Innocence Blog

Preventing Innocent People from Pleading Guilty

Posted: December 19, 2014 12:15 pm

The New York Review of Books presents lively commentary from three legal experts and a response by Judge Jed Rakoff who, in an article published last month, proposed employing magistrates soon after an indictment is filed to make the system fairer so that innocent people aren’t unjustly pressured into accepting plea bargains.   

Former federal judge Nancy Gertner writes of the current system:

It is true too, in view of such threats of long terms in prison, that there is a strong possibility that the innocent may plead guilty. It may well be a rational calculation, given the penalty of going to trial, for there is clearly such a penalty. The prosecutor typically induces a plea by offering a “carrot,” the lesser charge, and at the same time a gigantic “stick.” It is not simply that he may well tack on additional charges enabling mandatory or even consecutive punishments, should the defendant go to trial. He also can threaten that he will introduce evidence of uncharged conduct at the sentencing, or even evidence of counts for which the defendant was acquitted, so long as the defendant is convicted of something. No other common law country in the world enables the prosecutor to seek a sentence based on criminal conduct never charged, never subject to adversary process, never vetted by a grand jury or a jury, or worse, charges for which the defendant was acquitted.

You can read all of the commentary here.  

Tags: Guilty Pleas



Rickey Wyatt Fully Exonerated, Becoming 325th Person Cleared by DNA

Posted: December 18, 2014 6:00 pm

On the request of the District Attorney’s Office, a Dallas County judge today entered a court order finding Rickey Dale Wyatt innocent of a rape for which he served nearly 31 years. Working closely with the Dallas District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project secured Wyatt’s release back on January 4, 2012 based on DNA evidence and the failure of the prosecution to turn over evidence pointing to Wyatt’s innocence. Since his release, the Conviction Integrity Unit has conducted a thorough reinvestigation of the case and now agrees that Wyatt is innocent of the crime. Wyatt is the 325th person in the U.S. to have been exonerated by DNA evidence.
Although there are many unanswered questions about the reliability of the identification procedures used, three separate victims identified Wyatt of sexual assaults police believe were committed by the same person that occurred in the South Dallas neighborhood on November 1, 1980, December 19, 1980 and January 6, 1981 with the same modus operandi. Wyatt maintained his innocence from the beginning and turned down a plea bargain of a recommended five year sentence. Despite large inconsistencies between Wyatt and the victim’s original description, Wyatt was convicted of the November 1, 1980 crime and sentenced to 99 years in prison. He was never tried for the other two crimes.
Working with the Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit, the Innocence Project conducted DNA testing. While much of the evidence was degraded, testing revealed a partial male DNA profile that excludes Wyatt. The joint investigation also revealed that the prosecution never disclosed, among numerous other things, that one of the other victims, who was allowed to testify in the sentencing phase of Wyatt’s trial, viewed a live line-up that included Wyatt but did not identify him as her assailant.
After concluding its reinvestigation, which included having new experts reanalyze the DNA, the District Attorney’s Office moved to have the court enter an order today finding Wyatt actually innocent of the crime. Today’s order will entitle Wyatt to compensation from the state. Wyatt was represented by the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas.

Tags: Texas



Youngest Person Executed in the United States Exonerated After 70 Years

Posted: December 18, 2014 3:00 pm

A South Carolina Circuit Court Judge threw out the 1944 murder conviction of the youngest person to be executed in recent US history on Wednesday. 

Judge Carmen Mullen vacated the conviction of George Stinney Jr., who was 14 years old at the time of his death. Mullen said Stinney’s case was marred by “fundamental, constitutional violations of due process.”

Police arrested the 5-foot, 90-pound Stinney after two white girls were found dead in a ditch in Alcolu, South Carolina; a rural town in the segregated South. According to a 2009 affidavit by Stinney’s sister, Amie Ruffner, the girls passed by the Stinney home on the day of their murder, asking where to find a certain kind of wildflower. Ruffner said her brother replied that he didn’t know and the girls continued on their way. Ruffner, now 77, maintains that Stinney then continued to tend to the family’s cow and remained with her during the time of the murders.

