Category Archives: Defense lawyering (good and bad)

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.

Exonerated Eight Years After REAL Killer Confesses


“Complete and Utter Failure of the Criminal Justice System.” Michigan Radio

Davontae Sanford was 14 years old when he confessed to a quadruple murder after a police interrogation that lasted two days. His parents were not contacted. He attempted to recant, but was convicted and sent to prison. It didn’t help that he had a do-nothing, incompetent defense attorney. (In my experience, bad defense attorneys are responsible for as many wrongful convictions as anything else.)

Eight years ago the real killer not only confessed, and said Davontae had nothing to do with it, but he also led police to the gun that was confirmed to be the murder weapon.

Finally, after eight years, the state of Michigan has overturned his conviction, and he has been released from prison.

See the CNN story here.

What the hell happened (or didn’t happen) here?! We have yet to hear an explanation from the state of Michigan. I can only sit here slack-jawed, shaking my head in disbelief.

Furthermore, I’ll make a prediction. We’ll hear some kind of non-specific boilerplate excuses from authorities, but nothing substantive or fundamental will change in the system as a result of this. A few people may get a “wrist slap,” but then the whole thing will sink into the murky political-bureaucratic swamp and disappear.

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.

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.



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.

“Automatic” Justice? Is Technology Eliminating the Presumption of Innocence?

A recent legal research paper from the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London has raised the issue of technology’s impact upon the criminal justice system, and how its effect may be replacing presumption of innocence with presumption of guilt. A truly frightening prospect. You can download the paper here: Automatic justice? Technology, Crime and Social Control.

The nature of evidence in the justice system has steadily been evolving to be ever more founded in technology, be it legitimate and proven technology … or not. And the tendency is for the prosecution (and police) to say, “We have ‘scientific’ evidence of your guilt; therefore, you are guilty.”

And here’s the problem: much of this “technology” has not been verified and statistically validated. It just gets presented in court as “science,” and judges, lawyers, and juries don’t have a clue as to whether or not it’s actually accurate or relevant. How do you know the latest “computer app” is actually true and accurate? You don’t. We’ve seen frequent examples of so-called forensic “science” being proven wrong. Just three of these would be compositional analysis of bullet lead (CABL), microscopic hair comparison, and bite marks. There are currently thousands of cases under re-investigation as a result of scientifically flawed FBI hair comparison work and testimony. There are some infamous cases of fingerprint identifications being wrong; one of these being the case of Brandon Mayfield. Most people, (including lawyers) don’t understand that there is huge margin for error in locating a cell phone through cell towers.

The agents of the justice system – lawyers, judges, police, and especially juries – have been notoriously ignorant regarding the scientific, technological, and mathematical issues of evidence. This is why so much of the justice system depends upon so-called  “experts” to try to understand and explain what all the technology means; but, these experts, often self-styled, may be legitimate — or they may not be. Unfortunately the lawyers, judges, and juries have no way to tell. Defense attorneys will most commonly not technically question (cross examine) prosecution “experts.” This is too bad, because, in my opinion, a technically knowledgable and logically-penetrating defense attorney could just “take apart” many prosecution “experts” – even medical doctors. The typical legal defense strategy is to present “your own” expert, which puts the poor jury in the position of having to decide which of the dueling experts to believe. All this, unfortunately, leaves the justice system, and the defendant, at the mercy of “experts,” and there is no scientific way built into the justice system to sort through which “science” is true and correct, and which is junk – and which experts are truly expert, and which are charlatans.

From the conclusion of the paper: “Our deepest concern is the emergence of a potentially unfettered move towards a technologically driven process of ‘automatic criminal justice.’”

We – all of us – have a problem. The justice system was never conceived or designed to comprehend the explosion of technology. And the lawyers and judges are not trained or prepared to deal with it. It’s a problem.


A Broken Justice System – Cases in Point – Part 2 – The Case of Courtney Bisbee


From time to time, I become aware of cases that are particularly good examples of the flaws, the problems, the shortcomings, the failures, and the actual injustices of our so-called justice system (that I have been writing about here for the last 3 1/2 years). This is Part 2 of what is intended to be a continuing series highlighting these cases. These cases have been selected as representative and demonstrative examples, but be aware they are just the “tip of the iceberg.” This kind of stuff is happening every day in every state. You can see Part 1 here.

