Innocence Blog

Wrongful Convictions Give Texas Pause on Capital Punishment

Posted: October 24, 2014 1:10 pm

For years Texas has led the nation in executions, but it has also led the nation in wrongful convictions overturned by DNA. CBS-Dallas Fort-Worth reported that state experts are taking notice and reconsidering capital punishment.
Kristin Houle, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says Texas is catching up with other states that have already moved away from the practice.

“One of the main factors driving this movement away from the death penalty, in Texas and nationally, is the rate or the incidents of wrongful convictions,” Houle explained.

Houle also says there has been a decline in the number of people sentenced to death row and that the state is poised to see its lowest execution date in nearly two decades.
Eighteen people have been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in the United States after serving time on death row.
Read the full article.
Learn about people who were sentenced to die and later exonerated through DNA testing.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



Innocence Project Co-Director Pleads for Release of Cancer Stricken Inmate

Posted: October 23, 2014 6:00 pm

Texas death row inmate Max Soffar is dying of cancer and could spend the rest of days in isolation all because of a false confession he signed decades ago as a teenager. Despite evidence of his innocence in a triple murder and a confession that doesn’t match the facts, Soffar has languished behind bars most of his life. In an op-ed that appeared in Wednesday’s Trib Talk, a publication of the Texas Tribune, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck pleads for Governor Rick Perry to intervene by granting Soffar’s release and allowing him to spend his final days at home with his wife. Scheck writes:

Proving that a confession in a death penalty case was false can be extremely difficult. For Soffar, whose case doesn’t have DNA evidence to support his innocence, this has meant decades of legal work — efforts that still need more time. Time that he no longer has. For Soffar and so many others, I wish DNA evidence were as easy to come by as TV shows and movies suggest. In truth, fewer than 10 percent of crime scenes contain DNA that could identify the true perpetrator. The coffee cup, the cigarette butt — these are lucky breaks, not the norm.

While Scheck goes onto say that DNA evidence has led to the release of many innocent people, there are other things that could safeguard the criminal justice and prevent future mistakes, including mandatory video recording of interrogations from Miranda warnings forward.

But Soffar’s only hope to die at home lies with the governor. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recently denied Soffar’s petition for clemency. Citing the absence of an execution date for him, the board said, “It has been determined that Mr. Soffar’s request will not be considered by the Board at this time.” But nothing in Texas law requires Perry to accept the board’s absurd refusal to decide this issue now, before Soffar dies. The governor can and should order a more comprehensive review.
Governor Perry, this isn’t a question of politics, of being for or against capital punishment, or even of whether Max Soffar is guilty or innocent. It’s a humanitarian appeal — an issue of mercy, compassion and human decency.
Please allow Max to die in peace, close to his loved ones who have suffered greatly for so long.

Read the full op-ed.

Tags: Texas, Death Penalty



Spotlight on Eyewitness ID Reform

Posted: October 22, 2014 2:12 pm

It has been only a few weeks since the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released its landmark report on eyewitness identification reform (Identifying the Culprit), and already there has been a significant amount of media attention paid to it. Over a dozen stories have appeared in national and local publications about the importance of the report’s findings and, in several states, the need for policy changes that reflect the best practices that the NAS recommends for law enforcement and courts, all of which comport with the Innocence Project’s reform agenda.

A TIME article described the significance of the report as such: 

“[T]he National Academy of Sciences … released the first comprehensive report to review decades of literature on lineups while offering sweeping recommendations on how they should be conducted.”

 And referring to the NAS’ best-practices recommendations for law enforcement and courts, an article in The Washington Post notes that many traditional eyewitness identification practices are “flawed and subject to suggestion” and that “courts should go out of their way to make sure that eyewitnesses have been vetted and their testimony has been properly elicited.” 

In order to reduce the chances of eyewitness misidentification, the NAS report recommends that law enforcement train all officers in eyewitness identification, implement double-blind lineup or blind photo array procedures, develop and use standardized witness instructions, document witness confidence statements and videotape the entire witness identification process. Additionally, the report advises courts, when considering the admissibility of eyewitness evidence, to conduct a pre-trial judicial inquiry, make juries aware of prior identifications, allow defendants to call experts on memory and identification and use jury instructions as an alternative means to convey information. 

Local newspapers in multiple states called for immediate policy changes. 

