Innocence Blog

West Virgina Man Granted DNA Testing

Posted: August 21, 2014 12:43 pm

More than a year after a West Virginia man filed petitions for release with help from West Virginia Public Defenders and the West Virginia Innocence Project, a judge ruled in favor of new DNA testing. Joseph Lavigne, Jr. was convicted in 1996 of raping his then 5-year-old daughter and has been seeking to be released from prison ever since.

The Charleston Gazette reported that although Putnam Circuit Judge Joseph Reeder denied Lavigne’s request for a new trial, he did grant the request to allow testing of evidence that has either never been DNA tested before or hasn’t been tested with current methods. Among the evidence to be testing are hairs collected during Lavigne’s daughter’s examination, towels and washcloths gathered from Lavigne’s home and swabs taken as part of a rape kit.

While Lavigne believes his daughter was attacked, he adamantly denies that he was the perpetrator — a sentiment the victim herself has publicly echoed. 

Lavigne’s motion stipulates that if a male DNA profile is yielded from testing that it can be entered into the nationwide (Combined DNA Index System) database to determine whether it’s a match with a convicted felons’ profile already in the database.  

Lavigne is currently serving a jail sentence of 22 to 60 years. His first parole hearing is scheduled for September 2017.

Read the full article



Another Wrongful Conviction Settlement in New York

Posted: August 20, 2014 3:23 pm

Four years after Brooklyn prosecutors agreed to release a man convicted of a 1994 murder he didn’t commit, he has reached a $10 million settlement with the city.

The Daily News reported that Jabbar Collins, who spent more than 15 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of the murder of Rabbi Abraham Pollack, ended his legal battle with the city Tuesday and joined the list of settlements built up under former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes.

Collins fought for years to prove he didn’t have a fair trial, and one month before he saw his conviction overturned, prosecutors finally admitted that critical evidence was withheld at trial from Collins’ attorney. The high profile murder is what led Collins to being railroaded in court in an effort to solve the crime and end the case with a conviction. 

Now 42, Collins finally feels a weight lifted from his shoulders. 

I lost some of the best years of my life in prison and now I’m starting my life all over again as a middle-aged man. My emotions are all over the place. A part of me wanted to lay everything out in a full public trial and put all these people on the witness stand. I’ve been litigating this for 20 years and for the first time in 20 years I don’t have to wake up in the morning having to fight that fight anymore.

Before Hynes was voted out of office last November, he acknowledged in a sworn deposition that he no longer believed Collins was guilty of killing the rabbi. And more recently, Hynes’ successor, Kenneth Thompson echoed that sentiment, telling the Daily News editorial board that Collins was innocent.

The judge who cleared Collins said the prosecutor in the case, Michael Vecchione, coerced witnesses to identify Collins and withheld evidence. Collins was able to uncover much of the alleged misconduct on his own by filing Freedom of Information requests from his upstate prison cell. Vecchione has denied any wrongdoing.

Read the full article



Illinois’ DNA Access Law Expanded

Posted: August 19, 2014 4:30 pm

Legislation to expand Illinois’ post-conviction DNA testing access law to inmates that have pleaded guilty was signed by the governor on Friday, acknowledging that innocent defendants sometimes plead guilty to avoid a severe punishment.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the expanded DNA access law, which is sponsored by Senator Kwame Raoul, will give defendants who plead guilty a chance to use DNA evidence to clear their name if the evidence was not available at the time they took the plea. Defendants will get that chance after a judge finds there would have been a reasonable probability of being acquitted had the evidence been available when the case went to court. The Tribune reports:

“It’s an important element to make sure that we recognize the fact that, even when somebody implicates themselves and there’s a lack of other compelling evidence, there’s a possibility that they didn’t commit the crime,” Raoul said. “We don’t know all influencing circumstances that leads one to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit. Sometimes it’s coercion, sometimes it’s fear of … intimidation from a prosecutor that they’ll get a very stiff penalty” if they go to court and lose.
“It is well known that this happens. So in a case where someone can provide some additional evidence that DNA testing can prove them innocent, I think it’s absolutely the right thing to conduct the test,” Raoul said.

