Author Archives: Martin Yant

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.

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.