Category Archives: Pretrial detention

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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Immigration Policies Should Not be Driven By Prison Profiteering

On August 7, 2013, officials from the United States and Mexico met in Texas to discuss immigration reform. Roughly 400 thousand people, primarily from our bordering neighbor, are arrested for immigration violations each year.  The creation and enforcement of immigration laws has created a massive industry with a vested interest in continuing the expansion and enforcement of immigration crimes.

Corrections Corporations America, the GEO Group, and Management and Training Corporation house 80% of those apprehended for immigration crimes.  Between them, they make a profit of over $5 billion per year. CCA Founder is quoted as saying selling the concept of private prisons to the government is just “like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers.”

Prisons should not be run just like any other business.  The social costs are too great to simply consider the supply and demand of inmates, and increasing supply by legislating new crimes or changing enforcement.  Clearly, these companies rely and directly stand to benefit from anti-immigration laws. The Associated Press noted that they spent $45 million on lobbying over the last decade. Since 2005, the largest growth in prison populations came from federal immigration detentions. It has been the leading cause of incarceration for the last four years.   It is the growth sector for these businesses.

Immigration reform is at the forefront of our national and foreign policy.  Decisions need to be made that make sense domestically and for our relationships with our southern neighbors.  Those decisions should also be driven by what is right, fair, and humane.  They should not be driven by the profiteering of the corrections industry.

Follow me on Twitter: @JustinoBrooks

Professor Justin Brooks
Director, California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101

For more information please see:




Wrongfully Jailed Man Dies in an Argentinean Prison

Luciano Peralta was the father of three children.  He earned his living as a gardener. He had recently separated from his wife, Esther Cerrudo, but the two were on very amicable terms. On Sunday, October 27, 2013, Esther asked Luciano to watch the kids while she took care of some personal matters.

Argentinian police officers allege that a neighbor called to report a robbery at Esther’s residence. When they arrived, the officers arrested Luciano in front of his children. They proceeded to seize his motorcycle and the bicycle that belonged to Luciano’s young son.

Luciano was imprisoned in La Plata, a province in the capital city. When his ex-wife and mother arrived at the prison, Esther explained that she had asked him to be there and the children at the house were Luciano’s children.  Nonetheless, they were told he would be spending the night in jail.

The following day, a public defender assured Luciano he would be free. She noted that he seemed lost and confused. Prior to his being released, Luciano began to suffer a panic attack. He started trembling and convulsing. His mother was at the prison, but she was not allowed to see him. The officers did not call a doctor nor did they call an ambulance. Luciano received no medical attention. Ultimately, he died in his cell.

Norma Silguero and Tatiana Peralta, mother and sister of the deceased. (Photo: @martinenlared)

Norma Silguero and Tatiana Peralta, mother and sister of the deceased. (Photo: @martinenlared)

We may never know the true motivations for the arrest or what really happened to Luciano at the jail.  This case is another example of tragedies that can result from wrongful arrests and the need for reform within the Argentinian police.

Follow me on Twitter: @JustinoBrooks

Professor Justin Brooks
Director, California Innocence Project
California Western School of Law
225 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101

For more information please see:


Early DNA Testing Could Prevent Nightmare of Wrongful Charges

The Innocence Project reports that DNA has proven the innocence of nearly 300 people who spent 13 years on average in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. K’vaughn Hines, 19, is not one of them because multiple charges—including first-degree murder and rape—were dropped before trial and conviction. DNA testing eventually excluded him and Sheldon Sneed, 19, from a violent gang rape committed in a Metro station in Maryland. As reported in the Maryland here, Hines, who did not have as much as a traffic ticket prior to this charge, spent four months in jail without bond and a month on house arrest before the charges were dropped. It was a life-changing experience.

A witness at the Metro station spotted Hines and Sneed at the station and said they had committed the crimes, but they were not identified at the scene of the crime. What followed rarely makes headlines, but it was a nightmare for Hines Continue reading

Audio and Visual Recording of Interrogations by Public Prosecutors, Part II

The Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office (SPPO) issued a report on audio and visual recording of interrogations last week (on July 4th, JST).

