Author Archives: Nancy Petro

Editorial: Critical of Conviction Integrity Unit, Supportive of Transparency

An editorial in The Inquirer (Philadelphia) calls out District Attorney Seth Williams whose Conviction Review Unit has produced more hype than results; warns against assaults on transparency in criminal justice; and applauds public officials who are getting it right. This is the critical role of reputable journalism and media in informing and educating voters. Thank you, Philly.com.

Trump’s Insistence that Central Park 5 are Guilty Reveals Frightening Ignorance and Worse

Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge wrongful convictions proven by DNA and by the credible, delayed confession of a convicted murderer and rapist. Insisting on Friday that the Central Park 5 are guilty of the 1989 high-profile horrific attack and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park, he revealed he knows nothing about DNA, the dynamics of false confessions, or contemporary understandings relating to criminal justice and wrongful convictions.

Shortly after the crime occurred Trump paid thousands to run full-page ads in newspapers calling for reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. The ads fueled a fever pitch of outrage over a crime that had already stunned the nation. His insistence on inserting his opinion could only exacerbate tempers in a difficult time of race relations.

In his statement Friday, Trump revealed he is woefully uneducated in the realities of criminal justice miscarriages. This is frightening when the need for criminal justice reform has reached an awareness level great enough to find a place in both the Republican and Democrat national political platforms.

For those who study wrongful convictions and even for the informed everyday citizen, Continue reading

Mark Norwood Convicted of Murder After Eluding Justice in Earlier Murder

On Friday, a Travis County (TX) jury found Mark Norwood, 62, guilty of the 1988 bludgeoning murder of Debra Baker. Norwood was at liberty to commit Debra’s murder, because he escaped justice in the similar murder of Christine Morton two years earlier. Both victims lived in the Austin area.

Christine’s husband, Michael, was wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder and spent nearly 25 years in prison. Among the many sad outcomes of this wrongful conviction was that the Morton’s three-year-old son Eric lost both his mother and, for 25 years, a normal relationship with his father.

If evidence supporting Michael Morton’s innocence had been shared with the defense, which is required of prosecutors, it is less likely he would have been convicted. The jury did not know that a bloody bandana was found the day after Christine’s murder outside the Morton home along a likely escape route from the property.

The jury didn’t know that little Eric was present during his mother’s murder. He told his grandmother his father wasn’t home and “a monster” was hurting his mommy. Continue reading

Mike Pence Delays Pardon Decision: Innocent Man Struggles with Undeserved Felon Label

The Chicago Tribune has reported that Indiana Governor Mike Pence will continue to delay a pardon decision that would clear the name of a man convicted of and imprisoned for 10 years for a 1996 armed robbery he did not commit. The governor’s general counsel indicated in a letter Tuesday to Cooper’s lawyer that they first must exhaust all judicial options for appeal.

The case against Keith Cooper, 49, fell apart when DNA testing of crime scene evidence linked to a man imprisoned for his part in a subsequent 2002 murder. Eyewitnesses and a jailhouse snitch implicating Cooper and his co-defendant also recanted.

The Indiana Parole Board unanimously recommended more than two years ago that Pence pardon Cooper. The original prosecutor and crime victim shot during the burglary have also urged Pence to grant the pardon. More than 105,000 people have signed a petition supporting the pardon. Continue reading

Jim Petro commentary: Death penalty is in decline, but problems remain

Jim Petro, former Ohio attorney general, comments today in the Columbus Dispatch on problems with Ohio’s death penalty, including unaddressed recommendations to reduce the risk of executing the wrongly convicted…

Columbus Dispatch

Governors Should Take Pardons Seriously

A commentary published on September 1 in the Columbus Dispatch

 

Federal Judge Overturns Conviction of Brendan Dassey

On Friday, August 12, 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, one of the defendants highlighted in the documentary ‘Making A Murderer.’ The judge has given the state 90 days to either initiate proceedings to retry him or release him from prison.

In his 91-page decision, the judge concluded:

“The investigators repeatedly claimed to already know what happened on October 31 and assured Dassey that he had nothing to worry about. These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Law Professors Steven A. Drizin and Laura Nirider of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth represented Dassey in the appellate process. The Clinic has represented Dassey since 2008.

View the full decision here.

Read the Center on Wrongful Convictions press release, which includes links to instructive  information regarding youth interrogation and false confessions.

