Category Archives: wrongful conviction

Exoneration and Freedom for Evin King in Ohio

Today, prosecutors in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland)  vacated the conviction of long-time Ohio Innocence Project client Evin King.  King was convicted in 1995 of murdering his girlfriend despite no direct evidence of guilt (eyewitness or forensic).  He always maintained his innocence, from arrest and trial and then throughout his 23 years of incarceration.

When he is released, which will hopefully be later this week, King will be the 25th person the OIP has freed on grounds of innocence since its founding in 2003.  Together the 25 innocent Ohioans spent more than 470 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

unnamed

Evin King prison photo

DNA testing confirmed that the semen found in the victim’s vaginal cavity after the attacked matched male skin cells found under her fingernails (a hand-to-hand struggle appeared to have taken place during the attack, as the victim was strangled).  This male DNA in both locations did NOT match Evin King, but rather, an unknown male.
[Watch this moving video of Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer Bergeron informing Evin King, in prison, that he is about to regain his freedom after 23 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit…]
Prosecutors had for years failed to respond to King’s motions for relief, even after the exclusionary DNA test results were obtained.  And the trial court sat on King’s post-conviction motions for nearly a year-and-a-half before denying relief.  Fortunately, the 8th District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision last year and sent the case back to the trial court for a hearing, while specifically observing that the DNA evidence supports King’s innocence claim.  On Friday, the OIP learned that after newly-elected prosecutor Michael O’Malley took office in January, he put new prosecutors on the case to look into it with a fresh eye.  When O’Malley was later informed of the details of King’s case from these prosecutors, he ordered that King’s conviction be overturned and that he be released.
OIP Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer Bergeron has represented King for many years, as did OIP staff attorney and Ohio Public Defender attorney Carrie Wood (now at the Cincinnati Public Defender’s Office).  OIP student fellows on the case include Taylor Freed, Katie Wilkin, Mallorie Thomas, Joe Wambaugh, Bryant Stayer, Steve Kelly, Morgan Keilholz, Jon Walker, Scott Leaman, Thomas Styslinger, John Markus, and Julie Payne.  The Ohio Public Defenders Office, particularly Kris Haines, worked on King’s case as well for many years.  King’s case is another example of the importance of determination and perseverance, as Bergeron, Wood, Haines, and the students never gave up even though at times King’s prospects appeared bleak given the initial stiff resistance of the trial court and the prosecutors.
OIP co-founder and director Mark Godsey said, “While the initial delay in obtaining justice for Mr. King is disturbing, Michael O’Malley and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office deserve credit for turning this case around and correcting an injustice.  As we have seen in other counties with other cases, prosecutors far too often fight back hard against an exoneration even when the evidence of innocence is strong.  But in several past cases in Cuyahoga County, and today with Evin King’s case, the prosecutors in Cleveland put justice above winning.  O’Malley’s involvement in the case since his recent election, along with his decision to put new prosecutors on the case, may have been the pivotal factor that secured freedom for an innocent man, and we are thankful for his heroic intervention.”

Jack McCullough, Exonerated, Sues Prosecutors for “Pervasive Misconduct”

We’ve reported about Jack McCullough on this blog several times previously. See here, here, here, and here.

Prior to having his conviction overturned and being exonerated, this case was touted as the “oldest cold case ever solved.”

It will be interesting to see where this suit goes, since prosecutors are supposed to have absolute immunity to civil suit for actions taken while pursuing their duties as prosecutor. They can, however, be held responsible for criminal actions.

See the CNN story here.

 

Federal Judge Overturns Arizona’s Diaper Changing Child Molestation Law

Arizona’s justice system is truly something to behold. After all, it’s the home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And get this – Arizona’s Attorney General and Maricopa County’s Attorney have publicly stated that there are “no” wrongful convictions and “no” Brady violations in Arizona. Really?!   Arizon Bradypdf

But here’s one for the books. Arizona actually has a law that says anyone who knowingly and intentionally touches a child’s genitals is guilty of child molestation – without a requirement of sexual intent. So anyone who changes a child’s diaper or bathes a child can be charged with child molestation. All it takes is a vindictive spouse or partner, or even just a casual witness (eg: changing a baby’s diaper in a public restroom) to make a charge. And as you certainly would guess, numerous innocent parents and caregivers have been ensnared by this law.

