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Four Lesbians Were Wrongly Convicted of Child Abuse. Why Haven’t They Been Exonerated?

Originally published on

By June Thomas

On the night of Saturday, Oct. 15, every LGBTQ person and ally—and anyone who wants to see unequivocal proof of how messed up the American criminal justice system is—should plant themselves in front of a TV set and watch Southwest of Salem. The documentary, which airs on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m., tells the story of the San Antonio Four—a group of Latina lesbians who were wrongly convicted of gang-raping two girls in the mid-’90s. Each served more than a decade in prison.

Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez, all now in their early 40s, were found guilty of aggravated sexual assault on a child after two of Ramirez’s nieces, then 7 and 9, claimed the four women had raped them with various objects while they were staying in Ramirez and Mayhugh’s home. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explained in a 2013 Slate piece, the case was a product of “a weird, panicked time in recent American history, when the word gay or lesbian was too often conflated with pedophile.” Despite inconsistencies in the girls’ stories; the fact that their father was angry at Ramirez, his former sister-in-law, for rejecting his romantic advances and coming out as a lesbian; and evidence of overt and coded homophobia in the women’s trials, all four ended up behind bars.

More than 16 years later, one of the accusers recanted her story, claiming that both she and her sister were pressured by their father into making the claims. The scientific expert, who had testified that physical evidence proved the girls had been abused, also recanted. And after the Innocence Project of Texas got involved, the women received early releases—though the crimes are still on their records.

Thanks to the national media, the story of the San Antonio Four finally became known outside of south and central Texas earlier this decade. And while Deborah S. Esquenazi’s film doesn’t bring new facts to light, it communicates the sting of injustice with the immediacy of a slap to the face. There is a bracing contrast between the four women we first meet in prison visits—where they seem calm and centered, despite having been robbed of an average of 14 years of their lives—and the teenage lesbians we glimpse in home movies and candid photos. Those young women in love look happy and ready to take on the world: Vasquez and Rivera were raising Rivera’s two children together, and we see the whole group celebrating at a baby shower for Ramirez. A few scenes later, they’re in a courtroom, shocked to see that the accusations they considered ridiculous have landed them before a judge. They didn’t even consult an attorney at first, believing their innocence would be obvious. “That turned out to be a mistake,” Vasquez later observes.

The movie doesn’t linger on the women’s trials, but it effectively exposes the raw homophobia that the prosecution exploited relentlessly. It also explains how the case fit into the Satanic abuse panic that infected America in the 1980s and ’90s. After the juries convict all four women, they’re sent to prison—locked up and without the financial wherewithal or connections to bring attention to their case.

Then Darrell Otto, an academic from Yukon College in Canada, becomes aware of the case, decides that “it just didn’t make sense,” and begins corresponding with Ramirez. Before long, the National Center for Reason and Justice and the Innocence Project of Texas are involved—and, largely unmentioned in the film, the San Antonio News-Express tackles the story. Witnesses recant, junk science is debunked, and eventually the women are given early release.

And that’s where things get really heartbreaking. Vasquez, released first, in 2012, is placed on the sex offender registry and subjected to all manner of restrictions. We see her driving to the grocery store on a route provided by her probation officer in order to avoid schools, parks, and any other places children might be found. The next year, the others leave prison, and the reunions are emotional. Ramirez and Rivera are reunited with the children—now teenagers—they haven’t seen in more than a decade. (Because of the nature of their convictions, they weren’t allowed contact visits with their kids.) “I’m your grandma, baby,” Rivera says, meeting her granddaughter for the first time in the moments after she leaves jail.

For me, the most affecting line in the whole movie is Vasquez’s observation that “Inmates can’t write to one another.” Isolated during their years behind bars, the women later discovered that they had all been writing letters to try to bring attention to the case—and like Vasquez, Rivera and Mayhugh had also refused to participate in their prisons’ sex-offender program, even though it cost them privileges and even a chance of freedom. There was, in addition, a personal dimension: Vasquez and Rivera had been a couple for seven years when they were locked up. “Cass and I, we never broke up,” Vasquez told me when I met the four women in New York in September. “We were forced to separate for many years. We’re both in committed relationships, and our partners know that there’s nothing that could ever come between us. We still have that love and respect. I don’t think that will ever change.”

