Category Archives: Exonerations

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.

 

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

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Birmingham Six member Paddy Hill has claimed that police sent secret letters promising immunity to two of the men responsible for the 1974 pub bombings.  The miscarriage of justice campaigner, who received a life sentence for the terrorist atrocity but was released from prison and cleared after his conviction was quashed, believes two of the pub bombers were told they would not face prosecution for IRA crimes.  The 68-year-old, who now lives in Scotland, said he has been told IRA members previously admitted that five people carried out the bombings at the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town.  He said that two of the five have since died, two were promised immunity – but a fifth bomber has not received any assurances that he could escape prosecution.  Nobody has ever been brought to justice for the mass murder of 21 innocent people on the streets of Birmingham on November 21, 1974, which left 182 injured. Full article here
  • Nebraska exoneree Troy Hess has compensation claim rejected by Nebraska Supreme Court
  • In Canada, a judge has allowed former Vancouver real estate developer Tarsem Singh Gill to withdraw his guilty pleas in connection with a $40-million mortgage fraud.  In a ruling Friday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Terry Schultes said that the possibility of a “miscarriage of justice” loomed large if he denied Gill’s application to withdraw his pleas to two counts of fraud.  Full story here….
  • Exoneree Edgar Coker discusses life on the sex offender registry.
  • Article about the Uriah Courtney exoneration in California

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

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Study shows how ‘mob journalism’ helps convict the innocent

“The media has won deserved credit for its role in exposing wrongful convictions,” The Crime Report says. “But there are many examples of compliant coverage of prosecutors and law enforcement authorities who rush to convict the innocent on flimsy or phony evidence.”

To prove its point, the web site has published a study by crime journalist David J. Krajicek that focuses on three examples — the 1949 case of Florida’s “Groveland Four”; the conviction of Kirk Bloodsworth in the 1985 rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl near Baltimore; and the conviction of Walter McMillian for the 1986 murder of a clerk in Monroeville, Ala.

All three cases are good examples of how the news media frequently follow — and sometimes lead — police and prosecutors down the rabbit hole of bias and tunnel vision. You can read the excellent study here.

NY murder convictions vacated; wrongful convictions scandal called “metastasizing”

Brooklyn (NY) Supreme Court Justice Raymond Guzman vacated the murder convictions of Antonio Yarbough, 39, and Sharrif Wilson, 37, Thursday after the two had served 21 years in prison for a 1992 triple murder—that of Mr. Yarbough’s mother, his twelve-year-old sister, and her friend. The two men, who were 15 and 18 at the time of the murders, have long claimed they did not commit them. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson dismissed the cases against the men.

No physical evidence had connected the two men to the crime. The post-conviction breakthrough came last year when DNA testing of evidence found under the fingernails of Mr. Yarbough’s mother matched DNA from a subsequent rape and murder that occurred in 1999 when Yarbough and Wilson were in prison. Family members cheered as the decision was announced in court. Continue reading

The National Registry of Exonerations: 2013 Was Record-Breaking

Note: Participate in a LIVE Twitter Q&A with Sam Gross, Editor of The  National Registry of Exonerations, today, February 4, at 1:00 p.m. EST. Use #NRE13.

Exonerations in 2013, the annual report of The National Registry of Exonerations, has reported 87 exonerations in the United States in 2013, a record-breaking year. The next highest total was 83 exonerations in 2009. On December 31, 2013, known exonerations since 1989 totaled 1,281, a dynamic number that increases frequently as current and past exonerations are added. In addition to providing detailed data on exonerations for the year, the annual report noted several trends in exonerations in the United States.

The registry added a total of 234 exonerations in 2013 including 85 new cases and 149 discovered from prior years. The 2013 year’s total increased to 87 with two cases added in 2014, and this number is expected to grow as additional exonerations that occurred in 2013 are reported or discovered. The total of all known exonerations is 1,304 to date, February 4, 2014. Continue reading

Arson Exoneration in Michigan…

Release yesterday from the Michigan Innocence Clinic:

The Michigan Innocence Clinic is very pleased to announce that our client Victor Caminata was exonerated today at the Wexford County Courthouse in Cadillac, Michigan. Mr. Caminata had served 5 years and 2 weeks of wrongful imprisonment for arson before he was released on July 2, 2013, when the Michigan Attorney General’s Office agreed that his conviction should be vacated because its experts no longer stood by the arson determination that had sent Mr. Caminata to prison to serve 9 to 40 years. Today, the AG dismissed the case with prejudice.

Mr. Caminata was convicted after the house he shared with his then-girlfriend and their children burned in 2008. An initial fire investigation concluded that the fire originated in the chimney, which was connected to a wood stove. But after the police received an anonymous tip, investigators re-examined the wreckage and found supposed signs that the fire had been intentionally set to look like a chimney fire. Remarkably, the state’s investigators never examined the interior of the chimney, which is the most basic step a fire investigator is required to take before ruling out a chimney fire.