Stinney was questioned by police with no guardian or attorney present. The police claimed to have obtained a confession but made no written record. Stinney’s attorney did not challenge the officers’ testimony during the two-hour trial, called no witnesses and made no appeal when the boy was sentenced to death by electric chair.

In 2004, local historian George Frierson came upon an old newspaper article about Stinney and began to research his case. Outraged by what he found, he teamed up with three attorneys and filed a motion for a new trial in 2013.

Judge Mullen ruled on Wednesday that Stinney’s confession was inadmissible because it was likely coerced. 

“Methods employed by law enforcement in their questioning of the defendant may have been unduly suggestive, unrestrained, and noncompliant with the standards of criminal procedure as required by the Fifth and 14th amendments,” the judge wrote. 

Her ruling came in the form of a writ of coram nobis, which is employed to correct fundamental errors of due process when no other legal remedy exists. Mullen referred to the case as “a truly unfortunate episode in our history”.

Read more about George Stinney’s case here.

Tags: South Carolina, False Confessions, Bad Lawyering, Racial Bias, Death Penalty



Mississippi and New York Shaken Baby Convictions Tossed

Posted: December 17, 2014 4:43 pm

Two Shaken-Baby convictions were overturned this week, with judges citing changing medical opinion regarding the controversial diagnosis. 

On Monday, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Leevester Brown, who was convicted of murder in 2003 for the death of his 6-month-old son. At the trial, Medical Examiner Steven Hayne testified Brown’s son died of Shaken-Baby Syndrome. During his career, Hayne attracted significant controversy surrounding his medical practices and testimony in criminal trials.  His testimony contributed to the wrongful convictions of Innocence Project clients Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who were exonerated after DNA evidence in Brewer’s case identified the real perpetrator who subsequently confessed to the rape and murder in Brooks’ case.  

Brown’s is the second case in recent months where the Mississippi court has questioned a Shaken-Baby Syndrome conviction involving Hayne. In August, the court ordered the trial court to conduct an evidentiary hearing in the case of Mississippi Innocence Project client Christopher Brandon after the Mississippi project revealed that Hayne supported his testimony by relying on a study that doesn’t exist.   Since 2000, at least 11 Mississippians have been convicted in Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, two of whom were sentenced to death.

In New York, the murder conviction of René Bailey was reversed Tuesday morning by Monroe County Judge James Piampiano, who ruled that the science used to convict her has changed significantly since her conviction.

Bailey, who ran a home daycare in Greece, New York, was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2002 after a child in her care died from head injuries. At an April hearing, Bailey’s attorney Adele Bernhard brought a motion presenting new medical evidence which was not available at the time of the trial.  According to the motion, experts now say the child’s injuries could have been caused by a fall, as Bailey’s defense originally claimed. Bailey will remain in jail pending an appellate ruling or a new trial.

Read more about Brown’s case

Read more about Bailey’s case.

Read More


Barry Scheck Urges California to Adopt Rule on Exculpatory Evidence

Posted: December 16, 2014 6:00 pm

Along with Loyola Law Professor Laurie Levenson, Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck co-authored a piece for Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times, calling for the state of California to adopt a rule on disclosing evidence that could prove a defendant’s innocence.


Morre than half a century ago, the Supreme Court established a rule that requires prosecutors to turn over to defense attorneys any evidence pointing to a defendant’s innocence. It’s known as the Brady rule, and violations of it occur far too often and can lead to devastating consequences. In a dissenting opinion last year, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that “there is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land. Only judges can put a stop to it.” There is no shortage of examples.

Under the proposed ethical standard, prosecutors simply turn over any potentially helpful evidence without judging whether it could help lead to an acquittal.


Take the case of Mark Sodersten. In 2007, a state appellate court reversed his 1986 murder conviction after finding that the prosecution failed to give the defense audiotapes of interviews with a key witness that contained evidence pointing to Sodersten’s innocence. Tragically, the ruling came too late for Sodersten, who spent 22 years behind bars and died in prison months before he was awarded a new trial.

Or consider Kash Delano Register, who served 34 years behind bars for a 1979 murder in Los Angeles that he always maintained he didn’t commit. He was released last year after a judge found that prosecutors and police “repeatedly concealed relevant evidence” that pointed to Register’s innocence.

