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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.More coverage in Massachusetts:
Read the full editorial here. (Boston Herald, 7/17/07)
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
Openings and closings: Fair justice relies on effective crime labs
Posted: November 15, 2007 12:55 pm
With two Michigan crime labs set to close in 2008 due to insufficient funding, law enforcement officials said recently that cutting back on forensic testing will have a drastic impact on the state’s ability to identify and prosecute criminals. “That’s a longer time they will be out there doing crime,” Delta County Undersheriff Ed Oswald said. “It’s not good for Michigan.”
And every time a state cuts funding for crime labs, the chance of forensic error is increased. Overburdened and understaffed labs are less able to store, retrieve and test evidence in a reliable, efficient manner. With growing demands from state DNA databases and law enforcement agencies, many labs, like those in Michigan, are stretched to the breaking point.
In Wisconsin, a murder prosecution has been held up for months while forensic testing drags on at a private lab, which was employed to avoid backlogs at state labs. Three Minnesota counties have asked the state legislature for three consecutive years to fund a new crime lab, because backlogs at the state lab have delayed investigations in the county.
Texas voters last week passed an amendment to the state constitution which allowed several state agencies to fund new projects, including a new crime lab in El Paso and increased funding for labs elsewhere in the state. Several observers of the state’s criminal justice system, however, opposed the bill because it also funds the construction of three new prisons and a new juvenile facility. Read more on the Grits for Breakfast blog.
Read more about crime lab closures in Michigan, Wisconsin lab backlogs, a new lab in El Paso and hiring in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to reduce the crime lab backlog.
Read previous blog posts on crime lab backlogs.
Tags: New Mexico, Michigan, Wisconsin, Crime Lab Backlogs
Chad Heins, finally free, returns to Wisconsin
Posted: December 6, 2007 1:26 pm
Innocence Project client Chad Heins, exonerated and released on Tuesday in Jacksonville, Florida, rejoined his family in Wisconsin on Wednesday. The joyful reunion came more than a decade after Heins was wrongfully convicted of killing his sister-in-law in Florida. He was exonerated and released this week because DNA evidence has shown that an unidentified man killed the victim.
Read media coverage of Heins’ exoneration and his return to Wisconsin below:
Freed man returns home. (First Coast News, 12/06/07)
DNA exonerates Nekoosa man of 94 murder (Wausau, WI Daily Herald, 12/6/07)
13 years later, DNA frees man in family death (Associated Press, 12/05/07)
Tags: Wisconsin, Chad Heins
Wisconsin case calls bite mark evidence into question again
Posted: July 10, 2008 2:20 pm
Faulty bite mark evidence has played a part in at least five wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Robert Stinson in Wisconsin could become the sixth. New DNA testing indicates that Stinson is in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and his case is again calling the field of forensic dentistry into question.
Dr. L Thomas Johnson, a Wisconsin bite mark analyst, testified at Stinson’s trial for a 1984 murder that bite marks on the victim’s body matched Stinson’s teeth. Now, DNA testing on saliva from the victim’s shirt have shown that another man left the bite marks. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, which represents Stinson, has filed for his release based on the new evidence.
While Johnson stands behind his work in the Stinson case, other forensic dentists have found not only that Johnson’s analysis was wrong, but also that he went too far in saying that there was “no doubt” the bite marks came from Stinson.
The case also was examined by forensic experts from Texas, California and Illinois. In their report, the experts said that while some modern methods were not available in 1984, "it should be emphasized that Drs. Johnson and Rawson should have excluded Robert Lee Stinson even based on methods and standards available at the time ... because there is little or no correlation of Robert Lee Stinson's dentition to the bite marks."Johnson is also leading a project to build a computer database of bite marks, attempting to bring scientific rigor to a discipline that has been criticized for lacking it. He says his research shows that bite marks have six distinct identifying points that distinguish them. But other forensic dentists are skeptical of his work.
The report also criticized Johnson's testimony that there was no doubt Stinson's teeth left the marks. "That statement has no evidence-based, scientific, or statistical basis and drastically overstates the level of certainty attainable using bite mark analysis," the report said.
"This is the epitome of junk science cloaked as academic research," said Dr. Michael Bowers, a California odontologist and a frequent critic of bite-mark comparisons. "I don't think his claims are supported. The study just doesn't pass muster."
Read the full story here. (Chicago Tribune, 07/10/08)
The Innocence Project has called for scientific oversight in all forensic fields, and has criticized bite mark analysis for years because there are no national standards or acceptable certification procedures. Earlier this year, two Innocence Project clients originally convicted based on bite mark comparison – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks – were exonerated when DNA testing led investigators to the real perpetrator of the murders for which the two men had been convicted.
