First-of-its-kind Exoneration Expected Tomorrow in Dallas

Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely convicted of sexual assault, told everyone he was innocent, but after his attorney advised that he would be better off pleading guilty than risking conviction at trial, and after he then served out his 12-year prison term, he never thought his name would be cleared. However, tomorrow, July 25, 2014, at 9 a.m. Mr. Phillips, 57, in a wheel chair due to sickle cell anemia, is expected to be exonerated in Criminal District Court 3 at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ ongoing initiative to review untested rape kits revealed that Michael Phillips was innocent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred…as a result of a district attorney’s systematic testing without active request by a defendant. Continue reading

Aside

For some time, the news emanating from the UK has been getting worse with regard to the potential for miscarriages of justice, with law reforms diminishing legal protections for suspects and the almost total withdrawal of legal aid for the vast majority (nevermind the current moral panic of historic child sexual abuse which is swelling the prison population). This also comes at a time when changes to the rules on who can receive compensation for miscarriages of justice have also been ‘tightened’ to the point where barely anyone will qualify. I have blogged about many of the bad news stories coming out of the UK – including forensic science mishaps and police corruption seemingly continuing unabated regardless of new regulators or complaints bodies.Justice statue

Despite what one could view as the growing IMPORTANCE therefore of ‘innocence’ work in the UK, it looks as if things may be heading in the opposite direction. Following years of expansion with Innocence Projects being set up in universities across the country, it appears that these are now being encouraged to close. There are a host of reasons why Innocence Projects in the UK may be under threat (not least their position within univerisities whose priorites narrow ever further every day toward simply profit-making and rising up league tables.) They do not operate as a mirror to those in the US and internationally, largely because of the existence of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. However, their work is still invaluable. When I was Director of the University of Leeds Innocence Project, we received hundreds of letters (which still arrive weekly if not daily), reviewed dozens of cases, and assisted many prisoners. It also educated many students in the causes of, and remedies for, miscarriages of justice.  It gave many law students a passion for criminal legal aid work – where there is no money to be made and certainly no glory.

So – to read the announcement on the INUK website is all the more shocking. (see here… INUK – New Beginnings ). Where innocence work in the UK needs innovation, inspiration and support, it is being told that the day has come to pack our bags and go home. My thoughts are not only with those of us (staff and students alike) who have worked many years to get innocence taken seriously again in the UK, but those prisoners now who will be back at square one, with nowhere to turn yet again. How an ‘innocence network’ can survive, nevermind have any impact, with only one member, will remain to be seen.

Are the FBI’s flawed hair matches wrong only when DNA proves it?

Kevin Martin’s exoneration in Washington, D.C., this week, as reported here, proved once again that FBI hair analysis is flawed and inaccurate. Martin was the fifth person to have his conviction overturned because of inaccurate hair analysis by FBI agents. That bodes well for others convicted on such evidence where, as in Martin’s case, biological evidence still exists that can be subjected to DNA testing.

But what about those cases in which there is no evidence to test? Will prosecutors still defend cases that were greatly based on FBI hair comparisons even after the FBI conceded in 2013 that microscopic hair analysis was not based on sound science?

The Massachusetts case of George Perrot is a good example of a case with great merit despite the lack of DNA. Perrot has been incarcerated for almost 29 years for a 1985 rape of elderly woman in Springfield greatly because of the testimony of an FBI agent that a single hair found on the victim’s bed matched a known sample of Perrot’s hair.

Perrot, who was only 17 at the time, has insisted on his innocence ever since his arrest. In 2001, his conviction was overturned because of numerous prosecutorial errors, but the conviction was reinstated by a higher court because of the supposed strength of the microscopic hair evidence used against him.

Never mind that the rape didn’t occur on the bed where the hair was found. Never mind that the victim repeatedly refused to identify Perrot as the rapist because, she stated, the rapist was clean-shaven and had short hair and Perrot had shaggy hair and a beard. Never mind that the series of rapes of elderly women in which Perrot was the purported perpetrator continued after his arrest. The hair “match,” the court said, was more important.

In a motion filed earlier this month, Perrot’s pro bono attorneys from the Ropes & Gray law firm, argue that the FBI’s acknowledgment that its examiners provided scientifically unsupported testimony justifies a new trial for Perrot.

Unfortunately, the attorneys could not locate the biological evidence in the case for DNA testing to bolster Perrot’s innocence claim the way Kevin Martin’s attorneys were able to. There are dozens of people like Perrot out there convicted with hair-comparison testimony who can’t use DNA testing to prove the testimony wrong.

That doesn’t make them any less innocent, but prosecutors and the courts may not see it that way. Of the 106 convictions in the 1980s and 1990s in the District of Columbia that included an FBI hair match that have thus far been reviewed, prosecutors said only Martin’s supported a “viable” claim for innocence. If it hadn’t been for DNA, Martin’s claim probably wouldn’t have viewed as viable at all.

Botched Execution in Arizona

Joseph Wood was put to death by the state of Arizona yesterday.

“It took one hour and 57 minutes for the execution to be completed, and Wood was gasping for more than an hour and a half of that time.”

See the AOL story here.