In person, and in the film, the women are astonishingly free of bitterness. All acknowledged that they had experienced moments of anger—“I had a lot of anger because I was taken from my children,” Ramirez told me. But none are mad at the girls who falsely accused them. “There were six victims, not four,” Ramirez added. The film includes an emotional scene in which the recanted accuser, then 27, meets her Aunt Liz for the first time since her release. Amid many tears, the two embrace. How, I asked Ramirez, was that reconciliation possible?

“They didn’t know any better,” she told me. “I don’t think they really understood the impact it was going to have. They were victims themselves—of this father, the charges, and having to go through everything.”

In what might be the most enraging scenes in the documentary, Judge Pat Priest, who presided over the initial trials, refuses to exonerate the women—even after a key witness has said that she lied under oath and evidence that was used against them has been proved false. In a telling interaction, the judge skeptically questions a polygraph expert who has declared that there is no evidence of the women indulging in “deviant sexual behavior”—clearly signaling that he believes lesbianism itself is deviant.

The women’s fate is now in the hands of the nine judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Vasquez is no longer subject to sex offender restrictions, but the convictions are on all the women’s records and their lives are in limbo. “It’s hard to plan for the future,” Mayhugh told me. “I hesitate to get into a relationship, because I don’t know what’s going to happen. Am I going to go back to prison? I don’t want to put somebody through that. You want to purchase a vehicle, and you’re going to leave the bill with your family or leave it unpaid and come out to trouble with that.”

For Vasquez, the current situation is eerily familiar, an echo of the period between the seemingly absurd accusations and their eventual imprisonment.

“We’re hopeful,” she told me, “but it still doesn’t change the fact that I could go back. Look what happened in the beginning. We never thought that we would go to prison.”

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Prosecution service pay damages to wrongfully convicted man after disclosure failure.

conrad-jonesA man who spent six years in prison has successfully sued the England and Wales Crown Prosecution Service after their failure to disclose police surveillance tapes that proved his innocence. Wrongly convicted of perverting the course of justice in 2007 (after 2 failed trials), Conrad Jones was freed in 2014 when he won an appeal. He was on trial for bribing a witness in a murder trial, but police surveillance tapes proved he could not have been present. While the Judge at his appeal called the failure to disclose the exculpatory evidence ‘lamentable’, Jones’s solicitor said: “It is clear that the CPS and prosecution counsel had in their possession, both while my client remained on remand in prison awaiting trial and at the time of my client’s trial, surveillance material which showed he could not realistically have met with and bribed [the witness] not to give evidence. They knew it was relevant, they knew it undermined the prosecution case and strengthened Mr Jones’s defence and they knew that the law required them to disclose it. To discover years after the event that the CPS, on the advice of highly experienced lawyers, has knowingly and repeatedly failed to comply with the criminal law on disclosure is shocking, and raises very serious questions which go right to the heart of public confidence in the criminal justice system and the legal profession.”

It is interesting however to note that Jones had to sue the CPS for their failure through the civil courts for ‘damages’, rather than attempt to win ‘compensation’ through the Government scheme that compensates miscarriage of justice victims. This scheme has proven almost impossible to win any compensation through – and the settlement reached – of over £100,000 – is far more than he would have been eligible for through the compensation scheme. While the CPS have remained silent and said the terms of the settlement are ‘confidential’, they have not admitted liability despite paying the damages. Could this perhaps be an interesting route for victims of miscarriages of justice who can pinpoint failures on the part of the CPS that saw them wrongly convicted? Could victims try suing the police? With the compensation scheme set up to prevent almost all claims succeeding, perhaps we should pursue this alternative route?

Read more here:

CPS to pay six-figure sum to man over wrongful conviction

CPS pays ‘significant sum’ over ‘lamentable’ failures to disclose critical evidence



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

The Exoneree Band Is Free to Rock, and Rightly So

From: The New York Times

CLEVELAND — A few hours before William Michael Dillon and his bandmates took the stage for their headline gig at the House of Blues here last week, this singer and guitarist took a moment to listen to his own grim ballad, “Black Robes and Lawyers.” A self-taught musician, Mr. Dillon wrote the tune in 1985 on strips of prison toilet paper while serving nearly 30 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Sitting now in his lake-view room in a boutique hotel, he softly sang along with the recording, lost in a fog of distance.

