Category Archives: wrongful conviction

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America’s Guilty Plea Problem Under Scrutiny

Innocence Organizations Launch Awareness Campaign Highlighting Broken Criminal Justice System that Pressures Innocent People to Plead Guilty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

Contact:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org  

(New York, NY– January 23, 2017) – The Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network today launched a public education campaign, GuiltyPleaProblem.org, to aim a spotlight on the problem of innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit.

After rising steadily over the past two decades, today 95 percent of criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea. As GuiltyPleaProblem.org painfully illustrates, innocent people who are trapped in the system face enormous pressures to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. A criminal justice system that routinely forces innocent people to plead guilty is unfair and unjust, and, ultimately, violates the principles intended by the Sixth Amendment.

“While it is impossible to know the full extent of the problem, the fact that more than 10 percent of the 349 people who were proven innocent by DNA testing had initially pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit tells us that there is a problem and it is extensive,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The system pressures people to make choices that are irrational and against their interest. As we arrest and prosecute more people, it becomes even less possible to ensure that the innocent can resist these pressures to plead. From the first moment a person is charged, all actors in the system—defense lawyers, prosecutors and judges—have an interest in a speedy resolution. While fixing this problem won’t be easy, we must find ways to lessen these pressures so that innocent people are not denied their Constitutional rights to a trial.”  

According to Innocence Project data, 11 percent of the 349 DNA exonerations involved people who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. The National Registry of Exonerations shows that 345 people have been exonerated who pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit throughout the United States.  These represent the lucky few who pleaded guilty (in most cases to serious felonies) and were able to get their convictions reversed, which is especially difficult when a plea has been entered. There is no reliable data on the number of innocent people who pleaded guilty to misdemeanors, which makes up a much larger percentage of criminal convictions yet result in significant collateral consequences.   

At GuiltyPleaProblem.org, viewers will have the opportunity to watch first-person videos of four exonerees who accepted plea deals and served significant jail sentences despite being innocent.

  • Chris Ochoa: Ochoa pleaded guilty to a 1988 murder in order to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to life. He was exonerated in 2002 after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
  • JoAnn Taylor: Taylor pleaded guilty to second degree murder to avoid the death penalty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She was exonerated in 2009 after spending 19 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.
  • Brian Banks: Banks pleaded guilty to sexual assault to avoid a 41-year prison sentence. He was eventually exonerated in 2012 with the help of the California Innocence Project.
  • Rodney Roberts: Roberts pleaded guilty to second degree kidnapping and spent 18 years in detention before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

In addition to these stories, the website features an interview with U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff who discusses some of the reasons for the rise in the percentage of cases that end in guilty pleas and how this undermines the justice system. TV star and criminal justice advocate Hill Harper is featured in a short public service announcement encouraging people to get involved and find solutions to this pressing problem.  

According to the Innocence Project and members of the Innocence Network, the stories of these four innocent people are powerful reminders of the profound injustices that remain endemic to our criminal justice system. Yet, the organizations note, that there are no easy solutions for reversing the practice of guilty pleas. Today’s launch is the first of a multi-year campaign. Over the coming months, visitors will hear from experts on possible solutions to the problem.

“If every person accused of a crime demanded a trial, the system would be overwhelmed in a matter of hours,” added deLone. “While the plea system has a role to play in making the system run efficiently, we have come to rely on pleas to our detriment. The first step in correcting this profound injustice is to demonstrate the all too real harms that have resulted—and raise awareness that there is a problem to be solved.”

Visitors are encouraged to sign-up for updates on how they can become involved in fixing America’s guilty plea problem.

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Columbus Will Pay Ohio Innocence Project For Witholding Public Records

Click to read the original article and listen to the WOSU interview

The city of Columbus and a group that works to free wrongly convicted people ended a years-long fight this week.

The city will pay $19,000 dollars for legal expenses incurred by the Ohio Innocence Project, which is based out of the University of Cincinnati school of law. Columbus will also pay the Ohio Innocence Project $1,000 in damages for illegally withholding public records.

Attorney Donald Caster, a clinical professor of law at the University of Cincinnati who works for the Project, explained in an interview with WOSU how the case unfolded and what it means for transparency in the state.

The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.

Sam Hendren: When did the Ohio Innocence Project first encounter resistance from the city of Columbus to public records requests?

Donald Caster: We’ve been encountering resistance from Columbus for several years. Sometimes we could work around the resistance with the Franklin County prosecuting attorney and sometimes we couldn’t. We noticed that it wasn’t just Columbus, it was other areas in Ohio as well. So at some point we decided that we needed to challenge the law enforcement agencies who were telling us that we weren’t entitled to get public records to investigate claims of innocence.

Sam Hendren: So the Ohio Supreme Court then did what?

Donald Caster: The first thing that happens is the filing of a complaint. The city of Columbus then filed an answer and a motion to dismiss the complaint and said, “Look, even if everything the Ohio Innocence Project is saying is true, they’re still not entitled to relief.” The Ohio Supreme Court turned down that motion in order and ordered us to submit full briefs on the case. We did that.

The Ohio Supreme Court then heard oral arguments, they heard from the attorneys for the city of Columbus, they heard from attorneys for me and the Ohio Innocence Project, in this case Fred Gittes and Jeff Vardaro of the Gittes law firm. And then they eventually issued a decision just after Christmas.

Sam Hendren: And that decision says what?