[Note: To the best of my knowledge, everything in this article is a matter of public record. If it can be shown that there are any misstatements, I will immediately post a retraction and an apology. This article has been reviewed and approved for posting by both Courtney Bisbee and her family.]


“Part 2” is the case of Courtney Bisbee in Arizona. Courtney Bisbee is a clearly innocent woman who was wrongfully convicted of improperly “touching” a male adolescent. There is compelling, documented evidence of Courtney’s innocence, but she continues to be incarcerated in Perryville prison in Arizona, where she has been for the last ten years. I’ve been studying this case for two years, and it is a “perfect storm” of what is broken and wrong with the justice system. At the end of the article, I’ll enumerate at least some reasons for this, and the list is long. Let me also comment that this is an overview of the case. The more deeply one digs into the details of this case, the murkier, the dirtier, and the more putrid it gets. We just don’t have the time or the space to cover all of that here., but I can say that, in general, it relates to the state of the justice system in both Arizona and Maricopa County. This is the kind of horror story that the average citizen would say “can’t happen here,” but it does.

Stephen Lemons, writing for the Phoenix New Times in 2008, wrote a comprehensive and detailed summary of Courtney’s case. See that story by Stephen Lemons here. If you have even a casual interest in the case, I suggest you read the article. Here’s an “abbreviated” version of the case:

Courtney Bisbee was raised in Michigan in a traditional family that worked hard, played by the rules, and was living the American dream; and had never had any exposure to the justice system. In 2004, she was a successful single mom of a 4 1/2 year old daughter, living and working in Scottsdale, AZ, and life was grand. She had begun a new job as a high school nurse, while completing the final weeks of her master’s degree. A compassionate and caring person, she was even tutoring some troubled teens, and therein begin the problems, because two of these troubled teens had an even more troubled non-custodial mother, with a prior criminal record.

To understand the details of the alleged incident, I refer you to the Lemons article. But basically what happened was that the non-custodial mother of two of the teens Courtney had been mentoring learned, by accident, that the boys were secretly living with another family while their custodial father was completing work-furlough for DUI. She was irate about this, and after learning that Courtney had been at this family’s house with her two sons and several other teens, cooked up a plot to sue for money based upon Courtney’s allegedly “touching” her 13-year-old son inappropriately. She even consulted several attorneys prior to ever taking her son to talk to the police.

After the accusation was made, Courtney was arrested at her home by a SWAT team, without a warrant, and in front of her 4 1/2-year-old daughter. This was after the detective on the case, just prior to her warrantless arrest, had illegally searched Courtney’s home, also without a warrant, confiscating her computer and her camcorder. And because that same detective later lied to the Grand Jury about the case, Courtney was held non-bondable for 66 days, until a second Grand Jury could be convened, which was forced by her initial attorney. Only then was she able to be released on $100,000 bond in this “he said – she said” case.

The only detective on Courtney’s case clearly went into it with the presumption that she was guilty, failing to thoroughly investigate, and concocting his own information to support his preconceived belief. This included not following established rules and protocols for interviewing children (Multidisciplinary Protocol.2003), badgering and coercing Courtney during her lengthy interrogation, lying to the Grand Jury, and lying in court. He also did not investigate one critical, verifiable fact that would have disproved the “victim’s” story (see the Lemons article), and would have, most likely, resulted in Courtney’s acquittal.

From the onset, the prosecution employed a “win at all cost” strategy to obtain a a conviction in Courtney’s “high profile” case. At that time, the Maricopa County Attorney had been conducting a five year “witch hunt” reign of terror, even investigating and charging sitting judges and county supervisors who he believed had “crossed him.” Please see the very revealing American Bar Association Journal article about this prosecutor here. He openly boasted about his 200,000 felony convictions. Also at that time, there was a nationwide moral panic going on about the safety of children in schools, and this was a hot-button political issue for the prosecutor; resulting in a rush to judgement based upon false allegations with no presumption of innocence. Courtney was clearly a victim of all this, and her family has documented multiple instances of prosecutorial misconduct during the course of the investigation and trial in the prosecution’s drive to rack up another politically advantageous conviction.

