Apple Seeds for Justice
Posted: May 24, 2013 1:15 pm
By Fernando Bermudez
Bermudez spent more than 18 years in prison for the shooting death of a 16-year-old boy in New York City. He was freed in 2009 after it was proven that police and prosecutors manipulated the eyewitness evidence against him.
Since my exoneration in 2009, I have traveled the world sharing how I survived over 18 years in New York prisons until I was proven “actually innocent.” I do this to help prevent the incarceration of innocent people around the globe. My recent seven-city lecture tour throughout Germany with my wife, Crystal, renewed that challenge. During my years in prison, I studied different cultural perspectives on the criminal justice system. Now that I’m free, I yearn for the application of those studies. Lecturing internationally also provides me with the opportunities to exchange and learn about cultural differences in our imperfect world.
From Bochum to Tubingen, my German university law school and police academy lectures examined German and American laws to explore differences and improvements for each. Unlike America, Germany has no grand jury, no death penalty and avoids criminal charges against juveniles as adults.
Germany avoids jury trials when prosecutors file an Anklage, equivalent to American indictment. When a criminal trial, or Hauptverhandlung, is necessary, a judge advances a defendant’s case by organizing the evidence and questions. Moreover, unlike discovery rules to disclose evidence in America, disclosure of a prosecution’s case in Germany to a defense lawyer before a trial is often automatic as a precaution against the dangers of prosecutorial misconduct. German prosecutors are also required to lead criminal investigations before police to ensure fairness.
I contrast these differences to demonstrate why both legal systems are nevertheless prone to problems derived of human error—such as mistaken eyewitness identifications. However, I believe the German legal system better protects the innocent from prison. On the other hand, in America even the lowest compensation statute offers better financial assistance to the wrongfully convicted than in Germany.
Beyond my academic grind, interacting with my German hosts added unforgettable benefits, too. Hearing students, lawyers, judges and professors share their determination to improve criminal justice systems worldwide inspired me. One student confided that my story encouraged her to stay in law school because she wanted to quit. Others giggled over an apparently demented correctional officer I knew dubbed Officer Marshmallow.
I also shared my story over dinners of Currywurst (a type of sausage) and seasoned geese with dark beers known as “dunkels” while raising mugs to say, “Prost.” These were foods that Crystal and I had never tried before. Likewise, my reserved German hosts were introduced to my Latin American custom of hugging.
Crystal and I also found time to venture out on our own. We accidentally crashed a rooftop party in Berlin offering complimentary wine and great pictures of the Brandenburg Gate, and then afterwards we strolled alongside the Rhine and Danube rivers in Wiesbaden and Passau after peaking at the Baltic Sea in Greifswald. These experiences would have been unimaginable to me during my many years of wrongful imprisonment.
Ultimately, our lecture tour concluded with a visit to the Strasbourg Cathedral in Strasbourg, France, where inside I thanked God for the opportunity, and asked preparation for my nine-city lecture tour throughout Japan in October 2013 where I will spread more seeds for justice.
Tags: New York, Fernando Bermudez
DNA Testing Leads to Overturned Rape Conviction for Wisconsin Man
Posted: May 23, 2013 4:40 pm
A Wisconsin man’s 1994 rape conviction was overturned in a Winnebago County Circuit Court Wednesday based on DNA testing pointing to another man. Wisconsin Innocence Project client Joseph Frey was convicted of a 1991 rape based on the victim’s identification and sentenced to 102 years behind bars despite a lack of DNA linking him to the crime. New DNA tests requested by the Wisconsin Innocence Project matched convicted sex offender James E. Crawford, who committed additional sexual assaults after the 1991 crime. Crawford has since died.
The LaCrosse Tribune reported that at the hearing, Judge Daniel Bissett agreed that Frey’s conviction must be vacated “in the interest of justice.” Although the conviction was overturned, Frey will remain behind bars until prosecutors decide whether there will be a retrial.
Assistant District Attorney Adam Levin acknowledged that the new DNA test implicating Crawford who matched the description of the assailment was “significant.”
“The state will follow the evidence where it leads,” he said. And unless new evidence emerges implicating Frey, Levin said, “likely this case will be dismissed, and this defendant will go free.”