The Gainesville Sun writes: “Florida Department of Law Enforcement doesn’t require either of the identification practices (blind administration of lineups, confidence statements) mentioned here. The department and local agencies should implement these simple reforms. Not only will they prevent innocent people from being put behind bars, they will help ensure the real perpetrators aren’t left on the streets.” 

An editorial in the Daily Progress notes that the NAS’ recommendations and the state of eyewitness identification practices in Virginia “urgently calls for reform.” 

Additionally, stories in a number of local publications and outlets such as FOX 9 (Minneapolis-St. Paul), the Associated Press, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Tampa Tribune, the Pensacola News-Journal, the Arizona Republic, the Idaho Press Tribune, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and numerous others document both the need for eyewitness identification reforms, as well as the policy efforts that are underway in those areas.  



Boston Globe Says Hold Prosecutors Accountable for Errors

Posted: October 21, 2014 6:05 pm

A recent Boston Globe editorial called for prosecutors to be held accountable for miscarriages of justice that occur at their hands and specifically called out a former Berkshire County prosecutor who may have withheld exculpatory evidence in a child rape case nearly 30 years ago.
Bernard Baran Jr., an openly gay teenager, was convicted of multiple counts of child rape and spent 21 years behind bars for crimes he didn’t commit. In the face of homophobia and hysteria, Baran was convicted in 1985 despite a lack of evidence linking him to the crimes. In the years following, an examination of trial records suggests that the prosecuting attorney, Daniel Ford, withheld evidence from Baran’s defense attorney.
Baran was ultimately freed from prison in 2006. In the wake of his death last month, his defense lawyer, Harvey Silvergate, submitted a letter to the editor to the Globe calling for Ford to be removed from his job as a superior court judge, a position he’s held since 1989. The Globe writes:

That’s premature — but Silverglate and Baran’s other supporters are right to seek a full, public inquiry into both the prosecution’s conduct and its decision to try the case in the first place. The decision to release Baran in 2006 did not settle the question of whether Ford and the Berkshire County district attorney Gerard Downing acted appropriately, or whether the Commonwealth has adequate safeguards to prevent such a wrongful conviction again. Reviewing the long-ago prosecution now may seem pointless, since it’ll be difficult to establish facts and Baran will never be able to see the results anyway. But wrongful convictions represent a serious failure of the justice system. To prevent such miscarriages of justice in the future, it’s critical that the state revisit this painful episode. Whatever an investigation reveals about Ford, it’s crucial for the Commonwealth to set the precedent that prosecutors will answer for their actions in cases of wrongful conviction.

In 1985, Baran worked as a teachers’ aide in a day care center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At least one of the parents of the alleged victims complained about a gay man caring for their child, going so far as to use a slur and to say that gay people should not be allowed outside. According to the editorial, videotaped interviews show that other supposed victims were coached into making accusations against Baran after first denying he did anything to them. Decades later, the allegation stands that by Ford and Downing not sharing the full videotapes with Baran’s attorney, the jury was forced to believe they weren’t missing anything by missing the removed sections. A claim against Baran by a young boy that ultimately was attributed to his mother’s boyfriend was also withheld from Baran’s defense. The Globe writes:

No matter what Ford shared with the defense lawyer, there’s a broader question about his decision to charge Baran in the first place. Ford and Downing certainly knew themselves that the case rested on dubious testimony. Prosecutors are supposed to seek justice and apply good judgment, not just score convictions by any means. So why did he bring it?

The fact that Ford is now a judge is, ultimately, a coincidence. He could have gone on to be a pilot or a professor, and the concerns about his actions in the 1980s would be just as relevant today. Massachusetts has been through witch hunts before, and later sought to learn from those mistakes. But Ford’s actions have never been subject of a full public investigation. It will take some courage, but the Supreme Judicial Court should investigate what happened in Pittsfield and put in place whatever trial rules it would take to prevent such a travesty from happening again.

Read the full editorial.

Tags: Massachusetts



Compensation for Oklahoma Woman Doesn’t Add Up

Posted: October 20, 2014 12:34 pm

It has been five weeks since Oklahoma inmate Michelle Murphy was exonerated of the murder of her infant son based on new DNA evidence, but her effort to establish a life of freedom is just beginning. Despite the DNA evidence and other previously undisclosed evidence proving Murphy’s innocence in the horrific crime for which she served two decades behind bars, she is only poised to be compensated $175,000 from the state, an amount her attorney Richard O’Carroll called a pittance to Tulsa World. While some states provide compensation for each year the wrongly convicted spent in prison, Oklahoma is not one of them and instead allows for the maximum of $175,000, regardless of years served.