“All I ever wanted was for somebody to hear me,” he gently said when the track came to an end. “The truth is, you could hear my story and forget it two days later. But hopefully you won’t forget the music.”

Mr. Dillon’s music — taut, piercing and haunted by his memories of the cellblock — was the driving force of the show on Thursday night by an unusual ensemble, the Exoneree Band, a touring group of prisoners-turned-musicians, each of whom was wrongfully convicted of another person’s crime. Collectively, the band’s five members spent more than a century as unjust captives of the state. Imagine the inmates at San Quentin getting up to play for Johnny Cash, but with the sickening twist that none of them should have been there to begin with.

“We do our music and share our stories basically to stay sane,” said the bassist, Eddie Lowery, a former soldier who in 1982 was locked up for almost a decade for a rape in Kansas that someone else committed. “Each of us comes from somewhere different culturally and musically, but we all do songs that talk about what happened in our lives.”

Continue reading the main story

As exonerations of the wrongfully convicted have steadily increased in courts across the country — last year, experts say, there was a record number, 149 — so, too, has their presence in the larger media culture. Whether it means TV shows like “The Night Of” or documentary films like “The Central Park Five,” journalists and artists are paying more attention now than ever to men like Mr. Lowery and their lives.

But what there hasn’t been, at least until this moment, is a rock band devoted to making music from these juridical disasters, which, with their narratives of injustice and redemption, seem to be especially apt for song. While different in their details, each of the bandmates’ stories is an American tragedy that could have been penned by Bruce Springsteen after a night of reading Kafka. In 1981, when he was only 20, Mr. Dillon, for example, pulled into the parking lot of a beach in Central Florida to smoke a joint with his brother, unaware that five days earlier someone had been murdered there. The police approached and questioned him, and four witnesses eventually — and incorrectly — fingered him as the killer. He was tried, convicted and imprisoned, then wasexonerated and released in 2008 after serving 27 years of a life sentence.

Much like combat, unjust incarceration is hard to grasp unless you go through it yourself. And one of the joys of being in the band, its members said, was finding others who not only shared a similar ordeal but who were also seeking healing through their music. “We don’t have to talk about what happened when we’re together,” said Ted Bradford, the rhythm guitarist, who served 10 years in Washington State for a rape he didn’t commit. “It’s like being in a brotherhood. We all just sort of know.”

The idea for the Exonerees first emerged in 2009 at a gathering in Houston hosted by the Innocence Project, a national advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted. After the day’s events, a lawyer, Katie Monroe, found herself at a hotel roof bar having drinks with some former inmates who were having trouble sleeping. “It was 2 or 3 in the morning,” Ms. Monroe recalled, “and next thing you know, the guys started doing this full-blown, harmonized version of ‘Stand by Me.’ I was so moved and struck by how talented they were, I wanted to pursue something formal.”

So in 2010, she said, she and the fiddlerKate MacLeod, who had also worked with the wrongfully convicted, asked the Innocence Project to help them find exonerees with musical inclinations. They discovered Mr. Dillon, who was at that point living free in Southern California and had recently recorded a CD with the Grammy-winning producer Jim Tulio. Not long after, they tracked down other members for the band: Mr. Lowery;Raymond Towler, the lead guitarist, who did 29 years in prison on a murder charge in Cleveland; the drummer,Antoine Day, a Chicago R&B man who served 10 years for murder; andDarby Tillis, a harmonicist and death-row inmate, also from Chicago, who spent nine years in prison (he died of natural causes after his release and was replaced by Mr. Bradford).

The Exonerees’ first show was in 2011, when they performed in Cincinnati for an Innocence Project conference. Since then, they have mostly played the wrongful-conviction circuit, playing gigs at TedX Talks or in hotel ballrooms for bar associations. But Mr. Tulio has big plans for the group: He has been searching for an angel investor to fund a full-scale musical — in the vein, he said, of “Hamilton” — that would feature the musicians and their stories in a multimedia theatrical production.

Before that happens, though, the band may need a bit more time to polish its act; it rarely practices because its members are spread across the country and most have other jobs. The show last week in Cleveland, a fund-raiser for the Ohio Innocence Project, was a welcome, if uncommon, opportunity to jam. They shared the billing with a pair of opening acts: Faith & Whiskeyand the No Name Band, both composed of judges and lawyers.