And then there’s Obie Anthony, who was freed in 2011 after serving 17 years in prison for a murder in South Los Angeles after a judge ruled that the prosecutor failed to disclose exculpatory evidence. Anthony was released only after lawyers from Northern California and Loyola Law School innocence projects demonstrated that the key eyewitness for the prosecution hadn’t actually observed the crime — and that the prosecution had not disclosed a deal to give the witness favorable treatment on unrelated charges in exchange for his testimony.

There is an easy step California should take to curb this type of prosecutorial misconduct — the adoption of an ethical rule. One reason even well-intentioned prosecutors violate Brady is the cognitive difficulty of predicting before a trial has even occurred whether undisclosed information might be considered “material” — or sufficiently important to overturn a conviction — by an appellate court. Instead, prosecutors should follow a simple prophylactic rule that errs on the side of caution. Under the proposed ethical standard, prosecutors simply turn over any potentially helpful evidence without judging whether it could help lead to an acquittal.

The American Bar Assn., which publishes “Model Rules of Professional Conduct” to serve as ethical standards for attorneys nationwide, enacted Rule 3.8. The rule’s objective is to eliminate confusion. Part of the rule, which defines the evidence that must be disclosed, was designed to be broader and independent of Brady obligations, requiring prosecutors to disclose before trial all evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” Again, this differs from Brady because it does not require prosecutors to evaluate how much the evidence tends to negate the defendant’s guilt. That is for the defense to argue and for the jury to decide.

The rule provides an exception so that prosecutors who have real concerns about witness safety, subornation of perjury or other significant considerations can seek and obtain protective orders from a court to delay disclosure. Equally important, other parts of the rule require prosecutors to turn over any evidence pointing to innocence that they become aware of after a conviction; they must take proactive steps to vacate a conviction if there is clear evidence of the defendant’s innocence.

California is the only state in the nation that has failed to adopt some version of this rule. Last week, we testified about the need for this rule at the State Bar of California’s hearing on attorney competency and disciplinary standards. The bar has spent nearly a decade redrafting a new set of rules of professional conduct. Complaints about the bar’s approach to redrafting the new rules recently led California’s Supreme Court to announce that it would restart the process with a new rules commission. The criminal-justice system cannot wait another decade to adopt a rule that will ensure fairer criminal trials. While the new commission considers how to revamp all the rules, the bar and court should adopt the American Bar Assn. model rule for disclosure of exculpatory evidence.

The obligations imposed by the rule are not about making the average prosecutor’s job more difficult or punishing for innocent mistakes. In fact, these men and women deserve credit and praise for their public service and dedication to justice. Rule 3.8 is designed to make the system fairer and better by ensuring that criminal defendants have access to all relevant evidence that could aid in their defense. For the sake of the many men and women who have needlessly lost years of their lives because they weren’t given a fair chance at trial, we urge the California Supreme Court to take this important step and bring California prosecutors in line with the rest of the nation. Waiting will just lead to more injustice.

Read More

Tags: California


Exoneree Gerard Richardson Pushes for Reforms to New Jersey’s DNA Testing Law

Posted: December 15, 2014 3:58 pm

Gerard Richardson will soon be celebrating the one-year anniversary of his exoneration.  Since being released from prison, Richardson has devoted much time and effort to advocating for reforms designed to address wrongful convictions, including a bill aimed at improving New Jersey’s post-conviction DNA testing law, which is moving through the state legislature, the Newark Star-Ledger wrote in a recent profile of Richardson. 

December 17 marks the one-year anniversary of Richardson’s exoneration. Richardson was wrongfully convicted and spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit before the Innocence Project took on his case and DNA proved his innocence, leading to his exoneration. Richardson talks to the Star-Ledger about his wrongful conviction, the importance of his family life, and his advocacy work in support of innocence issues. 

In addition to participating in numerous speaking engagements, Richardson has testified before New Jersey Senate and Assembly Committees in support of AB 1678/SB 1365, which would improve New Jersey’s post-conviction DNA testing law by removing the incarceration requirement for DNA testing and make it easier for DNA profiles generated by private labs to be entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. 