Rebecca Brown, director of state policy for the Innocence Project in New York, said Oklahoma is one of 30 states that have a law compensating the wrongfully convicted. 

“Having that cap certainly prevents people who have served long periods of time from receiving a package that would be able to provide for them,” Brown said.

“Another troubling provision in the Oklahoma law is that anyone who pled guilty to a crime will be barred from getting compensation. … Of our 318 DNA exonerations, we know that 10 percent of our clients pled guilty,” she said.

Many of the nation’s wrongfully convicted go on to receive more money than their states provide for by filing and winning civil lawsuits, but that can sometimes be complicated by the burden to prove that civil rights violations were caused by official misconduct.

 “You’d really have to show deliberate and reckless conduct on the part of officials. It’s not enough to say they didn’t really do a great job of investigating the case. … It’s an extremely high bar and litigation takes years and there’s still no guarantee.”

Now that Murphy is free, O’Carroll plans to continue her fight for justice through compensation.

Read the full article

More on Murphy’s case



Philadelphia Inquirer Urges Philly DA to Drop Charges Against Anthony Wright

Posted: October 17, 2014 3:40 pm

An editorial in Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer urges the city’s District Attorney Seth Williams not to retry Anthony Wright, whose rape and murder convictions were overturned last month based on new DNA testing that revealed the crimes were committed by another man with a long criminal history. In addition, DNA testing of clothing alleged by police to have been worn by Wright to commit the crime now shows that the clothes were not, in fact, his. The Inquirer writes:

But the revelation that there is little if any physical evidence now linking Wright to the victim has been interpreted by prosecutors merely as proof that he had an accomplice who - incredibly - was completely unknown to Philadelphia detectives investigating the crime. No word on how the then-19-year-old Wright would know a felon roughly twice his age, nor on why he wouldn’t have mentioned the accomplice when he signed a confession, later recanted, under police pressure.
It’s Williams’ prerogative, of course - no doubt he would say his duty as district attorney - to test his far-fetched theory before a jury in a second trial. But it would serve justice better if Williams declined to retry Wright, who has likely served a 22-year prison sentence either for a crime he did not commit or for one in which he played a far less significant role than alleged.
In any case, there is absolutely no cause for Williams’ office to suggest - as it did in a filing Wednesday - that Wright may be sent to death row if the new trial yields a guilty verdict. Not only did the first jury deadlock on the death penalty without seeing the new evidence of Wright’s innocence, but Pennsylvania is in the midst of a wholesale reexamination of its flawed capital punishment system - as are many states amid growing public and legal pressure to scrap executions altogether.
Williams can use the Wright case to get on the right side of that historical shift toward a more just criminal justice system.

Read the full editorial.

Tags: Pennsylvania, Anthony Wright



Murder Conviction Overturned After Three Decades Based on DNA Evidence

Posted: October 16, 2014 2:05 pm

Nearly thirty years after a New York man was convicted of a 1985 homicide, he was freed from prison Wednesday when Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson vacated the conviction based on DNA evidence. David McCallum was 16 when he and codefendant Willie Stuckey, who died in prison of a heart attack in 2001, was convicted for the kidnapping and murder of Nathan Blenner and sentenced to 25 years to life.

Prosecutors have concluded that alleged confessions made by the two were false.  The Daily News reported that Thompson said there “is not a single piece of evidence” that connected the two suspects to the crime. 

While making the announcement, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson slammed his predecessor for leaving behind a mess of injustice. “I inherited a legacy of disgrace with respect to wrongful convictions,” the DA said.

McCallum’s lawyer, Oscar Michelen, first brought McCallum’s case to The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit when it was under former DA Charles Hynes leadership, but his pleas went unanswered. (Elizabeth Holzman was the Brooklyn District Attorney in 1985 when McCallum and Stuckey were wrongly convicted.) 

Including McCallum and Stuckey, Thompson’s review unit has cleared 10 men, two of them posthumously, who did time for murder. The pair were cleared by DNA testing on evidence obtained from the car Blenner was kidnapped in that matched other men. 

