenia, was committed to a state mental hospital for three years, until he was released when his conviction was overturned on appeal due to law enforcement officers’ failure to properly advise Moore of his rights before interrogating him. Prosecutors never retried him. Moore died of natural causes four years ago.

New DNA tests, conducted as part of a thorough review of hundreds of Virginia cases in which DNA testing could overturn wrongful convictions, have pointed to the involvement of another man, Thomas Pope, Jr., who has now been arrested and charged with rape and murder in connection with the case.

Moore was arrested shortly after the crime in 1975 after police received complaints about his “suspicious behavior.” Three police officers questioned Moore for some time, promising that he could go home if he told them what had happened at the murder scene. Police brought Moore to the victim’s home, and he allegedly made statements incriminating himself in the crime. A federal court reviewed the record and determined that Moore’s conviction, based on illegally-obtained admissions of guilt, must be vacated.

A Virginia spokesperson said the state is reinvestigating the crime to determine if Moore may have had a role.

Read more:

Richmond Times-Dispatch: New DNA test leads to arrest in ’75 rape, slaying (8/12/08)

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Man not cleared despite DNA test (8/13/08)

The ongoing review of hundreds of DNA cases in Virginia was ordered over two years ago by then-Gov. Mark Warner. The process has its roots in the 2002 exoneration of Innocence Project client Marvin Anderson. After officials declared that evidence in Anderson’s case had been destroyed, samples of evidence were found preserved in the notebook of a lab technician, along with samples from hundreds of other cases. After DNA testing on this evidence led to the exonerations of Anderson and two other men (Julius Earl Ruffin in 2003 and Arthur Lee Whitfield in 2004), the Innocence Project urged officials to conduct a broader review of cases. Gov. Warner ordered a review of a 10 percent sample of the 300-plus cases in which the technician had saved evidence. Two more men (Phillip Thurman and Willie Davidson) were proven innocent by this review and Gov. Warner ordered a systematic review of all convictions with biological evidence.

The review came under fire last year for not moving quickly enough because testing had not been completed on even 30 cases. The Washington Post now reports that lab workers have gone through 534,000 case files and sent thousands of relevant samples for testing. 

Last week, Virginia officials announced that they would notify defendants by certified mail if biological material was found in their file, rather than using pro bono attorneys to track down and contact the defendants.



Tags: Virginia, False Confessions

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The week in review

Posted: August 15, 2008 11:07 am

It was a big week for reform. Follow the links below for stories this week on measures, meetings and commentary around the country aimed at preventing future injustice. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Florida and Alabama spoke out against defendants seeking to prove their innocence, and a Mississippi man got a trial date for murders that sent two innocent men to prison for 15 years each.

In Texas today, the Innocence Project is calling on the state Forensic Science Commission to investigate the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for three murders he said he didn’t commit, and Ernest Willis, who was convicted on the same faulty arson science as Willingham and later freed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also held the first meeting of its new Criminal Justice Integrity Unit. The blog Grits for Breakfast reports on the meeting here.
 
Prosecutors and law enforcement officers were in a “tug-of-war” this week over control of a new crime lab in Orange County, California. A DNA exoneration in Orange County highlighted the need for independent crime labs, after the prosecutor unsuccessfully pressed forensic analysts to alter their reports on testing that exonerated a wrongfully convicted man.

The New York Times’ Adam Liptak questioned why expert testimony in criminal trials must come from the opposing sides of the courtroom – a practice fairly unique in the world. Two op-eds argued that funding for defense experts would level the playing field for defendants.

Evidence preservation continued to garner headlines this week, a Reno column today says “the cause of justice must be upheld and preserved. And this means preservation of physical evidence.”

Canada’s highest court affirmed the exoneration of an Ontario man and pointed to the “frailties of eyewitness identification.”

Defendants and prosecutors in Alabama and Florida continued to stand at odds this week. William Dillon’s lawyers in Florida said prosecutors were delaying meetings to keep their innocent client in prison, and the prosecutor responded by saying “File your damn motions and stop being a cry baby.” The Attorney General of Alabama called on the State Supreme Court of lift its stay of Tommy Arthur’s execution, saying the stay was “wrong as a matter of law and fact.” The Innocence Project has consulted with Arthur’s attorneys on the case, and Innocence Project supporters continued this week to send emails to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urging him to order DNA testing in Arthur’s case.

Justin Albert Johnson is set for trial in Mississippi on September 8 for the murders of two three-year-old girls in the early 1990s. Innocence Project clients Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks each spent 15 years in prison for these murders – Brewer was on death row – before they were exonerated earlier this year.
 



Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Prosecutor says real perpetrator identified in 2003 exoneration case

Posted: August 20, 2008 5:15 pm

A Michigan prosecutor will hold a press conference tomorrow at 10 a.m. to announce that law enforcement officials believe they have identified the actual perpetrator of a rape for which Kenneth Wyniemko was wrongfully convicted in 1994. Wyniemko served nearly nine years for the crime until DNA testing exonerated him in 2003. My Fox News Detroit reported on the planned the press conference.

54-year-old Kenneth Wyniemko was wrongly convicted in 1994, before DNA tests exonerated him in the rape and robbery of a 28-year-old Clinton Township woman.

He served 9 years of a 40-to-60-year sentence, but he was freed in 2003 after testing was done at the urging of the Innocence Project at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith says the statute of limitations has expired for the 1994 rape case, but the man will be charged for other sex crimes.

The press conference will be held at the Clinton Township Police Department.

See My Fox News Detroit’s preview coverage





Tags: Michigan, Kenneth Wyniemko

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Guilty plea ends decade-long saga for Ohio family

Posted: August 25, 2008 1:33 pm

Clarence Elkins served more than six years in Ohio prison for a murder and rape he didn’t commit before he was proven innocent and released – thanks to investigations conducted by his own family on the outside. Last week brought some closure to his case, as Earl Mann pled guilty to murdering Elkins’ 68-year-old mother-in-law and was sentenced to 55 years in state prison.

Every day Elkins spent in prison, his wife Melinda Elkins Dawson worked to solve the 1998 murder of her mother for which she believed Elkins had been wrongfully convicted. She identified Mann as a possible alternate suspect, and then learned that he and Elkins were incarcerated in the same cellblock. Elkins collected a cigarette butt from Mann, and DNA tests proved that he was the perpetrator in the murder of Dawson’s mother. Elkins’ lawyers at the Ohio Innocence Project worked with prosecutors to conduct further testing and Elkins was released on December 15, 2005. Dawson and Elkins have since separated, but they are expecting their first grandchild.

Now Dawson can look forward to the birth of her first grandchild in September. Her oldest son, Clarence Elkins Jr., and his wife, Angie, are expecting a baby girl. Younger son Brandon is making plans to marry his fiancée, Megan. "Now we can concentrate on everyday life, on being happy and having fun," she said.

Dawson also hopes her former husband can find peace and contentment now the true killer is behind bars: "He needed to get this behind him to get on with his life."
 Read the full story here. (Dayton Daily News, 08/24/08)
Read more about Elkins' case here.



Tags: Clarence Elkins

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Charges dismissed in Texas death row case

Posted: August 25, 2008 1:50 pm

A Texas judge this morning approved a request by Collin County prosecutors to dismiss charges against former death row inmate Michael Blair due to mounting evidence – including DNA test results – pointing to his innocence of a 1994 child murder. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in June that Blair’s conviction in the case should be vacated, and today’s decision to dismiss charges makes his exoneration official. He will not be released, however, because he is serving three life sentences for unrelated sexual assault convictions.

At Blair’s trial in 1994, prosecutors presented several pieces of hair and fiber evidence against him; a state expert said that hairs from the crime scene matched Blair’s and hairs from Blair’s car could have belonged to the seven-year-old victim. DNA testing conducted since trial at Blair’s request have discredited the microscopic hair testimony and no link between Blair and the victim or crime scene has been discovered. The first tests to exclude Blair were finished in 2002. Additionally, DNA evidence indicates that another man, now deceased, may have committed this crime.

Blair is the 219th person exonerated nationwide by DNA evidence and the 17th who served time on death row. He is the 33nd DNA exoneree in Texas, which has more wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing than any other state.

Read more about Blair’s case here
.




Tags: Michael Blair

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After hurricane delay, Florida man files for release

Posted: August 26, 2008 2:55 pm

William Dillon has spent 27 years behind bars in Florida, proclaiming his innocence of a 1981 Brevard County murder for which he was sentenced to life in prison. Now, he’s hoping new DNA test results will lead to his release.

Dillon’s public defender and attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida obtained testing on a T-shirt that prosecutors said at trial had been worn by the Dillon when he allegedly killed the victim. The tests prove that another man wore the T-shirt, and Dillon’s lawyers filed a motion yesterday calling for his release. The filing was delayed a week when courts closed in the wake of Hurricane Fay.

"I think it was malicious detective work," (Dillion) said during a recent interview. "I think at a certain point they realized I wasn't the one, but they had enough to get me."

… "At trial, the state told the jury repeatedly that the shirt belonged to the killer and the state introduced the shirt into evidence," the motion states. "DNA testing now excludes Dillon as the wearer of the shirt and links someone else to the crime."

Read the full story here. (Florida Today, 8/26/08)
Nine people have been exonerated to date in Florida. Learn about their cases here.



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Michigan exoneree: It's time to fix the system

Posted: August 27, 2008 2:19 pm

Writing in the Detroit Free Press on Sunday with Michigan Innocence Clinic Co- Director David A. Moran, exoneree Ken Wyniemko calls for criminal justice reforms to prevent future injustice in the state. Wyniemko was released and exonerated in 2003 after serving more than eight years for a rape he didn’t commit. Last week, prosecutors announced that the DNA evidence from the crime scene in Wyniemko’s case had proven that another man, Craig Gonser, had committed the rape.

This case exemplifies why we need to be more skeptical of eyewitness identifications and reform the procedures by which victims and witnesses identify suspects. When the victim picked Wyniemko out of a police lineup in 1994, Ken was 43 years old, 5-foot-10, and 185 pounds. The police, apparently, weren't concerned that the victim had described a much taller, heavier and younger man.

Craig Gonser, the man whose DNA was at the scene of the crime, was 26, 6-foot-6, and 290 pounds in 1994.

Those discrepancies are so glaring that they're worth emphasizing: The victim picked out a man who was eight inches shorter, 105 pounds lighter, and 17 years older than Gonser, even after giving a description that was much closer to the truth. Further, Ken bears almost no facial resemblance to Gonser.

Read about the reforms proposed by Wyniemko and Moran to prevent future misidentifications and wrongful convictions in Michigan.

Watch a video interview with Wyniemko.




Tags: Michigan, Kenneth Wyniemko

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Friday roundup – crime labs in the news

Posted: August 29, 2008 3:26 pm

Plenty of forensic issues are making news around the country this week.

•  The longtime director of the Baltimore crime lab was fired this week after officials learned that crime scene evidence had been contaminated with the DNA profiles of lab analysts. Defense attorneys and forensic experts said this news could call thousands of cases that had been tested in the lab into question.

•  Prosecutors and Sheriffs in South Georgia said the proposed closure of two crime labs would hurt both crime victims and defendants. Meanwhile, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is eliminating its staff forensic anthropologist.

•  Officials planned to destroy piles of evidence from a Texas courthouse in September unless defense attorneys or prosecutors claimed the evidence and stored it themselves.

•  Arizona lawmakers expressed concern this week that a proposal to require police departments to pay lab costs would strain law enforcement budgets and underfund the labs.

•  Indianapolis lab analysts are experimenting with DNA collection from guns.

•  A California state crime lab was criticized for losing evidence in a murder case.






Tags: Crime Lab Backlogs

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Friday roundup

Posted: September 5, 2008 3:07 pm

New projects and investigations launched this week by innocence organizations, law schools, prosecutors and attorneys general across the country show the momentum nationwide to overturn wrongful convictions and address the root causes of wrongful conviction to prevent future injustice. Here’s this week’s roundup:

Questions were raised about standards of DNA collection and preservation in Massachusetts after improper procedures were revealed in a high-profile case. Mass. is one of 25 states without a DNA preservation law.

The Mississippi Attorney General said this week that the state is underfunding DNA tests and DNA collection and a new task force is examining the state problem.

San Jose opened California’s largest crime lab, training began in Maryland before a new law expanding the state’s database took effect and cutbacks in Georgia led to furloughs for prosecutors and could cause lab closings.

The Midwest Innocence Project this week launched an investigation into a 1988 fire that killed six Kansas City firemen and led to the conviction of five people who say they’re innocent. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a first-of-its-kind panel dedicated to investigating cases of possible wrongful conviction, finished reviewing its first case, deciding that there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the conviction of Henry A. Reeves. And  Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins asked county officials to allow filming in his offices in coming months for a Discovery Channel documentary.

Some of the best policy analysis and research to help improve our criminal justice system comes, of course, from our nation’s law schools – and now many of those schools have blogs. Marquette University Law School launched a new faculty law blog, and a post by Keith Sharfman finds that “blogging’s potential as a medium for serious legal discourse can no longer be doubted.” 

A column on Law.com asks: “Is the future of legal scholarship in the blogosphere?”

Here at the Innocence Project, we read law school blogs everyday. Among our favorites are Crim Prof Blog and Evidence Prof Blog

New York University Law School has formed a new Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, which will seek to promote “good government practices in criminal matters.”



Tags: California, North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, Innocence Commissions, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing, DNA Databases

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Innocence Project Co-Director testifies on death penalty

Posted: September 8, 2008 2:14 pm

On Friday, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck testified before the final hearing of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment about the pronounced risk of an innocent person being executed if states continue to sentence people to death.

(Former Prosecutor Matthew) Campbell relayed to the commission testimony of another prosecutor who said that, with today's forensic science, it is unlikely that an innocent man could be executed.

"I couldn't disagree more," Scheck said. He warned that post-conviction DNA testing is "not a panacea" that can right all wrongful convictions.
And Kirk Bloodsworth, a commission member who was sentenced to death in Maryland for a crime he didn’t commit and served eight years before DNA testing proved his innocence, testified that he is “living proof that Maryland gets it wrong.”

Read the full story here. (Baltimore Sun, 09/06/08) 

Scheck will also testify tomorrow before a committee in the Tennessee legislature examining the state's death penalty system.



Tags: Death Penalty

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Letter demands justice in Maine

Posted: September 10, 2008 4:22 pm

A letter to the editor of the Kennebec Journal today demands justice for Dennis Dechaine, an Innocence Project client who has served two decades for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Dechaine was denied DNA testing, at his own expense, before his original trial. Although new DNA test results reveal the DNA profile of an unknown male under the victim’s fingernails, prosecutors continue to refuse Dechaine a new trial.

Read the full letter here.

Read more about Dechaine’s case here
.
 



Tags: Maine

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Ex-prosecutors reprimanded in Colorado case

Posted: September 15, 2008 12:55 pm

The Colorado Supreme Court has censured two former prosecutors for their role in the wrongful conviction of Timothy Masters in Fort Collins in 1999. Terrance A. Gilmore and Jolene C. Blair, both now judges in Colorado, were reprimanded by the Supreme Court for failing to ensure that defense attorneys received evidence that could have pointed to Masters’ innocence. They have acknowledged that they didn’t disclose the information.

Masters served nearly a decade in prison for a 1987 murder before DNA tests and other evidence pointing to his innocence led to his release in January. His trial attorney, Erik Fischer, said the prosecutors could have prevented his wrongful conviction by handing over the complete evidence at trial.

"If we would have had the evidence that was withheld from us, there's no doubt in my mind that Tim Masters would have been exonerated at the trial," Fischer said.

… "I don't know what to say about that," Masters said of the decision when reached by phone by The Associated Press. "I spent 10 years in prison for something I didn't do. It's something, I guess."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 09/10/08)
Read more about Masters’ case on the Denver Post website.





Tags: Government Misconduct, Timothy Masters

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More hurdles in New York case

Posted: September 15, 2008 12:54 pm

Sammy Swift has been behind bars in New York for 15 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. His 1994 murder conviction was overturned in June when a state judge reviewed new DNA test results on blood from the crime scene, showing that only the victim’s DNA profile – and not Swift’s – was present. At his trial in 1994, prosecutors alleged that the blood could have been a mixture of Swift’s and victim’s blood.

But Swift is still being held in a Cayuga County jail on $400,000 bond while he awaits a new trial. In court last week, prosecutors said they were appealing the judge’s decision to overturn Swift’s conviction, and don’t expect a decision until the end of 2008.

Read more here. (WYSR-TV, Syracuse)



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Innocence Network urges U.S. Supreme Court to maintain safeguards against prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: September 16, 2008 3:18 pm

In a new Supreme Court brief, the Innocence Network is arguing that top-level prosecutors must be held accountable when they set policies that ignore or violate people’s rights and lead to wrongful convictions. False testimony from a jailhouse informant was central in the 1980 murder conviction of Thomas Goldstein, who is suing the former Los Angeles County District Attorney because the office had no safeguards in place at the time of Goldstein’s conviction to prevent snitches from testifying falsely.

Read today’s Innocence Project press release on the Innocence Network’s friend-of-the-court brief in the Goldstein case and download the full brief.

Also today, the Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast focuses today on the difficulty to prove innocence in non-DNA cases, especially those involving snitches and informants.

A situation involving a mendacious jailhouse snitch out of Orange, Texas shows how such cases play out when DNA evidence doesn't exist to prove innocence to a certainty. KPRC-Channel 2 in Houston recently told the story of Daniel Meehan (Sept. 4) whose 1998 conviction and 99-year sentence was based in part on testimony by an informant who now says he lied to get his own cases dismissed and that prosecutors told him what to say.

Read the full Grits post here. (9/16/08)
A bill passed this year by the California legislature and currently awaiting Gov. Schwarzenegger’s signature would require corroboration of jailhouse snitch testimony. Send Schwarzenegger an email today urging him to sign the bill and prevent wrongful convictions in his state.

More resources:

The Snitch System” – a report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago.

Learn more about the role of snitch testimony in wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing.




Tags: California, Informants/Snitches, Government Misconduct

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Paul House: the hair isn’t his, but the charges remain

Posted: September 23, 2008 11:43 am

Last week, Tennessee prosecutors revealed that a hair found in the hand of a murder victim more than 20 years ago did not belong to Paul House, the man who spent more than two decades on death row for the murder. House, 46, was granted a new trial late last year and released in July while the new trial was pending. He has multiple sclerosis and cannot walk or feed himself. He lives with his mother.

The trial is set to begin on October 13, and prosecutors said last week they planned to go forward with the trial despite new mitochondrial DNA test results showing that a hair found in the palm of the murder victim belonged to neither House nor the victim’s husband.

House’s first conviction was overturned by a state judge after the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that no reasonable juror would convict House based on the current evidence. The Innocence Project filed a friend of the court brief in that case.

In a letter to the Nashville Scene yesterday, Tennessee State Rep. Mike Turner wrote:

As a State Representative I am committed to ensuring that the citizens of Tennessee have faith in the justice system.. The case of Paul House casts grave doubt on the “justice” of the system. Given that the state of Tennessee is dealing with a significant budget shortfall how can we justify the cost of another trial for Mr. House with no evidence pointing his guilt? How much money has already been spent attempting to keep House on death row? Now with even more DNA evidence pointing to House’s innocence how can General Phillips justify his decision to move forward with a new trial?
Read Turner’s full letter. (Nashville Scene, 09/22/08)

Coverage of developments in House’s case:

Knoxville News: Prosecutor confirms hair in victim’s hand not House’s





Tags: Death Penalty, Paul House

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Preventing wrongful convictions through better news reporting

Posted: September 24, 2008 5:45 pm

What role does the media play in overseeing our criminal justice system? Could newsroom reforms prevent wrongful convictions and help police solve cold cases? Steve Weinberg, a journalism professor and author, thinks so.

In an article yesterday in Miller-McCune magazine, Weinberg presents a novel approach at reforming our criminal justice system. The news media, and the general public, have been skeptical of wrongful convictions for years, Weinberg writes, and the advent of DNA exonerations has changed this. As the media and the public realize that the system makes mistakes, pressure is applied to the system to make it more accountable. Weinberg writes that the reforms proposed by the Innocence Project, including recording of interrogations and improved identification procedures, are valid, but that a movement from within the media is necessary as well:

One solution for wrongful convictions, however, has not been explored in a sustained, meaningful manner. It is a solution that cannot be legislated or even come from the government. The solution requires writers and editors for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, television stations, Web sites and books to practice preventive journalism rather than after-the-conviction, too-late journalism.

Until and unless journalists improve their performance, far more innocent people will be imprisoned than the criminal justice system seems likely ever to acknowledge. The logical extension of the preceding statement seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: Unless journalists get better at covering the justice system, many criminals will continue to go unpunished, free to murder or rape or rob again. So investigating wrongful convictions is not — as perceived by too many police, prosecutors and judges — an assault by soft-on-crime bleeding hearts. Rather, it is an attempt to serve law and order, to improve the administration of justice and to foster faith in the criminal justice system.

Read the full story here. (Miller-McCune Magazine, 09/23/08)
And an article by Jon Whiten in Extra! Magazine in late 2007 pointed out that coverage of DNA exonerations very rarely includes a reflection on the media’s role in convicting the innocent.

What is striking about all of the coverage…of wrongful conviction in general, is the lack of self-examination. The press, in detailing the reasons that such awful miscarriages of justice happen, never points to its own role as enabler.
As the press has repeatedly reported in the past decade, the accused don't always get a fair trial, and many have been convicted and sent to prison for crimes they did not commit. Doesn't it then make sense for journalists to report on the cops and the courts with that awareness in mind?

It is a welcome sign that the press extends its conscience enough to report quite often on wrongful convictions, exonerations and the flaws with the criminal justice system. But the press needs to take responsibility and think about these lessons when doing daily beat reporting on crime and trials.Read the full story here. (Extra!, November/December 2007)
 


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Detroit crime lab closed due to testing errors

Posted: September 25, 2008 3:05 pm

After a report released today showed a “shocking level of incompetence” in the Detroit Police crime laboratory, officials moved to stop all work in the lab, pending a more thorough review. The firearms division was closed in April after mistakes came to light in several gun cases, but now the entire lab has been shuttered. The new report found erroneous or false findings in 10% of cases examined.

All forensic cases in the city will be sent to state crime labs for review, deepening an already severe backlog, officials said.

The results of a five-month audit of the Detroit Police Firearms laboratory were released Thursday, revealing a "shocking level of incompetence" in investigations into cases involving ballistic evidence, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said.

The findings uncovered mistakes "so severe as to demonstrate a systemic problem in all disciplines within the crime lab and requires drastic action to ensure the integrity of the criminal justice system in Wayne County," Worthy said.

Read the full story here. (Detroit News, 09/25/08)



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Errors in Detroit crime lab could have sent innocent people to prison

Posted: September 26, 2008 3:29 pm

Michigan officials closed the Detroit Police Department crime lab yesterday after a report found a 10% error rate in ballistic testing. Leaders called the results “catastrophic” and “appalling” before vowing to get to work to fix the problem. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said bad tests could have sent innocent people to prison.

"If we have even one person in prison on evidence that was improperly done, that's a huge problem," Worthy said. "As prosecutors, we completely rely on the findings of police crime lab experts every day in court and we present this information to juries. And when there are failures of this magnitude, there is a ... betrayal of trust."
The audit warned that if the error rate holds, "the negative impact on the judicial system would be substantial, with a strong likelihood of wrongful convictions and a valid concern about numerous appeals."

"The language may be dry, but it destroys the credibility of the firearms lab and calls into question all the lab work in general," said David Moran, head of the Innocence Project at the University of Michigan Law School.

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 09/25/08)
Read the Innocence Project’s recommendations for forensic oversight here.

 



Tags: Michigan

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Friday digest

Posted: September 26, 2008 6:01 pm

A few cases we didn’t get a chance to write about this week on the blog. If you have tips for blog posts, send them our way at info@innocenceproject.org.

National Public Radio reported on a Texas case where the family of Timothy Cole, an innocent man who died in prison, is seeking his posthumous exoneration based on DNA evidence of his innocence. The victim in the crime, who misidentified Cole at his trial, is working closely with his family, and the NPR story features an interview with Innocence Project of Texas Chief Counsel Jeff Blackburn. Listen here.

The mother of a murder victim is working with the man convicted of killing her daughter to prove his innocence. She has long suspected that the wrong man was convicted, and as more evidence points to his innocence, she is helping to support his appeals.

Prosecutors in Florida are asking that a judge deny William Dillon’s request for a new trial, which he filed after DNA testing on a key piece of evidence pointed to his innocence.

A 22-year-old man North Carolina was free for the first time since eighth grade, after a judge threw out his conviction.

And Innocence Project Attorney Vanessa Potkin spoke this week with radio KBMS in Oregon. Listen here.



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North Carolina editorial: Fix the court system to prevent wrongful convictions

Posted: September 30, 2008 2:15 pm

An editorial in the Raleigh-Durham News & Observer calls on state officials to build a better system of criminal justice, one that doesn’t run such a high risk of sending the innocent to prison. Erick Daniels’ family members rejoiced in a Durham courtroom a week ago, when he was released after seven years in prison for a crime that he always maintained he didn’t commit. This joy, however, masked deeper flaws in the system, the editorial says.

There have been too many instances in recent years, by no means only in Durham, of North Carolina courts rendering judgments that turn out to demonstrably flawed. People have been sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit, and even have been placed at risk of execution.

Causes range from court systems struggling with a lack of resources to prosecutors who are too focused on the courtroom contest at the expense of getting things right. But the effects, besides the cruel unfairness of wrongful conviction, are also to let the guilty go free and to shake public trust in the judicial system.

Read the full story here. (News & Observer, 09/27/08)




Tags: North Carolina

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The week in review

Posted: October 3, 2008 5:50 pm

A roundup of stories we didn’t get to on the Innocence Blog this week.

Charges were dropped this week against Arthur Johnson, a Mississippi man who spent 16 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Johnson was represented by attorneys at the Innocence Project New Orleans. More on his case next week.

Claude McCollum was released in 2007 after serving more than a year in Michigan prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was released when evidence of his innocence began to surface, but it wasn’t until this week that he heard an apology from prosecutors. "I truly am deeply sorry," County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said Sunday to McCollum during a talk at a local church attended by McCollum and about 30 others.

And New York exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic protested outside the taping of a new reality show featuring Jeanine Pirro, the district attorney who refused to grant DNA testing in Deskovic’s case while he was in prison. He was exonerated in 2006 when DNA proved his innocence of the 1989 murder for which he had been wrongfully convicted.

In addition to exonerating Arthur Johnson, Innocence Project New Orleans issued a report detailing cases in which New Orleans prosecutors failed to disclose critical evidence to defense attorneys, and calling on candidates for the office to improve evidence sharing practices in the future.

And an editorial in the Tuscaloosa News praised the Alabama Supreme Court for denying the state Attorney General’s request to set a new execution date for Tommy Arthur.





Tags: Jeff Deskovic

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Lawyers call for independent lab review in Detroit

Posted: October 7, 2008 2:57 pm

After Detroit officials closed the city’s police crime lab two weeks ago, prosecutors vowed to conduct an investigation to get to the bottom of the lab’s 10 percent error rate. But defense attorneys said yesterday that a review by prosecutors isn’t good enough, and they called for an independent audit of the lab before it could reopen.

William Winters, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, said he is troubled by the prospect of local prosecutors leading the investigation.

"You just have to avoid any appearance of impropriety," he said. "You really can't afford to have prosecutors reviewing their own cases."

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 10/7/08)
Read more about the Detroit lab closing here, and learn about the Innocence Project’s recommendations for independent forensic oversight.

 



Tags: Michigan

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Seven years of freedom for Ohio man

Posted: October 17, 2008 4:40 pm



Tomorrow, Anthony Michael Green will mark the seventh anniversary of his exoneration in Ohio. Although he was freed in 2001, he and the Innocence Project had been working since 1997 to clear his name. In all, he spent 13 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence.In 1988, a Caucasian woman in a health clinic was raped at knifepoint. The attacker cleaned himself with a washcloth before fleeing the room, and threw it on the floor. The victim immediately rinsed herself off and called security. The police collected the washcloth and brought the victim to a medical center, where a rape kit was prepared. Green, who had previously worked for the clinic, became a suspect because a security officer said the victim's physical description of the attacker reminded him of Green.

The prosecutor's main evidence at trial relied on the victim's misidentification of Green and on misleading blood type testing from a state expert. The expert testified that Green could have contributed the semen found on the washcloth – along with only 16 percent of the male population. But the percentage of the population that could have contributed the sample was actually much higher. Based in part on this faulty testimony, Green was convicted and sentenced to 20-50 years in prison.

Green’s stepfather, Robert Mandell, investigated his case relentlessly in an attempt to overturn the wrongful conviction. It was not until Mandell located the washcloth in a courthouse storage room in 2001 that DNA testing could be conducted, proving Green’s innocence. After proving his innocence, Green said, "You can't get the lost years back. You just have to pick up the pieces and go on with your life."

The DNA testing in Green’s case didn’t only exonerate him, but also led to the identity of the real perpetrator. A man named Rodney Rhines confessed to the rape after reading an Ohio newspaper article that documented Green's ordeal. Also, the city of Cleveland agreed to compensate him and created the "Anthony Michael Green Forensic Laboratory Audit." The audit addresses the causes of faulty and falsified forensics, a factor that played a significant role in many wrongful convictions. Read more about unreliable and limited forensic science here.

Other Exoneree Anniversary This Week:

Thursday: Troy Webb, Virginia (Served 7.5 Years , Exonerated 10/16/1996 )





Tags: Anthony Michael Green, Troy Webb

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Friday roundup

Posted: October 17, 2008 5:18 pm

News from the innocence movement this week:

Patrick Waller officially became the 223rd person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States when Texas’ highest criminal court granted his writ of habeas corpus. He served 15 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led to his release in July.

Several cases pointed this week to the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which is often the only evidence used to convict a defendant – especially in those cases without biological evidence:

A Kentucky man was convicted in 2007 of a robbery he says he didn’t commit, and he is appealing based on evidence that the “show-up” procedure used to identify him was flawed.

Charges were dropped in a Hartford, Connecticut robbery case when police learned the defendant had been arrested based on a nickname mix-up and then misidentified by two  eyewitnesses.

A Pennsylvania judge denied the Innocence Project’s request for additional DNA testing in the case of Kevin Siehl, who has been in prison since 1992 for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Testing in ongoing on several items, but the judge denied further tests.

A Kentucky judge denied further DNA testing in the case of Brian Keith Moore, who is on death row for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

And a new execution date is set for October 27 for Troy Davis, who is on Georgia’s death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Davis was convicted based on the testimony of nine eyewitnesses. Seven of them have recanted in recent years, saying they were coerced by police. Read more about Davis’ case here.

But in a week with so much case-related news, there was plenty of reform momentum to as well.

Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis said he wants lawmakers to improve the way identification procedures are handled in the state, calling for a statewide ban on “show-up” identifications.

Baltimore courts are demanding that police and prosecutors conduct a complete search for biological evidence from a 1975 rape case.

Outgoing Chicago prosecutor Dick Durbin told the Chicago Bar Association that police and prosecutors must work hard to corroborate confessions and admissions to ensure that they aren’t false.

An editorial in Tennessee called for immediate reforms before executions could continue.

And a newly exonerated Mississippian registered to vote for the first time in two decades.



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Former Chicago cop arrested for involvement in torture

Posted: October 21, 2008 4:45 pm

Former Chicago Police detective Jon Burge was arrested this morning on charges that he lied under oath about his participation in the torturing of suspects in criminal investigations. Burge, who was fired in 1993 for his alleged role in the torture and beatings of suspects, was arrested at his Florida home and charged in federal court with perjury and obstruction of justice.

Last year, Chicago settled a civil suit with four defendants who were freed from death row after showing evidence that they falsely confessed under torture by Burge and other officers. Burge, when questioned in that case, said: "I have not observed nor do I have knowledge of any other examples of physical abuse and/or torture on the part of Chicago police officers at Area 2."

But a report by two special prosecutors in 2006 found that officers under Burge’s watch had tortured dozens of suspects, by beating, hitting, kicking and asphyxiating them.

"There is no place for torture and abuse in a police station," said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in a news release. "There is no place for perjury and false statements in federal lawsuits. No person is above the law, and nobody--even a suspected murderer--is beneath its protection."

Read the full story here. (Chicago Tribune, 10/21/2008)
Background on the case: Jon Burge’s legacy (Chicago Tribune) 

Download the indictment here.




Tags: Government Misconduct

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A pattern of prosecutorial misconduct

Posted: October 22, 2008 4:35 pm

A column in the New York Times explores a pattern of misconduct from a New York City prosecutor’s office, and the pattern doesn’t end with conviction. Prosecutors in the borough of Queens, Jim Dwyer writes, are reluctant to admit their misconduct and they rarely punish their own. In 80 Queens cases overturned by appeals courts between 1989 and 2003 for prosecutorial misconduct, senior officials took no disciplinary action.

Last week New York City settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit filed by a defendant, Shih-Wei Su, for $3.5 million – one of the biggest payments the state has ever made to a wrongfully convicted person. Su served nearly 13 years in prison for an attempted murder he has always said he didn’t commit. He was freed after his lawyers proved that prosecutors lied about a deal they made with a witness who testified against him.A prosecutor admitted in an investigation that she had been “naïve, inexperienced and, possibly, stupid” in allowing a witness to lie on the stand. She received a written admonition.

Mr. Su was outraged. “Is 13 years worth of my life worth only an admonition?” he wrote to the committee. “Even jaywalking can get prison time. So can stealing a loaf of bread.

“With all due respect, the message that this committee is sending out is loud and clear: Don’t worry about using false evidence; you will only get an admonition if you are stupid enough to admit it.”

Read the full column here. (New York Times, 10/21/08)




Tags: New York

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California DA could get partial control of crime lab

Posted: October 23, 2008 4:25 pm

According to documents obtained by the Orange County Register, a DNA task force in Orange County, California, is recommending that a panel including the District Attorney would take control of managing the county forensic labs. This is the latest news in a dispute over control of the lab between the sheriff and the district attorney. The current crime lab director has said that the prosecutor would have a conflict of interest in managing the lab and pointed to reports that county prosecutors asked the lab to change test results in the James Ochoa case.

Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom said prosecutors should not oversee forensic labs.

"Just like we wouldn't want a defense attorney to call the shots in a lab, we wouldn't want a prosecutor," Saloom said. "The prosecution's presence on the oversight board, combined with the inherently political nature of crime policy, could create some pressure that may result in politics taking precedence over science."

Read the full article here. (OC Register, 10/21/08)



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The Texas Exonerated

Posted: October 27, 2008 4:05 pm

A feature in this month’s Texas Monthly profiles 37 people cleared with DNA testing after serving a combined 525 years in prison.

The first thing you notice is the eyes—they all have the same look in them, the look of men accustomed to waking up every morning in a prison cell. These 37 men spent years, and in some cases decades, staring through bars at a world that believed they were guilty of terrible crimes. But they weren’t. Each was convicted of doing something he did not do. It’s hard to characterize the look in their eyes. There’s anger, obviously, and pride at having survived hell, but there’s also hurt, and a question: “Why me?”

The short answer is simple: People make mistakes. Most of these cases share a common story line: A woman, usually a traumatized rape victim, wrongly identifies her attacker. Sometimes her testimony is backed by rudimentary serology tests. Sometimes the cases are pushed too hard by aggressive police officers or prosecutors.
Visit the Texas Monthly website for video of a photoshoot with 21 exonerees and audio slideshows telling the stories of more than a dozen.






Tags: James Giles, Entre Nax Karage, Carlos Lavernia, Brandon Moon, Christopher Ochoa, Anthony Robinson, Ronald Taylor, James Waller, Patrick Waller, Gregory Wallis

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Dallas Editorial Calls on Police to Reform Procedures

Posted: October 28, 2008 2:35 pm

DNA exonerations have revealed that flaws in police procedures – like the way photos are shown to witnesses – have led to wrongful convictions. An editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News calls for state oversight of police procedures to ensure that the innocent aren’t sent to prison.

The editorial singles out Richardson, Texas, Police Chief Larry Zacharias, whose department showed a flawed photo lineup to the victim of a rape in 1985. She picked Thomas McGowan and he was convicted. Twenty-two years later, DNA testing exonerated him.

On Thursday, Zacharias will testify about his department’s reform efforts before the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, one of only seven innocence commissions in the nation.

Zacharias lays it on the line: Law enforcement professionals have an "ethical obligation" to upgrade procedures when justice hangs in the balance.

Amen.

His department learned the lesson a tough way. In 1985, the Richardson PD produced a rape suspect for prosecutors based on a lineup of photos shown to the victim. She picked out a 26-year-old man who was later convicted and sent to prison.

There Thomas McGowan Jr. sat for 22 years, until DNA tests sought by the Innocence Project of New York exonerated him this spring. Read the full editorial here. (Dallas Morning News, 10/28/2008)
 



Tags: Thomas McGowan

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Exoneree: Crime Labs Should Be Independent

Posted: October 28, 2008 11:55 am

James Ochoa spent nearly two years in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and led police to the real perpetrator. After Ochoa’s exoneration, news reports revealed that prosecutors attempted to exert pressure on a crime lab analyst to falsify the test results to say that he hadn’t been cleared.

Now the same prosecutor’s office is seeking partial control of the county crime lab, and Ochoa argues that his case should be enough reason to maintain independence at the lab. He sent a letter yesterday to the Orange County Board of Supervisors, which today is considering a proposal to create a three-member panel, including the district attorney, to control the county’s forensic lab. The letter reads, in part:

The fact that the prosecution proceeded with my case in order to protect their image when they knew they had insufficient evidence demonstrated to me that the District Attorney’s office is willing to go too far.  After what happened to me, it is pretty clear that the District Attorney doesn’t care about guilt or innocence; he cares about his career. 

Read Ochoa’s full letter here.
Read more about the lab dispute here.




Tags: California, James Ochoa

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California DA Wins Partial Control of Crime Lab

Posted: October 29, 2008 11:04 am

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 yesterday to award oversight of the country’s forensic labs to a three-member panel comprised of the District Attorney, County Sheriff and County CEO. The Innocence Project has argued that if prosecutors oversee forensic testing, politics could take precedence over science. And a report in the OC Weekly made it clear that the prosecutor’s office inappropriately pressed an analyst to alter the forensic report – despite DNA testing that clearly exonerated Ochoa.

Veteran forensic specialist Danielle G. Wieland made the charge last month during a civil deposition related to the December 2005 wrongful conviction and imprisonment of James Ochoa, according to documents obtained by the Weekly.

In a civil deposition taken last month for Ochoa’s wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Ochoa attorney Patricio A. Marquez of Morrison & Foerster asked Wieland, “Did anyone ever exert pressure on you to change your [DNA] conclusions?”
“Yes,” Wieland replied. “Camille Hill from the DA’s office … She called me and asked me to change the conclusion that Mr. Ochoa was eliminated from [DNA found on] the left cuff of the shirt.”
Before its vote yesterday, the board received a letter from Ochoa, who served nearly two years in California prison for a carjacking he didn’t commit. He wrote:
The fact that the prosecution proceeded with my case in order to protect their image when they knew they had insufficient evidence demonstrated to me that the District Attorney’s office is willing to go too far. After what happened to me, it is pretty clear that the District Attorney doesn’t care about guilt or innocence; he cares about his career.

Read Ochoa’s full letter here
.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas disputed the allegation of impropriety at Tuesday’s hearing:
Rackauckas explained to the board that his prosecutor merely questioned the analyst about her conclusion and did not try to influence her.

"(But) once an allegation is made, it can be pretty hard for the other party to disprove it," Rackauckas said.

Read the full article here. (OC Register, 10/28/08)
And an editorial in the OC Register before the board meeting said “Orange County's efforts to safeguard the public and protect the innocent have been caught up in an ugly turf war between the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Department”
Officials at the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to free the wrongly convicted, rightly told the newspaper that it's a conflict of interest for district attorneys to control DNA and other forms of evidence. "Just like we wouldn't want a defense attorney to call the shots in a lab, we wouldn't want a prosecutor," said one Innocence Project spokesman.

That's exactly right. Prosecutors are interested parties in legal proceedings. They are seeking convictions, so it would be unwise to let any D.A. control such important evidence. In fact, as the Register also reported, "A senior [Orange County]prosecutor is alleged to have pressured a sheriff's analyst to change her conclusion in a carjacking case that kept an innocent man imprisoned for 16 months." That's chilling.Read the full editorial here. (OC Register, 10/23/08)
 



Tags: California, James Ochoa

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DA: Review of 3,242 Colorado Cases Turns Up No Questionable Convictions

Posted: October 29, 2008 5:50 pm

After DNA testing and other evidence led to the release on Tim Masters in Colorado earlier this year, Larimer County District Attorney Larry Abrahamson said his office would review thousands of convictions to see if any current inmates were candidates for post-conviction DNA testing. Prosecutors started with a universe of 3,242 cases in which defendants are currently in prison and were convicted by a jury in the county. They narrowed that list to 36 cases where identity may have been a factor, and determined that none of the case warranted testing.

"After a lengthy evaluation, I am satisfied that there are no defendants convicted in the Eighth Judicial District serving time in the Colorado State Penitentiary who would benefit from current advances in DNA technology," Abrahamson wrote in a press release.

Read the full press release here.
In the press release, Abrahamson lists criteria for excluding cases. First of all, people who pled guilty were excluded, despite the fact that 11 defendants of the 223 cleared by DNA testing so far nationwide pled guilty. At least 12 cases were excluded because eyewitness testimony was used to convict the defendant. Two others were excluded because fibers and blood testing were used in the trial. DNA testing has shown that eyewitness identification is often unreliable, and that some forms of forensic science – such as fiber comparison – are limited in their ability to identify a defendant.

Abrahamson notes in his press release that the review does not preclude defendants from appealing for DNA testing in their cases.

Read more about the causes of wrongful conviction here.




Tags: Colorado, Access to DNA Testing

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Detroit Prosecutor Calls Crime Lab Findings 'Appalling'

Posted: October 30, 2008 4:03 pm

After an audit last month found a 10% error rate on gun testing in the Detroit Police Department crime lab, city officials shut down the entire lab so problems could be investigated. With the lab still closed, the Detroit City Council held hearings on the lab yesterday. County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told council members that she was not happy with the lab’s performance.

"I cannot have anybody convicted based on this kind of evidence that's inaccurate," said Worthy, who received the report Wednesday. "An error rate of zero is the only acceptable rate."

Council members called for an independent audit of the entire lab and five years of cases, a review that Worthy said would cost $800,000. And a Detroit police commander said the problems found in the ballistics section were “indicative of a systemic problem.”

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 10/30/08)
Read more about the Detroit lab closure in previous blog posts.



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Twelve Years on Death Row

Posted: November 3, 2008 4:00 pm

Today marks the 13th anniversary of Rolando Cruz's exoneration in Illinois. In 1985, he another man, Alejandro Hernandez, were wrongfully convicted of the brutal rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl. The men spent 12 years on death row before DNA testing proved their innocence and led to their release. On February 23, 1983, Jeanine Nicarico disappeared from her Chicago home. The police discovered her body several days after she had gone missing. After months of investigation, Alejandro Hernandez became a suspect, and he directed police to Rolando Cruz in exchange for a reward. The two men incriminated each other in exchange for cash rewards.

Since the police had no physical evidence linking the men to the crime, the case against them was based on the men's alleged statements. Witnesses testified that Cruz and Hernandez seemed to have intimate knowledge of the crime. The most incriminating evidence came from the sheriff's detectives who testified that Cruz had confessed to having "visions" of the murder that closely resembled the details of the crime. Despite no record confirming these visions, it was used as evidence and a jury convicted them.

Cruz’s conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was retried and convicted again. Then, with the help of professors and students at Northwestern University, Cruz was finally able to overturn his conviction and secure DNA testing on sperm cells found near the crime scene. The results proved the men could not have committed the crime, but prosecutors retried Cruz again. On November 3, 1995, Cruz was finally acquitted after his the third trial. Charges against Hernandez were dropped a month later.

If DNA evidence from the crime scene had not been preserved in this case, Cruz and Hernandez may have been executed for a crime neither of them committed.

What’s the evidence preservation law in your state?

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

David A. Gray, IL, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 1999)

Bruce Dallas Goodman, UT, (Served 19 years, Exonerated 11/3/2004)

Walter Smith, OH, (Served 10 years, Exonerated 11/8/1996)

Bernard Webster, MD, (Served 20 years, Exonerated 2002)



Tags: Illinois, Rolando Cruz

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U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Case on Access to DNA Testing

Posted: November 3, 2008 5:00 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court said today that it will review an Alaska case on whether defendants have the right to DNA testing that can prove innocence.

The Innocence Project represents William Osborne, who was convicted of rape and related charges in 1994. The state has fought motions for DNA testing that could prove Osborne’s innocence. Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled that Osborne has a constitutional right to DNA testing, but the state appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

If the new testing shows that Mr. Osborne was indeed guilty, prosecutors should be pleased, the Ninth Circuit said. And if the testing points to his innocence, prosecutors should still be pleased, because the state’s paramount interests are in “seeking justice, not obtaining convictions at all costs,” and the tests will yield better evidence to catch and convict “the real perpetrator.”

Read the New York Times report on the Supreme Court’s decision to review the case here.
Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said today that the state has no justification to deny DNA testing when it can prove guilt or innocence. In a statement issued today, Scheck said:
“The State of Alaska concedes that DNA testing could prove William Osborne’s innocence, while fighting his right to testing. Why would anyone be afraid to learn the truth in this case? There is no rational reason to deny DNA testing that could prove innocence or confirm guilt.

“We believe that people clearly have a constitutional right to post-conviction DNA testing when it can prove innocence. Many courts have recognized this right, and we’re optimistic that the Supreme Court will affirm it if they reach that question in this case.”
Learn more about access to post-conviction DNA testing.

 



Tags: Alaska, Access to DNA Testing

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Today at the U.S. Supreme Court

Posted: November 5, 2008 1:46 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in Van de Kamp v. Goldstein, a California case centering on whether chief prosecutors can be held accountable for administrative or systemic failures leading to wrongful convictions.

And on Monday, the justices will hear Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, another case critical to the rights of criminal defendants and the wrongfully convicted.

The Innocence Network filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases. Background on both cases and access to the Innocence Network’s briefs are here.



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Preservation Statutes Urged in New Jersey and Ohio

Posted: November 7, 2008 4:05 pm

DNA testing has changed the American criminal justice system forever – helping to exonerate the wrongfully convicted and solve cold cases.  But DNA tests can only be conducted if evidence is saved. As two articles this week noted, evidence preservation laws around the country have lagged behind advances in DNA testing technology and opportunities for justice are routinely – and tragically – destroyed.

Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries told the New Jersey-Star Ledger this week about the case of Louis Thomas, who was convicted of a murder and rape he said he didn’t commit.. McCloskey investigated the case and began to believe that Thomas was wrongfully imprisoned, only to learn that biological evidence in Mr. Thomas’s case – and many others - had not been preserved.

‘A month before I came into the case and 27 years after the crime, the evidence custodian had  petitioned the district attorney to destroy the evidence in 100 old cases, including our guy’s,’ McCloskey said.
Advanced technology allows the Innocence Project and others to conduct tests in cases that are decades old, but countless innocent people will never get a chance at DNA testing because evidence in their case has been discarded.

New Jersey does not have a state law requiring the preservation of evidence. Decisions about the destruction of evidence are therefore left to the police or prosecutors in each local jurisdiction.  

New Jersey Assemblyman Gordon M Johnson wants to see this changed and has introduced legislation that will require biological evidence from crime scenes to be preserved for a defendant’s lifetime. And Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin pointed out that many Innocence Project cases are closed because biological evidence has been lost or destroyed.
"In any type of civilized society based on fairness and justice, it's inconceivable that states are allowed to throw away evidence while a person is still in prison," Potkin said.
Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger 11/03/08)
And an editorial this week in the Cleveland Plain Dealer urges state lawmakers to pass House Bill 218, which was proposed this summer to require the "collection, maintenance, preservation and analysis of DNA specimens.”  The Plain Dealer cites the case of Brian Piszczek, who was released in 1994 after DNA testing proved he didn't commit the rape that put him behind bars for three years. In Piszczek’s case, the city of Brook Park did not preserve the samples from the crime, but the California lab involved in Piszczek's case had saved the samples for testing.
Ohio has the technological tools to help victims and put away dangerous criminals. It just has to find the will to use them.
Read the full editorial here. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 11/03/08)

Does your state have an evidence preservation statute? Find out here.




Tags: New Jersey, Ohio

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Friday Roundup

Posted: November 7, 2008 5:30 pm

It was a big week for the United States – we have a new President elect, a new landscape in Congress, and new state legislatures across the land. We blogged earlier this week about the opportunities for bipartisan criminal justice reform on the horizon.

Meanwhile, politics bumped news on wrongful convictions and forensics from the national radar for a few days. Here are some of the stories you might have missed:

A panel discussion last night at Southern Methodist University in Dallas brought together exonerees and officials from all corners of the criminal justice system. Innocence Project client James Waller told the audience why he kept his anger at bay while appealing his conviction. "If I were to stay angry," he recalled, "I wouldn't have been able to work on my case. Bein' angry wouldn't do me no good." Blogger Bethany Anderson covered the event here.

At several other events around the country this week, exonerees told their stories and discussed the reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions in the future.

Florida prosecutors said they have new “people of interest and new DNA tests” in the case of William Dillon, who has served 27 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

And a new innocence organization will open its doors in Glasgow on November 12.



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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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Twenty Years Later, Man Faces Charges in Rape Case

Posted: November 13, 2008 4:42 pm

Duane Foster is expected to be arrainged tomorrow in Connecticut for a kidnapping and rape he allegedly committed in 1988. It took 20 years for him to face these charges because another man – James Calvin Tillman – was in prison for the crime.

Tillman served over 16 years for the crime before DNA testing finally proved his innocence and led to his exoneration in 2006. Prosecutors say the same DNA profile that proved Tillman’s innocence points to Foster as the perpetrator.

Read the full story here. (Newsday, 11/13/08)

Read more about James Tillman’s wrongful conviction
.

In 88 of the DNA exoneration cases, DNA tests have led to the identity of the real perpetrator. These perpetrators committed at least 74 additional violent crimes after an innocent person was convicted of their earlier crime.

 



Tags: James Tillman

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Friday Roundup

Posted: November 14, 2008 5:00 pm

Cases, causes and comments we didn’t get to cover on the Innocence Blog during the week:

At a Bar Foundation luncheon Wednesday in Memphis, Innocence Project Staff Attorney Craig Cooley talked about the importance of preserving biological evidence:

“They can’t find any of the evidence,” Cooley told those at the luncheon who included prosecutors as well as criminal court judges. “I have five cases in Shelby County. In two cases, we found it. In three cases, we can’t find anything. … Evidence preservation is a huge issue that we are trying to change.”
The need for preserving evidence is clear: DNA testing has helped police solve cold cases and also helps to exonerate the innocent. But news from crime labs this week also shows the importance of forensic oversight and funding.

Last month, we learned that the Los Angeles Police Department had 7,000 untested rape kits. This week, the LA County Sheriff’s Office acknowledged that it has another 5,600 untested rape kits. Human Rights Watch estimates that some 400,000 rape kits could be awaiting tests nationwide. Meanwhile, the federal government has cut spending aimed at reducing backlogs. A New York Times editorial on Monday called on federal lawmakers to act immediately to address these backlogs.

William Dillon, who has been in Florida prison for more than two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit, will have another day in court on Tuesday. Dillon’s attorneys, working with the Innocence Project of Florida, say new DNA testing proves his innocence, and will present this evidence to a judge at Tuesday’s hearing.

Attorneys at the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project got a bill this week for $37.78 from the Sangamon County Sheriff’s Office, for documents and recordings in the case of Thomas McMillen. The sheriff’s office had originally said the copies would cost $700, but media reports pointed out that state law requires public agencies to charge only actual reproduction costs for information requests. An editorial in the State Journal-Register says that this episode illustrates the need for Freedom of Information reform in the state.

The Texas State Legislature is considering reforms to enhance the jury experience statewide, and the Innocence Project of Texas submitted written testimony yesterday to the House Judiciary Committee on the topic. The testimony begins:
“While most of the discussion here today is likely to focus on payments to jurors for their time, jury recruitment and other such measures, we cannot forget that some of the worst juror experiences come not from waiting in long lines or losing time at work but participating, unknowingly, in the false conviction of an innocent person.”
The testimony goes on to point out that reforms to prevent wrongful convictions also help juries function more effectively, because they all aim to get more accurate information to jurors. Read the full testimony here.

Also in Texas this week, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins was named one of Governing Magazine’s Public Officials of the Year – and was featured on the magazine’s cover.



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Friday Roundup: Seeking New Trials

Posted: November 21, 2008 3:01 pm

Lots of case news and events around the U.S. to cover this week:

Innocence Project client Anthony Wright has been in Pennsylvania prison for 15 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. He is seeking DNA testing on evidence in the case, but the Philadelphia District Attorney is fighting his requests for testing and courts have denied his appeals. This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer said “the best and only way to resolve the dispute is to proceed with the DNA test.

DNA tests in the Norfolk Four case have already implicated the real perpetrator of the crime, but three men who say they had nothing to do with the murder are still behind bars. More than two dozen FBI agents called for a pardon last week, and the New York Times joined them this week.

A federal appeals court will hear arguments in the case of Troy Davis on December 9, and former FBI Director William Sessions wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week that Davis deserves another day in court.

Police interrogation of juveniles was in the news this week, with the high-profile case of an eight-year-old boy charged with shooting his father and a neighbor. Prosecutors released the videotaped interrogation of the boy, and experts around the world are saying that the police procedure in questioning an eight-year-old without a parent or lawyer was inappropriate.

A federal appeals court yesterday tossed out the conviction of a man found guilty in 1994 of killing nine people at a Buddhist temple in Arizona. Jonathan Doody was 17 when arrested, and his conviction rested on his alleged confession after 12 hours of interrogation.

"In short," the ruling says, "Doody paints an overall picture of downplayed warnings, a softly induced waiver of rights and conduct conveying the message that Doody would not be left alone until he confessed, all targeted at an unsavvy, increasingly sleep-deprived teenager."
And innocence organizations around the world held events and rallies in the last week:

The Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago celebrated its tenth anniversary. The group is one of the pioneers of the innocence movement and has exonerated dozens of wrongfully convicted Americans across the country. The Chicago Tribune calls the group the “the heroes of the wrongfully convicted.”  Watch a video looking back at the Center’s incredible first 10 years here.

William & Mary held its first annual Innocence Symposium and students from the University of Bristol Innocence Project in the United Kingdom took to the streets to educate the public about the problem of wrongful convictions.

Finally, we extend a warm welcome to the Montana Innocence Project, which opened its doors this year.


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New York Man Could Be Freed Tomorrow

Posted: November 24, 2008 1:44 pm

Innocence Project client Steven Barnes is expected to be released from prison tomorrow  after serving nearly two decades for a rape and murder that he has always maintained he didn’t commit. A hearing is expected to be held in Oneida County Court, and the Innocence Project released a joint statement with county prosecutors today.

Read the full statement and media coverage of the case here.

We’ll post more on the blog as the case develops today and tomorrow.





Tags: Steven Barnes

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Steven Barnes Freed in NY, Should Be 'A Wake-Up Call'

Posted: November 25, 2008 5:15 pm

Innocence Project client Steven Barnes was released this morning from a courthouse in upstate New York, after serving nearly 20 years in prison for a 1985 rape and murder he has always said he didn’t commit. New DNA tests on evidence from the crime scene strongly support Barnes’ claim of innocence, and led a state judge to vacate his conviction this morning. (Above photo, Barnes and his mother, Sylvia Bouchard, after he was released today. Photo courtesy Utica Observer-Dispatch)

Barnes’ 1989 conviction rested in part on unvalidated forensic testimony, including soil comparison and analysis of an imprint allegedly left on the outside of Barnes’ truck by the victim’s jeans.

“Unvalidated and exaggerated science convicted Steven Barnes and cost him nearly two decades, but real science finally secured his freedom,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This is the latest in a long line of wrongful convictions based on improper or invalid forensic science that were ultimately overturned through DNA testing. Until there are clear national standards about what kind of forensic science can be allowed in court, more people like Steven Barnes will be wrongfully convicted while the actual perpetrators of violent crime remain at large.”

Read today’s Innocence Project press release here.

A former New York judge today said the Barnes case should be a wake-up call for the everyone involved in the criminal justice system.
It should constitute a change for the New York State legislature and governor who make criminal justice policies," Robert Julian said. "It should be a change for the incoming Chief Judge of the State of New York. It should be a change for each prosecutor in the state."
Read the full story here. (WKTV, 11/25/08)
More news coverage of Barnes’ release today:

News 10 Now: Video of Barnes’ release

Associated Press: Judge overturns NY man's murder, rape convictions

Utica Observer-Dispatch: Barnes: ‘I knew this day would come’

Syracuse Post-Dispatch: After 20 years in prison, Marcy man walks free





Tags: Steven Barnes

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Alabama Death Row Inmate Still Seeking DNA Tests

Posted: December 3, 2008 4:04 pm

Several times, Alabama death row inmate Tommy Arthur has come within days of execution before receiving a stay. Another inmate has confessed to committing the murder for which Arthur was sent to death row a quarter-century ago, but Arthur still can’t get access to the DNA testing that could prove his guilt or innocence.

His attorneys recently filed a new motion for DNA testing on evidence from the 1982 crime, and prosecutors have until Monday to respond.

Read the full story here. (Tuscaloosa News, 12/02/08)

Send an email to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urging him to grant testing in Arthur’s case.





Tags: Alabama, Death Penalty

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Guest Post: Learning from Wrongful Convictions

Posted: December 4, 2008 10:14 am

By Catherine K. Eloranto, J.D.
Associate Professor, Criminal Justice
Clinton Community College, Plattsburgh, NY

“Well he must be guilty of something.”  

That comment from a graduating criminal justice major floored me.  It was my second year of teaching, and I had just described Kirk Bloodsworth’s battle to prove his innocence.  That moment was a turning point for me.  I knew that this area of the state was dotted with prisons, many of which employ the parents, uncles, brothers and sisters of my students.  What I did not realize was how doggedly the students would cling to the view that if someone landed in prison, they must have committed a crime.  

As a former prosecutor and judge, I am keenly aware of the cracks in the criminal justice system.  The promise of “justice for all” is more true for some than for others.  And I knew I had to find a way to challenge the students’ perceptions and beliefs without alienating them.  This began my connection with the Innocence Project.  That first year, when we got to the issue of the death penalty in ethics class, I used data from the Innocence Project website, but students still weren’t grasping the serious flaws each wrongful conviction revealed in the criminal justice system.

As I read more from the website, I felt a greater urgency to help students understand the ramifications of wrongful convictions.  My goal was twofold:  to convey the information in a meaningful way, and to help them learn to think critically about important issues.  With these goals in mind, I created activities for my ethics and criminal procedure classes.

In ethics, I have the students write a paper analyzing the arguments for and against the death penalty.  They are required to go to www.innocenceproject.org, and read the case history of one or more individuals who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.  This is an eye-opening experience for the students, as for the first time they read about and see the picture of someone who could have been executed, but for the dedicated work of the Innocence Project and others.  I use case examples to demonstrate the causes of wrongful convictions. When we look at forensic science misconduct, the students examine the case of former Mississippi Medical Examiner Steven Hayne, whose misconduct was brought to light by the Innocence Project.  Through an integrated approach, the conclusions are inevitable.

In criminal procedure, I focus on eyewitness misidentification as a cause of wrongful convictions.  We discuss the constitutional requirements of Stovall v. Denno, 388 U.S. 293 (1967) (in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that unnecessarily suggestive identification procedures, and by extension any resulting conviction, would violate due process), the psychological research, and examine current law enforcement procedures.  Again, to bring it home in a personal way, they go to the Innocence Project website to read data on wrongful convictions based on misidentification, and to read and discuss specific cases where eyewitness misidentification caused wrongful convictions.

At the end of each semester, I have students write about the most important things they learned in class.  Since I have begun emphasizing the issue of wrongful conviction, 25-30% of students discuss wrongful convictions.  They get it, and I no longer hear “Well he must be guilty of something.”




Tags: Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification

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His First Year of Freedom

Posted: December 4, 2008 4:50 pm

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day Chad Heins walked out of a Florida prison after spending 13 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit. After his exoneration, he returned to his home state of Wisconsin to live with his family.

The Heins family’s nightmare began on April 17, 1994. Chad had recently moved from Wisconsin to Florida and was living with his brother, Jeremy, and sister-in-law, Tina. Jeremy was in the Navy and on board his ship that night. Chad woke up on the couch at 5:45 a.m. to find three small fires burning in the house. He ran to Tina’s bedroom and found that she had been stabbed to death. Although Heins immediately called police, he quickly became a suspect in the case. Despite the lack of physical evidence, prosecutors developed a case against him. They theorized that Heins had made a sexual pass at his sister-in-law. When Tina Heins refused, they alleged, he broke into a jealous rage and repeatedly stabbed her.

Aside from his presence in the apartment, no evidence suggested that Chad Heins was Tina Heins' murderer. There was no blood on his clothes or under his fingernails, no scratches or scrapes on his body. Furthermore, DNA tests performed on pubic hairs in the victim's bed did not belong to Tina, Chad or Jeremy. However, at trial, two jailhouse snitches testified that Heins spontaneously confessed his guilt to them. Despite the lack of physical evidence, Heins was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2001, Heins wrote to the Innocence Project, which took the case with help from the Innocence Project of Florida. Together with Heins’ pro bono attorney, the Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing on the skin cells collected at an autopsy from underneath the victim's fingernails. Additional testing was done on the pubic hairs and semen found at the crime scene. The test results proved that the skin cells, semen and hair all came from an unknown male. As Heins' innocence became clear, key evidence surfaced. During the original trial, prosecutors suppressed evidence that indicated a third person's fingerprints were found in the apartment. After the test results and the suppressed evidence were released, a Florida judge tossed Heins’ conviction and he was exonerated on December 4, 2007. He had been only 19 years old when Tina was murdered and today he is 34.

Learn more about Heins’ case, and read about jailhouse informants as a cause of wrongful conviction.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries:

Marcellius Bradford, Illinois (Served 6.5 years, Exonerated 2001)

Dewey Davis, West Virginia (Served 7 years, Exonerated 1995)

Larry Ollins, Illinois (Served 13.5 years, Exonerated 2001)

Calvin Ollins, Illinois (Served 13.5 years, Exonerated 2001)

Omar Saundars, Illinois (Served 13.5 years, Exonerated 2001)



Tags: Florida, Chad Heins

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DNA Tests Could Exonerate Connecticut Man

Posted: December 8, 2008 1:53 pm

Prosecutors in Connecticut arrested a 51-year-old man on Friday in connection with the 1988 murder of a 17-year-old girl after DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene pointed to his involvement. And another man, who has always said he was wrongfully convicted of the same murder, is seeking his released from prison based on the same DNA tests.

Miguel Roman has been behind bars since 1988 for allegedly killing 17-year-old Carmen Lopez. Authorities reopened the case after the Connecticut Innocence Project, which represents Roman, asked them to conduct DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. The test results excluded Roman and pointed to another man, Pedro Miranda, who authorities plan to charge with Lopez’s murder and two other unsolved murders from 1986 and 1987.

Read the full story here. (Hartford Courtant, 12/08/2008)

We will post updates on this case here on the Innocence Blog as we receive them.





Tags: Connecticut

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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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Update: Ricardo Rachell Freed in Houston

Posted: December 12, 2008 4:28 pm

Ricardo Rachell was freed this morning after a bond hearing in a Houston courtroom. He served five years in prison for a sexual assault of a child he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence and pointed to the identity of another man serving time in prison for similar crimes, prosecutors said.

Rachell was tried and convicted in 2002; by that time, DNA testing was being used widely nationwide. Police collected biological evidence from the victim and a sample from Rachell, but that evidence was never subjected to DNA testing. Instead, the prosecution relied on eyewitness testimony from two children. Prosecutors have confirmed that they knew of the biological evidence before Rachell’s trial, and that it was a mistake not to conduct testing. They have also said they will work to ensure that Rachell’s conviction is overturned and that his name is cleared. In the meantime, he will be home with his family for the holidays after five years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

After the hearing, Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson said her office will work to ensure that Rachell's conviction is overturned.

"Our goal is to make sure justice is done. And today, that means making sure Mr. Rachell is out of custody and returned to his family," Wilson said.

Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 12/12/08)
The Innocence Project will review details in Rachell’s case for possible inclusion in our database of DNA exonerations once his exoneration becomes official.

 

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Friday Roundup: Walking Free

Posted: December 12, 2008 6:04 pm

DNA testing cleared three people this week – in Florida, Texas and Connecticut. We reported on all three, but here are quick updates on their case:

In Florida, prosecutors dropped charges against William Dillon, who served 27 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Dillon was represented by the public defender’s office and the Innocence Project of Florida. His attorneys announced today that he will seek compensation from the state.

Ricardo Rachell was freed today in Houston after serving five years for a rape he didn’t commit. See today’s blog post for more.

And Miguel Roman is still behind bars tonight in Connecticut, four days after prosecutors charged another man in the murder for which Roman has served 20 years. Roman is represented by the Connecticut Innocence Project, which is seeking his release and exoneration. More on his case is here.

An op-ed in the Hartford Courant said Roman’s case makes it clear that Connecticut needs criminal justice reform to protect the innocent.

James Lockyer, the founder of the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted, an innocence organization in Toronto, was nominated for the Globe and Mail Nation Builder award for his commitment to freeing the innocent from Canada’s prisons.

While the Alabama Attorney General sought to prevent DNA testing in the case of death row inmate Tommy Arthur, the Tuscaloosa News called for a moratorium on executions while the process could be studied.

And a Mississippi Supreme Court Justice wrote in an unrelated opinion that the exonerations of Innocence Project clients Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks point to the strong likelihood that innocent people have been executed in the state.

“Just as a cockroach scurrying across a kitchen floor at night invariably proves the presence of thousands unseen,” he wrote, “these cases leave little room for doubt that innocent men, at unknown and terrible moments in our history, have gone unexonerated and been sent baselessly to their deaths.” 

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Connecticut Hearing Set for January

Posted: December 15, 2008 5:12 pm

A hearing is scheduled for January 5 in the case of Miguel Roman, a Connecticut Innocence Project client who is seeking to overturn his murder conviction based on DNA evidence proving that another man committed the crime. Roman has been in prison for nearly two decades for the crime DNA proves he didn’t commit. Prosecutors last week charged another man, Pedro Miranda, with the murder and two other killings.

Read the update here. (WTIC, 12/12/08)

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A Dog’s Role in Wrongful Convictions

Posted: December 16, 2008 4:52 pm

Last week, Florida prosecutors dropped all charges against William Dillon, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. DNA test results and other evidence point to Dillon’s innocence in the 1981 murder, and among the evidence used to convict him was a tracking dog and its handler, both also involved in the wrongful conviction of Innocence Project client Wilton Dedge.

John Preston, the dog handler who testified that his dog connected Dillon to the crime scene in this murder, was discredited by a Florida state judge in 1984. The Arizona Supreme Court has called him a “charlatan.” In the wake of Dillon’s release, the Innocence Project of Florida is calling on Florida Gov. Charlie Crist to launch an investigation into every case on which Preston worked.

An editorial in the Orlando Sentinel yesterday agrees:

Given the circumstances, it's hard to conceive that Mr. Crist would not act. Messrs. Dedge and Dillon are walking, breathing examples of a decades-old injustice. The governor cannot tolerate the idea that this stink might linger over other cases.

Read more:

Florida Today, 12/12/08: Defender demands investigation of Brevard Attorney’s Office



Tags: Wilton Dedge, William Dillon

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New Trial in Florida Case

Posted: December 17, 2008 5:52 pm

A Florida judge today tossed out the conviction of Jimmy Ates, who has served 17 years in prison for the murder of his wife, a crime he says he didn’t commit. Ates was convicted based in part on evidence from FBI ballistics tests allegedly showing that the lead makeup of bullets used to kill his wife matched those he owned. In 2005, the FBI determined that these tests – called bullet lead analysis – weren’t valid. Gainesville prosecutor Geoffrey Fleck took the initiative to request that Ates’ conviction be overturned after learning that bullet lead evidence from the FBI was unreliable.