Donald Caster: That decision says that a case that law enforcement agencies had been relying on, a case called “Steckman,” which suggested in some ways that public records pertaining to criminal cases would never be accessible until a particular defendant or inmate were released from prison, is no longer good law. And it’s no longer good law because some of the rules that control pretrial discovery between the state and the defendant had changed.

So the Ohio Supreme Court said it didn’t need that rule any more. Now as soon as a criminal case is done, as soon as the trial is over, the public can go ahead and seek those records out from law enforcement agencies.

Sam Hendren: Because in one or perhaps many more cases, the city of Columbus for example was withholding records from the Ohio Innocence Project for decades.

Donald Caster: And what Columbus was saying was that they were going to withhold the records for decades. In this particular instance they said you won’t be entitled to these records until the defendant in the case your researching is done serving his entire sentence. In this case, it’s a life sentence, so it would have been upon the defendant’s death.

Sam Hendren: Now we’re talking about Adam Saleh, who was imprisoned or who is imprisoned for killing a woman named Julie Popovich.

Donald Caster: That’s correct.

Sam Hendren: Right. Why is it important to have timely access to documents that the police department was refusing to hand over?

Donald Caster: For a couple of reasons. First of all, from a general standpoint, in Ohio we value the transparency of our public servants and that means being able to access the documents that they generate and that they rely upon in making our decision. From the standpoint of post-conviction work, of helping free people who have been wrongfully convicted, oftentimes the only way that we can prove that something went wrong at trial is to access the public records about that case.

Sam Hendren: And what has been the track record of the Innocence Project? Have innocent people been freed?

Donald Caster: That’s correct. We’ve been around since 2003, and since 2003, 23 people have been released on grounds of innocence as a result of our work

Jeffrey MacDonald actual innocence appeal

Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Green Beret surgeon who was first cleared in the murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters and then convicted in 1970, will have what may be his final chance at overturning his conviction after spending the past 36 years in prison for a crime that many experts now believe he did not commit.  Oral arguments before a federal appeals court will commence on January 26.  The crime took place prior to the use of DNA analysis and new DNA evidence and a lot of other evidence, including evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, flawed forensic testimony, and botched crime scene analysis, provides powerful support for his story that intruders killed his family in what was in some ways similar to the “Manson family” murders in that same era.  People Magazine investigative reports will culminate in its major cover story, available on newsstands on Friday, January 20.  Here is a link to the People Magazine digital story today that precedes the cover story:

Former Green Beret Surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald Says There’s Evidence He Didn’t Kill His Family: ‘I Am Innocent’

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

 

A Case for Justice Reform in 2017

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

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

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Call for Papers Innocence Network Conference

The Innocence Network is now seeking papers for presentation at the 2017 Innocence Network Conference. See below for details.

The Innocence Scholarship Committee of the Innocence Network is seeking high quality social science and legal scholarship for presentation at the 2017 Innocence Network Conference in San Diego, California on March 24-25(http://www.innocencenetwork.org/conference).

Areas of research are open but should touch upon the multifaceted causes, implications, and/or remedies of wrongful conviction. International papers are welcome but must be submitted in English. Please submit a title and paper proposal to the Innocence Scholarship Committee at this Gmail account: innocencescholarship@gmail.com by February 1, 2017. Paper proposals must be no more than 200 words. Completed drafts must be submitted to the Committee by March 17, 2017.

The Innocence Scholarship Committee is actively seeking publication for those papers accepted for Conference presentations in a law review symposium edition. More information about that is forthcoming.

The Innocence Scholarship Committee is composed of the following Members: Professor Aliza Kaplan, Oregon Innocence Project, Lewis & Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon; Professor Valena Beety, West Virginia Innocence Project, West Virginia College of Law; Professor Keith Findley, Wisconsin Innocence Project, University of Wisconsin Law School; Professor Stephanie Roberts Hartung, New England Innocence Project, Northeastern Law School; and Associate Clinical Professor Paige Kaneb, Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law.

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Wrongful Convictions in the Netherlands: how many are there?

On 22nd November 2016, a book will be published in the Netherlands (sadly, in Dutch) which aims to answer the question: How many people in the Netherlands are wrongly convicted? (amazon page here). 51ygmyvj3vl

Some news coverage (in English) relating to the book release (Read here…   and here… ) have declared that one in nine convicted people in the Netherlands may be victims of miscarriages of justice. That figure, the author suggests, may be even higher in countries like Norway but he estimates that in most countries, the wrongful conviction rate will be between 4 and 11 percent.

The author, Ton Derksen, is emeritus professor of philosophy of science and has spent his career looking at questions of ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’ and how people inteton-derksenrpret evidence and statistics. He famously became involved in a notorious Dutch case of a nurse, Lucia de Berk, convicted of the multiple murders of patients, purely on statistical evidence. She was later released after his book was published concerning her case. He has subsequently written on lots of other cases where he examines the operation of the burden of proof.

His latest book is based upon new research among prisoners and forensic experts. He comes to some shocking conclusions. While Derksen’s work clearly focuses upon the Netherlands, it appears his research could have widespread application internationally, particularly his work on the nature of ‘truth’ and criminal investigations and trials. One has to hope that his work will be translated into English for the mono-linguists among us.

Courtney Bisbee – Released . . . But Not Free.

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

Please see: HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE .

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

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

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

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

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