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A DNA Test Approved, But Evidence is Lost
Posted: December 2, 2008 1:37 pm
Eugene Pitts has been in Arkansas prison for nearly three decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit, and a hair from the crime scene could potentially prove his guilt or innocence – if it can be found. An Arkansas judge granted Pitts the right to DNA testing under the state’s 2001 DNA access statute. But crime lab officials now say they are unable to find the hair.
Pitts became a suspect shortly after the 1979 murder of Bernard Jones, the brother of former U.S. Attorney General Joycelyn Elders, because he had allegedly made threats to Jones’ wife. Microscopic hair comparison and other unreliable forensic science was also used to convict him. A state hair examiner testified – improperly – at trial that "in my experience as a hair examiner, the only times hairs have matched as they do with defendant have been when they were from the individual." Hairs should never be said to “match” one another; they should only be said to be consistent. Soil comparison and handwriting analysis were also used to connect Pitts to the crime. Neither of these disciplines follows a set of reliable standards, so findings and testimony can vary in every trial.
Whether Pitts is innocent or guilty, this case raises the issues of evidence preservation and improper/unvalidated forensic science. The Innocence Project advocates for law enforcement agencies to retain biological evidence from crime scenes as long as the defendant is incarcerated or under state supervision. And, as raised last week in the case of Innocence Project client Steven Barnes (another soil comparison case), we also support the establishment of national standards for forensic science to minimize the risk of improper or unvalidated science leading to wrongful convictions.
Read more about the Pitts case here. (Associated Press, 12/1/08)
Tags: Arkansas, Forensic Oversight, Evidence Preservation
Friday Roundup: Progress Around the Country
Posted: August 14, 2009 5:30 pm
Important policy reforms, pending cases and other developments around the country this week highlighted the complexities of wrongful convictions and the need to prevent them at all levels.
North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue signed a bill on Tuesday that seeks to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The bill, which allows capital murder defendants and death row prisoners to challenge prosecutions based on evidence of racial bias, is the second such bill passed in the United States (Kentucky approved a similar bill in 1998.)
Critics of the Rhode Island probation system allege the state’s current policy can put innocent people in prison because the courts only need to be “reasonably satisfied” that defendants commit a crime, thereby violating parole.
Actress Hilary Swank told Variety magazine that she was excited to work on the “Betty Anne Waters” film because of its focus on wrongful convictions, an issue about which she cares deeply. Swank’s support of the Innocence Project is featured in Variety’s special issue on philanthropy.
Hundreds of mourners attended a funeral march for Donald Marshall Jr., who spent 11 years in a Canadian prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Marshall passed away at the age of 55 of complications from a previous double lung transplant.
New York man William McCaffrey was convicted of rape in 2005 and sentence to 20 years in prison based on the victim’s testimony and bite mark evidence. Last year, however, the alleged victim told the district attorney that she lied about the rape. Subsequent DNA tests have since proven that bite marks could not have been made by McCaffrey, but the district attorney’s office is still reviewing the case.
Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols of Arkansas were convicted of murder in the death of three West Memphis boys in 1993. Prosecutors originally argued that the boys were murdered in a cult ritual, but a forensic pathologist now says that the multiple injuries to the bodies were likely caused by animals, possibly turtles.
Tags: Arkansas, North Carolina, New York
Posted: February 2, 2012 3:00 pm
Tags: Arkansas, California, Ohio, Texas
Paradise Lost, Oscar Contender
Posted: February 24, 2012 12:00 pm
Tags: Arkansas, West Memphis Three
Damien Echols and Johnny Depp to Read at New York City Bookstore
Posted: September 19, 2012 5:25 pm
Damien Echols will read from his new memoir, Life After Death, at the Union Square Barnes and Noble on Sept. 21 and sign books afterwards. Echols is known as one of the “West Memphis Three” — three young men wrongfully convicted of the murder of three boys in Arkansas. The men were all released through an Alford Plea in August 2011. Echols had spent nearly 18 years on death row and his two co-defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. had been serving life sentences.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“If I start to believe that the things I wrote cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen. I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will only think of me as either someone on death row or someone who used to be on death row. I grow dissatisfied when I think of people reading my words out of a morbid sense of curiosity. I want people to read what I write because it means something to them – either it makes them laugh, or remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them, or that it simply touches them in some way. I don’t want to be an oddity, a freak, or a curiosity. I don’t want to be the car wreck that people slow down to gawk at. . . . I want to create something of lasting beauty, not a freak show exhibit.”
There have been several compelling documentaries about their case including the HBO trilogy Paradise Lost and Amy Berg’s West of Memphis. Johnny Depp, a longtime champion of the West Memphis Three, will also speak at the reading.
Tags: Arkansas, New York, West Memphis Three