Ates is expected to be released tonight.

Read today’s story here. (Miami Herald, 12/17/08)

Read more on this story in the St. Petersburg Times.

The unreliability of bullet lead analysis and the FBI’s incomplete handling of the situation were revealed in a joint investigation from the Washington Post and CBS News’ “60 Minutes” last year. Watch the “60 Minutes” report here.

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Update on Ricardo Rachell Case in Houston

Posted: December 18, 2008 12:17 pm

A report in today’s Houston Chronicle offers more details on what went wrong in the case of Ricardo Rachell, a 51-year-old Houston man who was freed last week after serving six years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. It appears that police investigators, defense attorneys and prosecutors all missed signs that another man committed the attack, and missed an opportunity to test DNA evidence from the case that could have proved Rachell’s innocence before trial and implicated the real perpetrator – possibly preventing future attacks on children.

Rachell was arrested in October 2002 for allegedly luring an eight-year-old boy into an abandoned house and sexually assaulting him. But in the months after his arrest, two more children were assaulted in the same area. Rachell sent the news story of these continuing assaults to his defense attorney, who decided not to investigate. The same police officers arrested Rachell also investigated the next two attacks – and they didn’t draw a connection.

Business owners plastered their stores with police sketches of a suspect. Apartment managers warned their tenants of the predator at hand. FBI officials and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee held community meetings. And at least one news story quoted HPD officer Lisa Clemons, the same officer who arrested Rachell, on the details of the attacks. She also has declined comment.

Rachell sent a copy of that story to his trial attorney, Ron Hayes, who acknowledges he received it in December 2002 — six months before Rachell was to face a jury — but decided not to investigate.

"I received from Mr. Rachell the newspaper article about other sexual assaults," Hayes said in an affidavit provided for one of Rachell's appeals. "Since there were very few similarities and connection between the sexual assaults and the sexual assault Mr. Rachell was accused of committing, I did not believe that this information from Mr. Rachell merited much investigation."

Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 12/18/08)
And Rachell told the Houston Chronicle on Sunday that he is struggling to adjust to life outside of prison.
"It is not easy, but I handle it. I fend for myself," Rachell said in an exclusive interview Saturday with the Houston Chronicle, less than 24 hours after walking out of the Harris County jail following a rare exoneration.

His first night of freedom didn't bring any drinking, partying, star gazing or even a long walk. Instead, Rachell stayed inside with Robert Trimmer, his 82-year-old stepfather, and spent much of the night watching television.

"I didn't have anywhere else to go," Rachell said as he sat on a couch in Trimmer's living room in south Houston, where he likes the curtains closed because he fears the streets. He also worries those who wrongfully put him away will again try to snatch him up.

Read more. (Houston Chronicle, 12/14/08)


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Rob Warden: Wrongful Conviction Tab Tops $100 Million

Posted: December 19, 2008 3:15 pm

Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago, writes today in the Huffington Post that settlements from civil lawsuits in wrongful conviction cases have cost Illinois taxpayers $100 million. Until taxpayers begin to hold their government accountable for reforming the criminal justice system, they will continue to foot the bill for the injustice suffered by countless citizens, he writes.

The only accountability has been the taxpayers' -- perhaps deservedly so, given that it is they who have tolerated, and continue to tolerate, widespread police and prosecutorial malfeasance.

None of the police and prosecutors who were actually responsible for the misconduct that led to the awards ever have paid a single cent.

Read Warden’s full post here. (Huffington Post, 12/19/08)




Tags: Exoneree Compensation

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Connecticut Man is Freed

Posted: December 19, 2008 3:21 pm

Miguel Roman was released from a Connecticut prison today after serving 20 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Prosecutors said DNA testing in Roman’s case had matched crime scene evidence to another man, Pedro Miranda. Prosecutors charged Miranda with the murder – and two other similar murders – on December 5.

Roman has another court date set for February 5, and it is unclear whether prosecutors will seek a new trial or move to dismiss the charges.

"It feels good. It feels good," Roman said, surrounded by family and friends who had packed the courtroom for the hearing.

Roman's daughter, Ana Roman, was 8 years old when her father went to prison. She said, for the first time in two decades, the family will make a home-cooked meal for him. She said her father is religious and patient, and that he was the one who got the family through his long incarceration.

Even in prison, Roman said, "he's always been a father figure."

Read the full story here. (Hartford Courant, 12/19/2008)


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Friday Roundup: Two Are Freed, While Three Continue to Fight

Posted: December 19, 2008 5:05 pm

Friday Roundup: Two Are Freed, While Three Continue to Fight

Two people were freed from prison this week as new evidence cast doubt on their convictions and three others were fighting to overturn convictions for crimes they say they didn’t commit.

Miguel Roman was freed today in Connecticut after 20 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. See today’s blog post on his case for more.

Jimmy Ates, who served ten years in prison for allegedly killing his wife, was released in Florida after a prosecutor requested his conviction be tossed. Ates’  conviction was based in part on FBI bullet lead analysis tests, which have since been shown to be unreliable. His is the first conviction nationwide overturned based on this evidence.

A Colorado man, Timothy Kennedy, was in court this week fighting to overturn his conviction in a 1991 double murder he says he didn’t commit. DNA evidence from the crime scene proves Kennedy’s innocence, his attorneys say.

In Michigan, Efren Paredes is seeking a commutation from Gov. Jennifer Granholm for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Paredes, who was 15 when he was arrested, told a parole board: "I will not take responsibility for a crime I did not commit. I never will do that even if it meant I could leave today."

A Chicago man is suing for damages based on the two years he spent in prison for a robbery he says he didn’t commit. Michael Glasper, 39, served two years of a life sentence before an appeal he wrote himself led to a new trial, which ended in acquittal.

Crime labs were also making news this week:

Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy created a panel to review convictions involving ballistic evidence dating back to 2003. The lab’s firearms testing division was closed in September after an audit found a 10% error rate.

An editorial in the Athens Banner-Herald called for the state to address a 10,000-case backlog to stop delays in criminal cases.

The dispute over control of the Orange County (California) crime lab continued this week, as experts warned that having a district attorney control a crime lab is a conflict of interest.

And the Innocence Institute of Point Park University launched the first issue of Justice Magazine, focusing on crime scene investigation and “junk science.”

 

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Three years later: Restivo, Halstead and Kogut

Posted: January 2, 2009 6:00 pm

In 1986, three New York men were arrested and convicted in New York on charges of abduction, rape and murder based on a false convention and faulty scientific testimony at trial. It wasn’t until 2005, 17 years after they were first convicted, that John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and John Kogut were rightfully exonerated.

Restivo, Halstead and Kogut were loosely connected before their convictions. Both Halstead and Restivo had been interrogated by police as part of their investigation and Restivo would sometimes hire Kogut to help with his family’s moving business. However, after the police gave Kogut a polygraph exam and subsequently interrogated him for 12 hours, all the while telling him that he, Restivo and Halstead were responsible for the victim’s rape and death, that Kogut signed a confession provided to him and written by a police officer. By the time Kogut signed the confession, he had, given five other versions of the crime. In this sixth account of events, Restivo, Kogut, and Halstead were in Restivo’s van when they came across the 16-year-old girl, who they would later supposedly rape and strangle near a local cemetery.

Because of Kogut’s confession, Restivo’s van was searched and police would soon find two hairs that were deemed microscopically similar to those of the victim. The prosecution relied heavily on testimony from hair comparison expert Dr. Peter DeForest, who testified that the hairs could not have been deposited in the vehicle while she was alive. According to Dr. DeForest, the hairs found in Restivo’s van displayed “advanced banding,” a condition caused by bacteria eating away at the interior of the hair shaft.

After his confession, Kogut was tried separately in March 1986. Restivo and Halstead were tried together in November 1986 on the grounds that the two hairs corroborated Kogut’s confession. All three were convicted of rape and murder.

It wasn’t until 2003 that attorneys for the three men obtained property records from the police department that would eventually lead to the discovery of an intact vaginal swab from the original rape kit that had never been tested. The Innocence Project represented Restivo and worked closely with attorneys for Halstead and Kogut.  Test results of the swab excluded all three men as perpetrators. In addition, after years of research of the hair bonding technology, the state’s expert witness at the time of the original convictions provided the defense with an affidavit declaring that the hairs could not have been shed by the victim during the time that she would have allegedly been in the van.

In light of these revelations, John Restivo, Dennis Halstead and John Kogut had their convictions vacated in June 2003. Prosecutors retried Kogut two years later, and he was found not guilty on December. 21, 2005. Little more than a week later, the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, having declared that it could not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, dismissed all charges against Dennis Halstead and John Restivo on December. 29, 2005.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries Last Week


Leonard McSherry, California (Served 13 Years, Exonerated, 2001)

 



Tags: New York, Dennis Halstead, John Kogut, John Restivo, False Confessions

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Arizona State University to Host Forensic Science Conference

Posted: January 7, 2009 4:00 pm

Some of the world's leading scholars and experts in evidence, forensic science and criminalistics will gather to discuss the future of forensic science in the criminal justice system in April. The Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University announced this week that it is hosting "Forensic Science for the 21st Century: The National Academy of Sciences Report and Beyond" April 3 and 4. 

Organizers said the conference is being held “in light of the highly anticipated report of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community” that is expected to be released within the next couple of months. Harry T. Edwards, Chief Judge Emeritus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Co-chair of the NAS Forensic Science Committee, is scheduled to deliver the Center's annual Willard H. Pedrick Lecture, titled "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward."
The event will also feature discussions about the NAS report, an unprecedented examination of forensic science nationwide that will outline findings and recommendations for how to ensure that the criminal justice system relies on sound science.

In addition to experts from major research institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, the University of Michigan Law School, the University of California, Irvine, the University of Virginia and ASU, among others, participants will include state and federal judges, the co-chairmen of the National Academy of Sciences Forensic Science Committee, the president of the American Association of Forensic Sciences. The directors of the FBI Crime Laboratory and the Innocence Project, and prosecutors, defense attorneys, forensic scientists, and criminalists also will be involved.
Visit the conference's website for more information, including registration and scheduled events.

 



Tags: Arizona, Reforms, Forensic Oversight, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing

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Virginia Man Celebrates Almost 20 Years Since Exoneration

Posted: January 9, 2009 4:00 pm

After supposedly confessing to a crime he did not commit and serving four years in prison, David Vasquez was exonerated 19 years ago when DNA testing proved he could not have been responsible for other similar murders.

Officially exonerated in 1989, Vasquez previously pled guilty to the murder of a woman in Arlington County, Virginia, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Vasquez made “dream statements” about the crime, which officers turned into a confession even though he was considered to be borderline mentally impaired. Prosecutors depended heavily on forensic evidence found on the victim that supposedly matched Vasquez, and told Vasquez they had two eyewitnesses that placed him at the scene of the crime.

It was only after multiple DNA tests that police linked the murder for which Vasquez was convicted to another string of crimes. The tests eventually concluded that there was no match between Vasquez and the evidence found at the scene of the crime, at which time the prosecution secured a pardon for Vasquez and pursued a case against the actual perpetrator.

Other exoneree anniversaries this week:


Sunday: Larry Holdren West Virginia (Served 15 Years, Exonerated, 2000)
Tuesday: Mark Diaz Bravo California (Served 3 Years, Exonerated, 1994) 

 



Tags: California, Virginia, West Virginia, Mark Diaz Bravo, Larry Holdren, David Vasquez

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DNA Tests Help Release Wisconsin Man

Posted: January 9, 2009 4:15 pm

Thirteen years after he was charged and convicted in the murder of a Wisconsin runaway, the state Supreme Court released Chaunte Ott from prison when DNA testing of evidence found on the victim matched DNA from two other unrelated cases.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the county district attorney's office agreed release after forensic evidence taken from Ott's alleged victim failed to match Ott and instead matched an unknown person linked to two other unsolved murders in the Milwaukee area. Ott is being assisted by the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The indictment against Ott is still pending while officers continue to investigate the case.

Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams said prosecutors did not oppose Ott's release because "it was probably the fair and reasonable thing to do." The district attorney's office requested six months to determine whether to schedule another trial for Ott.

"We're going to be re-investigating some of the aspects of the case and come into court probably this summer to see if we want to retry the case," said Williams, who heads the district attorney's homicide unit.
Read the full story here. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/8/09) 

 



Tags: Wisconsin

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Still Waiting in Maryland

Posted: January 13, 2009 2:21 pm

Attorneys for a Maryland man argued before the state’s highest court  recently that their client deserves a new trial based on DNA evidence of his innocence in a 1987 murder. James Thompson, 49, has been in Maryland prison for two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors at his trial said he confessed that he and his co-defendant, James Owens, committed the crime. Thompson, however, says the confession was coerced.

Owens was released in October after DNA test results showed that semen on the victim’s body came from another man – excluding Owens or Thompson.

"Thompson's the case of the phantom accomplice," his attorney, George Burns, argued in front of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "The state decides, well, Mr. Owens is not the accomplice. There's some other accomplice with Mr. Thompson."

… Suzanne Drouet, an attorney with Maryland's Innocence Project, said Thompson gave a "false confession" after "trickery" from police and prosecutors.

Read the full story here. (Baltimore Examiner, 1/13/09)
Read about Owens’ release here.





Tags: Maryland, False Confessions

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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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New Hope for DNA Testing in Ohio

Posted: January 20, 2009 3:54 pm

Saying that a 2008 exoneration in his county changed his mind about the power of DNA testing, an Ohio District Attorney has agreed to allow DNA testing in the case of a man in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

Charles Dumas has been in prison for a decade for a rape he says he didn’t commit. He is seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence but had been told that evidence was lost. Now, after prosecutors renewed their search, the evidence has been found and will likely be sent for testing this week.

The roots of Dumas’ success in achieving DNA testing lie in Robert McClendon’s 2008 exoneration. Last year, Franklin County District Attorney Ron O’Brien agreed to testing in the McClendon case after a private lab offered to conduct the testing for free. Although DNA testing at McClendon’s trial had been inconclusive, newer testing proved his innocence and led to his release.

"What we found with the McClendon case is it makes us more willing to take a second look at evidence that may have been previously tested," O'Brien said.
McClendon’s case was appealed as part of a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch. Dumas’ case was also reviewed by the project but not appealed because evidence was believed to have been lost.
"This test means my life; it's my last chance to prove to my children I didn't do this," said Dumas, an inmate at the North Central Correctional Institution near Marion.
Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 01/20/2009)




Tags: Robert McClendon

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Friday Roundup: Identification, Videotapes and Crime Labs

Posted: January 23, 2009 5:10 pm

In a week that saw a new U.S. President take office, criminal justice reform was in the air, from Georgia to Texas and New York to Denver.

Last week that the Dallas Police Department announced that it will improve the way it conducts lineups, and an editorial in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times urged all police departments in Texas to follow Dallas’ lead and begin using double-blind sequential lineups, which are proven to reduce misidentifications.

As we reported on Wednesday, the organization that trains Georgia’s police officers will be expanding its identification trainings this year.

Officials in Suffolk and Nassau Counties in New York have announced that they will begin videotaping all custodial interrogations in homicide and serious robbery cases. They will join 15 other counties in the state and more than 500 jurisdictions nationwide that routinely tape interrogations.

In crime lab news, Illinois officials pledged to cooperate with each other on reducing the state’s backlog of 1,230 cases awaiting blood tests. And prosecutors in Colorado support a new bill aiming to limit the reach of a law passed last year requiring law enforcement agencies to preserve crime scene evidence.

We reported yesterday on appeals by the Innocence Project and Texas attorneys to delay Larry Swearingen’s execution in Texas until proper DNA testing can be conducted. Another death row inmate, Charles Raby, is seeking a new trial based on DNA evidence that he says proves his innocence.

Kirk Bloodsworth, who was exonerated in 1993 with the Innocence Project’s help, served eight years behind bars – much of it on death row – for a murder he didn’t commit. He told an audience at Utah State University this week about the struggle to survive in prison and his life after exoneration.

A Washington state man spoke out this week about spending 11 months in jail awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit. Glenn Proctor was misidentified by an eyewitness and arrested for a shooting last January; he waited nearly a year before he was cleared by forensic evidence. His case highlights how lives are disrupted and police investigations derailed by misidentifications, even in cases that never become a wrongful conviction.

The Innocence Project Northwest, based at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, announced this week that it had founded the new Integrity of Justice Project with a gift from the RiverStyx Foundation. “The IJP will work to foster a collaborative partnership among prosecutors, law enforcement, defense lawyers, the courts, and others to identify best practices and procedures that can improve the accuracy of determinations of guilt or innocence,” wrote clinical director Deborah Maranville.





Tags: Kirk Bloodsworth, False Confessions, Evidence Preservation

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The Constitutional Right to DNA Testing

Posted: January 27, 2009 2:54 pm

In a brief filed yesterday at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Innocence Project argues that prisoners have the constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence. The court will hear oral arguments on March 2 in the case of Innocence Project client William Osborne, who was convicted in 1993 in Alaska of a rape he says he didn’t commit. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will argue on Osborne’s behalf.

Read today’s Innocence Project press release here, and download the full brief filed in the case.

“The issue in this case is whether a state can deny a prisoner access to DNA testing that was not available at the time of trial and has the potential to prove his innocence,” Neufeld said. “In the vast majority of cases, prisoners are granted DNA testing under state law or because prosecutors consent to testing without a court order. Alaska is the exception. It is the only state in the nation with no known case of a prisoner receiving DNA testing, either through court order or a prosecutor’s consent. This case involves a very important constitutional protection – one that is the only option for William Osborne.”





Tags: William Osborne

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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Lawsuit by Freed California Man

Posted: January 29, 2009 5:46 pm

Thomas Goldstein served 24 years in California prison before a federal appeals court ruling in 2004 found that he had been wrongfully convicted and led to his release. His 1979 murder conviction was based largely on testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who said he had not received anything for his testimony – a claim which was later revealed to be untrue.

After being freed, Goldstein sued former Los Angeles District Attorney John Van de Kamp, seeking to hold the prosecutor liable for not having procedures in place to track testimony from unreliable snitches. In 2008, Goldstein’s case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which considered whether office policies created by Van de Kamp were protected by prosecutorial immunity. Individual prosecutors have absolute immunity from lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for their trial-related “adversarial” conduct but not for “investigative” or “administrative” actions.

In a unanimous decision this week, the court found that Van de Kamp could not sue in this instance.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in the opinion that immunity covered claims about a failure to train or supervise prosecutors or to set up an information system with material that calls into question the truthfulness of informants.
Breyer said allowing the lawsuit to go forward would permit criminal defendants to bring claims for other trial-related training or supervisory failings, affecting the way in which prosecutors carried out their basic courtroom tasks.
Read the full story here. (Reuters, 01/26/09)
Before the case was argued, the Innocence Network filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Supreme Court, arguing that Van de Kamp’s role in this case was administrative, not trial-related. The Supreme Court disagreed.

Download the Innocence Network amicus brief here.

View other amicus briefs and read commentary on the decision at the SCOTUS blog.





Tags: Informants/Snitches, Government Misconduct

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Wisconsin Man Freed After 23 Years

Posted: January 30, 2009 2:26 pm

Robert Lee Stinson walked out of a Wisconsin prison today after serving 23 years behind bars for a murder DNA shows he didn’t commit. Lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined with the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office in asking a judge to throw out Stinson’s 1985 conviction today, based on new DNA evidence of his innocence and a new analysis showing that bite mark evidence used to convict Stinson was wrong.

Just after 1 p.m., Stinson walked out of  New Lisbon Correctional Institution a free man for the first time in more than two decades. While his conviction his vacated, Stinson is not completely exonerated. Prosecutors said they will review whether to retry him.

"We are thrilled that the truth has finally come out," says Byron Lichstein, the lead attorney on the case for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Law School. "Lee has been an inspiration to work with, and the evidence supporting his longstanding claim of innocence has always driven our devotion to the case. He has waited a long time for this day."

Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on evidence purporting to match bite marks found in the victim's skin to his teeth. Since the time of Stinson's trial, new evidence has come to light that strongly supports his claim of innocence. First, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists -- David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann, and Norman Sperber, who all volunteered their time -- evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bite marks found on the victim. Furthermore, DNA evidence corroborated these conclusions — male DNA found on the victim's sweater also excluded Stinson.

Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Innocence Project, 01/30/09)




Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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New York Study Finds Human Error in Wrongful Convictions

Posted: February 2, 2009 4:17 pm

A report released Friday by the New York State Bar Association found errors by prosecutors, judges and law enforcement among the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the state. The study examined 53 cases in which wrongful convictions were overturned on appeal by new evidence – some involving DNA testing – and found that most involved some form of human error, from eyewitness misidentification to problems with forensic handling to the reliance on false confessions.

“If you were manufacturing widgets, and 53 widgets were defective, it would be acceptable,” said Barry M. Kamins, a Criminal Court judge in Manhattan who was the chair of the state bar association task force that prepared the report. “If you’re dealing in human lives, and 53 people are innocent and serving time for crimes they didn’t commit, that is unacceptable. One is too many, and 53 in New York is unacceptable.”

Read the full story here. (New York Times, 01/31/09)
In late 2007, the Innocence Project released a report on the first 23 DNA exonerations in the state, entitled “Lessons Not Learned.” The 118-page report details the 23 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing in the state as of that time – analyzing their causes and calling for reforms to improve the state’s criminal justice system.

Read about the 24 DNA exonerees in New York.

 

 

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Suspect in Georgia Exoneration Case Will Not Be Tried

Posted: February 2, 2009 3:50 pm

Willie “Pete” Williams was cleared nearly two years ago in Georgia after serving more than 21 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. When Williams – a client of the Georgia Innocence Project – was freed, prosecutors said the DNA profile that proved Williams’ innocence also pointed to another man – Kenneth Wicker – as the perpetrator of the rape. Wicker pled guilty to similar attacks around the time of the rape for which Williams was convicted. But now he’s free and will not be tried for the crime, after prosecutors decided to drop charges against him.

The victim in the case refuses to testify again – and still believes Williams is guilty – and prosecutors say they are unable to move forward without her identification of Wicker.

Another prosecutor interviewed by the Atlanta Journal Constitution disagrees, saying jurors will understand that eyewitness misidentifications are common and that know how to weigh an unreliable identification against strong scientific evidence.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said the prosecutor should act on such strong evidence.

“He thinks he’s letting a serial rapist go? That’s outrageous,” Scheck said. “Tell that to the next victim.”

Read the full story here. (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 02/01/09)
 



Tags: Willie Williams

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Prosecutors, Crime Victims and Exonerees File in Innocence Project Supreme Court Case

Posted: February 5, 2009 6:45 pm

Diverse voices from across the criminal justice system filed friend-of-the-court briefs this week urging the U.S. Supreme Court to recognize that the federal Constitution allows prisoners access to DNA testing that could prove their innocence. The Innocence Project represents an Alaska man who is seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence; the Supreme Court will hear the case next month.

Among the individuals and groups filing on behalf of William Osborne were current and former prosecutors, who argue that the majority of prosecutors are willing to review cases where DNA testing could change a verdict – but that relying solely on the unfettered discretion of prosecutors can sanction injustice. A group of crime victims also filed a brief, including a woman who was raped by a man who remained at large while an innocent person was in prison for his previous crimes.

“These briefs reflect the growing consensus that everyone – prosecutors, defendants, crime victims, the government and society – has an interest in making sure people have access to DNA testing that can prove innocence,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. Neufeld will argue the case at the Supreme Court on March 2. “In the vast majority of cases, prisoners are granted DNA testing under state law or because prosecutors consent to testing without a court order. Alaska is the exception. It is the only state in the nation with no known case of a prisoner receiving DNA testing, either through court order or a prosecutor’s consent. This case involves a very important constitutional protection – one that is the only option for William Osborne.”

Read the full Innocence Project press release here and download the full briefs in each case.

Oral arguments in William Osborne’s case will be heard March 2. Read more about the case, and download the Innocence Project brief.





Tags: William Osborne

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Texas Case Could Spark Reforms

Posted: February 11, 2009 4:50 pm

The fallout of the Timothy Cole case is continuing this week in Texas. On Friday, a judge ruled that Cole should be posthumously exonerated of the 1985 rape for which he spent thirteen years in prison. He died of an asthma attack while serving a 25-year sentence and DNA testing last year proved that another man committed the crime.

Cole’s conviction was based in part on eyewitness misidentification, and Texas lawmakers this session are seeking to prevent misidentifications in the future. State Senator Rodney Ellis, the Innocence Project Board Chairman, has introduced an identification reform bills in the state, and Cole’s family (along with a dozen exonerees) visited with lawmakers on Thursday to support the legislation. Ellis has also introduced bills to improve compensation for exonerees and to create an innocence commission. An editorial in the Austin American-Statesman yesterday called on lawmakers to improve eyewitness practices to prevent future injustice:

Those rules have been adopted by other states, and they should be the law in Texas. Too many wrongful convictions have been based on eyewitness testimony for Texans to be comfortable with the current system.

Timothy Cole was denied justice while he was alive. But his family, the Innocence Project (of Texas) and Judge Baird saw to it that justice wasn't denied forever.

Read the full editorial. (Austin American-Statesman, 2/10/09)
And an editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News pointed to another potential reform. The editorial says prosecutors withheld information of the real perpetrator from Cole’s attorneys and calls on state lawmakers to pass a law criminalizing the withholding of exculpatory evidence.
Lawmakers should also seriously consider a proposal supported by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Texas Innocence Project to criminalize the withholding of exculpatory evidence in cases such as Cole's.

The shame should forever haunt (prosecutor Jim Bob) Darnell and his cohorts for the injustice they committed. For others who follow, the prospect of criminal prosecution should chill their conviction-at-all-costs enthusiasm.
Read the full editorial here. (Dallas Morning News, 02/11/09)
More coverage:

Voice of America: Exoneration of Dead Man in Texas May Prompt Judicial Reforms

Lubbock Online: After Cole Cleared, Family Fights On



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Friday Roundup: Spreading the Word

Posted: February 13, 2009 5:31 pm

Our friends around the web were helping us spread the word this week about wrongful convictions. Hundreds of new members joined the Innocence Project online community to get email newsletters, action alerts and breaking news updates and they are inviting hundreds more to join them. You can invite a friend here.

Meanwhile, the Overbrook Foundation, an Innocence Project supporter, was blogging about our upcoming case before the Supreme Court. And our community is growing on Facebook and Twitter. Come join us.

Now on to the news of the week:

The Mississippi State House of Representatives passed a bill that would allow death row prisoners the right to post-conviction DNA testing. The bill now moves on to the State Senate.

On our homepage today is the story of Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through college and law school to fight for her brother’s exoneration. A feature film starring Hillary Swank as Betty Anne is currently in production. Read more.

Rick Casey wrote in the Houston Chronicle that the forensic science report expected soon from the National Academy of Sciences could show that the rest of the country suffers from the crime lab problems Houston experienced over the last decade. “Crime labs too often produce not science but science fiction,” Casey wrote, adding that he hopes the report will spark reform on the ground in Texas.

This week was the 22nd anniversary of the murder of Peggy Hettrick in Colorado, a crime for which Tim Masters was wrongfully convicted and spent nearly a decade in prison. The Fort Collins Coloradan this week obtained the transcripts of interviews conducted with former prosecutors by regulators who would eventually discipline them. Former Prosecutor Terence Gilmore said he believes the murder will never be solved.

Boston Phoenix reporter David S. Bernstein was named the New England Press Association Journalist of the Year and won another award for his investigative work on the wrongful conviction of Stephan Cowans in Boston.

And North Carolina Exoneree Darryl Hunt spoke to students at Campbell University Law School.



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Alaska Case to Appear Before Supreme Court in Two Weeks

Posted: February 17, 2009 4:15 pm

The case of Innocence Project client William Osborne will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in less than two weeks. Justices will hear arguments March 2 from Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld and an attorney for the State of Alaska on the constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.

Osborne is seeking DNA testing on evidence from a rape he was convicted of 1993. The state concedes that the evidence could prove innocence and the Innocence Project would pay for DNA testing, but prosecutors have refused to grant access to testing.

Neufeld told McClatchy Newspapers that the resistance from prosecutors in Osborne’s case is rare.

"We're not talking about vacating a conviction or a retrial or anything like that. We're just talking about a test. What's the big deal? Why can't you give them the test?" Neufeld said.

DNA is different than any other type of evidence - eye witnesses and recantations and even fingerprints, he said. "DNA is this truth machine."

…."Most prosecutors want to do justice and they want to get to the truth," Even if they believe deep down that a defendant is guilty, many also reason, "Fine, I'll give them the test. What's the downside? It's just a test - it's not letting them out of prison."

Read the full story here. (Juneau Empire, 2/17/09)
Download briefs, press releases and more resources in the Osborne case here.





Tags: William Osborne

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Votes for Reform

Posted: February 23, 2009 11:38 am

An editorial this weekend in the New York Times praised the National Academy of Sciences on its “sensible suggestions” for improvements to forensic science practices in the United States, and called for research into unvalidated disciplines.

The academy’s panel makes sensible suggestions for improvement, such as certification of forensic professionals, accreditation of laboratories, uniform standards for analyzing evidence and independence of the laboratories from police and prosecutors who might bias judgments. In the long run, research is needed to determine the accuracy of forensic methods. For now, judges, lawyers and juries are on notice that high-tech forensic perfection is a television fantasy, not a courtroom reality.

Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 02/21/09)
And writing in the Austin American-Statesman, author Joyce King (a member of the Innocence Project of Texas Board of Directors) writes that “lawmakers should not ignore” criminal justice reforms proven to prevent wrongful convictions – especially in the wake of Timothy Cole being cleared posthumously.

Read King’s op-ed here. (Austin American-Statesman, 02/22/09)




Tags: Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics

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Friday Roundup: Freedom and Compensation

Posted: February 20, 2009 5:26 pm

News in the world of wrongful convictions this week was dominated by the release of a watershed report by the National Academy of Sciences, but there was plenty going on elsewhere, too. Here’s a roundup of the week’s news that we didn’t get to on the Innocence Blog:

Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown testified before a Nebraska legislative committee about the importance of compensation laws for the wrongfully convicted. Also testifying were Joseph White and JoAnn Taylor, two defendants from the “Beatrice Six” case who spent two decades behind bars for a murder and rape they didn’t commit before DNA freed them last year. 

Jonathan Kezer was freed Wednesday after serving 16 years in Missouri prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. An investigation led by the local sheriff uncovered the evidence that cleared Kezer.

Buffalo News columnist Rod Watson this week pondered the fate of detective Dennis Delano, whose cold case investigations helped clear two people – Anthony Capozzi and Lynn DeJac – after serving they had served years in prison. Delano is currently suspended from the department and faces disciplinary action for allegedly breaking department rules and sharing confidential information with the media.

Georgia exoneree Calvin Johnson will speak on Sunday at a special event hosted by the Georgia Innocence Project. Johnson served more than 15 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved his innocence in 1999.

And a California student newspaper profiled Northern California Innocence Project Director Cookie Ridolfi. "It's very frustrating when you know that you have a case where something very unfair happened and you can't right that wrong," she said. "It's very common. But when you can change somebody's life, it makes it all worthwhile."






Tags: Calvin Johnson

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Osborne Case Draws Near

Posted: February 27, 2009 1:17 pm

Oral arguments are scheduled for Monday in the case of District Attorney’s Office vs. William Osborne. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing when it can prove their innocence. We’ll update the case here – and on twitter – as we have details on Monday. For more background on Osborne, get briefs, press releases, media coverage and more on the case here.

Yesterday, exonerees and others whose lives were directly affected by wrongful conviction came together in Washington, D.C., to discuss the case and the importance of DNA testing. Watch a video of the event here. Today, Louisiana exoneree Rickie Johnson spoke to students about the case at a Virginia High School’s Case Day.

And legal experts from across the country continued this week to speak out on Osborne’s behalf. In today’s New York Daily News, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Mogenthau wrote that Alaska prosecutors have no logical reason for failing to grant Osborne a DNA test.

When a defendant who has always protested innocence will pay for a test that will resolve that protest one way or the other, only stubbornness can explain denying him access to the evidence. What can Alaska be afraid of - finding that it has imprisoned the wrong man?
Attorney David C. Fathi writes in today’s Huffington Post that he strongly disagrees with the choice by the Obama administration to proceed with the brief filed under Bush that argues against the right to DNA testing.
The Bush administration argued in its brief -- now effectively adopted by the Obama administration -- that the decision about whether to allow DNA testing should be left up to the states as part of a "vibrant democratic process." But some things shouldn't be put up for a vote -- and the liberty of a possibly innocent person is one of them.





Tags: William Osborne

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Osborne Transcript

Posted: March 2, 2009 3:36 pm

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld argued before the Supreme Court today that prisoners have a constitutional right to DNA testing that can prove their innocence.

"It is absolutely undisputed in this case that there is a DNA test that Mr. Osborne seeks that could conclusively prove his actual innocence," Neufeld said today. "This is the very first case litigated to our knowledge anywhere in the country where the prosecutor concedes that a DNA would be absolutely slam-dunk dispositive of innocence, but doesn't consent to it."

Alaska Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Rosenstein argued for the state of Alaska and Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal argued on behalf of the United States.

Download the full transcript of toda's oral arguments here. (PDF)

And get briefs, press releass and more on our resource page.



Tags: William Osborne

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Joseph Fears Exonerated in Ohio

Posted: March 12, 2009 2:52 pm

On Tuesday, Joseph Fears, Jr., walked out of an Ohio courthouse a free man for the first time in more than a quarter-century. DNA testing proved that he was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault in 1984 and a judge officially cleared Fears. He joined family members for a celebratory first meal in freedom and will now begin the arduous process of building a new life in a changed world.

Fears’ case was reviewed as part of a joint project between the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, but the investigation was stalled when prosecutors said they couldn’t find his evidence. Fears’ luck changed, however, when Ohio Innocence Project client Robert McClendon was exonerated in Fears’ county in 2008. Franklin County prosecutor Ron O'Brien said the McClendon case left an impact on him, and he ordered a thorough review of all stored evidence. The review turned up evidence from Fears’ conviction, and O’Brien immediately ordered testing.

