Author Archives: Mark Godsey

Could Sentencing ‘Discounts’ Replace Plea Bargaining?

A fairer trial system requires both transparency and a shift of power away from prosecutors “into the hands of (impartial) sentencing judges,” argue the authors of a forthcoming article in Missouri Law Review.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the right to a fair trial in the U.S. is close to a myth, when the fate of more than 90 percent of criminal cases is determined by unrecorded conversations that take place in a courthouse hallway, according to the article, entitled Plea Bargaining: From Patent Unfairness to Transparent Justice.

The authors propose replacing the current U.S. system with a model similar to one used in Australia, where judges have a high degree of authority over sentencing, and where the high court has ruled that prosecutors cannot even make a submission regarding an appropriate sentence.

Read more here

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Until Proven Innocent: Life after prison for 3 men now free after wrongful conviction

He lost 11 years after a wrongful conviction. Who can blame Kerry Porter for being angry?

Philadelphia’s New Top Prosecutor Is Rolling Out Wild, Unprecedented Criminal Justice Reforms

Philadelphia’s newly minted district attorney, Larry Krasner, was meeting constituents in a packed church in West Philadelphia earlier this month to discuss his plans for the job. The meeting was unique in that it quickly revealed to community members what local civic leaders and officials have already learned about Krasner: He is making good on his promise to revolutionize the job of district attorney and, in the process, offering an extraordinary experiment in criminal justice reform at the municipal level that could serve as a national model.

In the church, queries and complaints from constituents that might have made his predecessors cringe were softballs for Krasner: a loved one has been wrongfully incarcerated? Send the case to the revamped Conviction Review Unit, a sort of in-house innocence project. How can lying officers be kept off the stand? He has staff working to verify and expand a formerly secret “do not call” list of 29 suspect officers. Late in the meeting, one elderly woman asked a question that cuts to the core of concerns for those who doubt Krasner’s reforms: What would he do about the drug dealers and users on her street that make her feel unsafe? He didn’t miss a beat: “The past solution was to lock [corner drug dealers] all up and that didn’t work. We have to go after root cause,” he says. This came after an extended riff promising “to go after doctors, and pharmaceutical corporations” for their role in the nation’s opioid crisis. Notably, his office had already initiated legal proceedings against some of those pharmaceutical companies.

Back on the campaign trail last year, Krasner, a former civil rights and criminal defense attorney who had been best known for suing police officers, offered a stump speech that condemned the criminal justice system for being racist and for criminalizing poverty and addiction. He was an unusual candidate to be the city’s top law enforcer. Voters swept him into office. Now, two months into his term, DA Krasner is virtually undistinguishable from candidate Krasner.

Read about the reforms Krasner is making here

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More exonerations are driven by police and prosecutor misconduct

Let’s Put an End to Prosecutorial Immunity

Swindler Exploits the ‘Hope of Inmates,’ Prosecutor Says


John Grisham: Eight reasons for America’s shameful number of wrongful convictions

It is too easy to convict an innocent person. The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States is estimated to be somewhere between 2% to 10%. That may sound low, but when applied to a prison population of 2.3 million, the numbers become staggering. Can there really be 46,000 to 230,000 innocent people locked away? Those of us who are involved in exoneration work firmly believe so.

Millions of defendants are processed through our courts each year. It’s nearly impossible to determine how many of them are actually innocent once they’ve been convicted. There are few resources for examining the cases and backgrounds of those claiming to be wrongfully convicted.

Once an innocent person is convicted, it is next to impossible to get them out of prison.

Over the past 25 years, the Innocence Project, where I serve on the board of directors, has secured through DNA testing the release of 349 innocent men and women, 20 of whom had been sent to death row. All told, there have been more than 2,000 exonerations, including 200 from death row, in the U.S. during that same period. But we’ve only scratched the surface.

John Grisham continues by discussing the 8 major reasons for wrongful convictions. Read his 8 reasons here. 

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Next Ohio execution raises too much doubt

For the first time in three decades, the “Death Penalty Capital of America” goes without an execution

DA: Former prosecutor withheld key email in death row case

Conference To Focus on Evolution of Forensic Evidence

Experts in forensics, statistics and the law will convene for a conference at the University of Virginia School of Law on March 26 to mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc., which reshaped how judges evaluate scientific and expert evidence.

Judge Jed Rakoff of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will deliver the keynote address at noon. The conference begins at 8:30 a.m. in the Law School’s Caplin Pavilion.

The Daubert ruling coincided with a surge in scientific research relevant to criminal cases, including the development of modern DNA testing that both exonerated hundreds of individuals and provided more accurate evidence of guilt.

“Leading scientific commissions have pointed out real shortcomings in the use of forensic evidence in the courtroom,” said professor Brandon Garrett, a participant in the conference and a principal investigator for the Law School’s Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensics Evidence, or CSAFE, projects. “The CSAFE collaboration, extending across four universities, including UVA, has been working with generous support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology to research these questions.”