Today’s final dismissal came almost two years after we filed a motion for relief from judgment for Mr. Caminata based on the conclusion of our experts that the state’s fire investigators had committed fundamental errors in violation of NFPA 921, that the supposed signs of arson were spurious, and that the original determination that an accidental chimney fire had burned the house was, in fact, correct.

We are especially grateful to Jim Samuels of Big Rapids, Michigan, and Mike McKenzie of Atlanta, Georgia, both of whom co-counseled the case with the Clinic on a pro bono basis, and to experts Joe Filas and Tom May, who also lent their services pro bono. Staff attorney Imran Syed led our legal team, which included at various times former co-director (now Michigan Supreme Court justice) Bridget McCormack, clinical professor Kim Thomas, and former students Blase Schmid, Adam Thompson, Kate O’Connor, Rachel Burg, Zach Dembo, Nick Hambley, Laura Andrade, Jocelin Chang, and Marc Allen, and current students Lexi Bond, Emily Goebel, and Claire Madill.

Anthony Graves, Exonerated Death Row Inmate, to File Grievance Against Former Texas Prosecutor Charles Sebesta

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Yet another case of egregious prosecutorial misconduct.

Anthony Graves was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for a gruesome multiple homicide that occurred in Somerville, TX in August of 1992.  He was ultimately exonerated and released from prison in 2010.

The prosecutor in the case, Charles Sebesta, under intense public pressure for a conviction of Graves with a death sentence, ignored all evidence pointing to his innocence,  pressed ahead, and, as the special prosecutor appointed to handle Graves’ retrial said, “Sebesta manufactured evidence, misled jurors and elicited false testimony.”  The special prosecutor laid the blame for Graves’ wrongful conviction squarely at the feet of Sebesta.

Anthony Graves and the Houston law firm of Bob Bennett & Associates will file a grievance with the Texas Bar’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel seeking sanctions against Sebesta for his central role in Graves’ wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

Read the case statement of facts here - Statement-of-Facts.

You can see the full press packet here.

And read the Texas Monthly story here.

Editorial PS:  I think it’s tragic that Mr. Graves has to pursue redress through the Bar Association.  He should have remedy available through the courts.

Chicago exonoree chooses hope over anger

The struggle to overcome a wrongful conviction doesn’t end with exoneration. Rebuilding a life interrupted by years of incarceration takes a lot of hard work. Nicole Harris, a client of the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions who falsely confessed to the murdering her 4-year-old son, is doing it the right way. Her effort is featured in this story on the front page of today’s Chicago Tribune.

By Duaa Eldeib, Tribune reporter
January 19, 2014

As she marks her 32nd birthday Sunday, Nicole Harris is navigating job interviews and graduate school applications. She’s discovering just how delicate the relationship between a mother and her teenage son can be. She is constantly on the hunt for a good book.

Yet still there are moments she yearns for the quiet of her prison cell.

Nine years ago, Harris was a young mother of two who’d overcome tremendous obstacles to earn a college degree. Her boys, Jaquari and Diante, were just 4 and 5, but she was already thinking about where she might someday send them to college.

Then Jaquari died. And she was convicted of killing him.

Harris spent almost eight years behind bars before an appeals court, raising serious questions about her conviction, reversed it. And on a bright winter day nearly a year ago, she was set free.

Continue reading

Charges Dropped in Conviction Based on Questionable Confessions

Breaking: This morning Cook County (IL) prosecutors reversed themselves and set aside the murder conviction and life sentence of Deon Patrick, 42, who has served more than half his life in prison following his conviction in a double murder case. The accuracy of the convictions of Patrick and others was clouded by questionable confessions.

Patrick was one of eight persons charged with the 1992 murders of Jeffrey Lassiter and Sharon Haugabook. Five were convicted after all made confessions that cross-implicated one another. Continue reading

Satanic ritual abuse panic seems to be unraveling

Child-abuse hysteria has produced hundreds, if not thousands, of wrongful convictions over the past 30 years. One of the most virulent strains of this hysteria was the one that started it: Satanic ritual abuse. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie offers a hopeful update here that suggests that the last vestiges of this panic are unraveling. But immense damage was done, and if the lessons left behind aren’t learned, there will be more panics and more innocent people sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit or that didn’t even occur.

