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A recent Washington Post op-ed authored by civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of the 5th Congressional District of Georgia and Bryan Stevenson, executive director and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative highlights the case of Louis Taylor as a prime example of how presumptions of guilt lead to wrongful convictions of minorities across the country.
Taylor was wrongfully convicted of setting the 1970 Pioneer Hotel fire in Tucson, Arizona, which took the lives of 28 people. On the night of the fire, 16-year-old Taylor arrived at the hotel to attend a Christmas party and was arrested shortly after by police who claimed he had set the fire as a distraction so he could burglarize hotel rooms. He maintained his innocence for more than 40 years and was finally released this April based on new reports from arson experts hired by both the prosecution and the defense who all believed that the fire was not arson. The Arizona Justice Project, who represented Taylor continues to focus on the flawed fire science at the heart of the case.
Lewis and Stevenson write:
During Taylor's trial, a profiler swore under oath that the likely perpetrator was "a black teenager." Taylor was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to multiple life sentences.
In the year since his exoneration through DNA testing, Robert Dewey has been living hand to mouth without the compensation that could help him rebuild his life. That is about to change this week, when the governor signs a compensation bill into law.
When passed, the Compensation for Persons Wrongly Convicted bill will compensate Dewey over $1,000,000, minus federal taxes, for his nearly 18 years of wrongful imprisonment. He will also be eligible for four years of higher education on the state's tab, reported The Denver Post.
Dewey, who has survived on Social Security payments of about $600 a month and $87 in food assistance, testified before the Legislature earlier this year about his needs as a 52-year-old man suddenly turned back into the world with no job skills and no financial resources.
Dewey, a motorcycle enthusiast, plans to ride to the state Capitol on Wednesday to see the legislation signed. According to the legislation, Dewey and future exonerees will have to obtain health insurance and complete a financial management course. The measure also specifies that a future Class 1 or 2 felony conviction will discontinue the compensation.
Read the full article.
Read about Dewey's case.
More about compensation for the wrongly convicted.
A Montana man was taken back into custody for a 1979 murder earlier this week following a state Supreme Court ruling that could send him to prison for the rest of his life, reported the Associated Press. After new evidence pointed to a false confession in 2011, a Montana District Court judge released Barry Beach and ordered a new trial. Although prosecutors appealed the decision, a retrial date was never set.
Beach was convicted in 1984 of the murder of 17-year-old Kim Nees and sentenced to 100 years behind bars. He has always maintained his innocence and claimed that the confession was coerced during a three-day interrogation.
Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said the high court's 4-3 ruling upholding the original conviction denied Beach his chance to prove his innocence. Hanel said he befriended Beach at the local diner where he found employment after his release.
Beach's attorneys promised to fight for his release, saying that the case could potentially go to federal courts or even the U.S. Supreme Court.
Read the full article.
Read more about the Beach case.
Read more about false confessions.
By Hannah Riley, Communications Assistant
A recent Mother Jones magazine series profiles the 10 worst prisons and jails in the United States. Worth noting is the number of jails on the list, where the majority of inmates have not yet been convicted and may very well be innocent of their charges. A number of Innocence Project clients have lived in these facilities. I spoke with two of them, Barry Gibbs of New York, who served time in Rikers Island, and Ray Krone of Arizona, who served time in Maricopa County Jail.
The United States prison population has quadrupled in the past quarter-century alone. The uptick in inmate numbers has seen a corresponding deterioration in living conditions. The 306 people exonerated through DNA testing spent, on average, 13 years in these facilities.
Rikers Island, an island jail-complex in the middle of New York City's East River, is listed as the tenth worst facility on the Mother Jones list. Rikers is infamous for its deeply entrenched patterns of violence, abuse at the hands of guards and high numbers of inmates in solitary confinement. The majority of the 10,000 inmates on Rikers Island have not yet been tried.
"A horror," Gibbs says. "Every day was an absolute nightmare." Gibbs spent nearly two years there, awaiting the trial that would eventually wrongfully convict him of murder. He served over 17 years in prison before his exoneration in 2005, and although he was bounced around to several different New York State prisons-including Attica-Rikers still stands out as the worst in his memory.
"It's a very dangerous place for a person who is innocent, for someone who has had nothing to do with the criminal justice system." On his third day in Rikers, Gibbs walked into the main room of his housing unit to get a cup of coffee. Suddenly, a blanket was thrown over his head and six men began to punch and kick him. "And the whole time I'm wondering, where's the security? Who's watching? Where are the guards?" he says. "Finally, they stopped, but I was all messed up, and I had to go to court the next day."