Although Raoul gave no indication whether the new law will overturn existing convictions, it’s a step toward strengthening the criminal justice system of Illinois, which has the second highest exoneration rate in the country with 43. Texas leads with 48.
Senator Raoul told the Tribune, “I’ve always believed that — given the mistakes that we have documented in the state — (lawmakers should) give the state a sense that we are doing everything in our power to get it right. Nobody expects the criminal justice system to be perfect, but it should always strive for perfection.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a little more than 10 percent of the 1,378 exonerations recorded to the database involved prisoners who had pleaded guilty. Of those 145 exonerations, DNA evidence played a role in 29 of them, four of which took place in Cook County.
Read the full article.

Tags: Illinois, Access to DNA Testing



Innocence Project Executive Director Co-Authors Paper on Wrongful Convictions

Posted: August 19, 2014 2:00 pm

The latest paper from the Harvard Executive Session’s New Perspectives in Policing series is a thoughtful examination of the systemic causes of wrongful convictions that offers specific, evidence-based recommendations for reducing their likelihood. Policing and Wrongful Convictions, authored by Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety Commissioner Anthony Batts, Innocence Project Executive Director Maddy deLone and Major Cities Chiefs Association Executive Director Darrel Stephens, outlines protocols based on research for improved eyewitness identification, interrogation, use of informants, evidence storage and preservation. The protocols have been shown to enhance police investigations and help investigators test their initial assumptions about a suspect.
Maddy deLone says, “We have learned a great deal about how to prevent wrongful convictions. Adopting these best practices protects the innocent and helps police better use their limited resources to focus on catching the real perpetrators. We thank the many in law enforcement who have already adopted these proven reforms and encourage them to talk to their colleagues in other jurisdictions about how they have benefited their work.”
The Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety is funded by the National Institute of Justice, as part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and sponsored in part by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.
Read Policing and Wrongful Convictions.
Learn more about National Institute of Justice’s research on wrongful convictions.
Learn more about the other papers in the series.

Tags: Dispatches



Reflections of an Exoneree Ten Years Later

Posted: August 18, 2014 5:05 pm

It has been a decade since North Carolina inmate Darryl Hunt was exonerated of a murder he didn’t commit, but he is still adjusting to a life of freedom. Hunt, who spent nearly two decades behind bars before DNA evidence proved his innocence, still struggles with worry that the nightmare can happen all over again.
The Winston-Salem Journal reported that little things like leaving the house can give Hunt pause since he grew accustomed to his cell door opening and closing automatically for so many years. His concerns about the future have imposed a lifestyle that tracks his moves for him. He takes pleasure in going to the ATM every day, where a receipt of the day and time is printed for him and a surveillance camera records his actions.
“The fear of being picked up for something you didn’t do? I never leave out the door without that being on my mind,” he told the Journal.
Hunt was convicted twice of a 1984 North Carolina murder he didn’t commit. He was first convicted of the murder of 25-year-old copy editor Deborah Sykes in 1985, but a judge threw out the conviction because prosecutors used a girlfriend’s statements against Hunt at trial even after she had recanted them. While he was waiting for a second trial, he refused an offer to plead guilty that would have set him free. After nearly a year awaiting trial, Hunt was again convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1989. DNA testing on evidence in the case excluded Hunt five years later but he wasn’t freed until a decade later when the DNA profile was run in the state database and matched a man serving time in prison for another murder.
After he was exonerated, Hunt was pardoned by the governor and was awarded more than $1.6 million from Winston-Salem and more than $300,000 from the state. None of that, however, can make up for the years he lost.
Hunt maintained his innocence from the beginning but his cries were largely ignored by the white community after a local man came forward and told police he had seen Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime and tentatively identified Hunt as the man.
“I could never understand why the courts turned me down. Now I’ve been out and working with the system on the local level and the national level, I get it,” he said to the Journal. “It’s political. Most people believe it’s about justice. It’s not. It’s the political will of someone who wants to be in power.”
Despite the DNA evidence, the victim’s husband and mother still believe Hunt had something to do with the murder. While Hunt’s doubters make it uncomfortable for him to be out in his daily life, he has chosen to remain in Winston-Salem to remind people that an injustice happened.
In an effort to help prevent future injustices from happening around him, Hunt works with the Innocence and Justice Clinic at Wake Forest University School of Law to help people get their criminal records expunged and serves on the board of directors for the North Carolina Center for Actual Innocence. He does public speaking and talks about his case and although he admits things have changed in the past 30 years, he said he doesn’t have much trust in the criminal justice system.
Read the full article.

