Center for Prosecutor Integrity Surveys Rise of Conviction Integrity Units

Press release from Center for Prosecutorial Integrity….

WASHINGTON / December 4, 2014 — Since 2007, state and federal prosecutors have established 16 Conviction Integrity Units to assure the accuracy of convictions obtained by their offices, according to a White Paper released today by the Maryland-based Center for Prosecutor Integrity.

Prosecuting attorneys in districts from Santa Clara County, California to Washington, D.C. began establishing the units after DNA evidence led to a rising number of exonerations.

The White Paper, titled “Conviction Integrity Units: Vanguard of Criminal Justice Reform,” outlines the structure and administration of the 16 conviction integrity units now existing in the U.S. The report reveals that the nine units established by the end of 2013 accomplished nearly 7,000 case reviews, resulting in 61 exonerations.

Gina Lauterio, Program Director of the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, said the report is the first to reveal how the number and effectiveness of the units has grown in recent years. “I hope that all District Attorneys in the country will consider what’s being done in these 16 districts and adopt similar practices.”

Lauterio noted the nonprofit Center encourages scholarship on the causes of wrongful convictions and efforts to minimize them. “We commend the growing number of prosecutors who are now devoting resources to reexamine questionable cases.”

The report is available on the Center’s website:  http://www.prosecutorintegrity.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Conviction-Integrity-Units.pdf

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.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Ireland: Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference & Film Festival

The Irish Innocence Project, working since 2009 at Griffith College, has announced Ireland’s Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference and Film Festival – to newlogo2be held 26th and 27th June 2015. They have also launched a crowd funding appeal: “Be the Key: Set an Innocent Free”, to help the college students to work on overturning wrongful convictions in Ireland.

300914 Wrongful Conviction CR Shutterstock_0_0

See more details of the  conference and film festival – with great speakers, and the crowd funding appeal here:

Inaugural International Wrongful Conviction Conference & Film Festival

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

Are Prosecutors Above the Law?

From the DailyKos.com:

By Susan Grigsby

There is something terribly wrong with a justice system that allows an inordinate amount of power to reside in the hands of one office that not only has no real accountability or oversight, but is insulated from the consequences of its actions by court-granted immunity. And no, I am not talking about Supreme Court justices, but about prosecuting attorneys.

The prosecuting attorney—whether local, state, or federal—has an incredible amount of authority and discretion in how to exercise that authority. The prosecuting attorney decides how many, and what kind of charges are brought in criminal prosecutions. The prosecuting attorney has the ability to directly charge a crime, or to use a grand jury for more serious crimes, to indict a defendant. The prosecuting attorney has the authority to offer plea bargains.

And while there should be some type of accountability other than election, and while the fiction exists that prosecuting attorneys could be disbarred, in reality, they face little punishment for abusing their discretion or authority.

According to the Center for Prosecutor Integrity, almost half of all wrongful convictions arise from the misconduct of prosecutors or other officials. Steve Weinburg has broken down the types of prosecutorial misconduct, as you can read below the fold:

  • Courtroom misconduct (making inappropriate or inflammatory comments in the presence of the jury; introducing or attempting to introduce inadmissible, inappropriate or inflammatory evidence; mischaracterizing the evidence or the facts of the case to the court or jury; committing violations pertaining to the selection of the jury; or making improper closing arguments);
  • Mishandling of physical evidence (hiding, destroying or tampering with evidence, case files or court records);
  • Failing to disclose exculpatory evidence;
  • Threatening, badgering or tampering with witnesses;
  • Using false or misleading evidence;
  • Harassing, displaying bias toward, or having a vendetta against the defendant or defendant’s counsel (including selective or vindictive prosecution, which includes instances of denial of a speedy trial); and
  • Improper behavior during grand jury proceedings.

Prosecutors are the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system. Their routine, everyday decisions control the direction and outcome of criminal cases and have greater impact and more serious consequences than those of any other criminal justice official. The most remarkable feature of these important, sometimes life-and-death decisions is that they are totally discretionary and virtually unreviewable.

Angela J. Davis, professor at the American University School of Law and former director of the District of Columbia Public Defender Service, wrote the above in Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor. Further into her book, Davis makes clear that prosecutorial discretion is essential for the functioning of our judicial system. That does not mean that there are no problems with it.