Gibbs continued to assert his innocence to anyone who would listen. "When I first got there, I kept saying over and over that I was innocent. They didn't want to hear it. They put me in the Mental Observation ward and forced me to take Sinequan [an anti-anxiety medication]. It turns out that I was allergic to it. My whole body swelled up. I had to go to the hospital. They took me to Bellevue, handcuffed, and in chains and shackles with the other prisoners. They dragged us down the hallway of the hospital like that. Everyone could see us. I could hear the people saying 'look at those murderers.' Do you know how humiliating that is?"
In 1993, faced with the high cost of constructing a new jail to accommodate the ever-expanding inmate population, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio found that housing inmates in Korean War-era military tents-in the baking hot Arizona desert-would be more cost effective than constructing a new facility. Tent City, as it has become known, is an extension of Phoenix's Maricopa County Jail, housing approximately 2,000 inmates. The conditions at Tent City-which Sheriff Arpaio likened to 'a concentration camp'-landed it the number three spot on Mother Jones' list.
Ray Krone, who was wrongfully imprisoned (and later sentenced to death) for a murder he did not commit, was housed at Maricopa County Jail until he was convicted and moved to prison. "It's Arizona, and you're living outside. The coolest it gets is in the 90's, maybe, at night. There's one fan in this giant tent for about 40 guys... the tough guys got to be near the fan, so there was a lot of violence and fights over that cool area." In 2011, the Arizona Republic reported that the internal temperature at Tent City surged to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
I asked him about the food. "It was the stuff that wasn't fit to be sold in stores, so the inmates got it," he said. "The sheriff would brag about spending 50 cents a day on his inmates and a dollar a day on his dogs."
Like Gibbs, Krone was also prescribed antipsychotic medication. "If you're facing the death penalty, like I was, you didn't have to get real forceful to be put on psych meds. In fact, during most of my trial, I was on Thorazine. On the weekends, when I wasn't in court, they would come around with a cart to give you your pills. But it's so violent in there; you don't want to walk around all blocked out from the drugs. I needed my mind about me. So I'd hide the pills under my tongue."
Krone was finally exonerated through DNA testing in 2002 after 10 years in prison. He says, "You're treated like a criminal from day one. There is no innocent until proven guilty. It's guilty until proven innocent."
Krone and Gibbs' experiences are sobering reminders that innocent people continue to inhabit our prisons and jails. DNA testing provides the opportunity to identify and free some of the innocent, but those cases are a select minority. Many others will serve out their sentences or die behind bars. At the very least, our correctional institutions should be habitable for them.
Read the Mother Jones series.
More problematic cases are found at the Washington State Crime Lab, a top deputy at the New York City Medical Examiners' Office has resigned amidst allegations of violating lab protocol, and Forensic Magazine explores the limits of "touch DNA." Here is the round up of news for the week:
In the investigation of evidence at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, officials discovered that evidence in 19 cases had never been processed. While the investigation led to the resignation of the lab manager, the lab claims the errors have not led to wrongful convictions.
Ongoing cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx have been affected by the abrupt departure of one of the medical examiner's top analysts. She is accused of overruling her staff when they disagreed with DNA testing results rather than reporting the disagreements. Ultimately, her results in those cases were determined to be accurate. She has told reporters that the allegations are not true.
In a new twist to the problems at the Hinton State Crime Lab in Massachusetts, a drug case was dropped since prosecutors could not retrieve untested evidence that was locked in the crime lab. If the evidence is ever recovered, prosecutors may renew the charges.
The Nebraska Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a man after prosecutors failed to prove that a state crime lab scale used to weigh drugs was properly calibrated. Since the drug sample weight was on the boundary of a higher felony charge, a properly calibrated, accurate scale may change the man's sentence.
A recent article published by Forensic Magazine stresses that while touch DNA is becoming increasingly accurate, there are still limitations and problems with contamination. Because touch DNA can be recovered from a sample as small as several cells, preserving the crime scene and having stringent lab protocols is necessary to prevent foreign DNA contamination.
An editorial in Wednesday's New York Times called a Florida bill that would speed up execution dates for death row inmates' grotesque, adding that Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin's case is a good reason why the governor should veto it.
The Timely Justice Act would require a governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of a review of a capital conviction by the State Supreme Court, and the state would be required to execute the defendant within 180 days of the warrant.
Aguirre has been on Florida's death row since 2006 for the murders of Williams and Bareis, a mother and daughter who were found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004. New DNA testing reveals Aguirre's innocence and points to a family member of the victims as the perpetrator.
The Innocence Project and lead counsel for Aguirre are presenting compelling new evidence at a hearing this week. Aguirre's family was unable to travel from Honduras to attend the hearing, but he was joined in court yesterday by New York exoneree John Restivo who resides in Florida and the parents of Florida exoneree Wilton Dedge, who was exonerated in the same county where the hearing is taking place.
Read the full editorial.
Read coverage of the hearing.
