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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.

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



Editorial: Alabama's DNA laws fall short

Posted: July 30, 2007 1:09 pm

Alabama is one of eight states in the country that lacks a state law allowing inmates to seek post-conviction DNA testing to prove innocence. Last week, the state executed Darrell Grayson despite his repeated attempts to seek DNA testing that could have proved his innocence or confirmed his guilt.

An editorial in yesterday’s Birmingham News called for Alabama to join the 42 states that offer post-conviction DNA testing.

Gov. Bob Riley could have, and should have, delayed Grayson's execution long enough to allow for a test. He did not.

If there's good to come from this, it's that the case is a reminder of how Alabama's law has not kept up with the times when it comes to scientific advances in criminal investigations.

Read the full editorial here. (Birmingham News, 07/29/2007)
And an editorial in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun said that the nation’s 205 DNA exonerations have revealed serious fissures across the American criminal justice system. The editorial calls for reforms nationwide – on eyewitness identifications, snitch testimony, videotaping interrogations, indigent defense and more. Read the full editorial here.

See reforms state by state on our National View maps and read more in our Fix the System section.

Tags: Alabama, Maryland



Friday roundup

Posted: September 5, 2008 3:07 pm

New projects and investigations launched this week by innocence organizations, law schools, prosecutors and attorneys general across the country show the momentum nationwide to overturn wrongful convictions and address the root causes of wrongful conviction to prevent future injustice. Here’s this week’s roundup:

Questions were raised about standards of DNA collection and preservation in Massachusetts after improper procedures were revealed in a high-profile case. Mass. is one of 25 states without a DNA preservation law.

The Mississippi Attorney General said this week that the state is underfunding DNA tests and DNA collection and a new task force is examining the state problem.

San Jose opened California’s largest crime lab, training began in Maryland before a new law expanding the state’s database took effect and cutbacks in Georgia led to furloughs for prosecutors and could cause lab closings.

The Midwest Innocence Project this week launched an investigation into a 1988 fire that killed six Kansas City firemen and led to the conviction of five people who say they’re innocent. The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, a first-of-its-kind panel dedicated to investigating cases of possible wrongful conviction, finished reviewing its first case, deciding that there wasn’t enough evidence to overturn the conviction of Henry A. Reeves. And  Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins asked county officials to allow filming in his offices in coming months for a Discovery Channel documentary.

Some of the best policy analysis and research to help improve our criminal justice system comes, of course, from our nation’s law schools – and now many of those schools have blogs. Marquette University Law School launched a new faculty law blog, and a post by Keith Sharfman finds that “blogging’s potential as a medium for serious legal discourse can no longer be doubted.” 

A column on asks: “Is the future of legal scholarship in the blogosphere?”

Here at the Innocence Project, we read law school blogs everyday. Among our favorites are Crim Prof Blog and Evidence Prof Blog

New York University Law School has formed a new Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, which will seek to promote “good government practices in criminal matters.”

Tags: California, North Carolina, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, Innocence Commissions, Evidence Preservation, Access to DNA Testing, DNA Databases



University of Baltimore takes on Maryland Innocence Project

Posted: September 5, 2008 3:14 pm

The Baltimore Sun reported yesterday that the University of Baltimore will be taking over the Innocence Project unit of the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, after the heads of the unit approached the university’s law school.

Under the auspices of the university, six law students have been assigned to work on three potential wrongful conviction cases, while 20 more will review innocence claims to see if they can take them on. Since helping Bernard Webster get exonerated by DNA testing in 2002, the Public Defender’s Office has received over 700 requests for help. They have successfully filed 15 motions for DNA testing, with one more pending.

The new project will be directed by the head of the original unit, Michele Nethercott, and Steven Harris, who was a state public defender for 14 years. They will announce the new project at a press-conference today along with Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project.

Law School Dean Phillip J. Closius said he "didn't hesitate" when the public defender's office approached him with the idea for the transfer.

"It's a great idea for us," he said. "It benefits students because they get to work on criminal cases with DNA evidence, and it benefits society because we can help free the unjustly incarcerated."
Read the full story.

Tags: Maryland



Charges dropped in 1987 Baltimore murder case

Posted: October 16, 2008 1:29 pm

Charges were dropped yesterday against a Baltimore man who spent 21 years in prison for a murder he has always said he didn’t commit. A Maryland judge granted James Owens, Jr., a new trial last year after DNA tests showed that biological material from the crime scene came from an unknown man – and not Owens or his co-defendant, James A. Thompson. Owens was freed around 5 p.m.

Owens is represented by Stephen B. Mercer. Thompson, who is represented by Suzanne Drouet at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Innocence Project, is still facing a possible retrial. 

"You can't give me that time back," Owens told reporters outside the prison. "You can't give me that back. That's all I got to say."
Read the full story here. (Baltimore Sun, 10/16/08)
The Maryland Office of the Public Defender’s Innocence Project, along with the Innocence Project and more than 40 other organizations worldwide, is a member of the Innocence Network.

Tags: Maryland



Still Waiting in Maryland

Posted: January 13, 2009 2:21 pm

Attorneys for a Maryland man argued before the state’s highest court  recently that their client deserves a new trial based on DNA evidence of his innocence in a 1987 murder. James Thompson, 49, has been in Maryland prison for two decades for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Prosecutors at his trial said he confessed that he and his co-defendant, James Owens, committed the crime. Thompson, however, says the confession was coerced.