When the Arizona legislature wrote and passed the law, they specifically removed the requirement for sexual intent. The governor signed it, and the Arizona Supreme Court upheld it.

Recently Federal District Judge Neil V. Wake, in a testy opinion, ruled the law unconstitutional. See that ruling here.  Thank goodness sanity has prevailed. Hopefully this will eventually lead to relief for all those wrongfully imprisoned by this bogus statute.

Last week Judge Wake also overturned the conviction of Stephen May, a school teacher and swim instructor, who was convicted largely based upon this law’s definition of child molestation.  See the article by Jacob Sullum on Reason.com  here.

See the story by Mark Joseph Stern writing for Slate here.

Maryland Justice Professional Opposes Revisiting Death Penalty

“At a time when there are calls for criminal justice reform, it is important to ensure any reforms are based on sound research and data-driven, fact-based information. Calls for re-establishment of the death penalty in Maryland are not based on the aforementioned.” — Karl Bickel

Karl Bickel, a career law enforcement officer and former proponent of the death penalty, has offered a well-researched argument against making any exception to the repeal of Maryland’s death penalty, implemented in 2013. The state has opted for life in prison without the possibility of parole for its worst offenders. House Bill 881, introduced on February 6, 2017, calls for an exception for first-degree murder cases in which the victim is a law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or first responder.

A key issue for Bickel is avoiding the risk of wrongful conviction and execution of an innocent.

Bickel is retired from the Department of Justice, and has been a major city police officer, an assistant professor, and second in command of the Frederick County (MD) Sheriff’s Office.

Read his commentary here.

The National Registry of Exonerations has identified 116 cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death, before being exonerated.

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Injustices multiplied

From: Post Register

Christopher Tapp was finally freed from prison after more than 20 years. Prosecutor Danny Clark has released a statement in which he attempts to explain the actions of his office in dropping all counts of rape against Mr. Tapp, but leaving in place the murder conviction (with a deadly-weapon enhancement). Clark’s statement unfortunately does not explain this split, which is peculiar since all of the same forensic evidence used to dismiss the rape charge equally demonstrate that Mr. Tapp had nothing to do with the murder of Miss Dodge. The DNA analysis requested by the Idaho Innocence Project has produced clear results that exclude Mr. Tapp from everything tested. The tests also exclude all of the other suspects that were part of the prosecution theory of the crime. More importantly, the scientific evidence tells a very clear story—one that was totally ignored by the prosecutor’s statement.

Mr. Tapp is not on any of the evidence in this case, but one man is—in every single profile. First of all, his semen was recovered from the victim’s body—before Mr. Tapp’s trial. We now know, through testing requested by the Chris’s legal team (and the victim’s mother), that the same man left a pubic hair on the victim’s face. In DNA analysis completed during the last year—requested by the government—we have also learned that the same single perpetrator contributed DNA to clothing the victim was wearing—both her sweatpants and her sweatshirt. Most recently, in conjunction with a request by the IIP, the prosecutor had key items of the prosecution’s theory tested using the most modern techniques available (including MVac). This is key, since the confession that was spoon-fed to Mr. Tapp (in exchange for an immunity agreement) had Mr. Tapp contacting the victim and her possessions in three places. He held down her hands, he stabbed her once through her shirt and wiped his hands on the shirt, and he moved her teddy bear. It was clear from the crime scene that she had been stabbed through her shirt, and that the teddy bear had been moved. Fortunately, the clothing and bear were preserved, and swabs from the victim’s hands had been taken but never tested.