That led to a strange, cerebral sound check in which, between testing mikes and speakers, the conversation turned to topics like exculpatory evidence and the need to record police interrogations. “These guys’ stories are amazing,” said Michael Donnelly, a Cuyahoga County common pleas judge and the singer for Faith & Whiskey. “Beyond their music, which is pretty good, they make me, as an officer of the court, want to fix the system.”

When they finally took the stage, the Exonerees began their set with “Black Robes and Lawyers.” The song commenced, as always, with Mr. Dillon’s blunt, ironic introduction. It said everything that needed to be said.

“My name,” he told the crowd to loud applause, “is William Michael Dillon. I was arrested for murder on August 25, 1981, for a crime I didn’t commit. I was released on November 18, 2008.”

Then he strummed a chord and took a pause.

“Thank you,” he went on, “to the keepers of justice.”

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3 Big Ways ‘The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey’ Got It Wrong

From: Rolling Stone

From confirmation bias in the 911 tape analysis to dissecting an ‘appropriate’ response to death, how CBS’s documentary didn’t tell the whole story

This month, two new TV documentary specials about the unsolved murder of JonBenét Ramsey have aired in anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the six-year-old’s tragic and mysterious death on Christmas night, 1996. Viewers who hoped to learn conclusive proof of who killed the child beauty queen sometime after she was put to bed in her Boulder, Colorado, home were likely disappointed. Two decades later, and the debate over whether it was the Ramseys or an intruder rages on, with A&E and CBS taking startlingly different positions.

Though each promised new exclusive details, both programs largely relied on the available evidence gathered during the investigation and interviews with members of law enforcement involved in the original case. As was the case in 1996 – and every year since – the interpretation of that evidence remains at the center of this unsolved crime. A&E’s documentary, which maintained that the Ramseys were rightfully exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008, concluded that because the intruder theory was dismissed early on by Boulder police, there simply isn’t enough evidence to name a suspect without a complete reinvestigation.

A complete reinvestigation is what CBS’s The Case of: JonBenét Ramseypromised, but the only thing they delivered was a witch hunt that culminated in naming Burke Ramsey, JonBenét’s then nine-year-old brother, as her killer, and implicating John and Patsy Ramsey in a coverup. (Burke Ramsey, now 29, appeared on Dr. Phil last week in his first-ever public interview, and insisted that neither he, his father John nor his late-mother Patsy has anything to do with JonBenét’s death.)

Absent any new physical evidence or meaningful new witness statements, the fruits of this reinvestigation, led by former FBI agent and criminal profiler Jim Clemente and behavioral analyst Laura Richards, were almost entirely subjective, at times dangerously misleading and dependent on a flawed police investigation that will very likely never result in the killer being brought to justice.

Here, three big ways CBS mislead viewers with their reinvestigation into JonBenét Ramsey’s murder

Confirmation bias, selective hearing and the misleading 911 call analysis
The first step in Clemente and Richards’ reinvestigation was analyzing Patsy Ramsey’s 911 call, specifically an inaudible portion at the very end when the phone clicked but did not disconnect. Because the operator did not hang up, the call continued to record, but no one has ever been able to conclusively decipher the extremely muffled, inaudible voices heard faintly in the background.

But many have tried. One such example is the Aerospace Corporation, who in 1997, at the request of the Boulder Police Department, conducted a test of the 911 tape, but the results were never officially released. However, in 1998, the National Enquirer leaked the results, which were subsequently quoted in Larry Schiller’s 1999 bookPerfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenét Murder and the Grand Jury’s Search for the Final Truth, and former Boulder Police Detective Steve Thomas’s book,JonBenét: Inside the Ramsey Murder Investigation, in 2000.

Clemente and Richards made a vague reference to this analysis, but didn’t disclose that it had been leaked and that they were aware of its conclusions, as any investigator in this case surely is. Instead, they claimed they were going to use “more modern audio technology” to figure out how many voices were on the tape and what they were saying. Sitting in a recording studio, the pair listened as the engineer fussed with levels and knobs. As Clemente and Richards began to “figure out” what was allegedly being said and who was allegedly saying it, subtitles popped up on screen in a flagrant attempt to convince the viewers that they, too, could hear it. There were three voices speaking, they claimed, and one of them was Burke Ramsey, whom Patsy and John told investigators was asleep in his room the morning they discovered JonBenét was missing.