In a new column in The Atlantic, contributing editor Andrew Cohen writes about the 50th anniversary of the "Brady" Rule, in which the Supreme Court unanimously declared that prosecutors have a constitutional obligation to share exculpatory evidence with criminal defendants. Cohen highlights the case of John Thompson, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and sent to death row in Louisiana. While facing his seventh execution date, a private investigator hired by his appellate attorneys discovered evidence of Thompson's innocence that had been concealed for more than a decade by the New Orleans Parish District Attorney's Office.
A rare example of being held accountable for a Brady violation occurred last month in Texas, when a court ruled that former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson will face criminal contempt and tampering charges for failing to turn over evidence pointing to the innocence of Michael Morton, who was later exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 25 years for his wife's murder, despite a court order and legal obligation to do so.
The Brooklyn District Attorney's Conviction Integrity Unit will reopen every murder case that resulted in a guilty verdict that was investigated by Louis Scarcella, a detective who handled some of Brooklyn's most notorious crimes in the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1990 murder of a Rabbi for which David Ranta was exonerated earlier this year.
Scarcella's tactics and the legitimacy of his convictions came under fire after The New York Times examined a dozen of his cases, and defense lawyers and advocacy organizations shared their own suspicions about his methods with the district attorney's office. Among the cases examined was that of James Jenkins. The Times reports:
Interviews with lawyers, prosecutors, witnesses and suspects, as well as a review of legal documents, suggest Scarcella didn't comply with the rules during his investigations.
Read the full article.
Michael Morton speaks at the Innocence Project annual gala in New York City.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brady v. Maryland, on May 13, 1963, which ruled that prosecutors must share any evidence favorable to the accused with the defense at trial. The Texas House of Representatives has selected this historic date to vote on a bill that would expand upon that ruling. SB 1611, the Michael Morton Act, could help standardize discovery procedures across the state and lead to greater transparency.
Supporters of the bill hope that it may also prevent wrongful convictions based on prosecutorial misconduct. Michael Morton spent 25 years in prison for murdering his wife and was later exonerated through DNA testing. The lead prosecutor in the case, Ken Anderson, has been criminally charged with concealing evidence of Morton's innocence at his trial among other charges of misconduct. He is also being investigated by the State Bar of Texas.
State Senators Rodney Ellis and Robert Duncan co-sponsor the bill. Ellis is also the Chair of the Innocence Project Board of Directors. Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck, who represented Morton, supports the legislation.
New DNA testing reveals the innocence of a man on Florida's death row and points to a family member of the victims as the likely perpetrator. At a hearing that begins today in Sanford, the Innocence Project and lead counsel for Clemente Javier Aguirre-Jarquin will present compelling new evidence for overturning his conviction.
Aguirre was sentenced to death in 2006 for the murders of his neighbors, Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, a mother and daughter who were found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004. An undocumented Honduran, Aguirre initially told the police that he didn't know anything about the murders. Later the same day, however, he admitted that he had discovered their bodies at approximately six a.m. when he went to the house hoping to get some beer. He panicked and didn't report the crime because he feared deportation.
At trial, the prosecution presented DNA evidence to show that the victim's blood was on Aguirre's clothes, shoes and the bloody knife. However, no testing was conducted on the more than 150 bloodstains that were photographed and swabbed from the crime scene.
In August 2011, Aguirre's counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel - Middle Region, in consultation with the Innocence Project, sought DNA testing of some of the previously-untested evidence. Most matched the two victims, but there were eight bloodstains that matched to William's daughter (and Bareis' granddaughter) Samantha Williams who has a history of violence and mental illness.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, prosecutors oppose Aguirre's attempt to overturn his conviction and in a prepared statement, State Attorney Phil Archer said, "These are extremely important questions that need to be fully explored in open court."
Read the full article.
More in today's press release.
Damon Thibodeaux watches a Yankees game with Pam Wandzel, pro-bono & community service manager at Frederickson Byron, the law firm that helped exonerate him.
Ten months after Innocence Project client Damon Thibodeaux became the 300th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence, KARE NBC Minnesota in St. Paul caught up with him to see how life post-exoneration has been. Since his release, Thibodeaux moved into his own apartment, bought a car, earned his high school diploma and got a job working within the Frederickson Byron law firm, which helped exonerate him.
The Virginia Department of Forensic Science disclosed DNA test results that could lead to more exonerations, a judge will finally determine if evidence from a crime lab in St. Paul is reliable, and Colorado defense lawyers are challenging DNA evidence due to possible contamination. Here is the round-up of news for the week:
In order to investigate the possibility of wrongful convictions, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science has disclosed DNA test results for over 70 cases where newly tested biological evidence failed to identify the convicted person. However, two state attorneys are withholding four DNA reports as they are critical to ongoing criminal investigations.
Nearly a year after defense attorneys first challenged drug evidence at the St. Paul crime lab, a Minnesota judge has allowed final comments and will release an order as quickly as possible. The drug evidence has been challenged due to possible contamination, lack of protocols and poorly trained personnel.