Today, the Assembly Appropriations Committee advanced AB 1678. The Senate Appropriations Committee already advanced the companion bill SB1365. The next step is a full vote in both the Senate and Assembly.   

In Richardson’s case DNA collected from the victim, Monica Reyes, proved Richardson’s innocence, but because the test was done at a private lab that was not pre-approved by the state of New Jersey, the profile could not be entered into CODIS, which might have resulted in finding Reyes’ murderer. Additionally, it is important to remove the incarceration requirement for DNA testing because an innocent person may still face the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction after their incarceration, including parole, probation, and barriers to employment and housing, and shouldn’t be denied access  to DNA testing to clear their names. 

Read the full Star-Ledger article here.

Read More

Tags: New Jersey, Access to DNA Testing


Executions Continue Despite Exonerations

Posted: December 12, 2014 4:12 pm

In Wednesday’s edition of his Washington Post column The Watch, Radley Balko rounded up the exonerations from the past week including Josue Ortiz of Buffalo, New York, who was released Tuesday after spending over a decade in the Attica Correctional Facility.

Ortiz was convicted in 2004 after confessing to the murders of brothers Nelson and Miguel Camacho. A decade later, a different perpetrator has confessed to the crime and claims Ortiz was not involved.  A FBI task force has reopened the investigation. 

District Attorney Frank Sedita dropped his opposition, allowing Ortiz to be released on Tuesday. 

“I cannot, in good conscience, permit a man to remain in jail when I have a reasonable doubt concerning his guilt,” Sedita wrote in a statement on Monday.

Kwame Ajamu, the final co-defendant in the murder of Harold Franks, a Cleveland money-order salesman, was exonerated on Tuesday. Along with his brother Wiley Bridgeman and Ricky Jackson, Ajamu was convicted in 1975 based on the witness testimony of Eddie Vernon, who recanted just last month after speaking with his pastor. Bridgeman and Jackson were exonerated and released in November. The trio served more time behind bars than any other exonerated inmates, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Balko pointed out that the recent spate of exonerations should inspire state lawmakers to rethink capital punishment and to put scheduled executions on hold. Unfortunately, he wrote, two executions were also carried out this week. Robert Wayne Holsey was put to death in Georgia on Tuesday and Paul Goodwin, who was found by a psychologist to have the “mental understanding of a 13-year-old” was executed in Missouri on Wednesday. 

Read the full article here.

Read More

Tags: Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, New York


Exoneree Jeff Deskovic on Rash of Recent Exonerations

Posted: December 11, 2014 3:00 pm

Innocence Project client, Jeff Deskovic, who was exonerated in 2006 after serving more than 15 years for a rape and murder DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit, published a piece in The Huffington Post Tuesday on the staggering number of recent exonerations and the causes of these recent wrongful convictions, including faulty forensic science, prosecutorial misconduct and rogue law enforcement.  

Deskovic also details some of the successes of the new foundation he established to help exonerate the wrongfully convicted, educate the public on the causes of wrongful conviction and the reforms needed to prevent them and to help exonerated individuals adjust to society upon release.

Read the full article here.

Tags: Jeff Deskovic, Unvalidated/Improper Forensics, Government Misconduct



The Barnes Family Celebrates the Holidays

Posted: December 10, 2014 5:25 am

by Audrey Levitin

Director of Development and External Affairs 

This holiday marks the sixth anniversary of Steve Barnes’ release from prison after serving over 19 years for a crime he did not commit.

In 1986, 16-year-old Kimberly Simon was raped and murdered.  Three years later, Steve Barnes was wrongfully convicted of the crime. The cause of the wrongful conviction was junk science and informant testimony.  He was 19 years old at the time of his arrest —  42 upon his release.  

“It was as if the whole family was exonerated,” said Sylvia Barnes, Steve’s mom, whose friendly, sunny manner belies a steely determination that held the family together throughout the 20-year ordeal.  

Before Steve’s wrongful conviction, Sylvia enjoyed a rich life as a wife, mother and professional.  She and her husband Stanley had five children: David, Lisa, Steve, Shelley and Shawn.   Stanley Barnes was a carpenter and member of the local union.  He built the family home where Sylvia still lives, which has three bedrooms, a finished basement, five acres and a vegetable garden.  Steve followed in his dad’s footsteps as a professional carpenter.  The Barnes’ were active in the Catholic Church in Marcy, New York.  Thanksgiving and Christmas were major events, with presents, great food, decorations and large family gatherings.  