A cursory review of the Twitter reactions to this segment indicates that many viewers could not make out any of what Clemente and Richards claimed to hear. “In the headphones it was incredibly clear,” Clemente tweeted, the implication being that despite devoting substantial time to playing back the audio over and over again, viewers should just trust what Clemente and Richards said they heard.

The problem is, at least as far as the 911 call analysis goes, Clemente and Richards lost credibility by failing to disclose that the leaked results from the Aerospace Corporation’s analysis are word for word what they seemed shocked and awed to hear on the other end of those headphones. Here is what the Aerospace Corporation found in their analysis of that 911 call, according to a report in local newspaper the Daily Camera: “Those sources say enhancement of the tape reveals Burke’s voice in the background, asking his parents ‘What did you find?’,” the paper writes. “John Ramsey allegedly can be heard shouting to Burke, ‘We are not talking to you,’ and Patsy shouts ‘Oh my Jesus, oh my Jesus.'”

This is what Clemente and Richards concluded, verbatim. It’s not clear if and how their analysis is new or more advanced than what was done previously. Far more egregiously, not disclosing their knowledge of the conclusions of the Aerospace report misleads viewers about the purity of their own analysis by not addressing the significant risk of confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories – a factor in the vast majority of wrongful conviction cases. Witness identification, recall of memories, evidence collection and analysis and forensic testing can all result in misleading or false results if precautions are not taken to prevent it. At the very least, the risk that confirmation bias can lead to selective hearing should be considered when weighing the significance of Clemente and Richards’ analysis of Patsy Ramsey’s 911 call.

Instead, viewers were subjected to their herculean efforts to isolate, amplify and translate this supposed bit of muffled dialogue as if it was just as brand new to them. And then they presented their conclusions as proof that the Ramseys had lied, and used Burke’s alleged presence as an excuse to add him to their suspect list.

Dismissing the DNA evidence entirely
Some of the forensic scientists and experts Clemente and Richards assembled for their investigative team, including forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz and forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee, offered some interesting and credible assessments of the physical evidence. For example, Dr. Lee did a demonstration that showed how a blow from a flashlight found on the Ramseys’ kitchen counter could have caused JonBenét’s skull fracture. And both Dr. Lee and Dr. Spitz disagreed with Boulder County District Attorney Mary Lacy’s decision to exonerate the Ramseys in 2008 based on new DNA tests which revealed the presence of unidentified male DNA from a single source on both JonBenét’s underwear and leggings. Dr. Lee explained how touch DNA is so easily transferred that it can show up on a brand new pair of underwear straight out of its sealed packaging, so his belief that the presence of unidentified male DNA on a little girl’s underwear could have come from a factory worker was convincing.

However, just because the DNA is not proof of an intruder or proof of the Ramseys’ innocence doesn’t mean the touch DNA is completely useless either, as Dr. Lee claimed. Regardless of how CBS regards its investigation, this is still an unsolved murder, no one in the Ramsey family has been proven guilty in a court of law and the intruder theory has not been conclusively ruled out. The absence of proof is not proof of anything.

While touch DNA is easily transferred, there are still scenarios in which a specific DNA match would be regarded as extremely suspicious and should be pursued further. What if the DNA suddenly matched a child molester who had never worked in a factory that manufactured little girls’ underwear and had no reason to have ever come into contact with JonBenét, her new underwear or any of her other belongings that the DNA might have transferred from? Touch DNA alone is not a reason to convict, but it shouldn’t be ignored as an investigatory lead. Dr. Lee’s bizarre conclusion essentially invalidated the usefulness of touch DNA in all criminal cases.

Overselling linguistic forensics and behavioral analysis as conclusive
Time and time again, Clemente, Richards, former FBI “linguistic profiler” James Fitzgerald and former FBI statement analyst Stan Burke, reached certain conclusions based on highly subjective analysis of the vocal inflections, body language, pronoun use, linguistic phrasing and human behavior exhibited by the Ramseys during the investigation. Everything from Patsy Ramsey referring to herself as “the mother” in the 911 call, to John Ramsey’s decision to pick up his dead daughter’s body, to the “appropriateness” of Burke Ramsey’s response to her death was scrutinized through the lens of the investigators’ “expertise.”