Read more about his case from the Ohio Innocence Project and the Columbus Dispatch.

Fears is the 234th person exonerated by DNA testing nationwide, and the eighth in Ohio. Learn more about exonerations in your state here.

On the heels of the exonerations of McClendon and Fears, Ohio lawmakers are considering wide-ranging reforms to prevent injustice in the state. State Sen. David Goodman introduced a bill yesterday seeking improved access to DNA testing, a requirement to record all interrogations and reforms to eyewitness identification procedures.



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Eight Years Later, an Exoneration Case Approaches the Spotlight

Posted: March 16, 2009 10:06 am

Eight years ago today, Kenneth Waters walked out of a Massachusetts prison a free man after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He was wrongfully convicted in 1983 based in part on false testimony from informants. Although fingerprints collected from the victim’s house did not match Waters, police did not share this information with prosecutors or defense attorneys. Waters was sentenced to life in prison and would serve nearly two decades before DNA proved his innocence. Sadly, he died in an accident just six months after his release.

It has been eight years since Waters was freed, but his case is about to get a new wave of attention. A film about his wrongful conviction and his sister Betty Anne Waters’ fight to free him is currently in production. Starring two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as Betty Anne, the film will tell the incredible story of her struggle and dedication to free her wrongfully imprisoned brother.

After Kenneth lost all of his appeals, Betty Anne, a single mother of two, decided to take action. Convinced of her brother’s innocence and desperate to challenge the conviction, she began what would be a 12-year process of putting herself through college and law school. In 1998, she graduated from the Roger Williams University School of Law and began to work tirelessly on her brother’s case. By the time she contacted the Innocence Project, she had already located the biological evidence and was trying to have it subjected to DNA testing. Finally, the Innocence Project helped secure DNA testing that conclusively excluded Waters as the perpetrator and he was freed in 2001.

The movie, which has just begun shooting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will be directed by Tony Goldwyn. Other cast members include Sam Rockwell, who will play Kenneth Waters, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo and Peter Gallagher.

Other anniversaries this week:

Tuesday: Arthur Mumphrey, Texas (Served 17 years, exonerated 3/17/06)

Wednesday: Wiley Fountain, Texas  (Served 16 years, Exonerated 3/18/03)

Thursday: Edward Green, District of Columbia (Served 1 year, Exonerated 3/19/90)

Julius Ruffin, Virginia (Served 20 years, Exonerated 3/19/03)





Tags: Kenneth Waters

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DNA Clears Virginia Man of 1984 Rape

Posted: March 24, 2009 4:46 pm

When Thomas Haynesworth was arrested for rape in 1984, he told police that he was innocent and that he believed an acquaintance, Leon Davis, could be the perpetrator. Now, after Haynesworth has served 25 years in prison, DNA testing has implicated Davis in the crime and cleared Haynesworth, according to media reports.

Haynesworth, represented by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, will not be released immediately because he is also serving for another rape he says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors involved in the other case are searching for evidence to test.

Testing in the case was conducted as part of a state-run review of possible Virginia wrongful convictions that was sparked after Marvin Anderson’s exoneration in 2002.

Reached last week by telephone at the Greensville Correctional Center, Haynesworth said of Davis, "I knew all along he was the man. I told my lawyer. I told [police]. He lived right down the street from me."

"I told them: 'This man fit the description.' But nobody ever listened to me," he complained. "Everybody said we looked alike. Only difference between me and him, he is taller and weighed more," said Haynesworth.Read the full story here. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 03/24/09)




Tags: Virginia, Marvin Anderson

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Exonerations Spark Reforms in Ohio

Posted: March 26, 2009 4:31 pm

After the recent exonerations of Robert McClendon and Joseph Fears in Ohio, state lawmakers – both Democrats and Republicans – are seeking to pass a package of reforms that would help free innocent prisoners and prevent future wrongful convictions. A bill pending before the Ohio legislature would grant wider access to post-conviction DNA testing and would require changes to lineup procedures and the electronic recording of some interrogations.

But some police and prosecutorial organizations are resisting the changes, saying they would be burdensome and costly for police departments to implement and would prevent police from doing their jobs.

State Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said even with compromises this bill would be a step in the right direction and would help prevent wrongful convictions.

"It will be progress that will save the system money," he said, noting that it will mean fewer arguments and appeals over the legitimacy of confessions.

Seitz stressed that he wants to work out issues and move the bill, noting two recent cases of innocence and "countless other cases in which people hoped to get exonerated only to find that the dog ate my homework and the (DNA) evidence was gone.
"This issue is too important. We've got real problems with real-life people. All I would say to anybody who doesn't like this bill is: What if it was you in jail for 18 years for a crime you didn't commit?"

Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 03/26/09)




Tags: Joseph Fears, Robert McClendon, False Confessions, Eyewitness Identification, Access to DNA Testing

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Ted Stevens and Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: April 3, 2009 2:48 pm

An op-ed in today’s New York Times examines the alleged prosecutorial misconduct in the case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and asserts that the problem of prosecutorial misconduct is widespread – and unnoticed – in the U.S.

In the piece, “Prosecutors Gone Wild,” former New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer writes that prosecutors have overstepped their role in countless cases across the country, seeking convictions rather than justice. The U.S. government was right in seeking to dismiss charges against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, he writes, but the Stevens case “did not occur in a vacuum.”

Prosecutorial misconduct takes many forms, from failing to disclose critical evidence to disclosing information illegally to the press to overreaching in the exercise of the prosecutor’s discretion. Underlying all of them is a frightening misconception of the role of the prosecutor.

That role is not to seek the maximum penalty at every turn, nor to put together an impressive statistical tally of convictions. It is not to use the emotional pain and personal ruin involved on all sides of a criminal case to advance one’s own career or personal agenda. Prosecutors do not even share the duty defense lawyers have of providing zealous representation. The prosecutor’s only duty is to seek justice. Period.

This duty is especially important in an age like ours, when the integrity of the criminal justice process is so frequently called into question. Read the full article here. (The New York Times 04/03/09)
Prosecutorial misconduct has played a role in many of the 235 wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing, through a range of misconduct including hiding exculpatory evidence or exaggerating the value of evidence.
 
In the case of Curtis McCarty in Oklahoma, prosecutors intentionally misled jurors and relied on falsified forensic evidence to convict an innocent man of murder, leading to a death sentence. McCarty was exonerated in 2007 after serving 21 years in prison – including 19 on death row.

Prosecutors also committed misconduct in the case of Bruce Godschalk, who spent more than 14 years in Pennsylvania prison for a rape he didn’t commit. When the Innocence Project requested DNA testing after Godschalk had served 13 years in prison, prosecutors said they had secretly sent the evidence for testing and received an inconclusive result. Additionally, they said the tests had destroyed the evidence. A missing piece of evidence would then later mysteriously surface, and DNA testing freed Godschalk.
 
These cases – and others like them – are proof that when prosecutorial misconduct occurs, justice cannot.



Tags: Bruce Godschalk, Curtis McCarty, Government Misconduct

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Forensics and Conflict of Interest

Posted: April 6, 2009 12:36 pm

An editorial in today’s USA Today urges lawmakers to act on the National Academy of Sciences’ recent recommendation to separate crime labs from prosecutors’ offices and police departments. The NAS recommendation came as part of the group’s February report urging comprehensive reform of the forensic sciences and recommending the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Sciences. USA Today strongly backs the report’s call for independent crime labs:

Forensic science in criminal courts has been a part of American culture long before CSI became a prime-time obsession. Mark Twain was writing about fingerprints in criminal cases in the 1880s, before there was an FBI or anyone even imagined DNA. The allure is easy to understand. Juries and judges finding someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt would really like there to be no doubt at all, a desire that science could help fulfill. But science can't live up to that promise until the scientists serve the truth, not one side or the other in an adversarial courtroom.
An op-ed counterpoint article from Ralph Keaton, Executive Director of the American Society of Crime Lab Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board, argues that the vast majority of labs connected to law enforcement agencies “exonerate suspects as routinely as they implicate suspects” and that moving to paid private labs doesn’t eliminate bias from the process.
I would submit that the cost, both financially and in lost productivity, to make such a transition is too great to make this the best way to achieve the desired outcome. The desired result is the elimination of all bias and undue influences on forensic testing and reporting of forensic testing results.

Read the articles and join in the discussion. (USA Today, 4/6/09)
The Innocence Project agrees with Keaton that the desired result is to eliminate all bias and undue influence in forensic testing and analysis. The National Academy of Sciences report highlighted the potential for crime labs housed within law enforcement agencies to reach conclusions favorable to those agencies – not necessarily because they intend to reach such results, but because so-called “context bias” or “context confounds” can lead scientists to inadvertently reach conclusions when they know the expected outcome.

Read more about the National Academy of Sciences report and the Innocence Project’s recommendations for forensic science reform.





Tags: Forensic Oversight

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"Witch Hunt" Premieres Sunday on MSNBC

Posted: April 10, 2009 12:00 pm

"Witch Hunt," a new documentary on wrongful sexual abuse convictions in California narrated by Oscar-winner Sean Penn is set to premiere Sunday at 10 p.m. EST on MSNBC.

The film explores the unraveling of justice in Bakersfield, California, in the early 1980s, as a newly elected District Attorney charged and convicted dozens of parents for allegedly abusing their own children. Years later, many of the convictions have been overturned and the wrongfully convicted parents have won their freedom, but their lives and those of their children have been changed forever. Meanwhile, the DA who brought the charges remains in office, enjoying the support of local law enforcement and unopposed in his campaigns for re-election.
 
Using archival footage and incorporating new interviews, the film is a graphic illustration of the perils of unchecked prosecutorial power and its human cost.
 
Read more about the film and watch a trailer here
.
 
Watch more footage and interact with the film’s subjects and filmmakers on MSNBC’s site.
 

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Friday Roundup: Crime Labs, Confessions and a Hollywood Encounter

Posted: April 10, 2009 5:50 pm

Crime labs were all over the news this week. We reported Monday on a USA Today editorial calling for crime labs to be independent from law enforcement agencies and earlier today on an Arizona case that makes it clear that proper evidence testing is a matter of life and death.

Here are some more stories and resources on forensics we didn’t get a chance to post this week:

A lab technician who worked in Colorado and California has allegedly admitted that he didn’t follow procedures when conducting toxicology tests in thousands of cases.

The National Academy of Sciences Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community posted a wealth of forensic research and presentations on its website this week – including the complete submissions from dozens of presenters at its five public meetings.

The Innocence Project of Florida and the Innocence Network together filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Florida Supreme Court urging justices to allow a client to challenge his conviction because an FBI agent gave unreliable testimony based on the discredited practice of bullet lead analysis.

Detroit’s crime lab has been closed since September after an audit discovered a 10% error rate in ballistics testing. A Detroit Free Press columnist checked in on the lab’s status this week and called on the city to support the prosecutor’s office in its review of cases possibly affected by lab errors.

False confessions were in the news as well this week, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prolonged police questioning "isolates and pressures the individual…and there is mounting empirical evidence that these pressures can induce a frighteningly high percentage of people to confess to crimes they never committed." In a 5-4 decision, the justices overturned the conviction of Johnnie Corley because he had been held for more than six hours before being questioned.

CBS News’ “48 Hours,” Saturday night will examine the case of American student Amanda Knox, who is charged with the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher. Knox says she gave a coerced false confession after 14 hours of questioning and physical abuse.

Attorneys in Maryland are seeking to present new evidence in the case of Jesse Barnes, who was convicted in 1972 at age 17 of a murder he says he didn’t commit. He allegedly confessed after seven hours of interrogation but lawyers say the details of the confession don’t match the crime scene.

Dennis Dechaine, who has been in prison in Maine for two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit, added to his defense team this week when attorney F. Lee Bailey agreed to consult with his lawyers. The Innocence Project also consults on Dechaine’s case.

Last but not least, an update on “Betty Anne Waters,” the upcoming film about the exoneration of Innocence Project client Kenneth Waters and the role of his sister, Betty Anne, in pursuing justice for her brother. The film, in which Hilary Swank stars as Betty Anne, finished shooting this week in Michigan and Ann Arbor News reporter Jo Mathis has an update from the set.



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Events This Week in New York and Virginia

Posted: April 13, 2009 1:25 pm

Today in Virginia, Innocence Project Co-Directors Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck will be awarded the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Medal from the University of Virginia for their decades of service to public interest law and the impact of their work on the criminal justice system. They will discuss “innocence, science and due process” at the law school in Charlottesville, Virginia, at 4:15 p.m. ET. The event is free and open to the public. Get directions here.

And at noon this Thursday, April 16, Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin and exoneree Alan Newton will speak at New York University in New York City. They will discuss Newton’s case, proposed reforms to prevent wrongful convictions and Newton’s new organization to support the exonerated after release.

Alan Newton was imprisoned for 21 years in New York. His repeated requests over many years for DNA testing on biological evidence from his case were denied because the evidence was not located and believed to have been destroyed. When Newton became a client of the Innocence Project, the involvement and the persistence of the chief prosecutor of sex crimes in the Bronx, Elisa Koenderman, resulted in a successful search for the rape kit. DNA testing in 2006 showed that Alan Newton was not the rapist. He was released and exonerated of the rape, assault and robbery charges against him.

Since his release, Alan completed his bachelor’s degree and is now planning to attend law school. He is a co-founder of A.F.T.E.R. , Advocates for Freedom, Transformation, and Exoneree Rights, Inc., which provides services and a support network for exonerees.

Join them this Thursday, April 16th, from 12-2 p.m. in Kimmel 905 at New York University. To RSVP for the event, please email Bindi Patel at bindi.patel@nyu.edu today.




Tags: Alan Newton

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Controversial Chicago Case Goes to Trial for Third Time

Posted: April 14, 2009 1:23 pm

Juan Rivera was first convicted in 1993 of raping and killing an 11-year girl in a Chicago suburb. His conviction has been thrown out twice since then. But despite DNA tests excluding him from important crime scene evidence, a strong alibi, and serious questions about a confession he allegedly made to police, Rivera is expected to face a third trial beginning next week.

Rivera became a suspect after the 1992 murder despite the fact that he had a previous conviction and was wearing an ankle monitor that showed he never left home on the day of the crime. Police interrogated Rivera, who has an IQ of 79, for 39 hours over four days, including one continuous span of 26 hours. During the interrogation, he had a mental breakdown and was put on anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs. Officers say Rivera eventually confessed to the crime, and he signed a typewritten confession.

In 2005, DNA testing obtained by the Center on Wrongful Convictions showed that semen on the victim’s body did not come from Rivera. Prosecutors are expected to argue at Rivera’s third trial that either the 11-year-old victim was sexually active at the time of the crime or that the biological evidence was contaminated.

Rivera’s lawyers told the Chicago Tribune they were surprised he would be tried a third time despite mounting evidence of innocence.

"This was a crime scene rich with forensic evidence: blood, hair, fingerprints, semen, of course, fibers. You name it," said Jeffrey Urdangen, one of Rivera's lawyers. "The number of articles they've connected to Juan Rivera? Zero."

Read the full article here. (Chicago Tribune, 4/12/09)
Read more about this case from the Center on Wrongful Convictions





Tags: Juan Rivera

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DNA Testing Granted in Alabama Death Row Case

Posted: April 16, 2009 6:15 pm

An Alabama judge ordered DNA testing Wednesday in the case of a man who has been on death row for a quarter-century for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Tommy Arthur has been seeking DNA tests for years but has met resistance from prosecutors and state officials. The Innocence Project has consulted with Arthur’s attorneys on the case and has called for DNA testing that could prove Arthur’s guilt or innocence. Thousands of Innocence Project supporters have also written to Alabama Gov. Bob Riley urging him to grant DNA testing in the case.

Arthur returned to court Tuesday as his attorneys asked Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Teresa Pulliam to consider new evidence, including the confession of Bobby Ray Gilbert, who claims to have killed Wicker. The hearing was in Birmingham because Arthur's most recent trial took place there in 1991.

After listening to more than 10 hours of testimony in two days, Pulliam ordered testing on a wig prosecutors claim Arthur wore while shooting Wicker, a human hair found on a house shoe at Wicker's home and the blouse, jeans and panties worn by Wicker's wife, Judy, to determine if they contain DNA from Gilbert or Arthur.

Read the full story here. (Times Daily, 04/16/09)




Tags: Death Penalty, Tommy Arthur

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New Discovery Channel Series, 'Dallas DNA,' Premieres Tomorrow

Posted: April 27, 2009 1:00 pm

A new television series premiering tomorrow explores the importance of DNA testing and how a group of prosecutors in Texas are working to exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

Chronicling the efforts of local Dallas prosecutors to review possible wrongful convictions, “Dallas DNA” takes a look at the work of the county’s conviction integrity unit, which was created by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins in January 2007 in response to the county's 19 DNA-based exonerations. The show premieres on Investigative Discovery on Tuesday, April 28 at 10 p.m. EST (check your local listings).

Tonight there will be a special screening of the new series at 6 p.m. at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, where both Watkins and Innocence Project Executive Director Madeline deLone will speak and take questions about the importance of post-conviction DNA testing.

Special screening of “Dallas DNA”
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University
Greenberg Center for Student Life, Third Floor
55 Fifth Avenue (map)
The event is free to the public. To attend, please RSVP by e-mailing DallasDNA_NewYork@discovery.com.

Learn more about “Dallas DNA” here.



Tags: Texas, Reforms, Access to DNA Testing

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Houston crime lab implicated in another possible wrongful conviction

Posted: April 28, 2009 5:00 pm

Twenty two years after being wrongfully convicted for a rape and robbery in Texas, a Houston man may be released on bail this week on the heels of new DNA tests proving his innocence.

Gary Alvin Richard was arrested for the January 1987 attack of a 22-year-old nursing student and was convicted based largely on evidence processed by the Houston Police Department crime lab, the same lab that came under fire in 2002 after local reports raised questions about the quality of DNA testing. According to the Houston Chronicle, there are a number of problems with Richard’s case:

The victim identified him some seven months after the attack. HPD crime lab analysts came to conflicting conclusions about the evidence, but reported only the results favorable to the case. Physical evidence collected in what is known as a “rape kit” has been destroyed, a victim of poor evidence preservation practices, leaving nothing for DNA testing now.

Read the full story here. (Houston Chronicle, 4/24/09)
During his original trial, HPD crime lab supervisor James Bolding testified that Richard was a non-secretor, meaning that analysts would not be able to determine Richard’s blood type through his body fluids. However, while tests done last week confirmed that semen from the rape kit came from a non-secretor, it also showed that Richard is a secretor. Therefore, the semen found on the rape kit could not be his.

While Richard’s defense claims that the blood tests prove his innocence, prosecutors aren’t as sure. The Houston District Attorney’s office concedes that Richard should be released on bail, but has said that it is too early in the reexamination process to clear Richard of all charges. Three Harris County men have already been proven innocent through DNA testing after mistakes at the HPD crime lab led to their wrongful convictions: Josiah Sutton, George Rodriguez and Ronald Taylor.

Read more about the history of the Houston crime lab scandal in previous blog posts.

 



Tags: Texas, George Rodriguez, Josiah Sutton, Ronald Taylor, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing

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Chicago Man is Freed, 16 Years After Wrongful Conviction

Posted: May 4, 2009 1:31 pm

Thaddeus Jimenez was just 13 years old in 1993 when he was arrested in Chicago for a shooting murder he swore he didn’t commit. He spent 16 years in prison before he was freed on Friday due to new evidence that another man committed the murder.

Despite evidence at his trial that another man had committed the crime, Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison. His conviction was overturned on appeal, but he was convicted again by a jury in 1997 and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Attorneys at the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago have been working on Jimenez’s appeals for more than three years with pro bono attorneys from the firm Muchin Rosenman. Although courts had already reviewed a confession by another man and other strong evidence of innocence, Jimenez’s legal team presented prosecutors with further evidence in 2007 and the case was reopened. The investigation culminated on Friday when a judge overturned Jimenez’s conviction and ordered him freed.

He walked out of Hill Correctional Facility a free man for the first time since he was 13 years old.

“When I first reviewed TJ’s letter, I was floored that he had ever been convicted of this crime…There were so many red flags pointing the police and prosecutors in the direction of this true perpetrator” at the time of the crime, says Center on Wrongful Convictions Legal Director Steve Drizin. “We had to do that again, 16 years later. We located the true perpetrator, we have a picture and an address to the State’s Attorney’s office and, to their credit, they followed up on that information and they arrested him.”

Read more about the case here.

Watch a moving new video of Jimenez’s release here
.

Young people are particularly susceptible to wrongful convictions. One-third of the 237 people exonerated by DNA testing were arrested before their 22nd birthday. Learn more about their stories and take action here.

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Friday Roundup: Seeking DNA Testing

Posted: May 8, 2009 6:35 pm

A Texas man is seeking DNA testing in a three-decade-old case and there are renewed calls on prosecutors and crime labs across the country to conduct testing in tens of thousands of backlogged cases. Below are a few stories from around the U.S. this week on wrongful convictions, forensic science and life after exoneration:

A 61-year-old Houston man is continuing his fight for DNA testing that he says can prove him innocent of a rape he was convicted of in 1981. Donald Burke served 18 years in Texas prisons and was released more than 10 years ago.

Thirty-eight people have been exonerated in Texas to date by DNA testing, more than any other state. And a bill improving compensation for the wrongfully convicted after their release appeared close to passing the Texas legislature yesterday. A final vote is expected soon.

The ABA Journal called on prosecutors and state officials across the country to commit resources to clearing backlogs of untested evidence. Testing this evidence can help solve cold cases, apprehend repeat offenders and exonerate the wrongfully convicted.

An article in ProPublica questioned whether there is a connection between the growth of government DNA databases and the firms that produce testing equipment.

More news from Mississippi this week. A county is considering hiring Dr. Stephen Hayne, a medical examiner who has been widely discredited and whose faulty findings contributed to at least two wrongful convictions.

Mississippi hasn’t had a state medical examiner since the mid-1990’s and many counties in the state relied on Hayne for years to conduct autopsies. He was removed from the list of approved pathologists nearly a year ago after his role in wrongful convictions was uncovered. Despite concerted efforts from state officials to hire a new medical examiner, that process has stalled.

We report some of these stories on twitter throughout the week as they happen. If you’re on twitter, follow us @innocenceblog. We’ll follow you back.



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DNA Proves Virginia Man's Innocence

Posted: May 11, 2009 5:05 pm

DNA testing has proven that Thomas Haynesworth did not commit a 1984 rape for which he was convicted, according to legal papers filed in the case today by attorneys at  the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Hogan & Hartson LLP and the Innocence Project.

The test results exonerate Haynesworth of the rape and implicate the real perpetrator, who is serving seven life sentences for similar crimes in the same period. Haynesworth’s attorneys also requested complete reinvestigations of two more similar crimes for which Haynesworth says he was wrongfully convicted.

“There are some indications that the same serial rapist may have committed all three rapes for which Thomas Haynesworth was convicted. A thorough deconstruction and reinvestigation of both of the remaining cases could identify the perpetrator in both of them.” said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which is affiliated with American University’s Washington College of Law. “Mike Herring, the Commonwealth Attorney in Richmond, has been extremely cooperative in the case for which DNA testing was conducted. We are hopeful that both he and Henrico Commonwealth Attorney Wade Kizer will help reinvestigate both of these cases to be sure that justice is done.”

“We have handled similar cases around the country where DNA results overturning one conviction led cooperative prosecutors to fully reinvestigate other convictions and identify the actual perpetrator in multiple crimes,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.
Read more in today’s Innocence Project press release.



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Tennessee Man Cleared After 20 Years on Death Row

Posted: May 12, 2009 6:01 pm

Prosecutors in Tennessee dropped all pending charges against Paul House this morning, finally ending his two-decade struggle to clear his name. House was convicted in 1986 of a crime he always said he didn’t commit, and served two decades on death row before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that he was entitled to a new hearing. He has been free since last July while a new trial was pending. The Innocence Project has consulted with House’s lawyers on forensic issues, and Co-Director Peter Neufeld said today that the case is “a profound reminder that our system of justice must give people every reasonable opportunity to prove their innocence.”

“In the three years since the U.S. Supreme Court stepped into this case and sent it back to the trial court, substantial additional DNA testing and further investigation have shown that he is innocent. Each time a layer of this case was peeled away, it revealed more evidence of Paul House’s innocence.

“The Supreme Court was right to make sure all of the evidence was fully considered in this case. The five justices who ruled in Paul House’s favor had the wisdom to recognize that there was enough evidence of his innocence to allow a full hearing and more investigation – which ultimately proved he did not commit this crime. This is a profoundly important legal principle, but it also saved Paul House’s life. This case should give the Supreme Court great pause, and it should cause them to look more closely at cases like this.”

Read today’s Innocence Project press release.
Media Coverage of House’s Case Today:

CNN: Man Who Spent 22 Years on Death Row is Cleared

Associated Press: Charges Dropped Against Former TN Death Row Inmate





Tags: Paul House

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Three Years of Freedom

Posted: May 15, 2009 4:01 pm

Three years ago tomorrow, Doug Warney was freed from a New York prison after serving nine years for a murder he didn’t commit. Warney, who has a history of mental health issues, was convicted based in part on a false confession he allegedly made after 12 hours of questioning. About 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing nationwide have involved false confessions or admissions.

At the time of Warney’s exoneration in 2006, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said it should lead law enforcement agencies across the state to begin recording interrogations. Three years later, although many individual agencies in the state have begun to record interrogations, New York is still one of 36 states with no law requiring recordings.

“These DNA results don’t just show that Doug Warney is innocent – they reveal criminal conduct on the part of at least two Rochester police officers, and they demonstrate tunnel vision on the part of police and prosecutors who ignored compelling evidence that the confession was bogus,” said Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “This case should be a clarion call for every law enforcement agency in the state to begin recording police interrogations for serious crimes.”
Earlier this month, the chief judge of New York’s highest court said he would create a new permanent task force to examine causes of wrongful convictions – like false confessions – and recommend reforms to prevent wrongful convictions like Warney’s.

Neufeld said this task force could be a driving force to finally bring about changes like recorded interrogations in New York, but that it is also critical that the state legislature take action.
“While this is a major step forward, it is one piece of the whole. There are major systemic weaknesses demanding immediate action, and we will continue working with the Governor, Attorney General and Legislature to advance critical reforms in this legislative session that can prevent wrongful convictions. The task force Judge Lippman is creating does not supplant other efforts – it complements them and makes them even more critical.”
Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Sunday: Neil Miller, Massachusetts (Served 9.5 Years, Exonerated 5/1/0/2000)

Monday: Curtis McCarty, Oklahoma (Served 21 Years, Exonerated 5/11/2007)

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





Tags: Douglas Warney, False Confessions

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Friday Roundup: Fixing Forensics to Fight Injustice

Posted: May 15, 2009 5:35 pm

Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld testified before Congress this week on the need for federal research, support and oversight to ensure that forensics are based on solid science. Watch a video of the committee hearing or download Neufeld’s testimony here.

Your voice can help bring about forensic reform in the U.S. – sign the new petition calling for the creation of a National Institute of Forensic Science and explore the new Just Science Coalition website.

A new story from Reason Magazine examines the role of unreliable bite mark evidence in the wrongful conviction of Ray Krone in Arizona and reports on a failed “proficiency test” by Mississippi bite mark examiner Michael West.

An op-ed in the Dallas Morning News this week gave us a glimpse into the thoughts of former prosecutor James Fry as he considers his role in the wrongful conviction of Charles Chatman. The experience of seeing Chatman freed, Fry writes, has left him with a resolve to see the system fixed before more innocent people are wrongfully convicted.

A TV news report in Pittsburgh investigated the reliability of eyewitness identification evidence by joining a Duquesne University class for an unusual experiment.

And a British production company announced this week that it is beginning work on a documentary film about the wrongful conviction and exoneration of Nick Yarris, who served 21.5 years on Pennsylvania's death row before DNA proved him innocent.



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Join the Discussion: The Struggle for DNA Access

Posted: May 18, 2009 11:20 am

A story in the New York Times today examines the cases of several prisoners who have met with resistance from prosecutors and judges in obtaining DNA testing that could prove their innocence. Innocence Project client Kenneth Reed has been in Louisiana’s Angola prison for 17 years for a rape he has always said he didn’t commit. DNA testing could prove his innocence, but prosecutors have resisted his appeals – saying he was identified by witnesses and convicted by a jury so doesn’t have the right to DNA testing.

In Mr. Reed’s case in East Baton Rouge Parish, the district attorney who first prosecuted the case and now his successor, Hillar C. Moore III, have appealed every DNA-related ruling in Mr. Reed’s favor and objected to even a hearing on the matter.

They have argued that Mr. Reed’s identity was not an issue in the trial because he was identified by (witnesses), even though DNA evidence has repeatedly contradicted eyewitness identifications. They have argued that there was no way of knowing whether the evidence would yield a usable DNA profile — a question that would be settled by testing it.

…(Innocence Project Staff Attorney) Nina Morrison … said: “The one thing I’ve learned in doing this for seven years is there’s no reason to guess or speculate. You can just do the test.”

Read the full story here and join the discussion on the New York Times website
. (New York Times, 05/18/09)
Learn more about the Innocence Project’s work to improve DNA testing access when it can prove innocence – and find your state's DNA access law on our interactive map.





Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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Editorial: The Right to DNA Testing

Posted: May 19, 2009 4:50 pm

An editorial in today’s New York Times calls on courts and prosecutors to allow DNA testing in cases where it can prove innocence or guilt. Drawing from yesterday’s Times story on cases in which defendants – including some Innocence Project clients – struggle to obtain DNA testing, the editorial says testing this evidence is a right that shouldn’t be denied.

Prosecutors often say they oppose DNA testing because it is burdensome, but testing requests are not that common. In many cases, prosecutors seem to be motivated by a desire to avoid having their work second-guessed by objective science.

States should amend laws to make clear that inmates should have access to DNA testing, even to search databases for other suspects. And prosecutors should stop opposing any but the most frivolous DNA requests. Inmates have a right to conduct DNA tests that may help exonerate them. And the public has a strong interest in seeing that innocent people are not in prison — and that guilty people are not on the streets.

Read the full editorial here. (New York Times, 05/19/09)
Sign the Innocence Project’s petition calling on all states to allow post-conviction DNA testing in cases where it can prove innocence, and read more about this issue here.





Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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One Year Out

Posted: May 21, 2009 5:15 pm



One year ago today, Walter Swift walked out of a Detroit prison a free man for the first time in 26 years, exonerated of rape and robbery charges for which he had been wrongly convicted at age 21. Today, after one year of freedom, he speaks actively in support of reforms to prevent injustices like this from happening to anyone else.

Swift’s conviction in 1982 was plagued by numerous miscarriages of justice, including the use of flawed identification procedures by police, an inadequate court-appointed lawyer, and the exclusion of forensic evidence that could have helped show Swift’s innocence at his trial. Despite strong questions about his guilt, he was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

The Innocence Project became involved in Swift’s case in 1996, and would be working on it for over a decade. After an exhaustive search for DNA evidence from the case did not yield any results, lawyers and law students at the Innocence Project turned their attention to exposing other evidence that could help overturn Swift’s conviction. They obtained an affidavit reconfirming the alibi testimony of Swift’s former girlfriend, a law enforcement officer, and discovered that Swift’s attorney had engaged in misconduct in other cases. As this was uncovered, the police officer, the lab analyst and even the prosecutor in Swift’s original case all came forward to acknowledge Swift’s innocence and to help the Innocence Project overturn his conviction.

Swift was finally exonerated of all charges on May 21, 2008. Since his exoneration, he has been reunited with his daughter, Audrey Mills, who was only two years old when her father was wrongly convicted. In July, Swift traveled to Ireland with her and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck to visit Niamh Gunn, a student who had worked for the Innocence Project and continued her involvement with the case when she returned home. While there, Swift was featured on Irish national television and was able share his story with the public. Last month, Swift also appeared as a panelist at a forum sponsored by the Freedom Institute for Economic, Social Justice and Political Empowerment which addressed flaws in public defense.

Since Michigan still does not have compensation laws for those who are wrongfully convicted, Swift has not yet gotten anything from the state for of all the years he spent in prison. As with all the other injustices he has faced, Swift has not let this stop him from pursuing what is right. According to the Michigan Messenger, Swift’s “goal in life now is to make sure what happened to him does not happen to other people”; as he says in his own words: ‘“I want to be prominent and active in legislative reform and help men and women like myself.”’ Swift may have wrongly lost many years of his own life in jail, but he is determined to spend these next years fighting to make sure that more innocent people do not end up behind bars.
    
Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Tuesday: Michael Mercer, New York (Served 10.5 Years, Exonerated 5/19/2003)

Saturday: Marvin Mitchell, Massachusetts (Served 7 Years, Exonerated 5/23/1997)

Orlando Boquete, Florida (Served 12 Years, Exonerated 5/23/2006)
 



Tags: Walter Swift

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Thirteen Years Later, Exonerated in Wisconsin

Posted: June 8, 2009 4:24 pm

On Friday, prosecutors in Milwaukee announced that they were dropping all charges against Chaunte Ott, who was freed from prison in January after serving nearly 13 years for a murder DNA proves he didn’t commit. Friday’s move fully clears Ott, and he is officially the 239th person exonerated by DNA evidence in the United States.

In 1995, Ott was charged with sexually assaulting and murdering a 16-year-old girl in Milwaukee and leaving her body behind an abandoned house. Two men testified at his trial that they had participated in the crime with him, and a medical examiner testified that a knife found in Ott’s house could have caused the stab wounds on the victim’s body. Ott was convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison.

Twelve years later, the Wisconsin Innocence Project obtained access to DNA testing on Ott’s behalf. Semen collected from the victim’s body at her autopsy was tested, and the results excluded Ott and his two alleged accomplices (both of whom had apparently recanted their testimony after Ott’s trial). The DNA results also matched male profiles obtained from the scenes of two similar Milwaukee murders. One of the victims in those cases was found just a few houses from where the victim in Ott’s case was found. Based on these test results, the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin ordered Ott’s conviction vacated in late 2008 and he was freed in January.

His attorneys at the Wisconsin Innocence Project said the 35-year-old Ott was relieved by the news that charges were being dropped and that they hope that this move by prosecutors will make it easier for Ott to find a job.