 “I think that the people of Brooklyn deserve better and I think we shouldn’t have a national reputation of a place where people were railroaded and convicted of murders they did not commit,” he said.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions assisted in McCallum’s defense.

Read the full article



The Los Angeles Times Calls for Recording of Interrogations

Posted: October 15, 2014 6:25 pm

One month after DNA evidence exonerated a pair of North Carolina brothers who were convicted of rape and murder based on their coerced confessions, an editorial in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times outlines how law enforcement can prevent future missteps and wrongful convictions.
Mentally disabled half-brothers Henry Lee McCollum, 50, and Leon Brown, 46, spent 30 years behind bars before they were released last month. Their cases are among the roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases where innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.
Research shows that innocent people sometimes confess to crimes they did not commit as a result of mental health issues and aggressive law enforcement tactics. The electronic recording of custodial interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions. The Times writes:

Outfitting all those interrogation rooms wouldn’t be cheap, and storing the interviews would take some logistical configuring. But those are minor hurdles. Since 2010, Congress has considered several bills that would have provided matching federal funds to install recording systems, but it has failed to pass them. It should do so.
But even if it doesn’t, the Legislature should work with Gov. Jerry Brown to recraft legislation requiring the recordings. It would protect both the integrity of the criminal justice system and the innocent.

Read the full editorial.
Understand the causes of false confessions and learn more about mandatory recording of interrogations.

Tags: California, North Carolina, Leon Brown, Henry Lee McCollum, False Confessions, False Confessions, Death Penalty



California Woman Exonerated of Murder

Posted: October 14, 2014 5:15 pm

A woman who spent 17 years behind bars for the murder of a homeless man in California was exonerated Friday by a Los Angeles County judge. California Innocence Project client Susan Mellen, now 59, was convicted of planning the murder of her former boyfriend, Richard Daly, over items he allegedly stole from her mother’s house. NBCLA-Southern California reported that Judge Mark Arnold ordered Millen’s immediate release and dismissed the case. She walked out of the courtroom a free woman by 6 p.m. that evening and celebrated with her three children.
“This is the greatest miracle ever,” Mellen said, according to NBCLA-Southern California. “I’m just so excited; I don’t know what to say. I’m overwhelmed. It’s just so amazing, this is huge.”
Mellen maintained her innocence since the very beginning and told police repeatedly that she had nothing to do with Daly’s murder. Despite witnesses’ testimony in support of her alibi for the time of the murder, Mellen was convicted in 1998 based primarily on the testimony of what the judge called “a habitual liar.”
“I told the judge the day I got sentenced that one day God would bring the truth to the light,” she said to NBCLA-Southern California.
In 2009 the California Innocence Project began interviewing people who knew Daly and Mellen and who could have had information about the murder. Last year, Innocence Matters worked with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to reexamine evidence from the case. The evidence pointed to three known gang members, one of which told investigators that Mellen had nothing to do with Daly’s murder.
Read the full article.

Tags: California



Kentucky Woman Will Not Face New Trial for Murder Charges

Posted: October 10, 2014 4:25 am

Three months after murder charges against a Kentucky woman were dismissed by the state’s Court of Appeals, the state’s attorney ruled Tuesday that she won’t face a new trial. The Courier-Journal reported that Susan Jean King spent six years behind bars for a 1998 murder after pleading guilty, even though she didn’t commit the crime, because of pressure from a state police detective who told her she faced life in prison. She was released in 2012 before she had served out her sentence.
Charges of murder and tampering with physical evidence were dismissed and although prosecutors could bring a new indictment, Kentucky Innocence Project’s Supervising Attorney Linda Smith said it would be impossible to retry King.
Despite maintaining her innocence, King pleaded guilty in 2008 to the manslaughter of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden and accepted a 10-year sentence. Breeden’s body was discovered in the Kentucky River after being thrown off a bridge.
In a motion filed last week demanding King be retried or charges dropped, Smith claimed that former Detective Todd Harwood perjured himself to obtain King’s indictment, covered up evidence that showed she was innocent, then tried to suppress the confession of a man who told Louisville police in 2012 that he was the real perpetrator.
Smith and the Kentucky Innocence Project took on King’s case after they concluded that it would have been physically impossible for King, who weighed 97 pounds at the time of the offense and has only one leg, to have committed the crime.
Smith said King will meet with private attorneys next week to consider bringing a lawsuit against the state.
Read the full article.

Tags: Kentucky



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