Category Archives: Eyewitness identification

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

The Connecticut Supreme Court upholds Judges decision to bar expert testimony on eyewitness unreliability…

Maine High Court denies Dennis Dechaine’s request for a new trial

Kansas University Innocence Project client Kimberly Sharp wins 10th Circuit appeal

200,000 pages of “Central Park Five” documents to be released

In North Carolina, Damian Mills and Teddy Isbell Sr. have reached a tentative settlement agreement with Buncombe County officials while their criminal convictions are still pending review…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

These Are the Wrongful Conviction Cases That Haunt Me

I’ve been doing “innocence work” for seven years now.  So …. just what is it that I do? I am Science & Technology Advisor to the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and to the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University. This means I advise on cases that include factors involving science and/or technology – usually forensics. I will also advise any innocence organization or agent that requests my input, and I do this pro bono. I do some other stuff too, like write for this blog, but those are the roles in which I get involved in case work.

During this seven year period, I’ve had personal involvement – meaning I’ve actually done work – in 63 cases in eight states and two foreign countries; and have had exposure to the details of probably 100 more cases on top of that. I’ve been privileged to be a small piece of the puzzle in five exonerations; and, in four cases, my work has contributed to confirming that the defendant was actually guilty. We consider confirming guilt to be a good outcome, because it means that justice has been properly served. We’re not trying to get everybody out of prison – only the people who are actually innocent.

We relish talking about the successes, the exonerations, but nobody ever hears about the failures. I count a failed case as one in which, based upon careful and intensive study of all the facts, testimony and evidence, we (I) are absolutely confident that the defendant is actually innocent; but our efforts to exonerate have not succeeded, and there’s really nothing more we can do. Sadly, the failures occur much, much more frequently than the successes. There are no good data for this, but in my experience, an exoneration takes years of time (average about 7), thousands of hours of total effort by a great many people, and, in some cases, thousands of dollars. And the failures can take just as much as the successes, if not more.

Most of the cases I’ve worked remain “open,” at least technically, but there are some for which we have seemingly come to the end of the legal road, and there’s little, if anything, that can still be done. There are five of these cases, in particular, that keep me awake at night, because I get so outraged and frustrated by the injustice. I thought I would share them with you, so you might get some idea of what the people doing innocence work have to deal with on a daily basis. Since these cases are unresolved, I will not reveal any names, dates, or places, and will provide only sketchy details of the incidents involved, but you’ll get the idea.

Continue reading

Weekend Quick Clicks…

Weekend Quick Clicks…

The Innocent Citizen’s Justice System Survival Guide

“Ours is a world in which justice is accidental, and innocence no protection.”     Euripedes, 400 B.C.

———————————————————————————————–

I come from a legal family, so even though I did not go into law, I’ve had a closeup view of the justice system my entire life, which is, I think, one of the reasons I decided to devote my post-corporate life to innocence work. I saw too many things happening that were not congruent with my view of what a fair and just system should, and must, be. For the past seven years, I’ve been deeply involved in innocence work, and have become knowledgeable about the details of many, many cases (100’s) of wrongful conviction and wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, I’ve seen many ways in which actually innocent people become tragic victims of what we call “justice.” There are just so many ways the justice system can get it wrong. This has caused me to think about what it is that an innocent person can (and should) do when accusatorially confronted by this thing we call the justice system. [You might want to also read my previous post Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken, and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed.]

If you think being wrongfully charged, indicted, convicted, and imprisoned can’t happen to you, think again. It can happen to anybody. Just ask Debra Milke. The ways this can happen are countless, and despite the system’s best efforts, there are just too many ways the system can possibly get it wrong. I could give you lots of examples, but we won’t try to detail them here – just take a look at the National Registry of Exonerations, and keep in mind these are only the ones that have been so far successfully overturned within the system – there are magnitudes more. This article will try to give you some “suggestions” for what you might do if you find you’re being wrongfully suspected or charged with a crime. For those of you who have had no close interaction with the justice system, you might well think that I’m being radical and that I must come from somewhere in outer space … and you can think that right up until you get scooped into the meat grinder. Let me me just say, “Forewarned is forearmed.”

