Innocence Blog

Study Reveals African-Americans Wait Longer To Be Exonerated

Posted: October 30, 2014 11:49 am

A new report from a Loma Linda University biostatics professor reveals that African-Americans are exonerated at a slower rate than any other race in the country. The HuffPost reported that according to Professor Pamela Perez’ data, blacks who are exonerated after a wrongful conviction have served an average of 12.68 years compared to 9.4 years for whites and 7.87 for Latinos.

Perez’ findings are based on an examination of the 1,450 exonerations listed on the National Registry of Exonerations through October 20, 2014. While she notes the racial disparity in years served, she concedes that she can’t explain the reasoning.

“All we can do is infer,” Perez told HuffPost. “You can’t prove a darn thing.”

Her sentiment was echoed by University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, who is the exoneration registry’s editor. Gross cautioned people about reading too much into the findings without conducting additional research.

The Innocence Project looked at a smaller set of 212 cases in which DNA proof freed their clients. (The national registry includes exonerations due to other contributing factors like false confessions and perjury.) The project found a similar racial disparity, with black inmates serving 14.3 years before being exonerated compared to 12.2 years for all other racial groups.

“These two numbers are statistically different, suggesting that the difference between them isn’t due to chance,” Innocence Project research analyst Vanessa Meterko told HuffPost. “It’s notable, but it’s hard to say what the difference is.

The study was funded by the consumer research group

Read the full article



Murder Convictions Vacated for Two Washington, D.C. Men

Posted: October 29, 2014 1:33 pm

A decade after Gary Gathers and Keith Mitchell were convicted of murder, a Washington, D.C. appeals court reversed their convictions Wednesday, finding that prosecutors relied on false evidence at trial. 

The Legal Times reported that the pair was first found guilty in 1994 of the fatal shooting of Wayne Ballard while he was sitting in a car at a traffic light. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the convictions in 1997. This time when the case was reviewed by the appeals court, a three-judge panel found that prosecutors repeatedly made use of false testimony from a police officer about the defendants’ alleged motive. 

At trial, the prosecution claimed that the men wanted to kill Ballard in an effort to prevent him from testifying against Gathers’ brother in a murder case.  A police officer testified that Ballard’s name was mentioned as a cooperating witness in an early hearing in the brother’s case.   But this was not true. Ballard’s name was never used.  He was only referred to as “the driver.”  The trial prosecutor cited the officer’s testimony as proof of a and the government repeated the false information in its brief during the first appeal.

“It is markedly disquieting to think that appellants should stand convicted on what is plainly false evidence highly prejudicial to the outcome where the government knew or should have known of the falsity, however belatedly this falsity may have come to the forefront,” Senior Judge John Steadman wrote in the Oct. 23 opinion.

Lawyers for Gathers and Mitchell say they’ll continue fighting for full exonerations. The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project has been involved in Gathers’ post-conviction defense since 2010. 

Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, credited the U.S. attorney’s office with making some progress over the years in being careful about mistakes during trial and in meeting its obligations to turn over favorable information to the defense. Still, she said the case was a reminder of the need to be vigilant.

“It just means that even when an office has the best of intentions, even when people have the best of intentions, sometimes people do the wrong thing,” Armbrust said. “It’s a sign we need procedures in place to make sure that doesn’t continue to happen.”

Read the full article (You may need to create an account with Legal News or sign into LinkedIn for access). 



