Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Editorial: Critical of Conviction Integrity Unit, Supportive of Transparency

An editorial in The Inquirer (Philadelphia) calls out District Attorney Seth Williams whose Conviction Review Unit has produced more hype than results; warns against assaults on transparency in criminal justice; and applauds public officials who are getting it right. This is the critical role of reputable journalism and media in informing and educating voters. Thank you,

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.

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

How Janet Reno bolstered the innocence movement

Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was remembered for many things after her death this week. But one of her most important accomplishments was  greatly overlooked — how she fostered the innocence movement. Defense attorney James M. Doyle explains how in a column here.

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

In groundbreaking partnership, Innocence Project trains New Orleans detectives

From: The New Orleans Advocate

They could almost be taken for a class of undergraduates, sitting in the dark hush of a university amphitheater, sipping from water bottles and scribbling notes while a lecturer guides them through a PowerPoint presentation.

Except that these students were only taking a quick break from their day jobs. They are the New Orleans Police Department detectives who investigate rapes, murders and robberies.

And on one recent weekday they found themselves taking part in an unprecedented experiment.

 Under heavy pressure from the federal government to reform, a police force with an alarming record of putting innocent people behind bars has called in an unlikely pair of teachers — two attorneys from the Innocence Project New Orleans, a group best known for freeing the wrongfully convicted. Perhaps no other place needs this education like New Orleans.

Louisiana has the second-highest rate of exonerations of people who were wrongly convicted of any state, according to the National Registry on Exonerations. And Orleans Parish has the highest exoneration rate of any major county or parish in the country.

“We are like an airline that has historically had the most crashes,” said Emily Maw, director of the Innocence Project. “It would be really weird of us not to want to look at what led to those crashes.”

Nationally, more than 1,900 people have been exonerated since 1989, thanks in part to DNA technology and psychological research on false confessions. In Orleans Parish, 18 people have been freed, along with 11 from Jefferson Parish.

Some of that record is the result of the work of Maw’s group, a local offshoot of the national Innocence Project that has repeatedly secured freedom for inmates by unmasking egregious missteps by police and prosecutors — like a crucial report on a murder case that was mysteriously misplaced for years — as well as innocent slips such as false witness identifications.

Given the often adversarial role the Innocence Project has taken against prosecutors and police, it was probably no surprise that a class run by the group’s attorneys began with assurances that they were only there to help the assembled cops.

Innocence 101

“They are here to make your job better,” said Chris Goodly, the commander of the NOPD Training Academy.

Maw and a colleague then walked through the whole litany of mistakes that can lead to a wrongful conviction. To illustrate a point about the unreliability of witness identification, they played a quick, shaky video of a dodgy-looking man setting a bomb. Minutes later, the detectives were asked to pick the bomber out of a lineup.

The results weren’t good, even for this group of seasoned investigators. Only three of 39 got the answer right.

But then Maw, in her characteristically excited English accent, explained what went wrong. The “bomber” was not in the lineup at all. The correct answer was none of the above.

It’s a well-established fact in psychological research on lineups that the power of inadvertent suggestion will foil nearly everyone who runs through a similar exercise.

In fact, thanks to its post-2012 court-ordered reforms, the NOPD requires detectives to instruct witnesses that the perpetrator of a crime might not be in a lineup. One of the detectives who got the answer right was quick to remind her colleagues about that. In the new NOPD, detectives also must videotape formal interviews.

At the same time, the Innocence Project instructors were at pains to avoid laying all blame for poor police work at the feet of overworked officers.

The room grumbled in agreement as Maw told the detectives that wrongful convictions are more likely to come from overstretched prosecutors and cops than from malicious ones.

The NOPD has lost hundreds of officers over the past five years, leading to skyrocketing caseloads for those who remain. Homicide detectives now handle roughly twice the nationally recommended number of cases.

An hour into the class, phones across the room lit up with an announcement. Just across the street from police headquarters, another man had been shot to death.

With nearly half the homicide squad out of service for the training, one detective made the obvious joke: Who was left to handle this one?

Ugly history

The NOPD’s partnership with the Innocence Project follows a string of developments in old cases that showed just how fallible police work can be.

