Category Archives: False confessions

DNA convicts killer of 1976 murder previously ‘solved’ by police coerced confession that sent wrong man to prison.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailA man has been sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for the 1976 rape and manslaughter of Janet Commins, a 15 year old girl, a crime that made national news at the time. Stephen Hough was interviewed along with all local men aged 17-22, but was ruled out after claiming to have been stealing petrol at the time. Instead, another local young man, Noel Jones, a barely literate 18-year-old traveller who had been picked up by police the day Janet’s body was discovered, was interviewed for days without legal assistance. He denied all knowledge of the crime but later his girlfriend told police he had confessed to killing Janet and had asked her to provide him with an alibi. After two days of questioning, he signed two detailed confession statements. On the second day of his murder trial in June 1976, he admitted manslaughter and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Noel Jones spent 6 years in prison for the murder.

(Picture l-r: Stephen Hough, Janet Commins and Noel Jones)

 

At the time of the investigation, police suspected Jones had an accomplice, and in 2006 they undertook a ‘cold case review’ to try and secure forensic evidence against their second suspect. This did not match, and was uploaded to the National DNA Database. A decade later, Stephen Hough was arrested after sexually assaulting another 15 year old girl. When DNA was taken, this was also uploaded to the National DNA Database where it matched the crime scene DNA from the 1976 murder.

Noel Jones described the six years he spent in prison as a “nightmare” which “absolutely destroyed my life”. He has never challenged his conviction, but says he is innocent and only confessed because police had pressured and coerced him.

The original investigation is now being re-examined. The police officer in charge of the investigation rose through the ranks to become Deputy Chief-Constable. At Hough’s trial he gave evidence that nobody thought to offer Noel Jones a solicitor during the initial stages of his questioning because he wanted to investigate “properly and thoroughly”. Police could be “impeded” by solicitors representing clients, he said, adding that “there was no requirement in those days for a person to be advised that he could have a solicitor”.

Yet another miscarriage of justice from the era prior to mandatory police recording of interviews, where police practice was to aim to secure confessions at all costs. One wonders how many more are laying dormant, with no DNA to reveal the truth after all these years.

Read more here:

Janet Commins: How police caught her killer after 41 years

Stephen Hough jailed for 12 years for Janet Commins killing

Janet Commins: Killer’s confession ‘made up by police’

 

Richard Leo on False Confessions

Here is a great article that interviews Professor Richard Leo about false confessions.  Check it out.  As you may know, Richard is one of the world’s leading experts on false confession, and his body of work can be found here for free download.

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

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Conviction Tossed in Another Chicago False Confession Case

Here’s a great email to receive this week—from David Owens, attorney for Patrick Prince…

Mates:
I’m a little late in reporting, but last Thursday, in an exceptionally courageous decision, a Cook County judge granted post-conviction relief to Exoneration Project client, Patrick Prince. After a evidentiary hearing, Judge Wilson found that we’d met the actual innocence standard and vacated Prince’s conviction. The opinion can be found here, and is attached. Still unsure whether the state will seek a retrial or dismiss the charges.
Mr. Prince has been imprisoned since 1991, when he was just 19. There was one—and only one–piece of evidence that tied him to the crime: a confession notorious Chicago Detective Kriston Kato coerced out of him after an evening of interrogation and abuse. Detective Kato has been accused of abusing more than 30 people (indeed, witnesses and not just defendants), nearly 1/3 of whom were never charged, acquitted, or had their convictions overturned.
An additional “Chicago style” wrinkle:  In Chicago, after a suspect agrees to give a statement, a “Felony Review” Assistant State’s Attorney comes to the police station to memorialize the confession, even if it’s 5 in the morning as it was in this case. Then, the felony review ASAs testify—almost identically from case to case—at suppression hearings that the defendant seemed fine, not abused, was treated well by the police, etc. It is completely bogus, and a part of the deep corruption here. These felony review ASAs must play ball with the detectives, or they don’t move on to the trial division, which is what leads to the homicide division and, of course, later being elected as a Cook County judge….
This is why I described the opinion as courageous.  In this case, the felony review ASA was a women named Dominica Stephenson.  Ms. Stephenson is a sitting judge in the same building as our judge. She was represented in the hearing by “Special State’s Attorneys” from Skadden. Truly remarkable. If that weren’t enough, Detective Kato is married to a different sitting judge in the building who parks next to Judge Wilson. So, in addition to the legal hurdles we had to overcome, we had to persuade our judge to ignore the political pressure of  26th and Cal. It is not lost on me that this opinion would have been impossible had he been a former ASA in Cook County.
A final note that makes this case pretty great: University of Chicago law students were involved at every step—from intake, to pleadings, and to putting on witnesses in our evidentiary hearing. In addition to the great news for our client, it was truly rewarding to see the students learn so much, and gain an appreciation for the importance of this work hands on.
Cheers,
David Owens
Earlier coverage of case here.