New Scholarship Spotlight: Innocence Found: The New Revolution in American Justice

Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network, has posted the above-titled chapter on SSRN.  Download here:  The summary says:

This short extract — the first four pages of Chapter 1 in an edited volume, Controversies in Innocence Cases in America — begins to describe the history and significance of the Innocence Movement in the American Criminal Justice System. The full chapter traces the origins of the innocence organizations that came together to form the Innocence Network and fostered the new Innocence Movement, the manner in which the Innocence Movement has created an impetus and model for criminal justice reform that shifts the focus from the Warren Court’s due process revolution of the 1960s to a more substantive focus on reliability. In this framework, the chapter then considers some of the specific reforms that have emerged from the Innocence Movement’s focus on substantive justice, and the challenges that lie ahead.

Kevin Martin Exonerated after 26 Years in Prison; FBI Forensic Hair Analysis in Error

The Washington Post has reported that Kevin Martin’s conviction of the 1982 murder of Ursula C. Brown was vacated on Monday. Brown had been abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered after her car was struck from behind during a rash of similar crimes that authorities had dubbed the “bump-and-rob” assaults in Washington, D.C. Martin had long contended his innocence in the killing.

Martin is the fifth person to have his conviction overturned as a result of a recognition of inaccurate FBI hair analysis. The FBI and Justice Department review of all convictions involving FBI hair matches in the 1980s and 1990s continues. Two comprehensive reports linked here provide an indication of the bumpy road to truth years and even decades after miscarriages were prompted by an unjustifiable trust in unreliable science presented by a highly credible source.

Highlights directly from the Washington Post: Continue reading

In Netherlands, New Evidence in the Deventer Murder Case

From the Knoops Innocence Project in the Netherlands:

Further research into Deventer Murder Case

On Monday July 7, 2014, Attorney General D.J.C. Aben of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands granted a request for further research in the Deventer Murder case. The request was submitted by Mr. G.G.J. Knoops and P.B.A. Acda of the Knoops’ Innocence Project on March 21, 2013.

Under a new law, which was enacted in the Netherlands on October 1, 2012, it is possible to request the Attorney General to conduct further research into a case, if there are “indications” that a novum exists. A novum is necessary to successfully reopen a criminal case before the Supreme Court of the Netherlands. It is a new “finding” that was not known to the judge, and this finding must be of such a nature, that if the judge was aware thereof, it would have most likely resulted in a different verdict.

A request for further research on the basis of “indications that a novum exists” must be directed at the Attorney General, who has the authority to initiate a new investigation if he beliefs that there are sufficient indications of a novum.

The defense team of Ernest Louwes in the Deventer Murder case established sufficient indications, upon which the Attorney General decided to have the case re-investigated. The new research will focus on three aspects: the blouse of the victim, telephone data between the victim and Mr. Louwes and the time of death estimation.

The blouse of the victim

Small traces of touch DNA were recovered from the blouse of the victim, which traces turned out to match with Mr. Louwes. Louwes, who worked as a tax consultant of the victim, had visited her on the morning of the murder.

The defense team convincingly argued, on the basis of new forensic reports prepared by two DNA experts from the United States, that Louwes’ DNA on the victim’s blouse was the result of a peaceful (instead of a violent) encounter between the two. The defense could only do so after a lawsuit against the State because the Dutch Forensic Institute was initially unwilling to provide the underlying forensic data.

The Attorney General has requested the Dutch Forensic Institute to comment on the new DNA reports. If the Dutch Forensic Institute agrees with the “peaceful contact claim” the reports will be submitted to a third independent DNA expert for further examination.

Telephone data

The defense, backed by forensic experts, demonstrated in its request for further investigation that the telephone data used to convict Mr. Louwes, were wrongly interpreted. Louwes’ mobile telephone communicated with a base station near the crime scene. This “evidence” was used to convict Mr. Louwes. The judges did not know, however, that the “evidence” was presented without an accurate report on the weather conditions at that time, which may explain why a mobile phone does not communicate with the nearest base station.

Mr. Louwes has always claimed that he was in a traffic jam at the “alleged” time of the murder. This was, according to the Prosecutor and appellate judges, an indication of his “deceptiveness”, as it did not correspond with the telephone data. Yet, as it turns out now, the precise location of Mr. Louwes at that time could have caused a mobile phone to communicate with a base station further away than the one expected (i.e. the nearest station). The fact that there was a traffic jam had not been on the news, so this de facto supported the story of Mr. Louwes, as it was insider information.

The Attorney General has now decided to (re)investigate the impact of the weather conditions and the geographical position of Mr. Louwes at that time on the likelihood of communicating with a base station further away than expected in the case of Mr. Louwes.

Time of Death Estimation

According to Dutch forensic experts, certain marks on the victim’s body signaled that the initially accepted time of death estimation was incorrect. The time of death was supposedly later than the time of death assumed by the appellate court. The Attorney General will appoint a team to investigate to what extent different experts diverge or correspond in their professional opinions in this regard.

The Knoops’ Innocence Project has been investigating the Deventer Murder case since 2003. Mr. Louwes was acquitted by the lower court in 2000, the Court of Appeals in Arnhem convicted him in 2001. In 2003, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands granted a request for review on the basis of wrongfully conducted dog scent line ups. Yet, the Court of Appeals in Den Bosch, who was appointed to retry the case, convicted him again. In 2007, a new request for review was submitted to the Supreme Court; this request was rejected in 2008. This is the first request for further investigation in this case under the new law.

Knoops’ Innocence Project

G.G.J. Knoops, Counsel
P.B.A. Acda, Counsel