Author Archives: Phil Locke

Comment on the Nature and State of the (US) Justice System

While writing the latest post about Jack McCullough‘s exoneration, and while reading Courtney Bisbee‘s latest filing with the US District Court for Arizona, I got to reflecting on my experiences with the justice system over the past eight years, and I thought I would share some of my (unvarnished) observations. Clearly, this will be very editorial. It will probably help to understand my comments to know that I am not an attorney. I am an engineer by training, and that’s what I did for my entire working career – until I started doing innocence work pro bono. So I see the justice system with the naivete’ of someone who is an “outsider” and is not a functionary of the system; but I do see the system as someone who has spent his entire life founded in objective truth and logic and fact. Again, this article will be editorial in nature, and represents my views and only my views. It will also be pretty bleak; however, I see no viable path to fixing the monster we’ve created over the course of multiple decades of politics and the frailties of human nature. This has been bottled up inside me for some time, and the cork has finally popped. And just for reference, my definition of the justice system includes the law, legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the police.

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Jack McCullough Exoneration – The Continuing Update

We’ve been posting here about the exoneration of Jack McCullough in the 1957 abduction and murder of then 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL. The current DeKalb County prosecutor, Richard Schmack, felt ethically compelled to review the case, and determined that evidence proved Jack could not be guilty.  Consequently, he filed a motion with the court to dismiss charges with prejudice; meaning that Jack could not be charged and tried for the crime again. For previous posts, please see here, here, here, and here.

Judge William Brady did dismiss the charges, but declined to do so “with prejudice.” This now leaves Jack vulnerable to being re-charged and re-tried. See the latest CNN story here.

And so grinds the justice system. And now with the decision by the judge not to dismiss with prejudice, there is a petition going around Sycamore, IL calling for the appointment of a “special prosecutor.” Despite facts, logic, and reason, people will just not give up their biases, beliefs, and prejudices. And just as an aside, prosecutor Schmack can probably ‘kiss goodbye’ to any chance of being re-elected – all because he did the right thing. Such is politics, and such is the justice system. And we can only speculate about how politics in this ultra-high-profile case may have influenced the decision of the judge.


“The Culture of Conviction” (aka – The Culture of Prosecutors .. or .. The Culture of ‘Winning’)

In our recent post about the exoneration of Jack McCullough (see here), we made special note of the fact that a prosecution is not supposed to be just about ‘winning’ for the prosecutor. It’s supposed to be about seeing that true justice is done. A new article by Radley Balko in the Washington Post is an excellent follow-on to that post.

Please see the recent piece by Radley Balko in the Washington Post here:


Colorado Prosecutors Practice ‘Spin’ and Deceit

I have long been dismayed by the state of ethics within the prosecutorial community. Here is just one more example of why. This one stretches the limits of credibility to the point of being sadly laughable.

Between 2010 and 2014, prosecutors in Colorado conducted what was called the “Justice Review Project,” which was federally funded for $2.6 million. The objective was to review over 5,000 convictions to determine if DNA testing could prove any of the defendants actually innocent.

The “Project” consisted entirely of prosecutorial staff, with the exception of the “Review Board,” which did have representation from the legal defense community. However, there was only one case that ever came before the review board, and that case was imposed upon the “Project” by outside defense counsel, which had already paid for independent DNA testing. This one case was also the only one out of over 5,000 that the “Project” determined was suitable for DNA testing. The “Project’s” selection criteria had been set up to allow off-hand disqualification of essentially every case.

The prosecutors then went on to claim (boast) that the “Project” proved that the Colorado justice system is infallible, and that Colorado prosecutors “get it right the first time” all the time. Not only that, but they also had the unmitigated gall to state in their final report on the “Project” that the one case in which DNA was tested (which they had forced on them), and proved innocence, was their “crowning achievement.”

Now the prosecutors are refusing to release (hiding) records of the “Project.” So, the Exoneration Project is suing in Denver District Court to have the records released.

See the Colorado Independent story here.


More on the Jack McCullough Exoneration


Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

See our recent post on this case here.