Reginald Adams was freed from prison in 2014 after the district attorney acknowledged that two former homicide detectives had lied on the stand in order to convict him of killing a cop’s wife in New Orleans East in 1979. He has since sued the district attorney and the city over his decades behind bars.

In September, U.S District Judge Sarah Vance ruled in favor of John Floyd, a convicted double murderer who claimed that a homicide detective had liquored him up at a French Quarter tavern before extracting a confession from him in 1980.

And Jerome Morgan has long maintained that police pressured two witnesses to identify him as the killer of a 16-year-old boy at a 1993 birthday party in Gentilly. His conviction was vacated in 2014, and the district attorney has dropped an effort to bring him to trial again.

“I wouldn’t have guessed that (the NOPD) would have been the first one to invite an Innocence Project in,” said Richard Leo, a professor at the University of San Francisco and an expert on false confessions. “They’ve had, as you know, a long history of racism and corruption and misconduct and shady things.”

Indeed, a previous attempt at detente between the Innocence Project and law enforcement fizzled. In 2014, the group announced a partnership with Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office based on the notion that everyone in the system wanted to free the truly innocent. The partnership collapsed a year later, having sprung a single convict.

But Maw insisted that current detectives have no reason to feel offended by revelations of wrongful Orleans Parish convictions from decades ago. Also, many sprang from errors by prosecutors, not police.

 Over two hours of the training, no detectives raised objections to Maw’s points.

“We have been really impressed with how interested and open the detectives have been,” she said. “They want to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. That is the healthiest approach any organization can have.”

‘Impressive’ initiative

The Police Department’s collaboration with the Innocence Project is still in its infancy. But it already has won praise from the federal monitors overseeing a 2012 consent decree mandating NOPD reforms that was prompted in part by notorious cases of police misconduct in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina.

The monitors don’t often dish out praise for police academy classes, but in their most recent report to a federal judge they spoke of the wrongful conviction training in glowing terms. “The topic was important, the instruction was impressive, and the exercises were instructive,” they wrote.

Maw said that in eight sessions, roughly 200 detectives have already taken the three-hour course, and she hopes to train more in the future.

As with many of the initiatives under the federal consent decree, the question of whether the training will improve the Police Department’s record in the long run remains unanswered.

The average exonerated person in Louisiana has spent 20 years in prison before being freed, according to the National Registry on Exonerations, so the answer may lie decades in the future.

Mike Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans, is doubtful training will help avoid wrongful convictions.

“It’s an ethical issue. It’s not really a professional one,” he said. “We remain confident that we’re ethical and we do the best job possible.”

But James Trainum, a former Washington, D.C., homicide detective who took part in the U.S. Justice Department’s review of the NOPD in 2010, said he wishes he had had the benefit of such training before he investigated his first homicide in 1994.

Trainum has written a book about that case, in which he extracted a false confession from a woman accused of murder. The woman was eventually freed because a homeless shelter’s sign-in logs proved she could not have committed the crime.

When Trainum went back and watched the videotape of his interview, he realized that he had inadvertently fed the woman details of the killing.

“Those are some lucky detectives to be getting that training,” he said. “They’re being taught how to avoid the mistakes that we’ve learned through experience.”

Monday’s Quick Clicks…

Friday’s Quick Clicks…

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Wednesday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Questions about ex-Ohio BCI scientist may cast doubt on convictions

The Columbus Dispatch

By Mike Wagner, Jill Riepenhoff, Lucas Sullivan & Earl Rinehart

Dozens, if not hundreds, of criminal convictions in Ohio could be in jeopardy because a longtime forensic scientist at the state crime lab now stands accused of slanting evidence to help cops and prosecutors build their cases.

The credibility of G. Michele Yezzo, who worked at the Ohio attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for more than three decades, has been challenged in two cases in which men were convicted of aggravated murder. One has been freed from prison because of her now-suspect work.

A review of her personnel records by The Dispatch shows that colleagues and supervisors raised questions about Yezzo time and again while she tested evidence and testified in an uncounted number of murder, rape and other criminal cases in the state.

Their concerns included that she presented evidence in the best light for prosecutors instead of objectively, used suspect methods while examining trace evidence from some crime scenes, and made mistakes that, as one former attorney general put it, “could lead to a substantial miscarriage of justice.”

