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TN death row inmate demands release or a new trial

Posted: February 7, 2007

Lawyers for Paul Gregory House filed an appeal on Tuesday asking a federal judge to release him from his “illegal conviction and death sentence” unless the state grants a new trial within 90 days.

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that House, who is on Tennessee’s death row, could challenge his conviction because of new scientific evidence. House was convicted of rape and murder more than 20 years ago and has proclaimed his innocence from day one. Post-conviction DNA testing has shown that the jury heard false information about the forensic evidence collected and tested in the case.

Now, House’s case is back in the courtroom of the same federal judge who upheld his death sentence years ago.

"I’d like to think the judge would rule quickly," says Stephen Kissinger, the federal public defender representing House. "We are sitting around discussing whether this innocent person’s constitutional rights were violated while he is still sitting on death row."
But if the history of this convoluted case is any indication, a quick resolution is optimistic at best.
Read the full story. (Nashville Scene. 02/07/07)




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



Pennsylvania's innocence commission meets this month

Posted: March 1, 2007

One of six state commissions charged with reviewing criminal justice policy to prevent future wrongful convictions, the Pennsylvania Innocence Commission is scheduled to meet for the first time on March 26. An article today profiles Gary Asteak, a public defender who will be one of 30 commission members.

Although the first committee meeting is nearly a month away, Asteak, a public defender for 25 years until his retirement from that job a few years ago, has prepared an agenda. ''Of particular interest to me is the quality of indigent defense services,'' he said.

Most public defender offices, he said, have ''no uniform standards for services, no limit on the number of cases a public defender can have, and frequently no review of the quality of work the public defenders are doing. There's no special training.''

Asteak has three other areas of concern: Procedures used to identify suspects, including live or photo lineups; methods used to introduce confessions to a jury; and use of snitches.

Police, he said, should be monitored in how they prepare witnesses before using them to identify a suspect.

Read the full story. (The Morning Call - Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, 03/01/07, Payment required for full article)
Read more on Innocence Commissions.

Previous blog posts: Texas and New York are among the states considering innocence commissions. An editorial yesterday in San Antonio joined the called for a Texas commission. A New York Times editorial in January supported the commissions nationwide (subscription required).



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.



Debate continues over FBI policy forbidding taped interrogations

Posted: April 3, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: False Confessions



New Hampshire judge denies inmate DNA testing

Posted: July 31, 2007 6:05 pm

Robert Breest was convicted of a 1971 murder in New Hampshire and has always maintained his innocence. Three rounds of DNA testing have been conducted in Breest’s case, and all have been inconclusive. One test showed that Breest – and one in 10 white males – would match material under the victim’s fingernails.

Breest’s appeals for further DNA testing using newly developed technology have been denied since 2004. A recent ruling was the latest roadblock for Breest. A Merrimack County (NH) judge ruled that: "Mr. Breest's previous access to the evidence distinguishes his case from others by highlighting the due process he has received…"

The judge said that the jury in 1973 convicted Breest based on strong evidence – including fibers from the victim’s fur coat allegedly found in Breest’s car, jailhouse snitch testimony, and an eyewitness who said the perpetrator and Breest has the same “build.”

Read the full story here. (Concord Monitor, 07/31/07)

Breest still has hope for DNA testing, however, in federal court. The Innocence Project is consulting on federal appeals, along with attorney Ian Dumain (a former Innocence Project clinic student while at Cardozo School of Law) of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP. Earlier this year, a federal magistrate judge ruled that Breest should have access to DNA testing, and the state appealed the decision. A final ruling is pending.

Tags: Robert Breest



Reversal of misfortune

Posted: June 11, 2007 1:01 pm

Willie Jackson served 17 years in Louisiana prisons for a rape that his brother confessed to days after Willie’s arrest. That’s how long it took for Louisiana officials to consider the confession of Milton Jackson and to order DNA testing in Willie’s case to prove the identity of the perpetrator. In 2006, test results came back proving that Milton committed the rape. Willie was released from prison that year.

“My brother’s involvement in the situation...” Jackson said before falling silent, still struggling with the betrayal. “Milton sat back and kept quiet until the jury found me guilty. He came forward two days later and told the district attorney’s office that he was the guy, but they thought he was making it up and didn’t do nothin’ about it.”Read the full story here. (New Orleans City Business, 06/11/2007)
Read more about Willie Jackson's case in our Know the Cases section.

Tags: Louisiana, Willie Jackson



Federal jury awards compensation to wrongfully convicted man

Posted: May 1, 2007

Herman Atkins was convicted in 1988 of a southern California rape he didn’t commit. Yesterday, a federal jury ordered the Riverside County to pay him $2 million because a detective had falsified evidence that led to his conviction. Evidence presented at the civil trial showed that a statement allegedly made by a witness connecting Atkins to the area of the crime was fabricated.

"When I was in prison, one thing that motivated me was something my grandmother often said to me. She said, 'A lie will die, but the truth lives on.' Today, Detective Miller's lies were not only exposed but put to rest, and the truth lives on as my grandmother said," he said.

Atkins, now 41 and living in Fresno, said he hoped to start a graduate program in psychology or go to law school. He and his wife have started a small foundation to help others who have been exonerated adjust to life outside prison.

Read the full story. (Los Angeles Times, 5/1/07, Payment required for full article)

Atkins served over 11 years for the 1986 rape before DNA evidence led to his exoneration in 2000. Read more about his case here.

Tags: Exoneree Compensation, Government Misconduct



Connecticut legislature awards $5 million to exoneree

Posted: May 21, 2007

James Tillman served 18 years in Connecticut prisons before DNA testing proved his innocence. Last week, the state legislature approved a bill awarding him $5 million in compensation for the injustice he suffered. The bill now goes to Governor Jodi Rell, who has said she will sign it.

An editorial in today’s Hartford Courant calls on lawmakers to create a formula to compensate future exonerees in a similar way.

They should set a policy for fair compensation based on the Tillman precedent. His award was calculated roughly on what other states have done in similar situations. He was compensated for loss of liberty and enjoyment of life, loss of income, loss of future earnings because he will be starting from scratch, for physical and psychological injury and loss of familial relationships. In exchange, he agreed not to press claims against the state.

Let's put that formula in writing. There's only one James Calvin Tillman. But all who are wronged in this egregious manner deserve fair and equal treatment.

Read the full editorial. (Hartford Courant, 5/21/07)
And examined compensation policies nationwide on Friday.

Read more about Tillman’s case and about compensation policies nationwide.

Tags: Connecticut, James Tillman, Exoneree Compensation



NJ’s highest court tells judges to warn jurors about eyewitness error

Posted: May 22, 2007

Eyewitness misidentification was involved in 77 percent of wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence. Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that judges in the state must warn jurors that eyewitnesses may be wrong, no matter how confident they seem on the stand.

In a unanimous opinion, the state's high court said the "fallibility of eyewitness identifications" led them to revise the instructions judges read to jurors on how they should decide a suspect's guilt under the law.
"We believe that particular care need be taken in respect of this powerful evidence -- the eyewitness," Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote for the court. "Eyewitness identification testimony requires close scrutiny and should not be accepted uncritically."

Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 5/22/07)

The justices also found yesterday that cases involving cross-ethnic, yet same-race, identifications did not require a special cross-racial identification jury charge. Read more about this on the Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog.

Tags: New Jersey, Eyewitness Identification



Exoneree Doug Warney calls for end to New York death penalty

Posted: May 29, 2007

Doug Warney, who was exonerated in 2006 after serving nine years for a murder he didn’t commit, published a column in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle last week calling for state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty for good.

In early 1996, I became the first person charged capitally under New York's new death penalty statute. The district attorney at the time said I was a monster who deserved to die. Fortunately, the grand jury indicted me only for second-degree murder. Otherwise, I could have easily received the death penalty. I was sentenced to only 25 years to life for a murder I had nothing to do with. In some ways, I was lucky.

Read the full column here. (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, 05/22/07)
Read more about Warney’s case.

Tags: Douglas Warney, Eyewitness Identification, Evidence Preservation, False Confessions



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



Study: Juries often get it wrong

Posted: June 20, 2007 3:24 pm

A new Northwestern University study shows that juries in criminal cases are reaching incorrect verdicts. The study, which looked at 271 cases in four areas of Illinois, found that as many as one in eight juries is making the wrong decision – by convicting an innocent person or acquitting a guilty one.

In each case, while the jury deliberated, the judge filled out a questionnaire detailing what his or her verdict would have been had it been a bench trial. The verdicts only matched in 77 percent of cases. The study assumed that judges are at least as likely as a jury to make a correct verdict, leading to the conclusion that juries are only correct 87 percent of the time or less.

The study was conducted by Bruce Spencer, a Northwestern statistics professor, and will be published in the July issue of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. Spencer said in a statement that it would take a much larger study to truly predict the accuracy of jury verdicts nationwide in all cases.

Read the full report here.

Tags: Illinois



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



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



Massachusetts crime lab crisis is echoed across the U.S.

Posted: July 18, 2007 1:17 pm

A report released this week said Massachusetts has one of the worst crime lab crises in the country, with evidence in more than 16,000 cases remaining untested and lab scandals leading to resignations and firings in recent months. But the state is not alone in facing major hurdles in forensic testing — backlogs and misconduct nationwide have slowed criminal justice investigations and contributed to wrongful convictions.

The Massachusetts report points to untested evidence in cases as far back as the 1980s, in which the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes may have expired. Officials vowed that change was on the way, as analysts will focus first on evidence in unsolved cases and money will potentially be budgeted to outsource some testing.

A Boston Herald editorial yesterday calls the lab situation “an absolute travesty.”

The report skewers the lab’s handling of this potentially damning (or exculpatory) material. And while the state plans to process the evidence in cases that might still be prosecuted, you can’t unwind the clock. Expiring statutes of limitations mean justice, in many cases, will never be served.

Read the full editorial here. (Boston Herald, 7/17/07)
More coverage in Massachusetts:

State officials will review old crimes (Boston Globe, 7/17/07)

Lab backlogs and misconduct continue to plague dozens of states:

Reports this week detailed cases in Maryland and Florida in which crucial evidence in rape trials has gone missing. When labs are overworked and underfunded, human error such as the inadvertent destruction of evidence can become more prevalent.

A Washington Post article on Sunday considered how the popularity of shows like "CSI" have led to increased jury demands for scientific evidence and may have contributed to lab backlogs nationwide.

Lab backlogs in Alabama have impeded justice in cases at trial and officials say they are making a “concerted effort” to remedy the problems.

Labs in Tennessee, Kentucky, Arizona and Wisconsin are all backlogged, according to recent news reports.

Tags: Alabama, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Wisconsin



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



Denver DA reexamines 1987 murder; lawmaker calls for better evidence preservation

Posted: July 20, 2007 1:54 pm

Timothy Masters was convicted in 1999 for the murder of a 37-year-old woman in Fort Collins, Colorado, 12 years earlier. Masters, who was 15 at the time of the murder, became a suspect because he lived near the field where the victim’s body was found. He was not arrested, however, until an analysis of his teenage artwork was examined in 1998 and a psychologist connected the artwork to alleged violent tendencies. Masters was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life. But before the conviction of Masters, investigators had uncovered a possible alternate suspect. Evidence collected from the home of this suspect had been burned by police shortly after the suspect committed suicide. The evidence destruction had been ordered by the detective who had investigated Masters for 12 years.

The Denver Post published an article on Sunday about the Masters case, and the Adams County District Attorney’s Office said Tuesday it would investigate possible DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. While evidence from the alternate suspect’s house was burned, evidence from the 1987 scene has been retained. Read more.

Also this week, a Colorado state representative called for the creation of statewide standards requiring police departments to preserve evidence. Cheri Jahn said that in the light of the Masters investigation, it was clear that inconsistent police practices can lead to "inconsistent justice."

Jahn said she will introduce legislation in January and call for a series of hearings to investigate the depth of the problem.

"The guidelines for keeping evidence are carved in candle- wax," Jahn said in a news release. "They can be molded to fit anyone's agenda or ambition."

Read the full story here. (Denver Post, 07/18/07)
Read more about evidence preservation here.

Tags: Colorado



Will Alabama execute Darrell Grayson without a DNA test?

Posted: July 26, 2007 11:26 am

Activists rallied yesterday on the steps of the Alabama capitol building in Montgomery in support of DNA testing for death row inmate Darrell Grayson, who is scheduled to be executed today. Several organizations, including the Innocence Project, have called for Gov. Bob Riley to delay the execution until authorities are able to conduct DNA testing that could prove Grayson’s innocence or guilt. A statement from the governor’s office said he would make a decision today "before the execution is carried out."

Esther Brown, executive director of Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty, said Grayson, who is black, was pressured into a confession by white police officers, tried by a court that provided only $500 to be spent on his defense, and convicted by an all-white jury.
"What he got was Alabama justice," Brown said, standing just below the spot on the Capitol steps where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederacy in 1861.

Read the full story here. (Birmingham News, 07/26/2007)

Tags: Alabama, Death Penalty, Darrell Grayson



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)



Update: Dallas DA investigates Chabot case

Posted: August 2, 2007 10:49 am

After Monday’s arrest of an alternate suspect in the murder for which Clay Chabot has already served 21 years in Texas prison, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins said his office is considering how to proceed with the case. Thirteen people have been exonerated by DNA testing in Dallas County alone, and Watkins recently created a new Conviction Integrity Unit to examine cases like Chabot's.

"We want to make sure we've got the right characters in jail," Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said Wednesday. "This is not to say Mr. Chabot did not participate in this crime."

But the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that seeks to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA evidence, says Mr. Chabot is innocent and was convicted based on lies that Mr. Pabst told a jury.

"The entire case the jury heard 21 years ago rested on Gerald Pabst's story," said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, which is representing Mr. Chabot. "Clay has always maintained he had nothing to do with the crime."

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 08/02/07)
Watch video coverage of the case. (WFAA, 08/01/07)

Tags: Clay Chabot



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



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



Innocence Network calls on FBI to investigate agent

Posted: September 5, 2007 1:08 pm

In April, a federal jury found that former sheriff's deputy Danny Miller fabricated evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of Innocence Project client Herman Atkins. Miller now works for the FBI, and  the Innocence Network yesterday called for him to be suspended and investigated. Atkins served 11 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA testing, and he was awarded $2 million in a federal civil suit in April.

This is the first time that the Innocence Network, a consortium of 31 innocence organizations around the country, has asked that a law enforcement officer be suspended or investigated. The letter was signed by Kathleen Ridolfi, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School.

Ridolfi's letter to the Justice Department said that "in light of these extraordinary developments," the Innocence Network was asking that Miller be the subject of a formal investigation, "which could result in the termination of his employment with the Bureau. Indeed, given the security and sensitivity of Miller's assignment, we urge you to consider suspending him pending the outcome of the investigation."

"We are confident that the FBI and the Department of Justice will conclude . . . that it is inconceivable that our nation's homeland security will rely on the intelligence analysis of a man found in a court of law to be a liar and an evidence fabricator," Ridolfi added.
Read the full news story. (Los Angeles Times, 09/05/07)
Read more about the Innocence Network and Herman Atkins’s case.

Watch a video of Atkins telling the story of his wrongful conviction

Tags: Herman Atkins, Government Misconduct



Northwestern Blog: Police should open closed cases when new arrests are made

Posted: September 10, 2007 2:24 pm

Claude McCollum is serving life in a Michigan prison for a 2005 murder he has always said he didn’t commit. McCollum may have a chance to prove his innocence in the months ahead, however, as another man, named Matthew Macon, was arrested in late August in connection with five other murders, which resemble the murder for which McCollum is serving time. In McCollum’s case, he was convicted despite evidence that biological material at the crime scene matched an unknown male and did not match McCollum. He was convicted partly based on admissions he made to police, involving how he could have committed the crime while sleepwalking. His relatives, and relatives of the victim, called this week for police in Lansing, Michigan, to reopen his case.

