Category Archives: Editorials/Opinion

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

Fire Science and SBS? Yes – The Child Abuse Experts Can Learn From This

Sue Luttner, editor of the blog OnSBS, has posted an article that points out the parallels between “old” and discredited arson science and the situation with child abuse experts who are stuck in a paradigm paralysis regarding shaken baby syndrome (SBS).

‘Hats off’ to Sue, because the parallels had never struck me before, but they are incredibly close.

Please see Sue’s article here.

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

Is ‘Innocence’ work over in the UK?

For some time, the news emanating from the UK has been getting worse with regard to the potential for miscarriages of justice, with law reforms diminishing legal protections for suspects and the almost total withdrawal of legal aid for the vast majority (nevermind the current moral panic of historic child sexual abuse which is swelling the prison population). This also comes at a time when changes to the rules on who can receive compensation for miscarriages of justice have also been ‘tightened’ to the point where barely anyone will qualify. I have blogged about many of the bad news stories coming out of the UK – including forensic science mishaps and police corruption seemingly continuing unabated regardless of new regulators or complaints bodies.Justice statue

Despite what one could view as the growing IMPORTANCE therefore of ‘innocence’ work in the UK, it looks as if things may be heading in the opposite direction. Following years of expansion with Innocence Projects being set up in universities across the country, it appears that these are now being encouraged to close. There are a host of reasons why Innocence Projects in the UK may be under threat (not least their position within univerisities whose priorites narrow ever further every day toward simply profit-making and rising up league tables.) They do not operate as a mirror to those in the US and internationally, largely because of the existence of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. However, their work is still invaluable. When I was Director of the University of Leeds Innocence Project, we received hundreds of letters (which still arrive weekly if not daily), reviewed dozens of cases, and assisted many prisoners. It also educated many students in the causes of, and remedies for, miscarriages of justice.  It gave many law students a passion for criminal legal aid work – where there is no money to be made and certainly no glory.

So – to read the announcement on the INUK website is all the more shocking. (see here… INUK – New Beginnings ). Where innocence work in the UK needs innovation, inspiration and support, it is being told that the day has come to pack our bags and go home. My thoughts are not only with those of us (staff and students alike) who have worked many years to get innocence taken seriously again in the UK, but those prisoners now who will be back at square one, with nowhere to turn yet again. How an ‘innocence network’ can survive, nevermind have any impact, with only one member, will remain to be seen.

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

Justice System Reform – Why We Can’t Get it Right. It’s All About Root Cause.

“Chicago police call for tougher penalties for firearm offenses after dozens of people were shot over holiday.”

You may have heard that dozens of people were shot in Chicago over this recent 4th of July weekend.  I just saw the headline above, which is the response from the Chicago police to the tragic weekend.  What struck me immediately is that this reaction is so stupidly human.  But sadly, it’s human nature.  To most, it would appear to be a quick-response, expedient solution to a terrible problem; and it’s the expediency of this “solution” that makes it attractive to both the politicians who make the laws and the constituency that elects them to office. The belief is that we can pass a law, make the penalties harsher, and then say, “There, we solved THAT problem.”  But guess what?  This will NOT solve the problem, and it NEVER will.  The US justice system has a culture of “punishment” and “revenge”.  We always seem to believe that the threat of more severe punishment will serve as a deterrent to future evil-doers.  The standard political response to the problem of “crime” has always been more cops, more prisons, and tougher sentences.  Well … the US already has the most draconian sentencing laws in the world, and yet, even though we have only 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners (see Convictions  by the Numbers).

Doesn’t seem like super-tough sentences have done much to stem the US crime problem, does it?  And we know this.  Yet we, as an electorate, keep insisting from our legislators that there be more cops, more prisons, and ever tougher sentences.  It’s gotten to the point of being downright silly – tragic but silly.

So what should we do?  To fix any problem, you have to understand, and deal with, the root cause.  Unless you eliminate the root cause, the problem will not go away.  You can try to treat the symptoms of the problem (e.g. gun deaths in Chicago), but the problem will persist.  And I don’t believe we even know and understand what the root cause(s) of most crime are. I would expect that they’d have something to do with things like poverty, education, discrimination, culture, mental health issues, and more.

[Editorial observation:  I suspect that so-called "crimes of passion" are something that will always be part of the human condition, and we're just stuck with them.]

