Category Archives: North America

Jury Awards $36M in Wrongful Conviction Suit to Two NY Men

A jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York, yesterday awarded John Restivo, 56, and Dennis Halstead, 59, $18 million each—$1 million for every year they spent in prison—following their wrongful convictions in the 1984 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco. All charges had been dismissed in 2003 after DNA testing of evidence, which was conducted over ten years, excluded the men and implicated another, unidentified perpetrator.

After a four-week trial in the federal civil rights lawsuit, the jury concluded that Nassau County lead detective, Joseph Volpe, now deceased, had engaged in official misconduct, including fabrication of hair evidence and withholding of exculpatory evidence in the case. Continue reading

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

Three cities to start reviewing criminal-justice mistakes

It’s been a common refrain in the innocence movement that when an airliner crashes there is an intense investigation on how it happened to prevent similar crashes, but when a wrongful conviction occurs the criminal-justice system does nothing to prevent a recurrence.

Well, that’s about the change. According to The Crime Report, the major criminal-justice players in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Baltimore have agreed to develop a system to review cases that went wrong or almost went wrong in an attempt to keep similar mistakes from happening again. Stephen Handelman writes about the project, which will be supported in part by the National Institute of Justice, here.

New Motion, Old Story: Court Urged to Vacate Conviction in 1982 Murder

A controversial case that imprisoned three men including a former Woonsocket Rhode Island police detective may see a new outcome more than thirty years after the crime. A lengthy motion filed in Superior Court by lawyers for Raymond Tempest Jr., 61, seeks to have his conviction of the 1982 murder of Doreen Picard vacated after DNA testing of a hair found in the victim’s hand proved not to be from Tempest.

For those who have studied wrongful convictions, reading the 76-page motion brings a troubling sense of déjà vu. If the motion is granted, it will be an Continue reading

Interrogations may be getting worse instead of better

False confessions are a leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States, and many of them are obtained by detectives using the pervasive Reid technique of interrogation. But if you think that law-enforcement officials are beginning to realize the inherent flaws of a system that gets people to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, guess again.

In a thought-provoking blog post here, forensic psychologist Karen Franklin says she is actually seeing Reid technique “taken to more and more extreme levels” because of American courts’ “tacit encouragement” of deceit and the watering down of Miranda rights.

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity Expands Registry to Include State-Level Cases

The Center for Prosecutor Integrity (CPI) announced today the expansion of its efforts to identify and analyze prosecutorial misconduct to include state and local cases. The Registry initially focused on misconduct by federal prosecutors. CPI is now inviting submissions of state-level cases for inclusion in its Registry of Prosecutorial Misconduct, which was established in January 2014.

An online database, national in scope, the Registry identifies leading types of prosecutor misconduct, and enables analysis of trends and comparisons across jurisdictions through searchable sort, filter, and search functions.

Cases can also be downloaded into a spreadsheet to facilitate in-depth analyses: http://www.prosecutorintegrity.org/registry/database/

Cases qualify for inclusion in the Registry based on a determination by a bar disciplinary committee, or by a trial, appellate, or supreme court judge. CPI estimates there have been 16,000 determinations of prosecutorial misconduct nationwide since 1970.

Cases should be submitted by email to Sakeena Farhath, Registry Director: registry@prosecutorintegity.org

For more information, visit the Center for Prosecutor Integrity: http://www.prosecutorintegrity.org

 

Wrongful Convictions Symposium in Chicago will Honor Rob Warden

The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law will recognize its co-founder and longtime executive director Rob Warden as a “Champion of Justice,” at a Wrongful Convictions Symposium on May 9, 2014. The Symposium—to be held at Thorne Auditorium from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m.— is described as “a celebratory event to honor Rob Warden’s quest to free the innocent.” It is free and open to the public.

Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project, will be the keynote speaker. The program will also include two panel discussions and a conversation with Warden and Eric Zorn, columnist for the Chicago Tribune. A reception will immediately follow.

Rob Warden, recipient of more than fifty journalism awards, is one of the leading pioneers in exposing the conviction of the innocent. He has dedicated much of his career to investigative journalism focused on cases of claimed injustice. His work has not only prompted the freeing of the wrongfully convicted, but also the expansion of awareness of the scope of conviction error. He has increased our understanding of the causes of and contributors to miscarriages of justice, and he has been at the forefront of exposing the risk of error in death penalty cases.