Panelists will discuss how to develop better forensic evidence, how to analyze it more accurately in the crime lab and how to present it more effectively in criminal cases. Several contributions will be published in a special symposium issue of the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law.

The conference is sponsored by the Virginia Journal of Criminal Law and the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence.

The talks are free and open to the public. Attendees may contact Garrett at or (434) 924-4153 for more information.

Click here for more information on the speakers and schedule.

L.A. County D.A. to create unit to review wrongful-conviction claims

Citing a rise in wrongful-conviction claims by inmates, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is launching a unit of veteran prosecutors to review the integrity of past convictions, joining a small but growing number of prosecutorial agencies around the country devoting resources to identify innocent prisoners.

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey is asking county supervisors for nearly $1 million to fund the new team, which would include three prosecutors, a senior investigator and a paralegal.

In seeking the funds, Lacey’s office said it wanted to keep up with an increasing number of wrongful-conviction claims that have followed the advent of similar units around the country, a growing number of innocence projects and heightened publicity surrounding innocence claims, county spokesman Dave Sommers said.

Innocence project groups and others hailed the move, saying that it would send a dramatic statement that the office is serious about reversing injustices and could spur the creation of similar units in smaller counties across California.

“This is exactly what should happen in every district attorney’s office in America,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. “We all have the same goal: to make sure the right people are in prison.”

Read more on the proposal here

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Should lawyers share evidence before criminal trials? Va. Supreme Court considers changes to discovery rules

Kansas man wrongfully imprisoned [based on prosecutorial misconduct] for 23 years receives no compensation from state

Former Texas Prosecutor Withheld Email that Could Have Prevented Innocent Man from Landing on Death Row: Report

In an announcement late Friday, Harris County, Texas, District Attorney Kim Ogg revealed that a former prosecutor had withheld a key email that could have prevented Alfred Dewayne Brown from receiving the death penalty.

As the Houston Chronicle writes, the email helped establish “a clear alibi” for Brown, who was convicted in a high-profile murder case in 2005 that landed him a death sentence.

Brown always maintained his innocence, and spent nearly 10 years on death row before his case was dismissed in 2015 and his conviction overturned. According the Chronicle, the 36-year-old Brown later sued a slew of Harris County officials, including the DA’s office, the prosecutor and police officer who handled the murder case, accusing them of hiding and falsifying evidence against him and violating his constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial.

The new e-mail, which came to light because of Brown’s lawsuit, backs up his claims, showing that the prosecutor at the time, Dan Rizzo, was aware of evidence that could exculpate Brown.

Read more about the withheld information and Brown’s case here

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How a new generation of prosecutors is driving criminal justice reform outside of Congress

A Revolution of Values in the U.S. Criminal Justice System

DNA evidence could exonerate men convicted in ’02 murder

HUNTINGTON – Newly tested DNA evidence would exonerate some men convicted in the 2002 murder of 21-year-old Deanna L. Crawford and might instead point to someone who has a history of abuse, according to documents filed with the Cabell County circuit clerk this week.

Phillip Scott Barnett, 37; his brother Nathaniel Barnett; and Justin Keith Black, 34, who are working with the Chicago-based Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School and West Virginia Innocence Project, are asking their convictions be overturned and for new trials.

Crawford was found Aug. 8, 2002, in Salt Rock by two men walking along Hickory Ridge Road.

Investigators believed her death had followed an Aug. 5, 2002, party at Justin Black’s house. That evening involved drinking alcohol, playing video games and a vehicle ride that turned violent. The motivation for her death remains a mystery.

Crawford’s family then waited more than six years for an arrest.

The request for a new trial comes nearly two years after Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson approved a request for possibly exonerating DNA evidence to be tested.

Read more about the trial, appeal, and DNA results here

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Radio Atlantic: How Innocence Becomes Irrelevant

Some Missouri lawmakers want to privatize the public defender system. For one county, it starts March 1.

Innocence Project Responds to Remarks by Deputy Attorney General Before the American Academy of Forensic Sciences

[On 2-21-18] Deputy Attorney General (DAG) Rod Rosenstein gave a plenary address at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences where he outlined plans that the Department of Justice (DOJ) would be implementing regarding forensic sciences.  While short on details, his remarks renew concerns that the DOJ is backtracking on progress to ensure that forensic disciplines are guided by the best science and that safeguards were enacted to insulate practitioners from law enforcement influence.

“We’ve known since 2009 that there are problems with the scientific validity of forensic disciplines used to identify suspects with the exception of DNA evidence.  Yet after this administration shut down the National Commission of Forensic Science — the first inclusive and transparent effort to address these fundamental flaws in evidence that is used in countless prosecutions across the nation — there was no mention by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein of how the Department of Justice plans to address this core validity problem,” said Chris Fabricant, director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

Read more about DAG Rosenstein’s announcement and concerns here.