In most jurisdictions, 95 percent of all cases are decided in the district attorney’s office, never going to trial. Since prosecuting attorney acts as judge and jury, out of the public eye, determining the true amount prosecutorial misconduct is almost impossible.

Katherine Goldwasser, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis who served as a prosecutor in Chicago before joining academia, suggested that misconduct often occurs out of sight, especially in cases that never go to trial. Those cases by definition do not generate appellate opinions (and thus are for the most part beyond the scope of the Center study). Goldwasser told the Center. “It is not a safe assumption that cases ending with guilty pleas are absent prosecutorial misconduct.”

The most difficult form of misconduct to prove is a violation of the Brady Rule, or the failure to disclose exculpatory evidence. The Supreme Court ruled in 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, that prosecutors’ failure to provide evidence “material either to guilt or to punishment” violates the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The most common remedy for an egregious violation of the Brady Rule is an overturned conviction; however, the prosecutor who violated the rule is rarely held accountable.

The Center for Public Integrity has analyzed 11,452 cases that were reviewed by appellate courts for prosecutor misconduct. In the majority of the cases, the conduct was considered a harmless error and the convictions were allowed to stand. In 2,012 of the cases, the convictions were overturned, sentences were reduced, or indictments dismissed.  And in 513 cases the appellate judges felt the misconduct was serious enough to warrant additional discussion.

But that left thousands of convictions intact under the doctrine of harmless error. In order to get a verdict reversed, a defendant would have to show that the error was such that without it, the jury would not have convicted. According to Radley Balko:

The policy may seem more sensible than one of setting guilty people free because of low-level prosecutorial misconduct that had no impact on the verdict, but civil liberties advocates say it sets the bar too high. “It requires appellate court judges to sit as jurors,” says Steven Benjamin, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It puts them in a role they were never intended to be in, and asks them to retroactively put themselves at trials they didn’t attend. It takes a really extreme case to overturn a conviction.”

As for grand jury proceedings, Davis writes in Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor:

Neither the defendant nor the defense attorney is allowed to be present during the process. Thus, the witnesses are not subject to cross-examination, which could potentially expose weaknesses in their testimony. The defense may not present exculpatory evidence to the jury unless the prosecutor agrees, and if she does, the defense attorney may not be present during the witnesses’ testimony. In federal prosecutions and in most states, prosecutors are not required to present exculpatory evidence to a grand jury, and they rarely do. With only one side of the story being told, it’s very easy for the prosecutor to convince the grand jurors that the relatively low standard of probable cause has been met. In essence, the grand jury is a very one-sided process entirely controlled by the prosecutor. As a result of this pro forma process, grand jurors rarely decline to return an indictment.

What we saw in Ferguson was a case in which, as Jeff Roorda stated this week during All In With Chris Hayes, Bob McCulloch did not feel that Darren Wilson had broken any laws but proceeded with a grand jury hearing in order to silence the public outcry. Which means that instead of acting as the prosecutor, McCulloch’s office acted as the defense attorney throughout the grand jury hearing. Witnesses were included that the prosecution knew were unreliable at best, and likely to be committing perjury at worst. All possible exculpatory evidence was presented and the defendant was allowed to testify with no cross examination.

Davis also points out that the prosecutor is responsible for informing the grand jurors of the laws that must be applied in order to determine if probable cause exists. One of those laws in the Ferguson case involved a law enforcement officer’s appropriate use of deadly force.

Lawrence O’Donnell has been asking questions about the actions of the prosecutor’s office during the Ferguson grand jury since November 26, 2014. He was especially interested in how, and why, the wrong law was presented to the grand jury concerning the use of force, and why the correction was held until the very last minute and not fully explained to the jury.

O’Donnell’s questions to officials in Missouri include the following:

  • How many times has assistant district attorney Kathi Alizadeh submitted the wrong law to a grand jury as its legal framework for an investigation?
  • How many times has the District Attorney’s office submitted the wrong law to a grand jury as its legal framework for its investigation?
  • Is the Michael Brown case the first time the District Attorney’s office submitted the wrong law to a grand jury as the legal framework for its investigation?

On Wednesday he got an answer. Sort of. From Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster:

Among the problems that Ferguson has brought to light is the need to update Missouri’s use of deadly force statute. This statute is inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Tennessee v. Garner. Consequently, it is important this statute is amended by the Missouri legislature to incorporate the Garner decision and to avoid confusion within the criminal justice system.

