Category Archives: investigations and investigation techniques

New interrogation techniques taking hold

The good cop-bad cop Reid Technique of interrogations, which has caused numerous false confessions and wrongful convictions, may be finally on the way out.

The Marshall Project reports here about how “a radical new interrogation technique is transforming the art of detective work: Shut up and let the suspect do the talking.”

The new technique is also discussed in former homicide detective Jim Trainum’s soon-to-be released book, How the Police Generate False Confessions: An Inside Look at the Interrogation Room. Steve Drizin of the Center on Wrongful Convictions says Trainum’s book “puts a lie to so many myths about police interrogations that I lost count of them all. But it does so much more. Det. Trainum is not just a critic; he is a reformer, charting a course for the proper way for police officers to investigate cases, interview suspects, witnesses and informants and to obtain reliable information from them.” You can read more about this important book here.

 

 

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

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

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Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Lack of understanding, overconfidence lead to investigative errors, researcher says

Why do police make the same false assumptions and continue to use outdated investigative techniques even after the mounting number of exonerations proves them wrong?

British researchers Julia Shaw and Chloe Chaplin conducted a survey to find out. They discovered that police officers are just as ill-informed on important policing issues as everyone else but “exhibited higher confidence in their judgements than the general public, making them more confidently wrong.” You can read Shaw’s examination of this problem here.

 

 

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

We have reported on the case of Jack McCullough here before.  Please see:  https://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2016/03/25/illinois-prosecutor-says-man-convicted-in-oldest-cold-case-is-innocent/

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

See the CNN story here.

 

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:  https://wrongfulconvictionsblog.org/2015/04/10/interview-with-debra-milkes-attorney/

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.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday Quick Clicks…

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Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Prosecutors Oppose New Trial for Melissa Calusinski in SBS Case

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

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

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

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

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

“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

Courtney

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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Ohio Moving to Curtail Civil Asset Forfeiture

In many states, including Ohio, the police may seize and keep a person’s assets merely with evidence that “wrongdoing” has occurred. This includes cars, houses, boats, and cash. A person does not have to be convicted of a crime to suffer civil asset forfeiture, and in many instances “evidence of wrongdoing” is very subjectively interpreted by the police.

There is currently a bill moving through the Ohio legislature that would curtail this practice, and if passed, would require a conviction before the police could keep seized assets.

See the WCPO Cincinnati story here.

Criminal Law 2.0, by The Hon. Alex Kozinski (Why the US Justice System Really Isn’t Just)

Alex Kozinski is a judge on the U.S. Ninth Circuit. He has recently authored an article for the Georgetown Law Journal, which he simply titles “Criminal Law 2.0.” It is a comprehensive review and critique of the flaws and shortcomings of the current US justice system. My opinion is that this article is a masterpiece, a classic. Here is an experienced, seasoned, knowledgable justice system “insider” who has “figured it out.” And not only has he figured it out, but he also has some very good ideas about fixing the problems, or at least some of them. You can see the full text here: Kozinski, Criminal Law 2. I strongly encourage reading the full article.

Here is a topical summary: (Please see the full article for Judge Kozinski’s discussion of each point.)

A. The myths that cause us to think that the justice system is fair and just, when it’s really not.

  1. Eyewitnesses are highly reliable.
  2. Fingerprint evidence is foolproof.
  3. Other types of forensic evidence are scientifically proven and therefore infallible.
  4. DNA evidence is infallible.
  5. Human memories are reliable.
  6. Confessions are infallible because innocent people never confess.
  7. Juries follow instructions.
  8. Prosecutors play fair.
  9. The prosecution is at a substantial disadvantage because it must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
  10. Police are objective in their investigations.
  11. Guilty pleas are conclusive proof of guilt.
  12. Long sentences deter crime.