Unfortunately, dealing with root cause is much, much more difficult than dealing with the obvious symptoms of a problem, and I believe this is largely why it doesn’t get done.  It takes lots of time, lots of money, and lots of effort – and who wants to do that when you can just pass a law making sentences harsher, and then tell yourself you’ve just addressed the problem?  It is absolutely human nature to jump to what seems to be the quickest, easiest solution, despite the fact that the “solution” may not cure the problem at all.

There ARE systematic ways to uncover root cause.  They involve structure, process, and data.  Please see our previous post on Six Sigma.  Root cause is at the very core of what Six Sigma is all about.  Unfortunately, given our justice system and our processes for enacting laws, I see no feasible way root cause analysis and corrective action could be applied to the US justice system – at least certainly not within my lifetime.  I expect that we’re just going to have to continue stumbling along with our electoral and legislative processes, and hope that some day enough voters and enough legislators eventually “get it.”

New Treatise on SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome)

Sue Luttner maintains the blog OnSBS.  She is a long time observer and reporter of the state of SBS in the justice system.  We  have reblogged many of her articles here on the WCB.

Ms. Luttner has recently had published a definitive, scholarly work that traces the origins of SBS, and explains why the hypothesis of SBS is scientifically questionable.

If you are student of SBS at all, this is a must read.

For me, the most cogent point the paper makes is that SBS evolved into being through massively flawed inductive reasoning, driven by statistically invalid anecdotal observations of extremely small populations.  SBS is just a collection of guesses and speculations canonized into a “diagnosis,” which Prof. Deborah Tuerkheimer has so aptly stated is a “medical diagnosis of murder.”

Access the paper here.

 

Women’s Criminal Justice Network

I just became aware of the Women’s Criminal justice network.

Check it out.  Here’s a link WCJN.

The home page features an article on the Tammy Traxtle case.  It’s a glaring example of how plea deals are used by prosectors to make their cases, and the crushing punishment you can receive if you don’t “take the deal.”

This quote from the article:   “The district attorney offered Tammy a deal. “Just say you saw Jeff shoot Carlos, and you’ll get 18 months. Take the plea, do the time, and soon you will be back to work and reunited with your children. It is a short sentence for a horrible crime. Cross us, go to court, and you will face the consequences. We will ask for life, you will do 25, and that is years, not months!””

 

Gerry Conlon’s life is a reminder that wrongful convictions happen everywhere

By Michael Naughton in The Conversation:

Gerry Conlon, wrongly jailed for a 1975 IRA bombing in which he had no part, died on June 21 at the age of 60. The case of the Guildford Four remains one the most famous miscarriage of justice in Britain – but more and more cases of wrongful imprisonment are coming to light around the world.

On June 18, it was widely reported that Jonathan Fleming, who in April 2014 successfully overturned his conviction for the murder of Darryl Alston in 1989, had begun a lawsuit against the City of New York for the 25 years he spent wrongly incarcerated.

It is alleged that prosecutors knowingly manufactured a case against Fleming, even dropping criminal charges against a key prosecution witness in return for false identification evidence. Fleming was on a family holiday in Disneyland at the time of the murder. He is now suing the city of New York for $162m.

An incredible story, we might think, but one that is becoming increasingly commonplace. And the growing awareness of cases like this is now fostering a global social movement to help innocent victims of wrongful convictions.

Injustice goes global

In a recent case from the Netherlands that was overturned in November 2013, Andy Melaan and Nozai Thomas served eight and five years respectively for the murders of brothers Lisandro and Wendell Martis. Separate alibi evidence for the men that was presented at the appeal hearing proved that Thomas’s confession, obtained under extreme pressure from the police, could not have been true, with the public prosecutor conceding that there was no evidence at all that connected either him or Melaan to the crime.

In June 2012 in Japan, Govinda Mainali overturned his conviction for rape and murder after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment. New DNA evidence proved that semen and hair found at the crime scene were not his. His conviction was based on the false testimony of his former flatmate, who claimed he was illegally detained by the police for almost three months and often interrogated for ten hours a day until he broke and was forced to sign a statement.

In the UK, Victor Nealon overturned his conviction last December for an attempted rape outside a nightclub in Redditch, Worcestershire. He spent 17 years in prison before DNA evidence proved that he was not the perpetrator. Like Jonathan Fleming, he too was convicted on eyewitness identification evidence.

