Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Exonerations in the United States, 1989 Through 2003: Refusing to admit mistakes!

This study notes how difficult it is for prosecutors and police officers, "against all logic, to believe that a defendant they once charged and prosecuted could possibly be innocent."

When Charles Fain was exonerated by DNA in Idaho in 2001, after eighteen years on death row for a rape murder, the original prosecutor in the case said, “It doesn’t really change my opinion
that much that Fain's guilty."

On December 8, 1995, at the request of the prosecution, the DuPage County, Illinois, Circuit Court dismissed all charges against Alejandro Hernandez, who had spent eleven and one-half
years in prison for an abduction, rape and murder in which he had no role. By that time DNA tests and a confession had established that the real criminal was an imprisoned serial rapist and murderer by the name of Brian Dugan; a police officer who provided crucial evidence had admitted to perjury; and Hernandez’s co-defendant, Rolando Cruz, was acquitted by a judge who was harshly critical of the investigation and prosecution of the case. Nonetheless, when Hernandez was released, the prosecutor said: "The action I have taken today is neither a vindication nor an acquittal of the defendant."

In 1993, in Baltimore County, Maryland, Kirk Bloodsworth became the first defendant in the United States who had been sentenced to death to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Nine years later, the chief prosecutor of the county said that the police “still believe [Bloodsworth] did it” and that she herself was “not sure.” More than a decade after Bloodsworth was re-
leased, the police finally, after inexplicable delays, used the DNA evidence at their disposal
to identify the real killer, a Maryland prisoner serving a forty-five-year sentence for bur-
glary, attempted rape and assault with intent to murder.

In 2000, Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore pardoned Earl Washington after DNA tests cleared Washington of a rape murder for which he had been sentenced to death and implicated a convicted serial rapist, Kenneth Tinsley. The Governor ordered a new investigation; four years later, nothing had happened in that investigation and the law enforcement officers involved continued to consider Washington a suspect. By then, new DNA tests, commissioned by Wash-
ington’s attorneys over the state’s objections, conclusively confirmed Tinsley’s guilt and re-
confirmed Washington’s innocence.

As Justice Clark said in the IRVIN v. DOWD, 366 U.S. 717 (1961) opinion:

"The influence that lurks in an opinion once formed is so persistent that it unconsciously fights detachment from the mental processes of the average man."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

American Justice: 148 - A Son's Confession

"A Son's Confession" is airing on Thursday, June 28. Check your local listings for the time, but for EDT, the times are 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. This story again re-emphasizes the cold, hard reality that innocent people do confess to crimes they did not commit.

Maurice J. Sponzo, the Judge who was so instrumental in reversing Peter Reilly's conviction for the murder of his mother, died last week. Sponzo criticized "state police and Litchfield County prosecutors for focusing on Reilly without investigating other possible suspects." The moral of the story is for investigators to spend their time, energy, and resources following leads, rather than coercing confessions.

Sponzo, who served as a one-man grand jury in an investigation that cleared Peter Reilly in the 1973 slaying of his mother, Barbara Gibbons, died Wednesday. He was 92.

Reilly confessed to the slaying after intense interrogation by state police and the 18-year-old was later convicted of first-degree manslaughter. Reilly recanted the confession while serving a six- to 16-year prison sentence.

Barbara Gibbons' murder remains unsolved.

Read more . . .

Monday, June 25, 2007

Judge: Nancy Grace should face wrongful death lawsuit in federal court

Excerpts from the Star Banner:

OCALA - A federal judge ruled Monday that the civil lawsuit between Melinda Duckett's family and the Nancy Grace camp will be tried in federal court.

In an order, U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones ruled that, because the parties involved reside in different jurisdictions, federal court would be the appropriate venue to handle the trial. Jones also dismissed Melinda's ex-husband, Joshua Duckett, from the lawsuit, stating that her estate fraudulently put him on the lawsuit in hopes of arguing that more than one party lived in Lake County, where the case was originally filed.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Exonerations in the United States, 1989 Through 2003: An aberration, or the tip of the iceberg?

One argument I frequently encounter is that wrongful convictions are rare, an aberration, and more is to be feared from guilty persons being acquitted than from innocent persons being convicted.

This study exposes the fallacy of that argument by comparing convictions/exonerations in robberies to convictions/exonerations in rapes (underlining added for emphasis).

