Author Archives: Nancy Petro

National Registry of Exonerations June Report: Record-Breaking Pace in 2014, Causal Insights

The June 2014 update of the National Registry of Exonerations has reported 50 exonerations in the first half of 2014, which is on pace to be record-breaking and to exceed the 87 exonerations reported at year-end in 2013. Each year’s total is a dynamic number. The tally for 2013, for example, had recently increased to 89 as exonerations from the year continue to be discovered. As of June 27, 2014, the Registry was reporting 1,385 exonerations since 1989. As of today, the total has advanced to 1,394.

While these numbers are important, they are a high-level summary of the comprehensive information and case profiles that enable research and insights regarding miscarriages of justice.

An important revelation of the National Registry’s interactive database—which includes both DNA-proven and other official exonerations—is that different types of crimes have different primary contributors. Two recently created graphs enable examination of common contributors by type of crime. The graphs Continue reading

Court Reexamines Arson Murder Conviction In Fort Stockton, Texas

A so-called “Junk Science” law passed in 2013 in Texas has helped enable review of the case of Sonia Cacy, 66, of Fort Stockton. Cacy was convicted of the 1991 murder by arson of her uncle, William Richardson. She has claimed innocence in the fire that swept through the small home they shared. The Innocence Project of Texas has been fighting for several years for her exoneration.

Cacy was sentenced to 99 years in prison but was paroled in 1998 after serving six years. According to the Innocence Project, post-conviction review of the case that included testimony from several experts was successful in securing her release. She’s had difficulty finding employment and housing and has been working for more than 20 years for exoneration to clear her name and her record of the conviction.

Cacy’s lawyers this week presented evidence supporting her innocence in two hearings, Monday and Tuesday, in Fort Stockton. Judge Bert Richardson expects to take several months to release his ruling.

According to several media reports, at trial a Bexar County toxicologist testified to jurors that gasoline was found on Richardson’s clothes, but several fire experts Continue reading

Another $40 Million Settlement for Wrongfully Convicted

As reported this morning in the Chigago Tribune (here), the Illinois State Police has agreed to pay the state’s highest wrongful conviction compensation to date to five men wrongfully convicted of the 1991 rape and murder of Cateresa Matthews in Dixmoor, Illinois.

The five men — Robert Veal, Robert Taylor, James Hardin, Jonathan Barr, and Shainnie Sharp, who became known as “The Dixmoor Five”— were teens when arrested for the crime and were exonerated when DNA testing linked to another known felon. Two of the five had served sentences of ten years and three served nearly two decades before their release.

The federal lawsuit alleged that both State and Dixmore police ignored evidence of another perpetrator and coerced a confession that implicated the four others from 15-year-old Robert Veal, who “had an IQ of 56 and developmental disabilities.” The lawsuit alleged that the police “threatened and abused” some of the other teens, including beating 15-year-old Robert Taylor into confessing. Continue reading

Open Disclosure by Federal Prosecutors is Goal of Proposed Bill

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI), a non-profit organization which seeks “to preserve the presumption of innocence, assure equal treatment under the law, and end wrongful convictions” today released a proposed bill that would require federal prosecutors to implement an open-file policy. The bill addresses a weakness in the implementation of the Brady requirement to disclose all exculpatory evidence to the defense: Prosecutors currently determine what evidence is “material” (would likely impact the outcome of the case) and therefore subject to disclosure.

CPI’s Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct has revealed that Brady violations —prosecutorial failure of the constitutional requirement to disclose exculpatory evidence relevant to the guilt or innocence and to the punishment of the defendant — as the leading type of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

The Federal Prosecutor Integrity Act would mandate that federal prosecutors, beginning at the time of arraignment, disclose all documents, scientific tests, witness statements, and other relevant evidence to the defense. Any additional information and evidence would need to be disclosed as the case progresses. Continue reading

Brooklyn, NY, Conviction Review: Seventh Man Set Free, After 17 Years in Prison

The New York Times reported yesterday (here) that Roger Logan, 53, has been exonerated and released from prison as a result of the ongoing probe of 90 murder cases by a conviction review unit under the direction of Kings County District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson. Logan—the seventh man to be released since Thompson took office on January 1, 2014—had steadfastly maintained his innocence during the 17 years he served in prison following his conviction and sentence of 25 years to life.

