Author Archives: Martin Yant

Rogue prosecutor’s influence on hair expert’s testimony highlighted in ruling overturning conviction

The January 26 opinion overturning the conviction of Massachusetts inmate George D. Perrot, which you can read about here, was important in several respects.

First and foremost, the opinion written by Hampden County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Kane was important because it could lead to the release of Perrot 30 years after his conviction on rape charges even though the victim repeatedly said the then-long-haired, bearded Perrot didn’t look like the clean-shaven, short-haired man who raped her.

Second, the opinion is important because Judge Kane’s reasoning could influence thousands of past convictions that were based on now-discredited hair-comparison analysis like that used to convict Perrot.

Equally important, though, was Judge Kane’s finding that Wayne Oakes, the FBI hair examiner who testified as an expert in the case was unduly influenced by the overzealous prosecutor in the case. In his ruling, Kane noted that the prosecutor, Francis W. Bloom, hand-delivered the hairs and other evidence to the FBI Laboratory in Washington because he wanted to speak with Oakes and the other forensic scientists.

“Bloom carried with him to Washington his attitudes and feelings towards Perrot,” Kane wrote. “He despised Perrot. In a diary, Bloom … referred to Perrot as ‘inherently evil’ and as ‘a sociopath,’ and scoffed at Perrot’s redemption.

“Such feelings enable a person possessing public authority to shed the restraints and scruples that limit the exercise of power. The feelings allow the official to see the individual as apart from the community of citizens whose rights must be regarded. These feelings that filled Bloom’s mind, coupled with his trip to Washington, D.C., produce a reasonable foundation for the inference that Bloom voiced his views about Perrot to Oakes. … Unconsciously, Oakes, because of these communications, departed from his role as a neutral expert and slipped into the role of a partisan for the government.”

Bloom was later disciplined when it was discovered that he had forged Perrot’s signature to a fabricated confession implicating two of Perrot’s friends in another housebreak in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to confess. But the slap on the wrist he received pales by comparison with the price Perrot has paid greatly because of Bloom’s misguided zealotry.

Prosecutorial bias permeates the American judicial system. Prosecutors hell-bent on victory often directly or indirectly prod investigators and experts to get the results they want. It’s refreshing to see a judge recognize this in a well-reasoned, groundbreaking decision.

 

 

How Texas took the lead on reforms

Texas is not the first state that would normally come to mind in a discussion of criminal-justice reform. But the wrongful conviction of Tim Cole spurred the tough-on-crime state to fix its eyewitness identification procedures, increase the money authorized to be paid to exonerees and set up an advisory commission on wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, The New Yorker reports here, Cole never lived to see the reforms put in place.

Satanic cult hysteria still capable of putting people through hell

If you thought that the Satanic Panic and child-abuse hysteria, which caused dozens of wrongful convictions in the 1980s and 1990s, are no longer a threat, think again. Pacific Standard magazine writer Dan Shewan says there still are a lot of true believers out there.

“The specter of Satanic cult hysteria continues to color many cases marked by unusual barbarity and cruelty, little having apparently been learned from the lessons of the 1980s,” Shewan writes. “In some quarters, crude symbolism and token teenage dabblings in the occult are still seen as evidence that legitimate, violent Satanic cults exist.” You can read Shewan’s frightening story here.

Tradition-bound U.S. system mired in scientific illiteracy, author says

The American legal system assumes that innocent people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit. It also assumes that eyewitness testimony is reliable and that jurors are impartial even though scientific research shows otherwise.  Therein lies the cause of many wrongful convictions.

“The legal system is resistant to change and resistant to paying attention to scientific research,” Adam Benforado, author of the book Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, tells Wired magazine. You will find the informative story here.

New child-abuse panic could cause wrongful convictions, prof warns

Child-abuse hysteria has spurred hundreds of wrongful convictions and even more destroyed lives in the past 30 years — first with sexual-molestation charges and then the bad science of shaken-baby syndrome. Now comes ”medical child abuse,” an outgrowth of the Munchausen syndrome by proxy panic. And Maxine Eichner, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, says the ill-founded concept is starting to cause similar harm. You can read her astute warning here.