Lee Kronenberg, who was married to Carolyn Kronenberg (the victim in the murder for which McCollum was convicted), said … he wants to make sure the right person is held responsible for the killing, but until new information is brought to light, he supports the jury's decision.

"In the interest of justice, more information should be sought from Mr. Macon," he said. "The jury found (McCollum) guilty and I support the jury's decision. But I want justice."

Read the full story here. (Detroit Free Press, 09/04/07)
Steven Drizin, the Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, writes today on his blog that McCollum’s case has the hallmarks of a wrongful conviction. He goes on to say that police should reopen some closed conviction cases when they have evidence in a string of crimes, such as serial murders. A number of DNA exonerations – including those of Jerry Frank Townsend and David Vasquez – have come after police arrested serial killers.

Read Drizin's full post.

Tags: Jerry Frank Townsend, David Vasquez



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



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.



Connecticut exoneree addresses Yale students

Posted: October 10, 2007 12:42 pm

James Tillman, who was exonerated by DNA testing in 2006 after serving nearly 17 years in Connecticut prison for a rape he didn’t commit, spoke at a Yale Law School panel discussion yesterday about his wrongful conviction and his life after exoneration.

From the very beginning of the trial, Tillman said he sensed the jury’s bias against him, accepting his accuser’s eyewitness testimony as fact. He said the jury included no blacks and did not represent a cross-section of society. When he later appealed his conviction on those grounds, he was denied.

Despite the unfairness of his trial, Tillman said he remained committed to establishing his innocence, ignoring recommendations for a plea bargain that would allow him to serve only five years.

“I could not see myself with a charge on me like that [for] something I didn’t do,” Tillman said.

Read the full story here. (Yale Daily News, 10/10/07)
Read more about James Tillman’s case here.

Tags: James Tillman



Six years of freedom for Ohio man

Posted: October 15, 2007 10:40 am

Anthony Michael Green celebrates the sixth anniversary of his exoneration this Thursday. He was released from prison on October 18, 2001, having spent 13 years behind bars for a rape and robbery he did not commit.

Green’s wrongful conviction was based partly on false testimony from a Cleveland Police Department Forensic Lab expert. At Green’s trial, the expert testified that serological testing performed on a washcloth left at the scene proved that Green could have been the attacker. Further, the expert told the jury that only 16 percent of men could have left this stain. Because the victim and Green had the same blood type, this statistic was false.

In 2001, DNA testing conducted upon the request of the Innocence Project proved Green’s innocence beyond a doubt. Forensic science misconduct is one of the major causes of wrongful convictions.

Read more about Green’s case.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Friday: James Ochoa, California (Served 10 months, Exonerated 10/19/2006)

Tags: Anthony Michael Green, James Ochoa



Connecticut exoneree tells students his story

Posted: October 31, 2007 6:10 pm

James Tillman told a packed auditorium at Qunnipiac University last week that he just wanted to clear his name before he died.

“I just always wanted to say I’m not a rapist,” Tillman told the audience, as he recounted his wrongful rape conviction and his 16 years in Connecticut prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2006.

The jury, according to Tillman, was made up of upper middle class whites. Besides his mother, he said, he was the only African American in the court room."There were no blacks in my jury," Tillman said. "I felt that I should've had a cross section, but it didn't happen."

Read the full story here. (Quinnipiac Chronicle, 10/31/07)
Read more about James Tillman’s case here.


Tags: James Tillman



David Gray celebrates nine years of freedom

Posted: November 5, 2007 2:35 pm

Nine years ago tomorrow, on Nov. 6, 1998, David Gray walked out of an Illinois prison after serving 20 years for a crime he did not commit. He was wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to 60 years behind bars. He fought to clear his name for 20 years before he attained the testing to prove his innocence. In 1998, DNA testing on a quilt from the scene of the rape proved that Gray could not have committed the crime. His conviction was overturned one year later, making his exoneration official.

The first trial against Gray, which centered on the victim’s misidentification of him as her attacker, ended in a hung jury. At a second trial, however, the prosecution’s case was supplemented with testimony from a jailhouse snitch who claimed that Gray had confessed to him. Snitch testimony and eyewitness misidentification are two of the major causes of wrongful conviction. Learn more about these and other causes of wrongful conviction here.

Read more about David Gray's case here.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Wednesday: Bernard Webster, Maryland (Served 20 years, Exonerated 11/7/2002)

Tags: David A. Gray, Bernard Webster



Column: NJ Exoneree has a right to oppose death penalty

Posted: November 19, 2007 6:25 pm

Byron Halsey was exonerated earlier this year after spending 19 years in New Jersey prison for two brutal child murders he didn’t commit. The DNA testing that freed Halsey also pointed the guilt of another man, Clifton Hall, who is already imprisoned for a sexual assault in New Jersey. Hall was charged today with the murders.

And Halsey recently said in an interview that he supports the pending measure in New Jersey that would repeal the state’s death penalty.

"I could have been killed, and I was innocent," he said...

"They said I was a monster, everybody wanted to stone me," he says. And when, in an obvious jury compromise, he was spared death, people in the courtroom booed.

"They wanted me dead."

Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 11/19/07)
Read more about Halsey’s case.

Tags: Byron Halsey, Death Penalty



Editorial calls for new trial in conviction based on unreliable science

Posted: November 21, 2007 3:02 pm

Lee Wayne Hunt was convicted two decades ago in North Carolina of a murder he says he didn’t commit. The lone piece of physical evidence tying Hunt to the crime scene was the testimony of an FBI expert who said bullets in Hunt’s possession matched the bullets used to shoot the victims. Media reports this week revealed that the FBI has been providing unreliable bullet lead testimony for 40 years, and the FBI itself has said the testimony was false and misleading. The Innocence Network has helped create a new task force to assist and monitor the review of more than 2,500 cases in which faulty forensic played a part.

Editorials and blog posts have appeared around the country and the web this week, urging the FBI to act quickly to ensure that wrongful convictions caused by this unreliable science are overturned. An editorial in today’s Raleigh-Durham News & Obersver calls for a new trial for Lee Wayne Hunt.

America's tradition of justice requires not only a showing of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, but arriving at that determination through a fair process. In that light, Hunt deserves a hearing before a jury that can hear Hughes' relevant testimony but that cannot be swayed by the FBI's flawed, prejudicial bullet analysis.

Read the full editorial here. (News & Obersver, 11/21/07)
More editorials and and blogs:

Tacoma, Washington, News Tribune: FBI clammed up on bullet evidence (11/21/07)

Wichita, Kansas: Bullet evidence was full of holes (11/19/07)

Dozens of blogs around the country commented on this story this week. Read them here.

Read previous Innocence Blog posts for more



Buffalo woman seeks a new trial on DNA evidence

Posted: November 23, 2007 7:00 am

A New York judge will decide next week whether a Buffalo woman deserves a new trial in the 1993 murder of her 13-year-old daughter. Lynn DeJac has been in prison for 14 years for a murder she says she didn’t commit, and new DNA tests have revealed that skin cells on her daughter’s body and bloodat the crime scene match the profile of DeJac’s boyfriend at the time. DeJac’s attorneys argued in court on Tuesday that she would not have been convicted if the jury in her first trial had heard about the DNA evidence. Detectives have said the timeline of the crime points to DeJac’s innocence.

Read the full story here. (New York Newsday, 11/20/07)

A column in Wednesday’s Buffalo News says DNA tests in DeJac’s case should guarantee a retrial, and that Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark “refuses to acknowledge the obvious.”

Read the full column here. (Buffalo News, 11/21/07)

Last week, Buffalo Police Department detectives on the city’s Cold Case Squad told reporters that they believe DeJac was innocent and deserved a new trial.

“In our opinion, after investigating this case and looking at all the available evidence, Lynn DeJac could not have killed her daughter,” Detective Dennis Delano said.

“Any person on the street could read the facts available to us and tell that Lynn DeJac could not possibly have killed her daughter,” Delano added. “In my mind, she’s 100 percent innocent.”

Read the full story here. (Buffalo News, 11/17/07)
Delano and other Cold Case Squad detectives were involved in solving the city’s notorious “Bike Path Rapist” case earlier this year. During their investigation of those crimes, DNA tests proved that Anthony Capozzi had been in prison for two 1986 rapes he didn’t commit. Capozzi was exonerated and released in April.



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



Buffalo woman released after DNA tests implicate another suspect

Posted: November 28, 2007 1:32 pm

Lynn DeJac was released from custody in Buffalo, New York, today after serving 13 years in prison for the murder of her 13-year-old daughter, a crime she has always maintained she did not commit. She was released today after a judge granted her a new trial because DNA evidence has created the reasonable probability that a jury a would acquit her.  The Innocence Project has assisted DeJac’s attorneys on the case, providing expertise about DNA testing and innocence claims.

DeJac told police at the time of the murder that she believed her then-boyfriend had committed the crime. The new DNA evidence from the victim’s bedroom matches the boyfriend.

"This court must conclude that if the newly discovered forensic evidence was available at the time of trial, there exists a reasonable probability that the verdict in the defendant's trial would have been more favorable to the defendant," the judge's decision stated.

Read the full story here. (Buffalo News, 11/28/07)
Update: DeJac free after judge tosses out conviction (Associated Press, 11/28/07)



Judge says Tennessee must either give Paul House a new trial or free him

Posted: December 20, 2007 6:15 pm

A federal judge today gave the state of Tennessee 180 days to either grant death row inmate Paul House a new trial or to free him. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the jury in House’s case may have acquitted him if it had access to new DNA evidence that suggests his innocence.

"Based upon the record as a whole, and in light of the Supreme Court's ruling, this court (concludes) that (House) is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on several of his claims," U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. wrote in an opinion released today. "(He) is entitled to a new trial on all the evidence."

Read the full story here. (Associated Press, 12/20/07)
Download the Innocence Network Amicus brief in House’s Supreme Court case.

Tags: Tennessee



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



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



New trial overruled in "Norfolk Four" case

Posted: January 11, 2008 5:35 pm

Four men who say they were wrongfully convicted of a 1997 Virginia murder were dealt a setback today when the Virginia Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling granting one of the men, Derek Tice, a new trial. Tice, 37, had argued that he was wrongfully convicted based on a false confession that never should have been presented to the jury. Tice and three other men, Danial Williams, Joseph Dick and Eric Wilson (collectively know as the “Norfolk Four”) were convicted of the murder that another man, Omar Ballard, has admitted he committed alone. DNA evidence has since shown that Ballard is telling the truth, but Tice, Williams and Dick remain behind bars, serving life sentences.

Today’s state Supreme Court decision overrules a Norfolk judge’s ruling that Tice deserved a new trial because his confession should have been suppressed. At a news conference scheduled for this afternoon in Richmond, Virginia, four former Virginia attorneys general are expected to announce their support for the claims raised by the “Norfolk Four” defendants. The four men also have clemency petitions pending before Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. In 2006, 11 jurors from Tice’s trial signed letters stating they now believe he is innocent.

Read the full story here. (Washington Post, 01/11/08)

Read more about the case, and about how false confessions can lead to wrongful convictions

Tags: Norfolk Four



Dispatch from Louisiana: As an innocent man is freed, why can't others get a test?

Posted: January 14, 2008 2:24 pm

By Vanessa Potkin, Innocence Project Staff Attorney

(Sabine Parish, Louisiana) — This morning I sat with Rickey Johnson as a Louisiana judge ended the 26-year nightmare that has been Rickey’s adult life. He was 26 years old when he was arrested for a rape he didn’t commit. Today, he is 52.

The victim identified Rickey in a terribly misleading photo lineup – the photo of Rickey was eight years old and there were only two other pictures to choose from. Several months later, a jury convicted him of the crime and sentenced him to life in prison. He spent the next 9,136 days at Louisiana’s massive state prison at Angola.

Rickey was engulfed by family as he walked into the free world this morning– several of his relatives had come to welcome him home, and others will be reunited with him in the next few days. Watching Rickey taste freedom for the first time in more than a quarter of a century is mind-boggling. The joy was palpable, but it was impossible to comprehend that he spent nearly his entire adult life at Angola for a crime he didn’t commit.

And while this is Rickey’s day to celebrate, my mind turned to two other Innocence Project clients who will go to sleep again tonight at Angola. Archie Williams has been fighting for 13 years to simply have DNA evidence tested in his case. The tests can prove his guilt or innocence beyond any doubt, but East Baton Rouge District Attorney Doug Moreau has fought Archie’s appeal at every turn. The same is true for Kenneth Reed, convicted in East Baton Rouge and unable – so far – to have DNA testing conducted in his case.

Tomorrow Rickey will join other Louisiana exonerees and relatives of Archie Williams in calling for statewide access to DNA testing when it can prove innocence. An innocent man’s quarter-century behind bars will be in vain if we are not able to learn from his nightmare and correct the problems in our criminal justice system that convict the innocent and keep them behind bars without fair, fast appeals. It’s only right that Rickey’s case should lead to testing for Archie Williams, Kenneth Reed and others seeking to prove the truth.

Read today’s Innocence Project press release on Rickey Johnson’s exoneration.

Tags: Rickey Johnson, Dispatches



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.



Dallas editorial: There's no excuse for blocking an innocence commission

Posted: February 28, 2008 4:14 pm

An editorial in yesterday’s Dallas Morning News references this article on Chris Ochoa’s wrongful conviction and calls for Texas legislators prioritize the creation of an innocence commission that would review failures of the state’s criminal justice system and recommend remedies.

DNA is only recovered and useful as evidence in a fraction of cases. Pliable, confused suspects still can be plucked off the streets and pressured by authorities. Not all police use the latest investigation techniques in such areas as suspect lineups.

It's outrageous that Texas House members have blocked legislation that would form a commission to analyze such shameful wrongful convictions and recommend improvements, even state standards.
The jury system has no equal in the search for justice and truth. But there's no excuse for not trying to make it better yet.

Read the full editorial here. (Dallas Morning News, 02/27/08)

And blogs across the country have been discussing Ochoa’s case this week as well. Both Grits for Breakfast and Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer referred to Ochoa’s case as an example of how the death penalty can be used to extract false confessions from innocent defendants.

Read more about Ochoa’s case here

Tags: Christopher Ochoa, Death Penalty



Delays continue in Tennessee death row case

Posted: March 4, 2008 11:05 am

It has been nearly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tennessee death row inmate Paul House deserved a new hearing in federal court for the 1984 murder he has always maintained he didn’t commit. A federal judge ruled in December that the state had 180 days to grant him a new trial or release him. Nothing has happened yet. A column in Sunday’s Tennessean calls for authorities to stop delaying a retrial:

State attorneys keep promising they're going to go back to trial. So why haven't they? Probably because they're afraid they'll lose. Much of their evidence has evaporated, witnesses' memories fade, and House's medical condition (though not relevant to the crime) would be obvious to a jury. Instead of retrying the case, the state appears to be using every possible tactic to delay. In hopes that House dies in prison?

The state needs to either try him immediately or let him go. Wasting time and breath on the absurd argument that House is a flight risk is an insult to the intelligence of the judge.

This evidence seems irrefutable: The only real risk House poses is to a few legal egos.

Read the full column here. (The Tennessean, 03/02/08)
Read more about the House case – and download briefs filed by the Innocence Project and other organizations in his support.

Tags: Tennessee, Death Penalty, Paul House



How much is Steven Hayne using state labs for his botched autopsies?

Posted: March 5, 2008 1:46 pm

The Innocence Project today sent formal requests to nearly two dozen Mississippi officials, requesting documents that will show how much Medical Examiner Steven Hayne has been using state labs for autopsies that are clearly erroneous.

Hayne’s forensic misconduct has come to light in recent weeks, following court hearings last month where two Innocence Project clients – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks – were cleared after serving 15 years for murders they didn’t commit. Hayne’s faulty work contributed to both men’s convictions.

Read today’s Innocence Project press release on the new developments, and download the full content of the letter.

Learn more about the cases of Brewer and Brooks here.

Also today, a column in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal calls on Mississippi officials to reform forensic and legal practices to ensure that the innocent aren’t convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.