Read more about Ott’s case here. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 06/05/09)




Tags: Chaunte Ott

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Growing Calls to Reopen Florida Cases

Posted: June 23, 2009 1:45 pm

Florida exonerees William Dillon and Wilton Dedge were both convicted based, in part, on the testimony of John Preston, a now-discredited dog handler. The Innocence Project of Florida is now working on another case involving Preston, and calls are increasing for officials to reexamine any possible wrongful convictions from the early 1980s – especially those involving Preston.

An editorial on Saturday in Florida Today listed some of the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in Brevard County in the 1980s and called on Governor Charlie Crist to launch an official investigation into questionable convictions from the county.

-- Titusville attorney and former Brevard prosecutor Sam Bardwell, who encountered Preston in a 1981 rape case, says then-State Attorney Doug Cheshire … as well as the Brevard Sheriff’s Office and most law enforcement officers at the time knew Preston was a charlatan.

“I left the State Attorney’s Office because I could not abide by the fabrication of evidence,” Bardwell says.

-- Retired 18th Circuit and appellate Judge Gil Goshorn confirmed Cheshire relied heavily on Preston in a number of cases, along with questionable jailhouse snitches.
“Cheshire’s office often relied on such evidence of dubious reliability,” Goshorn said in a sworn affadavit in 2008.
Dedge, an Innocence Project client, was exonerated in 2004. Dillon, represented by the Innocence Project of Florida, was cleared last year. The Innocence Project of Florida is now working on the case of Gary Bennett, who was convicted of murder based in part on Preston’s testimony. Preston, who testified in 60 cases in Brevard County and many more elsewhere in the U.S., is now deceased.

Read more about Bennett’s case on the Innocence Project of Florida website. And set your DVR for a special report on Dillon’s case from CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 – scheduled to air tomorrow (Wednesday) night at 10 p.m. ET.

Read the Florida Today investigative article and editorial.



Tags: Florida, Wilton Dedge, William Dillon

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A New Trial in Ohio

Posted: June 24, 2009 11:35 am

An Ohio appeals court has granted a new trial for Innocence Project client Thomas Siller, who has been convicted twice by juries based in part on false forensic testimony.

Siller and another man were convicted of a 1997 murder based in part on testimony from forensic analyst Joseph Serowik, whose false testimony also contributed to the wrongful conviction of Anthony Michael Green, who was exonerated by DNA testing in 2001. DNA testing in Siller’s case now implicates a man who testified against him at trial.

Cuyahoga County prosecutors said they would appeal the decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Read the full story here.

And read more on the Siller case in a 2007 Innocence Project press release.


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Two Freed in Austin After a Decade Behind Bars

Posted: June 25, 2009 1:17 pm

Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott were freed on bond yesterday in Austin, after serving 10 years Texas prisons for murders they say they didn’t commit. New DNA test results from the crime scene point to an unknown male – excluding Springsteen and Scott – and the two were freed by an Austin judge when prosecutors said they needed to delay a pending retrial for several more months.

“It’s wonderful, and I’d like to thank God and my family and my attorney for this opportunity," Springsteen said in a news conference outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.

Read more about their case here. (KXAN, 06/24/09)


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Innocence Denied

Posted: June 29, 2009 4:10 pm

In a new Q&A on the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund blog, Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld talks about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to deny DNA testing to Alaska prisoner William Osborne. While the decision was disappointing, Neufeld also says it represents “a call to action for all of us to pass legislation granting DNA testing in the three states with no laws on the books and improve the existing laws in other states.”

He goes on to discuss the disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos among people exonerated by DNA testing (70% of the 240 DNA exonerees are people of color).

LDF: Can one draw any meaning out of these numbers and what they say about racial disparities in the criminal justice system?

Neufeld: In many ways, the numbers speak for themselves. It’s impossible to look at the racial breakdown of the people who have been exonerated through DNA testing and not see that our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color. Digging deeper, most of the DNA exonerations are people of color who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting white people. Two-thirds of the exoneration cases are cross-race sexual assaults, while the Department of Justice says that less than 15% of all rapes are cross-race. There’s a long history of the American criminal justice system treating the rape of a white woman by a black man as a particularly vile crime. One consequence of treating such crimes with particular zeal is that people of color will be wrongfully convicted more frequently.

The DNA exoneration cases also illustrate the intersection of race and class. In case after case, defendants could not afford top-quality lawyers to challenge prosecutors who often over-stepped the line to secure a conviction – and in the vast majority of cases, the defendants were people of color. Years later, when they are exonerated through DNA testing, they are released without adequate financial compensation and little or no services from the state.Read the full post at The Defenders Online.




Tags: William Osborne

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Charges Dropped in Illinois and a Confession is Questioned in Michigan

Posted: July 7, 2009 4:49 pm

Two Chicago men are expected to be freed today after prosecutors announced that they did not have sufficient evidence to retry them. Ronald Kitchen, 50, and Marvin Reeves, 43, have served more than two decades in prison for give murders they say they didn’t commit.

Kitchen supposedly confessed to committing the crime after hours of interrogations and alleged beatings by Chicago detectives including Jon Burge, who is now facing federal charges for his role in several wrongful convictions. Based on the alleged confession and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Kitchen was sentenced to death and Reeves to life. Kitchen’s death sentence would later be commuted to life.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions sought the men’s freedom based on evidence of their innocence, and presiding judge Paul Biebel ordered all charges against the men dismissed today.

“This is wonderful day I’ve been praying for this day for 20 years,” Reeves’ mother, Pollyanna Reeves, said after the hearing this morning.

Read the full story here. (Chicago Sun-Times, 07/07/09)
Meanwhile in Michigan, a judge is considering whether to allow false confession expert Richard Leo to testify at the trial of Jerome Kowalski, who says he falsely confessed to killing his brother and sister-in-law in 2008.
"Mr. Kowalski comes to believe he committed a crime and desperately searches for details ... despite the fact (of) having no memory to do so," testified Richard Leo, associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco.While police say the defendant confessed, they also acknowledge there are some discrepancies in the defendant's story and the crime scene.

Read the full story here. (Livingston Daily, 07/07/2009)
The Innocence Project urges state legislatures and individual police departments to require the recording of custodial interrogations to prevent false confessions. Not only do the recordings provide an accurate record of an interrogation for a judge and jury, they also serve as investigative and training tools for law enforcement officers. Read more here.




Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions

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Racial Justice in North Carolina

Posted: July 15, 2009 4:40 pm

The North Carolina House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill yesterday that seeks to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system by allowing capital murder defendants and death row prisoners to challenge prosecutions based on evidence of racial bias. Only one other state – Kentucky – has a similar law.

Members of minority groups are disproportionately represented among DNA exonerees –70 percent of the 240 people exonerated with DNA after serving years for crimes they didn’t commit were people of color. Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld recently told the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s Defenders Online blog that racial bias and the possibility of cross-racial misidentification are both causes of wrongful conviction. Neufeld said:

It’s impossible to look at the racial breakdown of the people who have been exonerated through DNA testing and not see that our criminal justice system disproportionately impacts people of color. Digging deeper, most of the DNA exonerations are people of color who were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting white people. Two-thirds of the exoneration cases are cross-race sexual assaults, while the Department of Justice says that less than 15% of all rapes are cross-race. There’s a long history of the American criminal justice system treating the rape of a white woman by a black man as a particularly vile crime. One consequence of treating such crimes with particular zeal is that people of color will be wrongfully convicted more frequently.

The DNA exoneration cases also illustrate the intersection of race and class. In case after case, defendants could not afford top-quality lawyers to challenge prosecutors who often over-stepped the line to secure a conviction – and in the vast majority of cases, the defendants were people of color. Years later, when they are exonerated through DNA testing, they are released without adequate financial compensation and little or no services from the state.
More on the North Carolina bill from Facing South:
Specifically, the Racial Justice Act would allow defendants in death-penalty cases to use statistics to try to show that race played a factor in the application of the death penalty in their cases. If the statistics showed significant racial disparities in how the death penalty has been applied, a judge could block a prosecutor from pursuing the death penalty in that case, or overturn a jury's decision to impose a death sentence. It would also allow inmates currently on death row the opportunity to argue that their death sentences were racially motivated. If a death sentence were thrown out under the bill, it would be converted to a sentence of life in prison without parole.  

The act is a landmark piece of legislation for a state where blacks make up 20 percent of the total population but 60 percent of those on death row. The timing is also critical as North Carolina continues to debate the future of capital punishment.

…The NC Racial Justice Act goes to a second vote in the state House today, and then it will move back to the state Senate, where it faces a difficult challenge. Observers expect the bill will go into conference committee, where House and Senate negotiators would try to work out a compromise bill that could pass in both chambers. The Senate previously approved a version of the Racial Justice Act in May, but it contained controversial clauses meant to resume the death penalty in North Carolina. Those clauses were later removed in the House.

Read the full article here. (Facing South, 07/15/2009)




Tags: Death Penalty

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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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Australian Prisoner Could Become First to Get DNA Tests

Posted: July 23, 2009 4:42 pm

Shane Sebastian Davis has spent nearly two decades in Australian prisons for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. Blood evidence collected in the case was long believed lost or destroyed – but that changed in March, when prosecutors informed Griffith University Innocence Project Director Lynne Weathered that 12 vials of blood had been located.

Davis and his attorneys are now seeking access to the evidence to conduct DNA testing that could prove Davis’ innocence.

Attorney Chris Nyst, who is working with Weathered on the case, said the government’s action in locating the evidence should be applauded and hopes for a decision soon on whether DNA testing can proceed. Nyst told the Courier Mail:

"We don't know whether Davis is innocent or not. He says he is. What we do know is that we now have the technology to ascertain that. It should happen and we want it to happen quickly."

Read the full story here. (Courier Mail, 07/23/09)
Learn more about the Griffith University Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network.

  [Update, 7/24/09 – This post has been corrected. Davis would not be the first Australian prisoner granted access to DNA testing, as was reported in the Courier Mail. Frank Alan Button was exonerated through DNA testing in Queensland in 2001 after serving 10 months in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.]



Tags: Access to DNA Testing

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Friday Roundup: Fighting Injustice and Reforming Forensics

Posted: July 24, 2009 6:10 pm

Here's this week's roundup of news on innocence, injustice and forensic science:

The Texas Forensic Science Commission met today in Houston to plan next steps in the panel’s review of the arson convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis. Grits for Breakfast has more.

Attorneys for Illinois prisoner Michael Tillman are seeking a new trial based on allegations that Tillman falsely confessed after being tortured by Chicago Police officers under the command of former Detective Jon Burge.

A Michigan judge this week ordered a new trial for Lorinda Swain, who has served eight years in prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Swain was convicted in 2002 of sexually assaulting her 13-year-old son, who has since recanted statements he made against her. Attorneys and students at the University of Michigan Law School Innocence Clinic worked on the case.

Also in Michigan, prosecutors opposed a new trial for Davontae Sanford – who was convicted at age 17 of a murder he says he didn’t commit – despite a confession from another man who says he committed the crime.

The Governors of Massachusetts and Virginia are proposing new state laws to adjust the ways courts handle forensic evidence in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts.

For more forensic news, visit the Just Science Coalition website.





Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham

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Charges Dropped in Wisconsin Case

Posted: July 28, 2009 5:17 pm

Milwaukee prosecutors announced Monday that they will not seek a new trial in the case of Robert Lee Stinson, who served more than 23 years in prison for a murder DNA proves he didn’t commit. The University of Wisconsin Innocence Project began working on Stinson’s case in 2005 and obtained the DNA testing that proved his innocence. He was released in January, but Monday’s announcement makes his exoneration official.

Stinson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a 62-year-old woman in Milwaukee. His conviction was based, in part, on the testimony of two forensic bite mark analysts, who said bite marks on the victim’s body matched Stinson’s teeth. One of the experts testified at his trial that the bite marks "had to have been made by teeth identical" to Stinson's and that there was "no margin for error in this." The other called the bite mark evidence "overwhelming" and said "there was no question there was a match."

DNA testing conducted in the case at the request of the Wisconsin Innocence Project found a male DNA profile in areas of the victim’s sweater that had tested positive for saliva. The profile did not match Stinson, proving another person bit the victim.

After the charges were dismissed during a brief court hearing Monday, Assistant District Attorney Norman Gahn said it was the age of the case - which led to destroyed evidence, "faded memories" of witnesses and other problems - that led prosecutors not to retry Stinson.

Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Journal-Sentinel, 07/27/09)
Stinson is the 241st person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States and the fifth in Wisconsin.





Tags: Robert Lee Stinson

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Friday Roundup: Cases and Reforms Move Forward

Posted: July 31, 2009 5:30 pm

Around the country this week, individual cases moved forward – as did efforts to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and assist the exonerated.

A judge in Wisconsin this morning dismissed rape and murder charges against Ralph Armstrong, who has been in prison for 28 years. Evidence shows that a prosecutor concealed substantial evidence that Armstrong was innocent. Armstrong will remain in custody while the state decides whether to appeal the ruling. The Innocence Project has worked on Armstrong’s case since 1993, and Co-Director Barry Scheck today called Armstrong’s case a “particularly chilling” example of prosecutorial misconduct.

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County may be the home of pilot programs for identification reforms, according to District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., who chairs the county’s investigations section of the state Committee on Wrongful Convictions. The news comes on the heels of the Innocence Project’s new report on eyewitness identification reforms, released earlier this month. Read more in the press release here.

Republican and Democratic leaders are asking Virginia’s General Assembly to provide compensation for exoneree Arthur Whitfield, who spent more than 22 years in prison and was released when DNA tests proved his innocence. Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds, the respective Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates, are calling for action during the assembly’s special session in August.

DNA may play a key role in the case of a Florida man convicted of murder 25 years ago. David Johnston was scheduled for execution in May, but the Florida Supreme Court delayed his execution when defense attorneys requested DNA testing on blood samples and nail clippings kept as evidence.



Tags: Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Exoneree Compensation, Eyewitness Identification

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Media Coverage: Wisconsin Charges Dismissed

Posted: August 3, 2009 3:29 pm

Murder charges were dropped Friday in Wisconsin against Ralph Armstrong, who has been in prison for nearly three decades for a murder he has always said he didn't commit. The Innocence Project has worked on Armstrong's case since 1993, one year after the organization was founded. Armstrong's conviction was thrown out in 2005 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, but he had remained in custody for four years awaiting retrial. The state has 20 days to decide whether to appeal Friday's ruling, and Armstrong will remain in custody in the meantime.

Armstrong's lead attorney, Jerome Buting, told WKOWTV that Armstrong is "really pleased" with the decision. Buting expressed dismay, however, at how long it has taken for courts to recognize Armstrong's claims of innocence. In dismissing the indictment on Friday, Judge Robert Kinney said prosecutors should have told defense attorneys that Armstrong's brother had allegedly confessed to committing the crime.

"A confession to murder by a person we know was present with the victim the night she died, to suppress that kind of evidence is really outrageous and shocking," Buting said.
Here's is a sample of some media coverage of the case over the weekend:

WKOWTV: 1980 Rape and Murder Case Against Ralph Armstrong Dismissed

Wisconsin State Journal: Nearly 30 Years Later, Murder Cases Dismissed

Chicago Tribune: 29-year-old Murder Charges Dropped

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Connecticut Man Freed After Two Decades in Prison

Posted: August 5, 2009 3:50 pm

Kenneth Ireland walked out of a Connecticut courthouse today a free man for the first time in 21 years. A state judge overturned Ireland’s conviction today, based on DNA evidence that he didn’t commit the murder of which he was convicted in 1988. The Connecticut Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network, represents Ireland.

Charges are pending against Ireland case, but it is unclear whether prosecutors will pursue a new trial. Ireland’s next court date is August 19.

"This is yet another Connecticut example of an innocent person having spent two decades in prison for a very serious crime while an actual rapist and murderer has been roaming free since 1986," said Judiciary Committee Co-Chairman Mike Lawlor, D-New Haven. "This is not acceptable."

Read the full story. (WFSB, 08/05/09)
In another case in Virginia this week, a former Navy SEAL trainee was cleared of murder and abduction charges in a 1995 case. Dustin A. Turner is the first person cleared under a 2004 law that allows prisoners to present non-DNA evidence of their innocence. The Virginia Court of Appeals yesterday granted Turner a “writ of actual innocence.” He remains in prison pending action by a local court.



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Pardons in "Norfolk Four" Case Fall Short

Posted: August 6, 2009 5:47 pm

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine announced today that he had granted conditional pardons to three former Navy sailors based on “serious doubts” about their guilt of a 1997 Norfolk murder. Known as the “Norfolk Four,” the defendants have sought for years to clear their names of a crime DNA shows they didn’t commit. (Clockwise from top left, the men are Joseph Dick, Eric Wilson, Danial Williams and Derek Tice)

Three of the four (Dick, Williams and Tice) remain in prison today and could be released soon based on the governor’s announcement, which reduces their sentences to time served. Attorneys for the men said today they were happy the defendants would be freed, but extremely disappointed that Kaine refused to acknowledge their innocence and fully clear them. DNA testing on several items at the crime scene has been matched to another man, who has pled guilty and confessed to committing the crime alone.

"The Governor’s decision is illogical. He agrees that there was absolutely no physical trace at the crime scene of any of the innocent sailors and that their conflicting confessions create substantial doubt. His pardon statement today never asserts that the Norfolk Four were involved in this terrible crime in any way," said George Kendall, Joe Dick's attorney.  "Instead, all he has said is that our clients have failed to conclusively prove that they are innocent. Governor Kaine's failure to grant absolute pardons based on innocence to these innocent Navy men further compounds the many mistakes of the Norfolk police and prosecutors that led to their wrongful imprisonment."

Added Don Salzman, Danial Williams' attorney, "Governor Kaine has set an impossible standard for the grant of an absolute pardon.  The Norfolk Four case is no different than the other 40 or so false confession cases that led to complete exonerations based on DNA evidence."
Read more about the case on the official Norfolk Four site.

More on today’s announcement:

Associated Press: VA Governor Pardons Three in 1997 Rape/Slaying

Virginian-Pilot: Gov. Kaine pardons three members of the Norfolk Four

Gov. Kaine’s statement.





Tags: Norfolk Four

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Examining the Houston Crime Lab

Posted: August 12, 2009 6:17 pm

Ernest Sonnier walked out of a Houston courtroom last week a free man for the first time in 23 years, and his case is the latest to be overturned after faulty testing at the Houston Police Department Crime Lab contributed to a wrongful conviction.

An editorial today in the Houston Chronicle points out that two years after the conclusion of a $5 million investigation into problems at the lab, countless cases still need to be evaluated for possible retesting. In addition, the paper writes today that the case is a sign of the need for independent crime labs.

Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said, “There are still thousands of cases from the Houston Crime Lab that need to be reviewed, and that needs to happen quickly.”
He praised the administration of DA Lykos for ending prosecutorial foot dragging, creating a unit to examine convicts' credible claims of innocence, and being “focused on getting to the truth.”
In addition to swiftly reviewing those remaining cases, local officials need to move forward with a plan to create a regional crime lab independent of police and prosecutor influence

Read the full editorial here. (Houston Chronicle, 08/11/09)
Last week, Chronicle columnist Rick Casey addressed another cause of wrongful conviction in a two-part series on eyewitness identification and the Timothy Cole case. Chronicle cartoonist Nick Anderson contributed a cartoon about faulty lineups




Tags: Eyewitness Identification, Forensic Oversight

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Friday Roundup: Progress Around the Country

Posted: August 14, 2009 5:30 pm

Important policy reforms, pending cases and other developments around the country this week highlighted the complexities of wrongful convictions and the need to prevent them at all levels.

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue signed a bill on Tuesday that seeks to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The bill, which allows capital murder defendants and death row prisoners to challenge prosecutions based on evidence of racial bias, is the second such bill passed in the United States (Kentucky approved a similar bill in 1998.)

Critics of the Rhode Island probation system allege the state’s current policy can put innocent people in prison because the courts only need to be “reasonably satisfied” that defendants commit a crime, thereby violating parole.

Actress Hilary Swank told Variety magazine that she was excited to work on the “Betty Anne Waters” film because of its focus on wrongful convictions, an issue about which she cares deeply. Swank’s support of the Innocence Project is featured in Variety’s special issue on philanthropy.

Hundreds of mourners attended a funeral march for Donald Marshall Jr., who spent 11 years in a Canadian prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Marshall passed away at the age of 55 of complications from a previous double lung transplant.

New York man William McCaffrey was convicted of rape in 2005 and sentence to 20 years in prison based on the victim’s testimony and bite mark evidence. Last year, however, the alleged victim told the district attorney that she lied about the rape. Subsequent DNA tests have since proven that bite marks could not have been made by McCaffrey, but the district attorney’s office is still reviewing the case.

Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols of Arkansas were convicted of murder in the death of three West Memphis boys in 1993. Prosecutors originally argued that the boys were murdered in a cult ritual, but a forensic pathologist now says that the multiple injuries to the bodies were likely caused by animals, possibly turtles.



Tags: Arkansas, North Carolina, New York

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Forensics in the News

Posted: August 17, 2009 3:42 pm

CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" launches a new series tonight investigating faulty forensic science around the United States and proposed reforms that could prevent wrongful convictions. Tonight's episode is expected to feature an interview with Innocence Project client Ernest Sonnier. Tune in at 10 p.m. EST.

In another case involving faulty forensic testing, The Oregon Attorney General's office recently said prisoner Philip Scott Cannon should be freed while prosecutors consider a new trial. He was convicted of three murders based in part on bullet lead analysis, which has since been discredited.

Read more about forensics in the news and take action to support federal forensic reform.



Tags: Unvalidated/Improper Forensics

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After 21 Years, Charges Dropped in Connecticut Case

Posted: August 19, 2009 3:01 pm

Kenneth Ireland served 21 years in Connecticut prisons before new DNA tests on crime scene evidence led to his release two weeks ago. Today, a state judge dropped all pending charges against Ireland at the request of prosecutors. Ireland is fully cleared and said he plans to have a celebratory meal tonight.

"I'm pleased this chapter in my life is behind me now," said Ireland, a tall, thin 39-year-old man with a goatee. "I feel amazing. It's been a long time coming. Just got to breathe now."

… "The very system that convicted him wrongly is the system he relied upon," said attorney Karen Goodrow, the director (of the Connecticut Innocence Project, which represented Ireland). "I think the amazing story is (Ireland) never gave up hope."

Read the full story here. (Danbury News-Times, 08/19/09)




Tags: Connecticut

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Wisconsin Man Is Cleared

Posted: August 19, 2009 3:41 pm

Prosecutors in Wisconsin announced today that they won’t appeal a state judge’s decision to drop charges against Ralph Armstrong, who has been in prison for nearly 30 years for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit.

The Innocence Project has worked with Armstrong’s attorneys since 1993, and Staff Attorney Ezekiel Edwards said today that this is “one of the worst cases of prosecutorial misconduct we’ve ever seen.”

For years, prosecutors hid evidence of Armstrong’s innocence and tried to sabotage his efforts to overturn his wrongful conviction. His conviction was overturned in 2005 after DNA testing on hair and semen excluded Armstrong as the perpetrator. Prosecutors sought to retry Armstrong, and he has been in custody awaiting retrial for four years.

Armstrong will be sent to New Mexico to face pending parole violations on an unrelated conviction.

Today’s statement from the Innocence Project – and more background on the case.

News coverage:

Murder Charge Against Armstrong Dropped (Associated Press, 08/19/09)

UPDATE 8/20/09:

Wisconsin Public Radio: Three Decades Later, Case Is Dropped Against Rape and Homicide Suspect

Wisconsin State Journal: Armstrong Won't Be Prosecuted Again

Associated Press: Wisconsin Won't Appeal Case Against Cleared Inmate

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Forensics Series Continues Tonight on CNN

Posted: August 20, 2009 3:15 pm

CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” has been investigating questions about forensic disciplines in a special series on forensics this week. Last night, CNN contributor Sanjay Gupta visited the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab to report on hair analysis, bullet analysis and DNA testing practices. Watch video of his visit here.

And CNN medical producer Stephanie Smith posted on the AC360 blog today about Innocence Project client Steven Barnes and the role of unvalidated forensics in wrongful convictions.

The show continues tonight at 10 p.m. ET with a report on Dr. Steven Hayne in Mississippi, who has been accused of reaching conclusions that go beyond science to fit what prosecutors need to secure convictions. Tonight's broadcast will feature an interview with Tyler Edmonds, who was sentenced to death row partly as a result of Hayne's testimony. Edmonds was released after the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out his conviction -- in a ruling that called Hayne's testimony "scientifically unfounded."

Two Innocence Project clients were exonerated last year after Hayne's testimony contributed to their wrongful convictions; read more about their cases here.

Learn about recommendations for forensic reform and take action at the Just Science website.





Tags: Steven Barnes, Kennedy Brewer, Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics

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Friday Roundup: Uncovering Misconduct

Posted: August 21, 2009 5:45 pm

Long-time Innocence Project client Ralph Armstrong was cleared in Wisconsin this week after almost three decades in prison. His case is one of the worst examples of prosecutorial misconduct the Innocence Project has ever seen. Here’s more on Armstrong and a roundup of some other news from the week:

Several people discussed the implications of misconduct – and prosecutorial immunity – on Facebook and Twitter after the Armstrong case broke. Join the conversation on facebook and twitter.

CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” continues its series on forensic science tonight at 10 p.m. EST with a report on Dr. Steven Hayne in Mississippi, who has been accused of reaching conclusions that go beyond science to fit what prosecutors need to secure convictions (this story was pushed back by breaking news last night). Read the AC360 blog here.

Reason Magazine reported on the release of Bernard Baran in Massachusetts and asked why the prosecutor in the case has never been investigated or disciplined for his role in the case.

We reported here on the U.S. Supreme Court’s groundbreaking decision in the case of Troy Davis, and Innocence Project Staff Attorney Ezekiel Edwards spoke about the case with DemocracyNow!

The Guardian focused on eyewitness misidentification and the case of William Mills.

Connecticut Innocence Project client Kenneth Ireland was fully cleared this week – he told the Associated Press being freed is like “waking from a coma.”

Two Chicago men freed last month were officially cleared Wednesday when they received certificates of innocence, which entitle them to collect compensation under the state law (about $192,000 after serving 21 years in prison).

Virginia lawmakers voted to compensate Arthur Lee Whitefield and Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said he supports a bill that would expand prisoner access to DNA testing that can prove innocence.


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NJ Judge to Order Evidence Search

Posted: August 24, 2009 6:09 pm

A New Jersey judge said today that he would order police to conduct a thorough search for evidence connected to the case of Stephen Brooks, an Innocence Project client who has been in prison for more than 20 years for a rape he says he didn’t commit. Brooks is seeking DNA testing that could prove his innocence.

Prosecutors have repeatedly told Brooks that evidence collected from the crime scene has been lost or destroyed, but the Innocence Project argued at a hearing today in Newark that a thorough search has not been conducted or documented. Judge Jerome St. John agreed to order the search, saying his order was a starting point and that he may order additional evidence searches in the case. The Innocence Project said the development is a good first step.

An editorial in today’s Star Ledger called for the evidence search, and for better evidence handling procedures in New Jersey. “New Jersey law allows a prisoner access to DNA testing whenever that evidence becomes available,” the editorial said. “Until it's located in Brooks' case, his guilt or innocence remains a mystery. That's not just sloppy record keeping, that's sloppy justice.”

Read the full editorial here.

More news coverage:

Associated Press: N.J. judge says search for DNA evidence in Newark man's sex assault case should resume

Read more on Brooks’ case.





Tags: Stephen Brooks

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Watch Live: Senate Judiciary Hearing on Forensic Reform

Posted: September 8, 2009 5:56 pm

Watch online tomorrow at 10 a.m. EST as Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld testifies before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the need for a National Institute of Forensic Science. He will be joined by Law Professor Paul Giannelli, Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt, a lab director and two prosecutors.

Visit this link at 10 a.m. EST to watch live.

The Innocence Project has called for the creation of an independent federal agency to support and oversee forensic science practices across the country. Learn more and voice your support for forensic reform at the Just Science Coalition website.




Tags: Forensic Oversight, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics

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Florida Man Freed After 25 Years

Posted: September 11, 2009 3:05 am

Anthony Caravella walked out of a Florida courthouse yesterday a free man for the first time in 25 years. New DNA testing of crime scene evidence that suggests someone else committed the murder and rape for which Caravella was convicted in 1983, when he was just 15 years old. He allegedly confessed to committing the crime, but has since said he only made admissions after police beat and coerced him.

A judge ordered Caravella be released while prosecutors consider whether to retry him for the crime. No date has been set for his next hearing, and in the meantime he is required to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet and report to officers daily.

Caravella was joined by his brother and sister at his exoneration, and asked to visit the memorial plaque for his mother, who died while he was in prison.

"I believe the world's big enough to start over,'' Caravella said.
Read the full story here. (Sun Sentinel, 09/10/09)
About one-quarter of the 242 people exonerated through DNA testing in U.S. gave a false confession or admission. Read about false confessions and the five other leading causes of wrongful conviction.





Tags: False Confessions

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One Norfolk Defendant is Cleared

Posted: September 15, 2009 5:42 pm

One of the four men wrongfully convicted in the Norfolk Four case has finally been cleared.

Derek Tice was one of four former Navy sailors convicted of a 1997 rape and murder in Norfolk, Virginia, they say they didn’t commit. Tice and two other men were freed in August after Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine granted them a conditional pardon – the fourth defendant was freed in 2005.

Despite strong evidence indicating that the men are innocent, Kaine’s pardons were conditional and did not fully clear the Norfolk Four. Today, a federal judge threw out Tice’s conviction on the grounds that his defense attorney didn’t seek to suppress his alleged confession. The ramifications of the conditional pardon and vacated conviction are unclear at this point.

Tice's father, Larry Tice of Clayton, N.C., called (the) decision vacating his son's convictions "exceptionally good news," but said he is still not satisfied.

"What I eventually want is for all four members of The Norfolk Four to be totally exonerated," he said. "It's not just Derek. I want all four men cleared."

Read the full story. (Daily Press, 09/14/09)
The evidence of the men’s innocence includes DNA test results pointing to a man who says he committed the crime alone. Prosecutors alleged at trial that the four men had confessed to killing 18-year-old Michelle Moore-Mosko in Norfolk in 1997, but the details of their confessions didn’t match and the men have since said they were coerced to confess.

Read more about the Norfolk Four case here
.





Tags: Norfolk Four

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Indiana Court Orders Recording of Interrogations

Posted: September 16, 2009 4:26 pm

The Indiana Supreme Court yesterday issued a new rule requiring law enforcement agencies to record suspect interrogations starting in 2011. The court ruled 3-2 in favor of the change, which will only allow evidence gathered in interrogations to be entered in a courtroom if the interrogation was recorded.

The move makes Indiana the 17th state to require the recording of interrogations in at least some crimes. The court explained the reasoning for the new rule in a statement:

"The rule change is aimed at helping police, prosecutors, courts and juries in their search for truth, justice, and due process of law. A complete audio-video recording, which captures the voice, facial expressions and body language of the suspect and interrogator, can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, courts, and citizens.

"The electronic recording can provide strong evidence of guilt, confirm police gave suspects all required warnings, and ultimately lead to more guilty pleas," the statement said. "The recordings are also likely to lessen factual disputes in court and reduce the number of motions to suppress evidence."
Several cities and counties in Indiana already record interrogations, but others will have nearly two years to equip their facilities to begin recording. Indiana State Rep. Matt Pierce said the rule change is a positive step for the state’s criminal justice system.
"It gives a clear, objective record of how the interrogation went," he said. "If the police officer was out of line, you are going to see that. And you will also see when the officer did nothing wrong."

Read the full story here. (Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, 9/16/09)
The Innocence Project strongly recommends that states require electronic recording of interrogations; as the practice aids law enforcement by creating a clear record of proceedings and can prevent false confessions and admissions that lead to wrongful convictions.

Read more about the Innocence Project’s stance on recording of interrogations here
.





Tags: Indiana, False Confessions, False Confessions

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Texas Prosecutor Untroubled by Willingham Evidence

Posted: September 18, 2009 4:12 pm

ABC News' "Nightline" focused on the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham last night, interviewing the original arson investigator and prosecutor, who both say they are comfortable with their role in the case despite clear new evidence that Willingham was innocent.

Willingham was convicted of setting a fire in his own house that killed his three daughters. An exhaustive report in the September 7 issue of the New Yorker deconstructs the evidence against Willingham, proving that the fire was an accident and the other evidence used against Willingham was false.

John Jackson, who was the prosecutor in the case and is now a senior judge, tells ABC News reporter Terry Moran that the unanimous findings of arson experts in recent years that the fire was an accident have cast strong doubt on the forensics used against Willingham at trial. He admits that "without question" the scientific evidence was not valid. Asked if this new evidence gives him pause about sending a man to death, however, Jackson says "not a man like Todd."

Jackson goes on to claim that because Willingham liked the band Iron Maiden, he was likely to be a devil worshipper. He also says it's likely that the fire burned in a pentagram pattern on the floor, further showing "an obsession with Satan" that he says makes it "more likely" that Willingham intentionally set the fire - even though there is no evidence that the fire was anything more than a tragic accident

Watch the Nightline segment here.

Post the Nightline segment to Twitter or Facebook.

Read background on the Willingham case and download documents and media coverage
.



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Friday Roundup: The Devil and DNA

Posted: September 18, 2009 6:26 pm

This week saw more news in the wrongful execution case of Cameron Todd Willingham: the trial prosecutor (who is now a judge) alleged in an interview with Nightline that Willingham was a devil worshipper and that this makes it “more likely” that Willingham set the fire that killed his children. Watch the video on YouTube.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was in Washington, D.C., where he broke his silence on the Willingham case, saying that he had reviewed the case in 2004 and allowed the execution to go forward. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck responded: "Governor Perry refuses to face the fact that Texas executed an innocent man on his watch."

Meanwhile, case work continued around the country by the Innocence Project and our many partners and sister organizations.

The University of Michigan Innocence Clinic said this week that new evidence cleared Karl Vinson of a 1986 child rape, and accused the Detroit Prosecutor’s Office of dragging its feet.