And in March of this year, José Guadalupe Macías Maldonado, who had been exonerated after serving 11 years in prison, soaked himself in petrol and set himself on fire in the Civic Center Plaza of Mexicali, Baja, Mexico. He committed suicide in protest after the financial support that he alleged the state government had promised him failed to materialise. Mr. Macías, convicted of murder in 2002, was convicted thanks to mistakes in the investigation conducted by the prosecution.

This apparently random smattering of cases just illustrates that wrongful convictions occur in legal systems in all parts of the world, and stem from the same sorts of causes. They are very much the tip of a worldwide iceberg of wrongful convictions.

They are testament to the universality of shoddy and corrupt policing, over-zealous prosecutors who put winning cases above fair trials for the accused, unreliable “expert” and forensic science evidence, witnesses who give false or mistaken evidence, and defence lawyers who fail to present evidence that might protect their clients from wrongful conviction.

As the case of the Guildford Four showed, proving wrongful conviction is often a matter of hard graft and dogged re-investigation of the facts. This is where the Innocence Network comes in.

To the rescue

The Innocence Network, which I founded, is an affiliation of organisations around the globe that provide pro bono legal services to convicted individuals who maintain their innocence, and which conduct investigations to reexamine their cases. The network currently has 63 member organisations, with 52 in the US and 11 in other countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Italy, The Netherlands, South Africa and the UK. Each organisation operates independently, but they all coordinate to share information and expertise.

In recent years, initiatives to assist alleged innocent victims of wrongful convictions have also sprung up in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Puerto Rico), eastern Europe (Poland, Czech Republic), Africa (Nigeria, The Gambia) and Asia (Singapore, Taiwan, Philippines, China). These organisations also report similar flaws and failings in their criminal justice systems, problems and practices that see innocent individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.

My colleagues Thomas Osborne and Gregor McLennan have written in other contexts about why certain ideas have “legs”, and the notion of “critique-proof” concepts. Both are useful ways to look at the international social movement that is now emerging to assist alleged innocent victims of wrongful conviction all over the world. Even the staunchest of advocates for the criminal justice system would find it difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the idea that innocent victims of wrongful convictions should be assisted.

The argument for this challenge to the system is particularly strong when it invokes the broader societal consequences of wrongful conviction. The University of North Carolina’s Frank Baumgartner and his colleagues recently devised the term “wrongful liberty” to describe the situation where an innocent person is wrongfully convicted and imprisoned while the true perpetrator is left free to commit more crimes.

Citing data from the Innocence Project, Baumgartner et al’s research showed that of the first 300 individuals exonerated through DNA testing since 1992, 153 cases identified the true perpetrator. Of these, 130 perpetrators were later convicted of 139 additional violent crimes, which included 33 murders, 76 sexual assaults, and 30 other violent crimes – which would not have occurred had the perpetrators been convicted for their original crimes.

Beyond left and right

The concept of wrongful liberty is critique-proof. It is quite simply a winning argument that lends weight to the mantra of innocence efforts around the world: “When the innocent are wrongly convicted, the guilty remain at liberty with the potential to commit further crimes.”

Those concerned with the plight of the innocent languishing in prison are no longer being marginalised by the right-wing politics of “law and order”, which frame their concerns as distractions from the fight against crime.

The collateral damage of wrongful conviction is now not only about the innocent victims of wrongful convictions and imprisonment and their families: more and more, we see the damage done to the victims of additional crimes committed by true offenders benefiting from wrongful liberty while innocents serve their sentences for them.

This unites the “left” and “right” of the conventional political divide on criminal justice. It emboldens those who aim to protect all members of society, both from the harms of crime and of wrongful convictions, by ensuring that only the genuinely guilty are convicted. Only then will criminal justice systems truly deserve their title.

 

 

Book Review – Forensic Testimony; Science, Law and Expert Evidence

 

Bowers book

There has been a recent addition to the literature regarding the validity of forensic evidence and the power that expert testimony has in court.  The book Forensic Testimony; Science, Law and Expert Evidence is written by C. Michael Bowers and published by Elsevier Academic Press.

Professor Jane Taylor, University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia has reviewed the book, and you can read that review here.

I have had the opportunity to personally review this book, and can say without question that it is a must read for anyone who deals with the validity (or lack of) and the power of forensic evidence and expert testimony in a trial.