Steve was 15 years old when his father passed away.  Several years later, two tragic events occurred on the very same day.  Steve’s older brother David died of complications from pneumonia and Steve was wrongfully arrested for the murder of Kimberly Simon.  

Steve became a suspect based on eyewitness accounts that his truck was in the area near the crime scene.  He was arrested two years later.  At his trial a year later, a criminologist testified that the victim’s jean pattern matched a pattern on Steve’s truck and that two hairs found in his truck were similar to that of the victim.  Neither assertion is based on valid science. The prosecution also introduced testimony from a jailhouse informant who said Steve confessed while in jail, even though the informant was several cell blocks away from Steve and could not remember when or where the confession took place.  

Sylvia never doubted Steve’s innocence. With the help of her community, she held a fundraiser to help pay for Steve’s legal bills. The Barnes family did everything in their power to fight the charges.  Steve’s sister Lisa contributed $3,000 for legal fees and, during Steve’s incarceration, $100 every month for the prison commissary.  For the next 19 years, Sylvia visited Steve every Saturday, a trip that took three hours each way. Sylvia said the most painful part of the visit was hearing the bars close behind her when she left. Throughout Steve’s incarceration, the family did not have a formal Christmas dinner or a tree. 

Sylvia learned about the Innocence Project from a segment on the Phil Donahue Show.   She was only the 18th person to write to the organization, asking for help.  The IP took on the case, but the DNA testing at the time was inconclusive and the case was closed. Steve’s brother Shawn later learned that IP Co-Director, Peter Neufeld was attending a conference in Massachusetts. Shawn sought him out, and asked him to consider reopening the case.  When the IP performed a second round of DNA testing, the results exonerated Steve.

Sylvia learned from the IP that Steve would be home for Thanksgiving that year.  She told her family that the nightmare was over. It wasn’t official, however, until the shackles on Steve’s legs were removed in the courtroom.  

Upon release, Steve expressed wonder at things people often take for granted on the outside, like how tall the trees had grown.  The holidays are now celebrated at the Barnes home with the same joy as before Steve’s wrongful conviction. 

Sylvia has since devoted herself to speaking out about wrongful convictions. She has been to Albany to advocate for laws which protect the innocent and has spoken at Bar Association events, colleges and Innocence Project briefings.  She is a source of strength for other families suffering through a wrongful conviction and its aftermath.  

This holiday season, all of us at the Innocence Project are deeply grateful to Sylvia and all the families whose courage and sacrifice are helping to bring integrity to our criminal justice system and working for a more just nation. 

Tags: New York, Steven Barnes



Belynda Goff is ‘Deserving of Clemency’

Posted: December 9, 2014 4:47 pm

A recent column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called Belynda Goff’s case “appalling” and urged incoming Governor Asa Hutchinson to strongly consider granting clemency to Goff. 

Goff was convicted of murdering her husband Stephen Goff in their home in 1996, but has always maintained her innocence. There is strong evidence that Stephen was killed by people involved in an arson-for-hire group, from whom he may have stolen money. Belynda was convicted because of shoddy police work, as well as ineptitude and possible misconduct on the part of the prosecution. The evidence supporting Belynda’s evidence has been ignored by authorities for decades. 

The Innocence Project is currently conducting DNA testing of crime scene evidence that could prove Belynda’s innocence, but because pieces of crucial evidence have gone missing, testing may not be enough to vindicate Belynda. Subseuqently, the Innocence Project sent a letter to outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, requesting that he grant Belynda clemency. 

If Gov. Beebe does not act by the end of his term, which soon expires, Gov.-elect Hutchinson should “take a careful look and do the right thing” and grant Belynda clemency, Democrat-Gazette columnist Mike Masterson writes, echoing the position of the Innocence Project and Belynda’s many supporters, all of whom believe in her innocence and want to see her freed.  

Read the full column here.  

Tags: Arkansas, Belynda Goff



Read more