In its brief, the Wisconsin Innocence Project sites improper destruction of physical evidence and improper eyewitness identification procedures for leading to Frey’s wrongful conviction. After initial testing excluded Frey before his 1994 trials, all the physical evidence was reportedly destroyed. Simultaneous and repeated lineups with the same suspect were also shown to the witness who identified at least two other men before saying that Frey “looked similar” to her attacker.
Last month, Levin requested a Winnebago County Sheriff’s investigation that revealed Crawford may have tried to confess prior to his death in 2008.
Read the full article.
Understand the causes of eyewitness identification.
Science News - May 23, 2013
Posted: May 23, 2013 3:10 pm
An independent review of the New York City medical examiner’s office suggests a management change, legislation in Minnesota attempts to require accreditation for crime labs, and Ohio law enforcement addresses a backlog of DNA cases. Here is the round up of news for the week:
An independent review found that recent problems at the New York City medical examiner’s office should lead to a wide-ranging management change. After missing and mixing biological evidence in numerous cases, and the resignation of various staff, the review showed systemic problems dating back several years.
In Minnesota, the problems with a lack of protocols at the St. Paul crime lab spurred a bill that would require accreditation for crime labs throughout the state. The author, Senator Ron Latz, believes the bill will “prevent wrongful convictions and increase public confidence in the criminal justice system.”
Due to numerous problems with management, evidence processing, and a DNA backlog, local law enforcement agencies in Ohio are no longer sending biological samples to the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab. Law enforcement officials still support the crime lab but feel the Ohio Bureau of Investigation crime lab can do a more effective job conducting DNA testing.
A New Zealand researcher is determining how the psychology of juries is impacted by expert forensic evidence and how that interaction affects the integrity of the justice system. The research will examine how juries deliberate conflicting interpretations of evidence given by prosecutor and defense experts.
Tags: Minnesota, Ohio, New York, Science Thursday
Texas Exoneree Third to Marry In Three Months
Posted: May 23, 2013 2:40 pm
Congratulations to Texas exoneree David Wiggins who quietly married his girlfriend Rhonda earlier this month in a private civil ceremony. Wiggins becomes the third Texas exoneree in as many months to tie the knot. Michael Morton was married in March and Randy Arledge followed suit in April.
Tags: Texas, Randy Arledge, David Wiggins, Michael Morton
The National Registry of Exonerations Conducts Recantation Study
Posted: May 22, 2013 1:10 pm
The National Registry of Exonerations, which provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989, is in the process of conducting the first systematic study of recantations and recently released preliminary findings.
The research examined all of the cases in the Registry’s database that involve post conviction recantations by witnesses or victims. Of 1,068 exonerations in the data set, 250 (23%) involved recantations, and most recantations occurred in murder and child sex abuse exonerations.
The Registry expects to release a complete report early next year.
Read more in the Witness Recantation Study: Preliminary Findings, May 2013.
Washington Post Op-Ed Highlights Racial Inequality in America’s Justice System
Posted: May 21, 2013 1:25 pm
A recent Washington Post op-ed authored by civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia and Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative highlights the case of Louis Taylor as a prime example of how presumptions of guilt lead to wrongful convictions of minorities across the country.
Taylor was wrongfully convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona, which took the lives of 28 people. On the night of the fire, 16-year-old Taylor arrived at the hotel to attend a Christmas party and was arrested shortly after by police who claimed he had set the fire as a distraction so he could burglarize hotel rooms. He maintained his innocence for more than 40 years and was finally released this April based on new reports from arson experts hired by both the prosecution and the defense who all believed that the fire was not arson. The Arizona Justice Project, who represented Taylor continues to focus on the flawed fire science at the heart of the case.
Lewis and Stevenson write:
It would be hard to call Mr. Taylor lucky, but the truth is thousands just like him, including innocent children, are being victimized by a presumption of guilt that never sees black and brown youth as blameless, as engaged in proverbial “good, clean, fun” as harmless. Instead it attributes to them every violence and vice, even if those suspicions contradict the facts.
The presumption of guilt follows too many poor and minority children to school, a place where children should be nurtured and supported, not criminalized and incarcerated. Yet the pipeline from school to jail is so insidious, many parents now fear schools as much as they fear the criminal justice system.
During Taylor’s trial, a profiler swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was “a black teenager.” Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences.
Despite progress, in the last 50 years we have retreated from an honest conversation about racial and economic justice, and have opted instead for mass criminalization and incarceration leaving many poor and minority people marginalized and condemned. As Taylor’s story reminds us, out of sight is hardly out of mind. It is an abysmal violation of human dignity.