An Illinois judge has freed Jack McCullough from prison, and ordered a new trial. Jack was convicted in 2012 of the 1957 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL. Jack was a neighbor of the Ridulph’s at the time. This used to be called the coldest case ever “solved.” And I guess we can now call it an “exoneration,” since the prosecutor has indicated his intention to have the charges against Jack dismissed with prejudice; meaning Jack can never be brought back into court for this crime again.

CNN just published an article that includes an interview with Jack. This very insightful comment from that interview:

“People have to realize, it’s not about winning. It’s about justice. And this brave man — I probably shouldn’t talk about him at all — but he put his career on the line for me,” McCullough said. He thought a moment and carefully chose the words that followed:

“It isn’t about winning a case, it’s about justice. And God bless the man who stood up for justice. He’s probably going to pay a penalty for that because to everyone else it’s about winning. But it’s not about winning. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Let me add the editorial note that this is where politically ambitious, politically elected prosecutors get it wrong. It’s not supposed to be about “winning.” It’s supposed to be about seeing that justice is done. But … winning is much more important for your political record than is providing true justice. The prosecutor in this case is a rare and marvelous exception to that rule.

See the CNN story with the interview here.

The Oldest Cold Case Ever “Solved” is Now Still Unsolved. Jack McCullough’s Conviction Overturned.

We have reported on the case of Jack McCullough here before.  Please see:

An Illinois judge has recently overturned Jack’s conviction in the 1957 abduction and murder of 7-year-old Maria Ridulph in Sycamore, IL.

See the CNN story here.


Illinois Prosecutor Says Man Convicted in Oldest Cold Case is Innocent

We reported on this case two years ago.

In September, 2012, Jack McCullough was convicted of a murder committed in 1957.  The conviction was based largely upon an eyewitness identification made 53 years after the crime by a woman who was 8 years old at the time of the crime. Please see: Defendant in Coldest Case Ever “Solved” Appeals His Conviction.

The wrongful conviction litany just repeats and repeats. In this case it includes a false eyewitness identification, a false deathbed accusation, and (surprise) exculpatory evidence withheld from the defense.

See the CNN story here.

Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez Ousted in Primary

Anyone who has followed my stuff on this blog even casually knows that, because of their behavior, deeds, and actions, prosecutors are not my favorite group of people. And topping my list of least favorite prosecutors has always been Anita Alvarez, Cook County (Chicago) State’s Attorney. There are lots of reasons for this, many of which are detailed below in Chicago Tribune articles by Eric Zorn. I won’t detail my own opinions about her here so as not to become the defendant in a specious libel suit.

Most recently Alvarez came under fire for her handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting by Chicago police, and this seems to have been “the straw” that broke the voters’ backs. However, it’s really about much more than just her handling of that case. It’s about years and years of the blatant abuse of prosecutorial power.

In yesterday’s democratic primary in Cook County, challenger Kim Foxx defeated Alvarez by more than a 2-to-1 vote margin. The people have spoken.

cook vote

See the ThinkProgress story here.

And for more from Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune ……..

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Howard Dudley Freed in North Carolina After 23 Years

DudleyPhoto: Chris Seward –


After 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted by false accusation and perjury, Howard Dudley has been released from prison in North Carolina.

Dudley: “The only thing I had to fight with was the truth.”

Judge: “This cries out as an injustice to Mr. Dudley.” “The Brady violations are ‘egregious, even outrageous.'”   

 Major congratulations and thanks to the Duke Law Wrongful Convictions Clinic for persevering through the discovery and litigation processes on this case for the last three years.

Please see The News & Observer story here. I strongly recommend viewing the several videos that are embedded in the article.

Courtney Bisbee Evidentiary Hearing Vacated

Courtney Bisbee was a single mother and school nurse, living and working in Scottsdale, AZ in 2004 when, through a combination of false accusations, police misconduct, prosecutorial railroading, very expensive but incompetent defense, and a judge who “owed one” to the prosecution, she was convicted in a bench trial, and sent to prison for “improperly touching” a teenager. An incident that never happened. You can read our first post about Courtney’s case here. Courtney has been in prison ever since.