Tags: North Carolina, Darryl Hunt



Judge Tosses Washington Exoneree’s Jury Award

Posted: August 15, 2014 2:20 pm

A case out of Washington proves how difficult it is for the wrongly convicted to bring successful civil lawsuits for police misconduct.
The Associated Press reported that a federal judge has thrown out a $9 million jury award in the case of a former Vancouver police officer who spent two decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing his children. Charges against Clyde Ray Spencer were vacated on appeal and dismissed in 2010, and he won a false imprisonment lawsuit last February, paving the way for compensation. But that was halted Wednesday when a judge said insufficient evidence was presented at trial that proved Spencer’s constitutional rights were violated and called for a second trial if Spencer still wanted to pursue the matter. His attorneys plan to appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Read the full article.

Tags: Washington



Twenty-Five Years of Freeing the Innocent

Posted: August 14, 2014 5:10 pm

To coincide with the 25th anniversary of the first wrongful conviction to be overturned based on DNA testing, Northeastern University School of Law Professor Daniel Medwed penned an op-ed about the landmark dismissal that continues to have an impact on the criminal justice system today.
The op-ed, which appears on the WBUR website, Boston’s NPR station, notes that since Gary Dotson’s rape conviction was vacated in 1989, 316 additional people have been exonerated by DNA. While those exonerations shed light on contributing factors to wrongful convictions and give way to fixes that can prevent them, people continue to be wrongly convicted. Medwed writes:

Beyond DNA exonerations, there is the issue of wrongful convictions that cannot be overturned with DNA testing. Biological evidence such as blood, saliva, skin cells and semen is found in only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases. What’s more, this evidence is occasionally lost, destroyed or degraded.
Even when biological evidence is available, prosecutors and other law enforcement officials are not always forthcoming in disclosing it to the defense. Add to this the hurdle of testing the evidence in compliance with legal requirements, and the challenge of proving a wrongful conviction using DNA technology is even greater.
For this reason, DNA testing has not and cannot solve the problem of wrongful convictions.? The same factors that led to the initial miscarriages of justice in the DNA exonerations appear in cases without any available biological evidence. Absent the authority of science, it is exceedingly difficult to overturn a wrongful conviction in these so-called non-DNA cases. Attorneys litigating them must often rely on subjective evidence of innocence. In doing so, they tend to encounter strict time limits, cumbersome burdens of proof and the pervasive skepticism of prosecutors and judges.

It may be fair to say that the Dotson exoneration a quarter century ago helped launch a revolution in criminal law: a legal, political and social campaign to rectify injustices that some have labeled a civil rights movement for this century. This revolution is far from over.

Read the full op-ed.