Logan had been convicted of the 1997 shooting of Sherwin Gibbons, who was killed in the vestibule of a Bedford-Stuyvesant building.

The Conviction Integrity Unit is looking at all 57 murder convictions involving former detective, Louis Scarcella, whose unorthodox tactics and unraveling convictions have prompted serious scrutiny, as well as other convictions stemming especially from the 1980s and 1990s, a time of rampant crime and violence. Continue reading

Delaware Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Death Row Inmate

Jermaine Wright, who has resided on death row following his conviction of the 1991 murder of Phillip Seifert at a liquor store just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, was granted a new trial yesterday. The Supreme Court of Delaware unanimously agreed with Wright’s contention that undisclosed exculpatory and impeachment evidence cumulatively amounted to a reversible Brady violation.

“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one where material exculpatory and impeachment evidence is disclosed and not suppressed,” wrote Justice Ridgely.

The case history in the opinion explains that no physical or forensic evidence connected Wright to the crime. The State presented no “murder weapon, shell casings, the getaway car, or eyewitness to identify Wright.” Continue reading

National Academy of Sciences Study: Over Four Percent of People Sentenced to Death are Likely Innocent

New peer-reviewed research indicates that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are likely innocent. The article, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants who are Sentenced to Death,” published today in one of the world’s most respected scientific journals—Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—is available at http://www.eurekalert.org/account.php

“This study provides the first rigorous estimate of the rate of conviction of innocent criminal defendants in any context. It shows that the number of innocent people sentenced to death is more than twice the number of inmates actually exonerated and freed by legal action,” said Bruce Levin, Ph.D., Professor and Past Chair, Department of Biostatistics, Mailman School of Public Health Columbia University. Levin, an expert in statistics, did not participate in the research but is familiar with the study. Continue reading

Cook County State’s Attorney Urged to Reconsider Indicting Witness Who Recanted

In an op-ed piece (here) in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is urging Cook County (IL) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to reconsider her decision to seek to indict on a perjury charge Willie Johnson, after he recanted his 1994 testimony, which led to the conviction and life sentencing of the Center’s client, Cedric Cal.

Johnson was the sole survivor of a gang-related drive-by shooting that killed two of his friends. He was wounded nine times but survived and named Cal and Albert Kirkman as the shooters. In recanting his testimony seventeen years later in 2011, Johnson said that he knew all along that the two he fingered were not the perpetrators. He claimed that if he had identified the actual shooters back in 1994, he would have put himself and his family in danger. Continue reading

Jury Awards $36M in Wrongful Conviction Suit to Two NY Men

A jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York, yesterday awarded John Restivo, 56, and Dennis Halstead, 59, $18 million each—$1 million for every year they spent in prison—following their wrongful convictions in the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. All charges had been dismissed in 2003 after DNA testing of evidence, which was conducted over ten years, excluded the men and implicated another, unidentified perpetrator.

After a four-week trial in the federal civil rights lawsuit, the jury concluded that Nassau County lead detective, Joseph Volpe, now deceased, had engaged in official misconduct, including fabrication of hair evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence in the case. Continue reading

National Registry of Exonerations Records 600th Exoneration for Murder

The National Registry of Exonerations, a dynamic database of known exonerations in the United States since 1989, recently reported another noteworthy milestone: the 600th exoneration for murder. Of 1,348 known exonerations as of April 8, 2014, nearly 45 percent have been for murder. This disturbing statistic, once unimaginable to most Americans, supports the assumption that countless wrongful convictions are yet unknown and the conclusion that Americans should strongly support efforts to improve the criminal justice system.

