Innocence Blog

Innocent Defendants Plead Guilty in Drug Cases

Posted: April 24, 2014 4:30 pm

In two articles this week, the Austin American-Statesman reported that 21 men and women in Texas were recently exonerated of drug convictions to which many plead guilty. Many of the defendants had prior convictions when they were arrested for possession of illegal drugs. Consequently, the bond was set higher than what most of the 21 individuals could pay, causing them to remain in jail while awaiting judgment. The wait created pressure for early plea bargains, and as a result, many sat in prison for years before a delayed forensic lab report proved their innocence.
According to the reports, the two forensic lab systems, operated by the Houston Police Department and the state Department of Public Safety, said their large caseloads meant that waits of six months or more for test results were common. More than half of the wrongful drug convictions occurred in Houston with the rest spread out between Williamson, Ellis, Galveston, Angelina and Montgomery counties.
Out of the 21 cases, only two of the drug case exonerees have received compensation from the state. Texas’ compensation statute provides the wrongly convicted with $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment with no maximum total.
Read the full article.

Tags: Texas



Ohio Prosecutor Creates Conviction Integrity Unit

Posted: April 23, 2014 5:40 pm

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty — a former county judge who as an assistant prosecutor once helped convict an Ohio man who was actually innocent and has since been outspoken about his determination to improve the local criminal justice system — recently announced the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit to review innocence claims of prisoners who present credible new evidence pointing to a wrongful conviction.
WKYC-NBC Cleveland reported that the unit will review convictions in Cuyahoga County only and a defendant must be making a claim of actual innocence and not have a legal issue that needs to be decided in the appellate system.

“All of us in the criminal justice system have an obligation to seek justice and to seek the truth. We want to convict the guilty, not the innocent,” Prosecutor McGinty said. “So if we learn we have convicted the wrong person, we want to correct it. We always want to have open ears on the subject of innocence.”

“The number of cases where we find mistakes is going to be small, but it is important that we correct them,” Prosecutor McGinty said. “We never want to turn a blind eye just because there was a conviction.”

The convicted offender must also waive procedural safeguards and privileges, agree to cooperate with the unit and agree to provide full disclosure regarding all inquiry requirements of the Conviction Integrity Unit. Once the unit receives an application it will be evaluated to see if all criteria are met. If an investigation is warranted and the claim is with merit, a full committee will review its findings. It will then vote and share its findings with McGinty, who will make the final decision on all claims.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office joins a growing list of municipalities across the country that have established groups to evaluate wrongful conviction claims. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, about one third of exonerations were initiated by police or prosecutors or included law enforcement cooperation.
Read the full article.

Tags: Ohio, Innocence Commissions



Rethinking the Value of Eyewitness Identification

Posted: April 22, 2014 4:40 pm

Despite decades of research disproving the reliability of eyewitness identification, the courts still rely on the practice to win convictions. The Associated Press reported that as a response to the errors of misidentification, a small group of police chiefs, courts and lawmakers are working toward passing tougher laws governing the handling of eyewitnesses and their accounts of crimes.
As states across the country are seeking legislation that overhauls eyewitness identification procedures, like Maryland did last week, prosecutors are still pushing back. According to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association Prosecutors, the group feels it’s being attacked for using eyewitness testimony, as well as many other forms of evidence, to get convictions.
Gary Wells, an expert on eyewitness identification told the Associated Press, “It’s not the case that eyewitnesses are inherently unreliable… . [b]ut we can make it better by cleaning up the procedures around it.
The fact is that the most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification. Misleading lineup methods have been used for decades without serious scrutiny.
A recent investigation conducted by NBC’s The Today Show put eyewitness memory to the test, setting up a social experiment where people witness a crime and are asked to identify the perpetrator. Almost everyone that participated misidentified the perpetrator within minutes of seeing them.
In addition to the recent reform adopted in Maryland, the Associated Press reports that seven states and numerous cities have transformed the ways in which eyewitness testimony is treated.
Read the full article.