I have personally been following this case for almost three years. This past December, we jubilantly posted that Courtney Bisbee had been granted an evidentiary hearing. Please see that report here. AT LAST, we saw a chance for the real truth to come out. However, as you would expect, the prosecution has been fighting against this with great vigor, and it appears, that for the time being, they have succeeded. Those readers who have been following this story should know that Courtney’s evidentiary hearing has been vacated.

No hearing was held, but on February 3, 2016, Senior Federal District Court Judge Roslyn O. Silver granted the prosecution’s objections, and vacated Courtney’s evidentiary hearing. You can see US Senior District Judge Roslyn O. Silver’s ruling here.

Let me take some editorial license here and state that this ruling is NOT about justice and truth and doing what’s right. This is about justice system officials desperately trying to prevent disclosure of their misdeeds. And it’s also about a justice system that has elevated “procedure” to the point of being an end unto itself, regardless of actual guilt or innocence.

The legal point at issue here was the subject of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Cullen vs. Pinholster, commonly referred to as just ‘Pinholster.’ Prior to this decision, federal habeas courts had the ability to conduct an evidentiary hearing and do fact finding to get to the truth. The decision in Pinholster limits the habeas court to considering only evidence that was presented at trial. This has been a part of the systematic gutting by the Supreme Court over the past decade of Constitutionally guaranteed habeas corpus protection. (If interested, you can download an interesting paper on the subject here.)

It must be noted that in her ruling, Judge Silver did not address the merits of the case. Consequently, there is still hope that Courtney may yet have her evidentiary hearing, and that the truth will come out. It’s just going to take longer.

Courtney has a petition on Here is a link to that page:


Anatomy of a Confession – The Debra Milke Case

Gary Stuart, author and Professor of Law at Arizona State University, has just published a book about the Debra Milke case.    See our previous post here:

anatomy of confession

“Anatomy of a Confession is the story of the 1990 murder trial of Debra Milke. Two men—Debra’s boyfriend at the time and a friend of his—murdered Debra’s four year-old son in the Arizona desert. One of them implicated the boy’s mother. Even before Debra was questioned, the police hung a guilty tag on her. Debra Milke spent twenty-three years on death row for the murder of her four year-old son based solely on a confession she never gave. This is also the story of Detective Armando Saldate, his history of extracting forced confessions, and the role the Phoenix Police Department played in the cover-up and misconduct in its handling of the Milke investigation. Anatomy of a Confession is a vivid and shocking reminder of what America’s vaunted presumption of innocence is all about.”

It’s available on Amazon here.

Sex, Lies, and Wrongful Conviction: Kathleen Kane’s Other Scandal

Want to get angry? Just read this article by Lorenzo Johnson, who was found innocent and released from prison after 16 years, and then put back in. He’s still there.

Lorenzo Johnson Article

Texas Disbars Former Prosecutor

Please see the following article by Jonathan Turley.

Texas State Bar Votes To Disbar Former Prosecutor For Role In Conviction Of Innocent Man

gavel2The Board of Disciplinary Appeals (appointed by the Texas Supreme Court) has upheld a state licensing board’s decision to disbar former prosecutor Charles Sebesta for his role in convicting an innocent man. Anthony Graves spent 18 years on death row for setting a fire that killed six people. Sebesta’s conduct was shocking but remains a relatively rare example of prosecutors being held accountable in such cases of prosecutorial abuse.

Sebesta had convicted Robert Carter for the murders and tried to get Carter to say Graves was an accomplice. However, just a day before the trial, Carter told Sebesta he acted alone and Graves was not involved. Sebesta withheld the information from the defense and presented false testimony implicating Graves. Sebesta also blocked an alibi witness by telling the court that the witness was a suspect in the murders and could be indicted. The witness then refused to testify.

After his conviction was reversed, a special prosecutor found in 2010 that there was no credible evidence that Graves was involved in the murders.

Sebesta now insists that he has been treated unfairly.


Treated unfairly?! Mr. Sebesta is lucky he himself is not now behind bars.

The National Registry of Exonerations Reports on Exonerations in 2015

The National Registry of Exonerations has just released a report on exonerations in 2015. See that report here.

