Category Archives: Editorials/Opinion

Appeals Court Concurs: Brendan Dassey’s Confession Was Involuntary

Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal magistrate judge’s ruling that Wisconsin inmate Brendan Dassey’s confession in the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach (featured in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”) was involuntary. The state Justice Department had appealed and will likely seek a review by the 7th Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court. The state also has the option of retrying Dassey within 90 days.

In an Associated Press article, Steven Drizin, an expert on false confessions, Co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University, and one of Dassey’s attorneys said, Continue reading

NYTimes Editorial Criticizes Trump/Sessions Decision to Kill New Forensic Science Commission

The evidence as to why this is needed is clear.  Those in this movement had worked for such a commission for decades.  This is a horrible decision that could really set back innocence reform–and justice–for years.   Editorial here

Maryland Justice Professional Opposes Revisiting Death Penalty

“At a time when there are calls for criminal justice reform, it is important to ensure any reforms are based on sound research and data-driven, fact-based information. Calls for re-establishment of the death penalty in Maryland are not based on the aforementioned.” — Karl Bickel

Karl Bickel, a career law enforcement officer and former proponent of the death penalty, has offered a well-researched argument against making any exception to the repeal of Maryland’s death penalty, implemented in 2013. The state has opted for life in prison without the possibility of parole for its worst offenders. House Bill 881, introduced on February 6, 2017, calls for an exception for first-degree murder cases in which the victim is a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or first responder.

A key issue for Bickel is avoiding the risk of wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent.

Bickel is retired from the Department of Justice, and has been a major city police officer, an assistant professor, and second in command of the Frederick County (MD) Sheriff’s Office.

Read his commentary here.

The National Registry of Exonerations has identified 116 cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death, before being exonerated.

New Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Tough on Crime”

The newly anointed US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, in his first major address has proclaimed a policy of “tough on crime” – particularly violent crime.

Here we go again – the “war on drugs” redux. How many prosecutors have been elected running on a “tough on crime” platform? I would say most, if not all.

So how do prosecutors “deliver” on their campaign promise of “tough on crime?” They arrest a lot of people, obtain a lot of indictments, secure a lot of convictions, and send a lot of people to prison. The only problem? A lot of these people may be actually innocent. But they’ve been scooped up into the frenzy of proving that law enforcement is “tough on crime.” People get convicted through intimidating and coercive plea bargains, phony evidence and false testimony, bad forensics, and police and prosecutor misconduct.

Criminal prosecution MUST rest upon the foundations of truth, logic, real evidence, and prosecutorial ethics – not upon hysteria hyped by politicians and the media.

You and see the CNN coverage of Mr. Sessions address here.

‘Home and Away’: differential reporting on miscarriages of justice in the UK?

_40085152_justicefigure203Miscarriages of justice (as wrongful convictions are more commonly referred to in the UK) rarely feature in the national media in the UK. This has been noted for many years now. If a case is sufficiently high-profile or has some peculiarity (i.e. involves a footballer or other ‘celebrity’), then it may merit a short piece in a national newspaper. Most will only make a paragraph or two in a regional newspaper if lucky supporters can provoke the interest of a local journalist. The overwhelming majority get no media coverage at all. This is not because of a lack of miscarriages of justice (our Criminal Court of Appeal is as over-run with work as ever, as is our Criminal Cases Review Commission), but a perceived lack of public interest. Perhaps domestic miscarriages lack the ‘drama’ of an exoneration in the US (we lack the ridiculously lengthy sentences for a start). The contrast is becoming increasingly stark, with ‘Making a Murderer’ lawyers ‘on tour’ in the UK speaking to rapturous crowds, while campaigners for domestic cases struggle to be heard. In just one example: a leading national newspaper this week has a major splash on an exoneration in the US, that has a small ‘home’ angle that can be exploited:

“Innocent man jailed for 24 years after being framed over British tourist’s murder in New Orleans is freed by two lawyers who exposed a jaw-dropping fit-up that shames the US legal system.”

Yet look at the coverage of a shocking (but all too common) miscarriage of justice in the UK – a story in a local paper: Exclusive: Sheffield milkshake shop owner’s three-year nightmare in fight to clear name over child sex attack

While clearly anecdotal, yet again today I have had to correct a law student who is interested in studing miscarriages of justice after watching US TV shows, who thought that they were an “American thing”. Students seem astonished when I point out that we have our own miscarriages of justice they could study. Perhaps the media could play their part in actually reporting on ‘home’ miscarriages of justice rather than just seeking those instances we can revel in shaming the US for ‘away’ cases.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

A Case for Justice Reform in 2017

The year 2016 will go down as a good one for Freddie Peacock. But because it was so long in coming, it surely must be bittersweet. His story illustrates the slow pace and enormous hurdles in correcting criminal justice miscarriages post-conviction. It also calls on our individual and national conscience to make 2017 the year responsible citizens send the message loud and clear to all public and criminal justice professionals that this nation must replace the mantra of “tough on crime” with “smart on crime.” In the Peacock case we learn many lessons about wrongful conviction rarely delivered so clearly by a federal judge.

