Author Archives: Martin Yant

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.

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.