Tags: Eyewitness Misidentification



In Memoriam of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter

Posted: April 21, 2014 12:10 pm

Photo: Rubin Carter enjoys himself at the Innocence Project’s 2012 Celebration of Freedom & Justice. Innocence Project Executive Director Maddy deLone talks with Cornelius Dupree in the background.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who served nearly 20 years in New Jersey prisons before he was cleared based on evidence of his innocence, died on Sunday in his adopted home of Toronto, Canada, from prostate cancer. Carter and co-defendant John Artis were wrongly convicted by an all-white jury of a triple murder in a Paterson, New Jersey, restaurant in 1966 despite a lack of physical evidence. Carter was sentenced to three life sentences. He maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration.
CNN reported that the ruling was overturned in 1976, but Carter was reconvicted later that year. The second conviction was ultimately overturned and Carter was freed from prison in 1985. Following his release, he became an advocate for the wrongly convicted and criminal justice reform.
More from the New York Times.

Tags: New Jersey



Innocence Network Journalism Award Winner Talks Wrongful Convictions

Posted: April 21, 2014 10:00 am

Andrew Cohen, this year’s Innocence Network Journalism Award Winner, wrote about innocence advocacy efforts in his Exoneration Nation column, Friday. Cohen was given the award at the Innocence Network Conference in Portland, OR, which was attended by more than 100 wrongly convicted men and women and  as well as Innocence Network staffers.  

Cohen, who is a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and a national correspondent and contributing editor for legal affairs for The Atlantic, was honored for his four part series “A Ghost of Mississippi,” which appeared in The Atlantic in May 2013. The series captured the many deep-seated issues surrounding wrongful convictions while following the tenuous story of Willie Manning and his eleventh hour stay of execution.

In his column, Cohen recounts opening remarks by Portland’s Chief of Police Mike Reese who spoke of the huge task of ensuring the accuracy of convictions by making sure the criminal justice system is doing its job. Cohen writes:

This is such a basic premise behind all of the work of noble exonerators in this country — wrongful convictions prevent us from getting to the essential truths about a particular crime — yet it so often is lost in the polemic and often emotional noise that surrounds the conversation we have with one another about our criminal justice systems. The men and women who fight for the wrongfully accused often are accused themselves of subverting justice by seeking to overturn the results of flawed convictions. Because the message is unpleasant — hey, judge, prosecutor, witness, cop, you erred and an innocent person is paying the price—the messenger is decried.

What Chief Reese is saying, I think, is that we should all be focused on making sure that the guilty are convicted and that the innocent are exonerated. That we should all be brave and candid enough to acknowledge the mistakes that are made at trial, and to timely rectify them, so that innocent men and women do not languish in jail. And that we should do these things, every day in every case, not just because we tell our children that this is how the justice system works, or because we declare to the world that our laws are just and fair, but also because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the moral thing to do.

Read the full article



Former District Attorney Admits to Detaining Witnesses

Posted: April 18, 2014 1:08 pm

Months after former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Joe Hynes denied reports that his office detained witnesses overnight in hotel rooms, he admitted to the practice in a sworn deposition in December that is now getting attention from the public.

The New York Daily News reported that Hynes’ deposition, which is part of a $150 million wrongful conviction lawsuit, is in stark contrast to statements he made during his 2013 reelection campaign against current District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson.  During the campaign, Hynes denied that his office detained the witnesses. Yet, in a deposition in  the suit brought by Jabbar Colllins, who spent 16 years in prison for killing a Brooklyn rabbi before the conviction was vacated by a federal judge, Haynes conceded that his office did detain witnesses prior to their testimony. Hynes said in the deposition:

 “You would go to a jail or go to a hotel room … typically the stay, as I understood it, was an overnight stay and then they would testify and that would be the end of it… They were not free to leave; so sure, they were prisoners.” 

During his reelection campaign, Hynes went further than denying any wrongdoing.  He also called any practice of detainment in a hotel room “truly frightening” and “insane.” Thursday, he told the Daily News that there was nothing inconsistent about his two remarks and that the program was misunderstood, claiming that witnesses weren’t held against their will.

Read the full article



Rally to Support ‘Central Park 5’

Posted: April 17, 2014 4:50 pm

Two days before the 25th anniversary of the Central Park Jogger attack, supporters of the men known as the “Central Park Five,” who were wrongly convicted of the crime, will rally in New York City’s City Hall Park this afternoon at 4 p.m. to urge Mayor Bill deBlasio to make good on his promise that the men would receive a settlement for the injustice done so many years ago.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Abdus-Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise were wrongfully convicted of raping and assaulting a female jogger in Central Park on April 19, 1989 based on their false and coerced confessions. They were exonerated by DNA evidence —that matched the real perpetrator — on December 19, 2002. It has been more than a decade since the men were proven innocent, but they have yet to be compensated by the state.
Read more in Business Insider.