In August 2016 U.S. District Judge Michael Telesca awarded Freddie Peacock nearly $6.2 million long after Peacock’s conviction of and imprisonment for a 1976 Rochester (NY) rape he didn’t commit. Peacock had sued the city of Rochester and Rochester police. Judge Telesca’s decisions in May (here) enabling Peacock to pursue civil damages and in August (here) determining his damages are instructional for those who believe wrongful convictions are the inevitable rare result of innocent human error. Continue reading

Prosecutorial Misconduct is Now a Felony in California

One of, if not the most, frequent occurrences of prosecutorial misconduct is withholding exculpatory evidence from the defense; which prosecutors are required by both law and ethics to share. The state of California has taken this “bull by the horns,” and made withholding evidence by prosecutors a criminal felony.

Under the new law, prosecutors who alter or intentionally withhold evidence from defense counsels can face up to three years in prison.

EVERY one of the remaining 49 states needs to follow this example. This is a major step in establishing the kind of accountability prosecutors MUST face if we are to ever achieve the necessary level of ethical conduct on the part of prosecutors.

See the reason.com story here.

 

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Courtney Bisbee – Released . . . But Not Free.

We have reported extensively on the Courtney Bisbee case here on the blog.

Please see: HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE .

In my 8 1/2 years of doing this work, this is one of the worst travesties of justice I have encountered. And it all took place in that snake pit cesspool of a justice system called Maricopa County, AZ.

Courtney served her full sentence (11 years), and was released from prison on November 17. But she is NOT free. One would think that once you’ve served your full sentence and were released, that would be it; and you should be able to start rebuilding your shattered life, albeit with a prison record, but NO.

Courtney has been fitted with a GPS ankle bracelet, and registered as a sex offender – a life sentence. And get this – she is not even on probation; she’s on parole (“community supervision”) with harsh conditions, just like she’s still considered a prisoner. And indeed, she is still under the custody of the Department of Corrections, which limits her ability to take any kind of legal action. AND THIS IS ALL FOR A “CRIME” THAT NEVER HAPPENED.

Courtney’s habeas petition is still pending before federal court, as it has been since 2012. We can only hope that true justice will ultimately be done.

We’re thrilled that at least Courtney is out of prison, and is being allowed to live with her parents as she works mightily to start putting the pieces back together.

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.

New Zealand Supreme Court Judge calls for Criminal Review Body

supportnationNew Zealand has seen a few high profile miscarriages of justice in recent years, yet successive governments have ruled out the possibility of setting up a body – similar to the Criminal Cases Review Commision in the UK – to investigate potential miscarriages of justice. Justice William Young said courts could benefit from having a Criminal Cases Review Commission, like that established in the UK – an idea backed by the Police Association and most political parties. In a rare interview –  which you can listen to here: Supreme Court Judge interview – the Justice discusses welcoming the introduction of such a body – despite being recently dismissed by the Ministry of Justice.  There is also a handy guide to the New Zealand post-conviction relief here: Reviewing Criminal Cases. While in  2012 – Malcolm David Birdling published a PhD thesis examining the two systems (available here): Corrections of Miscarriages of Justice in New Zealand and England and Wales (PhD Thesis).

 

 

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

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

CA Prosecutors Who Withhold or Tamper with Evidence Now Face Felony Charges

Well ….. it’s about time!

This is a “biggy” – a significant step in establishing prosecutorial accountability and exposure to sanctions.

California has just enacted a law that exposes prosecutors who withhold or tamper with exculpatory evidence to felony charges, with up to three years imprisonment.

Please see the LA Times story here.

Now we just need to have this migrate to all the rest of the states and the Department of Justice.

 

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

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

Junk Science Reigns ____ So Much for True Science in the Courtroom

We had hope, back in 2009, when the National Academy of Sciences report Forensic Science in the United States; A Path Forward was published, that there might finally be some remedy for all the junk science being used to convict innocent people. The report painted a scathing picture of the lack of true science contained in, and the invalidity of, traditional forensic disciplines; the sole exception being DNA. The report did spawn the creation of the Federal Commission on Forensic Science, which has proven, over the last three years, to be a totally toothless tiger, accomplishing essentially nothing.

Now recently, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has issued an additional report that is highly condemning of current forensic practices. You can see the PCAST report here:  pcast_forensic_science_report_final

HOWEVER, even in light of this recent report, both the FBI and the Department of Justice have stated they have no intention of changing the way they currently address forensics.

Please see the Intercept article, FBI AND DOJ VOW TO CONTINUE USING JUNK SCIENCE REJECTED BY WHITE HOUSE REPORT, by Jordan Smith here.

Justice System Out of Control —- If You Change a Baby’s Diaper in Arizona, You Can Now be Convicted of Child Molestation.

This from a recent story on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern: “The Arizona Supreme Court issued a stunning and horrifying decision on Tuesday, interpreting a state law to criminalize any contact between an adult and a child’s genitals. According to the court, the law’s sweep encompasses wholly innocent conduct, such as changing a diaper or bathing a baby.”

Not only that, but this law places the burden upon the accused to prove that there was no sexual intent. This throws presumption of innocence (innocent until proven guilty) out the window!

“Arizona prosecutors can now dangle the threat of a probable child molestation conviction to coerce any parent of a young child into taking a plea deal on unrelated charges. With the state Supreme Court’s help, Arizona’s child molestation laws have been weaponized into a tool for prosecutorial harassment, allowing the state to target any parent or caregiver—out of spite or malice, or simply to boost their conviction rates.”

Arizona has, once again, proven that the inmates are truly running the asylum. This is so absurd, it would be laughable – if it weren’t so tragic.

Please see the full story on Slate by Mark Joseph Stern here.

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