Friday’s Quick Clicks

  • This is weird.  Bill pending in Tennessee would allow inmates cleared by DNA testing to bypass the governor and be exonerated by the legislature.  Articles suggest currently governor is only options for such inmates.  A quick look at the Tennessee rules seems to suggest that such a motion could only be brought in the court system if it were made within 30 days of sentencing.  WTH?  That’s awful.  Tennessee needs an innocence organization to fix that situation and get a real “motion for new trial” rule passed in that state.
  • ‘Global epidemic’ of US-style plea bargaining prompts miscarriage warning
  • Oklahoma Commission Issues Report Findings: ‘It is undeniable that innocent people have been sentenced to death in Oklahoma’
  • Exoneree Marty Tankleff passes the NY bar exam!!!

Synthesized Testimony

From the Blind Injustice Facebook group:

Blind Injustice Chapter 5 titled Blind Memory discusses “synthesized testimony,” which occurs when police officers, many times unwittingly, take advantage of the malleability of human memory to bend and shape witness statements to fit their theory of the case. Many times, the witnesses don’t even realize their memories of the case have been contaminated and altered. From this link:

“But investigators manipulated the children’s often-conflicting narratives, dooming Sanborn to 70 years in prison for a crime that, his attorney claims in a new motion for bail filed last week, he did not commit.”

Today’s Widespread Use of Pre-Trial DNA Testing Won’t End Wrongful Convictions

From phys.org:

As we enter an era in which DNA evidence is routinely used in criminal investigations, errors that led to wrongful convictions—including mistakes later corrected with DNA tests—may seem to be fading into history. This, however, isn’t true, says law and criminal justice professor Daniel Medwed, who edited the book, Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution, which was published last month.

Many of the underlying issues that plagued the U.S. criminal justice system before DNA evidence rose to the fore still exist, he says, and will continue to produce flawed convictions unless they’re remedied.

Here, Medwed explores some of those procedural deficiencies as well as the deeply rooted sense of justice that animates his work.

Why do wrongful convictions occur, and what are some of the factors that lead to convicting an innocent person?

The phrase “wrongful convictions” could encompass a range of flawed convictions. Yet the concept typically refers to the case of a factually innocent person: Someone who simply didn’t commit the crime for which she was convicted. I think innocence cases largely derive from good-faith mistakes rather than malevolence on the part of, say, police or prosecutors. Those mistakes include eyewitnesses who simply get it wrong; zealous prosecutors who can’t look objectively at contrary evidence because of tunnel vision; suspects who falsely confess to crimes due to cognitive deficits; defense lawyers who are overworked and underpaid; and reliance on forensic “science” that lacks sufficient grounding in the scientific method.

In Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution, you examine what we’ve learned after 25 years of exonerating innocent prisoners through DNA evidence. What are those lessons?

We’ve learned about the substantive factors that contribute to wrongful convictions, as mentioned earlier, but we’ve also unearthed the procedural deficiencies in our system. The more than 300 documented exonerations of innocent prisoners through post-conviction DNA tests from 1989 to 2014 show that the traditional mechanisms of error correction in our system are insufficient. The direct appeal (in which a defendant challenges a criminal conviction secured at the trial level to a higher court), is ill-suited to address errors based in fact as opposed to law. And classic “collateral” remedies, such as habeas corpus, are replete with statutes of limitations and other procedural hurdles too high even for the innocent to clear. Going forward, we need to address both the substantive and the procedural flaws that can yield miscarriages of justice.

What has motivated you to study wrongful convictions and DNA evidence, and what inspires you to keep studying it?