Aside from ending the personal injustices endured by Arthur Johnson, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, The Innocence Project is also showing the state how it can do better.

For instance, the Legislature could add Mississippi to the 42 states that already provide post-conviction DNA testing where there's a claim of innocence.

Mississippi could modernize the Crime Lab, which is seeking a total of $9 million this year out of the state's nearly $6 billion general fund budget.

Mississippi could hire a medical examiner, who would be the first since the last one left in 1995.

Mississippi could expedite post-conviction hearings when new or additional evidence tends to show a jury has been misled, even if the evidence against a person was offered in good faith.

Read the full column here. (Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, 03/05/08)
Read Radley Balko’s post on the Reason Magazine blog about today’s Innocence Project document requests.


Tags: Mississippi, Kennedy Brewer



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



Cross-racial identification and jury instruction

Posted: May 20, 2008 1:30 pm

In 66 of the 216 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, cross-racial eyewitness identification was used as evidence to convict an innocent defendant. Cross-racial identification is when the witness and the defendant being identified are of different racial backgrounds. Three decades of social science research has shown that cross-racial bias exists in identification. As Zeke Edwards (a Mayer Brown Eyewitness Identification Fellow at the Innocence Project) noted in a blog post last week, the American Bar Association falls short in the language they recommend judges read to juries in cases involving cross-racial identification.

First, the initial language is conditional. “You ‘may’ consider, if you think it is appropriate …,” instead of you “should” consider.

Second, there is no mention of the numerous scientific studies that have shown, empirically, that cross-racial bias exists. In cases where experts have not testified at trial on the subject (i.e., most cases), jurors are left ignorant of the copious social science research on the topic. Instead of stating that “scientific studies have shown,” the court cites the amorphous “ordinary human experience.”
Edwards goes on to cite a better jury instruction, which he encourages lawyers to propose in cross-racial identification cases.

Read his full post here. (Eyewitness Identification Reform Blog, 05/16/08)

Tags: Eyewitness Identification



Dallas editorial: lessons of Michael Blair case

Posted: May 27, 2008 3:15 pm

Fourteen years ago, a Texas jury sent Michael Blair to death row for a child murder he always said he didn’t commit. On Friday, a judge recommended tossing his conviction due to mounting evidence of his innocence. Innocence Project attorneys are working on Blair’s legal team, and you can read Co-Director Barry Scheck’s take on the case here.

A Dallas Morning News editorial on Sunday said these developments should “chill the blood of anyone who cares about justice and public safety” because they cast a shadow of doubt on the state’s criminal justice system.

It would offend the memory of (the victim’s) life if opponents of the death penalty – this newspaper included – used this opportunity to gloat about the faults of the justice system and potential for fatal error. After all, supporters of capital punishment will say that the system worked, that the appeals process succeeded in exposing the truth. They must concede, however, that in the absence of new forensic technology, the appeals would likely have accomplished nothing.

Read the full story here. (Dallas Morning News, 05/25/08)
Less than a year after Blair was sentenced to death, then-Governor George W. Bush signed “Ashley’s Laws,” named after the victim in this case, expanding punishment and registration for sex offenders. Read more here.



"The eye of the beholder"

Posted: June 3, 2008 3:55 pm

Wisconsin Innocence Project Director Keith Findley recently asked a group of lawyers what they remembered as the most famous quote from “Star Trek.” Many were shocked to learn that “Beam me up, Scotty,” actually was never uttered on the show. Findley used the example to illustrate a central cause of misidentification – the human memory is flawed, and the brain fills in gaps based on outside information and experience.

Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, Findley said, but reforms implemented in Wisconsin and other states are preventing injustice by reducing the number of misidentifications.

The people making these misidentifications are not ill-motived; “These are not people who are liars, who are intentionally committing perjury; they are people who honestly believe in their eyewitness identifications, and they’re just flat wrong about them,” Findley said.

Psychologists have been studying human memory for more than 100 years, but it seems the criminal justice system is only now starting to pay closer attention to their findings, said Findley.

Read the full article here. (Wisconsin Law Journal, 06/02/08)
Learn about eyewitness identification reforms in Wisconsin and other states here.



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.



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



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



Another false confession revealed

Posted: July 1, 2008 3:48 pm

Robert Gonzales, 22, spent more than two years in a New Mexico jail awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing led authorities to the actual perpetrator of the crime. Gonzales, who has a history of mental illness, allegedly confessed to his involvement in the rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 2005, and a grand jury decided that the confession was enough evidence to hold him for trial. But new DNA testing indicates that Israel Diaz, in custody for another crime, actually committed this murder and rape. Gonzales’ attorney, Jeff Buckels, said he confessed because he wanted to please the officers interrogating him.

"For Robert, it basically was a matter of finding out 'What is it that these police officers want me to say,?'" said Buckels. " When he found out, he said it."

Read the full story here. (KOAT Albuquerque, 06/27/08)
Read more on this case on the Center on Wrongful Convictions’ blog.

False confessions or admissions have played a part in more than 25 percent of the 218 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing to date, and have been involved in a countless number of cases like Gonzales’, in which a defendant is arrested based on a confession or admission, then released when other evidence reveals the truth.

The Innocence Project recommends electronic recording of police interrogations to prevent false confessions. Read more on this critical reform here.

Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions



A false confession in Missouri?

Posted: July 21, 2008 12:25 am

A leading false confession expert testified Friday at a Missouri hearing that Chuck Erickson may have made false statements to police implicating his classmate Ryan Ferguson in a murder he didn’t commit.

Richard Leo, a professor at the University of San Francisco, said improper interrogation tactics used by Columbia, Missouri, police officers in their interview with Erickson could have led him to give a false admission and to implicate his innocent classmate, Ferguson. They interrogated him after he had read a newspaper article about the crime and allegedly had a dream about possibly killing the victim.

“The goal of the police should be to get the truth, not to get a confession,” Leo said. “It has the hallmarks of a persuaded false confession.”

Ferguson was convicted by a jury in 2005 of committing the 2001 murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Erickson testified against Ferguson and pled guilty to murder. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Watch a videotape of Erickson’s interrogation on YouTube.

Read more about this case in the Columbia Missourian

Learn more about this case on CBS News’ ’48 Hours’ website

Buy Richard Leo’s new book “Police Interrogation and American Justice” on
. (A portion of proceeds will benefit the Innocence Project if you use this link)

Tags: False Confessions, False Confessions



Hearing tomorrow in NJ: Darrell Edwards should get a new trial

Posted: July 28, 2008 1:51 pm

After two mistrials and a third trial that ended with a hung jury, Darrell Edwards was convicted of a 1995 Newark murder in his fourth trial. The main evidence against him was eyewitness testimony. The prosecution argued that Edwards shot the victim in a sandwich shop and then fled down the street, tossing a hooded sweatshirt and gun.

New DNA testing has revealed a mixture of male profiles on the sweatshirt and gun, none of which match Edwards. And an eyewitness who testified at trial that she identified him from 271 feet away (at night) without wearing her glasses now says she was “just guessing.” There is significant evidence that the crime was actually part of a Newark-Atlanta drug-trafficking ring (completely unrelated to Edwards) but police ignored evidence that could have led to the real perpetrator years ago. Innocence Project attorneys will argue at a hearing tomorrow afternoon in Newark, New Jersey, that the new evidence is more than enough to overturn Edwards’ conviction and grant him a new trial.

"The person who committed this crime left their DNA on the sweatshirt and the DNA does not belong to Darrell Edwards," (Innocence Project Staff Attorney Vanessa) Potkin said. "From our perspective, the new DNA test results are powerful evidence showing what Darrell Edwards has been saying for nearly 13 years, that he is not responsible for this crime."

Read the full story here. (Newark Star-Ledger, 07/27/08)
At tomorrow’s hearing, the Innocence Project will also present new scientific findings on the unreliability of eyewitness identifications from long distances, showing that a person can not identify anyone’s face from 271 feet – even if the witness has perfect eyesight and they are identifying an acquaintance.

A video on WABC News Friday explored the new discoveries on identification research, and features an interview with Edwards from New Jersey State Prison. “I believe that my day is coming,” Edwards says. Watch the full video here.

Get details on attending the hearing here.



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



The role of race in misidentification

Posted: August 11, 2008 4:02 pm

Social science research has shown that eyewitness misidentifications are more likely to happen when the perpetrator and witness are of different racial backgrounds. And statistics on the 218 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing to date support the evidence. More than one-third of these wrongful convictions were caused by a cross-racial identification.

Jennifer Thompson-Cannino (above) knows first-hand how a misidentification can happen. When an African-American attacker broke into her home and raped her in 1984, she made a conscious effort to note the perpetrator’s features so she could identify him later. Thompson-Cannino, who is white, helped police draw up a composite sketch, and then she viewed photographs and identified Ronald Cotton as the rapist. She told the jury she was certain, and Cotton was sentenced to life. But she was wrong.

DNA testing exonerated Cotton after he had served more than a decade in prison. Eyewitness misidentification played a role in more than three-quarters of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, and Thompson-Cannino and Cotton now travel the country telling audiences how it can happen. And she has written a book with Cotton, scheduled for release early next year, about wrongful convictions and their unusual partnership to address the causes of this injustice and reforms to prevent it from happening again.

Read an Associated Press Sunday feature story on cross-racial identifications here.

Read more about Thompson-Cannino and Cotton here

Tags: Ronald Cotton, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



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.



The case for recording interrogations

Posted: August 27, 2008 2:25 pm

In a forthcoming article in the California Law Review entitled “Mourning Miranda,” professor Charles D. Weisselberg argues that the safeguards guaranteed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision (which requires law enforcement officers to read a suspect his or her rights before detaining them) have become ineffective and even detrimental to the criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers, Weisselberg writes, have learned how to skirt Miranda and interrogate a suspect without a lawyer present.

Blogger Grits for Breakfast wrote yesterday about Weisselberg’s findings, saying that recording interrogations would be a step toward more just police procedures. About 25% of the 220 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing involved a false confession or admission, and very few of these were recorded.

From the Tuscaloosa news (via Grits):
The F.B.I., in documents defending its policy [not to require taped interrogations], argued that taping was not always possible, particularly when agents were on the road, and that it was not always appropriate. Psychological tricks like misleading or lying to a suspect in questioning or pretending to show the suspect sympathy might also offend a jury, the agency said.

“Perfectly lawful and acceptable interviewing techniques do not always come across in recorded fashion to lay persons as proper means of obtaining information from defendants,” said one of the once-secret internal Justice Department communications made public as part of the investigation into the dismissals of the United States attorneys.
That's not an acceptable reason to oppose taped interrogations, particularly in circumstances where a suspect has been isolated and read their Miranda rights. Just like cockroaches scatter when you turn on a light, my guess is that recording and thus exposing these tactics to scrutiny by judges and juries would, in the long run, result in their defenestration. At a minimum, recording would allow more comprehensive post-investigative analysis by researchers to identify unproductive approaches and best practices. Until then, for the foreseeable future, coercive tactics will remain a routine part of American police interrogation.
Download Weisselberg’s paper here, and read the Grits for Breakfast post (and other commentary on police interrogation and electronic recording) here.

Watch an interview with exoneree Chris Ochoa, who explains how police pressure led him to confess to a crime he didn’t commit.


Tags: Christopher Ochoa, False Confessions, False Confessions



DNA clears Dallas man after 26 years in prison, could be released Friday

Posted: September 16, 2008 2:05 pm

Johnnie Earl Lindsey has been behind bars since 1981 for a rape he has always said he didn’t commit, but his attorneys say new DNA test results could lead to his release on Friday. Michelle Moore, a Dallas public defender affiliated with the Innocence Project of Texas, is representing Lindsey on appeal and has filed for his release based on DNA tests showing that another man sexually assaulted the victim in this case. Lindsey is the 21st person cleared by DNA testing in Dallas County.

Lindsey was convicted by a jury based mostly on the victim’s identification of him. She initially identified him as the perpetrator a year after the attack, when a six-photo lineup was mailed to her. She had identified the perpetrator as a shirtless African-American man, and Lindsey was one of the two shirtless men in the lineup.

"Juries back in the day believed that when a woman was raped, she must be able to identify her attacker," Ms. Moore said. "We know so much more now. There have been so many studies about how bad eyewitness accounts can be."

Read the full article here. (Dallas Morning News, 09/15/08)
Stay tuned to the Innocence Blog for an update on Lindsey’s case after his hearing on Friday.

Tags: Johnnie Earl Lindsey



Ninth anniversary of NY exoneration

Posted: September 4, 2008 3:50 pm

Monday marked the ninth anniversary of the day Habib Wahir Abdal walked out of a New York prison after serving 16 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Abdal was convicted in 1983 of a rape he didn’t commit, based partly on eyewitness misidentification.

In 1982, a woman was attacked in a nature preserve by an African-American man in a hooded sweatshirt. She was blindfolded by the attacker. Abdal was picked up by police four months later and police conducted a “show up,” where they brought the victim to Abdal and asked if he was the attacker. Police officers told the victim before the show up that Abdal was the suspect, but she did not identify him at first as the perpetrator. She then viewed a four-year-old photo of Abdal, returned to the show up, and identified him as the perpetrator.

Although forensic evidence pointed to his innocence and Abdal didn’t match the victim’s initial suspect of the attacker, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. He sought DNA testing to prove his innocence starting in 1993, but tests were inconclusive. It would be six more years before conclusive DNA testing proved Abdal’s  innocence and led to his exoneration.

Abdal’s case is an example of one where advancing DNA science led to exoneration after earlier tests were inconclusive. Other cases like this include the exonerations of David Gray and Rickey Johnson.

Tags: Habib Wahir Abdal, David A. Gray, Rickey Johnson



From gold standard to fool's gold?

Posted: September 9, 2008 1:55 pm

As DNA is used in more criminal cases and crime lab budgets are stretched thin, will DNA testing become a less-reliable form of evidence?

A defense attorney told the Washington Post this week that he’s worried false matches and plea bargains will increase in the next era of DNA testing, raising the possibility of wrongful conviction.

Laura Chase, a deputy state's attorney (in Maryland), said defense lawyers have feared challenging DNA evidence before a jury. As DNA evidence moves to less-violent crimes, she said, "I think it will encourage pleas. It always has encouraged pleas, and that will make the system more efficient."
Defense lawyers, the article says, fear that innocent defendants will be persuaded to plead guilty when confronted with DNA evidence – even if that evidence doesn’t necessarily connect the defendant to the crime scene. And as law enforcement agencies call for DNA testing in more minor cases – like burglaries and robberies – crime lab budgets could be stretched too far, increasing the possibility of mistakes.
"It runs the risk of turning the gold standard of evidence into fool's gold," said Stephen Mercer, a Montgomery lawyer.

Read the full article here. (Washington Post, 09/08/08)
The Innocence Project supports the establishment of  state forensic oversight commissions and advisory boards to ensure that crime labs are properly managed and funded. When analysts are overburdened, underpaid or poorly trained, the risk of forensic error – and wrongful conviction – are increased.

Read more about forensic oversight here.



Lyin' Eyes

Posted: September 18, 2008 2:35 pm

By Christopher Hill
State Strategies Coordinator
ACLU Capital Punishment Project

christopher hill In the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup there is the famous quote which has been paraphrased over the years. The quote asks, "who are you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?” That line has become particularly poignant, and much less funny, in the context of today’s criminal justice system.

In many murder cases the only evidence available is eyewitnesses’ testimony, and Chico’s quote has dire consequences when a jury is asked to convict someone of murder based solely on eyewitness testimony. ”Lyin’ eyes” are responsible for convicting Troy Davis in Georgia and sending him to death row. On Friday, September 12, Davis was denied clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles despite substantial and convincing evidence that he is almost certainly innocent and that faulty eyewitness testimony led to his conviction. He has filed an appeal for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court and the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles still has the discretion to hear his case again.  If those actions fail, Troy Davis is scheduled to be executed on Tuesday, September 23 .  

Eyewitnesses were the only evidence used to convict Davis for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail.  No murder weapon was found.  There is no physical evidence tying Davis to the crime.  There was only eyewitness testimony.