At trial, Courtney was represented by an expensive but inadequate attorney from a well known Phoenix law firm who presented a lackluster defense. This attorney had coerced Courtney into opting for a bench trial. He even failed to call a key defense witness who was there waiting in the court house to testify during the trial, and who had exculpatory testimony to give.  This witness had been present when two of the state’s key witnesses had discussed the fact that the accuser was lying, and that nothing ever happened between Courtney and the alleged victim. In my opinion, this very well could have changed the outcome of the trial. Also in my opinion, this was just boneheaded legal incompetence. (Either that, or it was intentional. I’m sure we’ll never know. Why would he not call this witness?)

In 2006, the bench trial judge, who had been under investigation by the Maricopa County Attorney, ultimately found Courtney guilty, and imposed the mandatory minimum sentence plus one year – 11 years.

In 2007, the state’s key trial witness, the “victim’s” older brother, who was present at the time of the alleged incident, came forward with a sworn affidavit stating that he had lied in court during Courtney’s trial, that his brother had lied in court, and that the whole case was a scam for money perpetrated by their mother. Additionally, the “victim’s” (accuser’s) best friend was deposed by Courtney’s civil attorney, and stated under oath that the victim had confessed to her several times that nothing ever happened between Courtney and him, and that his mother was making him do it for the money. I have read the transcript of the deposition, and it is unequivocal; and what’s particularly striking about this is that the prosecutor was present for the deposition, and has failed to take any action as a result of it. This just makes my brain explode. This affidavit and the deposition have yet to be acknowledged or considered by a court. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has steadfastly ignored all this new evidence. Phoenix Fox News 10 did a story about the older brother’s affidavit recanting his testimony, saying that nothing ever happened, that his brother (the alleged victim) was also lying, and that their mother made them do it so she could sue for money. See that video here. In the video you’ll see Courtney sobbing as she declares her innocence and begs the judge not to separate her from her daughter; and maybe it’s my imagination, but I could swear the judge is actually smirking.

When Courtney was tried, convicted, and sent to prison in 2006, her parents lived in Atlanta. They moved to Phoenix with the idea that it would take them a year or two to get Courtney out of prison. They would ultimately have to sell Courtney’s and their homes, close their successful businesses, and cash in many of their assets to pay for Courtney’s failed defense. Ten years later, they are still in Phoenix, and Courtney is still in prison. Over this time period, they have dealt with a veritable parade of attorneys, none of whom have actually accomplished anything – except for collecting their fees. This was up until the point that her New York City attorneys were retained and filed her Writ of Habeas. Courtney has had an absolutely compelling habeas petition pending before the court for the last 2 1/2 years, but it is yet to be heard. I’ve read the petition, and it’s very well done, and anybody who reads it has to say, “Wait a minute. There’s something very wrong with this conviction.”

And here’s the real kicker. The people in this case who actually committed crimes – false accusation, perjury – get off scot-free. And the prosecutors, the judge, and the lawyers all suffer no consequences whatsoever. And they were all, all, complicit in sending an innocent mother to prison. And on top of all that, Courtney has been separated and alienated from her daughter by an antagonistic ex-husband, and has neither seen nor heard from her daughter in over 10 years.

What I believe this case exemplifies and demonstrates is ….

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Perspectives of a Public Defender

Tina Peng is a public defender in New Orleans, and has authored an opinion piece that recently appeared in the Washington Post.

Her insight and commentary on the job of public defender are eye opening.

See her article, “I’m a public defender. It’s impossible for me to do a good job representing my clients.”,  here.


When Innocence Is No Defense

The ancient Greek playwright, Euripides, once wrote, “Ours is a world in which justice is accidental, and innocence no protection.”

Interestingly, there is an op-ed piece in the NY Times today with the title “When Innocence Is No Defense.”