Colorado defense lawyers are challenging the admissibility of DNA evidence in the case of Austin Sigg due to possible contamination. The director of the state crime lab testified in court that a tray with multiple DNA samples showed irregularities in the results.
Researchers from France found a relationship between the speed of an object when it hits a piece of glass and the number of cracks that result. While this research could be used by forensic scientists to understand how glass breaks at the scene of the crime, it is only in its basic stages.
After hearing proposals to change how the National Science Foundation (NSF) chooses to fund its research projects, presidential science advisor John Holdren staunchly defended the peer review process, which is deemed the "gold standard" around the globe. While Holdren acknowledges Congress can review the process, he believes that the proposed legislation would destroy the basic principle of fundamental research.
An article in Tuesday's City Weekly discusses the extraordinary efforts of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center to free Debra Brown, whose case is still under appeal. Released in May 2011, Brown was declared innocent under the state's non-DNA factual innocence statute. The Attorney General then sent a message through his Twitter account that he would not appeal the decision. Shortly afterwards, he changed his mind.
City Weekly spoke to RMIC president Jensie Anderson about the decision:
Brown was convicted of murdering her boss, 75-year-old Lael Brown, in 1995 and spent 17 years behind bars before her release. RMIC has presented new evidence of alternate suspects and witnesses in their advocacy for Brown's exoneration.
The Utah Supreme Court is currently considering the appeal. If it reverses the judge's innocence finding, Brown could be sent back to prison. On the other hand, if it upholds the decision, Brown will be eligible for state compensation and will be one of the very few who has been exonerated under the statute. Utah is one of only two states that even has a factual innocence statute, which allows for a retrial in cases where there is newly discovered material evidence of innocence but no DNA evidence.
The City Weekly writes:
The Mississippi Supreme Court granted Mississippi death row inmate Willie Manning a stay of execution this afternoon, four hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection. Mississippi's highest court voted 8-1.
Hopefully, Manning, who has spent 20 years on death row maintaining his innocence in the deaths of Jon Steckler and Tiffany Miller, will now have the opportunity to do DNA testing that could prove his innocence. This past week, the FBI notified the state that there were flaws in both the hair and ballistics evidence that was used to convict Manning. The FBI also agreed to do the DNA testing.
Read a copy of the stay of execution order. (PDF)
More from the Clarion-Ledger.
Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Vanessa Potkin appeared on today's episode of "Democracy Now" to discuss the fate of Mississippi death row prisoner Willie Manning, who is scheduled for execution tonight. Manning was convicted on circumstantial evidence, including the testimony of a jailhouse informant who had previously given a statement implicating another person.
He has consistently maintained his innocence and has been seeking post-conviction DNA testing for years, insisting that technological strides made in the past 20 years could prove him innocent of the crime.
Join us in calling on Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant to stay Willie's execution and order DNA testing!
Watch the segment.
Even after the wrongfully convicted are cleared and released from prison, many of them are still haunted by the injustice and the lengthy period it can take to have it expunged from their records. Despite exoneration, many felony convictions remain on federal databases and become a hindrance as exonerees try to adjust to their newfound freedom, impeding efforts to find housing and employment.
The New York Times reports:
Vincent Moto, who served nearly nine years in prison for a rape and robbery DNA testing proved he didn't commit, was recently denied his petition to have his record expunged. Moto was exonerated in 1996.
Audrey Edmunds, who spent more than a decade in prison for the shaking death of an infant girl before new medical evidence prompted her conviction to be overturned, continues to struggle with the mark on her criminal record, though she was exonerated five years ago.
Read the full article.
Read more about the challenges that exonerated people face after release.
A screening of "After Innocence" tonight at 7 p.m. at Revolution Books in New York City will be followed by a discussion with the film's writer and producer, Marc Simon, as well as Innocence Project Case Analyst Edwin Grimsley. "After Innocence" is an award-winning documentary that features Innocence Project clients and their post-exoneration struggles to readjust to life in the free world.
Ohio's Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a Portage County court must reconsider DNA testing for a death row inmate who was convicted of the 1990 murders of Cora and Bearnhardt Hartig, an elderly couple.
Tyrone Noling's previous requests for advanced DNA testing on a cigarette butt found at the scene of the crime were denied by the lower court. Previous DNA testing of the cigarette butt had excluded Noling, but Noling argues that more sophisticated testing may now be able to identify the source of the DNA.
The high court pointed to new standards and expanded criteria for testing approved by Ohio lawmakers in 2010 as their basis for allowing the appeal. The Columbus Dispatch reports:
Noling and Wood remain hopeful that the county court will order testing on the cigarette butt in order to compare the DNA samples to that of an alternative suspect.
Read the full article.
Read more about Noling's case.