The Case of never made it clear that these areas of forensic science and behavioral analysis are viewed by the courts with varying degrees of acceptability and reliability, and with very good reason. Human behavior and language is not one-size-fits-all, especially with the introduction of trauma. Jim Clemente voicing his opinion that Burke didn’t respond or emote “appropriately” seems irresponsible, especially when presented as evidence of guilt.

The admissibility of linguistic forensics and behavioral analysis testimony is subject to a set of standards that may limit its scope or forbid it entirely in a court of law. In criminal cases, these methods are more likely to be used to eliminate potential suspects – not presented as proof of someone’s guilt.

Alas, the social media response to The Case of has been flooded with comments about how Burke is “weird” and “a total psychopath” who is “obviously guilty.” For Clemente and his team to stoke that mentality without any caveats has repercussions that go beyond this case. Human beings are naturally inclined towards relying on their emotions and intuition, so expert testimony and evidence that is informed by subjective assessments of what is and isn’t normal behavior can be incredibly convincing.

Moreover, Clemente and Richards presented themselves and their team of investigators as infallible, their expertise as inarguable and their opinions as indisputable facts. More than once, they made unproven, disputed or misleading statements without providing further evidence, like the claim that John Ramsey disappeared for an hour and a half the morning of the murder – in actuality, he was in his study and the Boulder police just didn’t notice. They also rushed to disprove alternate theories. After one attempt to get through a replica model of the basement window, Clemente and Richards concluded there could not have been an intruder because the spider web in the corner was “destroyed” and the real spider web in the Ramseys basement window was undisturbed.

Yet when laying out their theory for Burke Ramsey as the killer, these experts literally made up a story about Burke killing JonBenét (on accident or in anger, but probably unintentionally) by hitting her in the head with a flashlight because she took a piece of his pineapple. The proof? JonBenét had undigested pineapple in her stomach. Even if this theory had been proven back in 1996, at age nine, Burke would have been too young to be legally prosecuted in Colorado, and he certainly couldn’t be held responsible for any horrendous cover-up instigated by his parents. To unleash a witch hunt on him now without rock solid proof of guilt is a cruel ratings ploy.

CBS included a disclaimer at the end of their closing credits which acknowledged that the “opinions and conclusions … about how [the crime] may have occurred represent just some of the a number of possible scenarios,” and encouraged viewers to “reach their own conclusions.” This bare minimum of legal cover may be just enough to protect CBS from John Ramsey’s inevitable lawsuit – as his attorney Lin Wood has already suggested is in the works – but it likely went unnoticed by viewers. The repercussions of depending on such controversial evidence go beyond this case, as jury members (the majority of which are not educated in the law) are often asked to weigh similar evidence and testimony when deciding guilt or innocence. The Case of oversold the same flawed methodology that has manipulated juries and resulted in countless wrongful convictions, coupled it with cherry-picked evidence and an extreme case of tunnel vision in order to finger a nine-year-old for a 20-year-old cold murder. That’s disturbing and irresponsible, no matter who killed JonBenét Ramsey

Calls for limits on ‘flawed science’ in court are well-founded: A guest post

From: The Washington Post

A White House advisory council on Tuesday issued a report urging federal prosecutors and judges to tread cautiously around forensic science on bullet markings, bite marks, tire tread marks and complex DNA samples, saying the science on them has not been proven by testing and research. The Post’s Spencer Hsu has the full story here, including strongly dissenting views from police and prosecutors’ groups, and the report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology is included at the bottom.

University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrett, who has written a book on flawed forensics and wrongful convictions, titled, “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” argues that the council’s report is well-founded and supports a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that much of forensic evidence used in criminal trials is “without any meaningful scientific validation.”

By Brandon L. Garrett

“They weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for a conviction,” Keith Harward said after he was exonerated. “They need to stop this stuff.”

Harward served 33 years in prison in Virginia before his exoneration on April 8 for a Newport News rape and murder that he did not commit. He was originally convicted based on false testimony by two experts claiming his teeth matched bite marks on the victim. If it were up to him, such unreliable forensics would be banned.