Read the full editorial.
More on Taylor’s case.
Tags: Arizona, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics
Colorado Exoneree to Receive Compensation
Posted: May 20, 2013 12:45 pm
In the year since his exoneration through DNA testing, Robert Dewey has been living hand to mouth without the compensation that could help him rebuild his life. That is about to change this week, when the governor signs a compensation bill into law.
When passed, the Compensation for Persons Wrongly Convicted bill will compensate Dewey over $1,000,000, minus federal taxes, for his nearly 18 years of wrongful imprisonment. He will also be eligible for four years of higher education on the state’s tab, reported The Denver Post.
Dewey, who has survived on Social Security payments of about $600 a month and $87 in food assistance, testified before the Legislature earlier this year about his needs as a 52-year-old man suddenly turned back into the world with no job skills and no financial resources.
“I’m like a deer in the headlights,” he told lawmakers, some of whom cried over his story.
Dewey, a motorcycle enthusiast, plans to ride to the state Capitol on Wednesday to see the legislation signed. According to the legislation, Dewey and future exonerees will have to obtain health insurance and complete a financial management course. The measure also specifies that a future Class 1 or 2 felony conviction will discontinue the compensation.
Read the full article.
Read about Dewey’s case.
More about compensation for the wrongly convicted.
Tags: Colorado, Robert Dewey, Exoneree Compensation
Two Years After Being Freed, A Montana Man is Back in Custody For Same Crime
Posted: May 17, 2013 4:50 pm
A Montana man was taken back into custody for a 1979 murder earlier this week following a state Supreme Court ruling that could send him to prison for the rest of his life, reported the Associated Press. After new evidence pointed to a false confession in 2011, a Montana District Court judge released Barry Beach and ordered a new trial. Although prosecutors appealed the decision, a retrial date was never set.
Beach was convicted in 1984 of the murder of 17-year-old Kim Nees and sentenced to 100 years behind bars. He has always maintained his innocence and claimed that the confession was coerced during a three-day interrogation.
“It was hard enough to be innocent to begin with,” Beach told The Associated Press less than two hours before his surrender. “But to be going back, still innocent, for the second time, is just unbelievable.”
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said the high court’s 4-3 ruling upholding the original conviction denied Beach his chance to prove his innocence. Hanel said he befriended Beach at the local diner where he found employment after his release.
“It’s a question of whether justice has really been served and if a fair opportunity has been provided,” Hanel said.
Beach’s attorneys promised to fight for his release, saying that the case could potentially go to federal courts or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
Read the full article.
Read more about the Beach case.
Read more about false confessions.
Innocent in America’s Worst Jails
Posted: May 16, 2013 4:30 pm
By Hannah Riley, Communications Assistant
A recent Mother Jones magazine series profiles the 10 worst prisons and jails in the United States. Worth noting is the number of jails on the list, where the majority of inmates have not yet been convicted and may very well be innocent of their charges. A number of Innocence Project clients have lived in these facilities. I spoke with two of them, Barry Gibbs of New York, who served time in Rikers Island, and Ray Krone of Arizona, who served time in Maricopa County Jail.
The United States prison population has quadrupled in the past quarter-century alone. The uptick in inmate numbers has seen a corresponding deterioration in living conditions. The 306 people exonerated through DNA testing spent, on average, 13 years in these facilities.
Rikers Island, an island jail-complex in the middle of New York City’s East River, is listed as the tenth worst facility on the Mother Jones list. Rikers is infamous for its deeply entrenched patterns of violence, abuse at the hands of guards and high numbers of inmates in solitary confinement. The majority of the 10,000 inmates on Rikers Island have not yet been tried.
“A horror,” Gibbs says. “Every day was an absolute nightmare.” Gibbs spent nearly two years there, awaiting the trial that would eventually wrongfully convict him of murder. He served over 17 years in prison before his exoneration in 2005, and although he was bounced around to several different New York State prisons—including Attica—Rikers still stands out as the worst in his memory.
“It’s a very dangerous place for a person who is innocent, for someone who has had nothing to do with the criminal justice system.” On his third day in Rikers, Gibbs walked into the main room of his housing unit to get a cup of coffee. Suddenly, a blanket was thrown over his head and six men began to punch and kick him. “And the whole time I’m wondering, where’s the security? Who’s watching? Where are the guards?” he says. “Finally, they stopped, but I was all messed up, and I had to go to court the next day.”