The book really resonates with me, because it emphasizes the problems with the “uniqueness principle” and the use of flawed inductive reasoning in the development of the forensic disciplines (I refuse to call them “sciences.”) that I have been preaching about for years.

I most highly recommend it.  The book is available on Amazon here.

The chapter headings:

Chapter 1     The History of Experts in English Common Law, with Practice Advice for Beginning Experts

Chapter 2     Science and Forensic Science

Chapter 3     The Admissibility of Forensic Expert Evidence

Chapter 4     Professional Forensic Expert Practice

Chapter 5     Managing Your Forensic Case From Beginning to End

Chapter 6     Character Traits of Expert Witnesses: The Good and the Bad

Chapter 7     Voir Dire and Direct Examination of the Expert

Chapter 8     Cross Examination: The Expert’s Challenge and the Lawyer’s Strategies

Chapter 9     Uniqueness and Individualization in Forensic Science

Chapter 10   Forensic Failures

Chapter 11   Forensic Expert Ethics

Chapter 12   The Unparalleled Power of Expert Testimony

 

 

Open Disclosure by Federal Prosecutors is Goal of Proposed Bill

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI), a non-profit organization which seeks “to preserve the presumption of innocence, assure equal treatment under the law, and end wrongful convictions” today released a proposed bill that would require federal prosecutors to implement an open-file policy. The bill addresses a weakness in the implementation of the Brady requirement to disclose all exculpatory evidence to the defense: Prosecutors currently determine what evidence is “material” (would likely impact the outcome of the case) and therefore subject to disclosure.

CPI’s Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct has revealed that Brady violations —prosecutorial failure of the constitutional requirement to disclose exculpatory evidence relevant to the guilt or innocence and to the punishment of the defendant — as the leading type of misconduct by federal prosecutors.

The Federal Prosecutor Integrity Act would mandate that federal prosecutors, beginning at the time of arraignment, disclose all documents, scientific tests, witness statements, and other relevant evidence to the defense. Any additional information and evidence would need to be disclosed as the case progresses. Continue reading

More Mike Nifong Prosecutor Misconduct Exposed

Surely you remember Mike Nifong.  He’s the (former) Durham County North Carolina District Attorney who prosecuted the Duke lacrosse team rape case.  What a fiasco that was.  Nifong was ultimately disbarred and did jail time for his blatant misconduct as a prosecutor.  See previous WCB post here.

Well, to quote a recent Washington Post article by Radley Balko, “… prosecutorial misconduct is rarely a one-off phenomenon.”  And indeed, yet more egregious misconduct by Nifong has just been exposed as a result of the 1995 murder conviction of Darryl Howard being overturned for Nifong’s prosecutorial misconduct.

You can read Radley Balko’s Washington Post Story about it here.

(Thanks to Camille Tilley for passing this story along in a recent WCB comment.)

Delaware Supreme Court Grants New Trial to Death Row Inmate

Jermaine Wright, who has resided on death row following his conviction of the 1991 murder of Phillip Seifert at a liquor store just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, was granted a new trial yesterday. The Supreme Court of Delaware unanimously agreed with Wright’s contention that undisclosed exculpatory and impeachment evidence cumulatively amounted to a reversible Brady violation.

“Wright is not entitled to a perfect trial, but he is entitled to a fair one where material exculpatory and impeachment evidence is disclosed and not suppressed,” wrote Justice Ridgely.

The case history in the opinion explains that no physical or forensic evidence connected Wright to the crime. The State presented no “murder weapon, shell casings, the getaway car, or eyewitness to identify Wright.” Continue reading

Even a “Disney World” Defense Can’t Overcome a (False) Eyewitness

Jonathan Fleming was convicted of murder in New York in 1990.  He was just recently exonerated and released after spending 24 years in prison for the murder he did not commit.  The story has recently been reported on this blog with the Fox News story here.  You can also read the CNN story here and the AOL story here.

Fleming had an alibi for the time of the crime.  He was at Disney World with his family.  The hotel staff remembered him, his family vouched for him, and he had a hotel receipt for a collect phone call from the hotel on August 14, 1989 9:27 p.m., which was just 4 1/2 hours before the shooting in New York.  But despite all that, because he was identified by an “eyewitness,” he was convicted.  Quoting the CNN story, “The prosecution … produced a witness who said she saw Fleming commit the crime.”