Now, seven of the nine non-police eyewitnesses have recanted.  They say they were coerced by the police to implicate Davis. One eyewitness signed a statement that he was unable to read. Unfortunately for Davis, however, his attorneys at trial did not investigate the possible police misconduct in obtaining the witness testimony.  

Even when people are not coerced into lying, eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable. Research has shown – and we all know – that the human memory is not perfect and eyewitnesses sometimes just get it wrong.

The Innocence Project has found that inaccurate eyewitness testimony is involved in more than 75% of the convictions overturned by DNA evidence. And DNA cases are a tiny slice of all convictions nationwide, so the number of wrongful convictions based on eyewitness misidentification could be astronomical.

Several organizations have suggested solutions to improve eyewitness identification procedures. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, The Center on Wrongful Convictions, The Innocence Project and The Justice Project have all provided alternatives to the eyewitness identification systems commonly used by law enforcement agencies. These solutions include sequential double-blind presentation of suspects – where suspect (or their photos) are presented one at a time, and both the person asked to make an identification and the person asking for the identification are unaware of who in the lineup or photographs is suspected of the crime.

Davis will not benefit from any change in eyewitness procedures. In fact, the way the statements were gathered against him was illegal.  In addition to the other procedures, perhaps there should be real and harsh punishments for law enforcement officials that coerce eyewitnesses and use that testimony. It is unacceptable that innocent people are imprisoned or sentenced to death because of unreliable and, sometimes, illegally obtained testimony.

If Davis's execution is allowed to proceed, we could all be witnesses to the death of a man who is almost certainly innocent.  Then, we would only wish our eyes were lying.

Speak up today to stop Davis’ execution, click here to send a letter urging the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant clemency to Davis.



Two Men Mark One Year of Freedom

Posted: September 18, 2008 5:35 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other exoneration anniversary this week:

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

Tags: Gilbert Alejandro, Larry Bostic, Marcus Lyons



Dispatch from Austin: The Criminal Justice Integrity Unit meets

Posted: September 29, 2008 5:40 pm

The Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit held meetings in Austin on Thursday and heard from witnesses on a variety of topics, including snitch testimony and evidence collection and preservation. The Integrity Unit was created earlier this year by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals to review criminal justice practices in the state and its members include a cross-section of the criminal justice community.

Scott Henson, who writes the blog Grits for Breakfast and works as a consultant with the Innocence Project of Texas, attended the meeting and wrote about his reactions on Grits. Here’s what he found:

Pat Johnson, who's the field supervisor for DPS' state-run crime labs and a member of the Integrity Unit panel, performed an informal survey of non-DPS crime labs in Texas operated by local jurisdictions. Respondents said that less than 10% of evidence collected at crime scenes was gathered by lab personnel, with most of it being collected by cops. Austin PD is the main exception, he said, with an entirely civilian Crime Scene Investigation unit.

A majority of labs, when asked how good a job they were doing, replied that some improvements were needed.

One lab said they did not believe they were receiving all available evidence that should be examined, while a majority said "we don't know."

John Vasquez from the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians (TAPEIT) gave an interesting presentation about evidence preservation failures and the need for greater professionalism and implementation of best practices by police department property rooms. TAPEIT has about 600 active members who work in law enforcement agencies around the state, he said. (See their rather active message boards.)

One of the CCA "Integrity Unit" members, Texas House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, posed a question to Justice Project President John Terzano regarding snitches during his presentation yesterday that inspired me to (perhaps rudely?) interject from the audience a response to his concerns. (I was attending as part of my consulting gig with the Innocence Project of Texas.)

Terzano was arguing that informants whose testimony will be compensated by money, reduced charges or more lenient sentences for other crimes they've committed should be subjected to a pre-trial reliability hearing in which a judge, outside the purview of the jury, makes an independent determination whether the informant is a reliable source.

Read the three posts on the meeting. (Grits for Breakfast, 09/26/08)

Tags: Texas, Innocence Commissions, Evidence Preservation, Informants/Snitches



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



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



Half a Life Behind Bars, Two Years Free

Posted: October 31, 2008 5:20 pm

Jeff Deskovic was exonerated on November 2, 2006, after spending half of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Sunday marks the second anniversary of his exoneration.

On November 15, 1989, a teenage girl was out taking pictures for her photography class in Westchester County, New York. Two days later her body was found by police dogs, and she appeared to have been raped. Sixteen-year-old Deskovic first became a suspect because he was late to school the day of her disappearance. Although he was a classmate of the victim and they shared two classes together, police grew more suspicious when Deskovic began his "own investigation" of the case.

Detectives asked him to submit to a polygraph test, and they brought the young Deskovic to a private polygraph business run by local officers. During the test, no lawyers or parents were involved, and he was only given coffee. He spent over six hours inside the small room as detectives continued to interrogate him, claiming he failed the tests. By the end of the interrogation, Deskovic was crying and curled up under the table. After six hours of questioning and three polygraph tests, Deskovic allegedly confessed to committing the crime.

At the trial the police misconduct was ignored, and details were distorted by the state. While DNA tests on the rape kit excluded Deskovic as a source of the semen, the state argued the victim had consensual sex before the crime and that Deskovic murdered her in a jealous rage. The jury was also told that he had confessed to the crime. Deskovic was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life.

In January 2006, the Innocence Project took on Deskovic’s case, and sought to retest the biological evidence using newer technology, making it eligible for the state DNA database. The results matched a man already in prison for another murder.

Deskovic was 33 when he was released. Upon his release he spoke of the bond he felt with the victim, "We had a commonality. We were both victims of the man who killed her — in different ways, obviously. She is more of a victim than I am, but I am still a victim."

Since his exoneration, Deskovic has fought to ensure that others do not become victims of wrongful convictions. He speaks to high schools, churches, and colleges, and fights for legislative reform to prevent other wrongful convictions. Visit his personal website here.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Steven Linscott, Illinois, (Served 3 years, Exonerated 7/15/92)

Tags: New York, Jeff Deskovic



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



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.



A Mohammad Ali Fight and a Wrongful Conviction

Posted: November 20, 2008 3:40 pm

Students and attorneys at the Medill Innocence Project and the Center on Wrongful Convictions, both affiliated with Northwestern University, have uncovered evidence that could uncover a 1981 wrongful murder conviction.

Anthony McKinney was convicted of shooting a security guard on Sept. 15, 1978, the night Mohammad Ali defeated Leon Spinks for the heavyweight championship. McKinney was 18 at the time, and says he signed a false confession after police beat him with pipes.

Two witnesses, ages 15 and 18, allegedly told police they had seen McKinney kill the victim, shortly after the 10th round of the Ali fight. But the victim was dead, and the police had been called, before the fight reached the 9th round. Both witnesses have also said that police coerced them to testify against McKinney. Attorneys at McKinney’s trial knew about evidence pointing to other perpetrators, but the jury never heard it.

The journalism students were working on McKinney's case under the direction of David Protess, director of the Medill School of Journalism Innocence Project.
"Anthony's plight is about the most tragic I've ever seen," Protess said. "He not only has been locked up for almost two-thirds of his life for a crime he did not commit, but the actual perpetrators were known right from the start."

Read the full story here. (Chicago Sun-Times, 11/20/08)
Read more about the case at the Medill Innocence Project website.


Tags: Illinois, False Confessions, False Confessions



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)



Louisiana Exoneree Will Be Missed

Posted: January 12, 2009 5:07 pm

Clyde Charles, a Louisiana man who served nearly two decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit before DNA testing proved him innocent in 1999, died last week at the age of 55. He left behind several brothers and sisters who fought for his freedom.

Charles, who is African-American, was 27 years old when he was arrested in Houma, Louisiana, for allegedly raping a white woman. He was tried a year later by an all-white jury. The prosecution presented the victim’s eyewitness identification of him as the attacker (which occurred while she was in the hospital and police brought Charles to her bedside in handcuffs), and the testimony of a lab analyst that two Caucasian hairs found on Charles’ clothing were “similar” to the victim’s hairs. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Innocence Project took on his case in 1999 and obtained post-conviction DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene. The results proved that Charles could not have committed the crime and he was freed. Sadly, he only enjoyed eight years of freedom before he passed away at his home last week.

His sister Lois Charles Hill, who worked for Charles’ freedom from the day of his arrest, said although he was released from Angola in 1999, it was last week that he became truly free.

“This week, it’s about my brother, and all I can say is that a man set free after serving 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, on January 7, became truly free indeed,” Hill said.

“I have no regrets. Two weeks ago while visiting my brother at his home, while talking, Clyde looked at me and said, ‘Lois, I know what you did for me. I know you stood beside me when many people had fell along the way, and that made me feel real good. You can’t buy that kind of love.’ I have my brother’s love, and that is the best gift I have ever received,” Hill said.
The family will hold a memorial service in Charles’ memory on Saturday. Read more here.

The Innocence Project mourns his loss.

Tags: Clyde Charles



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



Friday Roundup: Cases from Florida to Ontario

Posted: March 13, 2009 5:39 pm

We wrote this week about the exoneration of Joseph Fears, Jr., in Ohio. Fears, a client of the Ohio Innocence Project, was reunited with his family after a quarter-century and became the 234th person exonerated by DNA testing in the United States. Meanwhile, other wrongful convictions and arrests were being overturned from Florida to Ontario.

In Tampa, bank robbery charges were dropped against Kenneth Robinson after he spent four months in jail awaiting a trial for a crime spree that DNA now proves he wasn’t involved in. Defense attorneys said his case shows how easily the wrong person can be accused – and the danger of wrongful conviction, especially since experts say only 5-10% of criminal cases involve DNA evidence.

Tammy Marquardt was freed from a Canadian prison after serving 14 years for the murder of her child, a crime she has always said she didn’t commit. Marquardt was convicted based in part on the testimony of Dr. Charles Smith, a pediatric forensic pathologist whose testimony contributed to several convictions that were later overturned based on evidence of innocence.

A federal court threw out the Alabama murder conviction of Earl Jerome McGahee because of an “astonishing pattern” of discrimination that led to an all-white jury at the 1986 trial of McGahee, who is black. Of 66 possible jurors, 24 were black. All 24 were eliminated during jury selection.

Lawyers are seeking a new trial for Davontae Sanford, a developmentally disabled 16-year-old boy who lawyers say was coerced into confessing to four murders he didn’t commit. Another man has taken responsibility for the murders.

Harris County (Texas) District Attorney Pat Lykos released a report this week on the wrongful conviction and exoneration of Ricardo Rachell, which she said was caused by a “cascading, system-wide breakdown.”
Exonerated individuals continued speaking around the country this week in support of reforms to prevent the injustice they suffered from happening to anyone else.
New York exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic spoke to students at Fulton-Montgomery Community College about his case and his advocacy efforts. Deskovic will speak at a free public event in Brooklyn, New York, on March 23.

Two people exonerated from Illinois death row spoke at a rally yesterday gainst capital punishment inside the state capitol. The rally marked 10 years since the last time a person was executed in Illinois. Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000.

Florida exoneree William Dillon, who served 26 years for a murder he didn’t commit, gave his first public speech since being released and exonerated in November.

Tags: Jeff Deskovic, William Dillon



Seventeen Years in Prison, Four Years Free

Posted: April 6, 2009 5:19 pm

Today marks the fourth anniversary of Brandon Moon’s exoneration in Texas. After spending 17 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Moon was freed in 2004 and officially exonerated on April 6, 2005.

On the morning of April 27, 1987, an El Paso woman was attacked and sexually assaulted in her home. She contacted police and biological evidence was collected at the hospital. Days after the crime, the victim viewed a photographic array that included Moon's picture. She indicated that Moon looked like the perpetrator but that she couldn't be sure. Days later, the police arrested Moon, and the victim identified him in a live lineup as the perpetrator of the crime. Moon was the only person in both the photographic and live lineup procedures.

At his trial, the victim testified that she was able to remember much of the perpetrator’s appearance, but could not determine his eye color or whether he had a moustache. The prosecution also presented testimony from a serologist who said that Moon was a possible contributor of the semen recovered from clothing at the victim’s home but incorrectly said that the semen could not have come from the victim’s husband or son. Moon testified that he was on his college campus at the time of the attack, and the defense presented evidence that Moon had been excluded as the source of hairs from the crime scene. He was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 75 years in prison.

In the years after his conviction, Moon continued to proclaim his innocence and began filing motions to have the evidence tested. He also contacted the Innocence Project, which accepted his case and obtained DNA testing on his behalf. The results proved Moon's innocence, and also pointed to serious flaws in the serology used in the trial.

After 17 years in prison, he was freed in December 2004 and his exoneration became official four years ago today.

Read more about Brandon Moon’s wrongful conviction here
, visit his website, or watch a video interview with Moon and two other Texas exonerees.

Tags: Brandon Moon



Innocence Project Seeks DNA Testing in Another Pennsylvania Case

Posted: April 21, 2009 6:28 pm

Last week, Innocence Project staff attorney Nina Morrison argued before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that client Anthony Wright should be granted DNA testing that could prove his innocence or guilt of a 1993 murder he says he didn’t commit.

Meanwhile, the Innocence Project filed a brief seeking DNA testing in the case of John Kunco, an Allegheny County man who was convicted in 1992 of a murder he didn’t commit. His conviction rested in part on bite-mark comparison testimony, which has been a factor is several wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing.

"Simply put, Kunco's trial was polluted and contaminated with false, misleading and grossly unreliable bite mark evidence, and as a result this court can have no confidence in the jury's decision to convict Kunco," states the appeal written by Innocence Project lawyer Craig M. Cooley.

Read the full story here.
Read about wrongful conviction cases involving bite mark evidence.



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.



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



Friday Roundup: Unvalidated Forensics

Posted: May 22, 2009 2:09 pm

As the new Just Science Coalition calls for forensic reform in the United States, cases involving unvalidated forensics continued to make news this week:

Joseph Ramirez has been convicted four times in Florida for a 1983 murder, and each trial involved a form of unvalidated forensic evidence – from toolmark comparison to shoeprint identification. Reporter Maurice Possley wrote about his case this week at the Crime Report.

Meanwhile, an Oklahoma man was charged with murder based on bite-mark evidence.

For more stories on forensic science and calls for reform, remember to check the news page at the new Just Science Coalition website. Innocence Project supporters continued to sign the coalition’s petition this week calling for a federal agency to support and oversee forensic science in the U.S. Add your name today.

A column in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram this week praised Dallas for its Conviction Integrity Unit and called on Tarrant County (which includes Fort Worth) to improve its reviews of possible wrongful convictions and its evidence preservation practices. On Thursday, Tarrant County DA Joe Shannon, Jr., responded to the column, writing: “Because of our history of integrity, openness and discretion, Tarrant County has been spared the rash of wrongful convictions that have made headlines elsewhere.”

Guardian columnist Eric Allison wrote this week about his theory on why prisoners seem to be good at determining when a fellow inmate has a legitimate claim of innocence.

A civil jury recently found “clear and convincing evidence of innocence” in the case of Massachusetts exoneree Ulysses Charles, making him eligible for up to $500,000 in damages.

Many readers of this blog are already members of our Facebook Cause, but we now have a Facebook page, too. Join here – and let us know if there are other social network sites where you’d like the see an active Innocence Project presence.

Tags: Ulysses Rodriguez Charles



Friday Roundup: Life After Exoneration

Posted: June 26, 2009 2:10 pm

An Alternet story on four Uighur prisoners released from Guantanamo quoted Innocence Project Social Worker Angela Amel on the difficulties of adjusting to life after exoneration.
A federal jury awarded exoneree George Rodriguez $5 million in a wrongful conviction lawsuit. A Chicago man, Juan Johnson, was awarded $21 million in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against a detective.

Glyn Vincent wrote on Huffington Post that the five men exonerated after serving years in the Central Park jogger case are the “forgotten victims.”