Lawyers in Connecticut presented evidence pointing to the real perpetrator in the cases of Ron Taylor and George Gould, who say they were wrongfully convicted of a 1993 murder.

A new University of Buffalo study found serious problems with bite mark evidence.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins spoke Thursday at Oklahoma State University about his creation of the country’s first Conviction Integrity Unit.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune profiled John Thompson, who was cleared after spending 14 years on Louisiana’s death row. Thompson is the founder of Resurrection After Exoneration, which provides housing and other services for the exonerated.



Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham

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New Report Examines Unreliable Dog Scent Lineups

Posted: September 22, 2009 3:10 am

A report released yesterday by the Innocence Project of Texas examines the practice of dog scent lineups, which is still employed in Texas cases despite serious questions about its reliability.

Scent lineups conducted by a Texas sheriff’s deputy named Keith Pikett are being challenged in two federal lawsuits, filed by men who were accused of crimes they didn’t commit based on faulty dog scent evidence. The new report alleges that scent lineups are completely unreliable and have contributed to wrongful convictions. A British police canine-handling expert reviewed a videotape of a scent lineup performed by Pikett and said:

“This is the most primitive evidential police procedure I have ever witnessed,” he said. “It goes against all the principles of tracking and trailing.”
The Texas report alleges that Texas prosecutors use Pikett’s scent lineups to confirm suspicions about a suspect. The report quotes a prosecutor, who wrote on a public message board in June:
Woo-hoo! Just got word that Keith's dogs unanimously hit on my evidence today, just as we'd hoped. Did I mention that I'm a big fan!
Download the full report at the Innocence Project of Texas website. IPOT is a member of the Innocence Network.

Learn more about the Innocence Project’s call for an independent federal agency to support the forensic disciplines and set science-based standards
.



Tags: Forensic Oversight

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Friday Roundup: The Lessons of Wrongful Conviction

Posted: September 25, 2009 5:20 pm

The 242 wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing in the United States to date have taught us countless lessons about how the criminal justice system is broken -- and how we can fix it. Below is this week’s roundup of news from around the country, including some exciting developments on reforms that can stop injustice before it happens.

Eyewitness identification expert Gary Wells testified yesterday in New Jersey on how the state’s guidelines could go further to prevent misidentifications. "Once the witness has view of a photo or lineup, that later description of the perpetrator may be reflections of what they picked up from the photos or live lineups," rather than what they remember, Wells said. More from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

We reported last week on the Indiana Supreme Court’s order requiring recording of interrogations. Indianapolis Star columnist Jon Murray followed up this week, finding that the new rule is more thorough than many on the books across the country.

The Virginia Supreme Court granted a writ of actual innocence this week in the case of Thomas Haynesworth, who has been cleared by DNA testing of a 1984 rape. He was also convicted of two similar crimes, however, which he says he didn’t commit. Biological evidence may not exist in those cases, and the Innocence Project is working with partners at the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and a law firm to ensure the other two cases are fully investigated.

Offers of help and support are pouring in for Anthony Caravella, a Florida man who was freed from prison last week after 25 years for a crime he says he didn’t commit. DNA testing now points to another individual in that case and prosecutors are investigating.

Attorneys at the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted in Canada have filed a bail request on behalf of Stanley Ostrowski, saying new evidence proves he was convicted more than 20 years ago of a Manitoba murder he didn’t commit.

Barney Brown marked his first year of freedom this week after 38 years behind bars for a murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit. He will speak October 8 in Chicago at the launch of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University School of Law.

Last but not least, the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law is celebrating its 10th anniversary.





Tags: False Confessions

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Texas Commission on Hold, Members Urged Perry to Reappoint Chairman

Posted: October 7, 2009 6:05 pm

Texas district attorney John Bradley, the new chairman of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, told a reporter yesterday that he doesn’t know when the panel will resume its work of evaluating forensic evidence in state cases.

And media reports today show that at least three members of the panel had asked Gov. Rick Perry to reappoint chairman Sam Bassett in September. As regular readers know, Perry did not comply with these requests, instead replacing Bassett last week with Bradley, the DA in Williamson County. In his first act as the new chairman, Bradley cancelled a meeting scheduled for last Friday at which arson expert Craig Beyler was expected to discuss his review of evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in 2004.

Bradley told The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday that he doesn't know when the board will take up its investigations again. He said he needs time to review the commission's two years' worth of work and to study the role of its members and the process they should use in moving forward.

"It is too important as a symbolic case, and as much as a real case, for us not to finish that work," Bradley said of the Willingham case. "But at the same time, I want to make sure the work is done in a way that is professional and has utmost integrity."
And TIME Magazine reported yesterday that members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission wrote to Gov. Rick Perry in September, urging him to reappoint Sam Bassett as the chairman of the panel.
On the apparent cusp of the forensics board's re-examination of the evidence in the Willingham case, Perry has not only dropped forensics chairman Bassett but two other members of the body, Fort Worth prosecutor Alan Levy and forensics expert Aliece Watts, both of whom had written letters to Perry in support of Bassett continuing as commission head so their work could continue without interruption.

… Bassett told TIME he was dismayed and puzzled by Perry's decision. "I certainly hope this change is not about political concerns," Bassett says.
For a full review of this case, visit our Willingham resource page.


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New Project Focuses on Youth Injustice

Posted: October 8, 2009 3:35 pm

At an event this afternoon at Northwestern School of Law in Chicago, the new Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth gets its official start. The group is a joint project of Northwestern's Center on Wrongful Convictions and the Children and Family Justice Center, and will investigate and litigate innocence claims from young people and advocate for policy reforms on the causes of juvenile wrongful convictions.

The kickoff event, at 4 p.m. today, will feature several people exonerated after being convicted as teens, as well as Chicago prosecutors, judges, professors and activists. The event is free and open to the public. To RSVP, call 312-503-0396 or email: e-curtis@law.northwestern.edu

Visit the new organization's website for more information, and watch a video to meet some key players in the group.

Listen to a report on the center from Chicago Public Radio's "Eight Forty-Eight."

More than one-third of the 244 people exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S. were 22 or younger when they were arrested. Learn more about their cases on our Youth Take Action site.

 

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Dallas Man Released After 14 Years

Posted: October 13, 2009 6:00 pm

Richard Miles was arrested and convicted of murder and attempted murder in 1995 and, after 14 years behind bars, has been released after the court ruled that police failed to alert both the prosecution and defense to a phone call implicating a different suspect before trial.

With help from Centurion Ministries, Miles had his conviction overturned on October 13; the prosecution has not announced whether or not they will pursue a new trial against Miles:

The DA's office said that it will continue to investigate the case but that the new information makes it question Miles' guilt. Prosecutors are also trying to determine whether charges can be brought against anyone else.

[State District Judge Andy] Chatham told Miles as he stood before the judge's bench that he could not guarantee anything, but it appeared that his convictions would be overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Chatham released Miles on his own recognizance, meaning Miles did not have to pay bail.

Read the report here. (Dallas Morning News, 10/13/09)
   
Judge Chatham was swayed by the fact that officers failed to properly investigate the phone call from a woman telling officers that her ex-boyfriend confessed to the crime. Critics of Miles’ original conviction argue that there were other examples of misconduct: several witnesses told investigating officers that Miles was not the gunman, and although Miles tested positive for low levels of gunpowder residue, he had been tested after he had already been handcuffed. In addition, there was no serological evidence introduced.

 



Tags: Texas, Government Misconduct

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Controversy Widens in Texas Case

Posted: October 20, 2009 5:54 pm

The Cameron Todd Willingham case continues to draw attention in Texas and around the world, with a former Texas governor and the original prosecutor in the Willingham case both questioning the reliability of the state’s death penalty, and opinion leaders urging a full investigation of the case.

As regular readers know, Willingham was executed in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young children, despite evidence of his innocence. Read the full details of the case here.

On Sunday, former Texas Gov. Mark White cited the Willingham case and told two Texas newspapers that “there is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so we don’t look up one day and determine that we as the State of Texas have executed someone who is in fact innocent.”

And John Jackson, the original prosecutor in the case and now a state judge, told the Austin American-Statesman recently that he wonders if Texas has "appropriate means of last-minute review of newly discovered evidence."

"The way things are done in Texas, I'm not completely certain that all last-minute requests for either clemency or stay of execution get the scrutiny they deserve," Jackson said.

More coverage of the case this week:

Chicago Tribune: Statements by Gov. Rick Perry and Others Don’t Align with Facts

New York Times: Controversy Builds in Texas Over an Execution




Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham

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Journalism Program in Standoff with Prosecutors

Posted: October 21, 2009 1:46 pm

An investigative journalism class in Illinois is in a standoff with prosecutors after the state requested student records such as grades, notes and emails.

Students at the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern University have worked for three years on the case of a south suburban Chicago man who has spent 31 years in prison for a crime he says didn’t commit. Their work has uncovered new evidence of his innocence, which will be presented at an upcoming hearing.

In advance of the hearing, Cook County prosecutors have requested that the Medill project turn over student records, the Chicago Tribune reported this week. Professor David Protess said his group has shared case-related information with prosecutors, but the school is refusing to hand over unrelated materials.

"I don't think it's any of the state's business to know the state of mind of my students," Protess said. "Prosecutors should be more concerned with the wrongful conviction of Anthony McKinney than with my students' grades."

Read the Chicago Tribune story here. (10/19/09)
The Tribune followed its original story with another yesterday including reactions from the prosecutor who requested student records.
"All information is relevant," (Prosecutor Anita Alvarez) told reporters Monday. "There are more notes that have not been turned over. We want to make sure cases are secure and that we don't have the wrong person convicted."
The case has sparked a storm of media coverage and commentary this week from across the country (and across the twittersphere).

One blogger at National Review (and Medill alum) questioned whether Medill students are protected by Illinois’ shield law for journalists, and a commenter (another Medill alum) defended the project.



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Two Men Freed in Dallas, Another Seeks Justice in New York

Posted: October 23, 2009 6:10 pm

The innocent continue to walk out of prisons across the country, and Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins thinks today's exoneration of two men might be the "biggest yet" for his office.

Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott were freed today in Dallas after spending 12 years in prison for a murder that evidence now shows they didn't commit.

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins, whose county has seen more DNA exonerations than any other in the country, said today's non-DNA exonerations may inspire other prosecutors' offices and police departments around the country to reopen questionable old convictions for investigation. "I expect this case will get a lot of attention, and I expect you'll see other police departments get involved in cases like this. We're going to lead the way in how to dispense justice," he told the Dallas Observer.

Meanwhile, a New York man has been granted a new trial in a 1977 murder that evidence shows he didn't commit. Dewey Bozella has been in prison for more than 25 years, and said he was overjoyed at the news of his new trial. "It was like a miracle had happened," he said. Bozella is represented by pro-bono attorneys at the firm WilmerHale. The Innocence Project represented Bozella until it was clear that evidence did not exist for DNA testing, at which point the organization reached out to WilmerHale to take on the case. Over the last two years, WilmerHale attorneys have uncovered substantial evidence that Bozella is innocent and that another man actually committed the crime.

Kenneth Ireland has been free for two months, since DNA testing proved him innocent of a 1986 Connecticut murder he didn't commit. Ireland, who was 18 when he was arrested and 39 when he was freed, spoke with Fox this week about adjusting to life outside of prison.

A man was exonerated and compensated after spending 27 years in a Chinese prison for a rape he says he didn't commit. He was retried and acquitted this year in Henan Province, and a court has now awarded him 1.02 million yuan (about $146,000) in compensation.

The Cameron Todd Willingham case continued to draw coverage and discussion this week. We posted yesterday on the letter from 400+ Texans to forensic commission chairman John Bradley. JR posted today at Daily Kos on the letter and other developments in the case. Randi Kaye covered the story this week for CNN's Anderson Cooper 360. Her latest report from Texas is set for tonight at 10 p.m. ET.

An L.A. Times editorial today said Gov. Rick Perry's decision to reconfigure the Forensic Science Commission "looks highly suspicious." Innocence Project Online Communications Manager Matt Kelley wrote about the case -- and the outlook for the Forensic Science Commission -- today on the American Constitution Society blog.

We reported earlier this week on the case of prosecutors subpoenaing student information from the Medill Innocence Project. The case continues to make news, with a report yesterday in Time magazine.And, finally, the most offbeat DNA story the week: An Australian man was charged with a robbery after blood recovered from a leech found at the crime scene matched his profile.


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Charges Dismissed in Texas Case

Posted: October 28, 2009 6:05 pm

A Texas judge today dismissed murder charges against two men who served more than six years in prison for 1991 murders in Austin, Texas, they have long maintained they didn’t commit. Robert Springsteen and Michael Scott were freed on bond in June after DNA testing from the crime scene pointed to someone else. Today, prosecutors asked a judge to drop the charges against them.

The men allegedly made admissions of guilt during police interrogations, but later said they were coerced and threatened. One image from the interrogation room shows an officer holding a gun to Scott’s head.

Springsteen was originally sentenced to death for the crime and spent five years on Texas’ death row before his conviction was overturned in 2006. Scott was sentenced to life in 2003 and served six years behind bars before he was freed in June.

Scott, gripping his wife’s hand, was reserved outside court.

“This has been a long time in coming,” he said. “I’m happy to be here.”

Read the full story here. (Austin American-Statesman, 10/28/09)
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said in a statement that dropping charges was her only path of action. “Given that we now have unknown DNA evidence in the case, I believe it would be imprudent and, in fact, unfair to proceed to trial at this time,” she said.





Tags: False Confessions

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The Misdeeds of Prosecutors

Posted: October 29, 2009 4:32 pm

In a post this week on Reason Magazine's website, Radley Balko writes about the cases of people from Massachusetts to Florida to Mississippi convicted of crimes they didn't commit based in part on misconduct by prosecutors. Most of the prosecutors he profiles are still in their offices today; some are now judges.

Prosecutorial misconduct is a major cause of wrongful convictions. More than 25% of the first 240 DNA exonerees cited prosecutorial misconduct in appeals or civil lawsuits. In 38% of those cases, prosecutors were alleged to have withheld evidence that could have proven innocence.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week in the case of Pottawattamie County v. McGhee, in which two Iowa men filed a civil rights lawsuit against prosecutors who allegedly coerced false testimony to convict them of crimes they didn't commit. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that they are protected by absolute immunity, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit disagreed, finding that prosecutors had violated the men's right to due process.

The case of Ralph Armstrong is an example of how withholding evidence and other misconduct can block justice. Armstrong, an Innocence Project client, served more than 28 years behind bars in Wisconsin for a murder evidence shows he didn't commit. He had been in prison for 14 years when a woman called the prosecutor to tell him Armstrong's brother had confessed to the murder. This phone call was not shared with defense attorneys.

In 2006, when Armstrong had been in prison for 25 years, prosecutors violated a court order and conducted secret DNA tests on evidence in the case. The results were inconclusive and the evidence was consumed, meaning no further testing could ever be conducted. In dismissing the case against Armstrong, a state judge wrote that the prosecutor's actions "stemmed from a series of conscious decisions that had very adverse consequences."

"This is a particularly chilling case of prosecutorial misconduct," Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said after Armstrong was cleared. "Even after the state Supreme Court threw out Ralph Armstrong's conviction based on evidence of his innocence, the prosecutor continued to withhold yet more evidence of his innocence."

More on prosecutorial misconduct as a cause of wrongful conviction.





Tags: Ralph Armstrong

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Michigan Man Freed After Eight Years

Posted: November 3, 2009 4:56 pm

Dwayne Provience was set free today in Detroit after serving eight years in prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit.

Attorneys and law students at the Michigan Innocence Clinic investigated the case and found police reports, never disclosed to defense attorneys, showing that another man may have committed the crime. Based on this evidence the state judge dismissed his conviction this morning and ordered Provience freed on bond.

“I’m just so grateful,” Provience said. “It’s been so long and today is the day. Thank you. Thank you.”

…“It’s already the Christmas holidays,” said Vonzella Battle, Provience’s mother, as she wept.
Prosecutors did not say whether they would retry Provience for the case. Another hearing is set for November 24.

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 11/3/09)

The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School is a member of the Innocence Network.

 

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Friday Roundup: Fighting for Exoneration and Reform, from Inside and Outside the System

Posted: October 30, 2009 6:22 pm

This week saw a New York prisoner freed on evidence of his innocence and charges dropped in a notorious Texas case while countless prisoners and advocates continue to fight on. Here are a few stories of innocence and reform from the week:

Centurion Ministries and the Innocence Project of Florida are seeking DNA tests for Florida prisoner Gary Bennett, who was convicted of murder more than 25 years ago based in part on the testimony of discredited dog handler John Preston.

The Medill Innocence Project standoff with prosecutors stayed in the news this week: Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck discussed the case on NPR, and the New York Times reported on developments.

Exoneree Ronald Cotton and crime victim Jennifer Thompson-Cannino spoke on Kansas City public radio about eyewitness identification reform and their book “Picking Cotton.”

Blogger Scott Greenfield wrote at Simple Justice about the legendary career of journalist Pete Shellem, who investigated wrongful convictions at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, PA and died last weekend. Shellem’s funeral will be held Monday.

A lieutenant in the Los Angeles Police Department wrote in the Christian Science Monitor this week that critical reforms to eyewitness procedures and police interrogations can prevent wrongful convictions.

A report from researchers at the George Mason University found that a caseload crisis has pushed Missouri’s public defense system "to the brink of collapse."

Ernest Willis, who spent 17 years in prison for an arson murder before he was exonerated, this week called on Gov. Rick Perry to halt executions in the state. Wills was convicted based on evidence very similar to the evidence used against Cameron Todd Willingham. Texas Monthly posted a video interview with Willis. We updated the Willingham Resource Center with these stories and more media coverage of the case this week.



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Wrongful Convictions and Prosecutorial Immunity

Posted: November 4, 2009 5:42 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this morning in a case centered on wrongful convictions and the issue of whether prosecutors are protected by absolute immunity, even when their misconduct extends beyond the courtroom.

Two men filed a civil rights lawsuit against Iowa prosecutors who allegedly coerced false testimony and fabricated evidence to convict them of crimes they say they didn't commit. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that they are protected by absolute immunity, and have stated outright that there is no constitutional "right not to be framed.”

During arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern about creating a “chilling effect on prosecutors” by allowing them to be sued. Justice John Paul Stevens, however, said it was “perverse” that a prosecutor can be sued if he or she fabricates evidence and then hands it to another prosecutor to conduct a trial, but can’t be sued if he or she completes that trial. He wasn’t the only justice to raise concerns:

"So the law is the more deeply you're involved in the wrong, the more likely you are to be immune? That's a strange proposition," Justice Anthony Kennedy said.
The case comes to the Supreme Court following a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which found that the men could sue because they had presented evidence that the prosecutors in the case had violated their right to due process. In reviewing the Eighth Circuit decision, the Supreme Court is essentially considering the extent of prosecutorial immunity under historical precedent and the Constitution.

The two men at the center of the case, Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, served 25 years in prison for a murder they’ve always said they didn’t commit. On appeal, the men discovered records showing that prosecutors had coerced a witness to testify against them and that police and prosecutors had withheld evidence pointing to another suspect. They were freed this year.

One argument raised by the prosecutors is that allowing these men to sue will open floodgates for prisoners to allege misconduct by prosecutors. Attorneys for Harrington and McGhee argue that this case is so egregious that it would meet even a strict standard under which defendants could sue prosecutors.

In an editorial this morning, the Washington Post agrees:
The vast majority of prosecutors perform honorably and understand that they are duty-bound not just to secure convictions but to seek justice. Those who don't often suffer no consequences at the hands of state or bar organizations, as a brief in support of Mr. McGhee and Mr. Harrington convincingly argues. For these few renegades, perhaps the prospect of being held liable will help to keep them in line or, at least, hold them accountable.  
News coverage of the case, Pottawattamie County v. McGhee:

Associated Press: Court Worries About Stifling Prosecutors

NPR Morning Edition: Can Prosecutors Be Sued by the People They Framed?

Washington Post Editorial: The Right Not to Be Framed

Analaysis of the Case by SCOTUSblog

Transcript of today’s oral arguments.

Briefs and filings in the case at SCOTUSwiki.





Tags: Government Misconduct

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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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Friday Roundup: An Arson Case Keeps the Spotlight

Posted: November 13, 2009 5:32 pm

On Tuesday, Texas Senators questioned John Bradley, the new chairman of the state Forensic Science Commission. We reported on the hearing here. Bradley said the commission would eventually continue its investigation into the arson science used to convict Willingham, who was executed in 2004, but warned that the investigation could stretch into 2011. One state Senator said the commission could emerge stronger from the attention it has received through this process.

A column by Rick Casey in the Chronicle questioned whether Bradley, a prosecutor, is the right person to lead an inquiry into scientific practices.

In an editorial yesterday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram criticized Gov. Rick Perry for refusing to hand over the clemency report in Willingham’s case in response to a Houston Chronicle request. The Chronicle is suing the state for access to the document.

In other news, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled this week that Greg Wilhoit, who spent four years on Oklahoma’s death row before he was acquitted on retrial, has a viable legal claim against the state for his wrongful conviction.

An op-ed in the San Jose Mercury News by Kathleen Ridolfi and Maurice Possley of the Northern California Innocence Project points to prosecutorial misconduct’s high cost to taxpayers.

Brian Dugan was sentenced to death in Illinois this week for the murder of a 10-year-old girl in 1983 — a crime for which two innocent men -- Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez — spent 12 years each on death row. Read more and watch a video interview with Cruz.

Lawyers in Wisconsin are seeking a new trial for Reynold Moore, who was convicted in 1995 with five other men for allegedly committing a 1992 murder. A new book about the case — “The Monfils Conspiracy” is available here.

Death row exoneree Kirk Bloodsworth spoke this week at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

North Carolina exoneree Ronald Cotton and crime victim Jennifer Thompson-Cannino will speak November 18 at Vanderbilt University.

A new searchable Supreme Court database offers information and analysis on the court’s rulings since 1953.




Tags: Cameron Todd Willingham

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Friday Roundup: Two Freed in New York

Posted: November 20, 2009 5:50 pm

It was a big week for freedom in the face of injustice, but the fight against wrongful conviction and unreliable forensics goes on. Here are few stories we didn’t get to on the Innocence Blog this week:

Fernando Bermudez, who served 18 years in New York prisons for a murder evidence shows he didn’t commit, was freed just after 2 p.m. today, pumping his fist in the air before embracing his wife. We posted on the case last week, when his conviction was tossed out.

Yesterday in New York City, Lebrew Jones was freed on parole, ending 22 years in prison for a murder he has long said he didn’t commit. The Innocence Project consulted on the case with Jones’ pro bono lawyers at David Polk and Wardwell. Watch a video of his release and read more about his case.

The Innocence Network filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of an Ohio man convicted of murder in 1996 based on gunshot residue evidence, which has been shown to be unreliable. Derrick Wheat is seeking a new trial to present evidence that the gunshot residue findings used against him were questionable.

New York Times columnist David Carr covered the ongoing dispute between prosecutors and the Medill Innocence Project over student records, and the Daily Northwestern posted an exclusive interview with Professor David Protess.

The Ohio Public Defender’s Office launched a new project to review and appeal cases of possible wrongful conviction that don’t involve DNA evidence.

Two Innocence Network member organizations posted new videos this week. The Center on Wrongful Convictions posted a video about the wrongful conviction of Alan Beaman and the Michigan Innocence Clinic posted a video about the release release of Dwayne Provience. Reason Magazine also covered the Provience case.

Two men freed after a combined 35 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit spoke at Arizona State University. The BBC featured the case of John Thompson, who served 14 years on Louisiana’s death row before he was set free. 

Iowa State University Psychologist Gary Wells, a leading expert on eyewitness identification, spoke recently about two new eyewitness studies he’s conducting.

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Chad Heins: Two Years Free

Posted: December 4, 2009 3:19 pm

This week marks the second anniversary of the day Chad Heins (left) walked out of a Florida prison, free at 33 years old for the first time since he was 19.

Heins was convicted in 1996 of murdering his sister-in-law Tina Heins. Chad recently moved from Florida to Wisconsin and was staying with his brother Jeremy and Jeremy’s wife, Tina, when Tina was killed in her bedroom.

Jeremy, who was in the Navy, was on board his ship the night of the crime. Chad had returned home at 12:30 a.m. that night, two hours before his sister-in-law, and was asleep on the sofa during the crime. He woke up around 5:45 a.m. to find three small fires burning in the living room and kitchen, one on the very sofa where he slept. After putting out the fires and disarming the smoke alarm, he discovered Tina Heins in her bedroom; she had been stabbed 27 times.

Heins immediately became a suspect.  During his trial, a forensic analyst testified that DNA testing performed on three hairs collected from the victim's bedroom showed that the hairs came from one person, and that person wasn't Chad or Jeremy Heins. Two jailhouse snitches testified at his trial that Heins had spontaneously confessed his guilt to them, and he was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and attempted sexual battery on December 20, 1996, and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2001, Heins wrote to the Innocence Project, which took the case with help from the Innocence Project of Florida. In 2003, along with pro bono counsel Robert Beckham of Holland & Knight, the Innocence Project filed a motion for DNA testing on skin cells collected at autopsy from underneath the victim's fingernails. She had defense wounds on her hands, meaning that biological evidence from the attacker could be under her fingernails. The DNA test results showed that male DNA under Tina's fingernails did not come from Chad or Jeremy Heins. Additional testing showed that the profile from the hairs was consistent with the DNA from the fingernails -- all belonging to an unknown male.

Attorneys for Heins also learned that a fingerprint had been discovered before trial on the faucet of the blood-stained sink in the Heins' bathroom, where it was undisputed that the perpetrator attempted to clean up after the murder. Although the fingerprint did not match Chad, Jeremy or Tina, prosecutors did not relay this information to the jury.  

Heins' conviction was vacated in 2006 based on the DNA evidence, but prosecutors demanded a retrial - further delaying Heins' freedom.  The Innocence Project sought DNA testing of semen found at the crime scene. The results showed that the semen came from the same person as the hairs and the cells found under the victim's fingernails.  On December 4, 2007, prosecutors dropped the pending charges against Heins and he was freed. Days after his release, Heins moved to Wisconsin to rejoin relatives.

Watch a video interview with Heins and read more about his case in our Know the Cases section.

Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Dale and Ronnie Mahan, Alabama (Served 11.5 Years, Exonerated 11/30/1998)

Calvin Lee Scott, Oklahoma (Served 20 Years, Exonerated 12/3/03)

Gerald Davis, West Virginia (Served 8 Years, Exonerated 12/4/1995)

Calvin Ollins, Illinois (Served 13,5 Years, Exonerated 12/5/01)

Larry Ollins, Illinois (Served 13,5 Years, Exonerated 12/5/01)

Marcellius Bradford (Served 6.5 Years, Exonerated 12/5/01)

 



Tags: Chad Heins

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One Year Free, New Questions Raised

Posted: December 10, 2009 6:13 pm

One year ago today, William Dillon was exonerated from a Florida prison after serving 27 years for a murder DNA proves he didn’t commit. Dillon was convicted in 1981 based in part on a dog-scent lineup conducted by a now-discredited dog handler.

On August 17, 1981, James Dvorak was found beaten to death in a wooded area near Canova Beach, FL.  That same morning a driver picked up a hitchhiker near the beach wearing a bloody yellow T-shirt.  Police recovered the T-shirt from a trash can and collected other evidence from the driver's truck.

John Preston, a purported expert in handling scent-tracking dogs, was hired for the investigation. Preston said his dog, “Harrass II,”  linked a T-shirt allegedly worn by the perpetrator to the crime scene and to Dillon. Dillon was arrested and charged with the murder.  At Dillon’s trial, a former girlfriend claimed to have seen him wearing the blood-stained shirt as he stood over the body and a jailhouse snitch testified that Dillon had confessed to the crime. With this evidence added to the testimony of the dog handler, Dillon was convicted and sentenced to life.

In 2007, after years of attempts at an appeal, Dillon was helped by public defenders and attorneys at the Innocence Project of Florida. Dillon’s advocates obtained access to DNA testing on the bloody shirt, which had been preserved. The results proved Dillon’s innocence and he was freed on November 18, 2008. His exoneration became official when charges were dropped three weeks later, on December 10.

Since Dillon's exoneration the use of dog-scent lineups and  scent-tracking dogs to make identifications has come under intense questioning across the country. Two men are suing a Texas deputy because his dogs played a role in their wrongful arrests. Other states are reexamining the practice.

Preston  also played a role in the case of Innocence Project client Wilton Dedge, who was exonerated in 2004 after 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Preston’s work was challenged as early as the 1980s when his dog failed an accuracy test conducted by a Brevard County judge. The Arizona Supreme Court later called him a “charlatan.” In 2008, a Brevard County judge said Preston was used by prosecutors “to confirm the state’s preconceived notions.”

Other Anniversaries This Week:

Dewey Davis, West Virginia (Served 7 years, Exonerated 12/7/1995)

Alejandro Hernandez, Illinois (Served 10.5 years, Exonerated 12/8/1995)

Marlon Pendleton, Illinois (Served 10 years, Exonerated 12/8/2006)

Robert Clark, Georgia (Served 23.5 years, Exonerated 12/8/2005)

Nicholas Yarris, Pennsylvania (Served 21.5 years, Exonerated 12/9/2003)

Timothy Durham, Oklahoma (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 12/9/1997)

John Jerome White, Georgia (Served 22.5 years, Exonerated 12/10/2007)




Tags: Wilton Dedge, William Dillon

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Friday Roundup: From Australia to the U.S., Public Defense Falls Short

Posted: December 11, 2009 6:20 pm

 

Farah Jama, a 22-year-old Australian man, was freed this week after a court found that he had been convicted based on contaminated DNA evidence. He had served over a year in prison, and an editorial today in the Sydney Morning Herald said funding for public defense is below 1997 levels and is contributing to injustices.

Indigent defense funding shortfalls have been a prominent issue in the U.S. this year as well, and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck will join a panel of experts Monday in Detroit at a hearing organized by the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.

A New York man was cleared this week after four years in prison for a rape evidence now shows he didn’t commit. William McCaffrey was cleared of rape charges after the victim in the case recanted her testimony.A former president of Florida State University and the American Bar Association called on Florida’s Supreme Court to form a panel to review wrongful convictions and recommend measures to prevent injustice. Wilder “Ken” Berry served eight years in Illinois prisons before he was freed on evidence pointing to his innocence. Today he works as a senior paralegal at one of Chicago’s biggest law firms and serves on an Illinois Department of Corrections advisory board.Bruce Lisker was freed in August after 26 years in prison when his murder conviction was overturned based on evidence of innocence. LA Observed published its third article this week in a series following Lisker’s return to society.

The Minnesota Daily profiled the work of the Innocence Project of Minnesota and the case of Sherman Townsend.

Cedric Willis, who served 12 years in a Mississippi prison before he was exonerated, will receive $500,000 from the state. While he’s happy to receive the compensation, Willis told the Jackson Free Press: “You just can’t get back those years.” An editorial in the Free Press called for prosecutors to be held accountable.

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Set Free After 28 Years

Posted: December 15, 2009 3:34 pm

Donald Eugene Gates was freed today in Arizona, after spending nearly three decades in federal prisons for a murder and rape DNA now shows he didn’t commit.

He will travel to his home state of Ohio for the week, but a hearing next week in Washington, D.C. could fully clear him.  

Gates was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of a 21-year-old college student based in part on unreliable forensic testimony from an FBI analyst who was later discredited, and the testimony of a paid government informant. He is represented on appeal by attorneys at the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia. The Innocence Project consulted on DNA testing in the case.

Prosecutors requested further tests before agreeing to clear Gates, and a D.C. judge gave them eight days to complete the tests. The judge ordered Gates freed immediately, however, and ruled that he shouldn’t be forced to register as a sex offender, allowing him to travel home to Ohio.

D.C. Judge Fred Ugast, who presided over Gates' trial in the 1980s, says he's grateful technology made it possible to "right a wrong."

Read the full story. (Associated Press, 12/15/09)
Read more on the case here:

Blog of Legal Times (12/14/09)



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Boston Bar Association: Provide Access to DNA Tests

Posted: December 16, 2009 6:10 pm

A report released today by the Boston Bar Association lays out a sweeping strategy for improving the accuracy of the state’s criminal justice system and calls for the enactment of a law providing access to DNA testing in cases where it can prove innocence.

Massachusetts is one of just three states without a DNA access law, and the Innocence Project today called on state lawmakers to work to pass such a measure in the months ahead.

“Over the last several years, nearly every state in the nation has passed a law granting prisoners access to DNA testing that can prove innocence or confirm guilt. In just the last two years alone, Mississippi and South Carolina passed laws granting access to post-conviction DNA testing, but Massachusetts still hasn’t,” Innocence Project Policy Director Stephen Saloom said today. “This report makes a serious, well-reasoned, broadly supported case for finally passing legislation in Massachusetts to grant DNA testing to prisoners, and we hope the State Legislature and the Governor act on it.”

The Bar Association report was created by a task force chaired by two former prosecutors and including representatives of the law enforcement, defense and forensic communities.

Task force co-chairman David E. Meier told the Boston Globe that a broad group of experts was necessary to create the report because fixing the criminal justice system is in everyone’s interest.

“The wrongful conviction of an innocent defendant strikes at the foundation of the criminal justice system,’’ (Meier) said in an interview. “It impacts everyone: the defendant, the victim and the victim’s family, the integrity of the system, and, perhaps most importantly, the public’s confidence in our system of justice.’’
Boston Bar Association press release.

Download the full report. (PDF)

The two other states that lack post-conviction DNA access are Alaska and Oklahoma, but some states offer extremely limited access to testing and need improvements. Visit our interactive map to learn about the details in your state.



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Oregon Man Freed After 10 Years

Posted: December 22, 2009 4:31 pm

Phillip Scott Cannon was released from an Oregon jail on Friday after prosecutors in his case said he had been convicted based on unreliable forensics and couldn’t be retried because evidence in his case had been destroyed. He had served 10 years behind bars.

Cannon, 43, was convicted of a 1998 triple murder based in part on comparative bullet lead analysis, a forensic procedure used by the FBI for three decades before it quietly ended the practice in 2005. A 2007 investigation by CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post revealed that thousands of convictions had been secured based on the unreliable tests.