Two Dallas Men Released After Serving 15 Years

Posted: October 28, 2014 4:28 pm

Photo: Stanley Mozee (left) and Dennis Allen (right) are greeted by family, supporters and the media after being released in Dallas Tuesday. (Credit: Lara Solt)
Dennis Lee Allen and Stanley Orson Mozee walked out of a Dallas County courtroom today after the judge ruled that their murder convictions from 2000 should be overturned based on previously withheld evidence.  The Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas had petitioned for the pair’s release based on evidence that indicates serious prosecutorial misconduct, which was discovered in the prosecutor’s original file under the “open file” policy adopted by District Attorney Craig Watkins in 2008, as well as the favorable results of recent DNA testing on bloodstains and other key evidence from the crime scene.  District Attorney Watkins and his Conviction Integrity Unit agreed that the prosecutor withheld exculpatory evidence and joined the lawyers for Mozee and Allen in seeking today’s ruling that the pair did not receive a fair trial on that basis.
Among the contents in former Assistant District Attorney Rick Jackson’s file were letters from jailhouse informants seeking reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. At the trial, the informants, Zane Smith and Lonel Hardeman, claimed to have heard Allen and Mozee admitting to the murder, and in response to questioning by Jackson, swore to the jury that they didn’t receive, or even seek, any favorable treatment for their testimony. These letters were never disclosed during the 2000 trial, despite orders from the judge to turn over prior statements made by all witnesses, and the two inmates have since told defense attorneys their initial testimony was false.
Allen and Mozee were convicted of the 1999 murder of Reverend Jesse Borns Jr., despite a lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime. Borns was stabbed to death outside a store where he worked. In addition to a lack of evidence linking Allen and Mozee to the murder, there were no witnesses who placed them at the scene of the crime. Ultimately, the two men were convicted based largely on testimony from jailhouse informants and an unrecorded confession from Mozee, who has a history of mental illness. Shortly after he confessed, Mozee recanted and said he was coerced into signing a statement written out for him by police.
The legal organizations performed DNA testing on a trove of physical evidence recovered from the scene, and none of the items came from the two defendants. However, DNA from one or more persons that does not match the defendants or the victim was identified on several items including a bloodstain from the scene, a hammer found next to the victim’s body, and a hair underneath the victim’s fingernails, potentially from a close-range struggle in which the victim suffered numerous defensive wounds to his hands.
In today’s proceeding, Dallas County District Judge Mark Stoltz issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, and recommended that the convictions be overturned.  These findings will now go before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for review. 
KTVT - CBS Dallas Ft. Worth spoke to Mozee and Allen after the hearing.

“I have no animosity toward anyone,” stated Mozee on Tuesday. “As a matter of fact, I give the Dallas County judicial system a positive note, if the court of criminal appeals will act and do the just thing in this matter.”
“It feels wonderful,” said Allen. “I mean, it’s kind of hard to explain, but try to imagine the greatest joy you have ever experienced in your life, and that’s what I’m feeling right now.

Allen and Mozee were surrounded in court by family members and other Dallas area exonerees when they were released today.  Among the Dallas area exonerees were Mr. Mozee’s childhood friends Cornelius Dupree and Keith Turner; all three men attended Lincoln High School together in the 1970s, and all three were later freed from prison based on newly discovered evidence of their innocence.
Read the full article and more in today’s press release



Wide Reach of Wrongful Convictions

Posted: October 27, 2014 1:09 pm

Twenty years ago, Jennifer Thompson was a college student when she was sexually assaulted in her North Carolina apartment and burglarized. The following month, Thompson identified Ronald Cotton as the assailant and he was eventually convicted and sentenced to life plus fifty-four years. Cotton remained behind bars for a decade until DNA testing proved his innocence and identified the real perpetrator as Bobby Pool.  The DNA testing also revealed that Thompson had misidentified her attacker. Thompson describes the traumatic experience of the attack and the haunting effects of wrongful conviction in an op-ed that appeared in Sunday’s edition of The Hill. She writes:

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong.  I had sent an innocent man to prison.  A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me.  I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.

Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim.  I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done.  The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from.

This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted.  The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

In the years following Cotton’s release, he and Thompson forged an unlikely friendship and co-author the memoir Picking Cotton, about the harrowing experience of Thompson’s misidentification.  Her experience as a victim and the role she played in Cotton’s wrongful conviction has shed light on the need for legislation to protect the innocent. Thompson writes:

The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty.  Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did.  I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.

Read the full op-ed.
More on Cotton’s case

You can help prevent wrongful convictions and help exonerate the innocent! Sign up for our e-mail list, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get updates on actions you can take for justice!




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



Read more