We agreed with the prosecution that these were the key items that should be analyzed with the most modern technology possible. These items would either show the truth of the prosecution’s theory, or finally put it to rest. When the results were known, they produced a clear picture of what happened. None of the state’s suspects (including Chris Tapp) were on any of the evidence, but in a remarkably clear set of results, the semen donor was consistently on all of them. We now know who moved Angie’s teddy bear, left DNA on her shirt, and restrained her—leaving his DNA on each hand.

For 10 years, we have fought to demonstrate in open court that Mr. Tapp is innocent of murdering Angie Dodge. During that same time, the county continued to test evidence in this case (apparently looking for Mr. Tapp’s DNA). We had just received the final results, when Chris Tapp was offered a deal. He could be freed, without the delays of hearings, a new trial, and possible appeals by the county. Apparently, the prosecutor had realized the absurdity of Mr. Tapp’s rape conviction given all the DNA results, and agreed to drop the rape conviction. But those same results also clear Mr. Tapp of murder. The state tested Miss Dodge’s sweatpants, nightshirt, the pubic hair, her hands and the teddy bear—not just for evidence of rape, but because those are all the places they concluded the murderer had touched.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion about how a murder was committed, it is the first part of reasoning: hypothesis. But to ignore one’s own results, is to employ neither science nor common-sense. Could the paradox of Tapp’s murder conviction have anything to do with an exoneree’s right to sue? A right which Mr. Tapp had to surrender as part of his deal with the county.

The courtroom is about the whole truth and nothing but the truth. A prosecutor’s obligation is to seek justice, not to uphold convictions. Indeed, the prosecutor has an ethical obligation to see that wrongful convictions are overturned, and Mr. Clark fulfilled that duty in dropping the rape charge against Mr. Tapp after 20 years. But the first lesson of logic is that half-truth is not truth. Justice for Chris Tapp is not simply finding him not-guilty of rape or murder, it is finding ¬¬¬him not-guilty of rape and murder. The DNA did not say that he was not-guilty of rape, it said he was not on any evidence—and another other man was. That man held down both of Angie Dodge’s hands, he left semen on her body and a pubic hair on her face, his DNA is on the shirt through which she was stabbed, and he moved her teddy bear. One man is on every piece of evidence in this case—not just the rape evidence. Rape and murder. Truth and nothing but the truth. You cannot remedy one injustice with another.

Hampikian, Ph.D. is a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University and director of the Idaho Innocence Project. Cummins, Esq., is an attorney with the Idaho Innocence Project.

Exoneree Luther Jones Receives Posthumous Award at NCIP Justice for All Dinner

The Northern California Innocence Project recently honored exoneree Luther Jones with the Cookie Ridolfi Freedom Award at the annual NCIP Justice for All Dinner. Jones spent 20 years incarcerated for a crime he did not commit before being exonerated and released in February 2016. Sadly, Jones passed away in December, only 10 months after being freed. According to the program, Jones’ “story of exoneration, release and compensation encapsulates many aspects of the challenges of wrongful conviction and importance of innocence work.” Jones’ son, Ko’fawn, accepted the award on his father’s behalf.

Please take a look at the video below, honoring Jones memory and spreading awareness about his case.

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full press release.

 

New Attorney General Jeff Sessions “Tough on Crime”

The newly anointed US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, in his first major address has proclaimed a policy of “tough on crime” – particularly violent crime.

Here we go again – the “war on drugs” redux. How many prosecutors have been elected running on a “tough on crime” platform? I would say most, if not all.

So how do prosecutors “deliver” on their campaign promise of “tough on crime?” They arrest a lot of people, obtain a lot of indictments, secure a lot of convictions, and send a lot of people to prison. The only problem? A lot of these people may be actually innocent. But they’ve been scooped up into the frenzy of proving that law enforcement is “tough on crime.” People get convicted through intimidating and coercive plea bargains, phony evidence and false testimony, bad forensics, and police and prosecutor misconduct.

Criminal prosecution MUST rest upon the foundations of truth, logic, real evidence, and prosecutorial ethics – not upon hysteria hyped by politicians and the media.

You and see the CNN coverage of Mr. Sessions address here.

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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…