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Posted: November 20, 2008 4:05 pm
Joseph White was added today to the Innocence Project’s database of DNA exonerations in the U.S. He is the 225th person exonerated, and the first in Nebraska. There have been DNA exonerations in 33 states, and the exonerees have served a total of nearly 2,800 years.
White and five co-defendants were convicted of a 1985 murder in Beatrice, Nebraska, and all six were cleared recently by DNA testing on evidence from the crime scene, which points to a man who was a suspect at the time of the crime. Law enforcement officials say they have “no doubt” the actual perpetrator committed the crime alone. White has been fully exonerated and the other five defendants are seeking pardons to clear their records. They will be included as DNA exonerees when their records are cleared.
Involved in the wrongful conviction of these six defendants was the faulty forensic testimony of Joyce Gilchrist, an Oklahoma City Police Department lab analyst whose false statements have been involved in at least four other wrongful conviction cases. In this case, Gilchrist tested the blood of a likely suspect who had fled to Nebraska. She told Nebraska police that the suspect was excluded by the tests, but she was wrong. This suspect is the man now implicated by DNA tests.
Read more about this case below, and stay tuned for updates.
Beatrice Daily Sun: Taylor released from prison
Omaha World-Herald: An opportunity led to 19 years spent in prison
Associated Press: Exonerated inmates often don’t have state help
Tags: Nebraska, Joseph White
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
The Shortcomings of Limited Science
Posted: January 26, 2009 2:03 pm
The Nebraska Pardons Board is hearing testimony today in the case of the “Beatrice Six” – three men and three women who were convicted of a murder committed by another man. Joseph White has already been completely exonerated by DNA testing, but his five co-defendants are seeking state pardons to clear their names. The Nebraska Attorney General is asking today for the state to grant their pardons and let them get on with their lives.
An article in today’s Omaha World-Herald details the case and explores how limited science and faulty analysis led authorities to ignore the real perpetrator and focus on six innocent people. Serological testing conducted in Nebraska before Joseph White’s trial was misinterpreted by analysts in the Nebraska State Patrol lab, and blood testing on a potential suspect in Oklahoma was botched or falsified by analyst Joyce Gilchrist (whose misconduct has contributed to at least four wrongful convictions).
The most common DNA profile would show up once in group of 250 billion people. Results often reach into numbers that are hard to fathom, like quadrillions or quintillions.
With serology, results are more common. If 10,000 people were in a stadium, it's possible that 10 to 100 could match one another under the older testing system.
Testing on mixed or degraded samples yielded even less definitive results.Read more about the case – and today’s pardon requests – in this report from ABC News
For this reason, defendants in nearly half of all exoneration cases nationwide — like several of the six men and women convicted in the Beatrice woman's death — were included as suspects by forensic serology but later excluded when the same materials were tested for DNA.
"In a lot of the cases, the serology testimony was scientifically valid and was accurate," said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that helps win reversals of wrongful convictions. "The problem was that it wasn't sufficiently discriminating. In other words, you can't exclude most of the population."
Read the full story here. (Omaha World-Herald, 01/26/09)
Tags: Joseph White
Five Pardoned in Nebraska
Posted: January 26, 2009 6:10 pm
Updating our post earlier today on the “Beatrice Six” case – the Nebraska Board of Pardons granted pardons this afternoon to Thomas Winslow, Ada Taylor, Debra Shelden, Kathy Gonzalez and James Dean. The sixth person wrongfully convicted of this murder was Joseph White, who was fully exonerated in late 2008.
White, Winslow, Taylor, Shelden, Gonzalez and Dean are the first six people to be exonerated by DNA testing in Nebraska history. There have now been 232 people exonerated by DNA testing nationwide in 33 states.
Read more: Five Pardoned After Wrongful Conviction in Neb. Crime (Associated Press, 01/26/2009)
Tags: James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada Taylor, Joseph White, Thomas Winslow
Nebraska Legislature Considers Exoneree Compensation
Posted: March 4, 2009 5:08 pm
Nebraska lawmakers today voted to grant preliminary approval to a bill that would compensate wrongfully convicted people upon their release and provide them with state services to help them rebuild their lives. The bill, introduced by State Sen. Kent Rogert, will provide at least $25,000 for each year a person spends in prison for a crime he or she didn’t commit.
The state’s unicameral legislature voted 37-6 to give first-round approval to the bill. It will come up for debate twice more before being sent to the governor for his signature.
In February, three recent Nebraska exonerees gave emotional testimony before lawmakers on the years they had lost for a crime they didn’t commit. Six people – known as the “Beatrice Six” – were cleared of murder last year of a 1985 murder in Beatice, Nebraska. They were the first DNA exonerees in Nebraska history.
Joseph White, who served nearly two decades before his exoneration last year, spoke about the one-year-old son he left behind when he was wrongfully imprisoned in 1989.
“I can’t get back the time with him,” (White) said, holding up a photo of his son as a baby and another of him today at 21. “I can’t go back and teach my boy to ride a bicycle or drive a car.”Innocence Project Policy Analyst Rebecca Brown also spoke, describing for lawmakers how policies in other states around the country have helped exonerees create new lives after release.
Read more about today’s vote here.
Does your state have an exoneree compensation law? Find out on our interactive map.
Tags: James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada Taylor, Joseph White, Thomas Winslow
Friday Roundup: Life After Exoneration
Posted: October 8, 2010 3:11 pm
William Dillon, who spent 26 years behind bars before DNA evidence exonerated him, talks about writing and performing his own songs.
"Conviction" opens next Friday, October 15, in select theaters nationwide. Get advance screening passes here and learn more about the story behind the film.
Tags: Steven Barnes, Joseph White