Author Archives: Phil Locke

National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

The Innocence Project has posted a notice on its website, with a link to a press release, about the recently released report by the Nation Academy of Sciences on memory and eyewitness identification.

From the report:  “the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted.”

The report endorses the following procedures for police lineups:

  • Blind Administration — Research shows that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is. This prevents the witness from picking up intentional or unintentional clues from the officer conducting the lineup.
  • Confidence Statements — Immediately following a lineup, the eyewitness should be asked to describe in his or her own words how confident he or she is in the identification. As the report notes, the level of confidence a witness expresses at the time of trial is not a reliable predictor of accuracy. Having the witness describe their level of confidence at the time an identification is made will provide juries with a useful tool for judging the accuracy of the identification.
  • Instructions — The person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether the witness identifies a suspect.
  • Videotape the procedure — The report recommends that police electronically record the identification procedure to preserve a permanent record of the procedure.

Most recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that for the 1,467 wrongful convictions currently in the registry, 35% had mistaken eyewitness identification as a contributing factor.

See the Innocence Project posting here.

Justice for Sale at the Highest Level?

Lobbyists Pursue State Attorneys General

From an October 28, 2014 NY Times story:

“Attorneys general are now the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators.”

See the NY Times article here.

This is yet another reason why ‘prosecutor’ should not be an elected political position.  It exposes the position to a host of pernicious incentives.

Jennifer Thompson Promotes the Justice for All Act

Jennifer Thompson has been featured on the WCB before.  She authored, along with Ronald Cotton, the book Picking Cotton.  Ms. Thompson incorrectly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her, and Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA proved he was not guilty.  After his release, Ronald and Jennifer became friends, and co-authored the book, which chronicles the events of the rape and the wrongful conviction.

Ms. Thompson has recently written an op-ed for The Hill in support of reauthorization of the Justice for All Act to ensure that post-conviction DNA testing remains accessible.

See the original posting on The Hill here.  The text of her piece appears below:

October 26, 2014
Harm multiplies when the innocent are wrongly convicted
By Jennifer Thompson

In June of 1995, I found myself on a journey I never wanted, never asked for and never would have wished on another human being. I learned that the man whom I had identified in court as my rapist – the man whose face, breath and evilness I had dreamt about for 11 years – was innocent. The man whom I believed had destroyed me that night, who had stolen everything from me, and whom I hated with an all-consuming rage had lost 4000 days, eleven Christmases, eleven birthdays, and relationships with loved ones. And on June 30th of 1995, Ronald Cotton, the man I had hated and prayed for to die, walked out of prison a free and innocent man.

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong. I had sent an innocent man to prison. A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me. I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.

Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim. I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done. The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from. This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted. The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

This case crystalized for me why it is so important to have laws in place that protect the innocent. Those laws would be important enough if they only protected the innocent, but they do so much more. They also protect the potential victims of real perpetrators, the families and children of the wrongfully convicted person, and – ultimately – the victim who learns the truth.

The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty. Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free, and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did. I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.

Thompson is the co-author with Ronald Cotton of the book Picking Cotton, a memoir they wrote together after DNA testing proved that Cotton had been wrongly convicted of raping Thompson as a college student.

Progress on the Road to Valid, Reliable Forensics

NASNCFS

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States published it’s Congressionally commissioned report,  “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward,” in 2009.  This was in response to the realization that a lot of what goes on in forensics can be called “junk science.” That is, much of it is not scientifically proven, is not statistically valid, is not reliable, and is very subject to the biases of individual examiners. We have featured the NAS report previously on this blog here, here, and here.

Not surprisingly, the NAS report was met with “stonewall” and dismissive resistance from the extant forensics community, as well as the National Association of District Attorneys.  However, the report succeeded in bringing forensics under the scrutiny of scientific discipline, and made the public aware of its many shortcomings and failings.  Subsequently, it was announced in 2013 that the US Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would jointly form the National Commission on Forensic Science to provide guidelines and recommendations for the conduct and use of forensic technology.  The first meeting of the Commission was in February, 2014.

Continue reading

Update on the Hannah Overton Case

Five days ago, we happily posted here that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Hannah Overton’s conviction for murdering her 4-year-old stepson by salt poisoning.  The basis for the ruling was ineffective assistance of counsel, and we bemoaned the fact that the court let the prosecutor off the hook for egregious Brady violations.

Well … the happy ending is still a long way off.  The day after our posting, on October 18, 2014, Nueces County DA Mark Skurka announced that his office will retry Hannah Overton.

Given the evidence that the prosecutor had early on, and did not disclose to the defense, Overton never should have been charged in the first place. This was a “crime” that never happened.

Read the full story by Pamela Colloff for the Texas Monthly here.

If you can read Colloff’s article through, and not be bristling with anger, then you just don’t understand, or you need to read it again, or you’re just on the wrong blog.

Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) – Bad Science and the Race for Massachusetts Governor

In an op-ed piece that will appear in tomorrow’s (10/19) print edition of the Boston Globe, Lee Scheier takes former prosecutor Martha Coakley to task for her “deft misuse of science” in the SBS conviction of Louise Woodward, a British nanny who was working for the Eappen family when their 8-month-old son Matthew died in 1997.

Coakley is currently running for governor of Massachusetts, and recently set up a photo op with Deborah Eappen, Matthew’s mother, trying to defend her record on “protecting children.”

This quote from the article:  “Coakley’s odd invocation of this case demands that we look at the facts. What cannot be lost in all of this political maneuvering is the truth about the Woodward case and all the thousands of shaken-baby cases before and since Woodward. The truth is that Martha Coakley’s deft misuse of science actually came very close to sending an innocent caretaker to prison for life.” (emphasis mine)

See the Boston Globe op-ed here.

Thanks to Dr. John Plunkett for passing this along.

Texas Appeals Court Grants New Trial … but Lets Prosecutor “Off the Hook”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has granted Hannah Overton a new trial based upon her claim of  “ineffective assistance of counsel” (IAC).  She has served seven years of a life sentence for capital murder in the death of her 4-year-old stepson who died of a sodium overdose (salt poisoning).  She truly did have ineffective assistance of counsel, because her attorney did not present the videotaped deposition of a salt poisoning expert saying that the overdose was likely unintentional, and there was nothing she could have done.

But here’s the part of the story that really gets me.  Overton had also filed a claim that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence (Brady violation), and the court was presented with both the IAC claim and the Brady claim.  In it’s ruling, the court declined to rule on the Brady claim, saying it was unnecessary since they had granted a new trial based upon the IAC claim.  They let the prosecutor off the hook.

Story from KRIS TV (Corpus Christi, TX) here.

For a current update, see the KRIS site here.