Lawrence Marshall, a former Northwestern law professor who co-founded the Center on Wrongful Convictions with Warden in 1999, credits Warden with contributing to the elimination of the death penalty in Illinois. At a conference in 1998, Warden helped highlight more than two-dozen persons who had been freed from death row. This sobering display of miscarriages in death penalty cases influenced then-Governor George Ryan in his decision to place a moratorium on the Illinois death penalty in 2000. It was abolished in the state in 2011.

Read more on Warden here, here, here, and here.

According to Dan Hinkel’s article in the Chicago Tribune (here), Warden, 73, has no intention of leaving the work of researching, writing, and advocating for an improved criminal justice system. The seemingly tireless journalist, author, and advocate intends to be a force in eliminating the death penalty nationwide.

Mr. Warden’s work has had an inestimable impact on the lives of those freed from prison after wrongful conviction and on our understanding of how the criminal justice system can come closer to its promise of fair and accurate justice for all. The upcoming symposium will provide an opportunity to celebrate and thank an inspiring original, an accomplished writer and advocate, a true American hero.

John Raley to Judge: Never Again Show Poor Judgment on DNA

First, a disclaimer: John Raley is one of my heroes.

When John Raley met Michael Morton and became convinced of Morton’s innocence, Raley committed to doing whatever he could as a pro bono lawyer to bring truth to a terrible injustice. It would take years. Morton had been convicted of the 1986 bludgeoning murder of his wife Christine and sentenced to life in prison. But he was unwavering in claiming his innocence. And as it turned out, he was telling the truth.

Justice was delayed for Morton for twenty-five long years, six years longer than his exoneration could have taken if prosecutors had been cooperative in the review of this case. Unfortunately, Raley, Morton, and Innocence Project lawyers met only obstruction from the Williamson County (Texas) prosecutors.

Two of the “hard-on-crime” officials who were instrumental in the original conviction or in delaying the post-conviction search for truth, paid a price for their decisions. In a guest column (here) in the Austin American Statesman, Raley has asked a third official, now a judge, to take responsibility for his role. Continue reading

Bite-Mark Evidence: Compelling Enough to Convict the Innocent

Bite-mark evidence proved to be both powerful and unreliable in more than two dozen known cases of wrongful conviction. An article by Kathleen Hopkins for Gannett on this issue includes these specific difficulties relating to bite marks as evidence (Source: The Innocence Project and Dr. John Demas, a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences): Continue reading

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

New Data From the National Registry of Exonerations

The release of the new report (for year 2013) by the National Registry of Exonerations was recently posted on the WCB by Nancy Petro.  See her post here, which includes a link to the full text of the new report.

I’d like to reiterate that the most significant value of the Registry is that it provides hard, verifiable data on which reforms to the justice system can be based.  And anyone who studies this data can see that reforms are, indeed, sorely needed.

One of the things I find most interesting is the data that sorts out the major contributing factors to wrongful convictions.  This is a very good indicator of both the need for reform in general and the specific areas that are most ripe for reform and improvement.

I encourage you to dig through the full report on your own, but for your convenience, I’m attaching the data on major contributing factors to wrongful convictions for both years 2013 and 2012 below.

From the 2012 NRE report:

Table 13

From the 2013 NRE report:

Table 6 020414

Note that for each class of crime, the numbers add to more than 100%.  This is because any particular wrongful conviction can have more than one contributing factor, which they most often do.

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

Murder Charges Dismissed after Man Spent 20 Years in Prison

Summit County (OH) Judge Mary Margaret Rowland has dismissed aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, and aggravated robbery changes against Dewey Jones, 51, of Akron, Ohio, after he spent 20 years in prison following his conviction of the 1993 murder of Neil Rankin, 71. Jones had always claimed innocence.

According to a report from ABC Newsnet 5 (here) Cleveland, Judge Rowland granted Dewey a new trial after DNA testing results in 2012 on a knife and rope Continue reading

Unreliable Evidence Cost Man 25 Years and Chicago $6.3 Million

According to the Chicago Sun-Times (here), the City of Chicago has agreed to pay $6.3 million to Larry Gillard to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that the Chicago police crime lab distorted evidence, which contributed to his wrongful conviction of a 1981 rape.  Gillard served 25 years in prison before DNA proved his innocence.

