Category Archives: Project Spotlights

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Center on Wrongful Convictions Inspires Play “At the Center”

From the ChicagoTribune:

Though the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers have understandably had an increasing profile in public discourse since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Mo., the Agency Theater Collective’s latest offering, “At the Center,” highlights another troubling aspect of our criminal justice system. Despite a few stiff polemicizing moments, it’s a largely gripping and thoughtful drama that goes beyond Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s widely produced “The Exonerated,” about death row inmates who were found innocent.

Inspired by interviews with attorneys and staff at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law, the play (written and directed by Andrew Gallant and Tim Touhy) presents a fictional account of Hector Reyes (Armando Reyes), who has spent 19 years in prison for the brutal rape and stabbing of Elizabeth Harvey (Sommer Austin). The latter has spent the years since the assault fighting addictions and largely turning over the raising of her teenage daughter, Rebecca (Nicole Magerko), to her sister Kathleen (Sarah Welborn).

When DNA testing proves Hector is innocent — despite his confessing to the crime and Elizabeth identifying him from a photo array as her attacker — both find their lives turned upside down.

This is where Gallant and Touhy’s play is at its strongest. By showing us Hector’s attempts to reassimilate (he saves receipts from shopping trips because the date and time stamps will provide him with alibis), as well as Elizabeth’s guilt and horror at having identified the wrong man, “At the Center” forces us to look at the cascading consequences of detectives who are eager to close the books on violent crimes.

It also provides insight into why innocent people will confess under duress (even if it’s not physical abuse), and why eyewitness testimony is less than reliable. Reyes and Austin deliver powerhouse performances, and their climactic face-to-face meeting pays off without feeling like a cheap tidy-bow reconciliation.

The weakest parts of the show, ironically, are those involving the attorneys. They aren’t quite fleshed out beyond their good-hearted Samaritan outlines. But when James Munson’s Bill (based on the center’s executive director, Rob Warden) philosophizes that wrongful convictions happen because some crimes are so horrific that society demands that someone — anyone — must pay the penalty, whether truly guilty or not, it holds a mirror up to our collective thirst for vengeance masquerading as justice.

Through Nov. 2, Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.; $25 atwearetheagency.org

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Is ‘Innocence’ work over in the UK?

For some time, the news emanating from the UK has been getting worse with regard to the potential for miscarriages of justice, with law reforms diminishing legal protections for suspects and the almost total withdrawal of legal aid for the vast majority (nevermind the current moral panic of historic child sexual abuse which is swelling the prison population). This also comes at a time when changes to the rules on who can receive compensation for miscarriages of justice have also been ‘tightened’ to the point where barely anyone will qualify. I have blogged about many of the bad news stories coming out of the UK – including forensic science mishaps and police corruption seemingly continuing unabated regardless of new regulators or complaints bodies.Justice statue

Despite what one could view as the growing IMPORTANCE therefore of ‘innocence’ work in the UK, it looks as if things may be heading in the opposite direction. Following years of expansion with Innocence Projects being set up in universities across the country, it appears that these are now being encouraged to close. There are a host of reasons why Innocence Projects in the UK may be under threat (not least their position within univerisities whose priorites narrow ever further every day toward simply profit-making and rising up league tables.) They do not operate as a mirror to those in the US and internationally, largely because of the existence of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. However, their work is still invaluable. When I was Director of the University of Leeds Innocence Project, we received hundreds of letters (which still arrive weekly if not daily), reviewed dozens of cases, and assisted many prisoners. It also educated many students in the causes of, and remedies for, miscarriages of justice.  It gave many law students a passion for criminal legal aid work – where there is no money to be made and certainly no glory.

So – to read the announcement on the INUK website is all the more shocking. (see here… INUK – New Beginnings ). Where innocence work in the UK needs innovation, inspiration and support, it is being told that the day has come to pack our bags and go home. My thoughts are not only with those of us (staff and students alike) who have worked many years to get innocence taken seriously again in the UK, but those prisoners now who will be back at square one, with nowhere to turn yet again. How an ‘innocence network’ can survive, nevermind have any impact, with only one member, will remain to be seen.

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Spotlight on Innocence Project South Africa

From IOLnews.com:

Cape Town -South Africans who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit may now be able to prove their innocence through a new project which relies on DNA testing.

In the US the Innocence Project has already helped scores of people, including some on death row, to be exonerated through the help of DNA technology. Now the Innocence Project South Africa will strive to do the same.

“It is far more important to release somebody from jail who isn’t guilty than to be putting people behind bars who are guilty,” said Professor Sean Davison, head of the forensic DNA laboratory at UWC.

“It’s a shocking crime against humanity to keep someone in jail who shouldn’t be.”

Davison is the co-founder of this project with Dr Andra le Roux, a lawyer based at Stellenbosch University.

He said that to date more than 300 people in the US had been exonerated through DNA technology. In more than half of the cases, the true perpetrator was identified.

“There have been so many cases of absolute innocence. By logic we deduced that there would be similar cases in South Africa. In fact, there will probably be more because South Africa doesn’t have a jury system.”

The project would look at cases where DNA had not been tested or where the DNA technology used at the time was inferior to current technology.

“The lab at UWC specialises in looking at highly degraded DNA, which could well be the case for DNA which has been stored for up to 15 years and may have been exposed to environmental damage before then.”

The project recently registered with the Innocence Network, the international umbrella body, and has already started getting applications from prisoners.

Davison said applications would be reviewed by a committee. Should they pass the initial screening, they would be asked to fill out a questionnaire providing further details.

“There then needs to be a search for biological evidence. We will need to obtain the detailed case docket and all the evidence related to the crime will have to be investigated.”

The team would have to work closely with the police, with whom meetings had already been held.

Flyers would be distributed in prisons to make inmates aware of the project.

Davison said that in the US the exonerations had exposed weaknesses in the criminal justice system such as false witness testimony, false confessions, and erroneous forensic science. But cases where biological evidence had been used to exonerate people were just the tip of the iceberg – many other innocent people would remain in jail because there was no biological evidence.

The project would rely on donor funding and prisoners would be helped on a pro bono basis.

Davison’s colleague, Professor Eugenia D’ Amato, said a prototype rape kit, developed by the UWC forensic DNA laboratory, was expected to be made available next year and would help to determine how many people were involved in cases in which a victim had been raped multiple times, and would help to exonerate the innocent.

 

 

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

click
  • Innocence Project of South Africa now officially a member of the Innocence Network
  • In the UK, new law could limit compensation to exonerees who can conclusively prove innocence
  • Nearly 350 years after his execution, a french jew is exonerated and declared a martyr
  • Almost 70 years after a 14-year-old African American was executed in South Carolina following the slaying of two young white girls, family members asked a local judge on Tuesday to order a retrial and correct what they called a long-ago miscarriage of justice.  Continue reading….