First, inspiration comes from deeply-held personal beliefs. In my view, the hallmark of a civilized society is the extent to which we protect those in the weakest position to defend themselves—most notably, criminal suspects facing the potentially massive power of the government. All too often, criminal suspects are people of color with limited financial resources. This dynamic not infrequently produces disturbing outcomes for the individual, and sometimes results in the conviction of an innocent person. Imagine what it must be like to have the system fail you so dramatically, to have your cries of innocence fall on deaf, cynical ears. Thinking about that provides all the motivation I need.

Second, I feel as if we’re at a unique stage in history. DNA testing is now commonly used at the front end of the criminal process to weed out the innocent before a case even gets to trial. That means post-conviction DNA exonerations of inmates will inevitably dwindle to almost nothing; many of the DNA cases that generate headlines concern prisoners convicted years ago. But a decline in DNA exonerations will not signify that the system has become error-proof. Rather, the factors that initially gave rise to those  will remain and infect criminal cases that lack biological evidence suitable for DNA testing at all. Only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of criminal cases have testable biological evidence at all; what’s more, that  is often lost, destroyed, or degraded over time. So, I think we need to capitalize on the lessons learned from the DNA era to reform the underlying sources of error for all cases. And we need to do this before the rate of DNA exonerations wanes too much and the public gets the misimpression that the innocence problem is fixed.

 

Indigenous Injustice Again – Conviction Overturned in Australia

imagesI’ve written before about the many injustices that the Indigenous people of Australia face when caught up in the criminal justice system (for example see here…. and here…. and here ). I’ve also had occasion to write about the flawed investigative techniques of Australian police officers (see here… ). Both issues combined to see the wrongful conviction of a young Aboriginal man, convicted of the 2010 manslaughter of 21 yr old Josh Warnecke. However, justice has finally been done with his wrongful conviction overturned after over four years in prison.

Gene Gibson had given police a confession – induced by false evidence – when he was intellectually incapable of understanding the legal process. Gibson had been interviewed without an interpreter (despite having little English language) and no lawyer present. Gibson retracted his confession but was still convicted. He was supported in his efforts to win his freedom by the mother of the victim (who claims to feel ‘hoodwinked’ by the police), and some of Australia’s best legal professionals, working for free.

The Police Commissioner is planning to meet with Gibson after his release to personally apologise. In an earlier investigation into the police handling of the case, a scathing report found the problems with the case were a symptom of wider “failures and weaknesses” in the Western Australian Police handling of major cases. A total of eleven police officers face disciplinary action over their handling of the case.

Read more here:

WA Court of Appeal overturns Gene Gibson conviction for manslaughter of Josh Warneke

Gene Gibson’s manslaughter conviction for Josh Warneke killing thrown out

and earlier reports from 2015 on the police disciplinary action:

WA police stood aside over arrest of Aboriginal man charged with murder

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

  • Man exonerated and set free in Australia after finding of “unsafe” confession
  • Jeff Sessions and the odds of imprisoning innocents
  • New England Innocence Project client Fred Weichel was granted a new trial Monday. Judge Raymond Veary found that prosecutors failed to give the defense a police report suggesting an alternate perpetrator. The only evidence against Weichel was an eyewitness who identified him as the shooter (said eyewitness had at the time just finished a 6 pack of beer and was 180 feet away, at night.)  Click here for decision.

New York passes massive innocence reform bill…

From The Innocence Project:

(Albany, NY — April 10, 2017) – The New York Legislature has passed the FY18 budget that incorporated reforms which will greatly reduce wrongful convictions. Specifically, these changes will mandate law enforcement to record interrogations and adopt standardized best practices for conducting police lineups, and respective safeguards to prevent false confessions and eyewitness misidentifications.

“We applaud lawmakers in Albany for taking a tremendous step forward in protecting New Yorkers from wrongful convictions,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “I want to especially thank the governor for sticking by these key reforms right through the end of this process, and Assemblyman Joe Lentol for championing the wrongful conviction bill over the past 10 years.”

“The provisions mandating the recording of interrogations are some of the most stringent in the country, which we know will makes a huge difference in preventing false confessions,” said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project. “The new rules for identification procedures, which require that the lineups be conducted by an officer that is unaware of the identity of the suspect, include the most critical reforms. These changes will immediately make a tremendous difference in establishing a reliable and accurate criminal justice system.”

