Category Archives: DNA

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

The Changing Face of Exonerations….

From Time Magazine, by Deborah Tuerkheimer:

For all the understandable weight we give DNA evidence, it is of little if any use for the vast majority of the wrongfully convicted.

These figures point to a hard truth: For all the understandable weight we give DNA evidence, it is of little if any use for the vast majority of the wrongfully convicted. While DNA remains the focus of exoneration efforts around the country, and all states have passed laws that provide for post-conviction access to testing, experts estimate that only 5% to 10% of all criminal cases involve such evidence. If we are to make meaningful progress towards freeing innocent people now serving time—a population some now place at more than 100,000—we need new laws designed to target miscarriages of justice that lack DNA evidence.

Taking such steps is especially critical for women, who make up a fast-growing segment of the nation’s prison population. Women’s alleged crimes of violence—often involving children or romantic partners—do not typically hinge on the whodunit question of identity that DNA is so useful in resolving. To the contrary in such cases, the more common question is whether a crime was even committed, with one salient example being the increasingly discredited diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome. (Notably, “no crime” cases comprise another category on the increase, accounting for a whopping 22% of this year’s exonerations.)

Happily, recent years have seen the beginnings of a movement to grapple with these issues. In a curious twist, it is Texas—not a state generally associated with progressive criminal justice reform—that is leading the way. Last fall, the state passed the nation’s first law recognizing faulty forensic evidence (aka junk science) as a basis for post-conviction relief. The underlying logic is simple: as science evolves and past scientific testimony is seen in new light, we ought to revisit those convictions that have been cast in doubt.

The first to successfully invoke the Texas junk science law werethree women convicted in 1998 of sexually abusing a child. Days later, another woman was separately released after serving 21 years for sexually abusing multiple children–one of the many satanic ritual day care scandals of the 1990s, often rightly compared to the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century. Without the new legislation, these women would still be behind bars.

Another sign of this trend came last month, when a federal judge in Chicago issued a ruling finding “actual innocence” in a case based on shaken baby syndrome. Even without DNA to prove her innocence, 43-year-old Jennifer Del Prete was able to show that, based on current science, no reasonable jury could possibly find her guilty of murdering the baby in her care. As U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly wrote in his 97-page opinion, it’s now apparent that the diagnosis of shaken baby syndrome is arguably “more an article of faith than a proposition of science.”

These incisive words reflect the growing consensus among experts that the neurological symptoms once viewed as conclusive proof of a caregiver’s guilt may well have natural causes, including congenital defects, metabolic disorders, infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions. Such “mimics of abuse” have attracted growing attention in the five years since I began studying the criminal justice system’s treatment of shaken baby syndrome. But our law’s approach to unwinding injustice remains both far too fluky and far too delayed.

If Del Prete is ultimately exonerated—as appears not unlikely—her case will be in keeping with the demographic trend away from a reliance on DNA. Yet in so many ways, hers is also a cautionary tale. Del Prete is now almost a decade into a 20-year prison sentence. And, notwithstanding the finding of “actual innocence,” she will remain incarcerated, at least for now. Federal law allows state prisoners to challenge the constitutionality of their convictions, but the grounds are narrowly defined. In the Alice in Wonderland world of federal criminal procedure, the judge who found her claims of innocence entirely credible was not permitted to vacate her conviction, since innocence is not a basis for relief. The ruling simply means she can move forward to challenge her conviction on separate constitutional grounds.

Such troubling cases underscore the need to reform our laws to better address the realities of all wrongful convictions. We need new avenues for post-conviction relief that reflect what we now know about the common causes of false convictions: false confessions, lying informants, eyewitness misidentification, and invalid forensic science. And we owe it to those wrongly convicted to move far more quickly—to recognize the moral imperative of overcoming the inertia of injustice.

Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Professor of Law at DePaul University, is a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who has written widely on rape and domestic violence. She is currently a Public Voices Faculty Fellow with the OpEd Project. Her bookFlawed Convictions: “Shaken Baby Syndrome” and the Inertia of Injustice (Oxford University Press) is forthcoming in April.

 

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Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Is forensic odontology too unreliable?
  • Exoneree Johnathan Montgomery takes it one day at a time
  • Missouri considers eyewitness identification reform and DNA preservation bill
  • Greg Wilhoit, a former Oklahoma death-row inmate from Tulsa and nationally-known anti-death penalty advocate whose story was included in author John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man,” died Feb. 14 in Sacramento, Calif., family members said. He was 59.  Full article here
  • Upcoming symposium at the Penn Quattrone Center:  A Systems Approach to Conviction Integrity

