Category Archives: Forensic controls

Recent Rash of Exonerations Only the Surface: Many More Remain Wrongfully Imprisoned

By Jefferey Deskovic for The Huffington Post

Fernando Bermudez. Sami Leka. Jose Morales. Reuben Montalvo. Lazaro Burts. Kareen Bellamy. Anthony Ortiz. Frank Sterling. Roy Brown. Dennis Halstead. John Kogut. Eric Glisson. Jonathan Fleming.

Those are the names of 13 men that I personally knew and served time with who were exonerated either during my 16 years in prison or thereafter.

Last year there were 91 exonerations. This year there have been 90 thus far. To date there have been 1482 exonerations overall, only 321 of them being DNA related. Since taking office this past January, Brooklyn DA Thompson’s conviction integrity unit has exonerated 11 people.

Most experts estimate the percentage of wrongfully convicted prisoners to be 2 to 5% of the inmate population — that is 120,000 people. I deem the number to be closer to 15 to 20%.

In either case, what is causing the staggering number of wrongful convictions?

Rogue Law Enforcement. In Brooklyn, disgraced retired detective Scarcella was found to have used the same drug addict as the sole eyewitness in six different murder cases. Various news accounts say as many as 70 homicides he worked on are being reviewed.

Forensic Fraud. In Pennsylvania, forensic scientist, Annie Dhookhan, was sentenced to three to five years in prison and two years of probation after pleading guilty to 27 counts of misleading investigators, filing false reports, and tampering with evidence.

Additionally, forensic scientists are given financial incentives for giving prosecutorial favorable results that lead to conviction in North Carolina, Illinois, Alabama, New Mexico, Kentucky, New Jersey, Virginia, Arizona, California, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

Prosecutorial Misconduct. Lying to judges and juries about the existence of benefits and in some cases coercion to informants was a regular practice over the span of the 23 year tenure of former Brooklyn DA Hynes, as was withholding of evidence of innocence.

Junk science. For 40 years, FBI experts have testified in court about “bullet lead analysis” a procedure in which bullets found at a crime scene are tested for arsenic, tin, silver, and other contaminants or additives, and the findings were compared to analysis of bullets found in the possession of suspects. These experts claimed to be able to link one bullet to others from the same production run. For at least 20 years, FBI officials knew that there were no scientific underpinnings to this junk science — that in fact, there were no studies shown to determine how significant a “match” was.

Disgraced dog scent expert Preston came into courtrooms in Texas and Florida for over 20 years, stating that he had trained dogs which would bark if, after being given items to smell from a crime, the dog recognized the scent from a suspect’s item. Preston claimed that his dogs could smell human traces years or months after a suspect walked over the ground, on heavily trafficked streets, underwater, and even after hurricanes. He is not the only “expert” in this “field.”

In 2013, it was revealed that in 27 death penalty cases, FBI forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that were drawn from a so-called “match” between hair found at a crime scene and hair from a defendant.

Tire tracks, footprints, and bite marks are also junk science.

I served 16 years in prison, from the ages of 17 to 32, wrongfully convicted of a murder and rape in New York, despite the fact that the DNA never matched. I lost all seven of my appeals, including two of which now US Supreme Court Judge Sotomayor denied on procedural grounds for having been four days late despite my substantive innocence argument. Ultimately I was exonerated because further DNA testing identified the actual perpetrator, who killed another victim 3.5 years later.

Using $1.5 million dollars of compensation I received, I started The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice to exonerate the wrongfully convicted in DNA and non-DNA cases, educate the public, elected officials, and criminal justice professionals on the causes of wrongful conviction and the reforms need to prevent them, and help the exonerated reintegrate. In two years time, we helped exonerate William Lopez, who had served 23.5 years, and helped 4 wrongfully convicted men reintegrate back into society by providing short-term housing, which enabled them to pursue further education, and in one case open a business.

This holiday season, while celebrating with friends and family, we hope you’ll take a brief moment to remember all those who remain wrongfully imprisoned.

To learn more about The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice and how you can help, please visit here.

Great day in UK for Innocence: Cardiff University Justice Project Overturns Wrongful Conviction

The news coming from the UK in recent months, if not years, has rarely been good. Today (9th December 2014) is different, for today, the Criminal Court of Appeal found the conviction of Dwaine George ‘unsafe’ and overturned his  _79607026_ico12-1conviction for murder. George, convicted of shooting dead a teenager in a gang related incident in 2001, served 12 years of his life sentence behind bars, and was released last year.

Professor Julie Price and Dr Dennis Eady, who run Cardiff’s Innocence Project, were joined at the Royal Courts of Justice by 30 Cardiff law students, past and present, to hear the result of the students’ investigative work. Dr Eady said: “It has taken nine years of hard work since the project was launched to get to this point, and based on our students’ efforts the Court of Appeal has decided that Mr George’s conviction is unsafe.We appreciate that today’s decision will be difficult for Daniel Dale’s family, but if the wrong person was jailed then the right outcome has today been achieved.”