DNA testing isn’t perfect, and it could get worse, experts say

DNA testing is the gold standard in forensic science, and it has been used to free hundreds of innocent inmates since 1989. But it has also falsely implicated other innocents, and it likely will do so even more as labs push the technological envelope to solve crimes, the Marshall Project reports here. Add human error to the equation, and you have the recipe for potential disasters.

FBI crime lab admits to errors in DNA profiles

There are lies, damn lies and statistics.

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has notified local crime labs that it has discovered errors in data used by forensic scientists in thousands of cases to calculate the chances that DNA found at a crime scene matches a particular person.

The FBI is downplaying the significance of the problem, but a scientist who identified errors 10 years ago in the DNA profiles the FBI analyzed to generate the population statistics data called the consequences of the disclosure appalling and said they could have led to wrongful convictions. You can read the story here.

Court tosses convictions but won’t say couple is innocent

No matter how much evidence of innocence might exist, it is sometimes next to impossible to get the courts to fully admit error. That’s what happened yesterday, when Dan and Fran Keller, who were convicted on “satanic daycare abuse” charges in 1992, finally had their convictions overturned by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. While the court ruled that the Kellers were wrongly convicted, the Austin American-Statesman reports here, it just couldn’t come around to admitting the Kellers, who were released in 2013, were actually innocent.  The Kellers plan to continue their fight.

Case highlights harmful impact of flawed FBI hair testimony

The Guardian has effectively put a human face here on the tragedy of the FBI’s admission this week that its agents presented flawed testimony in almost every trial in which they testified against criminal defendants for more than two decades before 2000.

The face is that of George Perrot, whose case was previously covered on the Wrongful Convictions Blog here and in which, it should be noted, this writer has played a small role.

Perrot was convicted as a teenager on rape charges in 1985 greatly on the testimony of FBI agent Wayne Oakes that a hair found on the victim’s bed was similar to a known sample of Perrot’s hair. It didn’t matter to the jury that the elderly victim said that the rape didn’t occur on the bed or that the long-haired, bearded Perrot didn’t resemble the short-haired, clean-shaven man who raped her. Oakes’ testimony was enough, an appeals court later ruled, to put Perrot behind bars, where he has languished for 30 years.

Thanks to the pro-bono work of the Ropes & Gray law firm, Perrot is back in court trying to clear his name, but Massachusetts prosecutors are still defending his conviction. They say Perrot did not file his claim in a timely manner and that there is other evidence of his guilt — a common refrain that many others convicted on the FBI’s hair-comparison testimony are sure to hear in the coming months and years as their cases make it into court.

North Carolina Innocence Commission’s success has yet to inspire other states to follow suit

With eight exoncerations to its credit, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is living up to its goals when it was established in 2006. With official powers that others who investigate possible wrongful conictions don’t have, The Atlantic reports here, the commission has been able to crack cases that others might not have been be able to. That should make it a national model for how states could correct wrongful convictions, but it hasn’t been so far. Money is one reason. A lack of commitment may be another.

Another conviction reversed because of misleading PowerPoint images

Last month, this blog highlighted here a Marshall Project report on how prosecutors are winning convictions through the egregious misuse of PowerPoint presentations.

Now, the Marshall Project reports here the reversal of yet another conviction because of prosecutors’ use of inflammatory and misleading PowerPoint images during a trial. That brings the total of such reversals to 11, the Marshall Project says. There likely will be more.

Prosecutors turning to ‘PowerPoint justice’ to win the day

The Marshall Project reports that prosecutors have found a new tool with which to convict the innocent as well as the guilty: PowerPoint. You can see some examples of their improper “visual advocacy” here.

Recent Rash of Exonerations Only the Surface: Many More Remain Wrongfully Imprisoned

By Jefferey Deskovic for The Huffington Post

Fernando Bermudez. Sami Leka. Jose Morales. Reuben Montalvo. Lazaro Burts. Kareen Bellamy. Anthony Ortiz. Frank Sterling. Roy Brown. Dennis Halstead. John Kogut. Eric Glisson. Jonathan Fleming.