Editorials and op-ed articles continued to run around the country this week disagreeing with the Supreme Court’s decision last week to deny DNA testing to Innocence Project client William Osborne. Opinion pieces ran in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Scripps Newswire, the San Francisco Chronicle and Delaware Online and other publications.

Human Rights Watch researcher Sarah Tofte wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about the injustice of thousands of untested rape kits in California.

Reporter Maurice Possley wrote on The Crime Report about new medical research in shaken baby cases that could call countless convictions into question.

A decision is expected Monday from the U.S. Supreme Court on a habeas corpus petition from Troy Davis, who has spent two decades on Georgia’s death row for a murder he says he didn’t commit.



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



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



Seeking Justice in New Zealand

Posted: August 25, 2009 5:22 pm

A group of attorneys in New Zealand is seeking a pardon for a man convicted 25 years ago of a crime he has always said he didn’t commit. Alan Hall spent eight years in prison and the last 16 years on parole after he was convicted of a 1985 Auckland murder, based mostly on a questionable eyewitness identification.

The New Zealand Innocence Project, a member of the Innocence Network, has been re-examining the case with an investigative journalist and has turned up significant evidence of Hall’s innocence. New evidence shows that initial witness descriptions of the perpetrator didn’t match Hall’s appearance, but this evidence wasn’t presented before the jury at trial. After the case was featured on TV in June, former police officers came forward to express concerns about how the case was handled before trial.

New Zealand Innocence Project Director Maryanne Garry said she hopes the new evidence and appeals lead to Hall’s exoneration.

"I think the real issue is if he has been wrongfully convicted the real murderer has been roaming the streets all this time, free and able to kill,” Garry said. “That's a tragedy."Read the full story here.



Scott Fappiano's New Life

Posted: October 8, 2009

Three years ago this week - October 6, 2006 - Innocence Project client Scott Fappiano was exonerated after having served 21 years in prison for a Brookyn, NY, rape he didn't commit.

Since his release, Fappiano has built a new life. On October 18, he will be married to his fiancee Joanne, his girlfriend before he went to prison. He is planning to enroll next year in school to become a funeral director.
His ordeal began in 1983. An armed male broke into the Brooklyn home of an NYPD officer and his wife. The perpetrator instructed the woman to tie up her husband in the bed with a length of telephone wire, and he proceeded to rape her. The victim was taken to the hospital, where a rape kit was collected. Swabs from the kit tested positive for the presence of sperm, as did a pair of jogging pants worn by the victim after the attack.

The woman described her attacker to police as a white male of Italian descent, and was shown a series of photographs of individuals. She pointed to Fappiano as the attacker, and then chose him again in a live line-up in which several police officers stood in as "fillers." That same day her husband, the police officer, viewed a live line-up, too.  He chose one of the fillers.
Fappiano was tried twice for this crime. Serology tests before trial showed the blood from a stained towel and a cigarette butt matched the victim's husband. Other tests were inconclusive. After the jury could not reach a verdict in his 1984 trial, he was tried again in 1985. He was convicted of rape, sodomy, burglary and sexual abuse and the court sentenced him to 20-50 years in prison.

The Innocence Project began representing Fappiano in 2003, but it took two years for the evidence from the case to turn up - including the jogging pants worn by the victim during the crime that could not be tested previously. DNA testing showed that while the sweatpants contained DNA that matched the woman's, the male DNA found did not match Fappiano's - nor did it match the victim's husband. 

Fappiano is one of 13 New York exonerees whose wrongful convictions were caused in part by eyewitness misidentification. His case and others have led to a push for reforms to the way lineup procedures are conducted. Learn more about progress of these reforms in the recent Innocence Project report: "Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification."

Other Exoneration Anniversaries this Week:

Leonard Callace
, New York (Served 5.5 years, Exonerated 10/5/92)

Brian Piszczeck, Ohio (Served 3 years, Exonerated 1994)

Douglas Echols, Georgia (Served 5 years, Exonerated 2002)

Samuel Scott
, Georgia (Served 15 years, Exonerated 2002)

Kevin Byrd, Texas (Served 12 years, Exonerated 1997)

William Harris, West Virginia (Served 7 years, Exonerated 1995)

Calvin Washington, Texas (Served 13 years, Exonerated 2001)

Tags: Scott Fappiano



James Ochoa: Three Years Free, a New Start in Texas

Posted: October 23, 2009 2:01 pm

Three years ago this week, James Ochoa was exonerated after serving 10 months in prison for a crime he didn't commit.  He was freed when the profile of another man in a DNA database matched evidence from the crime for which Ochoa was convicted.

Ochoa now lives in Texas with his wife and children and works in sales for a clothing company.

Ochoa became a suspect in a 2005 Buena Park, California, carjacking after a highly questionable eyewitness identification procedure and involvement of a police scent-tracking dog.

After two young men were carjacked, they described the perpetrator to a police officer, who immediately thought of Ochoa, whom he had seen earlier that night nearby. The officer showed the victims a picture of Ochoa from his laptop computer. One victim saw only a picture of Ochoa; the other saw photographs of Ochoa's two friends (who did not resemble the description just taken) first and then Ochoa. Both victims said Ochoa "looked like" the perpetrator.

The car was found in the neighborhood later that night -- a B.B. gun used in the crime and a hat worn by the perpetrator were inside. A bloodhound dog named "Trace" was brought to the scene. Trace allegedly followed the scent from a swab from the perpetrator's baseball cap to Ochoa's front door. The use of dog sniffing evidence has come under fire in several states in recent months.

Ochoa was charged with the crime, despite DNA test results that showed one profile on the hat and gun, excluding Ochoa. Against the advice of his attorney, Ochoa accepted a guilty plea in exchange for a two-year sentence, after a judge threatened him with a 25-year sentence if convicted by a jury.

Ten months later, another man was arrested in Los Angeles on unrelated carjacking charges. His DNA profile matched the profile from the hat and gun in Ochoa's case and he confessed to committing the crime. Ochoa was freed after ten months in prison.

Read more about his case - as well as with background on eyewitness misidentification and unvalidated science.

Other exoneree anniversaries this week:

Edward Honaker, Virginia (Served 9.5 years/Exonerated 10/21/94)

Fredric Saecker, Wisconsin (Served 6 years/Exonerated 10/24/96)

Victor Ortiz, New York  (Served 11.5 years - exonerated 10/24/96)

Tags: James Ochoa



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



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



The Cost of Faulty Forensics

Posted: January 13, 2010 6:40 pm

Two years ago this week, Ronald Gene Taylor (left) was officially exonerated of a Texas rape after serving 12 years in prison.

DNA testing could have been conducted before his trial, but an analyst from the Houston Police Department Crime Lab testified incorrectly that there was no biological evidence to test. It would be more than a decade before this error was corrected.

Early in the morning of May 28, 1993, a woman awoke in her Houston apartment to find a man holding a knife to her neck. She was unable to break free, and the man raped her on her bed before fleeing the apartment. During the investigation, Houston police officers collected the sheet from the victim’s bed, specifically noting a wet spot. Although the woman initially said she could not identify the perpetrator, she was allowed to watch a videotaped lineup at her home nearly six weeks after the crime, where she picked Taylor, after suddenly remembering that the perpetrator had a missing tooth.  In 1995, Taylor was convicted by a jury of sexual assault and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

The Innocence Project took on his case in 2006 and sought DNA testing on the same sheet that reportedly contained no evidence to test. Semen was identified on the sheet and, and the results didn’t only exonerate Taylor, they also pointed to the identity of the real perpetrator.

Taylor’s case underlined ongoing forensic problems in Houston. In 2002, the HPD Crime Lab came under scrutiny for faulty forensic practices and the DNA lab was shut down while an independent review was conducted. The review revealed startling deficiencies in the DNA unit, ranging from poor documentation to serious analytical and interpretive errors that resulted in highly questionable results through the use of inaccurate and misleading statistics.

According to the review, standard operating procedures “consisted of procedures and reference materials cobbled together over time without periodic re-evaluation and reorganization. There were few technical reviews of analysts’ work, including review of their test results, interpretation of data, and reporting.” The lack of oversight likely resulted in serious misconduct, including at least  four cases of fabrication of scientific results, called “drylabbing,” which the report called the “the most egregious form of scientific misconduct that can occur in a forensic science laboratory,” and a “hanging offense” in the scientific community. Read the full independent report here.

Although the Houston lab has made strides since 2002, such as receiving national accreditation in 2006, it still has a long way to go. The lab closed again in 2008 after its chief resigned over staff training problems. Recently, new questions have been raised about the lab’s fingerprinting procedures. Taylor is one of three people exonerated through DNA testing after being wrongfully convicted based on faulty tests from the lab, and another pending case could lead to an exoneration.

Meanwhile, in the two years since his release, Taylor has begun to build a new life. Shortly after being freed, he married his long-time fiancée, Jeanette Brown. The couple lives in Atlanta.

Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Larry Fuller, Texas (Served 19.5 years, Exonerated 1/11/07)

Gregory Wallis
, Texas (Served 17 years, Exonerated 1/10/07)

Ricardo Rachell, Texas (Served 5.5 years, Exonerated 1/14/09)

Rickie Johnson, Louisiana (Served 25 years, Exonerated 1/14/08)

Dale Brison, Pennsylvania (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 1/14/94)

Tags: Ronald Taylor



After Two Decades in Prison, Helping Other "Homecomers"

Posted: February 9, 2010 2:35 pm

After serving more than 18 years in prison — including a full decade after DNA results first pointed to his innocence — Darryl Hunt was exonerated six years ago this week in North Carolina.

Hunt, who was only 19 years old at the time, was convicted of first-degree murder based on the testimony of eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen him with the victim. He was sentenced to life in prison, but his conviction was overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court. In 1989, Hunt was retried before an all-white jury and again convicted of first-degree murder. Although DNA testing on crime scene evidence pointed to Hunt’s innocence in 1994, it would take another decade and numerous unsuccessful appeals before the DNA profile from the crime scene was run in the state database at the request of Hunt's attorneys. The results conclusively exonerated Hunt and pointed to another man who has since pled guilty to the murder.

After his release, Hunt returned to his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people after their release from prison.

The Project recently changed the formal name of its re-entry program, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals re-integrate into society through job-training and counseling, to the Homecomers Program. As Hunt has said, the name "homecomers" is a positive alternative to "ex-offender," because, "People who are rejoining their communities after serving their sentences deserve a second chance to change and become productive citizens.

That change begins with the label we give them. Words are not neutral, and the term 'ex-offender' continues to follow them in a negative way even while they are trying to turn their lives around." Hunt continues to speak across the country, advocating on behalf of exonerees, while promoting a message of criminal justice reform and compassion. Learn more about the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice.

An award-winning 2005 documentary, "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," chronicles the events leading to Hunt's exoneration, including footage taken throughout his long ordeal. The film has raised awareness around the world about the problem of wrongful conviction. Netflix subscribers can watch it online and it’s available for sale on (a portion of the purchase at Amazon through this link will support the Innocence Project). Watch the trailer here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Stephan Cowans
, Massachusetts (Served 5.5 years, Exonerated 2/2/04)

Richard Danziger, Texas (Served 11 years, Exonerated 2/6/02)

Christopher Ochoa
, Texas (Served 11.5 years, Exonerated 2/6/02)

David Shawn Pope
, Texas (Served 15 years, Exonerated 2/2/01)

Tags: Darryl Hunt



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.



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



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



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



An Extraordinary Exoneration, Seven Years Later

Posted: March 19, 2010 12:30 pm

Initially, the woman was shown more than 500 mug shots by the police, but could not identify the perpetrator. In the weeks after the attack, the victim recounted that she would scan the faces of black males on the street in search of the perpetrator. One afternoon, while riding the elevator at work, the woman saw Ruffin, a maintenance man at Eastern Virginia Medical School, who she believed was her attacker. She informed the police and confirmed her earlier identification of Ruffin at a lineup.

Unlike the woman’s description, Ruffin was 6’1 and light-skinned. He also had two gold teeth and facial hair. Ruffin was indicted, yet it took three separate trials before he was ultimately convicted. In the first two trials, the juries contained a mix of black and white jurors. Yet both panels were unable to reach a verdict, and mistrials were declared. The jury in Ruffin’s third trial was all white. The victim also described the rapist as taller than she had initially reported. The jury deliberated for seven minutes before convicting Ruffin of rape, sodomy and robbery. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Ruffin first learned of DNA testing in 1994, but was told that all evidence from his case had been destroyed. In an incredible stroke of luck, however, authorities soon learned that evidence had been saved by the unorthodox practices of a former lab technician. Mary Jane Burton, a state forensic scientist who died in 1999, habitually saved samples of biological evidence before they were sent to Virginia authorities for destruction.

In 2002, Ruffin wrote to John R. Doyle III, the Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney, who subsequently discovered that Burton had saved the relevant biological evidence from his case in her lab notebooks. DNA testing excluded Ruffin and implicated another man in Virginia’s DNA database who was already serving three life sentences for other sexual assaults. Testing also revealed that the man had committed the crimes attributed to another exoneree, Arthur Lee Whitfield.

Doyle, in cooperation with the Virginia Parole Board, paroled Ruffin the day after the results were disclosed, reuniting him with his family and son, who was only nine years old at the time of his conviction. A month later, he was officially pardoned by then Governor Mark Warner. Ruffin, who was 49 when he was released, now resides in Virginia with his family and girlfriend. He received $1.5 million in compensation for serving over 20 years in prison.

DNA testing of evidence from Burton’s casefiles has led to  four other exoneration to date, including Marvin Anderson, Willie Davidson, Phillip Thurman, and Victor Burnette. A review of the remainder of Burton’s notebooks is ongoing.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

John Willis, Illinois (Served 7 years, Exonerated 3/15/1999).

Arthur Mumphrey, Texas (Served 17.5 years, Exonerated 3/17/06)

Wiley Fountain, Texas (Served 16 years, Exonerated 3/18/03)

Edward Green, Washington D.C. (Served 1 year, Exonerated 3/19/2009)



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



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)



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



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



Friday Roundup: A Victory in New York and Progress on Other Cases

Posted: May 7, 2010 4:00 pm

Tonight’s episode of ABC’s “20/20” will be an hour-long special report on controversial fire investigations.  The program will examine several arson cases, including Cameron Todd Willingham’s case. Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death for allegedly killing his three children in an arson fire in Corsicana, Texas, in 1992.  Leading up to his execution in 2004, nearly all of the evidence against him was reviewed and found to be inadequate by fire expert Gerald Hurst.  John Lentini, who assembled a peer review panel to review the evidence in Willingham’s case, will be interviewed on the program.  Watch the full story tonight on "20/20" at 10 p.m. ET.

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Christopher M. McCowen, who was convicted of murder in 2006, has requested a new trial because DNA evidence linking him to murder victim Christa Worthington was not properly presented to the jury.  Pursuant to a United States Supreme Court ruling, Melendez-Diaz, the DNA technician who performed DNA tests should have testified, but the technician's colleague testified instead.  McCowen also claims racial bias among the jury contributed to his conviction.  McCowen is black and Worthington was white.  His request is under review.



A Trail of Misconduct and the Need for Reform

Posted: May 7, 2010 3:32 pm

A 1993 investigation into Zain's work was undertaken by the State and a special judge was appointed. The initial investigation looked at 36 cases, and an independent team of serologists ultimately concluded that Zain had fabricated or manipulated evidence to win convictions in every one of the cases reviewed.

A wider investigation would reveal the extent of Zain's massive fraud. The 1993 investigation found that Zain overstated the strength of his results, overstated and misreported the frequency of genetic matches on multiple pieces of evidence, reported inconclusive tests as conclusive, failed to report conflicting results, reported scientifically impossible or improbable At least 182 cases bore the mark of Zain’s misconduct, and the special judge granted West Virginia prisoners the opportunity to seek habeas relief if Zain's misconduct played a role in their convictions.

Zain died of cancer in 2002 at the age of 52 while awaiting retrial on charges of obtaining money from the State of West Virginia under false pretenses. He was also charged with perjury in Texas, but the case was dismissed because of statute of limitations issues. Though he may have escaped conviction, his misconduct has informed all levels of the criminal justice system about the necessity for national forensic standards that exclude improper and unvalidated forensic science. Read more about the Innocence Project’s call for federal forensic oversight here.