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

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  • Exoneree Lana Canan sues Elkhart, Indiana police
  • A man convicted of rape nearly four decades ago should be allowed to seek new DNA testing, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled Friday, upholding an earlier Nebraska Court of Appeals ruling.  Juneal Pratt, 58, is serving 32 to 90 years for the rape, sexual assault and robbery of two Iowa sisters at an Omaha motel in 1975.  He was 19 when he was arrested days after the August 1975 assaults on suspicion of purse-snatching at the same hotel, then quickly charged with the rapes. Several witnesses said Pratt was at home at the time of the attacks, but Pratt was convicted just two months later after the sisters picked him out of a police lineup — a practice that’s increasingly under fire.  Full article here….
  • A man who was wrongly convicted of a 2006 shooting in Oakland has filed a $32 million federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging that he was maliciously prosecuted.  The lawsuit by Ronald Ross, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, accuses Oakland police of conducting a faulty photo lineup that ended with his being improperly identified by the shooting victim, Renardo Williams, as the shooter. Ross spent nearly seven years behind bars before being released last February.  Full article here…

Insane DNA Testing Decision in Texas…

Decision here

How can you prove that biological material exists to text on the items in question unless you do the testing?  Boggles the mind…

From the Austin Chronicle, by Jordan Smith…

Death row inmate Larry Swearingen cannot prove that biological materials exist on evidence connected to the 1998 murder of Melissa Trotter – including on the alleged murder weapon – and therefore is not entitled to DNA testing of those items, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled this morning.

Swearingen was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1998 murder of 19-year-old Trotter, a Montgomery County community college student who disappeared from her college campus on Dec. 8, 1998. Her body was found several weeks later, by a group of hunters, in the Sam Houston National Forest near Lake Conroe.

Swearingen was seen with Trotter on campus not long before she disappeared. He has maintained his innocence and has been seeking DNA testing for a decade. Among the never-before-tested items of evidence are two lengths of pantyhose – one used to strangle Trotter, found around her neck, the other later found by Swearingen’s former landlord inside a house Swearingen and his wife had previously rented from the man.

The state maintains that visual comparison proves the two pieces came from a single pair of hose. Neither piece has ever been subjected to DNA analysis.

In ruling against Swearingen on Wednesday, Judge Paul Womack wrote for the unanimous court that a district court ruling that last year approved the requested DNA testing would be overturned because Swearingen “cannot prove the existence of biological material” that could be tested. Although the defense presented to the district court expert testimony that biological evidence would “likely” be found on the pantyhose that is not enough to secure testing, the court ruled. “[W]e have explicitly held that appellee must prove biological material exists and not that it is merely probable.”

In other words, without testing, there can be no testing.

The court’s conclusion also precludes any testing of cigarette butts found near Trotter’s body or of Trotter’s clothes, absent a showing that biological material exists on each item.

Only finger nail scrapings taken from Trotter are considered “biological evidence per se” and thus not restricted by the need to prove DNA exists before testing can be done. Only some of the collected scrapings were tested, and material found from under one of Trotter’s fingernails produced DNA from an unknown male.

Still, that result is not enough to convince the court that if additional testing were to be performed it would do anything to convince a jury of Swearingen’s innocence. “In order to be entitled to DNA testing,” Womack wrote for the court, “[Swearingen] must show by a preponderance of the evidence (51%) that he would not have been convicted if the exculpatory results were available at trial.”

Indeed, the unidentified profile previously identified was presented to Swearingen’s jury, the court notes, apparently without effect. “Since the jury already was aware that an unidentified male’s DNA was found under the victim’s fingernails, we fail to see how other such results would have changed its verdict,” Womack wrote. “The jury chose to believe that the foreign DNA either was contamination or that it came rom outside the context of the crime.” In short, the court concluded, Swearingen “cannot show that new testing would lead to a different result.”

During a December hearing on the matter before the CCA, Montgomery County prosecutor Bill Delmore told the court that the mountain of circumstantial evidence against Swearingen is insurmountable and that even if further DNA testing revealed additional evidence from another male – even from a known “serial killer” – that he would conclude only that Swearingen had an accomplice. “Nothing will ever convince me of his innocence,” Delmore said.

 

 

Taiwan Association for Innocence Wins First Case….

Taiwan High Court Granted Retrial Based on New DNA Evidence

by Yu Ning Chen

In December 2013, Taiwan High Court granted Chen Long-Qi. a retrial based on new DNA Evidence. Chen became the first person to be granted retrial since the Taiwan Association for Innocence was founded in 2012.

On March 24, 2009, two escorts were raped between 4 to 6 AM in a warehouse that Chen and his friend rented for agricultural products distribution. The victims failed to identify the assailants due to alcohol intoxication.

Chen always maintained his innocence during the investigation and trial. He claimed that he left before the crime to pick up his wife, Ko, at her workplace. Ko’s timesheet corroborated Chen’s words. An eyewitness also testified that Chen was not at the scene. Despite no testimony linking Chen to the crime, the district court and high court found him guilty of gang rape with the other two co-defendants. The decision was solely based on a DNA test which concluded  that Chen “cannot be excluded “ from the semen stain found on one of the victims’ underwear . Chen was convicted of gang sexual assault and was sentenced to 4 years in March, 2013.

With help from the Taiwan Association for Innocence, Chen filed a motion for retrial in June, 2013 seeking to retest the DNA evidence. The court authorized a 23 loci STR test on the original mixture DNA sample. The new test result showed that Chen “can be excluded” from the DNA sample. Based on this new piece of evidence, the court granted his motion in December 2013. The retrial will begin this month.