Tags: Illinois, Gary Dotson



Georgia Legislators Consider Setting Compensation Standard

Posted: August 14, 2014 4:50 pm

Georgia legislators eager to set a compensation standard for the wrongly convicted gathered in Atlanta on Wednesday to hear testimony about the range of past payments to eight exonerees from across the state. The Morris News Service reported that the amount of compensation for each year behind bars in Georgia has ranged from about $17,000 to $750,000, with stipulations about employment and drug testing being made in one case.
The Morris News Service reports that Representative Rahn Mayo of Decatur believes that compensation should be given without conditions. “Is it not true that the state is in the wrong … that the state has some responsibility to compensate these people unconditionally?” he said, according to the new service.
Currently, there are no guidelines in Georgia for how much money a wrongly convicted person should be compensated, but Columbus Representative Carolyn Hugley, head of the study committee, wants to change that. Hugley would like to see Georgia match the federal standard of $50,000 per year, which has been adopted by several other states.
The state’s eight exonerees who received compensation all saw their convictions overturned based on DNA testing in rape cases.
Read the full article.

Tags: Georgia, Exoneree Compensation



Arson Conviction Overturned

Posted: August 13, 2014 1:40 pm

Almost 25 years ago, a Pennsylvania man was convicted of setting a fire that claimed the life of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter. Last week, his conviction and life sentence were overturned based on advances in arson science.
The Times Tribune reported that a judge dismissed Han Tak Lee’s conviction and ordered that he be retried within four months or released. Lee’s dismissal follows the June recommendation from a federal magistrate judge to retry or release him. On Friday, Lee’s attorney filed a motion seeking he be released on bail, but no ruling has been issued yet.
Lee, who is 79 years old, has been serving a life sentence since he was convicted based largely on a fire marshal’s testimony that the fire patterns found at the scene indicated arson. At that time, it was believed that fire from arson burned hotter than other fires. In the years since, that theory, along with what were once considered tell-tale signs of arson, has been debunked based on a lack of credible science to support them.
The Legal Director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, Marissa Bluestine, told the Times Tribune that the ruling in Mr. Lee’s case is important as it supports the argument that a defendant’s due process rights were violated if the evidence used to convict the person is invalid.
The Times Tribune reports that according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 11 people exonerated of arson since 1992.
Read the full article.

Tags: Pennsylvania



New York Exoneree Launches Youth Boxing Program

Posted: August 12, 2014 4:42 pm

Nearly five years after Dewey Bozella was exonerated of a crime he did not commit, his foundation launched a six-week summer program for middle school-aged children. CHAMPS Camp aims to provide young boys and girls the opportunity to be physically active, learn important life skills and connect with positive role models to develop their confidence and self-esteem.

The Times-Herald Record reported that memories of rejection and isolation from his 26 years behind bars came flooding back during the first few weeks of camp at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center when he dismissed a few campers who repeatedly ignored the rules and were disruptive.

“It bothered me because I didn’t want them to leave,” Bozella said, according to the Times-Herald Record. “I didn’t want them to feel left out. I didn’t want them to feel that no one cared.”

Bozella was initially arrested for the 1977 burglary and murder of a 92-year-old woman, but the charges were dropped because there was no evidence linking him to the crime. Then six years later, he was rearrested and ultimately convicted of the crime based solely on the strength of the testimonies of two informants, who were released from prison for their cooperation. When he contacted the Innocence Project, it was discovered that the DNA evidence in the case was destroyed. The case was referred to Wilmer Hale who was able to prove Bozella’s innocence by uncovering additional evidence that was previously withheld.

While behind bars, Bozella took up boxing which ultimately helped to channel his anger over being wrongfully convicted. He eventually became the light heavyweight champ of the prison and even got the opportunity to fight Golden Gloves champ Lou Del Valle. Three years ago, he was honored with ESPN’s prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the 2011 ESPYs. 

Having founded the Dewey Bozella Foundation and CHAMPS, Bozella is now fulfilling his dream of helping at-risk kids reach their potential. 

“That is what I’m trying to teach them. You have a choice,” he told the Times-Herald Record

Both the children and the staff at the camp have learned from Bozella over the past several weeks. Whether it’s a jab combination or incorporating life experiences to teaching, Bozella has a profound impact at the camp. And he’s admitted he’s learning too.

“How to be patient, not to be so aggressive… . . What I’ve learned is that each kid has his own value and each kid looks at life differently,” he told the Times-Herald Record.

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