Author Archives: Martin Yant

How Janet Reno bolstered the innocence movement

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was remembered for many things after her death this week. But one of her most important accomplishments was  greatly overlooked — how she fostered the innocence movement. Defense attorney James M. Doyle explains how in a column here.

Could Jerry Sandusky be innocent?

What if Jerry Sandusky didn’t do it? Hard to believe, right? The evidence against him seemed to be overwhelming. But was it really?
Author Mark Pendergrast argues that much of the sensational 2012 child-abuse case against the notorious former Penn State assistant football coach hinges on flawed repressed-memory theory. In a commentary for The Crime Report here, Pendergrast says it is relatively easy to generate false memories of abuse and documents how that may have occurred in this case.

Pioneer in innocence movement earns renewed recognition

Before author Erle Stanley Gardner and his Court of Last Resort, before Jim McCloskey and Centurion Ministries, before Barry Scheck and Peter Neufield and their Innocence Project, there was Herbert Maris, a Philadelphia corporate attorney who pioneered prisoner innocence advocacy from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Maris estimated that he freed almost 300 innocent convicts during his 40-year part-time career, but his work is largely forgotten today. The New York Daily News gives Maris his due in an article here.

Field-test errors may lead to thousands of wrongful drug convictions

At least 100,000 Americans plead guilty every year to drug-possession charges that rely on often-inaccurate field-test results as evidence. At that volume, even the most modest of error rates could produce thousands of wrongful convictions, yet police and prosecutors continue to rely on the tests, Pro Public reports here.

 

Jon Eldan can be an exoneree’s best friend

First comes exoneration. Then, if you re lucky, comes Jon Eldan, an attorney who left his corporate practice to help exonerees with the everyday problems they face after prison. Eldan says he has helped 303 men and women in 33 states since late 2014, entering their lives after those who helped get them released have moved on to other cases.The Marshall Project’s Rachel Siegel tells Eldan’s story here.

New interrogation techniques taking hold

The good cop-bad cop Reid Technique of interrogations, which has caused numerous false confessions and wrongful convictions, may be finally on the way out.

The Marshall Project reports here about how “a radical new interrogation technique is transforming the art of detective work: Shut up and let the suspect do the talking.”

The new technique is also discussed in former homicide detective Jim Trainum’s soon-to-be released book, How the Police Generate False Confessions: An Inside Look at the Interrogation Room. Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions says Trainum’s book “puts a lie to so many myths about police interrogations that I lost count of them all. But it does so much more. Det. Trainum is not just a critic; he is a reformer, charting a course for the proper way for police officers to investigate cases, interview suspects, witnesses and informants and to obtain reliable information from them.” You can read more about this important book here.

 

 

Most Brooklyn wrongful convictions preventable, analyst says

Examination of the 19 Brooklyn Conviction Review Unit exoneree cases suggests that most of the wrongful convictions were highly preventable, City University of New York doctoral student Rakiya King says in a Viewpoints Column for The Crime Report. You can read her analysis here.

 

Clinton-era bill makes it harder to reverse wrongful convictions, writer says

Critics of how the 1994 crime bill spurred mass incarceration have overlooked another Clinton era bill that had an equally damaging effect on the U.S. criminal justice system, Liliana Segura writes in The Intercept.

Segura says the politically motivated Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, or AEDPA, merits debate because of how it “has shut the courthouse door on prisoners trying to prove they were wrongfully convicted.”

“Americans are mostly unaware of this legacy, even as we know more than ever about wrongful convictions,” she says. You can read her article here.

You can read about the Wrongly Convicted Group’s petition urging the AEDPA’s reform here.

 

Lack of understanding, overconfidence lead to investigative errors, researcher says

Why do police make the same false assumptions and continue to use outdated investigative techniques even after the mounting number of exonerations proves them wrong?

British researchers Julia Shaw and Chloe Chaplin conducted a survey to find out. They discovered that police officers are just as ill-informed on important policing issues as everyone else but “exhibited higher confidence in their judgements than the general public, making them more confidently wrong.” You can read Shaw’s examination of this problem here.

 

 

Catch-22, Texas-style

How can you use DNA to prove your innocence when there is no DNA because there was no crime? That’s the dilemma Fran and Dan Keller, whose 1990s convictions in an absurd satanic ritual abuse case in Texas were overturned a few years ago. Despite that, the prosecutor in the case refuses to clear the couple without DNA evidence.

“That, of course, is absurd and impossible — and distressing to the Kellers and their supporters,” Jordan Smith reports here. “There is no physical evidence, like DNA, linking the alleged crime to anyone else, because, simply, there was no crime.”

Restrictive discovery laws still foster injustice

Regressive discovery laws in New York and elsewhere render innocent defendants guilty in the court of opinion even when the charges are dropped, says Debora Silberman, a public defender who represented one of the five teenagers falsely accused in a highly publicized Brownsville, N.Y., rape case. If the discrepancies in the accusations had been disclosed earlier, she says here, the defendants’ reputations would not have been left in a shambles.

 

 

Oscar winner ‘Spotlight’celebrates hysteria and injustice, writer argues

There is a dark side to the feel-good story about Spotlight being named the best movie of year at the Oscars last night, JoAnn Wypijewski says. The Boston Globe’s investigative series of articles exposing priest pedophilia celebrated in Spotlight, she argues, fueled a moral panic that imprisoned the innocent as well as the guilty.

“By their nature, moral panics are hysterical. They jettison reason for emotion, transform accusation into proof, spur more accusation and create a climate that demands not deliberation or evidence or resistance to prejudice but mindless faith,” Wypijewski says here.

What Hollywood celebrated last night, she adds, was “the bunk of recovered memory; the Globe reporters’ failure to challenge any charlatan who embraces it; and the lure of money.”

