I’ve been doing “innocence work” for seven years now. So …. just what is it that I do? I am Science & Technology Advisor to the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and to the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke University. This means I advise on cases that include factors involving science and/or technology – usually forensics. I will also advise any innocence organization or agent that requests my input, and I do this pro bono. I do some other stuff too, like write for this blog, but those are the roles in which I get involved in case work.
During this seven year period, I’ve had personal involvement – meaning I’ve actually done work – in 63 cases in eight states and two foreign countries; and have had exposure to the details of probably 100 more cases on top of that. I’ve been privileged to be a small piece of the puzzle in five exonerations; and, in four cases, my work has contributed to confirming that the defendant was actually guilty. We consider confirming guilt to be a good outcome, because it means that justice has been properly served. We’re not trying to get everybody out of prison – only the people who are actually innocent.
We relish talking about the successes, the exonerations, but nobody ever hears about the failures. I count a failed case as one in which, based upon careful and intensive study of all the facts, testimony and evidence, we (I) are absolutely confident that the defendant is actually innocent; but our efforts to exonerate have not succeeded, and there’s really nothing more we can do. Sadly, the failures occur much, much more frequently than the successes. There are no good data for this, but in my experience, an exoneration takes years of time (average about 7), thousands of hours of total effort by a great many people, and, in some cases, thousands of dollars. And the failures can take just as much as the successes, if not more.
Most of the cases I’ve worked remain “open,” at least technically, but there are some for which we have seemingly come to the end of the legal road, and there’s little, if anything, that can still be done. There are five of these cases, in particular, that keep me awake at night, because I get so outraged and frustrated by the injustice. I thought I would share them with you, so you might get some idea of what the people doing innocence work have to deal with on a daily basis. Since these cases are unresolved, I will not reveal any names, dates, or places, and will provide only sketchy details of the incidents involved, but you’ll get the idea.
The case of Mr. A.
I started on this case in 2011. Mr. A was convicted of the armed robbery of a retail establishment. Mr. A was (wrongly) identified as the perpetrator by the store clerk. However, post-conviction photogrammetric analysis of still frames from the store’s surveillance camera proved unquestionably that Mr. A could not possibly have been the robber. As an outcome of a motion for new trial, which was denied, the photographic evidence was ruled inadmissible as having been discoverable at time of trial. This ruling was subsequently upheld on appeal. A classic case of placing legal process above justice. Mr. A is still in prison.
The case of Miss B.
I started on this case in 2010. Miss B was convicted of seriously injuring a 2-year-old girl she was babysitting, along with her 2-year-older brother. We have firm belief that the injuries were actually inflicted by someone else. During the trial, the prosecutor played fast and loose with the facts, and defense counsel was unquestionably ineffective. In my opinion, a classic case of bad defense lawyering. Miss B is still in prison.
The case of Mr. C.
I started on this case in 2010. Mr. C was convicted of murdering his infant daughter by abusive head trauma. Mr. C was alone with the baby when she had the medical event that led to her death, consequently, he was charged and convicted with the crime. This is the standard pattern in SBS (Shaken Baby Syndrome) cases – the last one alone with the child is guilty – automatically. The autopsy showed that the baby had a skull fracture, which was attributed to abusive head trauma by the medical examiner. Despite the fact that three internationally recognized medical experts testified that the skull fracture was the consequence of a 33-hour forced labor, Mr. C was still convicted by the jury. A photograph of the baby, still in the hospital after delivery, showed a large bump and bruise on her head in the exact location of the fracture. However, the photograph was not discovered until after Mr. C had been convicted, and it was ruled inadmissible. Another example of holding legal process above justice. Mr. C is still in prison.
The case of Mr. D.
I started on this case in 2011. Mr. D was convicted of the brutal murder of a woman by beating and slashing. There was no physical evidence linking Mr. D to the crime, and he was convicted based solely upon the testimony of an “eyewitness” who had been incentivized with thousands of dollars, and who was a proven pathological liar. Mr. D actually had witnesses and documentation proving that he was in another location, 500 miles away, at the time of the murder. This is a typical example of false eyewitness testimony trumping a rock solid alibi. Throughout the entire post-conviction legal process, the courts have chosen to believe the original testimony of the eyewitness. Mr. D is still in prison.
The case of Mr. E.
I started on this case in 2011. Mr. E was convicted of shooting and killing a man during a supposed drug deal gone bad. Mr. E was convicted based largely upon the testimony of an “eyewitness” who was a young female school dropout who occasionally helped drug pushers, and had severe emotional issues. Her testimony was incentivized by a reward, and she had not come forward until weeks after the shooting. A careful situational, temporal, and locational analysis of her trial testimony shows that her testimony was loaded with contradictions and inconsistencies. Regardless, the jury convicted Mr. E. That witness is now an adult, and has cogently recanted her testimony, saying, in fact, she wasn’t even there, and made the whole thing up. The courts have refused to accept the recantation, and Mr. E is still in prison.
There they are. I know it’s difficult to understand completely how troubling these are when you don’t have all the facts, but these are the cases, so far, that cause me the most personal grief. When you get into working on wrongful conviction cases, and really get into them, you find that you become personally invested, and identify with the wrongfully convicted defendant; plus, I’m an empath. Are there more? Of course, and as time goes on, I’m sure there will be still more. And I hope this gives you at least a little insight into the frustrations and stone walls that people doing this kind of work face every day. They have my undying admiration and respect.
As the situation currently stands, there are many, many people who have livelihoods and careers founded upon the flaws in the justice system, and they would be the last to tell you that things need to change. Changing and fixing those flaws and mindsets will take much time and effort, but change them we must. There are times when the frustration and outrage I feel approach my tolerance limits, and I actually give thought to giving this up — but I can’t. There are egregious wrongs that need to be righted, and I can’t let that go. All we can do is keep up the good fight.