From the district attorney’s office that was overseeing the prosecutors working the grand jury hearing, not so much:

But even if the wrong law was explained at the beginning of the procedure and the right law was not explained but only handed to the jurors on the last day of the hearing, so what? Even if O’Donnell’s investigation had produced actual evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, would it matter?

Nine studies have looked at misconduct over 50 years, on both state and national levels, and found 3,625 instances. Of those, public sanctions were imposed in 63 cases, less than 2 percent of the time. Those sanctions rarely exceeded the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

Indeed, when a prosecutor violates ethical precepts, judges and appellate courts seemingly bend over backwards to excuse the conduct. Even in the most reprehensible cases, judges typically do not refer the case for disciplinary action and ethics boards fail to apply sanctions.

Why is there no accountability?

The people closest to the misconduct, the defense attorneys, have good reason not to report any prosecutorial misconduct. The report could seriously damage the working relationship between the defense attorney and the prosecutor’s office. More importantly, the misconduct can be used by the defense attorney as a bargaining chip in getting concessions for his client. Since his client’s defense is his first priority and any such deal he can make would prohibit disclosure, he is unlikely to report the prosecutor for wrongdoing.

Judges may be wary of violating the separation of powers since prosecutors work for the executive branch of the government, tasked with enforcing the laws enacted by the legislative branch.

Another barrier to accountability is what Radley Balko calls the Christmas Party problem:

“You have to remember that nearly all judges are former prosecutors,” Dalton says. “There’s an undercurrent of alliance between judges and prosecutors, so there’s a certain collegiality there. They run in the same social circles. They attend the same Christmas parties.”

An individual wishing to sue a prosecutor for damages caused by prosecutorial misconduct will find multiple barriers in the way.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled out torts law as an option for plaintiffs nearly a century ago. And in the 1976 case Imbler v. Pachtman, the court ruled that under federal civil rights law, prosecutors also enjoy absolute immunity from any lawsuit over any action undertaken as a prosecutor. The court later extended this personal immunity to cover supervisory prosecutors who fail to properly train their subordinates.

Now even a prosecutor who knowingly submits false evidence in a case that results in the wrongful conviction—or even the execution—of an innocent person can’t be personally sued for damages. The only way a prosecutor can be sued under present law is if she was acting as an investigator in a police role—duties above and beyond those of a prosecutor—at the time she violated the defendant’s civil rights. But even here, prosecutors enjoy the qualified immunity afforded to police officers: A plaintiff must still show a willful violation of well-established constitutional rights to even get in front of a jury.

Prosecutors do need some level of immunity in order to properly perform their duties. And they require prosecutorial discretion in order to keep the wheels of justice turning. We have seen how efforts to restrict judicial discretion resulted in mandatory minimum sentences, removing a judge’s discretion in sentencing entirely. (Now it is the prosecutor who determines the sentence by exercising his discretion in deciding what charges an offender will face.) But there does need to be some limit, some oversight to a prosecutor’s office.

If grand juries only exist to give the result the prosecutor desires, what is the point of using them? Initially, they were to allow citizens some input into the system, but as that system has become more complicated and more laws have been enacted to criminalize behavior, most citizens do not have the knowledge necessary to fulfill that role. Since all of their actions are taken in secret, and since they are never allowed to reveal what happened within the jury room, it is impossible to determine if they are working the way they were intended.

The most powerful office in the justice system, whose decisions carry the greatest impact and consequence, is still occupied by human beings, subject to all of the normal human failings. In order to ensure that the power is used properly, sunshine, oversight, and accountability must become part of the system.

Material Indifference: How Courts Are Impeding Fair Disclosure in Criminal Cases

Recently, NACDL and the Veritas Initiative at Santa Clara Law School released a major Brady study, titled-above.  NACDL’s description of the report reads:

Washington, DC (Nov. 17, 2014) – Today, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, NACDL is officially releasing its latest report, Material Indifference: How Courts Are Impeding Fair Disclosure in Criminal Cases, a major study produced jointly with the VERITAS Initiative at Santa Clara Law School. Today’s event will feature comments by NACDL President Theodore Simon, NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer (who also will moderate the event), and special guests David W. Ogden, former Deputy Attorney General who is now a partner at the WilmerHale firm, and the Hon. Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The report’s co-authors – VERITAS Initiative Director and Professor Kathleen “Cookie” Ridolfi, NACDL White Collar Crime Policy Counsel Tiffany M. Joslyn, and VERITAS Initiative Pro Bono Research Attorney Todd H. Fries – will also be discussing their findings and recommendations. NACDL Executive Director Norman Reimer will moderate the discussion.