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Victor Nealon’s conviction overturned by UK Court of Appeal after his spending 17 years in jail

Carole McCartney previously blogged about Victor Nealon’s case here and the set-backs he and his lawyer had encountered trying to get his conviction referred to the UK Court of Appeal via the UK Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the latter which had repeatedly refused Nealon’s request for DNA testing. Subsequently, independent DNA testing commissioned by Nealon’s lawyer found new DNA evidence belonging to another unknown man on the victim’s clothes. The Court of Appeal finally heard Nealon’s case today and ordered his release. Nealon has spent 17 years in jail. Read the Guardian’s write-up of the case here.

Documentary Demonstrates that Michael Morton’s Case is Not Unique

Michael Morton’s remarkable story of wrongful conviction for the 1986 murder of his wife Christine, his 25 years of incarceration, and his exoneration, will be told to a national audience when the documentary “An Unreal Dream,” written and directed by two-time academy award nominee, Al Reinert, premiers on CNN tomorrow night, Thursday, December 5, at 9:00 p.m. ET and PT. According to CNN (here) the documentary seeks to “demonstrates that Morton’s story is not unique.” Continue reading

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Idaho Innocence Project puts new cases on hold after losing grant

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) – The Idaho Innocence Project won’t take on any new cases after its major funding source dried up, according to Director Greg Hampikian.

The Boise-based group uses DNA evidence to help free the wrongfully convicted. Hampikian and his team played a role in the acquittal of Amanda Knox, and they are currently working two cases in Idaho.

“I can’t commit resources we don’t have, so people are writing us, and I’m having to tell them we’re on hold right now,” Hampikian said. “We’re waiting to see where we end up.”

Hampikian said 100 prisoners or so write each year, but the Idaho Innocence Project can’t help them now that its grant proposal was rejected.

The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t award the group a two-year $220,000 grant. Hampikian volunteers, but the Project counted on that money the past four years to pay legal help.

“So who does it affect? It affects the families, and you don’t know if you’re going to be one of these families one day where one of your family members is accused and surprisingly convicted of something they didn’t do,” said Hampikian, who also plays a role in trials around the world.

Knox was accused of killing her roommate in Italy in 2007. Hampikian looked at the DNA evidence and helped her defense team. An Italian jury overturned the 2009 murder conviction. New evidence is expected Wednesday after the Italian Supreme Court demanded a retrial.

“That knife has no reliable evidence that it was used in the murder,” Hampikian said. “It is a kitchen knife that was probably used for cooking the night of the murder and had nothing to do with it.”

Hampikian said he is now scrambling to raise money to continue his work.

“I’d rather work on cases, I’d rather to do what only I can do. Somebody else can probably do this, but I’m the volunteer director, and I’m the only one left. The captain’s left on the ship, I have to call people.”

The Idaho Innocence Project has enough money to finish its two Idaho cases, according to Hampikian, but he’s already turning away others asking for help until he can come up with the money.

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Brazil’s New “DNA” Technology

DNA technology has become a key component in prosecuting the guilty and exonerating the innocent. DNA evidence increases certainty and enhances fairness.

In a new twist, Police Director Leandro Daiello of Brazil said the country has developed technology that works to detect the “DNA” of cocaine. The process involves analyzing trace alkaloids in the cocaine back to coca leaves grown in precise areas of the region.

Cocaine in Bolivia

 In August of 2013, Brazil reported the DNA of the nation’s drugs: approximately 60% of the country’s cocaine came from Bolivia, 30% from Peru, and 10% from Columbia. The process has enabled police to determine the origins of the drug, what other chemicals are being used in the drug’s production, and where the drugs are being transported.

A federal forensic expert for Brazil’s Criminalist Institute, Adriano Maldaner, noted that the drug problem is international, “which makes the exchange of information and training critical.” To date, the technology is being used in a project that has partnered with Bolivia, Paraguay, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Laboratories throughout the world are receiving the same samples and comparing their work.

On August 23, 2013, Paraguayan officials seized two tons of cocaine near the country’s border with Brazil. The aforementioned technology and regional cooperation will assist in the investigation.

In nations where access to technology remains limited, adequate policing and access to justice is also inhibited. This scientific advance is another tool in the tool box which may prove to be useful.

Follow me on Twitter: @JustinoBrooks

Professor Justin Brooks
Director, California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101
jpb@cwsl.edu
www.californiainnocenceproject.com

For more information please visit:

<https://reportingproject.net/occrp/index.php/en/ccwatch/cc-watch-briefs/1829-brazil-drug-dna-and-drones-to-fight-trafficking&gt;

<http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/brazil-developing-technology-to-trace-cocaine-dna&gt;

<http://infosurhoy.com/en_GB/articles/saii/features/main/2013/08/19/feature-01&gt;

<http://globalnews.ca/news/799330/paraguay-seizes-nearly-2-tons-of-cocaine-along-brazil-border/&gt;

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