Author Archives: Martin Yant

Research project issues report on wrongful arson convictions

The Arson Research Project says that 30 men and women have been exonerated from wrongful arson convictions since 1991. More than half of them were exonerated from life sentences or from death row. In the case of one Texas inmate, Cameron Todd Willingham, the research project says, such forensic error led to the execution of an innocent man.

To help prevent such tragedies in the future, the Arson Research Project, which is affiliated at Monterey College of Law, has published an excellent report, Anatomy of a Wrongful Arson Conviction, which you can download here.

The center’s director, Paul Bieber, presents a good video summary on wrongful arson convictions and the difficulty reversing them, here.

Scalia once touted exoneree’s death sentence as example of capital punishment’s worth

“A North Carolina death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence on Tuesday was once held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of someone who deserved to die,” the Huffington Post reports. You can read the details here.

98-year-old woman seeks to overturn 1950 spying conviction

Hysteria often breeds wrongful convictions. The anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s McCarthy era undoubtedly led to some miscarriages of justice, and Miriam Moskowitz says her espionage conviction was one of them. Now 98, Moskowitz says she wants to clear her name while she still has time, and has asked a federal judge to throw out her 1950 conviction. You can read about the case here.

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.

New technique may be able to date fingerprints

A key factor in the dubious conviction of Texan Kerry Max Cook in a 1977 rape and murder case was testimony of a police officer that the age of Cook’s fingerprints at the victim’s apartment near Cook’s put him there at the time of the murder. The officer later admitted that he knew his testimony was not supported by science but that the prosecutor pressured to make the statement anyway.

Now the prosecutorial science fiction of the 1970s may be on thee verge of becoming a scientific fact. As Discovery News reports here, Dutch scientists say they have discovered how to accurately date fingerprints. If true, the discovery could let police place a suspect at the scene at the time a crime was committed or help defense investigators prove that the prints were left there well before or after the event.

Four decades later, Iceland confessions defy belief

“The methods of the Icelandic police weren’t unique. They convinced themselves that a group of petty criminals on the fringes of society were a gang of hardened killers. But they didn’t find the evidence to back up their hunch, they were left with just the confessions that were extracted after months of solitude and mental torture.”

That’s the conclusion of a remarkable BBC News multipedia presentation here about how six young people in Iceland confessed to two murders in the mid-’70s despite a total lack of evidence or memory of the crimes.

Discovery rules in U.S. remain ‘a tangled mess’

Exonerations in cases like that of Michael Morton of Texas — who was freed in 2011 after DNA testing on evidence previously hidden by the prosecution identified another man as the killer of Morton’s wife — have demonstrated discovery’s crucial role in wrongful convictions. Despite some reforms to the discovery process in a few states, though, laws in most of America remain a tangled mess, according to The Crime Report. For every successful reform, Kate Pastor reports here, bills in other states die aborning.