This quote from the article: “What is most troubling (about the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision) is that the issue of innocence becomes irrelevant if there has been a failure of due diligence. In effect, the ruling elevates finality over justice to the point that an innocent person can be imprisoned, even executed, because of errors made by his lawyer. Absent a constitutional safety net, an innocent person convicted after a procedurally adequate trial is out of luck.” (Highlighting is mine.)

See the NY Times op-ed piece by Julie Seaman here.

A Broken Justice System – Cases in Point – Part 1 – The Case of Ryan Madden

From time to time, I become aware of cases that are particularly good examples of the flaws, problems, shortcomings, and actual injustices of our so-called justice system that I have been writing about here for the last 3 1/2 years. I thought it would be good to highlight some of them for the blog.

As a backdrop to this series, I’d like to refer you to The Blaze article The American Nightmare: The Tyranny of the Criminal Justice System by John Whitehead. Please also see our previous post Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken – and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed.

Part 1” is the case of Ryan Madden in California.  Here is what I think this case exemplifies:

1) Bad defense lawyering leading to a wrongful conviction and exclusion from the appeals process.

2) The fact that you can pay huge sums of money to a lawyer who screws up your case, and you still get wrongfully convicted, and …. the lawyer keeps the money.

3) The existence of arbitrary “time bars” in the law that serve only to value legal process and finality of judgement over true justice.

4) The fact that so-called “conviction integrity units” are, in my opinion, still under the complete and arbitrary control of the prosecutor, and are not a reliable remedy for wrongful convictions. (Please see our previous post, Conviction Integrity Units – A Skeptic’s Perspective.)

Ryan’s father, Michael Madden, posted a comment regarding his son’s case to the WCB article Equal Justice Under Law … Well … Just How Much Justice Can You Afford?  His comment follows (with his permission), and is self-explanatory.


My son is currently serving 15 years for two armed robberies he did not commit. Shoddy and lazy lawyering led to his conviction through a myriad of miscalculations and mistakes, including failing to have ATM pictures of the actual suspect photographically enhanced.

During the appellate process, his once highly regarded attorney submitted his appeal 35 days too late, leading to the mounds of exculpatory evidence gleaned postconviction to be ADEPA time barred. He stands a very good chance under this system of NEVER having ANY of the exculpatory evidence considered by the courts… Including an actual confession letter written by the real perpetrator.

Even though his attorney miscalculated the allowable time frame in which to submit his appeal, my son is paying the price for his mistake, while the attorney suffers no consequences AND keeps the $85,000 fee.

In a last-ditch effort to have someone – ANYONE – examine the evidence, his fate now rests in the hands of the Ventura County Convictions Integrity Unit. Even though they are playing with taxpayers money, it’s amazing how frugal they become when it comes to spending it on possibly overturning a conviction they received nine years ago.

How did this “justice” system ever arrive at a place in which the timeliness of an appeal involving actual innocence trumps actual innocence?


Michael maintains a website about his son’s case:

“Part 2,” and more, to come in future.

Equal Justice Under Law? . . . Well . . . Just How Much Justice Can You Afford?


The words chiseled in stone above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court building say, “Equal Justice Under Law.” A truly noble philosophy – in theory.

But in actual fact, there’s nothing “equal” about justice in this country, and we’re not talking about racial, ethnic, religious, or gender issues here; although they certainly are a factor.  It’s a matter of just plain old “dollars and cents,” coupled with the statistical distribution of human capabilities. That is, the better the lawyer, the more money he/she can, and will, charge. This should not be surprising. It’s Economics 101 – supply and demand – the very bedrock foundation of capitalism. The better lawyers will be in higher demand – for those that can pay for them – and will consequently charge more money for their services. Lawyers are just like any other profession – doctor, mechanic, engineer, carpenter, tailor, chef, etc. – there’s a range of individual capabilities from “good” to “bad,” and the “good” one’s cost more money.  There’s an old saying in the legal business: “How much justice can you afford?” There’s no secret – the more you can pay for an attorney, the more effective your defense will be; and – if you’re actually innocent – the better your chances of a just outcome.