This article will be in six sections:

I.  Have a Lawyer You Can Call

II. Don’t Talk to the Police

III. The Plea Bargain

IV. Be Ready for Trial

V. Shaken Baby/Child Abuse (Abusive Head Trauma)  [This requires special attention and treatment.]

VI. If You Are Wrongfully Convicted

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney, and so cannot give you legal advice. These suggestions are only my personal opinion, and are solely the result of my exposure to the justice system and wrongful convictions over a period of years. They come with no guarantee. Every situation is unique, and you must always exercise your own judgment given the circumstances. They are just intended to get you thinking about how you would handle the situation of being wrongfully accused, and to give you some information about how the system works. I am certain that they cannot cover every possible situation, but hopefully, they will provide an overall, general guide for how you might deal with this. 

Continue reading

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • A prosecutor in Virgnia says the right things and appears to “get it”
  • Great editorial on eyewitness ID reform in Missouri by Rebecca Brown
  • In Ohio, Ricky Jackson and five other death row exonerees speak at State House against capital punishment

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Weekend Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • In NY, the wrongfully convicted petition for prosecutorial oversight
  • Colorado to consider eyewitness lineup reforms
  • In Japan, will wrongful convictions be catalyst for criminal justice reform?
  • With a judge’s order throwing out his murder conviction in-hand, Tyrone Hood truly became a free man as he was exonerated at a Monday morning hearing after spending more than 20 years in prison for a slaying he’s continued to insist he did not commit.
    “I can’t even describe how I feel right now,” he said.  Nearly a month ago, outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn commuted Hood’s sentence, releasing him from prison.  The decision by Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to dismiss the convictions against Hood and his co-defendant Wayne Washington, Jr. follows more than two years of investigation by her office’s conviction integrity unit – which began looking into the case in 2012 after the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project championed Hood’s innocence.  Keep reading…..
  • New legislation in Texas aimed at expanding access for inmates to post-conviction DNA testing

North Carolina Innocence Commission’s success has yet to inspire other states to follow suit

With eight exoncerations to its credit, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is living up to its goals when it was established in 2006. With official powers that others who investigate possible wrongful conictions don’t have, The Atlantic reports here, the commission has been able to crack cases that others might not have been be able to. That should make it a national model for how states could correct wrongful convictions, but it hasn’t been so far. Money is one reason. A lack of commitment may be another.

Update on the National Registry of Exonerations

In case you haven’t been able to check in on the National Registry of Exonerations lately, here’s an excerpt from the most recent data.  Note the total is now up to 1,512, and the trend line is definitely UP.

exon dna non

exon cont fact

exon fact crime

I won’t belabor you by pointing out some of the more obvious observations.  Just a few minutes of study will (should) lead you to some very clear conclusions.

It has been reported that the folks at the Registry are hard at work trying to incorporate the exonerations being generated by the newly formed “conviction integrity units” (CIU’s).  For these cases the prosecutors running the CIU’s may not be very motivated to have their exonerations logged into the Registry.

I can’t gush enough about how critical and important this data is.  It is this kind of HARD DATA that will provide the foundation for much needed and long overdue justice system reform.

Police Want to Revoke Exoneree Bennie Starks’ Certificate of Innocence

Bennie Starks was released from prison in 2006, after serving 20 years for a rape that DNA proved he did not commit.  He was fully exonerated in 2013, and was granted a Certificate of Innocence by the court.

Starks is now suing the Waukegan, IL police department and the forensic experts who falsely testified against him.  As a consequence of this law suit, the Waukegan police are trying to have Starks’ Certificate of Innocence revoked. Their fear is that the Certificate of Innocence will be a deciding factor in Starks’ civil law suit for compensation.

Dr. C. Michael (Mike) Bowers is a California dentist and enlightened forensic odontologist. He also edits a blog called Forensics in Focus.  Dr. Bowers was involved in the exoneration of Bennie Starks, and has posted his comments about this on his blog here.

Ricky Jackson Prison Release Video

On Wednesday, November 19, Nancy Petro reported on this blog about the exoneration of Ricky Jackson after 39 years in prison.  See that story here.