Yezzo, 63, of West Jefferson, told The Dispatch that the accusations about her work being biased are wrong and that she approached her work objectively.

“I have never done anything to overstate analysis of evidence, nor have I done anything, for lack of better a word, to taint the evidence,” Yezzo said. “No, I didn’t appease prosecutors and law enforcement. I bent over backwards to try and find out whatever evidence was there, and that’s the best I can tell you.”

But two former attorneys general, defense attorneys, a judge, a former BCI superintendent and a nationally renowned forensic expert from the FBI all say that Yezzo has credibility issues that may have poisoned cases she touched.

Lee Fisher, who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1995, and Jim Petro, who served as attorney general from 2003 to 2007, both said they didn’t know of Yezzo when they were in office, but they now have concerns about her work.

“I would call for an investigation into every case where her findings and conclusions were instrumental in the final result of a case,” Fisher said. “We have an obligation to the integrity of the criminal-justice system to investigate every case. We have to determine whether her findings or conclusions were suspect.”

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said Friday that his office was alerted to the concerns about Yezzo in 2015 and has since conducted two separate reviews of her work. One involved examining 100 criminal cases where Yezzo’s evidence analysis played a role in a conviction.

DeWine said they found no issues with her work.

Moving forward, DeWine, who did not serve as attorney general during Yezzo’s tenure, said he has no plans for an internal investigation into Yezzo’s history, but he will have open discussions with defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis if they raise questions.

He said the BCI, which handles about 37,000 cases a year, has a “long history of doing good work” and has received the highest level of accreditation.

More than 800 pages of Yezzo’s personnel records paint a disturbing pattern of behavior that started shortly after she walked in the BCI doors in 1976. The concerns escalated over time until she resigned in 2009.

Over the 32 years that Yezzo worked in the crime lab, her bad behavior intensified to the point that colleagues questioned her mental health.

In the records, colleagues and supervisors described these concerns about Yezzo: She threatened to use a gun to shoot her co-workers and herself. She threw a 6-inch metal plate at one co-worker. She exposed her breasts to BCI agents at a bar, flipped off her boss and acted in a hostile manner to almost every lab employee, according to records. She was accused of calling an African-American scientist a racial slur, something Yezzo denies. She frequently broke into crying spells for no apparent reason.

Forensic scientists quit because of her erratic behavior. At one point her union, the Fraternal Order of Police, refused to back her.

Yezzo admits to the majority of the behavior described in her personnel file.

She attributed her erratic and sometimes abusive actions to intense pressure within the BCI to handle an enormous caseload as its lead forensic analyst.

She said the bureau was usually short-staffed and had difficulty keeping up with the workload. She also said she was having problems in her personal life. Those issues related to the loss of her sister and her mother moving in with her after the death.

She doesn’t believe her behavior affected her work.

Yezzo received numerous verbal reprimands and was suspended in 1993. But her analysis of evidence continued to be used in many high-profile felony cases despite the concerns about her work and behavior inside the state’s crime lab in London, where forensic scientists examine and analyze evidence from crime scenes across Ohio.

Yezzo conducted her analysis of evidence without much oversight. Her reports summarizing findings would be reviewed by her supervisors, but her actual work, methods and conclusions rarely were checked by anyone.

Now, defense attorneys in at least two cases have done their own investigations and believe they have proof that Yezzo’s work is suspect. In one of those cases, a judge already has freed a man from prison because of credibility issues described in Yezzo’s personnel file.

The judge in that case and others familiar with Yezzo’s BCI history say that if defense attorneys had known about her work issues during past trials, they potentially could have discredited her as an expert witness.

“I didn’t know of what occurred with Michele Yezzo when I was in that office, but if I had been made aware, I wouldn’t have allowed her to be involved in criminal-justice proceedings,” Petro said. “I am co-counsel in two cases where her work largely convicted men, and her work was shoddy at best. Any case where she provided forensic evidence that resulted in a conviction now comes into question.”

Grave doubts

Barbara Parsons was in the bedroom of her home in Norwalk, in northern Ohio, when someone brutally attacked her, striking her 15 times in the head with a large, heavy object.

Her husband, James Parsons, told police that he was working at the local auto repair shop when his wife was murdered in 1981. His alibi held up for about 12 years, until he was arrested and charged with his wife’s death in 1993.