Demonstration of how the recording would take place during interrogation by prosecutor.

As I posted earlier, the SPPO started recording some interrogations on an experimental basis in 2006. Last week’s report  focused on the experimental recording in three Special Investigation Units and ten Special Crime Devision Public Prosecutor’s Office, which took place in 91 cases from March 2011 through April 2012 (note that these offices or branches in the Public Prosecutor’s Office usually involve only white collar crimes). The report revealed what the prosecutors in Japan have to say about the recording of interrogations.

Below are the points worth noting:

1)  Interrogations in 91 cases out of 98 were either partially or entirely recorded. The entire interrogation process was recorded in 39 cases.  30 of the cases concerned tax violations.

2) In seven cases, the suspects refused the recording from the beginning of interrogations. In 12 cases, the suspects refused the recording halfway through. The reasons for their refusal include: they were ashamed of being arrested and incarcerated, and they did not want to provide discussions in front of the camera.

3) Recording took place in other prosecutor’s offices in 946 cases out of 1,005 cases, where the charge was a serious offense and the case was to be disposed of by a Lay Judge trial, such as murder. In cases involving persons with intellectual disabilities, 540 cases were recorded (this was all of the cases in this category except where the accused refused). Continue reading

Africa Illegal Detention:Two Innocent Men Set Free in Kenya

After spending 75 days ‘unlawfully’ in prison, Shadrack and Joseph regained their freedom on April 18th, 2012. Thanks to the work of the International Justice Mission in Kenya, the organisation that worked tirelessly, against all odds to secure their release. This brings to the fore the notoriously sluggish machinery of justice in Africa, that an accused person can be made to suffer scorn and odium, for an offence he did not commit. As their lawyer said: ‘There is much more to be done to set the innocent prisoners free’.

One can only hope that the lawyer can go the whole hog to sue the relevant authorities for false imprisonment; deprivation of liberty; loss of income and consequently, make a claim for monetary compensation. ‘Exemplary’ and ‘aggravated’ damages might not be too far-fetched a claim to allege. As the maxim goes, for every right there is a remedy. Read  here

Prisons in Africa: An Evaluation from a Human Rights Perspective,artigo_sarkin.htm In this article, Jeremy Sarkin makes a poignant argument for prison reforms in Africa. One constant theme dominates his discourse: the debasement, abuse and violation of the individual rights of prisoners. In almost all of the countries in Africa he cited, the anecdotal evidence clearly suggest the need for a different pathway to dealing with the question of prison reform, from a human rights perspective. In Uganda, he states – ‘For instance, two-thirds of the 18,000 inmates in Uganda have yet to be tried’.  Ditto for South Africa, where as he contends; in South Africa Johannesburg prison, some inmates have not seen a judge in as many as seven years. In Nigeria, the situation is not any different, if not worse. He identifies the consequences of this parlous situation leading to – prison overcrowding; violation of pre-trial detention rights; dearth of prison resources and governance. He then concludes with solutions, which he narrows down to – alternative sentencing; the vigorous enforcement of prisoners’ rights vide the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights; and the unique role of a Special Rapporteur on Prisons and Conditions. In conclusion, violation of prisoners’ rights is one veritable source, around which issues of wrongful convictions and the fight for the innocent, can be located, particularly in skewed systems in Africa, as highlighted by this article.

Civil commitment for unproven condition rejected

Imagine being wrongly convicted of a crime that never occurred, serving a long sentence and then, when you’re about to be released, having the government lock you up for crimes you might commit in the future.

Even worse, imagine that the reason the government wants to keep you locked up is that you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder that many psychologists don’t believe even exists.

That could happen if the federal government has its way with its attempts to civilly detain people it deems a dangerous sex offender because they have “hebephilia,” the sexual attraction to children who have reached puberty.

