Author Archives: Phil Locke

The Marshall Project – Journalism for Justice

It’s been my belief that the media have done a “pretty good” job of making us aware of some of the flaws in the justice system   Just as an example, I believe their coverage of exonerations has been quite good.  But I also believe that one of the major obstacles to justice system reform is that the typical John and Jane Q. Public (aka: the electorate) are of the opinion that the justice system is just fine the way it is. Now there is a new group, with a new website, that is dedicated to seeing that journalism is perhaps even more active in addressing the issues with the justice system. This is The Marshall Project.

The Marshall Project’s mission statement speaks for itself, and appears below. (The bolding emphasis is mine.)

Mission Statement

The Marshall Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization founded on two simple ideas:

1) There is a pressing national need for high-quality journalism about the American criminal justice system. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Spiraling costs, inhumane prison conditions, controversial drug laws, and concerns about systemic racial bias have contributed to a growing bipartisan consensus that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.  The recent disruption in traditional media means that fewer institutions have the resources to take on complex issues such as criminal justice. The Marshall Project stands out against this landscape by investing in journalism on all aspects of our justice system. Our work will be shaped by accuracy, fairness, independence, and impartiality, with an emphasis on stories that have been underreported or misunderstood. We will partner with a broad array of media organizations to magnify our message, and our innovative website will serve as a dynamic hub for the most significant news and comment from the world of criminal justice.

2) With the growing awareness of the system’s failings, now is an opportune moment to amplify the national conversation about criminal justice. We believe that storytelling can be a powerful agent of social change. Our mission is to raise public awareness around issues of criminal justice and the possibility for reform. But while we are nonpartisan, we are not neutral. Our hope is that by bringing transparency to the systemic problems that plague our courts and prisons, we can help stimulate a national conversation about how best to reform our system of crime and punishment.

We certainly welcome their contribution, and I look forward to following them.

 

Ricky Jackson Prison Release Video

On Wednesday, November 19, Nancy Petro reported on this blog about the exoneration of Ricky Jackson after 39 years in prison.  See that story here.

CNN has posted a great video of his release from prison.  See the 2 minute CNN video here.

How the Courts Trap People Who Have Been Convicted by Bad Forensics

Radley Balko, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, has just published an article dealing with the justice system’s refusal/inability to deal appropriately with false, fake, unscientific, and discredited forensic evidence post conviction.

The focus is on a case that involves the infamous Dr. Steven Hayne, a now thoroughly discredited expert witness, who was sole medical examiner for the state of Mississippi for 20 years.  I urge you to read the entire article, but I’ve extracted a few particularly telling quotes:

•  “The courts and the people who operate in them seem to feel that the integrity of the system demands the preservation of verdicts.”

Addressing the fact that the body of scientific knowledge grows as a process, rather than an event; coupled with the legal time restrictions for introduction of new evidence  ————

•  “From the perspective of the wrongly convicted, you can see the trap here. File too soon, and the court may conclude that you haven’t presented enough evidence that the forensic theory upon which you were convicted has been discredited. If you then try to file more petitions as more evidence comes out to bolster your argument, you risk the court concluding that this is an  issue you’ve already raised, you lost, and you’re therefore barred from raising it again.”

•  “Koon was convicted due to testimony from an expert the court now admits isn’t credible. For the same court to nevertheless uphold his conviction because he missed a deadline is to keep him in prison on a technicality. It’s a cynical outcome that suggests the criminal justice system values process more than justice.”

Read the story by Radley Balko of the Washington Post here.

 

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.

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