There have been 224 wrongful convictions overturned in New York. In the 30 that have DNA-based evidence, misidentification or false confession played roles in all of them. This ultimately means that every time someone is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated, the person who committed the crime went free, posing a threat to public safety and committing more crimes.

“This has been a long time coming for those of us who have suffered the horror of being imprisoned for a crime someone else committed. No financial settlement or words can replace the decades stolen from us and our families. However, knowing we have finally changed New York law gives us some solace and hope for the future,” said Yusef Salaam, a member of the Central Park Five and now an advocate for interrogation reform.

“We have worked over the years to make sure that what happened to us 28 years ago doesn’t happen to anyone else. It’s incredible to know we finally have made a difference, and maybe our conviction, as terrible as it was, has some meaning,” said Raymond Santana, also a Central Park Five exoneree and New York advocate.

Kevin Richardson, also exonerated of the notorious Central Park jogger rape case, and now a criminal justice advocate added, “If this had been law when we were interrogated, we may have never seen the inside of a prison, but now we can say, these long–awaited changes shows New York’s commitment to preventing the crime of putting innocent people behind bars and allowing the guilty to remain free.”

Rebecca Brown, policy director for the Innocence Project added, “Getting this critical legislation passed wouldn’t have been possible without the help of many people, but especially New York exonerees who never missed an opportunity to explain to lawmakers why these reforms are needed to prevent other people from being wrongly convicted.”

New York has 35 exoneration cases that involved false confessions and 76 where witness misidentification was a factor. If electronic recording of entire custodial interrogations had already been adopted, these numbers would likely be much lower. Recording is the most commonly recommended safeguard against wrongful convictions stemming from false confessions. It deters against coercive or illegal interrogation practices and alerts investigators, judges and jurors if suspects have mental illness, intellectual disabilities or other vulnerabilities that make them more susceptible to false confessions.

The U.S. Department of Justice, National Academy of Sciences and International Association of Chiefs of Police all recommend identification best practices—which includes using a “blind administrator” who is unaware of the suspect’s identity to conduct a lineup and therefore unable to provide unintentional cues—for reducing the risk of eyewitness misidentification.

“We applaud the governor, the legislative leaders and the entire legislature for passing this law to address wrongful convictions, by requiring video recording of custodial interrogations involving serious crimes and reforming eyewitness identification procedures—a long-standing legislative priority of the New York State Bar Association,” New York State Bar Association President Claire P. Gutekunst commented. “The new law is a positive step toward addressing wrongful convictions and rebuilding public trust and confidence in New York’s criminal justice system. It is essential to ensure that those who are innocent of crimes remain free and that the guilty are not free to commit more crimes. Wrongful convictions erode that fundamental tenet of our society.”

“Today, we embrace the passage of the New York Budget. In 2008, I first testified for the passage of legislation that required the electronic recording of interrogations.  Year after year, when called upon, I testified before the senate, assembly, city council—anywhere my voice could be heard.  Hopefully, from this day forward, interrogations will be recorded and we can avoid as many wrongful convictions as possible,” said Marty Tankleff, a New York exoneree, attorney and advocate.

Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals remarked: “I could not be more delighted that the wrongful conviction legislation for which we have fought for so long has finally passed. I salute the Innocence Project for its stellar leadership and unswerving commitment to ensuring that this day would come to pass. The work of the Innocence Project and the court system’s own Justice Task Force paved the way for this monumental achievement. Today, New York moves one step closer to making the ideal of equal justice a reality each and every day in our state.”

New York has now joined 20 additional states that employ the blind administration of lineups and is 1 of 22 states that require the recording of interrogations.

This critical budget bill had recently gained strong support from the New York Hotel Trades Council and their President Peter Ward, placing their efforts behind what has been a decade-long advocacy campaign for the Innocence Project.

Many players have helped see this bill to fruition and it would not have been possible without the help of the New York State Bar Association and former president Glenn Lau-Kee;  Peter Ward and the New York Hotel Trades Council; Families of the Wrongfully Convicted and Lonnie Soury;  Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jarrett Adams, Sharonne Salaam, Marty Tankleff, Jeff Deskovic, Johnny Hincapie, David McCallum, Derrick Hamilton, Shabaka Shakur, Steven Barnes, Sylvia Barnes, Frank Sterling, Al Newton, Fernando Bermudez, Everton Wagstaffe, Doug Warney, Kevin Smith, Dewey Bozella, Barry Gibbs and Alice Lopez, widow of William Lopez.