Shortly before his arrest, police resubmitted evidence to the BCI, and Yezzo was assigned to the case. It was mainly circumstantial, but Yezzo’s analysis of the crime scene is what led prosecutors to charge James Parsons with his wife’s murder.

Prosecutors used Yezzo’s analysis of blood patterns to determine that a breaker bar, a long socket wrench made of thick metal, was the murder weapon. Prosecutors said the bar belonged to Parsons.

Yezzo performed an experiment on the crime-scene evidence that compared the head of the breaker bar with blood patterns found on Barbara Parsons’ bedsheets and nightgown. Yezzo concluded that the letters N and S, which were imprinted on the head of the breaker bar, “were consistent with” blood impressions left on the bedsheets. She also concluded a halo-like impression from the breaker bar was consistent with a blood pattern left on both the sheets and nightgown.

Defense attorneys rebutted her findings and said Yezzo did not properly document how she got those results, nor did she properly explain her findings to the jury.

Yezzo was working on the case in 1993 and preparing to testify when she was suspended for threatening a co-worker and placed under investigation.

Parsons was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

He remained in prison for 23 years until Donald Caster, an attorney for the University of Cincinnati-based Ohio Innocence Project, played a hunch and asked for Yezzo’s personnel file.

At a hearing this year in Huron County, Caster convinced Judge Thomas Pokorny that Yezzo’s scientific conclusions were suspect and that her troubled BCI history called into question her credibility.

Pokorny didn’t declare Parsons innocent, but the judge dismissed the murder conviction and released him.

“What has weighed most heavily on the court’s mind is the testimony from Ms. Yezzo’s superior that the integrity of her analysis and conclusions may be suspect as she ‘will stretch the truth to satisfy a department,’” Pokorny said in his ruling, referring to a memo written by an assistant BCI superintendent in 1989. “This opinion together with the other evidence of her troubled behavior in the workplace casts grave doubts about her credibility.”

Yezzo defended herself at James Parsons’ hearing when Caster questioned whether her work was biased toward law enforcement.

“There may have been issues between me and my co-workers, but it was not a circumstance where those issues fell to the analysis of evidence,” Yezzo said. “You’re trying to portray me as a prosecution expert. I testified to the results, not to try and make any points with anybody.”

Yezzo’s direct supervisor, Daniel Cappy, defended her work. Cappy testified that Yezzo had some behavioral issues, but he stood behind the quality of her work as a forensic scientist.

Parsons suffers from congestive heart disease and dementia. He requires constant care and was placed in a nursing home after his release in April.

Prosecutors lost their initial appeal and are now asking the appellate court to reconsider Pokorny’s ruling. It’s unlikely prosecutors would attempt to retry Parsons for his wife’s death.

“It was shocking to me — shocking — that you have a forensic scientist being questioned by her own bosses and no one went back to check her work,” Caster said. “That is grossly negligent at best. It’s clear that she became an advocate for prosecutors, and that’s not what a forensic scientist should be.”

A second chance

On Friday, another man convicted of murder asked a judge to grant him a new trial because of Yezzo’s checkered history.

Kevin Keith was once just 13 days away from being executed.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that he walked into a small apartment in Bucyrus, about 60 miles north of Columbus, on Feb. 13, 1994, and riddled it with gunfire. Three people died and three others were wounded.

The key testimony at the trial that ultimately put him on Death Row came from Yezzo.

Her forensic analysis of tire tracks and a license plate imprint left in a snowbank matched what detectives working the case contended — that both came from the car Keith apparently drove that night.

But in 2010, a retired FBI forensic expert said Yezzo’s conclusions were baseless and her methods were shoddy in Keith’s case. Keith’s legal team, led by Assistant Ohio Public Defender Rachel Troutman, also produced evidence that they say implicates another man, challenges the credibility of eyewitness accounts and shows that police mishandled the case.

All of that prompted then-Gov. Ted Strickland to spare Keith’s life by commuting his sentence to life without parole. Keith remains in the Marion Correctional Institution.

“I can’t thank the governor for giving me life in prison,” Keith told The Dispatch in 2010. “When I found out his decision, it felt like the poison was going through me right then. But the governor gave me some hope by leaving the door open in my case.”