In a remarkable report released this morning, the White House’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology prominently called on prosecutors to do just that: stop using unreliable forensics and stop making unscientific claims about the forensics. The administration’s recommendations are an important step toward safeguarding forensics and preventing tragic wrongful convictions.

After all, at Harward’s trial, it wasn’t just that the experts were wrong. They were spectacularly wrong. Yet they told the jury that they were totally certain they were right. One dentist testified to “a very, very, very high degree of probability those teeth left that bite mark.” A second dentist testified that “there is just not anyone else that would have this unique dentition.”

They were both wrong — and it gets worse. In a massive dental dragnet, police took over 1,000 molds of every Navy sailor on a ship docked at Newport News. One of those sailors was the actual culprit, but the bite experts didn’t detect him — DNA tests identified him 33 years later.

Stopping the use of unreliable forensics like bite-mark evidence is just the beginning. Despite depictions on shows like “CSI,” many types of forensics can provide valuable information but can also go wrong. Jurors understandably place great weight on testimony by an expert who claims to have found a match. But jurors might think differently if they heard about the real error rates for forensics.

Any human technique has an error rate, and a crucial quality control is to do testing to find out how good experts really are. It is not enough for fingerprint or bite-mark examiners to vouch for their own reliability. We must put their experience to the test. The few tests that have been done show disturbing error rates. For example, the White House report highlights a study showing a 1 in 18 error rate for fingerprint comparison and another showing a shocking 1 in 6 error rate for bite marks.

Cases like Harward’s are not isolated examples. Having read trial transcripts of DNA exonerees by the hundreds, I have found that more often than not, the testimony was exaggerated, overstated and erroneous. Of the first 330 people exonerated by DNA testing, 71 percent, or 235 cases, involved forensic analysis or testimony. DNA set these people free, but at the time of their convictions, the bulk of the forensics was flawed.

It has taken too long to respond to a national crisis of bad forensics. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that much of forensic evidence used in criminal trials is “without any meaningful scientific validation.” Little changed. To be sure, scientists and researchers have made strides to improve forensics and how they are used in courtrooms; I have taken part in such efforts. However, the White House is right that seven years later, it is time for the use of flawed forensics to come to an end.

Here is the full report:

Pcast Forensic Science Report Final by Tom Jackman on Scribd


Nothing to Smile About: Bite Mark Evidence Blasted Again

Your smile could cost you your freedom.

Just ask Crystal Weimer from Pennsylvania, or William Richards from California.  Weimer and Richards don’t know each other, but their fates were eerily and tragically similar.

Both were tried and convicted of murder in unrelated cases.  Both of their convictions were based on testimony by so-called bite mark experts, who claimed to have matched marks found on victims with each of the defendant’s “bite mark.”  In both cases, the prosecution relied heavily on the “matching” bite marks as proof of the defendants’ guilt.  In both cases, the bite mark evidence was just plain nonsense.

A new report released this week by the President’s Counsel of Advisors for Science and Technology (PCAST), offered yet another devastating critique of bite mark evidence:

available scientific evidence strongly suggests that [bite mark] examiners not only cannot identify the source of bite mark with reasonable accuracy, they cannot even consistently agree on whether an injury is a human bite mark. For these reasons, PCAST finds that bite mark analysis is far from meeting the scientific standards for foundational validity.

PCAST, an advisory group appointed by the President and made up of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, suggested that bite mark analysis was unlikely to be “salvageable” as a forensic methodology and that scarce forensic resources should be devoted elsewhere.

The PCAST report adds to the chorus of experts that put bite mark evidence in the junk science category.  In 2009, leading scientists from the National Academy of Sciences issued a report condemning bite mark evidence as highly unreliable.

But despite all the criticism from top-notch forensic experts, bite mark evidence has not been banned from the court room.

Which means that innocent people could wind up in prison for crimes they didn’t commit based on “science” that isn’t scientific at all.

In June, 2016, both Weimer and Richards were exonerated – just one day a part.   As it turns out, the bitemark evidence that put them in prison was just plain wrong.  Collectively, they spent nearly thirty years in prison.

And that is nothing to smile about.





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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


Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…