 

Breaking News: Arson Conviction Based on Bad Science Tossed in Illinois

Defendant Bill Amor represented by Illinois Innocence Project.  Click for decision… amor.opinion.dupage.

Wicklander-Zulawski Discontinues Reid Method Instruction After More Than 30 Years

World leader in interview and interrogation services  Wicklander-Zulawski and Associates will no longer be teaching the Reid technique. The Company announced it’s decision Monday in press release  citing as a motivating factor the percentage of DNA exonerations since 1989 that have involved false confessions. President and CEO Shane Sturman further explained:

“It’s human nature to deny and defend oneself. Confrontation is not an effective way of getting truthful information,” said WZ President and CEO Shane Sturman, CFI. “Rather than primarily seeking a confession, it’s an important goal for investigators to find the truth ethically through a respectful, non-confrontational approach.” Sturman added, “WZ has dedicated instructional blocks to educate detectives on the causes of false confessions and the risks of utilizing improper interrogation methods. In future classes, WZ will only discuss the Reid Method in effort to highlight potential risks posed in obtaining a false confession, or to illustrate the major advantages of using the WZ Non-Confrontational Method.”

“Because of the possible abuses inherent in the confrontational Reid style, we believe it is time to move away from the practices of the 1970s when it was developed,” Sturman concluded. “While the Reid Method has been successful in solving crimes over the years, there are serious pitfalls and significant risks associated with the incorrect application of the technique. WZ will remain a progressive, evolving organization dedicated to partnering with academics, attorneys, researchers, corporations, and law enforcement agencies around the world to ensure the tools we are teaching are ethical, moral and legally acceptable.”

Click here to read the full press release.

 

How Many Indigenous Prisoners In Australia Are Innocent?

An interesting question, with, I suspect, a terrifying answer. But who knows when miscarriages of justice in Australia are so notoriously difficult to overturn. Particularly if you are an indigenous prisoner, as this article points out:

For Aboriginal people who already have the justice system stacked against them, the avenues to protest a guilty verdict are limited, and it is unlikely you will be believed.

image-20160726-24908-1or4wo6Remember that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system of Australia.Aboriginal people represent only 3% of the total population, yet 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal.

This podcast details one case in particular of a suspected miscarriage of justice – of an Aboriginal man sentenced for a murder in 1991, that it is highly unlikely he was involved with despite his confession (most of which was thrown out of court for being involuntary). This is a case that is worthy of support – but points to a deeper problem: that there are most likely to be many many more like it, hidden from view not just because of the systemic hurdles in overturning wrongful convictions, but the almost blissful ignorance of the public that there are serious flaws in their justice system that only very rarely come to the surface.

Read more here… Curtain And The Case For Freedom: How Many Indigenous Prisoners In Australia Are Innocent?

 

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

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’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

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Australia – still reliant upon flawed policing techniques.

7762600-3x2-940x627Australia is viewed by many as an idyllic continent, where people can feel safe, and the rule of law prevails. Yet despite being a first world nation, policing can often be outdated and primitive. The use of paid-informants, and the reliance upon supposed ‘jail-house’ confessions has been known to cause wrongful convictions for decades. Yet as recently as 2009, the police of New South Wales used a paid informant to secure a confession from a young vulnerable Sudanese refugee. This supposed confession was obtained while the young man believed the informant had been brought to him to offer support during questioning by the police.

Such tactics not only smack of the worst kind of trickery, they also provide the flimsiest of evidence upon which to base a prosecution. However, this is exactly what the prosecution in the murder case against JB – a Sudanese refugee aged 15 at the time – did. Not only did they rely upon this evidence, they then proceeded to cover it up. It was not disclosed at trial, nor at a subsequent appeal, that the man known as A107 was a police informant, who then avoided his own criminal charges after this assistance with the case against JB.

There is now – belatedly – an inquiry into the police – including the ‘editing’ of contemporaneous notes – and the prosecution (for non-disclosure). This comes 7 years after the jailing of an innocent teenager. The inquiry should be asking why the police, as recently as 2009, were using such methods to try and obtain confessions, and then conspiring to cover their methods up.

Read more here:

Probe launched into wrongful conviction of Sudanese refugee jailed over Edward Spowart murder