After 29 years in prison, David McCallum was exonerated yesterday of a murder he did not commit. Kings County (NY) Supreme Court Justice Matthew D’Emic also exonerated William Stuckey who died in prison in 2001. It took an army of advocates over many years — including the late Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who had also been wrongfully conviction of murder — to finally overturn this miscarriage.
As teenagers McCallum and Stuckey falsely confessed to the murder of Nathan Blenner, who died of a single gunshot wound to the head. McCallum and Stuckey quickly recanted the confessions. Although the confessions were filled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies, the men were convicted and lost all appeals. Over the years, McCallum refused parole rather than admit guilt to a crime he did not commit. His struggle was recorded in a recently released documentary, “David & me.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson, whose Conviction Review Unit investigated the case, recommended this exoneration, and has now cleared convictions in ten cases, said in a Wall Street Journal Report (here), “I think the people of Brooklyn deserve better, and I think we should not have a national reputation as a place where people have been railroaded into confessing to crimes they did not commit.”
Congratulations to Mr. McCallum and to the family of William Stuckey. The nation should be grateful for the persistence and hard work of all who contributed to this reversal including Steven Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions (Chicago), Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Ken Klonsky, Innocence International (Toronto), Oscar Michelen of the New York law firm of Cuomo, LLC, Professor Laura Cohen of the Rutgers-Newark Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, and King’s County District Attorney Kenneth Thompson and his Conviction Review Unit team.
“Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest and modestly paid,” The Economist says. “But they have accumulated so much power that abuse is inevitable.” The magazine explains how prosecutors became “the kings of the courtroom,” and how this contributes to wrongful convictions, here.
Producers of a movie about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row by DNA, successfully launched a fund-raising effort for post-production funding today. The producers of “Bloodsworth – An Innocent Man,” previously raised over $25,000 from 331 backers for filming in 2011, and current crowd-funding effort looks like it will be equally successful. You can read about the campaign here.
Sadly, not all possibly innocent people caught up in the sometimes crazy criminal-justice world are having the same kind of luck. As Luca Cheli explains here, Raffaele Sollecito, Amanda Knox’s co-defendant in the controversial Italian murder case concerning the murder of Briton Meredith Kercher, is one of them. Cheli reports that Sollecito’s account on the crowd-funding site GoFundMe has suddenly been closed. Sollecito had successfully raised defense funds on the site before, and now his supporters around the world are being denied the opportunity to help him again. Sollecito is having problems setting up an account on other crowd-funding sites, and his chance of presenting a robust defense is now in jeopardy.
Cheli attributes Sollecito’s fund-raising woes to the often-vociferous haters of Knox and Sollecito. But the issue is bigger than that.
”This is a threat going well beyond the context of a specific murder case: it is certainly a threat to anyone working against any wrongful conviction, but it is also a potential threat to any advocate of whatever cause,” Cheli writes.
“Today it is Knox and Sollecito, who or what will it be tomorrow?”
The Hon. Jed Rakoff — U.S. District Judge, Federal District Court in Manhattan — has expressed concern over the fairness and accuracy of outcomes resulting from plea bargaining. In the United States, plea agreement negotiations have become the resolution mechanism for the vast majority—more than 95 percent—of federal and state criminal cases. The judge believes that the process contributes to an unacceptable number of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit.
“We have hundreds, or thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent people who are in prison, right now, for crimes they never committed because they were coerced into pleading guilty,” Judge Rakoff said at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law’s annual Neiman Sieroty Lecture earlier this year. Read an article in USCNews on his comments (here).
The judge noted in an article in the New York Daily News (here), “The current Continue reading
The Arson Research Project says that 30 men and women have been exonerated from wrongful arson convictions since 1991. More than half of them were exonerated from life sentences or from death row. In the case of one Texas inmate, Cameron Todd Willingham, the research project says, such forensic error led to the execution of an innocent man.
To help prevent such tragedies in the future, the Arson Research Project, which is affiliated at Monterey College of Law, has published an excellent report, Anatomy of a Wrongful Arson Conviction, which you can download here.
The center’s director, Paul Bieber, presents a good video summary on wrongful arson convictions and the difficulty reversing them, here.
“A North Carolina death row inmate exonerated by DNA evidence on Tuesday was once held up by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as an example of someone who deserved to die,” the Huffington Post reports. You can read the details here.
“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
– Abraham Lincoln
So-called tough-on-crime policies in the United States over several decades have resulted in unanticipated changes in the criminal justice system that most Americans probably do not fully realize. Mandatory sentencing, policies such as “three strikes,” and increasing use of plea bargaining as opposed to jury trials have prompted an explosion in the prison population and unprecedented prosecutorial authority. With all due respect to those prosecutors who serve us well, we now know that increased power and immunity from abuses have enabled prosecutorial misconduct, a significant contributor to wrongful convictions.
While the Innocence Project and other organizations work to correct miscarriages and prevent others, and new models such as conviction integrity units seek to address the failure of the appeal process to correct conviction errors, a recent case demonstrated the appropriate use of an intact but rarely used remedy: mercy and discretion by public officials.
These capacities once broadly utilized by judges in sentencing may be the most efficient way to cure injustices whether wrongful convictions or unfair sentencing. In a recent illustration, no one questioned the guilt of Francois Holloway. The New York Times reported (here) and (here) that he was charged in 1995 with three counts of carjacking and using a weapon during a violent crime (he did not carry a gun but his accomplice did).
When the government prosecutor offered Holloway a plea deal with a prison term of 11 years, he declined. Holloway’s lawyer assured him that he would win at trial.
His attorney was wrong. Continue reading