Fortunately, a federal judge last week rejected the government’s effort to detain a convicted sex offender based on what forensic psychologist Karen Franklin calls this “faux diagnosis.” You can read her post here.

Weighing up the Law on Presumption of Innocence

The presumption of innocence is an international protective legal norm – whether in civil or common law jurisdictions. It’s an integral part of the principle of fairness. We are increasingly witnessing a sustained assault on this time tested legal principle.

In Nigeria, in 2009, Mohammed Yusuf the acclaimed leader of the ferocious and violent Islamic sect, which goes by the name Boko Haram, was brutally ‘murdered’ by the police. He was shot with cuffs in hands by the Nigerian police. Where was the presumption of innocence? Without prejudice to the on going investigation of the tragic death of young Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman in some quarters, is already presumed guilty. Where is the presumption of innocence?  It seems there is the tendency that we confuse presumption of innocence with other concepts. For a didactic analysis of presumptions, assumptions and assertions, and how they colour our perceptions of crime, read here

Opinion piece references impact of plea bargains on wrongful conviction

Writer Michele Alexander raises the wrongful conviction issue as it relates to plea bargaining. As an example, she writes, Erma Faye Stewart, a single African-American mother of two, arrested in 2000 in a drug sweep in Hearne, TX., claimed innocence, but was very worried about her children’s care while she was in jail. Her court-appointed lawyer told her to take the prosecutor’s deal: plead guilty for probation. She pled, was sentenced to 10 years’ probation, and a $1,000 fine. But now she was a felon. Barred from food stamps, evicted from public housing and homeless, her children were taken and placed in foster care. Read the full New York Times op-ed piece here.

More than 90 percent of U.S. criminal cases are not settled in a trial or by a jury. The plea bargaining system is seemingly essential to a criminal justice system that incarcerates about one in 100 adult Americans. But how often do innocent people plead to avoid the costs—in time and resources—of pursuing a trial or to avoid the risk of conviction and incarceration?

Meet the Wits Justice Project (South Africa)

The Wits Justice Project at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg formed in 2008,  modeled on the Innocence Projects the U.S.  The Project is based in the journalism school at Wits U., thus is similar in nature to the projects at Northwestern (Medill Innocence Project) and the Innocence Institute of Point Park University.

I visited the Wits Justice Project in 2010 and learned a lot about their set-up and the unique challenges they face in South Africa.  Their operations are impressive.   They have a larger staff, infrastructure and office space than most projects in the U.S. and U.K.  And they are aggressive and do good work, having already obtained freedom for 2 clients and held a major conference to raise awareness in South Africa.  This article, entitled Crusaders for the Innocent, gives a good overview of the program.

Me, Michele Berry-Godsey, Jeremy Gordin and other members of the Wits Justice Project

Fighting for the innocent in South Africa includes a unique facet that doesn’t exist in many other legal systems.  WJP summarizes the problem as follows:

In its 2010/2011 Annual Report3, the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services gave the number of inmates in the country as 160,545. Of these, 47,880 (30%) are remand detainees and have been behind bars, some for years, waiting for their trials to begin or reach conclusion. Yet approximately 2 in 5 of these inmates will eventually be acquitted. This means that a staggering number of innocent people are being deprived of their freedom

The Wits Justice Project_2012 Annual Plan is quite ambitious, and includes production of a documentary television series to raise awareness in South Africa of wrongful conviction and lengthy pretrial detention of the innocent.

In January, famed journalist and former director Jeremy Gordin left the project and was replaced by Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi.  Before joining WJP as project coordinator, Nooshin was the humanitarian diplomacy senior officer of the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies, working in the 49 sub-Saharan African countries.

Nooshin Erfani-Ghadimi, WJP project coordinator

The rest of the WJP team, and their biographies, can be found here.


Trial by Jury: Is It About Time for Nigeria?

Nigeria’s adversarial justice system, pitches the prosecutor against the defense, in a fierce evidential ‘duel’ as to the guilt or otherwise of an accused person. That leaves a stand-alone bench to determine – on the basis of the weight of … Continue reading