“This groundbreaking study documents one of the major problems facing the nation’s criminal justice system today: the failure to ensure full, fair and timely disclosure of information favorable to an accused person in a criminal action. It is a significant step towards achieving the vital reforms necessary to guarantee a fair trial for every accused person,” NACDL President Theodore Simon said.

Over 50 years ago, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court declared that failure to disclose favorable information violates the constitution when that information is material. This guarantee, however, is frequently unmet. In courtrooms across the nation, accused persons are convicted without ever having seen information that was favorable to their defense. The frequency with which this occurs and the role it plays in wrongful convictions prompted NACDL and the VERITAS Initiative to undertake an unprecedented study of Brady claims litigated in federal courts over a five-year period. The study asked: What role does judicial review play in the disclosure of favorable information to accused? The results revealed a troubling answer—the judiciary is impeding fair disclosure in criminal cases and, in doing so, encouraging prosecutors to disclose as little favorable information as possible.

The study’s findings are extensive and dramatic including, for example:

  • The materiality standard produces arbitrary results and overwhelmingly favors the prosecution. Indeed, in those decisions where the prosecution failed to disclose favorable information, it still won 86% of the time, with the court concluding that the information was not material.
  • Courts almost never find Brady was violated by the late disclosure of favorable information. Of the 65 decisions that involve late disclosure of favorable information, only one resulted in a Brady violation finding.
  • Favorable information is more likely to be disclosed late or withheld entirely in death penalty decisions. Favorable information was never disclosed or disclosed late by the prosecution in 53% of decisions involving the death penalty, but only 34% of all the decisions studied.

In his dissent to the Ninth Circuit’s 2013 decision denying a rehearing en banc in United States v. Olsen, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski acknowledged that “[t]here is an epidemic of Brady violations abroad in the land” which in his view, “[o]nly judges can put a stop to.” Material Indifference: How Courts Are Impeding Fair Disclosure in Criminal Cases documents that epidemic and sets forth a prescription for how to contain and ultimately cure it. As former Deputy Attorney General David W. Ogden wrote in his foreword to this report, “judges have an indispensable role and obligation to oversee the system’s guarantees of fairness and to make sure that its truth- and justice-seeking mission is fulfilled in each case.”

According to report co-author Cookie Ridolfi, “despite the clear correlation between withholding evidence and wrongful conviction, the results of this study demonstrate that courts persist in tolerating prosecutors’ failure to timely disclose favorable information.” “Judicial indifference toward late disclosure fosters non-compliance with disclosure obligations. The data strongly suggests that the practice of late disclosure has become a trial tactic rather than an allowance for exceptional circumstances,” added co-author Todd Fries. Co-author Tiffany M. Joslyn was clear, “at its core, judicial adherence to the materiality standard following conviction encourages prosecutors to use that same back-end standard to narrow their front-end disclosure obligations. Our study not only confirms this, it demonstrates that front-end reform is necessary and overdue.”

The report concludes by offering three reform proposals that would serve as mechanisms for increasing fair disclosure in criminal cases. First, in each case defense attorneys should request, and judges should grant ethical rule orders – orders for the prosecution to disclose all favorable information in accord with American Bar Association Model Rule 3.8(d). Second, the judicial rules and policies should be amended to require fair disclosure of information. Finally, the most effective mechanism would be to adopt legislation codifying fair disclosure in criminal cases.

Complete copies of the report, executive summary, and fact sheet are available at www.nacdl.org/discoveryreform/materialindifference. And by sometime on Tuesday, November 18, 2014, a link to the complete video of today’s release event featuring Chief Judge Kozinski, former Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, NACDL President Theodore Simon, and the report’s co-authors will also be available at that web address.

Here is C-SPAN’s coverage of the report’s release:  http://www.c-span.org/video/?322781-1/discussion-fair-disclosure-criminal-trials