Exoneration doesn’t always mean freedom or compensation

Not every exoneration has a happy ending. Many end up like Danny Brown’s. Fifteen years after he was exonerated by DNA, prosecutors in Toledo, Ohio, still cling to the dubious eyewitness identification of a then-6-year-old boy to insist that Brown remains a suspect in the rape and murder of the boy’s mother.

In all that time, prosecutors have successfully prevented Brown from collecting compensation for the 20 years he spent in prison even though they have uncovered no evidence linking Brown to the man whose semen was found on the victim.

As The Blade reports here, Brown is now homeless and in declining health. Jobs are hard to come by even when he’s in good health because he remains a suspect in a horrible murder and suffers from the anxiety that comes with it.

Rogue prosecutor’s influence on hair expert’s testimony highlighted in ruling overturning conviction

The January 26 opinion overturning the conviction of Massachusetts inmate George D. Perrot, which you can read about here, was important in several respects.

First and foremost, the opinion written by Hampden County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Kane was important because it could lead to the release of Perrot 30 years after his conviction on rape charges even though the victim repeatedly said the then-long-haired, bearded Perrot didn’t look like the clean-shaven, short-haired man who raped her.

Second, the opinion is important because Judge Kane’s reasoning could influence thousands of past convictions that were based on now-discredited hair-comparison analysis like that used to convict Perrot.

Equally important, though, was Judge Kane’s finding that Wayne Oakes, the FBI hair examiner who testified as an expert in the case was unduly influenced by the overzealous prosecutor in the case. In his ruling, Kane noted that the prosecutor, Francis W. Bloom, hand-delivered the hairs and other evidence to the FBI Laboratory in Washington because he wanted to speak with Oakes and the other forensic scientists.

“Bloom carried with him to Washington his attitudes and feelings towards Perrot,” Kane wrote. “He despised Perrot. In a diary, Bloom … referred to Perrot as ‘inherently evil’ and as ‘a sociopath,’ and scoffed at Perrot’s redemption.

“Such feelings enable a person possessing public authority to shed the restraints and scruples that limit the exercise of power. The feelings allow the official to see the individual as apart from the community of citizens whose rights must be regarded. These feelings that filled Bloom’s mind, coupled with his trip to Washington, D.C., produce a reasonable foundation for the inference that Bloom voiced his views about Perrot to Oakes. … Unconsciously, Oakes, because of these communications, departed from his role as a neutral expert and slipped into the role of a partisan for the government.”

Bloom was later disciplined when it was discovered that he had forged Perrot’s signature to a fabricated confession implicating two of Perrot’s friends in another housebreak in an unsuccessful attempt to get them to confess. But the slap on the wrist he received pales by comparison with the price Perrot has paid greatly because of Bloom’s misguided zealotry.

Prosecutorial bias permeates the American judicial system. Prosecutors hell-bent on victory often directly or indirectly prod investigators and experts to get the results they want. It’s refreshing to see a judge recognize this in a well-reasoned, groundbreaking decision.

 

 

How Texas took the lead on reforms

Texas is not the first state that would normally come to mind in a discussion of criminal-justice reform. But the wrongful conviction of Tim Cole spurred the tough-on-crime state to fix its eyewitness identification procedures, increase the money authorized to be paid to exonerees and set up an advisory commission on wrongful convictions. Unfortunately, The New Yorker reports here, Cole never lived to see the reforms put in place.

Satanic cult hysteria still capable of putting people through hell

If you thought that the Satanic Panic and child-abuse hysteria, which caused dozens of wrongful convictions in the 1980s and 1990s, are no longer a threat, think again. Pacific Standard magazine writer Dan Shewan says there still are a lot of true believers out there.

“The specter of Satanic cult hysteria continues to color many cases marked by unusual barbarity and cruelty, little having apparently been learned from the lessons of the 1980s,” Shewan writes. “In some quarters, crude symbolism and token teenage dabblings in the occult are still seen as evidence that legitimate, violent Satanic cults exist.” You can read Shewan’s frightening story here.

Tradition-bound U.S. system mired in scientific illiteracy, author says

The American legal system assumes that innocent people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit. It also assumes that eyewitness testimony is reliable and that jurors are impartial even though scientific research shows otherwise.  Therein lies the cause of many wrongful convictions.

“The legal system is resistant to change and resistant to paying attention to scientific research,” Adam Benforado, author of the book Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice, tells Wired magazine. You will find the informative story here.

New child-abuse panic could cause wrongful convictions, prof warns

Child-abuse hysteria has spurred hundreds of wrongful convictions and even more destroyed lives in the past 30 years — first with sexual-molestation charges and then the bad science of shaken-baby syndrome. Now comes ”medical child abuse,” an outgrowth of the Munchausen syndrome by proxy panic. And Maxine Eichner, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, says the ill-founded concept is starting to cause similar harm. You can read her astute warning here.

DNA testing isn’t perfect, and it could get worse, experts say

DNA testing is the gold standard in forensic science, and it has been used to free hundreds of innocent inmates since 1989. But it has also falsely implicated other innocents, and it likely will do so even more as labs push the technological envelope to solve crimes, the Marshall Project reports here. Add human error to the equation, and you have the recipe for potential disasters.

FBI crime lab admits to errors in DNA profiles

There are lies, damn lies and statistics.

The Washington Post reports that the FBI has notified local crime labs that it has discovered errors in data used by forensic scientists in thousands of cases to calculate the chances that DNA found at a crime scene matches a particular person.

The FBI is downplaying the significance of the problem, but a scientist who identified errors 10 years ago in the DNA profiles the FBI analyzed to generate the population statistics data called the consequences of the disclosure appalling and said they could have led to wrongful convictions. You can read the story here.