2015 was a record setting year for exonerations, with 149 logged to date. And the trend line is up. For our last update on the Registry, see

We Are All Sex Offenders

This is incredibly powerful. A TEDx talk by Galen Baughman, who was released, by jury trial, from indefinite civil commitment for being a sex offender.

It’s 17 minutes. You have to watch this.

One quote from the talk that really struck me: [in today’s environment of sex offender laws, enforcement, and prosecution] “Your child has a higher probability of being put on the sex offender registry than ever being touched by a stranger.”

“Conviction Integrity Units” – Foretelling the Future?

We’ve posted previously about our (my) high degree of skepticism regarding the actual integrity of, and motivations for, so-called “conviction integrity units” in prosecutors’ offices. Please see:

A Word About Conviction Integrity Units

Conviction Integrity Units – A Skeptic’s Perspective

In both of these articles we made note of the fact that the New Orleans District Attorney and the Innocence Project – New Orleans had agreed to establish a joint conviction integrity unit. This would be “ground breaking” for a prosecutor to team up with an innocence organization for this, because it would provide absolutely objective oversight of the CIU (which none of them have, because they are totally contained within the prosecutor’s office); and we said this will bear careful watching.

In the second of the above articles, we stated that when the conviction integrity units eventually start to be disbanded (which I believe they will), we will hear one of these reasons, or a combination of the two, as the justification:

1) We’ve fixed everything there was to fix, and we promise to behave ourselves in the future, so the CIU is no longer needed.

2) Budget constraints and the requirements of ongoing prosecutions force us to apply the resource devoted to the CIU to more urgent business.

Please see Mark Godsey’s “Quick Clicks” from Monday, Jan. 11, 2016 here for news that the project between the New Orleans District Attorney’s office and the Innocence Project – New Orleans to form a joint conviction integrity team has been abandoned. And the reason? Budget.

Hmmm. Really?

Final comment. The very existence of “conviction integrity units” begs the question – why? Because they can’t get it right the first time? But given that honest errors leading to a wrongful conviction may occur, leaving it to the prosecutors to correct their own mistakes and misdeeds is not the right way to do it. Having prosecutors oversee prosecutors is like having cops oversee cops, and we know how that works.


Prosecutors Oppose New Trial for Melissa Calusinski in SBS Case

We’ve previously posted about the Melissa Calusinski case in Lake County, IL here. It would seem to clearly be a case of a coerced false confession, combined with bad medical “science.”

Lake County State’s Attorney, Michael Nerheim, has already declined to have his so-called “conviction integrity unit” review the case.

Now, despite the fact that the Lake County Coroner officially changed the cause of death from homicide to undetermined, and despite the fact that newly discovered X-ray evidence shows that the child had experienced previous head trauma, the prosecution is opposing a request for new trial by Calusinski’s attorney.

Why are we not surprised? See the Lake County Daily Herald story here.

Are Sex Offender Registries Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

Are there people who commit heinous sex crimes? Of course, and there are also people who commit heinous murders; and while a murderer is a murderer is a murderer, I submit that the percentage of sex offenders who are truly profound, violent, serial offenders is a tiny fraction of the total number of casual, one-time, often non-violent, and even unknowing people who commit a sexual transgression. However, the laws get written and enforced assuming that any sex offender is a wild-eyed, crazed, unstoppable sex fiend. It’s the way it is. The moral core of our society instills the belief that anything having to do with sex (outside the marital bedroom, in bed, at night, under the covers, with the lights out) is anathema; and combine this with the innate human predilection for revenge, and you wind up with our sex offender laws. Make no mistake – the people who are truly dangerous, violent, serial offenders need to be dealt with appropriately, and they need help. But why does some guy whose date lied to him about her age have to wind up on the sex offender registry for life, even after doing prison time? And the same applies when a vindictive spouse or ex-spouse gets the kids to lie about being molested; or when an angry ex-girlfriend makes a false claim of rape.