Robbery and rape are both crimes of violence in which the perpetrator is often a stranger to the victim. As a result, robberies and rapes alike are susceptible to the well-known dangers of eyewitness misidentification.
In 1987, a detailed study analyzed all known cases of eyewitness misidentification in the United States from 1900 through 1983, 136 in all. That study found that misidentifications in robberies outnumbered those in rapes by more than two to one; in fact, robberies accounted for more than half of all known cases of proven misidentifications.
We have 121 exonerations in rape cases; in 88% of them (107/121) the defendant was the victim of eyewitness misidentification. But we have only six robbery exonerations, all of which
include eyewitness misidentifications. What changed? The answer is obvious: DNA. In 1987, the first DNA exoneration in the country was two years in the future. Since 1989, however, 87% of exonerated rape defendants were cleared by DNA evidence.

The implication is clear. If we had a technique for detecting false convictions in robberies that was comparable to DNA identification for rapes, robbery exonerations would greatly outnumber rape exonerations, and the total number of falsely convicted defendants who were exonerated would be several times what we report. And even among rape cases, DNA is only useful if testable samples of biological evidence were preserved and can be found, which is not always true.

In short, the clearest and most important lesson from the recent spike in rape exonerations is that the false convictions that come to light are the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface there are other undetected miscarriages of justice in rape cases without testable DNA, and a much larger group of undetected false convictions in robberies and other serious crimes of violence for which DNA identification is useless.

Another indication that wrongful convictions are far too commonplace comes from statistics provided by the March 2000 article, "Freeing the Innocent," by Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer (underlining added for emphasis).

Today, DNA tests are used before trial. Of the first 18,000 results at the FBI and other crime laboratories, at least 5000 prime suspects were excluded before their cases were tried. Overall, more than 25 percent of the prime suspects could not be implicated because many, if not most, were innocent. For this unseen legion of innocent suspects, only the genetic tests halted their forced march from wrongly accused to wrongly convicted. How many other innocent people, charged with crimes that involve no biological evidence, were chained and led at gunpoint into prison? Thousands, these tests suggest, far more than the most jaded jurists or cynical scholars ever envisioned.

Exonerations in the United States, 1989 Through 2003: The statistics

This is a very exhaustive study of exonerations, and we will be bringing you some highlights from it over the next few weeks. Click here if you want to read the entire study yourself.

The study's authors are all associated with the University of Michigan:

Samuel R. Gross, Thomas & Mabel Long Professor of Law
Kristen Jacoby, J.D. candidate, May 2005
Daniel J. Matheson, J.D. candidate, May 2004
Nicholas Montgomery, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Economics and Ford School of Public Policy
Sujata Patil, Ph.D. candidate in biostatistics, School of Public Health

Here are a few statistics from the study, which covered a period of 15 years (Note: the exonerations identified do not include 135 innocent defendants in the Tulia and Rampart mass exonerations or the 70 childcare sex abuse cases):
  • 328 exonerations, 316 men and 12 women
  • 145 cleared by DNA, 183 by other sorts of evidence
  • 199 (61%) were murder cases; 73 (22%) were sentenced to death
  • 120 (37%) were rape cases
  • 6 were for other crimes of violence
  • 3 were for drug or property crimes
  • 88% of the rape cases were exonerated by DNA
  • 20% of murder cases were exonerated by DNA, and almost all of them also involved a rape
  • Defendants convicted of murder make up about 13% of the American prison population, but 61% of all exonerations, and 87% of non-DNA exonerations
  • Death row inmates make up 1/4 of 1% of the American prison population, but 22% of exonerations
  • The 4 leading states for exonerations are: Illinois (54), New York (35), Texas (28), and California (22)
  • Eyewitness misidentification is the primary reason for false convictions in rape cases; particularly cross-racial misidentifications
  • The leading cause of false convictions in murder exonerations was perjury: by the real killers, by supposed participants or eyewitnesses, by jailhouse snitches and other police informants, and by police officers and state forensic scientists
  • False confessions also played a large role in false murder convictions: 44% of juvenile exonorees and 13% of adult exonorees falsely confessed; 69% of exonorees who were mentally ill or mentally retarded falsely confessed, compared to 11% of exonorees without any known mental disabilities falsely confessed
  • 90% of all juvenile exonorees are Black or Hispanic
Regarding the disparate number of death row exonerations, the study considers two possible explanations:

1) False convictions are not more likely to occur in murder and capital cases but are more likely to be discovered in capital cases because of the care taken to review those cases.

2) False convictions are more likely to occur in murder cases, and far more likely in death penalty cases.