The law has become so incredibly vast, intricate, and complex, it’s no wonder that there have to be legal “specialties” – tax law, corporate law, patent law, estate law, non-profit law, contract law, political law, insurance law, criminal law, and on and on and on. It’s so complicated, even the lawyers can get it wrong. But the better lawyers are better at getting it right and in presenting an effective and successful case.

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Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

These Are the Wrongful Conviction Cases That Haunt Me

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.

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The Innocent Citizen’s Justice System Survival Guide

“Ours is a world in which justice is accidental, and innocence no protection.”     Euripedes, 400 B.C.


I come from a legal family, so even though I did not go into law, I’ve had a closeup view of the justice system my entire life, which is, I think, one of the reasons I decided to devote my post-corporate life to innocence work. I saw too many things happening that were not congruent with my view of what a fair and just system should, and must, be. For the past seven years, I’ve been deeply involved in innocence work, and have become knowledgeable about the details of many, many cases (100’s) of wrongful conviction and wrongful imprisonment. Consequently, I’ve seen many ways in which actually innocent people become tragic victims of what we call “justice.” There are just so many ways the justice system can get it wrong. This has caused me to think about what it is that an innocent person can (and should) do when accusatorially confronted by this thing we call the justice system. [You might want to also read my previous post Why I Think the US Justice System is Broken, and Why It’s Not Getting Fixed.]

If you think being wrongfully charged, indicted, convicted, and imprisoned can’t happen to you, think again. It can happen to anybody. Just ask Debra Milke. The ways this can happen are countless, and despite the system’s best efforts, there are just too many ways the system can possibly get it wrong. I could give you lots of examples, but we won’t try to detail them here – just take a look at the National Registry of Exonerations, and keep in mind these are only the ones that have been so far successfully overturned within the system – there are magnitudes more. This article will try to give you some “suggestions” for what you might do if you find you’re being wrongfully suspected or charged with a crime. For those of you who have had no close interaction with the justice system, you might well think that I’m being radical and that I must come from somewhere in outer space … and you can think that right up until you get scooped into the meat grinder. Let me me just say, “Forewarned is forearmed.”

This article will be in six sections:

I.  Have a Lawyer You Can Call

II. Don’t Talk to the Police

III. The Plea Bargain

IV. Be Ready for Trial

V. Shaken Baby/Child Abuse (Abusive Head Trauma)  [This requires special attention and treatment.]

VI. If You Are Wrongfully Convicted

DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney, and so cannot give you legal advice. These suggestions are only my personal opinion, and are solely the result of my exposure to the justice system and wrongful convictions over a period of years. They come with no guarantee. Every situation is unique, and you must always exercise your own judgment given the circumstances. They are just intended to get you thinking about how you would handle the situation of being wrongfully accused, and to give you some information about how the system works. I am certain that they cannot cover every possible situation, but hopefully, they will provide an overall, general guide for how you might deal with this. 

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Interview With Debra Milke’s Attorney

Here is a 25 minute interview with Debra Milke’s attorney.

It is fascinating and riveting.

And keep in mind, while you watch this, that our justice system did this.

See our previous post on the Milke case here.

And thank you to Camille Tilley for posting this in the comments. I felt it deserved ‘headline’ status.


Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Update on the Hannah Overton Case

Five days ago, we happily posted here that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had overturned Hannah Overton’s conviction for murdering her 4-year-old stepson by salt poisoning.  The basis for the ruling was ineffective assistance of counsel, and we bemoaned the fact that the court let the prosecutor off the hook for egregious Brady violations.

Well … the happy ending is still a long way off.  The day after our posting, on October 18, 2014, Nueces County DA Mark Skurka announced that his office will retry Hannah Overton.

Given the evidence that the prosecutor had early on, and did not disclose to the defense, Overton never should have been charged in the first place. This was a “crime” that never happened.

Read the full story by Pamela Colloff for the Texas Monthly here.

If you can read Colloff’s article through, and not be bristling with anger, then you just don’t understand, or you need to read it again, or you’re just on the wrong blog.