Above all, the 600th exoneration for murder confirms the “tip of the iceberg” characterization often referenced by those who have researched known exonerations. Continue reading

New Motion, Old Story: Court Urged to Vacate Conviction in 1982 Murder

A controversial case that imprisoned three men including a former Woonsocket Rhode Island police detective may see a new outcome more than thirty years after the crime. A lengthy motion filed in Superior Court by lawyers for Raymond Tempest Jr., 61, seeks to have his conviction of the 1982 murder of Doreen Picard vacated after DNA testing of a hair found in the victim’s hand proved not to be from Tempest.

For those who have studied wrongful convictions, reading the 76-page motion brings a troubling sense of déjà vu. If the motion is granted, it will be an Continue reading

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity Expands Registry to Include State-Level Cases

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI) announced today the expansion of its efforts to identify and analyze prosecutorial misconduct to include state and local cases. The Registry initially focused on misconduct by federal prosecutors. CPI is now inviting submissions of state-level cases for inclusion in its Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct, which was established in January 2014.

An online database, national in scope, the Registry identifies leading types of prosecutor misconduct, and enables analysis of trends and comparisons across jurisdictions through searchable sort, filter, and search functions.

Cases can also be downloaded into a spreadsheet to facilitate in-depth analyses: http://www.prosecutorintegrity.org/registry/database/

Cases qualify for inclusion in the Registry based on a determination by a bar disciplinary committee, or by a trial, appellate, or supreme court judge. CPI estimates there have been 16,000 determinations of prosecutorial misconduct nationwide since 1970.

Cases should be submitted by email to Sakeena Farhath, Registry Director: registry@prosecutorintegity.org

For more information, visit the Center for Prosecutor Integrity: http://www.prosecutorintegrity.org

 

Wrongful Convictions Symposium in Chicago will Honor Rob Warden

The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law will recognize its co-founder and longtime executive director Rob Warden as a “Champion of Justice,” at a Wrongful Convictions Symposium on May 9, 2014. The Symposium—to be held at Thorne Auditorium from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m.— is described as “a celebratory event to honor Rob Warden’s quest to free the innocent.” It is free and open to the public.

Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project, will be the keynote speaker. The program will also include two panel discussions and a conversation with Warden and Eric Zorn, columnist for the Chicago Tribune. A reception will immediately follow.

Rob Warden, recipient of more than fifty journalism awards, is one of the leading pioneers in exposing the conviction of the innocent. He has dedicated much of his career to investigative journalism focused on cases of claimed injustice. His work has not only prompted the freeing of the wrongfully convicted, but also the expansion of awareness of the scope of conviction error. He has increased our understanding of the causes of and contributors to miscarriages of justice, and he has been at the forefront of exposing the risk of error in death penalty cases.

Lawrence Marshall, a former Northwestern law professor who co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions with Warden in 1999, credits Warden with contributing to the elimination of the death penalty in Illinois. At a conference in 1998, Warden helped highlight more than two-dozen persons who had been freed from death row. This sobering display of miscarriages in death penalty cases influenced then-Governor George Ryan in his decision to place a moratorium on the Illinois death penalty in 2000. It was abolished in the state in 2011.

Read more on Warden here, here, here, and here.

According to Dan Hinkel’s article in the Chicago Tribune (here), Warden, 73, has no intention of leaving the work of researching, writing, and advocating for an improved criminal justice system. The seemingly tireless journalist, author, and advocate intends to be a force in eliminating the death penalty nationwide.

Mr. Warden’s work has had an inestimable impact on the lives of those freed from prison after wrongful conviction and on our understanding of how the criminal justice system can come closer to its promise of fair and accurate justice for all. The upcoming symposium will provide an opportunity to celebrate and thank an inspiring original, an accomplished writer and advocate, a true American hero.

John Raley to Judge: Never Again Show Poor Judgment on DNA

First, a disclaimer: John Raley is one of my heroes.

When John Raley met Michael Morton and became convinced of Morton’s innocence, Raley committed to doing whatever he could as a pro bono lawyer to bring truth to a terrible injustice. It would take years. Morton had been convicted of the 1986 bludgeoning murder of his wife Christine and sentenced to life in prison. But he was unwavering in claiming his innocence. And as it turned out, he was telling the truth.

