Category Archives: Exonerations

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

Are the FBI’s flawed hair matches wrong only when DNA proves it?

Kevin Martin’s exoneration in Washington, D.C., this week, as reported here, proved once again that FBI hair analysis is flawed and inaccurate. Martin was the fifth person to have his conviction overturned because of inaccurate hair analysis by FBI agents. That bodes well for others convicted on such evidence where, as in Martin’s case, biological evidence still exists that can be subjected to DNA testing.

But what about those cases in which there is no evidence to test? Will prosecutors still defend cases that were greatly based on FBI hair comparisons even after the FBI conceded in 2013 that microscopic hair analysis was not based on sound science?

The Massachusetts case of George Perrot is a good example of a case with great merit despite the lack of DNA. Perrot has been incarcerated for almost 29 years for a 1985 rape of elderly woman in Springfield greatly because of the testimony of an FBI agent that a single hair found on the victim’s bed matched a known sample of Perrot’s hair.

Perrot, who was only 17 at the time, has insisted on his innocence ever since his arrest. In 2001, his conviction was overturned because of numerous prosecutorial errors, but the conviction was reinstated by a higher court because of the supposed strength of the microscopic hair evidence used against him.

Never mind that the rape didn’t occur on the bed where the hair was found. Never mind that the victim repeatedly refused to identify Perrot as the rapist because, she stated, the rapist was clean-shaven and had short hair and Perrot had shaggy hair and a beard. Never mind that the series of rapes of elderly women in which Perrot was the purported perpetrator continued after his arrest. The hair “match,” the court said, was more important.

In a motion filed earlier this month, Perrot’s pro bono attorneys from the Ropes & Gray law firm, argue that the FBI’s acknowledgment that its examiners provided scientifically unsupported testimony justifies a new trial for Perrot.

Unfortunately, the attorneys could not locate the biological evidence in the case for DNA testing to bolster Perrot’s innocence claim the way Kevin Martin’s attorneys were able to. There are dozens of people like Perrot out there convicted with hair-comparison testimony who can’t use DNA testing to prove the testimony wrong.

That doesn’t make them any less innocent, but prosecutors and the courts may not see it that way. Of the 106 convictions in the 1980s and 1990s in the District of Columbia that included an FBI hair match that have thus far been reviewed, prosecutors said only Martin’s supported a “viable” claim for innocence. If it hadn’t been for DNA, Martin’s claim probably wouldn’t have viewed as viable at all.

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

National Registry of Exonerations June Report: Record-Breaking Pace in 2014, Causal Insights

The June 2014 update of the National Registry of Exonerations has reported 50 exonerations in the first half of 2014, which is on pace to be record-breaking and to exceed the 87 exonerations reported at year-end in 2013. Each year’s total is a dynamic number. The tally for 2013, for example, had recently increased to 89 as exonerations from the year continue to be discovered. As of June 27, 2014, the Registry was reporting 1,385 exonerations since 1989. As of today, the total has advanced to 1,394.

While these numbers are important, they are a high-level summary of the comprehensive information and case profiles that enable research and insights regarding miscarriages of justice.

An important revelation of the National Registry’s interactive database—which includes both DNA-proven and other official exonerations—is that different types of crimes have different primary contributors. Two recently created graphs enable examination of common contributors by type of crime. The graphs Continue reading

Wednesdsay’s Quick Clicks…

Brooklyn, NY, Conviction Review: Seventh Man Set Free, After 17 Years in Prison

The New York Times reported yesterday (here) that Roger Logan, 53, has been exonerated and released from prison as a result of the ongoing probe of 90 murder cases by a conviction review unit under the direction of Kings County District Attorney Kenneth P. Thompson. Logan—the seventh man to be released since Thompson took office on January 1, 2014—had steadfastly maintained his innocence during the 17 years he served in prison following his conviction and sentence of 25 years to life.

Logan had been convicted of the 1997 shooting of Sherwin Gibbons, who was killed in the vestibule of a Bedford-Stuyvesant building.

The Conviction Integrity Unit is looking at all 57 murder convictions involving former detective, Louis Scarcella, whose unorthodox tactics and unraveling convictions have prompted serious scrutiny, as well as other convictions stemming especially from the 1980s and 1990s, a time of rampant crime and violence. Continue reading

Four decades later, Iceland confessions defy belief

“The methods of the Icelandic police weren’t unique. They convinced themselves that a group of petty criminals on the fringes of society were a gang of hardened killers. But they didn’t find the evidence to back up their hunch, they were left with just the confessions that were extracted after months of solitude and mental torture.”

That’s the conclusion of a remarkable BBC News multipedia presentation here about how six young people in Iceland confessed to two murders in the mid-’70s despite a total lack of evidence or memory of the crimes.

Forcing forensic-science reforms hasn’t been easy

When the National Academy of Sciences issued a seminal report on the sad state of forensic science five years ago, many hoped it would quickly lead to reforms and fewer wrongful convictions. That hasn’t happened — at least so far.

In a comprehensive review here, Chemical & Engineering News reports that ”little has been done to shore up the discipline’s scientific base or to make sure that its methods don’t result in wrongful convictions. Quality standards for forensic laboratories remain inconsistent. And funding to implement improvements is scarce.”

Even worse, the journal says, some are beginning to wonder if much will be done in the new future without continued advocacy from reform-minded scientist and their allies. The fight is far from over.