Those are the names of 13 men that I personally knew and served time with who were exonerated either during my 16 years in prison or thereafter.

Last year there were 91 exonerations. This year there have been 90 thus far. To date there have been 1482 exonerations overall, only 321 of them being DNA related. Since taking office this past January, Brooklyn DA Thompson’s conviction integrity unit has exonerated 11 people.

Most experts estimate the percentage of wrongfully convicted prisoners to be 2 to 5% of the inmate population — that is 120,000 people. I deem the number to be closer to 15 to 20%.

In either case, what is causing the staggering number of wrongful convictions?

Rogue Law Enforcement. In Brooklyn, disgraced retired detective Scarcella was found to have used the same drug addict as the sole eyewitness in six different murder cases. Various news accounts say as many as 70 homicides he worked on are being reviewed.

Forensic Fraud. In Pennsylvania, forensic scientist, Annie Dhookhan, was sentenced to three to five years in prison and two years of probation after pleading guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence.

Additionally, forensic scientists are given financial incentives for giving prosecutorial favorable results that lead to conviction in North Carolina, Illinois, Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, California, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Prosecutorial Misconduct. Lying to judges and juries about the existence of benefits and in some cases coercion to informants was a regular practice over the span of the 23 year tenure of former Brooklyn DA Hynes, as was withholding of evidence of innocence.

Junk science. For 40 years, FBI experts have testified in court about “bullet lead analysis” a procedure in which bullets found at a crime scene are tested for arsenic, tin, silver, and other contaminants or additives, and the findings were compared to analysis of bullets found in the possession of suspects. These experts claimed to be able to link one bullet to others from the same production run. For at least 20 years, FBI officials knew that there were no scientific underpinnings to this junk science — that in fact, there were no studies shown to determine how significant a “match” was.

Disgraced dog scent expert Preston came into courtrooms in Texas and Florida for over 20 years, stating that he had trained dogs which would bark if, after being given items to smell from a crime, the dog recognized the scent from a suspect’s item. Preston claimed that his dogs could smell human traces years or months after a suspect walked over the ground, on heavily trafficked streets, underwater, and even after hurricanes. He is not the only “expert” in this “field.”

In 2013, it was revealed that in 27 death penalty cases, FBI forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that were drawn from a so-called “match” between hair found at a crime scene and hair from a defendant.

Tire tracks, footprints, and bite marks are also junk science.

I served 16 years in prison, from the ages of 17 to 32, wrongfully convicted of a murder and rape in New York, despite the fact that the DNA never matched. I lost all seven of my appeals, including two of which now US Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor denied on procedural grounds for having been four days late despite my substantive innocence argument. Ultimately I was exonerated because further DNA testing identified the actual perpetrator, who killed another victim 3.5 years later.

Using $1.5 million dollars of compensation I received, I started The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice to exonerate the wrongfully convicted in DNA and non-DNA cases, educate the public, elected officials, and criminal justice professionals on the causes of wrongful conviction and the reforms need to prevent them, and help the exonerated reintegrate. In two years time, we helped exonerate William Lopez, who had served 23.5 years, and helped 4 wrongfully convicted men reintegrate back into society by providing short-term housing, which enabled them to pursue further education, and in one case open a business.

This holiday season, while celebrating with friends and family, we hope you’ll take a brief moment to remember all those who remain wrongfully imprisoned.

To learn more about The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and how you can help, please visit here.

28 to be released as FBI agent is investigated for tampering with evidence

Federal prosecutors will dismiss indictments against 28 defendants in Washington, D.C., drug cases as the FBI investigates an agent accused of tampering with evidence, including narcotics and guns, The Washington Post reports.

The Post says 14 of the defendants had already pleaded guilty and were serving sentences. Prosecutors said they can withdraw their guilty pleas and the charges will be dropped. You can read the story here.

Recovery therapy still being used to foster false accusations

“The belief that hidden memories can be ‘recovered’ in therapy should have been exorcised years ago, when a rash of false memories dominated the airwaves, tore families apart and put people on the stand for crimes they didn’t commit,” Pacific Standard magazine reports in a story you can find here.