We’ve posted previously about the quagmire into which sex offenders, particularly those who are wrongfully convicted, are thrown by the justice system. The SOR’s have an incredibly punitive and damaging effect not just on the person on the registry, but also on their families. Many on the registry are not even allowed to be with their own children. Please see:

(a) Sex Offender Registries – Time for a Change

(b) The Wrongfully Convicted Sex Offender

As for being “effective” — sex offender registries are nothing more than public shaming, that in many (most) cases is inflicted for a lifetime. They’re no different than the “scarlet letter” of the 1600’s Puritan times. And what is absolutely mind-blowing is that the SOR’s have been proven not to work, and they cost the taxpayers gobs of money (see reference ‘a’ above). But now that they’ve become institutionalized in the justice system, they’re a political football. Now we have lots of people whose livelihoods derive from the SOR’s, and an entire industry has built up around the maintenance and support of SOR’s (just like the prison system). To advocate sensible, logical approaches to the problem has become political suicide for the politicians and legislators.

And it’s incredibly easy to be wrongfully convicted of a sex crime. All it takes is a false or mistaken accusation, and you are placed in the position of having to prove your innocence.

The very existence of SOR’s begs the question:  why don’t we have murderer’s registries, or assault & battery registries, or manslaughter registries, or robbery registries, or kidnapping registries, or securities fraud registries?

So are sex offender registries cruel and unusual punishment? Please see the probing and cogent article by Judith Levine here. The SOR’s immediately became ironically counterproductive, as evidenced by this quote from the article:

Megan’s Laws were supposed to protect children. But two decades of research show they don’t improve anyone’s safety, least of all children’s.  In fact, it may be minors themselves who are harmed most by the laws put in place to safeguard them.

Such is the stupidity of the legislative and law enforcement process we endure today. The “justice system” will sanctimoniously declare, “The SOR’s are in the best interest of public health and safety.” But they’re blindly ignoring a data-driven understanding of what they actually accomplish and the untold harm that they cause.


At Last. The Exonerated Get a Tax Break.

If you’ve been wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully spent years, if not decades, of your life in prison, you may or may not be entitled to compensation after exoneration. Thirty states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. The conditions under which compensation is paid, and how much is paid, vary widely from state to state. And there are twenty states that provide nothing.

Now imagine this. You’ve been exonerated of a crime you never committed after spending many years in prison. You successfully sue the state for compensation, and then find out the federal government is going to levy income tax on your award. Does that sound right? Of course not, but that’s the way it’s been.

Thankfully, Congress has just passed The Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2015, which will eliminate federal income tax on wrongful conviction compensation.

See the story from The Innocence Project here.

Courtney Bisbee Granted Evidentiary Hearing !

Courtney Bisbee was a responsible, law-abiding, hard-working single mother working in the Scottsdale, AZ school system in 2004 when she was sucked into the criminal justice system by false allegations of “improper touching” of a minor.

For background, please see our previous post about this case: A Broken Justice System – Cases in Point – Part 2 – The Case of Courtney Bisbee.

There is recent significant news. Federal District Court Magistrate Judge David Duncan has granted Courtney not just a hearing, but an evidentiary hearing. The two day evidentiary hearing is scheduled for March 14 and 15, 2016.

As we have mentioned before, Courtney filed an absolutely compelling habeas petition with the court 3 1/2 years ago. At the time, former Federal District Chief Judge Roselyn O. Silver, who is now on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, reviewed Courtney’s initial petition for Writ of Habeas which was filed April 2012. Silver responded within one business day stating Courtney had 13 viable claims. To date, there has been no further action on Courtney’s habeas petition. Hopefully, the exculpatory evidence cited in Courtney’s habeas petition will be allowed and considered before the court during the hearing.

It comes as no surprise that the prosecution has been fighting ‘tooth & nail’ to keep the hearing from happening. They immediately filed with the court a Motion for Reconsideration to vacate Courtney’s evidentiary hearing, which Judge Duncan rejected. They continue to work furiously to scuttle Courtney’s chance to finally, after more than 10 years, receive justice. For example, the state writes, “Indeed, to proceed with an evidentiary hearing, when any new evidence presented cannot be considered by the federal courts pursuant to Pinholster, would be a waste of state, federal, and judicial resources”. Excuse me? This statement is an insult to the justice system. The state will spend any amount of “resource” when pursuing a conviction. Why now, with actual justice in sight, are they suddenly worried about the dollars and cents?

We can only hope that actual truth and justice will prevail.