Prof Price added: “For Cardiff Law School Innocence Project, and other university projects working on alleged wrongful conviction cases, this is a significant day. It demonstrates that universities are about more than research, and can show public impact from innovative teaching and learning. This result has been achieved by collaborative effort. A huge thanks to our many supporters and students past and present.”

Sir Brian Levenson said in his ruling: “In addition to expressing our gratitude to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, we pay tribute to the work of the Innocence Project and Pro Bono Unit at Cardiff Law School, which took up the appellant’s case and pursued it so diligently.”

With the recent turmoil amongst those working in universities across the UK and their Innocence Projects (mostly called Justice Projects today because they do not satisfy the criteria for the title ‘Innocence Project’) this is a great victory. Many staff work tirelessly for little or no recognition, with students facing ever greater hurdles to have their work and dedication praised. Cardiff University;s staff and students will continue to work tirelessly and have many other cases that are working their way, slowly, through the CCRC. One can only hope that this is the first success of many. But today is a also shot in the arm for all of those working on behalf of the innocent – sorely needed, and richly deserved.

Watch news item and interviews here:

Cardiff Uni students help Dwaine George win murder appeal

Read more here:

UK judge praises students for helping overturn murder conviction

Judge praises Cardiff University law students for helping overturn Dwaine George’s murder conviction

Ex-gang member Dwaine George cleared of 2002 murder on appeal

How the Courts Trap People Who Have Been Convicted by Bad Forensics

Radley Balko, investigative reporter for the Washington Post, has just published an article dealing with the justice system’s refusal/inability to deal appropriately with false, fake, unscientific, and discredited forensic evidence post conviction.

The focus is on a case that involves the infamous Dr. Steven Hayne, a now thoroughly discredited expert witness, who was sole medical examiner for the state of Mississippi for 20 years.  I urge you to read the entire article, but I’ve extracted a few particularly telling quotes:

•  “The courts and the people who operate in them seem to feel that the integrity of the system demands the preservation of verdicts.”

Addressing the fact that the body of scientific knowledge grows as a process, rather than an event; coupled with the legal time restrictions for introduction of new evidence  ————

•  “From the perspective of the wrongly convicted, you can see the trap here. File too soon, and the court may conclude that you haven’t presented enough evidence that the forensic theory upon which you were convicted has been discredited. If you then try to file more petitions as more evidence comes out to bolster your argument, you risk the court concluding that this is an  issue you’ve already raised, you lost, and you’re therefore barred from raising it again.”

•  “Koon was convicted due to testimony from an expert the court now admits isn’t credible. For the same court to nevertheless uphold his conviction because he missed a deadline is to keep him in prison on a technicality. It’s a cynical outcome that suggests the criminal justice system values process more than justice.”

Read the story by Radley Balko of the Washington Post 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.

Hundreds ‘convicted in error’ in Houston drug cases

The scandal-plagued Houston criminal-justice system has yet another scandal. The Houston Press reports that prosecutors have sent out hundreds of notices to people convicted of drug offenses that they were wrongly convicted.

The problem came about when evidence tested by the Houston Police Department crime lab came up negative for a controlled substance after the defendants had already taken plea deals. In some cases, the district attorney’s office knew about the negative results before the defendant pled guilty, but most test results were received after a conviction.

The district attorney’s office apparently knew about the problem for years, but only recently sent out the notices.

You can read more here.

Progress on the Road to Valid, Reliable Forensics

NASNCFS

The National Academy of Sciences of the United States published it’s Congressionally commissioned report,  “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States – A Path Forward,” in 2009.  This was in response to the realization that a lot of what goes on in forensics can be called “junk science.” That is, much of it is not scientifically proven, is not statistically valid, is not reliable, and is very subject to the biases of individual examiners. We have featured the NAS report previously on this blog here, here, and here.

Not surprisingly, the NAS report was met with “stonewall” and dismissive resistance from the extant forensics community, as well as the National Association of District Attorneys.  However, the report succeeded in bringing forensics under the scrutiny of scientific discipline, and made the public aware of its many shortcomings and failings.  Subsequently, it was announced in 2013 that the US Department of Justice and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) would jointly form the National Commission on Forensic Science to provide guidelines and recommendations for the conduct and use of forensic technology.  The first meeting of the Commission was in February, 2014.

Continue reading

California Anti-Junk Science Forensics Bill Signed Into Law

Mike Bowers, on his blog Forensics in Focus, has posted the news that a new “anti-junk science forensics” bill has been signed into law in California.

The law permits post conviction defendants the ability to contest expert testimony that was presented against them at trial. In other words, convictions in which experts have either repudiated their past testimony, or used forensic “science” that is later deemed faulty by legitimate research, are subject to later proceedings reversing that conviction.

This is a huge deal, because it prevents prosecutors and judges from just using old case law as an excuse for ignoring habeas corpus appeals expressing new forensic research and attitudes.