Read more about wrongful convictions overturned by bite mark evidence here.
Tags: Wisconsin, Bitemark Evidence
A Needed Reform: Compensation in Wisconsin
Posted: October 24, 2008 5:25 pm
The Wisconsin Law Journal this week highlighted the work of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and several reforms being considered in the state.
The article featured Mike Piaskowski, who served nearly six years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was cleared on appeal (by non-DNA evidence), but has yet to be compensated.
Seven years after his exoneration, Piaskowski recalls how his elation quickly evolved into frustration because of insufficient support from the state after his release.The current Wisconsin compensation law grants only $25,000 in total compensation to those who qualify as wrongfully convicted. It ranks last among the 25 states that offer compensation. In addition, Wisconsin provides no educational, professional or emotional assistance to exonerees.
“I lost everything I worked 46 years of my blue-collar life to achieve,” said Piaskowski, now 59. “And I have received nothing from the state. Zero.”
State Sen. Lena C. Taylor, who chairs the Wisconsin Senate Judiciary and Corrections Committee, said the time has come for lawmakers to improve exoneree compensation.
“A review of the compensation levels for persons wrongfully incarcerated is certainly past due. The Judiciary Committees in both houses will need to commit themselves to a serious review of those statutes, and be prepared to have a constructive dialog on the subject, including its implications for the state’s budget.”
Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Law Journal, 10/20/08)The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a member of the Innocence Network.
Tags: Wisconsin, Fredric Saecker
Twelve Years of Freedom
Posted: October 24, 2008 5:05 pm
Today marks the 12th anniversary of Fredric Saecker's exoneration in Wisconsin. He served six years in prison before DNA testing – paid for by his mother – proved his innocence and led to his release.
In June 1989 a woman was kidnapped from her home in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin. The perpetrator raped her twice and then left her by the side of her road. The victim initially described the attacker as 5-feet-7-inches tall, but the 6-foot-3-inch Saecker became a suspect after police found him near the victim's home wearing a bloodstained T-shirt. Under questioning from police, Saecker allegedly made incriminating statements. He was convicted of the crime in 1990 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Although his mother obtained DNA testing on his behalf in 1993 and the results proved his innocence, his request for a new trial was denied until 1996. Finally, the District Attorney dismissed all charges against him and he was released.
Countless people have been wrongfully convicted in the United States based on false confessions or admissions of guilty. Read more about why innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
Other Exoneree Anniversaries this Week:
Tuesday: Edward Honaker, Virginia (Served 9.5 Years, Exonerated 10/22/1994)
Today: Victor Ortiz, New York (Served 11.5 Years, Exonerated 10/24/1996)
DNA Tests Help Release Wisconsin Man
Posted: January 9, 2009 4:15 pm
Thirteen years after he was charged and convicted in the murder of a Wisconsin runaway, the state Supreme Court released Chaunte Ott from prison when DNA testing of evidence found on the victim matched DNA from two other unrelated cases.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the county district attorney's office agreed release after forensic evidence taken from Ott's alleged victim failed to match Ott and instead matched an unknown person linked to two other unsolved murders in the Milwaukee area. Ott is being assisted by the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The indictment against Ott is still pending while officers continue to investigate the case.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams said prosecutors did not oppose Ott's release because "it was probably the fair and reasonable thing to do." The district attorney's office requested six months to determine whether to schedule another trial for Ott.Read the full story here. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/8/09)
"We're going to be re-investigating some of the aspects of the case and come into court probably this summer to see if we want to retry the case," said Williams, who heads the district attorney's homicide unit.
Friday Roundup: Compensation and Crime Lab Woes
Posted: June 5, 2009 5:00 pm
William Dillon of Florida was denied compensation from the state on Tuesday as a result of a "clean hands" law, which prevents exonerees with unrelated prior convictions from receiving compensation. The Innocence Project of Florida is pursuing measures to exempt Dillon from the statute, which would allow Dillon to receive $1.3 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction, but requires finding a sponsor in the state legislature, filing the claims bill and having it pass.
Two states are facing budget cuts that may put their crime labs at risk. In Wisconsin, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is trying to convince the state Justice Department to restore funds that were cut by the state legislature. Hollen says the budget cuts would force him to lay off staff and would result in increased backlogs.
The North Carolina legislature is considering closing the Greensboro crime lab, less than a year after it opened, to reduce state spending. The state has a $4 billion budget shortfall. Crime lab supporters argue that keeping the lab open could actually save the state more money in the long run.