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I Sent an Innocent Man to Prison. A juror’s regret.

Criminal justice reformers aim big by targeting local DA races 

Man found not guilty at retrial of setting ’95 Naperville fire that killed mother-in-law

A former Naperville resident who spent two decades imprisoned for arson and murder in the death of his mother-in-law was acquitted of those crimes Wednesday by a DuPage County judge who called the case “fatally compromised.”

As Judge Liam Brennan was finishing reading his ruling in the retrial of William Amor, the defendant — aware he was about to be found not guilty — let his head drop and took off his glasses a moment later to wipe away tears. Lauren Kaeseberg, one Amor’s attorneys from the Illinois Innocence Project, who was seated next to Amor, quietly placed her hand on his back.

“I’ve always been hopeful. I’ve always thought essentially that the system would do the right thing,” Amor, 62, said afterward. “It’s unfortunate it took 22 years.”

Amor thanked Brennan, who vacated Amor’s 1997 murder conviction last year in the wake of advances in fire science that undercut his 1995 confession. Amor had been out on bond since May.

Following closing arguments earlier this month, Brennan set Wednesday for his ruling to give himself time to review evidence, which included testimony from three arson experts.

A prosecution expert had testified that he believed the Sept. 10, 1995, fire that killed Marianne Miceli, 40, was set using an open flame on a living room cloth chair. But the judge said that opinion presented a highly unlikely timeline of how the fire spread.

Read more about the case and junk science here

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Activist Shaun King Creates New PAC That Plans To Elect Progressive Prosecutors To Help Reform The Justice System

Ken Starr, Board of Contributors: Prosecutors’ first priority is justice for all, including the accused

Prosecutors and Wrongful Convictions: ‘Pay Now or Pay Later’

Amazon’s In-House Lawyers Help Free the Innocent in Pro Bono Project

When Jennifer Brown isn’t working on compliance issues like food and product safety or on environmental health issues for Seattle-based Inc., she’s been known to spend hours at a time scouring court documents from cases involving those held behind bars in the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, she dedicated more than 40 hours of her time last year to looking through court filings and trial transcripts from just one individual case.

Brown is one of the Amazon in-house lawyers who have volunteered their time to do pro bono work for Innocence Project Northwest, a nonprofit that provides legal services for prisoners hoping to prove their innocence.

The organization helps combat wrongful convictions in the state of Washington and, to date, has assisted in 14 exonerations. It works independently of other similar groups, including the well-known Innocence Project based in New York—though the two have similar goals.

So, how did members of Amazon’s legal team get to work behind the scenes on wrongful conviction cases that look a bit like those chronicled in famous podcasts like “Serial” or documentaries like “Making a Murderer” or “West of Memphis”?  It started at the top of the department.

Find out here →

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Interview with Luca Luparia, founder of Italy Innocence Project

Blind Denial: The law is mocked


Louisiana Man Exonerated by DNA Evidence After Serving Nearly 38 Years in Prison for Rape He Didn’t Commit

Malcolm Alexander, who was just 21 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to life in Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola), was released from prison Monday after Jefferson Parish Judge June Darensburg overturned his conviction.

 Darensburg made her decision after a reinvestigation by the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office determined that Alexander did not have competent and effective counsel during his trial, and that his conviction rested heavily on a flawed, unreliable identification procedure.
Her decision also rested on DNA evidence that was thought to be lost long ago.
On Nov. 8, 1979, a black man allegedly entered an antique store on Whitney Avenue in Gretna, La. He allegedly grabbed the owner, a 39-year-old white woman, from behind in the empty store and raped her twice at gunpoint.
 The victim never clearly saw her attacker’s face.

In February 1980, Alexander had a consensual sexual encounter with a white woman who asked him for money and later accused him of sexual assault.

Even though the woman’s charges were unsubstantiated and no charges were ever filed against Alexander, authorities had his photo on file.

That’s all they needed.

Gretna police showed the antique-store owner Alexander’s picture, and she “tentatively” identified him as her assailant out of hundreds of photos shown to her. Three days later, police placed Alexander in a lineup, and by that time, the store owner was “sure” that he was the man who had attacked her.

This was four months after she was attacked in the dark, from behind, at gunpoint. Alexander was the only man in the lineup whose picture had also been in the photo array.

According to the Innocence Project:

Research has shown that multiple identification procedures can contaminate a witness’s memory, causing a witness to become confused about whether he or she recognizes the person from the event or the earlier procedure, while also making the witness more confident in his or her identification.

After a trial that lasted one day—during which Alexander’s attorney, Joseph Tosh, failed to make an opening statement or call any witnesses for the defense, and failed to adequately cross-examine the state’s witnesses about the identification—Alexander was sentenced to life in prison on Dec. 10, 1980.

Still, he never stopped insisting that he was innocent.

Read the rest of Alexander’s story here