Author Archives: Nancy Petro

Adding Balance and Transparency to the Plea Bargaining Process

The Hon. Jed Rakoff — U.S. District Judge, Federal District Court in Manhattan — has expressed concern over the fairness and accuracy of outcomes resulting from plea bargaining. In the United States, plea agreement negotiations have become the resolution mechanism for the vast majority—more than 95 percent—of federal and state criminal cases. The judge believes that the process contributes to an unacceptable number of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.

“We have hundreds, or thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty,” Judge Rakoff said at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s annual Neiman Sieroty Lecture earlier this year. Read an article in USCNews on his comments (here).

The judge noted in an article in the New York Daily News (here), “The current Continue reading

A Case for Mercy and Discretion in Criminal Justice

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln

So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.

While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.

These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).

When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.

His attorney was wrong. Continue reading

New Developments in Willingham Case, Ten Years After Execution

The Innocence Project has asked the State Bar of Texas to investigate former Navarro County prosecutor John Jackson relating to the arson case of Todd Willingham. Convicted of setting a fire on Dec. 23, 1991, that resulted in the death of his three young children — Amber, 2, and twins Karmon and Kameron, 1 — Willingham was executed on February 17, 2004.

Expert forensic testimony provided at the Willingham trial that equated burn patterns to the use of accelerants has been debunked by contemporary forensic science. Now, an article by Maurice Possley for The Marshall Project published in The Washington Post, details new evidence that undermines the second significant evidence that supported the conviction of Willingham, testimony from a jailhouse informant. Continue reading

The FBI’s Can of Worms: Forensic review stalls, resumes on order of DOJ

The FBI’s massive review of criminal convictions with FBI forensic hair and fiber testimony, initiated in 2012, stalled in the face of widespread errors spanning two decades, but the review has resumed this month on order of the Justice Department. As reported by Spencer S. Hsu, an investigative reporter for the Washington Post, “Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.”

Read Hsu’s comprehensive article here. Highlights directly from the article: Continue reading

First-of-its-kind Exoneration Expected in Dallas

Michael Phillips, an African American man falsely convicted of sexual assault, told everyone he was innocent, but after his attorney advised that he would be better off pleading guilty than risking conviction at trial, and after he then served out his 12-year prison term, he never thought his name would be cleared. However, on July 25, 2014, at 9 a.m. Mr. Phillips, 57, in a wheel chair due to sickle cell anemia, is expected to be exonerated in Criminal District Court 3 at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ ongoing initiative to review untested rape kits revealed that Michael Phillips was innocent. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the first time in the United States an exoneration of this nature has occurred…as a result of a district attorney’s systematic testing without active request by a defendant. Continue reading

Kevin Martin Exonerated after 26 Years in Prison; FBI Forensic Hair Analysis in Error

The Washington Post has reported that Kevin Martin’s conviction of the 1982 murder of Ursula C. Brown was vacated on Monday. Brown had been abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered after her car was struck from behind during a rash of similar crimes that authorities had dubbed the “bump-and-rob” assaults in Washington, D.C. Martin had long contended his innocence in the killing.

Martin is the fifth person to have his conviction overturned as a result of a recognition of inaccurate FBI hair analysis. The FBI and Justice Department review of all convictions involving FBI hair matches in the 1980s and 1990s continues. Two comprehensive reports linked here provide an indication of the bumpy road to truth years and even decades after miscarriages were prompted by an unjustifiable trust in unreliable science presented by a highly credible source.

Highlights directly from the Washington Post: Continue reading

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