Sadly, pseudoscientific recovery therapy is still being used, and, Pacific Standard says, “people are still paying the price.”

Hundreds ‘convicted in error’ in Houston drug cases

The scandal-plagued Houston criminal-justice system has yet another scandal. The Houston Press reports that prosecutors have sent out hundreds of notices to people convicted of drug offenses that they were wrongly convicted.

The problem came about when evidence tested by the Houston Police Department crime lab came up negative for a controlled substance after the defendants had already taken plea deals. In some cases, the district attorney’s office knew about the negative results before the defendant pled guilty, but most test results were received after a conviction.

The district attorney’s office apparently knew about the problem for years, but only recently sent out the notices.

You can read more here.

Blacks must wait longer to be exonerated, study shows

From The Huffington Post:

By Michael McLaughlin

It took 18 years for DNA evidence to surface that cleared Derrick Williams of a rape and attempted kidnapping in Florida. Prosecutors had relied on the testimony of the victim, who identified Williams as her attacker in 1992. But he walked free at age 48 in 2011 because his DNA didn’t match that left on a gray T-shirt by the actual perpetrator.

The truth might have surfaced sooner if Williams were white or Latino instead of African-American.

There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but data about wrongful convictions show that blacks who are exonerated after a bogus conviction have served 12.68 years on average before the good news, according to Pamela Perez, professor of biostatistics at Loma Linda University. It takes just 9.4 years for whites and 7.87 for Latinos.

“Black Americans are exonerated at a substantially slower rate than any other race,” said a new report from Perez, shown exclusively to The Huffington Post.

There’s enough of a pattern that the differences between racial groups cannot be called random, Perez said. But there isn’t enough information to explain what caused the differences.

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

She discovered the different timespans by examining 1,450 exonerations listed on theNational Registry of Exonerations through Oct. 20, 2014. Perez conducted the research for Safer-America.com, a consumer research group.

The findings are based on what is probably only a fraction of all exonerations. There are likely cases that didn’t make it onto the national registry, and there are almost certainly more wrongly convicted people still waiting to clear their names.

The registry didn’t collaborate with Perez, but one of its researchers reviewed Perez’s work at HuffPost’s request and approved of her methodology.

“I’m not surprised by the numbers,” said Sam Gross, the exoneration registry’s editor and a University of Michigan law professor. “The main thing we can say is that it’s very hard to know what it means.”

Perez, Gross and others cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the findings. Without further research, they said, no one knows if the results were caused by a biased criminal justice system or other factors.

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.”

Magazine tells how prosecutors became ‘kings of the courtoom’

“Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest and modestly paid,” The Economist says. “But they have accumulated so much power that abuse is inevitable.” The magazine explains how prosecutors became “the kings of the courtroom,” and how this contributes to wrongful convictions, here.

Bloodsworth film gets funding boost, Raffaele Sollecito doesn’t

Producers of a movie about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row by DNA, successfully launched a fund-raising effort for post-production funding today. The producers of “Bloodsworth – An Innocent Man,” previously raised over $25,000 from 331 backers for filming in 2011, and current crowd-funding effort looks like it will be equally successful. You can read about the campaign here.

Sadly, not all possibly innocent people caught up in the sometimes crazy criminal-justice world are having the same kind of luck. As Luca Cheli explains here, Raffaele Sollecito, Amanda Knox’s co-defendant in the controversial Italian murder case concerning the murder of Briton Meredith Kercher, is one of them. Cheli reports that Sollecito’s account on the crowd-funding site GoFundMe has suddenly been closed. Sollecito had successfully raised defense funds on the site before, and now his supporters around the world are being denied the opportunity to help him again. Sollecito is having problems setting up an account on other crowd-funding sites, and his chance of presenting a robust defense is now in jeopardy.

Cheli attributes Sollecito’s fund-raising woes to the often-vociferous haters of Knox and Sollecito. But the issue is bigger than that.

”This is a threat going well beyond the context of a specific murder case: it is certainly a threat to anyone working against any wrongful conviction, but it is also a potential threat to any advocate of whatever cause,” Cheli writes.

“Today it is Knox and Sollecito, who or what will it be tomorrow?”

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.