Other Exoneree Anniversaries This Week:

Clark McMillan, Tennessee (Served 22 Years, Exonerated 5/2/02)

Danny Brown, Ohio (Served 18.5 Years, Exonerated 5/3/01)

Jeffrey Pierce, Oklahoma (Served 14.5 Years, Exonerated 5/7/01)

Tags: Glen Woodall



What Do Jurors Know About False Confessions?

Posted: May 13, 2010 5:46 pm

Jurors believed that they would be able to differentiate a true confession from a false confession by watching a videotape, but were less confident about making such a differentiation from an audio recording. A large majority of the sample reported that it would be helpful to hear expert testimony about interrogation techniques and reasons why a defendant might falsely confess to a crime.

Non-white jury candidates had much less confidence in law enforcement than white jury candidates and they also gave substantially larger estimates of false confession rates.

Read an excerpt of the article here.

Learn about false confessions and mandatory recording of interrogations here.

Tags: False Confessions



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.



Ten Years Later, Maryland Prosecutor Drops Conspiracy Charges

Posted: May 27, 2010 11:22 am

Michele Nethercott of the Maryland Innocence Project took on Jones’ case more than seven years ago when she noticed the flawed factors that lead to his conviction.  Eyewitness misidentification played a role when a witness who initially told police he didn’t see any of the perpetrators later identified Jones in a photo array. Nethercott also cited faulty testimony of the forensic test that found gunshot residue on Jones’ hands.  Explaining that other chemicals are often mistaken for it and that it can spread easily, she said finding it on his hands didn’t mean much.  And, lastly, a police report with the original account of the witness was never shown to the defense or to the jury.

Over the past seven years, there were six hearings and three appeals to free Jones based on challenges to gunshot residue and to request post-conviction DNA evidence.  In January, Judge Gale E. Rasin finally overturned the conviction based on the discovery of the police report. On Tuesday, the charges against him were tossed out.

“It took all but 10 seconds to undo something that’s been going on for 12 years,” Jones said, still shocked.

“I cannot stop smiling,” Jones said.

Jones, who already works as a maintenance man in an apartment complex plans to enroll in college in the fall and major in counseling. He credits the support of his family and Nethercott for getting him through the decade of legal battles and prison life and hopes to start a family.

Nethercott says she is “very hopeful for Tyrone.” He’s determined, he’s bright, and he’s got that solid family support, she said.

Read the full story here.



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



Texas Jurors Call for Post-Conviction DNA Testing

Posted: June 10, 2010 5:20 pm

Now, even the jurors who found Skinner guilty say the new information would have given them pause. Students working with Northwestern University’s Medill Innocence Project recently traveled to Forth Worth to locate and interview jurors who convicted Skinner in 1995. They found eight jurors; seven said Skinner should now have access to the tests, one declined to comment.

Five of the jurors said they may have had reasonable doubt of Skinner’s guilt if they knew then about the case what we know now.  But, 15 years ago, the jury found Skinner guilty in less than two hours and he was sentenced to death.

"What's right is right and what's wrong is wrong," one juror, Jerry Williams, told the Northwestern students. "It should have been tested before...Somebody's life is at stake."

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case in its next term, which begins in October.

Read more from AOL’s Politics Daily blog here.



Kansas Supreme Court To Consider New Jury Instructions For Hearing Eyewitness Testimony

Posted: September 22, 2010 3:58 pm

“A victim or a witness takes the stand, and he or she are very sincere and often times very explicit and very confident, and all those are qualities people assume go with accuracy. But they don’t,” Wrightsman said.

“You can find confident people who are not accurate. And you can find people who are hesitant, who are just careful people, and they are very accurate.”

The consideration of new guidelines comes in the wake of a Wichita man’s conviction based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim.

Michael T. Mitchell was convicted in 2007 of aggravated robbery and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison.  Mitchell’s conviction was based largely on a confident witness who identified him in a photo lineup. According to the Associated Press, iIn Mitchell’s case, the jury was given the standard instruction on eyewitness testimony over defense objections.  He has since asked for a new trial.

“If that factor had been rejected as a poor indicator of reliability, it should be removed from the instructions guiding juries,” appellate public defender Ryan Eddinger argued in filings to the Supreme Court.


 “Without experts, all you have is the jury instructions to guide them,” said Michael Kaye, law professor at Washburn University.

“The public needs to know that eyewitnesses are not always right,” he said. “That the court is willing to consider science and other factors shows progressive thinking.”

Kansas isn’t the first state to consider new jury guidelines.  In New York State, the Supreme Court ruled that judges must allow experts to testify on eyewitness reliability when cases rely mostly on eyewitness testimony.

Read the full story here.

Tags: Kansas



USA TODAY Investigation Reveals Serious Misconduct by Justice Department Prosecutors

Posted: September 23, 2010 5:20 pm

In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.

Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation's federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct. And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably.

Read the full article here.

There has been a major increase in the number of complaints judges have made about prosecutorial misconduct since 2001.  Back then, there were 42 complaints.  Last year, there were 61. Over the past 12 years, USA TODAY was only able to identify one federal prosecutor who was barred, even temporarily, from practicing law for such misconduct.

The investigation found 47 cases in which defendants were either exonerated or set free after the violations surfaced.

That is exactly what happened to Nino Lyons of Orlando, Florida.  The jurors who found Lyons guilty of drug trafficking after hearing testimony from multiple witnesses were never informed about vital evidence that could have pointed toward his innocence. 

According to USA TODAY, the federal prosecutors never informed the jury that a convict who claimed he purchased hundreds of pounds of cocaine from Lyons barely identified his photograph. Prosecutors also promised early release to other prisoners in exchange for their cooperation. Lyons spent nearly three years in prison before his case was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct.

As a result of prosecutorial misconduct, guilty people remain at large or face a lesser consequence and taxpayers ultimately finance the unethical behavior of the Justice Department.

Learn about government and prosecutorial misconduct here

Read the Innocence Project’s report on prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions here.

Tags: Government Misconduct



Michigan Woman Cleared in Shaken Baby Case

Posted: October 18, 2010 5:19 pm

Carl Marlinga, a former prosecutor who represented Baumer at her second trial, said he expects the jury verdict will impact shaken baby cases nationwide.

"We now have a cautionary flag for police, prosecutors and physicians to consider VST (venous sinus thrombosis)," Marlinga told the Detroit News.

Marlinga, who served as the prosecutor for Macomb County, Michigan for two decades, pledged to devote time to working on wrongful conviction cases after the exoneration of Ken Wyniemko, who had been wrongfully convicted of a rape while Marlinga was in office. Marlinga supported Wyniemko's request for DNA testing and cooperated with his attorneys. 

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is a member of the Innocence Network.

Convictions based on shaken baby syndrome have come under fire in recent years as scientific studies have cast doubt on forensic methods used in the investigations. Read more.

Tags: Kenneth Wyniemko



Women and Innocence: Building a Network

Posted: November 12, 2010 11:25 am

Over the weekend, we listened to many tragic stories of police negligence, frame-up jobs, prosecutorial misconduct and total denial of justice. Mostly, we heard stories of lives and families ripped apart by false accusations and a criminal justice system gone haywire. 

Most of these cases (until further research I don’t know whether it was just that group or a more general trend) involve women wrongly accused of hurting or killing their own children.  Some of these women have been or are on death row. In several cases the women suffered serious bodily injury in attacks that resulted in deaths of children and the mothers were still blamed – based on theories that they mutilated themselves and staged the entire scene.  Many of these women were single mothers when the crimes were committed and they believe their status in society and/or lifestyle played a large part in the way they were blamed for the crimes and excoriated by the legal system, press and public in the process and afterwards.  Even with absolutely no physical evidence of these crimes, the women were convicted and then lost custody of their other children, their jobs, their homes and their reputations -- all in addition to the crushing loss of the child(ren) who were actually injured or murdered by someone else.  None of these women have been compensated for their years of wrongful incarceration. 

The conference was intensely emotional for many, as well as educational, supportive and hopeful.  We discussed moving forward, including participation in the next Innocence Network Conference (April 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio) and building a bigger conference of women exonerees and their support people for next year – and the next year after that. This was hopefully just the beginning.



Prosecutorial Misconduct Doesn't Always Result in Termination

Posted: December 10, 2010 4:29 pm

Almost two years after a baby girl near Tampa vanished, federal prosecutors charged her parents with conspiracy and lying to investigators. The prosecuting attorney told the grand jury that there were recordings of the girl’s mother telling her husband: "The baby's dead and buried. … The baby's dead no matter what you say — you just did it." But, everyone who heard the recordings quickly concluded that those statements were never uttered.

Although charges were dropped against the missing girl’s parents and a Justice Department investigation concluded that the prosecutor broke rules and mishandled the case, he was allowed to continue with the agency to work on civil cases. He ultimately quit and relocated to Tallahassee where he works as a defense attorney.

Department records found during the newspaper’s investigation suggest that similar mistakes usually result in a slap on the wrist and leave attorneys’ records untarnished. Since the Justice Department can conceal its own prosecutorial misconduct investigations from the public, it’s hard to know the full extent of the problem.

The Office of Professional Responsibility is tasked with investigating findings of prosecutorial misconduct, but most of its investigations have resulted in no punishment, with the agency concluding that misconduct was unintentional. And even when OPR learns of prosecutorial misconduct in a case, it doesn’t necessarily look into the prosecutor’s other cases to determine if it’s a one-time occurrence or if there is a precedent for misconduct.

"Government lawyers are likely to view the conduct most favorably to other government lawyers," says Ellen Yaroshefsky, the head of Cardozo Law School's Jacob Burns Ethics Center in New York. She said an outside watchdog is needed. "It's human nature that you're going to give the person the benefit of the doubt, because it could be you next. There just needs to be an independent evaluation of allegations of misconduct."

Without stronger safeguards, this pattern of prosecutorial misconduct without consequences will continue.

Read the full article.

Last night, Innocence Project Co-founder Barry Scheck appeared on CNN’s “AC360” to discuss prosecutorial misconduct. Watch the full segment.

Read about government misconduct and the Innocence Project’s report on prosecutorial misconduct.

Tags: Government Misconduct



Friday Roundup: Misconduct, Compensation and the Death Penalty

Posted: January 21, 2011 5:24 pm

Illinois governor Pat Quinn wants to hear from constituents before deciding whether or not to approve a bill abolishing the death penalty. 

A federal judge today sentenced former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge to 4.5 years in prison for perjury relating to his role in the torture of suspects during his 23 years on the force. Several people who were convicted based on confessions coerced  under Burge’s watch have since been cleared.

Paul Hildwin, a Florida death row prisoner, is seeking to have DNA evidence in his case compared to state and federal databases for possible evidence of a different perpetrator. The Innocence Project has consulted on Hildwin’s case for seven years.

Tags: Steven Barnes, Government Misconduct, Death Penalty



NY Times Magazine: Questions Surround Shaken-Baby Cases

Posted: February 2, 2011 4:55 pm

“No one wants child abuse,” Keith Findley, the director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Innocence Network Board Chairman told Bazelon. “But we should not be prosecuting and convicting people in shaken-baby cases right now, based on the triad of symptoms, without other evidence of abuse. If the medical community can’t agree about all the conflicting data and research, how is a jury supposed to reach a conclusion that’s beyond a reasonable doubt?”

Read the full Times story online



Florida Attorney Wants Special ID Jury Instruction

Posted: February 14, 2011 6:08 pm

Special jury instructions are rare in Florida, but the judge seems keen on preventing mistaken identifications.

“If they do happen, is it not our obligation to come up with something that can if not eliminate certainly narrow and limit the number of mistakes that fall into that category?" Circuit Judge Walter Komanski said.

Weeden encouraged Komanski "to be ahead of the curve on this." He is expected to rule on Weeden’s motion before Smith’s trial next week.  If the special instructions are approved, Weeden said it is likely he would request they be used in other eyewitness identification cases.

Read the full article.

Read about eyewitness identification procedures.

Learn what contributes to eyewitness misidentification.



U.S. Supreme Court: Inmate Can Seek DNA Testing

Posted: March 8, 2011 5:50 pm

The decision won’t immediately get Skinner the DNA testing he’s been seeking for nearly ten years, which he claims will prove he is innocent of the three murders for which he was convicted by a Texas jury in 1995.  The case now gets sent back down for still more litigation—unless the Gray County prosecutor, Lynn Switzer, agrees to allow the testing to proceed.

But the Supreme Court’s ruling reaffirmed the important principle that the federal courthouse doors remain open in cases like these, where they may be a prisoner’s one and only remaining hope of obtaining DNA testing that proves innocence.

And fortunately, as the Supreme Court itself noted today, these kinds of drawn-out federal civil rights battles over DNA testing are quite rare in 2011.  Most DNA testing cases are settled in state court—or in no court at all, with prosecutors increasingly sharing the view that everyone wins, and no one loses, by allowing a prisoner to obtain a DNA test that could clear him or her and potentially identify who actually committed the crime in the process.

But for Hank Skinner, his long battle to get a DNA test continues—even though that testing could have been over and done in less time than it took the Supreme Court to dispose of prosecutors’ most recent procedural objections.  And in Texas, where the courts could now set another execution date at any time, his lawyers may need to continue their recent streak of victories just to keep Skinner alive long enough to see that day.  That is, unless prosecutor Switzer finally agrees—court order or no court order—to just do the right thing and allow a DNA test in this case at long last.

Tags: Hank Skinner



U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Compensation for Former Death Row Inmate

Posted: March 29, 2011 5:03 pm

Of the 16 federal judges, eight held that the jury had already spoken after hearing the facts, while the dissenters said it is an outrageous burden to hold a district attorney's office accountable for employees' misdeeds.

The ruling, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, means that Thompson will not collect the money. 

In response to the ruling, the Innocence Network released a letter signed by 19 innocent people who were wrongfully convicted in part because of the bad acts of prosecutors demanding greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct.  In the letter, the exonerees explain: 

In many of our wrongful conviction cases prosecutorial misconduct was found but later declared “harmless” by the courts. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our cases, each act had profoundly harmful effects on our lives. Together we represent hundreds of years in prison, separated from our wives, husbands, children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents and other loved ones, who suffered their own shame and wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers and spent countless sleepless nights worrying about our well being. The misconduct contributed to nearly unbearable depression and unhappiness, loss of jobs and career opportunities, the derailing of educations and forever destroyed hopes and dreams. Each of us has worked long and hard to repair what has happened to us, but we will never regain the lives we had before we were wrongfully convicted at the hands of careless or deceitful prosecutors.

Read the full article.

Read the decision.

Read the Innocence Network press release on the decision.

Read the letter urging action to stem prosecutorial misconduct

Tags: Louisiana



Exoneree Pushes for Prosecutorial Accountability

Posted: April 12, 2011 5:18 pm

As the Innocence Blog previous reported, the Supreme Court overturned Thompson’s 2005 compensation victory that awarded him $14 million in damages, the majority ruling that the prosecutors were not liable for the failure to turn over the evidence that proved his innocence. Thompson responds:

"I don’t care about the money. I just want to know why the prosecutors who hid evidence, sent me to prison for something I didn’t do and nearly had me killed are not in jail themselves. There were no ethics charges against them, no criminal charges, no one was fired and now, according to the Supreme Court, no one can be sued."

Former Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick, Sr., called for a grand jury investigation when the hidden evidence first came to light, but cancelled the plans once it became clear how may lawyers from his office had been involved. As Thompson points out, overlooking such serious misconduct and abuse of authority sends the wrong message to those responsible and further jeopardizes inmates wishing to prove their innocence.

"There are more than 4,000 people serving life without parole in Louisiana, almost none of whom have lawyers after their convictions are final. Someone needs to look at those cases to see how many others might be innocent."

In 2007, Thompson founded a nonprofit called Resurrection After Exoneration to make sure that no future exonerees are left to rebuild their lives without proper support.