Gibbs continued to assert his innocence to anyone who would listen. “When I first got there, I kept saying over and over that I was innocent. They didn’t want to hear it. They put me in the Mental Observation ward and forced me to take Sinequan [an anti-anxiety medication]. It turns out that I was allergic to it. My whole body swelled up. I had to go to the hospital. They took me to Bellevue, handcuffed, and in chains and shackles with the other prisoners. They dragged us down the hallway of the hospital like that. Everyone could see us. I could hear the people saying ‘look at those murderers.’ Do you know how humiliating that is?”
In 1993, faced with the high cost of constructing a new jail to accommodate the ever-expanding inmate population, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio found that housing inmates in Korean War-era military tents—in the baking hot Arizona desert—would be more cost effective than constructing a new facility. Tent City, as it has become known, is an extension of Phoenix’s Maricopa County Jail, housing approximately 2,000 inmates. The conditions at Tent City—which Sheriff Arpaio likened to ‘a concentration camp’—landed it the number three spot on Mother Jones’ list.
Ray Krone, who was wrongfully imprisoned (and later sentenced to death) for a murder he did not commit, was housed at Maricopa County Jail until he was convicted and moved to prison. “It’s Arizona, and you’re living outside. The coolest it gets is in the 90’s, maybe, at night. There’s one fan in this giant tent for about 40 guys… the tough guys got to be near the fan, so there was a lot of violence and fights over that cool area.” In 2011, the Arizona Republic reported that the internal temperature at Tent City surged to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
I asked him about the food. “It was the stuff that wasn’t fit to be sold in stores, so the inmates got it,” he said. “The sheriff would brag about spending 50 cents a day on his inmates and a dollar a day on his dogs.”
Like Gibbs, Krone was also prescribed antipsychotic medication. “If you’re facing the death penalty, like I was, you didn’t have to get real forceful to be put on psych meds. In fact, during most of my trial, I was on Thorazine. On the weekends, when I wasn’t in court, they would come around with a cart to give you your pills. But it’s so violent in there; you don’t want to walk around all blocked out from the drugs. I needed my mind about me. So I’d hide the pills under my tongue.”
Krone was finally exonerated through DNA testing in 2002 after 10 years in prison. He says, “You’re treated like a criminal from day one. There is no innocent until proven guilty. It’s guilty until proven innocent.”
Krone and Gibbs’ experiences are sobering reminders that innocent people continue to inhabit our prisons and jails. DNA testing provides the opportunity to identify and free some of the innocent, but those cases are a select minority. Many others will serve out their sentences or die behind bars. At the very least, our correctional institutions should be habitable for them.
Read the Mother Jones series.
Tags: Arizona, New York, Ray Krone
Science News - May 16, 2013
Posted: May 16, 2013 4:00 pm
More problematic cases are found at the Washington State Crime Lab, a top deputy at the New York City Medical Examiners’ Office has resigned amidst allegations of violating lab protocol, and Forensic Magazine explores the limits of “touch DNA.” Here is the round up of news for the week:
In the investigation of evidence at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, officials discovered that evidence in 19 cases had never been processed. While the investigation led to the resignation of the lab manager, the lab claims the errors have not led to wrongful convictions.
Ongoing cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx have been affected by the abrupt departure of one of the medical examiner’s top analysts. She is accused of overruling her staff when they disagreed with DNA testing results rather than reporting the disagreements. Ultimately, her results in those cases were determined to be accurate. She has told reporters that the allegations are not true.
In a new twist to the problems at the Hinton State Crime Lab in Massachusetts, a drug case was dropped since prosecutors could not retrieve untested evidence that was locked in the crime lab. If the evidence is ever recovered, prosecutors may renew the charges.
The Nebraska Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a man after prosecutors failed to prove that a state crime lab scale used to weigh drugs was properly calibrated. Since the drug sample weight was on the boundary of a higher felony charge, a properly calibrated, accurate scale may change the man’s sentence.
A recent article published by Forensic Magazine stresses that while touch DNA is becoming increasingly accurate, there are still limitations and problems with contamination. Because touch DNA can be recovered from a sample as small as several cells, preserving the crime scene and having stringent lab protocols is necessary to prevent foreign DNA contamination.
Tags: Massachusetts, Nebraska, Washington, New York, Science Thursday