According to Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes, the lab not only takes on work that would otherwise have to be done in Raleigh, but it also saves local departments travel time. If getting a particular result is urgent, Barnes said, officers can wait for evidence to be processed on-site rather than having to drive back and forth twice.
“That has value you just can’t imagine or put a price on,” he said.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments in the case of a Mississippi man requesting DNA testing to prove his innocence. Steve Michael Fasono and his attorneys argue that Fasono was not involved in the 2002 robbery of a bank, and that DNA testing of clothing used during the crime can conclusively prove he was not involved with the crime.
Meanwhile, Tim Kennedy is awaiting retrial with his family in Colorado while on bond after DNA tests proved not only that another man was present and left the tested samples at the scene of a murder, but that Kennedy’s DNA was not found on any of the evidence collected. Having spent 14 years in prison for the murder of a Colorado Springs couple, Kennedy’s retrial is scheduled for Sept. 21.
Kennedy’s case, along with various others, is posted on the Just Science Coalition’s news page – you can visit Just-Science.org for weekly updates on forensic news.
Tags: North Carolina, Colorado, Florida, Mississippi, Wisconsin, William Dillon
Friday Roundup: Cases and Reforms Move Forward
Posted: July 31, 2009 5:30 pm
Around the country this week, individual cases moved forward – as did efforts to reform the criminal justice system to prevent wrongful convictions and assist the exonerated.
A judge in Wisconsin this morning dismissed rape and murder charges against Ralph Armstrong, who has been in prison for 28 years. Evidence shows that a prosecutor concealed substantial evidence that Armstrong was innocent. Armstrong will remain in custody while the state decides whether to appeal the ruling. The Innocence Project has worked on Armstrong’s case since 1993, and Co-Director Barry Scheck today called Armstrong’s case a “particularly chilling” example of prosecutorial misconduct.
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County may be the home of pilot programs for identification reforms, according to District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., who chairs the county’s investigations section of the state Committee on Wrongful Convictions. The news comes on the heels of the Innocence Project’s new report on eyewitness identification reforms, released earlier this month. Read more in the press release here.
Republican and Democratic leaders are asking Virginia’s General Assembly to provide compensation for exoneree Arthur Whitfield, who spent more than 22 years in prison and was released when DNA tests proved his innocence. Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds, the respective Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates, are calling for action during the assembly’s special session in August.
DNA may play a key role in the case of a Florida man convicted of murder 25 years ago. David Johnston was scheduled for execution in May, but the Florida Supreme Court delayed his execution when defense attorneys requested DNA testing on blood samples and nail clippings kept as evidence.
Tags: Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Arthur Lee Whitfield, Exoneree Compensation, Eyewitness Identification
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
Wisconsin Says Crime Labs Have Eliminated DNA Backlog
Posted: April 21, 2010 4:15 pm
Van Hollen said the crime labs received 500 cases for testing in March but had only 351 cases pending at the end of the month. That shows analysts are working current cases and not those that had been sitting on shelves for weeks or months, he said.
Analysts are being assigned cases within days of their arrival and most are cleared within 60 days, barring any unique circumstances such as an extremely large number of samples, he said.
Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard, a Democrat, said the elimination of the backlog has helped investigations progress faster and freed up analysts to testify at trials. In the past, investigations would stall while detectives waited for samples and analysts often were unable to testify, which caused delays, he said.
Van Hollen said the use of robotic technology, the expansion of crime labs in Madison and Milwaukee, and the National Forensic Science Training Center’s work training the new analysts also helped increase productivity.
Testing of crime scene evidence can match DNA to samples taken from suspects or contained in law enforcement databases, solving crimes, linking multiple crimes to the same person and exonerating the innocent. Investigators have become more reliant on the tests to solve crimes and convince jurors, who increasingly demand DNA evidence.
While the state says the backlog has been wiped out, law enforcement discovered last year they failed to collect DNA samples from thousands of offenders dating back to 1993. So far, about a third of the missing samples have been recovered. The lag was first discovered when detectives noticed accused Milwaukee serial killer Water Ellis’ DNA was gone even though he should have submitted a sample while in prison for a previous conviction.
Read the full article here.
Friday Roundup: Favorable Compensation, Actual Innocence Bills
Posted: March 2, 2012 2:20 pm
Tags: Florida, Louisiana, Utah, Wisconsin
Innocence Network Week in Review: December 14, 2012
Posted: December 14, 2012 4:40 pm
Tags: North Carolina, Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Innocence Network
The Long Road Exonerees Face to Clear Their Records
Posted: May 6, 2013 5:00 pm
Tags: Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Vincent Moto, Audrey Edmunds
DNA Testing Leads to Overturned Rape Conviction for Wisconsin Man
Posted: May 23, 2013 4:40 pm