Keith’s attorneys now think he has more reason to hope, and a better chance of proving his innocence. They filed a motion late Friday in Crawford County Common Pleas Court, asking for a new trial based on the problems with Yezzo’s work and her behavioral history.

“Every case she has touched is tainted,” said Zach Swisher, a member of Keith’s legal team who also reviewed Keith’s case in 2010 as legal counsel for Strickland. “The fact that she is considered an expert is a joke. She gave the detectives what they wanted in a capital case, and that is just unconscionable.”

William Bodziak, a forensic expert for 43 years, including 29 of them for the FBI, said Yezzo’s work in the Keith case was below standards for even scientists in training — and Yezzo had decades of experience.

Bodziak said the evidence problems started with the “unprofessional” recovery and documentation of tire-track and license-plate imprints. The lack of photographs and the inability to show dimensions at the crime scene made it nearly impossible to draw conclusions, said the expert, who provided an independent analysis as part of Keith’s case for a pardon.

For the license plate imprint, Bodziak said Yezzo concluded that the numbers “043” could be seen in the snow, and those numbers matched the plate from the car prosecutors said Keith was driving. But Bodziak found multiple problems: He could barely see the 0 or the 4 in the imprint; the license plate was mounted flat, making it unlikely to leave such an impression; and the snow surrounding those numbers remained untouched.

Bodziak said Yezzo’s tire-track conclusions lack even more credibility because she made them by comparing a photograph to a commercial brochure a detective provided. She didn’t inspect the actual tires. Bodziak said the tires on that car were among the most common and popular used on the road.

“There is nothing to support the conclusions she made, nothing at all,” said Bodziak, who remains a consultant on forensic cases for both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“If I had been working on that case, I would have pointed out all those discrepancies and would not have made any conclusions. But it appears she was giving investigators the conclusions they wanted, and that’s the really bad part of this case,” he said.

Yezzo was unaware that her work was challenged by Bodziak in 2010 and disputes that she made conclusions in the case. She says she never stated that the “043” impression came from the vehicle prosecutors claim Keith was driving, just that she could see those numbers.

She also says she compared the tire tracks to photos the BCI had of the tires on the vehicle Keith used, and she only said the tracks “were consistent with” the treadmarks left at the crime scene.

Yezzo said she couldn’t help it if prosecutors or defense attorneys in her cases overstated or twisted her analysis to help make their arguments in court.

“Attorneys on both sides are going to slant things in the way they want a jury to think about them,” Yezzo said. “I don’t like it when people take what analysts do and stretch the truth. I can only be responsible for my analysis.”

Update for Taiwan Association for Innocence

The success of Taiwan’s developing Innocence Movement was recently celebrated at the Taiwan Association for Innocence‘s annual conference, held August 27-28. TAFI sent out the following announcement about the event, also providing case updates. We here at the Wrongful Convictions Blog wanted to share the information to highlight the great work being done over in Taiwan.
The annual conference of  Taiwan Association for Innocence took place on August 27-28 in Taipei, Taiwan. About 200 people participated in the conference, including Mr. Cheng Hsing-Tse, who was a death roll inmate recently released from prison awaiting for retrial. Unlike most of our cases, Mr. Cheng’s successful retrial petition was filed by the prosecutor’s office. The court granted retrial in May and set him free after 14 years of imprisonment. The success of this case echoes with one of the themes of the Innocence Network conference in San Antonio this past April. It reminds us that prosecutors should be involved in the innocence movement. To promote this idea, we invited Ms. Inger Chandler from Harris County DA Office to share how the conviction integrity unit operates. Ms. Chandler gave two speeches at our annual conference, and was also invited to talk about CIUs at the Ministry of Justice with local prosecutors.
In addition to Ms. Chandler, another highlight of the conference was a speech by a prosecutor in Taiwan who requested a retrial for Mr. Lu Chieh-Min. Mr. Lu was convicted of murder and sentenced to 13 years of prison. He was exonerated by new DNA evidence last December.
The cases of Mr. Cheng and Mr. Lu show us the possibility of working with prosecutors to exonerate the innocent. Despite the difficulties, we will continue to help those who have been wrongfully convicted.

Best regards,
Taiwan Association for Innocence

Thursday’s Quick Clicks…

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Monday’s Quick Clicks…