Tags: New York



Philadelphia District Attorney Announces Conviction Review Unit

Posted: April 16, 2014 6:05 pm

On Tuesday, Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Seth Williams, announced the creation of the city’s Conviction Review Unit. The unit, which will investigate claims of innocence in homicide convictions, will be under the leadership of veteran prosecutor Mark Gilson.
The Philadelphia Daily News reported that Gilson, who has spent 27 years with the city’s District Attorney’s Office, will work closely with prosecutors assigned to the existing Post Conviction Relief Unit, which currently handles about 500 cases a year.
Philadelphia joins a number of states that have established similar groups authorized to review cases with claims of innocence, identify the causes of wrongful convictions and recommend remedial steps to avoid their recurrence. Among the most celebrated and accomplished is the Dallas County District Attorney’s unit, created in 2007, which has helped uncover injustice in a number of cases.
Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, applauded the formation of the new unit.”We are looking forward to working with Mr. Gilson and his staff to give full evaluation to those cases where there is a colorable claim of actual innocence,” said Bluestine. Her organization, which is based in Philadelphia, has petitioned city prosecutors to reopen 10 cases in the last three years.
The Innocence Project believes that it is critical that these units include defense attorneys in the process in order to guarantee a meaningful review of the cases.
Read the full article.

Tags: Pennsylvania



Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck Discusses Race Bias in the Courts

Posted: April 15, 2014 3:35 pm

In a new article written for, Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck discusses race bias in the criminal justice system, focusing on a case before North Carolina’s high court.
Thirty years after Glenn Ford, who is African-American, was convicted by an all-white Louisiana jury, he was exonerated and released from prison in March. He spent 30 years on death row for a murder he did not commit. Now, a month later, the North Carolina Supreme Court is considering the fate of four people of color who have already shown that racial discrimination played a factor in their having received death sentences. Originally, they had all been sentenced to death, but with the passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, a lower court ruled that the discrimination in jury selection was a significant factor in their sentences. The prosecution is seeking to restore the death sentences after the state legislature eliminated the Racial Justice Act in 2013.
Newly discovered evidence shows the discrimination in jury selection for the defendant’s cases, and research conducted across the state found that rampant racial discrimination against African-American jurors by the prosecution was the norm. Scheck notes that this problem is not limited to Louisiana and North Carolina, though. According to data collected from across the country, all white juries or juries with only one or two people of color, deliberate less than diverse juries drawn from a range of backgrounds. Scheck writes:

The all-white or nearly all-white juries are more likely to rush to judgment and are more likely to get it wrong. We know there is a strong link between all-white juries and conviction of the innocent. And we know that diverse juries are more likely to challenge one another, and less likely to fall back on what may be unconscious stereotypes. Mistaken eyewitness identification, a major contributor to wrongful convictions, is more likely to be accepted by non-diverse juries.

North Carolina was the first state to enact legislation banning racial discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. But, despite the evidence of discrimination against the four defendants, that law, the Racial Justice Act, was repealed.
Scheck concludes:

Now in North Carolina, it is up to the state’s Supreme Court to acknowledge the evidence of discrimination in the cases that had the benefit of the Racial Justice Act. The superior court judge who had re-sentenced the prisoners to life without parole was overwhelmed by the evidence of pervasive and persistent bias. He wrote, “The Court takes hope that the acknowledgement of this ugly truth of race discrimination … is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.” That judgment must stand.

Read the full article.

Tags: North Carolina, Racial Bias



Innocence Project Urges Congress to Pass Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2013 to Strengthen the Criminal Justice System

Posted: April 14, 2014 4:30 pm

The Innocence Project joins Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in calling on the Senate to continue to work towards reauthorizing the Justice for All Act. In recognition of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, both senators are urged reauthorization of the legislation last week.
The Justice for All Reauthorization Act encompasses a variety of initiatives to ensure safety and justice for women and men across the country. Among its many components, the legislation will improve and expand the DNA testing capacity of federal, state, and local crime laboratories, increase research and development of new DNA testing technologies and provide post-conviction DNA testing. Together they serve the criminal justice system in ways greater than each of their parts.
The bill was introduced on April 25, 2013 and the Senate Judiciary Committee passed it out of committee a few months later. Now the full Senate is considering passage of this critical legislation.
Read a statement from Stephen Saloom, senior policy advisor at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.



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