Owens was released in October after DNA test results showed that semen on the victim’s body came from another man – excluding Owens or Thompson.

"Thompson's the case of the phantom accomplice," his attorney, George Burns, argued in front of the Maryland Court of Appeals. "The state decides, well, Mr. Owens is not the accomplice. There's some other accomplice with Mr. Thompson."

… Suzanne Drouet, an attorney with Maryland's Innocence Project, said Thompson gave a "false confession" after "trickery" from police and prosecutors.

Read the full story here. (Baltimore Examiner, 1/13/09)
Read about Owens’ release here.

Tags: Maryland, False Confessions



Maryland Governor's Office Slows Possible Exoneration

Posted: April 13, 2010 4:30 pm

Given the Maryland governor's reluctance to commute a sentence or grant clemency to anyone — as well as his embrace of the no-parole-for-lifers and "life means life" philosophy — it's hard to imagine Martin O'Malley ever acting on Mr. Grant's case, never mind in an election year.

But, of course, had there been some DNA, this all might have been over by now, and Mark Grant would be out on the street looking for a job.

Now that we are in the age of DNA testing, claims of wrongful convictions without it appear to be at a striking disadvantage, especially if calculating, what's-in-it-for-me politicians are asked to make a judgment call. The availability of DNA testing and resulting exonerations have "made it harder for prisoners seeking to prove their innocence in the much larger number of cases that do not involve DNA evidence," The New York Times reported last year. "Many lawyers have grown more reluctant to take on these kinds of cases because they are much harder and more expensive to pursue."

Maryland received a Bloodsworth Award—named for Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person exonerated by DNA testing in the U.S. who had spent time on death row—from the National Institute of Justice last year to be used for post-conviction DNA testing.   But Grant’s case does not include DNA evidence.  The clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law says that it proved his innocence by reviewing affidavits of witnesses who said they lied at trial and the discovery of a failed lie detector test by the key prosecution witness. 

However, earlier this year, Governor Martin O’Malley’s chief legal counsel mentioned the Bloodsworth award in a letter to Grant’s aunt saying that the request for clemency will be reviewed seriously.  It’s already been two years.

Read the full article here.

Tags: Maryland



Eyewitness Identification: Could You Identify a Suspect?

Posted: May 5, 2010 5:00 pm

The students’ memories were varied.  Some remembered the perpetrator being white, but none accurately assessed his height, weight or attire.  Others focused more on the victim, who was described as white, black, blonde, and dark-haired among many inconsistent details.

Anderson, now a lieutenant with the Hanover, Virginia, volunteer fire department, was wrongfully convicted of rape based in large part on the victim’s misidentification.  He says he is proof that eyewitness identification isn’t enough to convict someone.  Despite his alibi and several inconsistencies in the case, Anderson was convicted in 1982.   He was exonerated with DNA evidence 20 years later.   In addition to working for the fire department, Anderson now runs his own trucking company.

Professor Mauriello conducted a similar experiment in his classes 15 years ago.  The suspect was a white male and was stealing from a black female.  But, many students reported that they saw a black suspect robbing a white victim.
Both demonstrations and Anderson’s wrongful conviction are proof that even when a crime happens right in front of people, they might not be able to recall the events accurately.

See the segment here.

Read about Marvin Anderson’s case here.

Learn about the causes of eyewitness misidentification here.

And, learn about eyewitness identification reform here.

Tags: Maryland, Marvin Anderson



Friday Roundup: False Confessions, Investigating Wrongful Convictions

Posted: February 3, 2012 4:30 pm

Tags: California, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Alan Crotzer



Baltimore Prepares to Video Record Interrogations

Posted: April 13, 2012 12:30 pm

Tags: Maryland, Reforms



College of Southern Maryland to Host Innocence Project Speakers

Posted: November 7, 2012 4:00 pm

Tags: Rhode Island, Maryland



Maryland Considers Death Penalty Repeal

Posted: January 16, 2013 1:35 pm

Tags: Maryland, Death Penalty



Nation's First Death Row DNA Exoneree Fights Capital Punishment in Maryland

Posted: February 6, 2013 2:30 pm

Tags: Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth



Maryland Senate Votes to Repeal the Death Penalty

Posted: March 6, 2013 4:15 pm

Tags: Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth, Death Penalty



MSNBC's Melissa Harris-Perry Hosts Discussion on Death Penalty

Posted: March 25, 2013 2:55 pm

Tags: Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth, Death Penalty



Baltimore Police to Improve Eyewitness Identification Procedures

Posted: March 29, 2013 5:20 pm

Tags: Maryland, Eyewitness Misidentification



Texas Considers Discovery Bill on 50th Anniversary of Supreme Court Decision

Posted: May 13, 2013 1:10 pm

Tags: Maryland, Texas, Michael Morton



Baltimore Police Implements 'Double Blind' Identification Procedure

Posted: October 23, 2013 3:50 pm

Tags: Maryland, Eyewitness Identification



Maryland Lawmakers Call for Police Lineup Reform

Posted: March 7, 2014 4:15 pm

Tags: Maryland, Eyewitness Misidentification