Cannon has maintained his innocence throughout his ordeal, but prosecutors said they were dropping charges because evidence in the case wasn’t available for a retrial. A relative of one of the victims the Oregonian that the lost evidence meant justice wouldn’t be served for either the victims of Cannon.

“There’s no closure for our family,” said Thomas Osborne, the father of one of the victims. Suzan Renee Osborne was found shot in the head at a mobile home with Jason Roger Kinser and Celesta Joy Graves. “There’s no closure for his (family) either. It’s just a bad deal all around.”
The case demonstrates the importance of two critical reforms supported by the Innocence Project -- oversight of forensic sciences to avoid reliance on unproved tests and the preservation of evidence.  

Via A public defender




Tags: Evidence Preservation

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27 Years Later, Donald Gates is Declared Innocent

Posted: December 23, 2009 4:30 pm

Donald Eugene Gates was freed from prison and his conviction was vacated last week when a D.C. Superior Court judge acted at the prosecutor’s request and acknowledged Gates was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years. DNA testing and other evidence showed that Gates was innocent. The U.S. Attorney’s Office initially said it would block Gates’ exoneration, but backed down late Friday.

The Washington Post writes:

“The court finds by clear and convincing evidence that Mister Gates is actually innocent,” Judge Fred B. Ugast wrote in his opinion issued Friday, clearing Gates of all charges.…

Prosecutors also acknowledged in a letter Friday to Ugast that they had found correspondence alerting them in 1997 to 12 discredited FBI crime analysts, including one whose testimony they had relied on heavily during Gates’s trial.  Prosecutors previously indicated in court that they had not been told about the analysts, a mistake that Ugast had called “outrageous.”  Also, prosecutors had relied on testimony from a paid informant who testified that Gates confessed the killing and rape to him.
Read the full article here.

Gates, who is now 58, was released from an Arizona prison last Tuesday. A hearing in his case that was scheduled for today was canceled once prosecutors agreed to drop the case – and admitted that they have known for 12 years that the forensic expert who testified at his trial has been discredited.  

The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia handled Gates’ post-conviction case. The Innocence Project has called for thorough review and follow-up of other cases involving the discredited FBI analysts who testified in Gates’ case.

 

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Four Years Free

Posted: December 29, 2009 3:40 pm

In 1986, three New York men — John Restivo, John Kogut and Dennis Halstead — were wrongfully convicted of killing a 16-year-old girl on Long Island. Their convictions rested on a false confession and faulty scientific evidence, and the men would serve 17 years in prison before DNA testing proved their innocence. Four years ago this week they were finally exonerated.

At the men’s original trials, the prosecution relied heavily on testimony from a hair comparison expert who testified that hairs found in Restivo’s van came from the victim and could not have been deposited in the vehicle while she was alive. According to the analyst, the hairs found in the van displayed “advanced banding,” a condition caused by bacteria eating away at the interior of the hair shaft. This testimony was later discredited.

The Innocence Project and several other attorneys and organizations worked on the cases of the three men. Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey, worked on their cases beginning in 1994. After years of appeals, DNA testing was finally conducted on evidence from the crime scene in 2003, excluding the three men as perpetrators. Their convictions were overturned, but prosecutors sought to retry Kogut. He was acquitted in December 2005, and it was four years ago today that prosecutors dropped charges against Halstead and Restivo.

Faulty forensics, like the hair testimony that contributed to these three wrongful convictions, have been a major cause of wrongful convictions for decades. More than half of DNA exonerations involved unvalidated or improper forensic science.

The Innocence Project supports federal forensic reform in the United States to ensure that scientific practices used in criminal cases are scientifically valid. Learn more about these critical reforms and take action today.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week


Leonard McSherry, California (Served 13 Years, Exonerated, 12/28/01)





Tags: Dennis Halstead, John Kogut, John Restivo

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Friday Roundup: New Year Edition

Posted: January 1, 2010 10:15 am

Happy New Year from all of us at the Innocence Project!

Here’s a holiday edition of the Friday roundup:

An editorial on Sunday in the Washington Post pointed to the recent exonerations of James Bain and Donald Gates, and said" "As appalling as the two cases are, what's even scarier is the thought that imperfections in the criminal justice system will go uncorrected and more people could be wrongly jailed."

A man named Kevin Benefield was arrested in New York on Wednesday and charges with committing the murder for which another man, Kenneth Ireland, served nearly 20 years in prison before he was exonerated this year.

Also in Connecticut, a team of attorneys and forensics experts are beginning a review of hundreds of cases to determine if DNA testing could overturn wrongful convictions.

Maryland's highest criminal court ordered prosecutors to continue searching for biological evidence in the case of a former corrections officer who has served 26 years for a crime he says he didn't commit.

The New York State Bar called on state lawmakers to take decisive action in 2010 to prevent wrongful convictions.

Last week, an Iowa judge ordered a new trial for David Flores, who has served 13 years in prison for a gang-related murder he says he didn't commit.

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Supreme Court Dismisses Prosecutorial Misconduct Case

Posted: January 5, 2010 4:22 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a case on the limits of prosecutorial immunity yesterday after two wrongfully convicted defendants announced that they had settled their lawsuit against Iowa prosecutors.

Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee spent 26 years in Iowa prisons for a murder evidence shows they didn’t commit before they were freed in 2003. They were suing prosecutors in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, for allegedly coercing false testimony and fabricating evidence to convict them.

The Supreme Court was considering whether the prosecutors should be immune from civil lawsuits, but dismissed the case yesterday after the two parties announced a $12 million settlement.

Read more:

Christian Science Monitor: Supreme Court Drops Key Case on Limits of Immunity for Prosecutors

LA Times: Prosecutor Conduct Case Before Supreme Court is Settled

Previous coverage of this case on the Innocence Blog





Tags: Government Misconduct

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NJ Man Continues His Search for Evidence

Posted: January 6, 2010 6:50 pm

Innocence Project client Stephen Brooks was convicted of rape in 1987 and has maintained his innocence ever since.  After 22 years in New Jersey prisons, he will soon be eligible for parole and continues to appeal his conviction on the grounds that DNA evidence was never tested and would prove his innocence.

The victim testified at his trial, but physical evidence was never presented, and he was ultimately sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Brooks asked for testing on the DNA evidence samples one year after his conviction. Police said the rape kit and physical evidence had been lost, but Brooks and the Innocence Project continue to search.

A feature story Sunday in the Newark Star-Ledger traced the evidence search:

The State Police, which had returned evidence to East Orange after the trial, kept partial specimens until 1998 before sending those back.

That evidence is also gone, East Orange police said. After the court-ordered search of the department's station house and storage areas, Sgt. Frank Michetti wrote he had "not been able to locate any evidence relating to this matter." The evidence, police believe, was destroyed when headquarters flooded in 2004.

Potkin [Brooks’ attorney at the Innocence Project] wants the prosecutor's office to conduct a similar search because "there's no proof" it has done so. A court date to hear that request has not been scheduled.
The chief assistant prosecutor has said the office may have a receipt showing that the evidence was received by the police department, but it has yet to be found.

And although Brooks concedes the unlikelihood that evidence will be produced, he still wants a chance to prove his innocence.  

Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 01/03/10)





Tags: Stephen Brooks

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How to Stop False Confessions

Posted: January 7, 2010 9:45 am

A new article in the journal Law and Human Behavior by John Jay College Professor Saul Kassin and several other false confession experts examines the causes of false confessions and calls for law enforcement agencies videotape all interrogations to prevent injustice.

False confessions were a factor in about one-quarter of all wrongful convictions overturned to date through DNA testing. The contributing factors discussed in the new article are found in many DNA exoneration cases, including juvenile or mentally challenged suspects, intoxicated suspects, long periods of interrogation and infliction of harm by interrogators.

Kassin and the paper's other authors reach a clear conclusion: recording interrogations prevents false confessions. Empirical studies have shown that recording reduces the chance for false confessions. More than 500 jurisdictions across the country already record interrogations, and they have found that the practice also creates a valuable record for police and prosecutors to use at trial. The paper also calls for reforms to interrogation methods in tandem with the introduction of recording.

Download the full paper here.

Gideon, blogging at a public defender, delves deep into the article and offers tips for public defenders dealing with confession cases. Read his post here.

Read about the Innocence Project's recommendations on recording of interrogations.

Watch a video of Texas exoneree Chris Ochoa describing his false confession and eventual exoneration.





Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions

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Improper Forensics and Two Decades in Prison

Posted: January 8, 2010 10:40 am



In 1989, Steven Barnes was convicted of the rape and murder of 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in Utica, New York. The prosecution's case against Barnes was based in part on unvalidated and improper forensic science.  After serving almost two decades in prison, Barnes was officially exonerated one year ago this week  

Today, Barnes works helps oversee a youth program for his county's workforce development office and recently moved into his own apartment. He frequently speaks to community groups and policymakers about the importance of addressing the causes of wrongful conviction to prevent injustice.

Faulty forensics were a central cause of Barnes' wrongful conviction. Three types of forensic evidence were used against Barnes:  fabric print analysis, soil comparison, and microscopic hair analysis.  None of these three techniques has been proven in empirical studies to be reliable and aspects of this evidence clearly misled the jury in Barnes' case.

The fabric print analysis allegedly linked the victim's unusual jeans to a dust print on the outside of Barnes' truck, but the methods used to determine a link were unproven and unreliable. Soil from Barnes truck was chemically compared to soil at the crime scene, but technicians didn't offer an analysis of whether the soil in either sample was particularly unique.

Testimony regarding microscopic hair comparisons in particular can mislead juries to believe that a similarly is actually a "match." According to a report released in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), "No scientifically accepted statistics exist about the frequency with which particular characteristics of hair are distributed in the population.  There appears to be no uniform standards on the number of features on which hairs must agree before an examiner may declare a 'match.'"  Nearly one in five wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing involved faulty hair analysis.  

Despite the groundbreaking recent NAS report on forensic science, there remains a grievous lack of oversight of crime labs across the country.  Moreover, methodologies and standards vary by examiner. Countless innocent people have been sent to prison in the U.S. based on faulty forensics while the real perpetrators of crimes remain free.  In response, the Innocence Project, spearheading the Just Science Coalition, has developed a plan for reform that includes the creation of a national Office of Forensic Science Improvement and Support (OFSIS).  OFSIS, with input from law enforcement, prosecutors, crime laboratories, the judiciary and the defense bar, will support research in forensics practices, set mandatory accreditation and certification standards and ensure compliance with those standards.

These reforms are critical to prevent future injustices like the one endured by Steven Barnes. Learn more about federal forensic reforms and take action here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Mark Diaz Bravo, California (Served 3 Years, Exonerated 1/6/94)

David Vasquez, Virginia (Served 4 Years, Exonerated 1/4/89)

Larry Holdren, West Virginia (Served 15 Years, Exonerated 1/4/00)



Tags: Steven Barnes, Forensic Oversight

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Chicago Man Freed After 23 Years

Posted: January 14, 2010 5:16 am

Michael Tillman was freed today in Chicago after serving more than 23 years in prison for a murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit. He was convicted in 1986 of killing a 42-year-old woman in Chicago based mainly on a confession that he says was false and given to stop torture by officers working under the supervision of former Chicago Police Department Commander Jon Burge. Even when another man was convicted of the crime based on physical evidence in 1991, Tillman's conviction was upheld based on the confession.

Prosecutors joined with Tillman’s attorney in asking a judge to overturn his conviction today, citing a “forced confession.” Tillman says police officers waterboarded him with 7-Up, punched him in the face and stomach until he vomited blood and put a plastic bag over his head to force him to admit to a crime he didn't commit. Burge,  who was a Chicago police officer from 1970 until he was suspended in 1991, is facing federal charges for his alleged role in wrongful conviction cases.

“It felt good, and I’m glad justice finally prevailed,” Tillman said after being released.
Read the full story here. (Chicago Sun-Times, 01/14/10) and watch video coverage of Tillman’s release (NBC Chicago)
False confessions have played a role in 25% of wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. Recording of interrogations can prevent this injustice. Read more here.





Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions

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Three Freed, and FBI Continues to Review Ballistic Cases

Posted: January 19, 2010 5:40 pm

It has been five years since the FBI stopped using an unreliable forensic test to determine the source of bullets, and a review of more than 2,500 cases involving the faulty evidence is still ongoing.

The Associated Press reports today that at least three convictions have been overturned nationwide after bullet lead evidence was debunked, and the FBI has notified prosecutors in 187 cases that testimony offered by FBI experts "exceeds the limits of the science and cannot be supported by the FBI."

In 2005, the FBI ceased offering testimony in court on comparative bullet lead analysis, a forensic test once thought capable of identifying unique bullets based on their chemical makeup. It would be two more years, however, before an investigation by CBS News’ “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post revealed that the FBI had failed to notify defendants who may have been convicted based on false evidence.

Following the FBI’s announcement in 2007 that it would reinvestigate cases, the Innocence Network and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers launched the Bullet Lead Analysis Task Force. The joint effort assists the FBI in reviewing closed cases and serves as a resource for defense counsel and for defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted based on erroneous or misleading FBI testimony.

View the Washington Post / “60 Minutes” original report.

Bullet lead analysis is one of the many forensic fields discussed by the National Academy of Science in its 2009 report calling for federal forensic oversight. Learn more about the need for a federal entity to support forensic development and take action today.



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Texas Dog Handler to Retire

Posted: January 21, 2010 4:05 pm

A Texas sheriff’s deputy who has come under fire in recent months for questionable investigative practices announced yesterday that he will retire at the end of the month.

The Fort Bend County Sheriff’s office said 63-year-old deputy Keith Pikett’s decision to retire was not related to pending lawsuits against him. Sheriff Milton Wright did say, however, that demand for Pikett’s services handling scent-tracking dogs had declined following recent negative reports. “The adverse publicity has certainly shut him down — at least out of county,“ Wright told the Associated Press.

For more than 20 years, Pikett has trained police dogs and conducted more than 2,000 “scent lineups” — procedures in which dogs examine a group of scents, including a suspect’s, to determine if any match a scent from the crime scene.

At least three lawsuits allege that Pikett’s dogs picked innocent people, leading to wrongful arrests. All three cases were dropped before trial. Additionally, a report from the Innocence Project of Texas in September questioned the accuracy of scent lineups and alleged that Texas prosecutors use Pikett’s scent lineups to confirm suspicions about a suspect.




Tags: Texas, Forensic Oversight, Dog Scent

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Friday Roundup: Waiting for Freedom

Posted: January 22, 2010 5:02 pm

Here are some stories of injustice, forensics and reform that we didn’t get to on the Innocence Blog this week:

Greg Taylor has been in prison in North Carolina for 17 years for a crime he has always said he didn’t commit. A hearing in his case is set for February 9, and a three-judge panel this week denied prosecutors’ request for a delay.

A Wisconsin man seeking to overturn his conviction for a murder he says he didn’t commit was denied a new trial by a state judge this week. A recent book tells the stories of Rey Moore and five other men convicted in the case.

We wrote last week about the exoneration of Michael Tillman in Chicago based on evidence of his innocence and signs that he was tortured into making a false confession. The New York Times reported that more than 20 other African-American men who say they were tortured by Chicago police during the same period remain behind bars today.

Questions continue to swirl around the accuracy and reliability of polygraph tests and voice-stress analysis, but a report in Ohio found that thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country still use the devices regularly.

A package of reforms addressing the causes of wrongful convictions and aiming to prevent injustice passed an Ohio House committee and is headed for a vote by the House.

DNA testing is being used more frequently in property crimes. Every day we see stories in the press of DNA testing in home burglaries (like this one today in New Hampshire). Officials in Dallas, Texas are on the cutting edge of using DNA tests to solve car thefts. Dallas County recently received a $500,000 to expand the program.

A new paper from Richard Leo and Jon Gould argues that the legal community should give social science research more weight in determining the causes of wrongful convictions and fixing the system to prevent future injustice.

Psychology Today blogger Art Markham explored the best ways to conduct lineups when one of the perpetrators has a scar or other identifying characteristic.

Exoneree Dennis Fritz was in Washington, D.C. this week participating in an American Association for the Advancement of Science panel focused on survivors of human rights violations.



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Massachusetts Exoneree: We Need DNA Access Now

Posted: January 25, 2010 11:10 am

Dennis Maher spent 19 years in Massachusetts prisons for a crime he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence and led to his release. His initial requests for DNA testing were denied, and he would eventually wait for a judge to retire before a prosecutor agreed to allow testing.

Massachusetts is one of three states without a law allowing post-conviction DNA access for prisoners, and if the prosecutor hadn’t agreed to DNA tests, Maher may still be behind bars today. A recent report from a Boston Bar Association task force comprised of police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and former judges called for Massachusetts to become the 48th state with a DNA access law.

In an op-ed in today’s Patriot-Ledger, Maher calls on lawmakers to act now to ensure that more innocent people don’t languish behind bars in the state because they can’t get access to tests that could prove their innocence.  He writes:

My case shows why this matters, and the Boston Bar Association shows why it has such broad support. All that’s left now is for the state Legislature and the governor to act on it.
Read the full op-ed, and learn more about Maher’s case.




Tags: Dennis Maher

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Pennsylvania Man Seeks DNA Testing

Posted: January 27, 2010 5:20 pm

Scott Oliver has spent two decades in Pennsylvania prisons for a rape and murder that he has always maintained he didn't commit, and new DNA test results obtained by the Innocence Project provide strong evidence that he’s telling the truth.

The Innocence Project filed a motion in a Pennsylvania court this month revealing the new test results, which show DNA from a man other than Oliver, and seeking additional tests that could resolve any doubts about Oliver's innocence. Prosecutors have agreed to allow DNA testing to go forward, and the Innocence Project will pay for the tests at a private laboratory.

Oliver was convicted in 1991 of the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. His conviction was based in part on a two-page confession he signed following a police interrogation. He later said he signed the papers without reading them after being forced to do so by a police officer. The interrogation was not recorded.

Ten people have been exonerated through DNA testing in Pennsylvania - four of whom gave false confessions or admissions to crimes they did not commit. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project has joined the Innocence Project in representing Oliver. Watch a video interview about the case with Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Marissa Bluestine here.





Tags: Pennsylvania

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Friday Roundup: Forensics Under Review in Texas

Posted: January 29, 2010 6:40 pm

The first meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission in more than six months focused on procedural issues and Cameron Todd Willingham’s case wasn’t discussed directly. The Innocence Project streamed the meeting live online today, and blogger Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast blogged it live here.

The web stream was made possible by our pro bono partners at Unicorn Media and the producers at Rio Bravo Films.

In other Texas news, Hank Skinner is set to be executed in Texas Feburary 24 despite his pending requests for DNA tests that could prove his innocence. Students at the Medill Innocence Project have been investigating the case and the Texas Tribune ran a two-part story this week.

Still more news from Texas: new evidence suggests that prosecutors coached a witness to identify an innocent man in 1995. Richard Miles was freed last year after 14 years in prison based on new evidence of his innocence. The main witness against him at trial now says he was coached by prosecutors. The prosecutors denied the allegations.

A Michigan man who has been in prison for 25 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit could get a parole hearing soon, state officials said.

Evidence was sent to be testing in the case of Indiana prisoner Willie T. Donald, who has served nearly two decades for a crime he has always said he didn’t commit.

The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to its decision last year in Melendez-Diaz that defendants have the right to cross-examine forensic analysts who conducted tests in their case. A new rule in New York allows police to conduct investigations based on partial DNA matches. The rule was enacted despite arguments from the New York Civil Liberties Union that it should have gone before the legislature.

Reversing an earlier decision, a Los Angeles hiring committee this week approved 27 new forensic analyst positions in an effort to reduce the city’s backlog of untested rape kits.


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Politics Delay Reform in Ohio

Posted: February 8, 2010 4:35 pm

A bill that would address the causes of wrongful conviction and help innocent parolees seek exoneration is stalled in the Ohio House of Representatives, seven months after passing the Senate.

The measure would require that law enforcement agencies preserve crime scene evidence and conduct “blind” identification procedures -- in which the administering officer doesn’t know the identity of the suspect. It would also open a path for people on parole to seek DNA tests that can prove innocence.

Although the bill has bipartisan support and the Governor has said he will sign it if passed, the Columbus Dispatch reports that progress seems to be delayed by a legislative logjam.

The delay has frustrated supporters, including Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project.

"All parties, including prosecutors, police, Democrats and Republicans, worked for years to create a consensus bill. It's a shame it's being delayed at this point," Godsey said, noting that the bill would help prevent convictions of innocent people.

Read the full story here. (Columbus Dispatch, 2/5/10)
If you live in Ohio, sign up for Innocence Project email updates today to receive breaking news and actions relating to this issue in the weeks ahead.



Tags: Eyewitness Identification

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North Carolina Prisoner Seeks Freedom

Posted: February 10, 2010 3:27 pm

A three-judge panel in North Carolina is holding hearings this week to determine if Greg Taylor’s 17-year-old murder conviction should be tossed out based on evidence of innocence.

North Carolina is the only state in the country with an Innocence Inquiry Commission charged with reviewing claims of innocence from people convicted of crimes and determining if they deserve another hearing. The panel voted unanimously last year to refer Taylor’s case to a panel of three judges, the final step in the process. The judges are conducting hearings this week, and will decide whether Taylor’s attorney have proven his innocence by clear and convincing evidence.

Another man has allegedly confessed to committing the crime and no physical evidence ties Taylor or a co-defendant to the victim.

At today’s hearings, a crime scene expert testified that a substance found in Taylor’s truck after the 1991 crime was not human blood. Crime scene analysts testified incorrectly at Taylor’s trial that the substance was blood, according to today’s testimony. Further evidence shows that analysts conducted tests on the substance before Taylor’s trial to determine if it was blood but didn’t include the result in reports.

Taylor has testified for eight hours this week, explaining his whereabouts on the night of the crime and denying prosecutors’ accusations that he is lying about his memory of the night.

Read more. (News & Observer, 02/10/10)

An editorial in the Salisbury Post today praised the work of the Innocence Inquiry Commission and urged North Carolinians to support efforts to overturn wrongful convictions in the state.

Read the full editorial here.





Tags: North Carolina

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Friday Roundup : Redemption, After a Decade of Injustice

Posted: February 12, 2010 6:20 pm

Ted Bradford was acquitted by a Washington state jury yesterday, finally clearing him of a 1995 rape evidence shows he didn’t commit. Bradford spent nearly a decade in prison for the rape before he was released on parole. Once free, he continued fighting to prove his innocence, with the help of the Innocence Project Northwest. DNA evidence from the crime scene was tested in 2007 -- revealing an unknown male’s profile on a key item.

Former federal judge H. Lee Sarokin wrote at the Huffington Post that Texas prosecutors are making a mistake by seeking to go forward with Hank Skinner’s scheduled execution February 24 despite untested DNA evidence in the case.

We wrote last week about Innocence Project client Dean Cage’s appearance on the Dr. Phil show. This week, CNN profiled Cage and the victim in the case -- who are now working together to raise awareness about the issues of wrongful conviction and eyewitness misidentification.

A Florida man spent over a month in jail awaiting trial in an attempted murder, but was freed after his lawyer proved that he had been hundreds of miles away at the time of the crime. The wrongful arrest was caused in part by an eyewitness misidentification.

Lawmakers in Virginia are seeking to reform the state’s eyewitness identification procedures to reduce the possibility of misidentification -- and wrongful conviction.

A Florida lawmaker is pushing for the creation of a state innocence commission to evaluate the causes of wrongful conviction and recommend reforms to prevent future injustice.

A Florida dance company will perform a piece Saturday inspired by the wrongful conviction and exoneration of James Bain.

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Faulty Science and the Wrong Man on Death Row

Posted: February 18, 2010 6:47 am

In 1995, Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in Mississippi for allegedly raping and murdering his girlfriend's three-year old daughter. Although his conviction was overturned in 2001 after seven years on death row, he would spend another five years in jail, and two years free on bond, before he was finally exonerated two years ago this week.

Pictured, from left to right, are Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin, Brewer, Mississippi exoneree Levon Brooks and Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld.

Dr. Michael West, a bite-mark analyst who has since been discredited, provided critical testimony for the prosecution. West was brought into the case by Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who lacks proper board certification and whose work has also been discredited. At trial, West told the jury that Brewer had bitten the girl 19 times using only his upper two teeth, and that marks on the victim's body conclusively matched Brewer's dental records. In fact, experts say that the marks weren't even caused by human teeth.

West's procedures and findings have come under fire in numerous cases. He claims to have invented the "West Phenomenon," in which he donned yellow goggles, and, using a blue laser, identified bite marks, scratches and other marks that only he could see. West also claimed to have conclusively identified a perpetrator from bite marks on a bologna sandwich. That conviction was later overturned. In 2001, a defense lawyer sent his own dental mold and photographs of bite marks on a victim's breast to West, along with his $750 retainer. West produced a video for the lawyer in which he concluded that the mold and photos were a definite match.

In its 2009 report on forensic science, The National Academy of Sciences criticized the relatively new field of forensic odontology, because there is no widely accepted way to measure the reliability of bite marks, no national database to compare samples and a lack of extensive peer review and research. To remedy these problems, the NAS recommended the formation of a national entity to supervise and support forensic science, including bite mark analysis. Learn more about improper and unvalidated forensic science and read the full NAS report here.

Citing West's original testimony, the Mississippi State Supreme Court affirmed Brewer's conviction and death sentence in 1997. DNA testing performed in 2001 showed that he could not have committed the crime and led to his conviction being overturned. Prosecutors, however, said they intended to retry him.

Brewer remained in jail awaiting the promised trial until 2007, when he was freed on bond -- with a trial still pending. The next year, an Innocence Project investigation led to further DNA testing, which implicated another man as the perpetrator. The real perpetrator then confessed to committing the crime, and a similar crime for which another man — Levon Brooks — had been wrongfully convicted as well.

Brewer says he's not angry about the injustice he suffered and instead wants to focus on moving on with his life. He met his future wife in a program after his exoneration, and plans to get married this April. Brewer also has two children and a grandson. He currently works at a food processing plant in Brooksville, Mississippi.




Tags: Kennedy Brewer

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Eight Years of Freedom

Posted: February 24, 2010 5:40 pm

Eight years ago this week, Arvin McGee was exonerated through DNA testing after spending more than 12 years in Oklahoma prisons for a crime he didn’t commit. After his release, he would fight the city of Tulsa in court for years before settling a civil suit. One city councilman would later write that his case was “flubbed from beginning to end” at an enormous cost to McGee and to taxpayers.

McGee was charged with the 1987 rape despite inconsistencies in the evidence against him. The victim’s description of the perpetrator differed significantly from McGee’s appearance, and she picked a different man in the first photographic lineup. At a second lineup almost four months after the crime, she took almost 15 minutes to identify McGee.

Significantly, McGee was suffering from an injury that rendered him physically unable to commit the crime. The victim had been carried over the perpetrator’s shoulder, but McGee was awaiting surgery for a hernia operation, and it was extremely unlikely that he would have been able to carry the victim. Eyewitness misidentification is the single most common cause of wrongful convictions.

Despite these issues, McGee was charged with the crime, based mainly on the second identification. He would be tried three times before he was ultimately convicted of rape, kidnapping and forcible sodomy and sentenced to over 200 years in prison. The first trial ended in a mistrial, and the second in a hung jury.

McGee spent almost 13 years in prison before the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System took his case and arranged for DNA testing on the remaining biological evidence. These tests excluded McGee. A second round of testing ordered by Tulsa County prosecutors on the rape kit recovered from the victim produced the same results, which implicated another Oklahoma prisoner. The other man was charged with the crime, but his case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

Due to the conclusive evidence of McGee’s innocence, Tulsa prosecutors joined with his attorneys in seeking his release. McGee, who was 27 years old when he was wrongfully convicted, was 39 on the day he was freed in February 2002.

Read more about McGee’s case and the role of eyewitness misidentification in causing wrongful convictions.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Charles Chatman, Texas (Served 26.5 years, Exonerated: 2/26/08)




Tags: Arvin McGee

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Exoneree Inspires Students in New York

Posted: March 3, 2010 5:00 pm

Fernando Bermudez, who was freed in November after serving 18 years in New York prisons for a murder evidence shows he didn’t commit, addressed 200 students at Ardsley High School in Westchester, NY, yesterday.  The audience, which included the school's forensic science, criminal justice and other classes, heard first-hand how the justice system failed Bermudez.

According to the Journal News, Bermudez told the students:

"I believed that the truth would set me free at trial. I honestly believed that," Bermudez, 41, said Tuesday to students at Ardsley High School. "I believed in the American justice system, but I lost and sunk deeper into the system."



Bermudez said prosecutors rely too heavily on unreliable eyewitness testimony, even when there is little supporting evidence.

Students questioned why prosecutors ignored three friends of Bermudez who testified that he was not involved in the incident.

"Unfortunately, it wasn't enough," Bermudez said.

He told the students about his case and told them that they should always guard their rights.  His speech was inspiring to students and emotional for others who were angry to learn that the criminal justice can fail in such a profound way. 

Bermudez was convicted in 1992 of shooting a teenager outside a New York City nightclub in 1991.  In November, a judge today tossed out his conviction and charges saying he had proved his actual innocence.
Questionable eyewitness testimony led to his wrongful conviction, and the Innocence Project filed friend-of-the-court briefs in his case, highlighting the problematic identifications.

Learn more about eyewitness misidentification here.

Find out how you can host an exoneree speaker here.




Tags: New York

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Manhattan District Attorney Creates Wrongful Convictions Unit

Posted: March 5, 2010 2:30 pm

Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., announced Thursday that he is setting up a Conviction Integrity Unit to re-examine closed cases where claims of innocence have been made and to establish standard procedures for new cases to prevent wrongful convictions.  The unit will consist of three components: a Conviction Integrity Committee, a Conviction Integrity Chief and an outside Conviction Integrity Policy Advisory Panel.

The committee will review practices and policies related to case assessment, investigation and disclosure obligations, with a focus on potential errors such as eyewitness misidentifications and false confessions.  Comprised of senior members of the DA’s staff, the committee will also lead the investigation of post-conviction cases with credible claims of innocence. The head of the new unit will be Bonnie Sard, a senior Assistant District Attorney, who will report directly to Vance and the office’s General Counsel. The outside advisory panel will consist of 10 leading criminal justice experts including Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. The advisory group will advise the DA’s office on how to prevent and address wrongful convictions.

Scheck told WNYC:

“I think it's just part of an overall movement that's going on across the country with prosecutors who are aware that these mistakes can happen, and there are better ways that we can go about evaluating them to make sure that we get it right.”
Read the full story here.

Vance said in a press release:
"As prosecutors, it is our duty to bring our best efforts to bear in every case to ensure that only the guilty are convicted.  And if we have any reason to believe that we have prosecuted or are prosecuting someone who is actually innocent, we must take prompt steps to investigate the matter and see that justice is served."

Read the full press release about the panel and its members here.

Other coverage of the Conviction Integrity Unit:

Albany Times Union (3/5/10)

The New York Times (3/4/10)

1010 WINS (3/4/10)



Tags: New York

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Massachusetts Man Celebrates Six Years of Freedom

Posted: March 5, 2010 5:30 pm

Six years ago this week, Anthony Powell was officially exonerated of the 1991 rape and kidnapping of a Massachusetts teenager. Powell was convicted in 1992 and served more than 12 years of his sentence before being cleared by DNA testing.

Having been convicted as a result of eyewitness misidentification, Powell maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration. His attorneys, however, could not obtain DNA testing on biological evidence held by police until in 2004, when Boston Police and Suffolk County prosecutors undertook an investigation to re-examine old sexual assault cases. An attorney from the Committee for Public Counsel Services was appointed on Powell’s behalf, and she managed to obtain DNA testing on the remaining biological evidence. The results excluded both Powell and the victim’s former boyfriend as the source of semen found in the rape victim.

At a hearing held after DNA testing excluded Powell, his defense attorney requested a new trial and the prosecutor agreed. Superior Court Judge Robert Mulligan, who presided at Powell’s original trial, overturned the conviction and closed the door on a re-trial, stating that the evidence “strongly supports the conclusion that Mr. Powell did not commit the rape in 1991.” That afternoon, for the first time since 1992, Powell walked out of the courthouse as a free man.

Moreover, the DNA profile extracted from the remaining biological evidence was forwarded to state and national databases, and matched a man who was charged in 2008 for the original rape. The city of Boston would later settle a civil suit brought by Powell in December 2008 for $3.8 million. Powell was also awarded an additional $500,000 under the state’s wrongful conviction compensation statute.

Most recently, in attempts to prevent wrongful convictions like those of Powell, the Boston Bar Association called attention to the state’s need for a comprehensive statute that provides access to DNA testing. Massachusetts is one of only three states that lack post-conviction DNA access. Find out more here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

David Allen Jones, California (Served 9 years, Exonerated 3/4/04)

Roy Brown, New York (Served, 15 years, Exonerated 3/5/07)



Tags: Massachusetts, Anthony Powell, Eyewitness Misidentification

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Friday Roundup: Seeking Freedom and Reform

Posted: March 5, 2010 5:45 pm

An editorial in the San Antonio Express News says that it took too long to clear Timothy Cole’s name and that there is need for further reforms in Texas.  The Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions is in the process of conducting a year-long review of the Texas justice system. Its recommendations will go to the Legislature for the 2011 session.

On Thursday, Troy Bradford of Ohio said he was innocent of a series of brutal burglaries that he was convicted of over a year ago. With no physical evidence against him, Bradford appealed the conviction, questioning the method by which the witness identification was obtained.  He reached out to the Ohio Innocence Project, which asked prosecutors to test a fingerprint found at one of the scenes. The county prosecutor released the results of the fingerprint analysis Thursday. Two of the comparisons are not a match, and a third one has not yet been analyzed.  Local prosecutors said they have no plans to reopen the case.

A Houston judge declared the death penalty unconstitutional yesterday and granted a motion filed in a capital case seeking to have the court find that Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 37.071 "violates the protections afforded to the Accused by the 8th and 14th Amendments . . . and that the option to sentence the Accused to die for a crime that he did not commit should be precluded as a sentencing option."

Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Keith Findley is calling for a new jury in client Terry Vollbrecht’s murder trial.  Vollbrecht has served 20 years of a life sentence for the murder of Angela Hackl in Sauk County over two decades ago. An investigator for the state Public Defender's office admitted to not following up on several leads in the original investigation which implicated other people in the crime.



Tags: Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, Timothy Cole

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Prosecutor Talks about His Role in Wrongful Conviction

Posted: November 30, -0001

A local prosecutor in Washington, DC, spoke to the Washington Post this weekend about what it was like to learn that he helped wrongfully convict an innocent man.

J. Brooks Harrington helped convict Donald Gates of raping and murdering a Georgetown University student in 1981. Gates was finally exonerated in December 2009 based on DNA testing.

Harrington based his case against Gates on several pieces of evidence. According to an FBI forensics analyst, a hair taken from Gates matched a hair found on the victim. Harrington also relied on testimony from a paid informant who said Gates admitted to murder when a robbery went wrong.  Gates had never met the informant.
Harrington told the Washington Post:

"Not only can this happen again, but it will," said Harrington, now an ordained minister in Fort Worth. "Nobody has any interest in convicting somebody who didn't commit a crime. You do your best with the evidence you have. I was just flatly wrong about it. I did my best, and it wasn't good enough."

Emotion fractured Harrington's voice as he talked about the exonerated man. Harrington now keeps a photo of Gates that he downloaded from the Internet in a frame over his desk. Also on the desk is a letter he received from Gates after he was released. It reads:
"Rev. Harrington, I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Now I consider you my friend. Your brother in Christ, Donald."

Gates's absolution left Harrington in tears. "It's one thing to say I ought to forgive and not have bitterness, but he really seems not to have any," Harrington said. "He was more than kind to me. He's an amazing man."

In 1997 the Justice Department found that the FBI analyst who reviewed the hair sample made false reports on cases across the country, including Gates'.  And in 2000, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Attorney's office to review the case. The prosecutor’s office reviewed the case but found that the informant's testimony and Gates's criminal history outweighed the false testimony from the FBI.

The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia went on to handle Gates’ post-conviction appeals.  Gates was finally freed from prison and his conviction was vacated in December when a D.C. Superior Court acknowledged Gates was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years.

Gates is now living in Tennessee adjusting to life outside of prison.

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Prosecutor Talks about His Role in Wrongful Conviction

Posted: March 8, 2010 4:00 pm

A local prosecutor in Washington, DC, spoke to the Washington Post this weekend about what it was like to learn that he helped wrongfully convict an innocent man.

J. Brooks Harrington helped convict Donald Gates of raping and murdering a Georgetown University student in 1981. Gates was finally exonerated in December 2009 based on DNA testing.

Harrington based his case against Gates on several pieces of evidence. According to an FBI forensics analyst, a hair taken from Gates matched a hair found on the victim. Harrington also relied on testimony from a paid informant who said Gates admitted to murder when a robbery went wrong.  Gates had never met the informant.
Harrington told the Washington Post:

"Not only can this happen again, but it will," said Harrington, now an ordained minister in Fort Worth. "Nobody has any interest in convicting somebody who didn't commit a crime. You do your best with the evidence you have. I was just flatly wrong about it. I did my best, and it wasn't good enough."

Emotion fractured Harrington's voice as he talked about the exonerated man. Harrington now keeps a photo of Gates that he downloaded from the Internet in a frame over his desk. Also on the desk is a letter he received from Gates after he was released. It reads:

"Rev. Harrington, I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Now I consider you my friend. Your brother in Christ, Donald."

Gates's absolution left Harrington in tears. "It's one thing to say I ought to forgive and not have bitterness, but he really seems not to have any," Harrington said. "He was more than kind to me. He's an amazing man."

In 1997 the Justice Department found that the FBI analyst who reviewed the hair sample made false reports on cases across the country, including Gates'.  And in 2000, the Justice Department asked the U.S. Attorney's office to review the case. The prosecutor’s office reviewed the case but found that the informant's testimony and Gates's criminal history outweighed the false testimony from the FBI.

The Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia went on to handle Gates’ post-conviction appeals.  Gates was finally freed from prison and his conviction was vacated in December when a D.C. Superior Court acknowledged Gates was wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years.

Gates is now living in Tennessee adjusting to life outside of prison.


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Connecticut Innocence Project Examines Possible Wrongful Conviction Ten Years Later

Posted: March 9, 2010 3:00 pm

Yesterday, lawyers from the Connecticut Innocence Project went to New London Superior Court to collect evidence in the case of 44-year-old Erik Rasmussen who was convicted of the 1988 murder of his then-22-year-old wife in the home they shared.  Since his arrest, Rasmussen has maintained his innocence and claimed that police and prosecutors overlooked key evidence. 

The Connecticut Innocence Project has helped exonerate three people in the state, but Rasmussen’s case would be the first one investigated with aid from a $1.5 million federal grant given to the Connecticut Innocence Project, the State’s Attorney’s office and the state forensic science lab.

The head of the Connecticut Innocence Project told the Norwich Bulletin:

“What we’re doing is looking at old cases where the defendants claim they are innocent,” Connecticut Innocence Project Director Karen Goodrow told the Bulletin. “In this case, there was no DNA testing done.”

She told the newspaper more than 200 inmates have expressed interest in the program.

Rasmussen is currently scheduled for release in 2014.  He wrote the book, “Justice Denied: The Trial of Erik Rasmussen,” claiming his innocence.

More coverage of Erik Rasmussen and the Connecticut Innocence Project here:

NBC Connecticut (3/9/2010)

Hartford Courant (3/9/2010)


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Former Prosecutor Calls for DNA Testing in Texas Case

Posted: March 10, 2010 4:30 pm

A former prosecutor in Texas today called for DNA testing in the case of a man who is set to be executed later this month. Hank Skinner, who has been requesting DNA testing for a decade, is scheduled to die on March 24 – even though critical evidence in the case has not been subjected to DNA testing that could prove his innocence. In an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Sam Millsap writes that DNA testing only works if it is used.

If DNA tests could remove the uncertainty about Skinner's guilt — one way or the other — there's not a good reason in the world not to do it.

Some taxpayers may grumble at spending the public's money on DNA tests for individuals on death row. That argument doesn't hold water in Skinner's case. In 2000, the investigative journalists at the Medill Innocence Project offered to pay for the DNA tests. Ten years later, that offer still stands. There may be other objections to testing the evidence, but they don't outweigh the potential horror of executing an innocent man.

...

Skinner's execution date is just a few days away, but key pieces of evidence have never been tested, including two knives, one of which might be the murder weapon; a man's windbreaker, which had blood, sweat and hair on it and was found next to the victim's body; the victim's fingernails, which may have DNA evidence under them; and samples from a rape kit.

Skinner has maintained his innocence since his arrest and his attorneys filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court asking to stop his execution so DNA testing can be conducted.

Read the full op-ed here.  Houston Chronicle (03/10/10)

Read more about Hank Skinner’s case here.

Learn more about the Innocence Project’s position on the death penalty and people who have been exonerated after spending time on death row here.




Tags: Texas

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Texas Man Set to Be Executed Despite Untested DNA

Posted: March 15, 2010 6:01 pm

In an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck joined others in calling on Texas Gov. Rick Perry to order a stay in Skinner’s case so that DNA testing can proceed. Skinner’s attorneys made a similar request in a letter to Perry last week.

Scheck was joined in the op-ed by Cory Session, whose brother Timothy Cole was exonerated posthumously in Texas last year, and Rodney Ellis, a Texas state senator and the chairman of the Innocence Project Board of Directors. They wrote:

In Tim Cole’s case, solid science came too late. Perry was right to pardon him, but he would do well to learn from this case and make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.

One such person might be Hank Skinner, who is set to be executed March 24. Skinner has requested DNA testing for 10 years, and there is no good reason for state officials to continue blocking these efforts.

We don’t know whether Hank Skinner is guilty or innocent. But we know the governor has the power to step in and delay the execution so DNA testing can be done to resolve this case once and for all — before Skinner is executed.

Read the full op-ed here.

Last week, former Texas prosecutor Sam Millsap wrote in the Houston Chronicle that Texas should conduct testing in Skinner’s case in order to avoid the possible “horror of executing an innocent man.”

Calls for testing in Skinner’s case come after months of worldwide attention to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 despite evidence of his innocence. Since Willingham’s execution, several independent scientific studies have determined that the forensic analysis used to convict him was wrong. A 16,000-word story in the New Yorker magazine last year went on to discredit all of the evidence used against Willingham, including the forensic analysis, the informant's testimony, other witness testimony and additional circumstantial evidence.

Learn more about Hank Skinner’s case
.

Learn more about Willingham’s case.

Seventeen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row. Learn about their cases here.

Photo: Texas Tribune


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Friday Roundup: Second Chances and Needed Reforms

Posted: March 19, 2010 3:00 pm

The Connecticut Innocence Project continues to look into Erik Rasmussen’s murder conviction from 1988 when he was found guilty of murdering his wife in their home.  Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said he and other prosecutors were not shocked by the Innocence Project’s request for DNA testing on viable evidence now that the State has a federal grant that provides for it.  Because the grant allows for so many cases to be given a second look, Kane said he is working together with the Innocence Project and the State Police Forensic Lab on determining if re-examined evidence would change the conviction of Rasmussen and others.

Also in Connecticut, 35 year-old Patrick Corbin, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence for raping a 6-year-old girl in 1995, requested that evidence from his trial be accepted for DNA testing.  Prosecutor James Clark told the judge both the defense and prosecution were asking that evidence collected from the child and her clothing be sent to the state lab for DNA testing. The judge said OK.

A report was filed last week in the D.C. Superior Court finding that dating back to the mid-1970s, there are more than a hundred cases that need to be reviewed because of potentially falsified tests conducted by FBI analysts. The report comes following an internal investigation by prosecutors just after the exoneration of Donald Gates, who was wrongfully convicted for 28 years for the rape and murder of a Georgetown University student.



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Florida Man is Fully Cleared

Posted: March 25, 2010 2:45 pm

Caravella was just 15 when he was arrested for a rape and murder in South Florida. He made admissions of guilt after a lengthy interrogation and his “confession” would serve as the primary evidence against him. Prosecutors sought the death penalty, but the jury imposed a life sentence.

"I waited a very long time for this — it feels good, man," Caravella said today, according to the Sun Sentinel. Without the tracking device, he said he felt about 10 pounds lighter.

Caravella, who has been represented on appeal for eight years by Broward County Public Defender Diane Cuddihy, is the 252nd person exonerated through DNA testing in the United States.

Photo Credit: Amy Beth Bennett, South Florida Sun-Sentinel


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Detroit Man Celebrates Freedom When Prosecutor's Office Decides Against Retrial

Posted: March 25, 2010 3:30 pm

Law professor and co-director at the Michigan Innocence Clinic David Moran told the Detroit News that Provience is innocent and that authorities had the wrong man for more than nine years.


"He's innocent because the police had overwhelming evidence from the very first day of the crime that someone else did it: what kind of car they were driving, the license number of their car, and it all pointed to the same guys," Moran said. "And the prosecution in a different case argued that those guys did it."



"I'm just so happy right now. It feels like I'm walking out of prison all over again," Provience, 36, of Detroit said during a telephone interview en route to a Wayne County jail to have a GPS tether removed from his leg. "I'm going to be taking it a day at a time and try to get my life back on track."

Read the full article.


Provience’s original lawyer failed to seek the trial testimony of several other drivers who saw the victim shot from a car other than Provience’s, and fled in a different direction.  The clinic also learned that in a related trial, another prosecutor told jurors the victim was killed by someone else.  The original witness was tracked down and recanted his testimony.

Already out on bond, Provience was required to wear an electronic tracking device while working to get his life back.  He is holding down two jobs as a custodian at a flea market and as a floor manager at a gym.  Yesterday was the first day in a decade Provience was totally free.




Tags: Michigan

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Exoneree Advocates for Reform in Massachusetts

Posted: April 2, 2010 4:05 pm

Maher was charged with three sexual assaults in Ayer and Lowell, Massachusetts in 1983, based solely on the victims' identification of him at photographic lineups. Maher, then 23 years old and an Army sergeant with no criminal record, had apparently worn a red hooded sweatshirt similar to the one worn by the perpetrator, and he was spotted near the crime scene shortly after the second Lowell rape. No other evidence linked Maher to any of the sexual assaults, but he was convicted in two separate trials and sentenced to life in prison.

After his conviction, Maher consistently proclaimed his innocence and sought DNA testing on biological evidence. Yet the trial judge repeatedly refused his requests, and police claimed that all biological evidence from his case had been destroyed. In 2001, however, a law student discovered two boxes containing the pants and underwear collected from one of the Lowell rape victims. Testing on the underwear, and a second slide located by prosecutors from the Ayer case, excluded Maher as the source of semen. This conclusive evidence prompted his release from prison on April 3, 2003.

Since his release, Maher has successfully rebuilt his life. He is married with two children, ages 4 and 3, and works as a diesel mechanic in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. In 2009, Maher settled a federal civil rights lawsuit against the town of Ayer for $3.1 million.

Maher continues to advocate for reform, especially since Massachusetts is one of only three states in the country without a statute explicitly allowing prisoners access to post-conviction DNA testing. If such a statute had been in place at the time of his conviction, it is likely that Maher would have spent significantly less time in prison. Instead, Maher's access to DNA testing was at the whim of the judges and prosecutors in his case. 

The Innocence Project urges states to offer broad access to post-conviction DNA testing, with reasonable limits, to ensure that the wrongfully convicted do not face the difficult legal hurdles that Dennis Maher overcame. Read the Innocence Project's proposed model reform statute here.

Read more on post-conviction DNA access here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Antonio Beaver, Missouri (Served 10 years, Exonerated 3/29/07)

Anthony Capozzi, New York (Served 20 years, Exonerated 4/2/07)

Miguel Roman
, Connecticut (Served 18.5 Years, Exonerated 4/2/09)

Eddie James Lowery, Kansas (Served 9.5 years, Exonerated 4/3/03)



Tags: Dennis Maher

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A Posthumous Exoneration, One Year Later

Posted: April 8, 2010 3:45 pm

At trial, Cole’s brother and friend both testified that they played cards while Cole studied at home the night of the attack. Cole also presented evidence of his severe asthma, which prevented him from smoking cigarettes. Cole’s attorney also tried to introduce evidence of similar rapes before and after Cole’s arrest, which he could not have committed. This evidence was disallowed by the trial judge, and after six hours of jury deliberation, Cole was convicted of rape and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

In 1995, Jerry Wayne Johnson, a Texas prisoner serving a life sentence, wrote a letter to prosecutors confessing to the rape for which Cole had been convicted. This letter was ignored, and Cole passed away without ever learning of Johnson’s admission. In 2000, Johnson again wrote a letter confessing to the rape, but was still ignored. Eventually, the Innocence Project and Cole’s family learned of the confession. The Innocence Project joined with the Innocence Project of Texas as co-counsel and sought DNA testing on serological evidence from the crime scene. The results conclusively excluded Cole and implicated Johnson. Finally, at an April 7, 2009 hearing, a Texas judge officially exonerated Cole.

Fortunately, Cole’s posthumous exoneration has spurred calls for reform in Texas. In 2009, the legislature passed the Timothy Cole Act, increasing compensation paid to exonerees to $80,000 a year. The state also created the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions to study ways to prevent similar injustice across the state. Mallin also speaks out against faulty eyewitness identification procedures. In a 2009 op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, she urged Texas to adopt the recommendations of the National Academy of Science 2009 Report.

Watch a video of Mallin telling her story at Georgetown University Law Center here.

On March 1, 2010, Governor Rick Perry granted Cole a full posthumous pardon after the unanimous recommendation of the Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles. Cole’s 73-year-old mother, Ruby Session, while ecstatic, still realizes that there is much work to be done. Because of her son’s sacrifice, she said, “we’re on the forefront of a new day in the criminal justice system.”

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Brandon Moon, Texas (Served 17 years, Exonerated 4/6/05)

Harold Buntin, Indiana (Served 13 years, Exonerated 5/20/05, Released 4/4/07)

Terry Chalmers, New York (Served 7.5 years, Exonerated 4/5/95)


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Friday Roundup: Authorities Hinder Justice

Posted: April 9, 2010 6:00 pm

Two Washington men who have served 17 years bind bars for rape, kidnapping and burglary are seeking a new trial with the help of the Innocence Project Northwest based on newly discovered DNA evidence.  The Superior Court Judge will decide at an April 21 hearing whether or not to vacate the convictions; if dismissed, these would be the Innocence Project Northwest’s second and third DNA exonerations in Washington.

A former crime lab technician in California may play a pivotal role in undermining a triple murder conviction that federal prosecutors won last year against a gang member who faces life behind bars.  The conviction was based in part of the testimony of a retired police drug analysis after suspicions surfaced that she had taken cocaine and possibly other drugs from the lab.




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Michigan Man Celebrates Two Years of Freedom

Posted: April 16, 2010 5:00 pm

DNA testing was performed before trial on a vaginal swab taken from the victim’s underwear. These results excluded Hatchett. Macomb County District Attorney Eric Kaiser requested that the victim’s husband’s DNA also be compared against the sample. The husband was excluded, but Kaiser never informed Hatchett’s attorney of this critical evidence.

At Hatchett’s bench trial in 1998, a forensic analyst testified that a pubic hair taken from the crime scene had similar characteristics to Hatchett’s hair. The victim also identified Hatchett in court. In his closing statement, Kaiser, who had known for six months that neither Hatchett nor the husband were the source of semen, stated that “we really can’t speculate whether another person, the husband, the Lone Ranger, created any vaginal deposits that were eventually tested.” Hatchett was convicted and sentenced to 25-40 years in prison.

Kaiser rehashed his original claim after Hatchett filed his first appeal less than a year after his conviction. Kaiser argued that the DNA evidence was only a single piece of evidence in a three day, ten-witness trial, and that the semen may have come from the victim’s husband. The Cooley Innocence Project took Hatchett’s case in 2006 and conducted a second round of testing on the semen sample. The results, revealed in 2008, again excluded Hatchett and the victim’s husband. With this evidence in hand, Hatchett’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial. To defense counsel’s surprise, prosecutors decided to support the motion and dismiss all charges against Hatchett. He was officially exonerated and released from prison on April 14, 2008.

Hatchett’s case shows that access to DNA testing alone is not enough to prevent wrongful convictions, especially where other misconduct has occurred. Other safeguards, including open, standardized procedures for DNA testing, as well as increased cooperation between prosecutors and defense counsel, are necessary to avoid injustice. Prosecutors such as Kaiser also must remember that their mandate, above all else, is to seek justice.

After his exoneration, Hatchett sued Kaiser, as well as the city and police department for their role in his wrongful imprisonment. Unfortunately, in February 2010, a federal district court dismissed Hatchett’s civil rights lawsuit on summary judgment on the grounds that Kaiser was entitled to absolute prosecutorial immunity, preventing civil liability even though he engaged in conduct which the court found “disturbing.”

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Ron Williamson, Oklahoma (Served 11 years, Exonerated 4/15/99)

Dennis Fritz, Oklahoma (Served 11 years, Exonerated 4/15/99)

Victor Larue Thomas, Texas (Served 15 years, Exonerated 4/17/02)



Tags: Nathaniel Hatchett

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Anniversaries Mark the 100th and 200th DNA Exonerations

Posted: April 23, 2010 4:50 pm

His first conviction was overturned, but another jury found Krone guilty. The judge refused to sentence him to death, saying  "the court is left with a residual or lingering doubt about the clear identity of the killer." Finally, in 2002, Krone’s appellate attorney obtained access to biological evidence that prosecutors had claimed to have lost. The results excluded Krone and implicated another man as the real perpetrator. Read more about Krone’s case here, and learn about other wrongful convictions based on faulty bite mark analysis.

Jerry Miller, who was exonerated three years ago today after serving nearly a quarter-century in Illinois prisons, was wrongfully convicted based almost exclusively on eyewitness misidentification, the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA. Read more about his case here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Walter Snyder, Virginia (Served 6.5 Years, Exonerated 4/23/93)

Anthony D. Woods, Missouri (Served 18 years, Exonerated, 4/21/05)

Anthony Hicks, Wisconsin (Served 5 Years, Exonerated 4/23/97)

Hector Gonzalez, New York (Served 5.5 Years, Exonerated 4/24/02)




Tags: Jerry Miller

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Friday Roundup: DNA Proves Valuable Years After Crimes Are Committed

Posted: April 23, 2010 5:00 pm

An Oakland man was sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing a woman 16 years ago.  DNA evidence didn’t connect the perpetrator to the crime until 2004.  The man was convicted of first-degree murder and the special circumstance of committing a murder during a rape.   His lawyer admitted the DNA evidence proved they had sex, but said the prosecutor hadn’t proved rape.  

A Missouri judge overturned a 1994 conviction for rape on the basis of new DNA evidence.  The judge said he had reservations about the original evidence and suggested that if the new DNA evidence was available during the first trial, the man may never have been convicted in the first place.  The older evidence included two photo lineups shown to the victim. First, she identified a man with a full head of hair and then she identified Kenneth W. York, who had a receding hairline. Developments in DNA enabled state to sample two specimens from the victim's bed sheet where the crime occurred.  One female profile and one male profile were tested. The test positively excluded the York.  Hi alibi also placed him 12 miles away.  York was convicted with no other witnesses and no physical evidence and is expected to be released from prison soon.

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California Crime Lab Waited Two Years for DNA Testing

Posted: April 28, 2010 4:00 pm

Donzell Francis pleaded guilty yesterday to the 2007 murder charge.  He is already serving a 17-year sentence for another sexual assault.  Prosecutors filed special circumstances of murder during a sexual assault which makes Francis eligible for life in prison without parole or the death penalty if convicted.   They said he preyed on transgender prostitutes by picking them up and driving to remote areas and attacking them.

District Attorney Kamala Harris has never filed a death penalty case, saying she opposes capital punishment. Her office said it will await a committee review, typically conducted after the preliminary hearing, to decide whether to seek the death penalty against Francis.

The DNA examination division of the police department's crime lab is currently being reviewed by state investigators. Its drug investigation unit was shut down last month when a technician was alleged to be skimming cocaine and OxyContin that was retained as evidence.

Read the full story here.





Tags: California

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18 Years After Wrongful Conviction, New York Man is Exonerated

Posted: April 28, 2010 6:00 pm

Today’s announcement — Sterling’s innocence and Christie’s apparent admission to Viola Manville’s slaying — links two of the most high-profile suburban homicides in the region in the past 30 years. The murder of Manville, a sprightly woman known for her vigorous daily walks along the same path where she was slain, sent tremors through Hilton. Similarly, the 1994 abduction and murder of Kali Ann Poulton from her Pittsford townhouse complex shocked the community and triggered a nationwide search for the cherubic blond youngster.

But more than the connection between the killings, the exoneration of Sterling raises a question about the local criminal justice foundation: Namely, how could so many be so wrong for so long?

Sterling confessed in 1991 to Manville’s murder. That statement, partly videotaped, was compelling enough to sway investigators, prosecutors, a jury, and multiple local and appellate judges who for years believed in the propriety of Sterling’s conviction even when evidence arose that Christie may have been the real killer. But the videotaped portion of Sterling’s 1991 statement represents a fragment of his total interrogation, and his supporters have long maintained that Sterling, frazzled and worn down, began telling investigators what they wanted to hear.

Read the full article here.

False confessions, admissions or guilty pleas contributed to 25% wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence throughout the U.S. Researchers who study this phenomenon have determined that various reasons ranging from mental health issues to aggressive law enforcement tactics  can sometimes lead innocent people to confess to crimes they did not commit. In Sterling’s case, his supposed confession came after he worked a 36-hour trucking shift followed by 12 hours in police custody for interrogation that included hypnosis. He  was unable to tell police how many times the victim had been shot, and a he drew a map of the crime scene that was nowhere near where it actually happened.

Sterling said that a lot of writing and tenacity helped him through the past 18 years.  “Patience is a virtue,” he said, adding that he is angry about what happened, but it didn’t change who he is. After a barbeque lunch with his Innocence Project attorneys and supporters, Sterling’s plans for his first night of freedom are to enjoy the company of his friends.

Read the full press release about Sterling’s case here.

Learn about false confessions here.

Read how to prevent false confessions here.

Read more news coverage of today’s exoneration:

Associated Press 04/28/10

WCBS TV New York 04/28/10

News10NBC 04/28/10

13WHAMTV 04/28/10

Herald Sun 04/28/10



Tags: New York

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Citizens Rally to Remove Colorado Judges for Wrongful Conviction

Posted: May 4, 2010 3:45 am

This fall, residents will vote on whether the judges will keep their jobs. The process usually receives little attention, and voters rely on the recommendation of a commission that reviews judicial performance, according to the Coloradoan. On Monday night, a group of residents met to review the judicial retention process and strategize for taking action. 

At a meeting last month, the commission heard testimony about the judges largely from those in the judicial system who supported Blair and Gilmore.

Among those in attendance Monday were members of Masters' extended family, including his aunts Juanita Craft and Colleen Masters. Both said they are committed to the long-haul effort to get Blair and Gilmore off the bench.

"We want to keep reminding (people), and we're going to keep trying everything," Craft said. "Maybe at voting time, they'll realize that sometimes it takes the vote to get them out."

Read the full story here.

Learn about government misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct here.


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DNA Proves Ohio Man's Innocence 29 Years into a Life Sentence

Posted: May 5, 2010 7:05 pm

The state lab found semen on the victim's underwear and sent it to a Cincinnati lab for a powerful type of testing unavailable at the state lab. When the lab tested semen found on the victim’s underwear, two partial profiles males were detected; neither was consistent with Towler's DNA.

Additional testing was requested in November 2008.  It took 18 months for a lab in Texas to present the results which proved it was not Towler’s semen.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that according to the motion, if the DNA test results were available nearly 30 years ago, Towler never would have been found guilty of rape. 

"This is the greatest day of my life, and it's pure joy; I have no hate for anyone," said the 52-year-old Cleveland native in a phone interview yesterday. "I suppose hoping to see LeBron playin person is too much to ask, but at least I can watch the games from outside the barbed wire. I get to start a new life, and the Cavs are going to win the championship. It doesn't get much better than that."

"We believed in Ray's case from the beginning, and this is the latest reminder of how important DNA testing can be in the search for justice," said Mark Godsey, director of the [Ohio] Innocence Project who represented Towler. "He is innocent, and the prosecutors agree."

After painting thousands of pictures behind bars, Towler will continue pursuing art now that he has been released. 

Both of his parents passed away when he was in prison, but he told the Columbus Dispatch he planned to reunite with his sister and stepbrother later today.

"There are a lot of things I was missing, but I have to use my faith in God to stay positive for the future," Towler said. "I do wish my parents could have seen this day and see that I have been telling the truth for all these years."

Read the full story here

Visit the Ohio Innocence Project website.


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Friday Roundup: Judges and Lawmakers Weigh In

Posted: May 14, 2010 4:49 pm

A Michigan man who was wrongfully convicted of a 2005 murder might never have been convicted if the jury heard testimony on the inaccuracy of surveillance video from his case, according to the opinion of a U.S. District Judge.  In October 2007, Claude McCollum was released from prison and charges were dismissed.  A pending lawsuit includes claims of police and prosecutorial misconduct.  McCollum’s compensation lawsuit will be heard next month.

A Texas State Senator said this week that Texas Forensic Science Commission Chairman John Bradley is dragging his feet with the commission and that the perception is that the group is “not being open and transparent.”

An art exhibition in New York examining human memory and mistaken identity includes mug shots of several Innocence Project clients who served years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

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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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California Man Freed After 16 Years

Posted: May 17, 2010 2:57 pm

During its investigation of the case, the California Innocence Project uncovered evidence that Cole’s lawyers hadn’t provided adequate representation at trial and that prosecutors had withheld key evidence. Cole’s conviction was tossed last year, but he remained in prison until Saturday on an unrelated conviction.

"Just a little over 24 hours ago I was sitting in a cell, and now I'm here hugging my family," a jubilant Cole said Sunday night from his sister's home in Los Angeles. "The traffic and the phones — it's a completely different world here. In solitary, you're just looking at a wall."

Read the full story here.

The California Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network.



Tags: California

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Time Magazine: Death and Innocence

Posted: May 21, 2010 10:15 am

San Jacinto County district attorney Bill Burnett, a former probation officer whose lawyer describes him as "a very capable prosecutor but a simple guy in his philosophy of things," says that under Texas law, only the defendant himself can ask for a new DNA test. "Once the defendant has been executed, I can do nothing more in the case," he said in a deposition. He plans to destroy the hair as soon as he's legally permitted to, closing the book on the only death sentence his small county has ever handed down. Both sides expect a ruling soon.

Jones was convicted of murdering liquor-store owner Allen Hilzendager after driving to the store with paroled murderer Danny Dixon.  Either Jones or Dixon walked into Hilzendager’s store and shot him three times.  The gun belonged to a friend of Dixon’s, Timothy Mark Jordan, who said that Jones confessed to him.  A single hair discovered on the store counter was examined under a microscope—a technique that hasn’t changed much in over 100 years. The crime lab expert said the hair “matched” Jones – a scientifically impossible conclusion. 

The proposed mitochondrial DNA testing could identify the hair with far more accuracy than the previous microscope test, and Time reports that the test results could close the case:

Mitochondrial DNA is exclusionary evidence, which means that if the hair is tested and Jones is not excluded, then he was the shooter. The same goes for Dixon. But if they are both excluded, then the hair belonged to someone who wasn't involved in the crime at all. That wouldn't mean Jones didn't do it, but it would still be troubling to know that the only piece of physical evidence that sent a man to his death was actually completely unrelated to the crime.

Read the full article here.

See the timeline of events in Jones’ case here.

Read the Innocence Project’s press release on seeking DNA testing in Jones’ case.




Tags: Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Death Penalty, Claude Jones

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Improper Hair Analysis Results in Nearly 17 Years in Prison

Posted: May 28, 2010 11:46 am

The Innocence Project took Peterson’s case in 2005 and obtained STR and mitochondrial DNA testing on the pubic hairs. The results matched the victim and excluded Peterson as a possible contributor. Two different male profiles were also found: one from a consensual partner earlier in the night; the other from an unknown male—likely the murderer. More testing also revealed the same unknown male profile on semen found in the victim’s mouth, vagina and anus.

In light of this evidence, Peterson’s conviction was vacated in July 2005, and he was freed on bail a month later. However, despite the evidence pointing to Peterson’s innocence, prosecutors intended to retry him. It was not until four years ago this week that the prosecution decided to drop all charges after Elder recanted his testimony.

Peterson now lives in Pennsylvania and recently started his own lawn care business. Like all exonerees, he essentially had to start a new life when he was freed after so many years behind bars. Learn more about the Innocence Project’s post-exoneration work here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Marvin Mitchell, Massachusetts (Served 7 Years, Exonerated 5/23/97)

Orlando Boquete, Florida (Served: 12 Years, Exonerated: 5/23/06)

Thomas Webb, Oklahoma (Served 13 Years, Exonerated 5/24/96)

Willie Jackson, Louisiana (Served: 17 Years, Exonerated 5/26/06)

Dean Cage, Illinois (Served: 11.5 Years, Exonerated: 5/27/08)

Paul Kordonowy, Montana (Served: 13 Years, Exonerated: 5/27/03)



Tags: Larry Peterson

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A Single Misidentification Sends a Texas Man to Jail for 16 Years

Posted: June 3, 2010 1:37 pm

Faulty eyewitness identification is the single most common factor in wrongful convictions, playing a role in 75% of the 254 injustices overturned through DNA testing. For over a century, lawyers and scientists have recognized the inherent weakness in eyewitness identification, but still today people are convicted in American courtrooms based on a single identification – often made in a lineup procedure that suggests, intentionally or not, that the witness choose the suspect.

Moreover, the chances of misidentification increase when the attacker is a different race than the victim, since cross racial identifications are generally less accurate. Butler is African-American and the victim in the case was white. The effects of stress and trauma can also affect a witness’s perception of an event. Yet, these problems are far more difficult to explain to a jury than common variables affecting identifications, such as the time of day and the distance from which the witness saw the perpetrator. Unfortunately for Butler, it was a dangerous combination of these factors that nearly sent him to prison for the rest of his life.

Butler first sought DNA testing in 1987, but he was denied. Luckily for him, the denial meant that his first chance at DNA testing would be conducted at a lab in New York City that had begun using Y-STR testing, which isolates male DNA by testing the Y chromosome.  Had his initial request been granted, the results, using older methods, may have been inconclusive – and may have consumed the biological evidence available. Testing on the rape kit was finally performed in 1999 by Medical Examiner’s Office in New York. The results, which were reviewed and confirmed, excluded Butler as the source of semen in the kit.

With compelling evidence of his innocence in hand, prosecutors joined with Butler and his attorney in filing for clemency. He was released in January 2000, after serving over 16 years in prison, and officially pardoned 10 years ago this week.






Tags: A.B. Butler

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After 30 Years, Kentucky Man is Cleared

Posted: June 8, 2010 5:40 pm

VonAllmen was convicted of rape, sodomy and robbery nearly 30 years ago despite several alibis and the victim’s description of the attacker having blue eyes while VonAllmen are brown.  He was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The Kentucky Innocence Project’s DNA unit, working under the Bloodsworth Actual Innocence Grant Program (which authorizes $5 million per year for five years for post-conviction DNA testing) tested several hairs that were collected in 1981 following the rape.  Unfortunately, the test results came back inconclusive.  But during the  reinvestigation, the Kentucky Innocence Project developed new evidence supporting VonAllmen’s innocence claim and identified an alternative suspect who was charged with a similar crime in 1978, but died in died in 1983 while fleeing from police.

The Judge dismissed VanAllemn’s conviction stating the evidence suggests he did not commit the crimes. 
The prosecutor has until the end of the month to decide whether or not to prosecute VanAllmen again. 

Read more here.




Tags: Kentucky

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New York Man is Cleared as Prosecutor Faces Misconduct Allegations

Posted: June 10, 2010 5:12 pm

“It is indeed beyond disappointing, it is really sad that the district attorney’s office persists in standing firm and saying that it did nothing wrong here,” the judge said. She described the handling of the case by the district attorney’s office as “shameful.”

Read more about the case in today’s New York Times.

The cases of wrongful