Two pieces of unreliable evidence conspired to convict Gillard. A Chicago Police Crime Laboratory analyst testified that Gillard was among 4.4 percent of African 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

Wrongfully Convicted Man Released After 10 Years in Washington State

Congratulations to Brandon Olebar and to the Innocence Project Northwest!

From the Seattle Times:

December 23, 2013 at 11:28 AM

Wrongly convicted King County man released after 10 years in prison

Posted by Mike Carter

A man who spent 10 years in prison for robbery and burglary has been released after the Innocence Project Northwest persuaded King County prosecutors to re-examine the man’s conviction, which was based solely on eyewitness testimony.

The case of Brandon Olebar came to the attention of the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW),  based out of the clinical law program at the University of Washington Law School, in 2011. The project said two students “developed a body of evidence” that showed Olebar was not among the assailants who in February 2003 broke into the home of Olebar’s sister’s boyfriend, pistol-whipped and beat him unconscious and then stuffed him in a closet. The victim said as many as eight attackers beat him for more than 10 minutes, during which time he recognized Olebar’s sister as one of them. He told police the attackers had “feather” facial tattoos.

Two days after the beating, the victim identified Brandon Olebar from a photograph montage. Despite the fact that he does not have a facial tattoo and that he had an alibi, Olebar was charged with burglary and robbery, convicted by a King County jury solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony, and sentenced to 16 1/2 years in prison.

IPNW Director Jacqueline McMurtrie said two law students, Nikki Carsley and Kathleen Klineall, tracked down and interviewed three of the assailants, who signed sworn statements admitting their involvement and denying that Brandon Olebar was present. Working with IPN attorney Fernanda Torres, they presented the new evidence to Mark Larson, the chief criminal deputy prosecutor to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. Continue reading

Death Penalty Information Center’s 2013 Annual Report: Use of Death Penalty Declining

Today, December 19, 2013, the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) released its annual report on the latest developments in capital punishment in the United States. Read the full report, “The Death Penalty in 2013: Year End Report” (here).

According to Richard Dieter, DPIC’s Executive Director:

“Twenty years ago, use of the death penalty was increasing. Now it is declining by almost every measure. The recurrent problems of the death penalty have made its application rare, isolated, and often delayed for decades. More states will likely reconsider the wisdom of retaining this expensive and ineffectual practice.”

Highlights of the 2013 Death Penalty Information Center annual report include: Continue reading

Illinois Inmate Released After 30 Years in Another Coerced Confession Case

Breaking update: According to The National Registry of Exonerations (here), the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Stanley Wrice today, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013. Wrice is the most recent of 1,260 exonerations since 1989 now documented on the Registry. 

Cook County Judge Richard Walsh has ordered a new trial for Stanley Wrice, 59, who was released from prison on Wednesday after serving 30 years for a 1982 sexual assault he has always claimed he did not commit. He is one of many inmates, mostly black, who said that they were tortured by Chicago police working under former Lt. Jon Burge.

According to an AP report filed by Don Babwin and M. Spencer Green (here), Wrice, who was sentenced to 100 years in prison, claimed officers beat him in the groin and face with a flashlight and a 20-inch piece of rubber to force his Continue reading

Man Paroled after 18 Years in Prison; Another Brooklyn Murder Conviction Unravels

Sundhe Moses, 37, was granted parole on October 31, 2013, without meeting the usual requirements. Moses didn’t acknowledge guilt, take responsibility, or express regret for the crime for which he was convicted and imprisoned for the past 18 years. Instead, he said he was innocent. While it’s very unusual for a claim of innocence to be an effective parole argument, the evidence supporting his claim was convincing enough for the parole board to grant Moses’ release. Continue reading

CNN Premier of Michael Morton Documentary Rescheduled

News coverage following the passing of Nelson Mandela has prompted the rescheduling of “An Unreal Dream,” the true account of Michael Morton’s wrongful conviction of the murder of his wife, Christine; his 25 years of wrongful incarceration; and his exoneration. The documentary will premier instead this Sunday evening, Dec. 8, at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on CNN TV. See details here.

As part of its focus on the Morton case, CNN reports on five cases identified as “high-profile exonerations” (here). In addition to the case of Michael Morton, the article highlights the exonerations of Brian Banks, Douglas Prade, Clarence Harrison, and James Bain.