Most recently, Thompson co-signed a letter with 18 other exonerees, who were also the victims of prosecutorial misconduct, addressed to United States Attorney General Eric Holder demanding greater accountability for prosecutorial misconduct in response to the Supreme Court’s decision.



Evidence in Detroit Rape Case Points to Man's Innocence

Posted: May 4, 2011 2:18 pm

“The reaction by authorities is to preserve a conviction at all costs,” said clinic co-director David Moran. “Besides the injustice to Vinson, there's a rapist who might still be out there, and no one seems to give a damn.”

The prosecutor said that “science does not trump the testimony of individuals,” which ignores the fact that eyewitness misidentification contributed to nearly 80% of wrongful convictions nationwide.

An appellate court order mandating that a new jury hears all the evidence offers the best chance of assuring justice and restoring faith in the criminal justice system's capacity to correct its mistakes.

Read the full article.

Read about forensic oversight.

National Academy of Sciences Report Calls for Overhaul of Forensics in U.S.



Supreme Court May Consider Case of Bad Defense Lawyer

Posted: May 3, 2011 6:16 pm

Mr. Rosario's court-appointed lawyer did ask a judge for money to send an investigator to Florida to interview alibi witnesses. The request was granted, but the lawyer never pursued the matter, and her replacement mistakenly thought the request had been denied.

At trial, the prosecution swayed the jury to ignore the testimony of alibi witnesses, claiming they were not credible since they were friends of Rosario.  He was ultimately convicted in 1996 and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Rosario challenged his conviction in state court almost a decade later.  This time, seven more witnesses testified that he was in Florida around the time of the murder—two of which recalled seeing him there the day of the murder. But the judge still ruled against him and determined that Rosario’s lawyers’ failure to send an investigator to Florida was not deliberate.

Rosario next challenged his conviction in federal court.  There, a federal magistrate judge ruled that his trial lawyers were “objectively deficient for failing to adequately investigate petitioner’s alibi and present additional witnesses at trial.” Judge Henry Pitman went on to say that there was “a reasonable probability that the jury could have found petitioner not guilty of murder” had it heard the missing testimony.

But Judge Pitman said that did not matter, because New York courts were entitled to use an idiosyncratic standard in judging the effectiveness of counsel, one that considers lawyers' performances over all rather than their isolated errors.

The full federal appeals court turned down a request for a rehearing by a 6-to-4 vote. Chief Judge Dennis G. Jacobs, dissenting, wrote that New York's way of thinking about ineffective assistance of counsel — by averaging out performance rather than considering individual errors — "violates the federal Constitution."

Read the full article.

Understand the cases of eyewitness misidentification.

Read more about eyewitness identification.

Read about bad lawyering.

Innocence Project Report: Court Findings of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel



Cincinnati Man Seeks DNA Testing

Posted: May 9, 2011 5:03 pm

In court filings, the Commonwealth's Attorney Michelle Snodgrass previously argued that in absence of any new evidence, Kentucky law limits DNA testing only to prisoners on death row.

But Smith feels that the legislature never intended to limit DNA testing to prisoners on death row.

"Both may be incarcerated wrongfully, regardless of the sentence received," Smith wrote in a court filing. "Without a mechanism to seek relief, a defendant is caught in an untenable situation where he cannot access evidence for DNA testing because he was not sentenced to death, but would be exonerated or entitled to a new trial if he obtained favorable DNA testing results in his case."

Smith is requesting DNA testing of the rape kit, the victim’s semen-stained nightgown, an ashtray, cigarette butt and matchbook found by the victim's shower, among other items.

Pieces of evidence that were used at trial, such as Virgil’s blood stained sneakers and a sweatshirt, along with the cigarette butt, are now missing.

Smith said her attempts at DNA testing is not an effort to re-litigate the trial. Based upon the technology available and forensic evidence presented at the time, the jury's verdict was explicable, she said.

"However, the reasons to use new technology to resolve any doubt about guilt or innocence since the advent of DNA testing do not just involve Mr. Virgil alone; the reasons also include the possibility of finding the true perpetrator," Smith wrote.

Virgil has been denied parole twice, but will appear before the parole board for a third time in September.

Read the full article.

National View: Which States Lack DNA Testing Access Laws?

Read more about access to DNA testing.



Prosecutors Would Block Review of Confession Cases

Posted: May 10, 2011 5:18 pm

Innocence and Justice Clinic at the Wake Forest University School of Law Co-director Carol Turowski disagrees, saying that all cases should be considered by the commission.

"There have been a number of people who accepted pleas who were innocent," Turowski said. "I don't think that the innocence commission should eliminate cases involving pleas. People take plea bargains because they are scared of losing jury trials. They might suffer more serious consequences such as a longer sentence."

For many reasons – including mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics – innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit.

Read the full article.

Read more about criminal justice reform commissions.

Understand the Causes: How False Confessions Happen.

Tags: North Carolina, False Confessions



The Long Road to Compensation

Posted: May 23, 2011 5:17 pm

Although his first trial resulted in a hung jury, the verdict in a second trial sentenced him to death.  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the verdict because Brandley was found to have been the victim of racial prejudice, witness intimidation and perjured testimony, reported Your Houston News.

"We have to follow what’s set in law," said R.J. DaSilva, a spokesman for Comptroller Susan Combs.

The Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code requires that, in order to be compensated, a former inmate must have received a pardon of innocence by the governor or have been granted relief by the court "on the basis of actual innocence," the letter states.

"The court order that was submitted with Mr. Brandley’s claim did not meet the actual innocence requirement" of the statute.

DaSilva also said that Brandley waited too long to apply for compensation, only filing within the past few months. 

He was released at the end of 1989 and the law requires a person seeking compensation to file an application no later than the third anniversary of their prison release.

Since 2001, when the fund that compensates wrongfully imprisoned people in Texas was founded, the state has paid out $37.4 million to 70 people through the fund.

Read the full article.

Innocence Project Report: Making Up for Lost Time.

National View: 27 States Have Compensation Statutes: Is Yours One?

Read more about compensating the wrongfully convicted.

Tags: Texas, Exoneree Compensation



Marvin Anderson's Long Road to Freedom

Posted: May 31, 2011 4:28 pm

While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.

Read the full article.

Read more about Marvin Anderson’s case and watch a video interview with him.

Learn about the causes of eyewitness misidentification

And, learn about eyewitness identification reform.

Tags: Marvin Anderson



Judge Overturns Virginia Death Sentence Due to Prosecutorial Misconduct

Posted: July 15, 2011 1:32 pm

In his ruling, the judge calls attention to prosecutors Paul Ebert and Richard Conway for depriving the jury of critical information.

The judge wrote, "Essentially, in an effort to ensure that no defense would be 'fabricated,' Ebert and Conway's actions served to deprive Wolfe of any substantive defense in a case where his life would rest on the jury's verdict. The Court finds these actions not only unconstitutional in regards to due process, but abhorrent to judicial process."

If the Virginia Attorney General appeals Monday’s ruling, Wolfe could remain in prison for another year while the federal appeals court considers the appeal.

Read more in the Washington Post.

Read the UVA press release.



CA Governor Signs Jailhouse Informant Bill to Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Posted: August 2, 2011 5:46 pm

In more than 15% of wrongful conviction cases overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse informant testified against the defendant. Often, statements from people with incentives to testify – particularly incentives that are not disclosed to the jury – are the central evidence in convicting an innocent person.

The bill was supported by defense attorneys and the San Francisco and Los Angeles district attorneys.

Read the full article.

Read more about informant testimony.

Tags: Informants/Snitches



Key Evidence Missing in Wisconsin Murder Case, Attorney Calls for Dismissal

Posted: August 8, 2011 5:40 pm

The new trial was originally granted because attorneys argued that evidence that was never presented during the first trail should be presented to a new jury. This includes evidence that the  the victim had a high blood alcohol level, which could have affected his identification of Vandenberg, as well as evidence that his co-defendant, who received immunity in exchange for testifying for the state, later allegedly admitted to the crime.

A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday on the motion to dismiss the case.

Read the full article.



California Man’s Conviction Overturned

Posted: October 4, 2011 3:32 pm

Judge Kelvin D. Filer was critical of prosecutors in the case for failing to disclose to the jury that they had made a deal with the witness, a pimp who was seeking a reduced sentence on pimping and pandering charges in exchange for his testimony.

On Friday, the judge ordered Anthony to be released on his own recognizance, but he remained in a county jail over the weekend. Prosecutors have 60 days to decide whether to retry him on the murder charge.
Seth Flagsberg, an attorney for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, which handled Anthony's appeal, said he thought it was unlikely that prosecutors would retry his client because they have no credible witnesses in the case.

Read the full article.

Read the press release from the Northern California Innocence Project.



New National Database Reveals Nearly 900 Exonerations

Posted: May 21, 2012 2:00 pm

Launched today, the National Registry of Exonerations profiles 891 people who were wrongfully convicted and then later exonerated through new evidence of innocence—both DNA and non-DNA. The registry, a joint project of the University of Michigan Law School and the Northwestern University School of Law, is the most comprehensive accounting of exonerations ever compiled. 
The 891 cases, at last count, include exonerations since 1989, the year of the first DNA exoneration. The 291 DNA exoneration cases tracked by the Innocence Project are represented within this count. The Innocence Project does not track exonerations achieved by means other than DNA, which might include witness recantations, a true perpetrators’ confession and more.  MSNBC reports:

We can figure that as sort of the modern period in exonerations because DNA was a big game-changer," said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, one of the registry's creators. "It provided a scientific instrument for reviewing cases and providing a different type of evidence about those cases because the technology didn't exist."
But DNA doesn't actually account for the majority of the exonerations in the database, after an initial wave in the early 1990s, he said.
"DNA is a fairly narrow-gauged tool. It only fits particular type of crimes," Gross said, noting that only 37 percent of the people in the database were cleared with the help of DNA evidence. "In the public mind, exoneration became identified with DNA... Most of these cases -- DNA and non-DNA -- everybody agrees there was a mistake; frequently because the criminal was caught, often because we agree there was no crime at all."

Professor Gross believes that many other cases of wrongful conviction may never be discovered, or may yet to be discovered. Among the cases not listed by the registry are over 1,100 mass exonerations, representing cases of police misconduct scandals. These cases were intentionally omitted so as not to skew the final statistics. For example, research produced through the registry shows that 51% of the wrongful convictions involved perjury of false accusation, that 43% involved eyewitness misidentification, and that 42% involved official misconduct.
The National Registry of Exonerations team encourages anyone who has been exonerated or knows of an exoneration not listed on the registry to contact them here
View the registry.
Read the article.
Browse the Innocence Project database of DNA exoneration cases.



Innocence Project Submits New Evidence of Innocence in West Virginia Case

Posted: June 5, 2012 5:45 pm

The Innocence Project recently filed a petition presenting new DNA evidence that clears Joseph Buffey, of Clarksburg, West Virginia. Buffey pled guilty of the rape and robbery of an elderly woman in 2001 after having falsely confessed to the crime. Recent DNA tests on crime scene evidence definitively exclude Buffey, yet local officials have denied requests to enter the DNA profile into a national database to see if it matches any known criminals.
One week after the rape and robbery, Buffey and two other men were arrested in connection to a string of robberies. After being questioned for nearly eight hours, Buffey confessed to the rape, then recanted minutes later. The Gazette-Mail reports:

Minutes after giving his confession, Buffey recanted it, the petition states. The officers went back into the interrogation room, and Matheny told Buffey that he was going to give him an opportunity "to sing."
"You really want to know the truth?" Buffey asked, according to the petition.
"Yeah, we want the truth," was the reply.
"I didn't do it."

The petition also states that at trial, the lead detective presented at least four pieces of blatant false information as facts to the grand jury. The Innocence Project has requested a hearing to consider the petition and seeks to vacate Buffey’s conviction.
Read the full article.
Understand The Causes: How False Confessions Happen
Read more about False Confessions & Mandatory Recording of Interrogations

Tags: West Virginia



Supreme Court Rejects Life Sentences for Juveniles

Posted: June 26, 2012 12:45 pm

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected laws in 28 states that mandated life without parole sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

The justices ruled in two cases of 14-year-old boys, one from Alabama and one from Arkansas, who were given life terms for their roles in homicides, but the decision applies to all juveniles sentenced under mandatory laws, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Speaking for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said the decisions of the last decade had established, or restored, the principle that "children are different" when it comes to criminal punishments.

"Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what 'any parent knows' — but on science and social science as well," she said. Juveniles are immature and are less deserving of the harshest punishments, she said.

In the case of young people who take part in a homicide, "a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty," Kagan said. "We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violates the 8th Amendment's prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'"

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed.

While Monday's decision does not free any prisoner, more than 2,000 inmates can now receive new sentences or parole hearings.  And though it doesn’t prevent judges from imposing life terms on juveniles convicted of murder in the future, it establishes a new constitutional rule that prisoners can cite in their appeals.

Out of the 292 DNA exonerations across the country, 17 were juveniles when convicted and two received life sentences: Michael Anthony Williams of Louisiana was 16 years old when he was arrested and convicted of a rape he did not commit and 40 when he was exonerated. Anthony Caravella of Florida was 15 years old at arrest and 16 years old when he was convicted of a sexual assault and murder he did not commit and spent 26 years in prison before his exoneration.

The decision was the third in a decade that limits punishment for juveniles. In 2005, the death penalty for juveniles convicted of murder was abolished, and in 2010, the justices ruled that life sentences without parole were unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.

Read the full article.

Read about Williams’s case.

Read about Caravella’s case.



Two Mississippi Women Freed After Review of Bite Mark Evidence

Posted: July 2, 2012 4:45 pm

After spending nearly 11 years behind bars, two Mississippi women were released from prison last week when a judged vacated their aggravated assault convictions.
Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance were convicted of a 2001 aggravated assault, based largely on bite mark analysis, after a third female travel companion was found injured and unconscious in a hotel room. Earlier this year, attorneys from the Mississippi Innocence Project, who represent both women, argued that the original prosecutors failed to turn over favorable evidence for the defense.
Prosecutors at the original trial relied heavily on the testimony of local dentist, Dr. Michael West, who claimed he could match bite marks on the victim's body to Stubbs and Vance, reported the Daily Leader. West has testified for the prosecution in cases in nine states, and his testimony has contributed to the wrongful convictions of DNA exonerees Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Despite being the first member ever suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology, Prosecutors continued to use West as an expert and courts continued to allow his testimony. According to the Daily Leader, West has said he now doubts the validity of bite mark analysis.
Family members of the women, including Stubb’s brother-in-law Steve Wade, expressed their disappointment in the attorney general for defending cases in which testimony by West was used. The Daily Leader reports:

"The Mississippi attorney general and Lincoln County district attorney should commit to pursue charges against Dr. Michael West for fraudulent testimony and perjury," Wade said.

A hearing scheduled for August 6 will determine if prosecutors will seek a retrial or drop the charges.
Read the full article.

Tags: Mississippi



Weak DNA Evidence Poses Problems in Court

Posted: July 6, 2012 3:20 pm

Prosecutors implicated Cleveland Barrett, of Chicago, in the sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl by telling the jury that Barrett’s DNA was found on the victim, but what investigators had found was actually much less powerful than what the public has come to expect from DNA evidence. The DNA was not from semen—common in rape cases—rather from cells taken from the girl’s lips. The DNA profile that the analyst was able to extract from the evidence was of little probative value, matching 1 in 4 African Americans, 1 in 8 Hispanics, and 1 in 9 Caucasians—hundreds of thousands of men in the Chicago area alone. 
Barrett was acquitted (after spending a year in prison), but experts say that there are numerous other cases across the country in which similarly weak DNA evidence is being presented in court, posing grave risks to the defendants in these cases and to the future of DNA evidence.
As Gregory O’Reilly, chief of the forensic science division for the Cook County public defender’s office, said to the Chicago Tribune:

“There’s a terrific power in the phrase ‘DNA match.’ And there’s a great risk that the jury will put great significance on this when it’s not significant at all.