Predicting Wrongful Convictions Statistically…

A group of scholars, including Jon Gould, Julia Carrano, Richard Leo and Katie Hall-Jares have posted an interesting article, Predicting Erroneous Convictions, on SSRN.  The article is forthcoming at the Iowa Law Review.  Download here.  The abstract states:

The last thirty years have seen an enormous increase not only in the exonerations of innocent defendants but also academic scholarship on erroneous convictions. This literature has identified a number of common factors that appear frequently in erroneous conviction cases, including forensic error, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, and eyewitness misidentification. However, without a comparison or control group of cases, researchers risk labeling these factors as “causes” of erroneous convictions when they may be merely correlates. This article reports results from the first large scale empirical research project to compare wrongful convictions with other innocence cases in which the defendant escaped conviction (so-called “near misses”). Employing statistical methods and an expert panel, the research helps us to understand how the criminal justice system identifies innocent defendants in order to prevent erroneous convictions. In another first, the research secured the cooperation of practitioners from multiple sides of the criminal justice system, including the national Innocence Project, the Police Foundation, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, and the National District Attorneys Association. The results highlight ten factors that distinguish wrongful convictions from near misses, but the larger story is one of system failure in which the protections of the criminal justice system operate in a counterintuitive manner. The article closes with a series of policy reforms to address these failings.

Recent UK Exoneree talks about release and time in jail

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Recent DNA exoneree Victor Nealon, who spent 17 years in prison for an attempted rape he did not commit, has spoken of his time in prison and his release. He was given just 7 days notice of his appeal, then when freed from the appeal court, dropped at a local train station with 46 pounds (approx US$75) and nowhere to live. He is now considering suing the police for his arrest in order to gain some compensation to rebuild his life. Read the full interview here….

Postman who spent 17 years in prison after wrongful conviction for attempted rape says he is a ‘greater person’ for being victim of miscarriage of justice

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

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  • The 2013 holiday season meant a great deal to Brandon Olebar, who, after 10 years of wrongful incarceration, got to enjoy the festivities with his family for the first time in over a decade. Olebar’s release comes thanks to the efforts of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW).  More….
  • In NY, Robert Jones, who has been imprisoned for 19 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit, hopes to be released after State’s key witness says she was pressured to identify him as the perp.
  • In Massachusetts, doctors believe Brian Peixoto was wrongfully convicted of child murder in an alleged junk medical science case.

2013 Innocence Network Report Released…

Download here….

Network press release:

A report released today by the Innocence Networkreveals that 29 people in the US and 2 people in the Netherlands were exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit by Innocence Network members in the past year.  This is the largest number of exonerations that the Network has secured in the five years that it has reported its exonerations.

The report, “Innocence Network Exonerations 2013,” details each of this year’s exonerations.  DNA contributed to the exonerations of 14 people.  The other 17 were exonerated by other means. The 31 people exonerated served a combined 451 years behind bars (and an average of 14.5 years each).  Two men served more than 3 decades.  Three women were exonerated this year, also a record for the Network.

“Although it is painful to read about these tragic injustices, this year’s report does signal that the innocence movement that began two decades ago is gradually making progress in improving the system,” said Keith Findley, President of the Innocence Network and Co-Director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.  “There were two people who were exonerated by new laws that were passed to make it easier to overturn wrongful convictions.  We also saw how new technology is helping to correct injustice.”

Debra Brown of Utah, who served 17 years for a murder she didn’t commit, was the first person to be exonerated through a 2008 law passed by the Utah Legislature that makes it easier to overturn a conviction where there is no DNA evidence.  Andrew Johnson, who wrongly served 23 years for rape, was the first person in Wyoming to be exonerated based on post-conviction DNA testing that was possible because of a law that the state passed in 2008. With the passage of a law in Oklahoma in May, all 50 states now have laws that guarantee access to DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions.

The Knoops Innocence Project in the Netherlands saw its first exonerations this year. Nozai Thomas and Andy Melaan, who were convicted of murder and served 5 and 8 years respectively, were exonerated based on the testimony of a digital forensics expert who produced evidence that Thomas was at his desk downloading music at the time of the murder and that Meelan had used his cell phone on the other side of the island when the crime occurred.

“The report also serves as a stark reminder of the flaws that plague the system,” added Findley.  “Misidentification continues to be the leading contributor to wrongful convictions, followed closely by false confessions and bad forensic practices.  But this year we also saw numerous instances of police and prosecutorial misconduct and the tragic results of relying on incentivized informants.”

In addition to helping overturn wrongful convictions, Innocence Network organizations worked to bring substantive reform to the criminal justice system. Last year, Network member organizations lobbied statehouse across the country for reforms to improve identification procedures, reduce false confessions and compensate the wrongly convicted.

The Innocence Network is composed of 63 member organizations— 52 members in the US and 11 members in other countries.  Each organization operates independently but they coordinate to share information and expertise.

Innocence Network members range from successful clinics that have operated for many years at some of the most respected universities to full-fledged nonprofit organizations with a solid staff and base of funding to small clinics at law schools that are still setting up a process to review cases. You can learn more about the Innocence Network or find an organization near you at www.innocencenetwork.org.