New Study on Sleep Deprivation and False Confessions

A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, supports the link between sleep deprivation and false confessions. Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, has called it a “milestone.” New Science magazine reports, “…legal experts are predicting it will be cited in future court cases.”

From the Study: “Here we demonstrate that sleep deprivation increases the likelihood that a person will falsely confess to wrongdoing that never occurred. Furthermore, our data suggest that it may be possible to identify certain individuals who are especially likely to falsely confess while sleep deprived. The present research is a crucial step toward Continue reading

Record Year: Nearly Three Exonerations Per Week in 2015

The National Registry of Exonerations has reported a record 149 known exonerations in 2015 in 29 states, the District of Columbia, federal courts, and Guam. The exonerated had served an average of 14-and-a-half years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Increasing known exonerations has been a trend over recent years, and the National Registry of Exoneration’s annual report, Exonerations in 2015, includes several new records for 2015: Continue reading

$16.8 Million Awarded by State of Connecticut to Four Wrongfully Convicted Men

The State of Connecticut has awarded $4.2 million each in compensation to Carlos Ashe, Darcus Henry, Sean Adams, and Johnny Johnson. The four were convicted of murder, assault, and conspiracy resulting from a December 14, 1996, shooting in New Haven, Connecticut. Jason Smith, 23, was killed and brothers Marvin Ogman, 19, and Andre Clark, 22, were injured when allegedly four men utilized semi-automatic weapons in a gang-related retaliation shooting. Including both jail and prison, the four were incarcerated for more than 16 years.

The defendants presented alibi witnesses at trial. The primary evidence presented by the prosecution was inconsistent testimony of the surviving Continue reading

More Thoughts on Innocent People Pleading Guilty

The concept of an innocent person pleading guilty to a crime he did not commit is initially incomprehensible and at odds with many Americans’ beliefs about our criminal justice system. That’s why the National Registry of Exonerations’ November report focusing on false guilty pleas is difficult to absorb. An earlier report this week on this blog quantified instances of false guilty pleas from the report; this one attempts to clarify this kind of miscarriage. Continue reading

New Report: Innocents Who Plead Guilty

Of more than 1,700 known exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, persons innocent of the crime pleaded guilty in 261 or 15 percent of the cases. The November 2015 newsletter of The National Registry of Exonerations (NRE) sheds light on the non-intuitive decision to plead guilty when innocent, the systemic pressures that prompt it, and why an unknown number of wrongful convictions based on false guilty pleas may never be identified or corrected.

 

About 95 percent of criminal felony and misdemeanor convictions in the United States now come by way of a guilty plea. The trend of case resolution by plea negotiation has diminished the percentage of cases that are resolved by jury or bench trial. As the report points out, guilty pleas usually result in lighter sentences — Continue reading

West Virginia Supreme Court Rules that Brady Requirement Applies to Plea Negotiations

From the West Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling released Tuesday, November 10, 2015:

“This Court is presented with a situation in which a defendant repeatedly requested the results of DNA testing; was incorrectly informed that such testing was not yet complete; and was presented with a time-limited plea offer that he accepted upon advice of counsel. We find that the DNA results were favorable, suppressed, and material to the defense. Thus, the Petitioner’s due process rights, as enunciated in Brady, were violated by the State’s suppression of that exculpatory evidence.”

Further, “…This Court…remands this matter for an order granting habeas relief and permitting the Petitioner to withdraw his guilty plea.”

The West Virginia Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Buffey v. Ballard, reversing the June 3, 2014, order of the Circuit Court of Harrison County, enables Joseph A. Buffey to withdraw his 2002 guilty plea in the case of the rape of an 83-year-old woman and requires the prosecutor to either retry the case or Continue reading

Montana Innocence Project Mourns Loss of Talented Investigator and Friend

Spencer Veysey, 26, a tireless investigator for the Montana Innocence Project tragically died October 2, 2015, while mountain climbing on the east face of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, northwest of Boulder, Colorado. A 2012 graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism, he was one of four full-time employees of the Montana Innocence Project.

Veysey was a student intern and volunteer the past three years and became the first full-time investigator for the Montana Innocence Project. He worked long hours to uncover truth for the Project’s clients. He had evaluated and investigated many cases and had testified at trial. Veysey was described by Larry Mansch, legal director of the Project, as having a “wealth of knowledge” that he said was “truly irreplaceable.”