Justice was delayed for Morton for twenty-five long years, six years longer than his exoneration could have taken if prosecutors had been cooperative in the review of this case. Unfortunately, Raley, Morton, and Innocence Project lawyers met only obstruction from the Williamson County (Texas) prosecutors.

Two of the “hard-on-crime” officials who were instrumental in the original conviction or in delaying the post-conviction search for truth, paid a price for their decisions. In a guest column (here) in the Austin American Statesman, Raley has asked a third official, now a judge, to take responsibility for his role. Continue reading

Bite-Mark Evidence: Compelling Enough to Convict the Innocent

Bite-mark evidence proved to be both powerful and unreliable in more than two dozen known cases of wrongful conviction. An article by Kathleen Hopkins for Gannett on this issue includes these specific difficulties relating to bite marks as evidence (Source: The Innocence Project and Dr. John Demas, a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences): Continue reading

NY murder convictions vacated; wrongful convictions scandal called “metastasizing”

Brooklyn (NY) Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman vacated the murder convictions of Antonio Yarbough, 39, and Sharrif Wilson, 37, Thursday after the two had served 21 years in prison for a 1992 triple murder—that of Mr. Yarbough’s mother, his twelve-year-old sister, and her friend. The two men, who were 15 and 18 at the time of the murders, have long claimed they did not commit them. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson dismissed the cases against the men.

No physical evidence had connected the two men to the crime. The post-conviction breakthrough came last year when DNA testing of evidence found under the fingernails of Mr. Yarbough’s mother matched DNA from a subsequent rape and murder that occurred in 1999 when Yarbough and Wilson were in prison. Family members cheered as the decision was announced in court. Continue reading

The National Registry of Exonerations: 2013 Was Record-Breaking

Note: Participate in a LIVE Twitter Q&A with Sam Gross, Editor of The  National Registry of Exonerations, today, February 4, at 1:00 p.m. EST. Use #NRE13.

Exonerations in 2013, the annual report of The National Registry of Exonerations, has reported 87 exonerations in the United States in 2013, a record-breaking year. The next highest total was 83 exonerations in 2009. On December 31, 2013, known exonerations since 1989 totaled 1,281, a dynamic number that increases frequently as current and past exonerations are added. In addition to providing detailed data on exonerations for the year, the annual report noted several trends in exonerations in the United States.

The registry added a total of 234 exonerations in 2013 including 85 new cases and 149 discovered from prior years. The 2013 year’s total increased to 87 with two cases added in 2014, and this number is expected to grow as additional exonerations that occurred in 2013 are reported or discovered. The total of all known exonerations is 1,304 to date, February 4, 2014. Continue reading

Murder Charges Dismissed after Man Spent 20 Years in Prison

Summit County (OH) Judge Mary Margaret Rowland has dismissed aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery changes against Dewey Jones, 51, of Akron, Ohio, after he spent 20 years in prison following his conviction of the 1993 murder of Neil Rankin, 71. Jones had always claimed innocence.

According to a report from ABC Newsnet 5 (here) Cleveland, Judge Rowland granted Dewey a new trial after DNA testing results in 2012 on a knife and rope Continue reading

Unreliable Evidence Cost Man 25 Years and Chicago $6.3 Million

According to the Chicago Sun-Times (here), the City of Chicago has agreed to pay $6.3 million to Larry Gillard to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that the Chicago police crime lab distorted evidence, which contributed to his wrongful conviction of a 1981 rape.  Gillard served 25 years in prison before DNA proved his innocence.

Two pieces of unreliable evidence conspired to convict Gillard. A Chicago Police Crime Laboratory analyst testified that Gillard was among 4.4 percent of African Continue reading

Charges Dropped in Conviction Based on Questionable Confessions

Breaking: This morning Cook County (IL) prosecutors reversed themselves and set aside the murder conviction and life sentence of Deon Patrick, 42, who has served more than half his life in prison following his conviction in a double murder case. The accuracy of the convictions of Patrick and others was clouded by questionable confessions.

Patrick was one of eight persons charged with the 1992 murders of Jeffrey Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook. Five were convicted after all made confessions that cross-implicated one another. Continue reading