The reason that I wanted to highlight this particular case is because it’s yet another example of how eyewitness testimony, even though false or mistaken, will trump a solid alibi.

This is not a rare occurrence. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that false or mistaken eyewitness identification is a contributing factor in 43% of wrongful convictions.

And to top it off, in this particular case, the phone call receipt was found in the prosecution’s case file, but was never produced – can you spell “Brady violation?”   And — the “eyewitness” was offered a deal for her testimony, and then recanted 2 weeks after the trial; but of course, her recantation was not allowed by the court.

Does this stink, or what?!  I’m tempted to launch into a much broader exposition on the failings of the justice system, but will save that for a future post on “the nature of innocence work.”

Cook County State’s Attorney Urged to Reconsider Indicting Witness Who Recanted

In an op-ed piece (here) in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, is urging Cook County (IL) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to reconsider her decision to seek to indict on a perjury charge Willie Johnson, after he recanted his 1994 testimony, which led to the conviction and life sentencing of the Center’s client, Cedric Cal.

Johnson was the sole survivor of a gang-related drive-by shooting that killed two of his friends. He was wounded nine times but survived and named Cal and Albert Kirkman as the shooters. In recanting his testimony seventeen years later in 2011, Johnson said that he knew all along that the two he fingered were not the perpetrators. He claimed that if he had identified the actual shooters back in 1994, he would have put himself and his family in danger. Continue reading

Defendant in Coldest Case Ever “Solved” Appeals His Conviction

In September, 2012, Jack McCullough was convicted of a murder committed in 1957.  The conviction was based largely upon an eyewitness identification made 53 years after the crime by a woman who was 8 years old at the time of the crime.  The unreliability of eye witness identifications has been well documented; but 53 years after the crime, and by an 8 year old?!

In addition, if you read about the exculpatory evidence that the judge ruled McCullough was not allowed to present at trial, including an alibi and the fact that he had been cleared by investigators, you have to believe he has a case.

See the CNN story and video here.

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

Wrongful Liberty – A Tragic Consequence of Wrongful Conviction

You’ve heard us mention a number of times on this blog that when a wrongful conviction occurs, this leaves the real perpetrator free to keep committing crimes.  I’m sure everyone nods their head, and agrees that’s a terrible thing.  However, it isn’t until one quantifies what that really means, and brings some specificity to it, that you can begin to comprehend how tragic it really is.

At the current National Innocence Network Conference, I had the opportunity (yesterday) to hear a presentation by Prof. Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina about the work he’s done in documenting what he calls “wrongful liberty.”  Wrongful liberty is exactly the situation described above – a wrongful conviction occurs, an innocent person is sent to prison, and the real perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes.

In future, you will continue to hear from me a constant drumbeat about the need for more data to effect meaningful legislative reform – and what Prof. Baumgartner has done is brilliant.  He has undertaken to actually document the crimes committed by true perpetrators of a crime, for which there was a wrongful conviction, during the period from when the wrongful conviction occurred to when the true perpetrator was eventually arrested.

This data creates a compelling case for criminal justice reform, because it expands the reasoning from “just” an injustice to an innocent, wrongfully convicted person to an argument that includes a very real public safety issue.

The work, so far, has been limited to the state of North Carolina, and has been further limited by the availability of appropriate data.  But I am optimistic and hopeful that this effort can, and will, be expanded to a national level.  This is a winning argument.

You can read Prof. Baumgartner’s paper here:  WrongfulLiberty2014

National Registry of Exonerations Records 600th Exoneration for Murder

The National Registry of Exonerations, a dynamic database of known exonerations in the United States since 1989, recently reported another noteworthy milestone: the 600th exoneration for murder. Of 1,348 known exonerations as of April 8, 2014, nearly 45 percent have been for murder. This disturbing statistic, once unimaginable to most Americans, supports the assumption that countless wrongful convictions are yet unknown and the conclusion that Americans should strongly support efforts to improve the criminal justice system.

Above all, the 600th exoneration for murder confirms the “tip of the iceberg” characterization often referenced by those who have researched known exonerations. Continue reading

The Trouble With Shaken Baby Syndrome

Here is yet another heart-rending story about how a child abuse pediatrician’s blind dedication to the mistaken medical dogma of Shaken Baby Syndrome tore apart the lives of innocent parents and their children, and brought them to financial ruin.

Read the Seattle Met Magazine story here.