Author Archives: Mark Godsey

On DNA, Prosecutors Can’t Handle the Truth…

From the DetroitNews:

By Dave Moran, clinical professor of law and the director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.

On Sept. 8, my client Jamie Peterson walked out of a jail in Kalkaska, exonerated by DNA after 17 years in prison for a murder and rape he did not commit.

The DNA testing not only excluded Peterson but matched another man, Jason Ryan, who will stand trial later this year.

I am thrilled that Peterson is finally free. But I am also angry that the previous Kalkaska County prosecutor, aided by a local judge, managed to prevent the DNA from being tested and the real perpetrator from being identified for 12 years, even though they knew the DNA did not match Peterson. For 12 long years, Peterson remained in prison and Jason Ryan remained free because the prosecutor did not want to know the truth.

Peterson was convicted of the 1996 rape and murder of Geraldine Montgomery even though the male DNA recovered from her rape kit did not match him.

At trial, prosecutor Brian Donnelly repeatedly insinuated that another stain found on Montgomery’s shirt would match Peterson if it could only be tested. Since none of the physical evidence matched Peterson, he was convicted entirely on a series of wildly inconsistent confessions he had made to the police, who knew that he was mentally ill.

By 2001, DNA testing had improved to the point that the stain on the shirt could be tested. Further, the CODIS system had come online so that the unknown male DNA from the rape kit could be compared to state and national databases of thousands of convicted felons.

One would think that the prosecutor would want to know the identity of the unknown male whose DNA was in Montgomery’s rape kit. But no, Donnelly fought for 12 years to keep the DNA from being tested.

When the issue went to court in 2002, Judge Alton Davis issued a baffling opinion concluding that since DNA wasn’t used to convict Peterson, there was no reason to find out whose DNA was inside and on the victim’s body. Donnelly continued to successfully resist repeated requests for DNA testing for another decade.

When I think about how Donnelly and Judge Davis fought the DNA testing in the Montgomery case, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s line in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Rather than risk learning the uncomfortable truth that an innocent man might have been convicted, they chose to not find out who left DNA inside and on Geraldine Montgomery the night she was savagely murdered.

Finally, a new prosecutor, Michael Perreault, was elected in 2012, and to his great credit, he readily agreed to DNA testing when we and the Center on Wrongful Convictions approached him. The testing was performed in 2013, and it proved that all of the male DNA, including the stain on the shirt, came from the same man. A CODIS search quickly identified that man as Jason Ryan, who had been in the pool of original suspects in 1996. Ryan was finally arrested last December.

But the kind of obstruction we saw with Peterson continues to happen in other cases.

On Sept. 2, just six days before Jamie Peterson walked free, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by Oakland Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot that blood found on and near a murder victim, Robert Meija, shouldn’t be DNA tested even though the prosecution conceded that the blood type did not match Meija or Gilbert Poole, the man convicted of Meija’s murder. Despite the Cooley Innocence Project’s investigation that pointed to another suspect and its offer to pay for the testing, the Oakland County prosecutor opposed testing, making the same argument that was used to deny Peterson testing: since the blood wasn’t used to convict Poole, why should we test it now to find out who left the blood?

It’s so easy to answer that question. We should test that blood because the DNA may very well hit on a person who remains at large and who has continued to commit other crimes. There was only one perpetrator in the Poole case. Identifying a complete stranger to Poole, as Ryan was to Peterson, would strongly suggest that the wrong man is in prison.

The bottom line is this: Why doesn’t the Oakland County prosecutor want to know whose blood was found at the scene of a vicious murder? More broadly, why are some prosecutors so afraid of the truth? And why are some Michigan judges willing to help them hide the truth even when it means leaving violent criminals free to commit more crimes?

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Man convicted in case for which Bennett Barbour of Virginia had originally been wrongfully convicted of rape
  • Three months after murder charges against a Kentucky woman were dismissed by the state’s Court of Appeals, the state’s attorney ruled Tuesday that she won’t face a new trial. The Courier-Journal reported that Susan Jean King spent six years behind bars for a 1998 murder after pleading guilty, even though she didn’t commit the crime, because of pressure from a state police detective who told her she faced life in prison. She was released in 2012 before she had served out her sentence.
  • Alaska AG denies claims of delay in Fairbanks Four wrongful conviction case
  • Exoneree seeking compensation, and hedge funds, are common allies against GM
  • Oklahoma touts new $71,000 death chamber
  • Wrongful convictions help sway Justice Minister of Zimbabwe to say “No executions under my watch.”

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Center on Wrongful Convictions Inspires Play “At the Center”

From the ChicagoTribune:

Though the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers have understandably had an increasing profile in public discourse since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Mo., the Agency Theater Collective’s latest offering, “At the Center,” highlights another troubling aspect of our criminal justice system. Despite a few stiff polemicizing moments, it’s a largely gripping and thoughtful drama that goes beyond Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s widely produced “The Exonerated,” about death row inmates who were found innocent.

Inspired by interviews with attorneys and staff at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law, the play (written and directed by Andrew Gallant and Tim Touhy) presents a fictional account of Hector Reyes (Armando Reyes), who has spent 19 years in prison for the brutal rape and stabbing of Elizabeth Harvey (Sommer Austin). The latter has spent the years since the assault fighting addictions and largely turning over the raising of her teenage daughter, Rebecca (Nicole Magerko), to her sister Kathleen (Sarah Welborn).

When DNA testing proves Hector is innocent — despite his confessing to the crime and Elizabeth identifying him from a photo array as her attacker — both find their lives turned upside down.

This is where Gallant and Touhy’s play is at its strongest. By showing us Hector’s attempts to reassimilate (he saves receipts from shopping trips because the date and time stamps will provide him with alibis), as well as Elizabeth’s guilt and horror at having identified the wrong man, “At the Center” forces us to look at the cascading consequences of detectives who are eager to close the books on violent crimes.

It also provides insight into why innocent people will confess under duress (even if it’s not physical abuse), and why eyewitness testimony is less than reliable. Reyes and Austin deliver powerhouse performances, and their climactic face-to-face meeting pays off without feeling like a cheap tidy-bow reconciliation.

The weakest parts of the show, ironically, are those involving the attorneys. They aren’t quite fleshed out beyond their good-hearted Samaritan outlines. But when James Munson’s Bill (based on the center’s executive director, Rob Warden) philosophizes that wrongful convictions happen because some crimes are so horrific that society demands that someone — anyone — must pay the penalty, whether truly guilty or not, it holds a mirror up to our collective thirst for vengeance masquerading as justice.

Through Nov. 2, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.; $25 atwearetheagency.org

Report on Eyewitness Identification Released by National Academy of Sciences…

Short summary of its findings, and link to full report, available here.