Our condolences to Spencer Veysey’s family, friends, and Montana Innocence Project colleagues.

Read more here: (Missoulian) and (Ames Tribune).

Texas Judge Frees Steven Mark Chaney, Convicted of Murder by Junk Science

State District Judge Dominique Collins ordered the release from prison of Steven Mark Chaney yesterday after he had served more than a quarter of a century behind bars. He was convicted of the 1987 murders of an East Dallas couple, John and Sally Sweet. Nine witnesses testified to support Chaney’s alibi. Yet he was convicted by bite-mark junk science.

This case — and widespread official recognition of the unreliability of this type of forensic evidence — should prompt new consideration of all cases in which bite-mark testimony contributed to the conviction.

Chaney’s release yesterday was supported by Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk, his New York based Innocence Project Attorney Julie Lesser, and the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office. They all recognize that Chaney did not receive a fair trial.

As reported in The Guardian, Chaney will remain free while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviews the case. His attorneys believe he will be exonerated… Continue reading

Jarrett Adams: From Wrongfully Imprisoned to a Clerk Fellowship at the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals

On August 10, 2012, this blog published an article entitled “Update on Wisconsin Innocence Project’s Case: The Rape that Wasn’t.” It was the story of Jarrett Adams. In 1998 when he was 17 years old, Adams was accused of sexual assault and convicted after his court-appointed lawyer advised him to take a “no-defense strategy.”

A key witness who would likely have prevented Adams’ conviction never was called to testify. Adams was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, a sentence that was immediately increased to 28 years when he told the judge he was innocent. Continue reading

Rape Conviction Vacated with Support of Prosecutor

Quentin Carter, 40, maintained his innocence throughout nearly 17 years in prison following his conviction of the 1991 rape of a 10-year old child. He was likely denied parole numerous times because he would not express remorse for a crime he didn’t commit.

Carter was 16 when convicted. He was released in 2008 but was registered as a sex offender with all the restrictions this designation carries.

Kent County (MI) Prosecutor William Forsyth was instrumental in vacating Carter’s wrongful conviction, which occurred by order of a judge last Thursday. Continue reading

1,600 U.S. Exonerations Highlight Unacceptable Error in Criminal Justice

The National Registry of Exonerations has announced a chilling milestone, the 1,600th known exoneration in the United States since 1989. The tally of persons known to have been convicted of crimes they did not commit has grown rapidly from the Registry’s launch three years ago. The 1600th exoneration, that of Michael McAlister, occurred last week.

Maurice Possley’s Registry report on Michael McAlister (here) provides the telling details — case unique and yet familiar — of a tragic miscarriage. Police and prosecutors would come to doubt McAlister’s guilt and subsequently joined a long effort to correct this stubborn error. Continue reading

New Research Elevates Concerns over Snitch Testimony

Testimony from jailhouse informants has been a known factor in wrongful convictions, and new data indicates the use of this risky evidence has been more frequent in the worst crimes, according to the May 2015  report of The National Registry of Exonerations. While snitch testimony has been a factor in 8% of exonerations across all crimes, it has been a contributor to wrongful conviction in 15% of murder exonerations and in 23% of death penalty exonerations.

Snitch testimony is compelling to a jury but often unreliable because it can be compromised by incentives for the informant to lie. A factor in 119 of 1,567 known exonerations (tallied from 1989 up to March 17, 2015), the new data reveals the risk not only of convicting the innocent but also of enabling the guilty to escape justice and continue perpetrating the most heinous of crimes. An accompanying consideration: Jailed snitches have been compensated for their testimony with reduced sentences, another risky practice.

Access The National Registry of Exonerations May newsletter (here).

Death Row Inmate Anthony Ray Hinton Freed after 30 Years in Alabama Prison

Yesterday, April 3, 2015, Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, emerged from a Jefferson County Jail (AL) after serving thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit. Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, author of the national bestseller “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption,” had represented Hinton for the past 16 years.

One could make a strong argument that Hinton should never have been indicted for two 1985 murders at Alabama fast-food restaurants. The evidence presented against Hinton, who had no history of violent crime and who always proclaimed his innocence, was scanty. Perhaps even worse, when authorities — prosecutors Continue reading