CNN has posted a great video of his release from prison.  See the 2 minute CNN video here.

National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

The Innocence Project has posted a notice on its website, with a link to a press release, about the recently released report by the Nation Academy of Sciences on memory and eyewitness identification.

From the report:  “the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted.”

The report endorses the following procedures for police lineups:

  • Blind Administration — Research shows that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is. This prevents the witness from picking up intentional or unintentional clues from the officer conducting the lineup.
  • Confidence Statements — Immediately following a lineup, the eyewitness should be asked to describe in his or her own words how confident he or she is in the identification. As the report notes, the level of confidence a witness expresses at the time of trial is not a reliable predictor of accuracy. Having the witness describe their level of confidence at the time an identification is made will provide juries with a useful tool for judging the accuracy of the identification.
  • Instructions — The person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether the witness identifies a suspect.
  • Videotape the procedure — The report recommends that police electronically record the identification procedure to preserve a permanent record of the procedure.

Most recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that for the 1,467 wrongful convictions currently in the registry, 35% had mistaken eyewitness identification as a contributing factor.

See the Innocence Project posting here.

Jennifer Thompson Promotes the Justice for All Act

Jennifer Thompson has been featured on the WCB before.  She authored, along with Ronald Cotton, the book Picking Cotton.  Ms. Thompson incorrectly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her, and Cotton spent 11 years in prison before DNA proved he was not guilty.  After his release, Ronald and Jennifer became friends, and co-authored the book, which chronicles the events of the rape and the wrongful conviction.

Ms. Thompson has recently written an op-ed for The Hill in support of reauthorization of the Justice for All Act to ensure that post-conviction DNA testing remains accessible.

See the original posting on The Hill here.  The text of her piece appears below:

October 26, 2014
Harm multiplies when the innocent are wrongly convicted
By Jennifer Thompson

In June of 1995, I found myself on a journey I never wanted, never asked for and never would have wished on another human being. I learned that the man whom I had identified in court as my rapist – the man whose face, breath and evilness I had dreamt about for 11 years – was innocent. The man whom I believed had destroyed me that night, who had stolen everything from me, and whom I hated with an all-consuming rage had lost 4000 days, eleven Christmases, eleven birthdays, and relationships with loved ones. And on June 30th of 1995, Ronald Cotton, the man I had hated and prayed for to die, walked out of prison a free and innocent man.

My rage and hatred had been misplaced. I was wrong. I had sent an innocent man to prison. A third of his life was over, and the shame, guilt and fear began to suffocate me. I had let down everyone — the police department, the district attorney’s office, the community, the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole, and especially Ronald Cotton and his family.

Several years after Ronald was freed, I received a phone call from Bobby Poole’s last victim. I remember hearing her story about what happened to her and realizing that we all had left him on the streets to commit further crimes – rapes — that we possibly could have prevented if Ronald had not been locked up for something he had never done. The knowledge that Mr. Poole had been left at liberty to hurt other women paralyzed me and sent me into a backward spiral that took years to recover from. This journey has taught me that the impact of wrongful convictions goes so much further than a victim and the wrongfully convicted. The pool of victims from 1984 was huge – me, Ron, the police department, our families, and the other women who became victims of Bobby Poole all suffered.

This case crystalized for me why it is so important to have laws in place that protect the innocent. Those laws would be important enough if they only protected the innocent, but they do so much more. They also protect the potential victims of real perpetrators, the families and children of the wrongfully convicted person, and – ultimately – the victim who learns the truth.

The Justice for All Act, which is up for reauthorization by Congress, allows men like Ronald to obtain post-conviction DNA testing that can lead to their freedom and to the conviction of the guilty. Without access to such testing, innocent men will remain in prison, real perpetrators will remain free, and new victims will have to experience the same horrors and indignities that I did. I urge Congress to pass the Justice For All Act now so that we can live in a world where the truly guilty are behind bars and the innocent are free.

Thompson is the co-author with Ronald Cotton of the book Picking Cotton, a memoir they wrote together after DNA testing proved that Cotton had been wrongly convicted of raping Thompson as a college student.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Report on Eyewitness Identification Released by National Academy of Sciences…

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