Breaking News: Exoneration Today in New Orleans…

by the IP of New Orleans with assistance from the local DA (who admitted intentionally prosecutorial misconduct)…

From the New Orleans Advocate:

A man serving life in prison for a 1979 murder was set free Monday after Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro acknowledged “intentional prosecutorial misconduct” in his case and false testimony from a New Orleans police detective who helped convict him.

Cannizzaro and attorneys with Innocence Project New Orleans, the nonprofit law firm, are scheduled to announce Reginald Adams’ release at an 11:30 a.m. news conference. Defense attorneys and prosecutors filed a joint motion asking Judge Laurie White to vacate his conviction, which she granted Monday morning. “You’re free to go,” White told Adams, who has been behind bars for 34 years.

“I will not tolerate intentional misconduct on the part of police or prosecutors,” Cannizzaro said in a statement, apologizing to Adams on behalf of the District Attorney’s Office for depriving him of a fair trial. “Their handling of this case was shameful. Not only did their intentional acts harm Reginald Adams, who was wrongfully incarcerated for more than three decades, but also it denied this community any opportunity to hold the real perpetrator criminally responsible for this violent crime.”

Adams was indicted in October 1980 for the first-degree murder of Cathy Ulfers, the wife of policeman Ronald P. Ulfers Sr., who was shot and killed at her Downman Road home in October 1979. Adams was tried and convicted of the killing in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison, but the Louisiana Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 1989, according to court records. He was retried for the same murder in 1990.

“The evidence against Mr. Adams at both trials consisted exclusively of a confession to the murder, made to Detectives Martin Venezia and Frank Ruiz while Mr. Adams was in the custody of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff’s Office,” the joint motion states, adding the confession was “in many ways inaccurate and inconsistent with the known facts of Cathy Ulfers’ murder.”

Ronald Ulfers, who retired from the New Orleans Police Department in 1989, had been a suspect in Cathy Ulfers’ slaying but was never charged, according to news accounts. He was later convicted of murder in the death of his second wife and sentenced to life in prison.

The joint motion says detectives “misrepresented that no evidence or other suspects had been found in the case until Mr. Adams confessed.” It also blames then-prosecutors Ronald Bodenheimer and Harold J. Gilbert Jr. for making “materially false” responses to discovery requests made by Adams’ defense attorney.

Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for Cannizzaro, said in a news release that Bodenhemier and Gilbert failed to turn over a supplemental police report that “fully aware of the additional suspects as well as the recovery of the murder weapon and other physical evidence and that their handling of this case amounts to intentional prosecutorial misconduct.”

Detectives and prosecutors had claimed at Adams’ trial that neither the murder weapon nor any property taken from Ulfers’ home had been recovered by the authorities. Detectives even testified no other suspects had been investigated in the slaying.

Adams’ attorneys, Emily Maw of the Innocence Project and Michael Magner, a former federal prosecutor, reviewed public records related to the case and discovered “a supplemental police report detailing the first several months of the murder investigation in 1979,” Bowman said. He said the report revealed that detectives had been notified “that a weapon similar to the weapon used in the Ulfers murder had been recovered in an arrest,” and that a ballistics expert later determined it was the murder weapon.

“In one of the sad ironies of this case, the detectives, based on this discovery, performed a thorough follow up investigation that traced the weapon back to two individuals,” Bowman added. “The detectives questioned and searched one of the two individuals, and they discovered that he was in possession of a piece of jewelry that had been taken from the Ulfers’ home in the burglary.

Bodenheimer, who later became a judge in the 24th Judicial District in Jefferson Parish, was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2003 to an array of charges related to corruption at the Jefferson Parish Courthouse. Bodenhemier could not immediately be reached for comment.

In his statement, Cannizzaro said that Adams’ release did not “tell a story about how bad the criminal justice system in New Orleans was.”

“I believe that this is a story about a new day in the New Orleans criminal justice system,” he said. “It is a story about a bright future for every citizen of New Orleans.”

 

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.”

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Man exonerated of rape charges in Sweden after 10 years in prison; now Sweden’s long-serving exoneree
  • In China, a long road to justice in recent double exoneration case
  • Rob Warden writes that the death April 20 of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, middleweight prizefighter, heavyweight champion of the wrongfully convicted, is a vivid reminder of a plague that has long corrupted the criminal justice system — perjury by prosecution witnesses who have ulterior motives to lie.  Article….
  • Alaska Innocence Project gearing up for May hearing in the Fairbanks Four case
  • Article on how bad science leads to wrongful convictions
  • New judges’ training program in Bangladesh warns new judges to be vigilante against wrongful convictions
  • More strange twists and turns in the Montana case of Cody Marble

National Academy of Sciences Study: Over Four Percent of People Sentenced to Death are Likely Innocent

New peer-reviewed research indicates that at least 4.1 percent of defendants sentenced to death in the United States are likely innocent. The article, “Rate of False Conviction of Criminal Defendants who are Sentenced to Death,” published today in one of the world’s most respected scientific journals—Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—is available at http://www.eurekalert.org/account.php

“This study provides the first rigorous estimate of the rate of conviction of innocent criminal defendants in any context. It shows that the number of innocent people sentenced to death is more than twice the number of inmates actually exonerated and freed by legal action,” said Bruce Levin, Ph.D., Professor and Past Chair, Department of Biostatistics, Mailman School of Public Health Columbia University. Levin, an expert in statistics, did not participate in the research but is familiar with the study. 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.

 

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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