It doesn’t only run the risk of convicting an innocent person or letting bad science into the courtroom, but you’re going to undermine the very power that’s behind DNA in the public consciousness. The meaning of ‘match’ will become so trivialized that you’ll mix powerful science with junk science, powerful evidence with junk evidence. It’s going to lead to a lot of confusion. Because this is DNA.”

Read the full article.
Read more about unreliable or improper forensic science.

Tags: Illinois



Towards a Repeal of the Death Penalty

Posted: July 16, 2012 3:45 pm

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

Tags: Death Penalty



New Jury Instructions Will Prevent Wrongful Convictions

Posted: July 20, 2012 12:30 pm

Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued new jury instructions regarding eyewitness identifications. Judges must now inform jurors that many factors can undercut the ability of an eyewitness to make an accurate identification, such as lighting, distance, stress levels, and time elapsed between the crime and the identification. Furthermore, the judge must caution the jury that eyewitnesses have particular trouble identifying someone of a different race.

The new instructions came in the wake of a landmark ruling by the court almost a year ago in Henderson v. New Jersey. In that case, the court unanimously ruled that the test for the reliability of eyewitness testimony that had been on the books since 1977 was outdated. The new instructions will take effect on September 4.

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, contributing to nearly 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Based on this, the Innocence Project submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the original case. The New Jersey changes are “critically important,” Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck told the New York Times. He continued:

It changes the way evidence is presented by prosecutors and the way lawyers defend. The whole system will improve.

Read the full article.

Tags: Eyewitness Misidentification



New Jersey Leads the Way on Eyewitness Identification Reform

Posted: July 23, 2012 5:40 pm

by Karen Newirth, Eyewitness Identification Litigation Fellow
The New Jersey Supreme Court has done it again! In its landmark 2011 decision in State v. Henderson, New Jersey became the first jurisdiction in the country to reject the scientifically flawed test for evaluating eyewitness identification evidence set forth in the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Manson v. Brathwaite and adopted by every state in the years since. Now, the court registers another first with the issuance of comprehensive jury instructions for cases involving eyewitness identification evidence. These instructions represent a true revolution by bringing science into the courtroom and making research findings concerning the many factors that affect the reliability of eyewitness identifications available to jurors.
The Innocence Project previously hailed the draft instructions submitted for the court’s review, noting that they were scientifically-based, comprehensive, and consistent with both the letter and spirit of the Court’s decision in Henderson. As previously reported, the Innocence Project, joined by the Criminal Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of New Jersey, raised several concerns during the court’s open comment period. Chief among them was the concern that the proposed instructions did not explain to jurors how memory works, which we believe is a necessary precursor to understanding how conditions at the time of the crime or at the time of the identification procedure could affect the accuracy or reliability of a person’s memory. The Innocence Project also registered an objection to the proposed instructions’ failure to tell jurors that the instructions were based on scientific research because it is critical for jurors to understand that the instructions not only have the weight of law but also – and particularly because some are counter-intuitive – reflect more than thirty years of rigorous scientific research. The New Jersey Supreme Court added language to the final instructions that address both of these concerns.
The Innocence Project again hails the New Jersey Supreme Court for its visionary approach to the problem of eyewitness misidentification, the leading cause of wrongful convictions. The use of comprehensive jury instructions, together with other trial-based remedies (including, where relevant, the testimony of expert witnesses, limitations on the testimony of witnesses. and cautionary instructions) will reduce the risk of wrongful convictions based on eyewitness misidentification for New Jersey defendants. New Jersey – whose law enforcement agencies have been required to employ all of the scientifically-supported best practices for the collection of eyewitness identification evidence since 2001 – is the national leader in all aspects of eyewitness identification reform. The Innocence Project urges other state legislatures and judiciaries to adopt similar reforms to police procedures and the legal framework for the consideration of eyewitness identification evidence. It is through reforms like these that we can reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions predicated on eyewitness misidentification.

Tags: New Jersey, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification



Editorial Urges States to Follow NJ in Eyewitness Identification Reform

Posted: July 30, 2012 1:50 pm

South Carolina exoneree Perry Mitchell spent nearly 15 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit, largely due to an eyewitness misidentification, before DNA testing proved his innocence and set him free in 1998. Now, an editorial in the Sun News questions if things would have gone differently if the trial court had been required to give jury instructions about eyewitness identification testimony like those recently issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Beginning in September, jurors in any New Jersey case that includes eyewitness testimony will be informed about the many factors that can undercut the ability of an eyewitness to make an accurate identification.

Warning jurors to take some extra time with the evidence rather than trusting it implicitly is a worthy goal. Currently, while S.C. judges can and do offer some instructions to juries on state laws that affect cases, jurors will hear no similar instruction in Palmetto courtrooms. Jurors are on their own and whatever information they already happen to have about the reliability of evidence.

New Jersey has shown us the way. We may no longer be able to be first in this reform, but we sure shouldn’t be last. Let’s get ahead of the curve and help build momentum for the change across the nation. Justice demands it.

Read the full editorial.
Read more about Mitchell’s case.

Tags: South Carolina, Eyewitness Identification



DNA Clears Texas Man of Rape

Posted: August 21, 2012 12:00 pm

A Fort Worth man who was sentenced to life in prison for a rape that DNA evidence now proves he did not commit is expected to be released on Friday. David Lee Wiggins has spent more than two decades in prison for the 1988 rape of a 14-year-old girl and was convicted by a Tarrant County jury largely based on the victim’s identification.
Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Nina Morrison filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing in 2007 but earlier attempts at testing were inconclusive. At the urging of the Innocence Project, more sophisticated testing was done on the victim’s clothing earlier this month, and the lab that conducted the testing excluded Wiggins as a donor. A press release from the district attorney’s office has requested Wiggins be immediately returned to Tarrant County and released on bond.

"If current state-of-the art DNA testing had been available in 1989, there is no doubt Mr. Wiggins would have been acquitted," District Attorney Joe Shannon said in the news release. "We will continue to cooperate with legitimate requests for post-conviction testing. The job of this office is not just to convict, but to see that justice is done."

The hearing is scheduled for Friday at 11:00 am in the 213th District Court.
Read the full article.
Read more about the case.

Tags: Texas, David Wiggins



The Trial of David Lee Wiggins

Posted: August 28, 2012 5:00 pm

By Karen Newirth, Eyewitness Identification Litigation Fellow
Last week, 24 years after a misidentification led to his wrongful conviction for rape, David Wiggins was declared innocent by a Texas judge and freed from prison. As Laura Smalarz explained in “The Misidentification of David Lee Wiggins,” this wrongful conviction may have resulted from police use of faulty lineup procedures that undermined the reliability and accuracy of the identification. But problems with the lineup procedures tell only half the story: the identification evidence in the Wiggins case made its way through the criminal justice system into the trial courtroom to be heard by a jury. In other words, none of the legal safeguards that are supposed to protect against the admission of unreliable identification evidence succeeded in filtering out evidence in the Wiggins case.
The general failure of legal safeguards to keep bad evidence out of courtrooms is more the rule than the exception. An analysis of trial records from the first 250 DNA exonerations reveals weaknesses in eyewitness evidence, such as suggestibility of the procedure, in a full 88% of eyewitness misidentification cases. In all of these cases, the identification evidence was nevertheless admitted and the defendant wrongly convicted.
What is perhaps most striking about Wiggins’ trial is his attorney’s failure to attack the eyewitness identification evidence. Indeed, it was Wiggins himself (and not his attorney) who filed a motion to suppress the witness’ identification on the grounds that “the identification procedure utilized was so impermissibly suggestive that it induced witnesses to identify the defendant.” Wiggins even filed a second motion seeking to suppress the witness’ identification based on “unfair” police influence. Despite Wiggins’ repeated attempts to challenge the identification, his lawyer raised no formal challenge to the identification procedure and when the time came for him to argue the facts to the court, Wiggins’ attorney simply passed.
Wiggins’ conviction highlights another common problem: cross examination and other legal tactics fail to uncover the unreliability of an eyewitness’ identification. The vast majority of eyewitnesses are not telling lies that can be revealed by skillful lawyering. They are generally convinced of the truth of their testimony. Judges and jurors can rarely differentiate between accurate and inaccurate eyewitness testimony, particularly after the witness has been subjected to suggestive procedures.
Finally, juries respond powerfully to eyewitness certainty, erroneously equating certainty with accuracy. Scientific research proves this, and trial lawyers know it to be true. That’s why the Innocence Project urges that courts make special tools – such as expert testimony and enhanced jury instructions – available in eyewitness identification cases. Courts across the country—most recently the Connecticut Supreme Court—are beginning to expand the availability of expert testimony for defendants in these cases and to consider whether traditional jury instructions should be replaced with comprehensive, science-based jury instructions.
David Lee Wiggins’ exoneration was a wonderful, powerful moment for all of us here at the Innocence Project, but his 24 years of wrongful incarceration also served as a reminder of the high stakes involved in eyewitness identification reform. The criminal justice system failed Wiggins at every turn—when a suggestive identification procedure led to his arrest, and later, when faulty eyewitness evidence made its way to the courtroom.

Tags: Texas, David Wiggins



Judge Grants Compensation to Two of "Beatrice Six" in Nebraska Case

Posted: September 21, 2012 5:00 pm

Nearly four years after DNA testing exonerated the Beatrice Six, two of its members were awarded compensation Thursday by a district court judge. Named for the Nebraska town where they were wrongfully convicted, the Beatrice Six were convicted of a 1985 murder after five of the accused entered pleas, reported the Lincoln Journal Star.
Ada JoAnn Taylor spent nearly 20 years in prison and James Dean spent five years after pleading guilty. Taylor was awarded $500,000, the maximum allowed by the state, and Dean was awarded $300,000 under the Nebraska Claims for Wrongful Conviction and Imprisonment Act of 2009, which was passed shortly after their exoneration.
In his opinion, Judge Daniel E. Bryan Jr. cited testimony from false confession expert Richard A. Leo who told the court Taylor and Dean were persuaded to incriminate themselves.

“(Both Taylor and Dean) did not commit or suborn perjury, fabricate evidence, or otherwise make a false statement to cause or bring about her conviction or the conviction of another,” Bryan wrote in his opinion. “(Taylor and Dean’s) statements … were not a result of physical force by law enforcement, but were caused by law enforcement’s improper investigative practices and procedures.”

Judge Bryan also wrote about his disappointment in the state’s compensation cap.

“To try to attempt to place any value on one’s liberty to be free is a Herculean task,” he said.

During the hearing earlier this week, Attorney General Jon Bruning, who declared the Beatrice Six innocent in 2008, defended the state in an attempt to deny compensation. Bruning has since announced that his office would appeal the decision.
Read the full article.
Read case profiles of James Dean and Ada JoAnn Taylor.
Read more about compensation for the wrongly convicted.

Tags: Nebraska, James Dean, Ada Taylor



Barry Scheck Urges California to Adopt Rule on Exculpatory Evidence

Posted: December 16, 2014 6:00 pm

Along with Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson, Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck co-authored a piece for Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, calling for the state of California to adopt a rule on disclosing evidence that could prove a defendant's innocence.


Morre than half a century ago, the Supreme Court established a rule that requires prosecutors to turn over to defense attorneys any evidence pointing to a defendant's innocence. It's known as the Brady rule, and violations of it occur far too often and can lead to devastating consequences. In a dissenting opinion last year, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that "there is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it." There is no shortage of examples.

Under the proposed ethical standard, prosecutors simply turn over any potentially helpful evidence without judging whether it could help lead to an acquittal.


Take the case of Mark Sodersten. In 2007, a state appellate court reversed his 1986 murder conviction after finding that the prosecution failed to give the defense audiotapes of interviews with a key witness that contained evidence pointing to Sodersten's innocence. Tragically, the ruling came too late for Sodersten, who spent 22 years behind bars and died in prison months before he was awarded a new trial.

Or consider Kash Delano Register, who served 34 years behind bars for a 1979 murder in Los Angeles that he always maintained he didn't commit. He was released last year after a judge found that prosecutors and police "repeatedly concealed relevant evidence" that pointed to Register's innocence.

And then there's Obie Anthony, who was freed in 2011 after serving 17 years in prison for a murder in South Los Angeles after a judge ruled that the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. Anthony was released only after lawyers from Northern California and Loyola Law School innocence projects demonstrated that the key eyewitness for the prosecution hadn't actually observed the crime — and that the prosecution had not disclosed a deal to give the witness favorable treatment on unrelated charges in exchange for his testimony.

There is an easy step California should take to curb this type of prosecutorial misconduct — the adoption of an ethical rule. One reason even well-intentioned prosecutors violate Brady is the cognitive difficulty of predicting before a trial has even occurred whether undisclosed information might be considered "material" — or sufficiently important to overturn a conviction — by an appellate court. Instead, prosecutors should follow a simple prophylactic rule that errs on the side of caution. Under the proposed ethical standard, prosecutors simply turn over any potentially helpful evidence without judging whether it could help lead to an acquittal.

The American Bar Assn., which publishes "Model Rules of Professional Conduct" to serve as ethical standards for attorneys nationwide, enacted Rule 3.8. The rule's objective is to eliminate confusion. Part of the rule, which defines the evidence that must be disclosed, was designed to be broader and independent of Brady obligations, requiring prosecutors to disclose before trial all evidence that "tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense." Again, this differs from Brady because it does not require prosecutors to evaluate how much the evidence tends to negate the defendant's guilt. That is for the defense to argue and for the jury to decide.

The rule provides an exception so that prosecutors who have real concerns about witness safety, subornation of perjury or other significant considerations can seek and obtain protective orders from a court to delay disclosure. Equally important, other parts of the rule require prosecutors to turn over any evidence pointing to innocence that they become aware of after a conviction; they must take proactive steps to vacate a conviction if there is clear evidence of the defendant's innocence.

California is the only state in the nation that has failed to adopt some version of this rule. Last week, we testified about the need for this rule at the State Bar of California's hearing on attorney competency and disciplinary standards. The bar has spent nearly a decade redrafting a new set of rules of professional conduct. Complaints about the bar's approach to redrafting the new rules recently led California's Supreme Court to announce that it would restart the process with a new rules commission. The criminal-justice system cannot wait another decade to adopt a rule that will ensure fairer criminal trials. While the new commission considers how to revamp all the rules, the bar and court should adopt the American Bar Assn. model rule for disclosure of exculpatory evidence.

The obligations imposed by the rule are not about making the average prosecutor's job more difficult or punishing for innocent mistakes. In fact, these men and women deserve credit and praise for their public service and dedication to justice. Rule 3.8 is designed to make the system fairer and better by ensuring that criminal defendants have access to all relevant evidence that could aid in their defense. For the sake of the many men and women who have needlessly lost years of their lives because they weren't given a fair chance at trial, we urge the California Supreme Court to take this important step and bring California prosecutors in line with the rest of the nation. Waiting will just lead to more injustice.

Tags: California



Massachusetts Jury Instructions Updated to Help Assess Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

Posted: January 13, 2015 5:55 pm

The Massachusetts high court has issued new instructions for jurors on how to assess the reliability of eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial.  

The decision comes in one of three cases the court accepted to review the framework for how courts throughout the state deal with identification evidence. The trial court had refused the defendant’s request for jury instructions similar to those embraced in a landmark decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledging the science on memory and identification.  In his decision, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants took notice of the science and drafted a new template for judges to use when instructing jurors in such cases. 

The new instructions include warnings that, just because a witness expresses certainty about what they saw, it doesn’t necessarily mean events occurred in that manner. Sometimes the effect of stress on an eyewitness or the passage of time can interfere with the accuracy of a memory. 

The instructions note that witnesses are often influenced by descriptions given by others, including police officers, which “may inflate the witness’s confidence in the identification.” Often, witnesses will “recognize” a suspect because they have been shown the suspect multiple times during identification procedures. 

Read the full Boston Globe store here.

Tags: Massachusetts, Eyewitness Identification, Eyewitness Misidentification