B. Recommendations for reform – Juries

  1. Give jurors a written copy of the jury instructions.
  2. Allow jurors to take notes during trial and provide them with a full trial transcript.
  3. Allow jurors to discuss the case while the trial is ongoing.
  4. Allow jurors to ask questions during the trial.
  5. Tell jurors up-front what’s at stake in the case.
  6. Give jurors a say in sentencing.

C. Recommendations for reform – Prosecutors

  1. Require open file discovery.
  2. Adopt standardized, rigorous procedures for dealing with the government’s disclosure obligations.
  3. Adopt standardized, rigorous procedures for eyewitness identification.
  4. Video record all suspect interrogations.
  5. Impose strict limits on the use of jailhouse informants.
  6. Adopt rigorous, uniform procedures for certifying expert witnesses and preserving the integrity of the testing process.
  7. Keep adding conviction integrity units.
  8. Establish independent Prosecutorial Integrity Units.

D. Recommendations for reform – Judges

  1. Enter Brady compliance orders in every criminal case.
  2. Engage in a Brady colloquy.
  3. Adopt local rules that require the government to comply with its discovery obligations without the need for motions by the defense.
  4. Condition the admission of expert evidence in criminal cases on the presentation of a proper Daubert showing.
  5. When prosecutors misbehave, don’t keep it a secret.

E. Recommendations for reform – General

  1. Abandon judicial elections.
  2. Abrogate absolute prosecutorial immunity.
  3. Repeal AEDPA § 2254(d). (Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act)
  4. Treat prosecutorial misconduct as a civil rights violation.
  5. Give criminal defendants the choice of a jury or bench trial.
  6. Conduct in depth studies of exonerations.
  7. Repeal three felonies a day for three years. (Refers to the fact that there are too many vague, overlapping laws on the books.)

I would add two more to the General category:

•  Have all trial counsel, prosecution and defense, sworn in at the beginning of every trial.

•  Abandon political election of prosecutors.

Why so Many “Confessions” in Shaken Baby Syndrome Cases?

In suspected SBS cases, the child abuse pediatricians (CAP’s) and the police are perfectly willing to coerce a confession out of you, and they have circumstances on their side, because you are at your most vulnerable. You are terribly concerned about the condition of your child, or worse yet, your child has just died. (See our previous post on child abuse pediatricians here: The Child Abuse Pediatrician (CAP) – Just Another Term for Medical “Cop”)

We’ve posted about SBS “confessions” before. See Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS) – A CBS Report: Blaming Melissa for the coerced “confession” of Melissa Calusinski. See Scenes of a Crime – A Documentary of a False Confession and Blatantly Coerced Confession Results in Conviction Reversal for the coerced “confession” of Adrian Thomas.

Washtenaw Watchdogs (Washtenaw County, MI) has just published an investigative report article on their website dealing with this very issue. It’s very powerful. See it HERE.

Vietnam: Government debates problem of wrongful convictions

In yet another encouraging sign the the ‘problem’ of miscarriages of justice is starting to be taken more seriously globally – the National Assembly of Vietnam has this week been debating the issue of wrongful convictions. In a courageous move, auntitled standing committee looking at wrongful convictions and compensation, admitted that while most investigations and prosecutions were carried out in adherence with rules and upheld human rights, there were some ‘weaknesses and shortcomings’. The report states that between October 1, 2011 to September 30, 2014, there were 71 wrongful convictions – a rate of 0.02 per cent. Although a ‘small’ number, they admitted: “Some serious cases created extreme anxiety among the public, eroding many people’s confidence in our justice system and damaging the prestige of our law enforcement agencies.”. However, with 80% of trials in Vietnam taking place with NO defence counsel, and the country still reportedly ‘trying hard’ to eradicate torture and coerced confessions, it may be questionable how the figure of 71 was reached… and it’s accuracy. Despite this scepticism, it is still heartening that such reports are being published. Read more here…

Miscarriages of justice in Vietnam are serious: legislators

NA debates wrongful convictions