New Innocence TV Series: The Last Defense

Sarah Burgess — June 21, 2018 @ 4:13 PM — Comments (0)

For those who are looking for new crime/wrongful convictions TV shows to watch this summer—Viola Davis has you covered. Davis’ most recent production, The Last Defense, premiered on ABC’s Network on June 12th and will be aired on Tuesdays at 10 pm/9pm central for the remaining episodes. This show is a seven-part documentary series following the gripping innocence claims of two people on death row, exposing the underlying flaws and issues within the American criminal justice system.

The first four episodes of the docu-series focus on Darlie Routier of Rowlett, Texas. Darlie was the mother of two sons who were stabbed to death in an attack that occurred in her home on the night of June 6th, 1996. Less than an hour after arriving to the crime scene, the investigator decided that the attack had clearly been staged and Darlie was the true murderer of her sons. Her conviction solely relies on faulty blood spatter analysis and character assassination. Darlie claims that she absolutely did not murder her sons. Her husband Darin, who was sleeping upstairs at the time of the attack with their third 8-month-old son, firmly upholds her innocence as well. Kristine Bunch, another woman convicted of arson that in-turn killed her own son, is featured in this part of the docu-series. Her interviews are quite compelling and add to Darlie’s plight.

The remaining three episodes in the series turn to focus on Julius Jones. In the summer of 1999, Julius was arrested for the murder of an insurance executive Paul Scott Howell in Edmond, Oklahoma. Julius was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Oklahoma at the time, an honors student with a full-ride academic scholarship. With Jones being black and Howell being a well-to-do white man, the case was racially charged. His prosecutor was “Cowboy Bob” Macy, who sent 54 people to death row during his 21 years as a District Attorney. Macy is infamously known for his misconduct, and convicted Julius solely on informant testimony. One of the main witnesses was also involved in the sentencing of two other innocent men in another case. Julius was convicted and sentenced to death row at the age of 21, and has spent the last 16 years in prison maintaining his innocence.

The Last Defense was screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film festival in April and now that it’s on air, is a must-watch for the summer.

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Exoneration Anniversary: Jerry Frank Townsend

Sarah Burgess — June 13, 2018 @ 1:33 PM — Comments (0)

Happy 17 year exoneration anniversary, Jerry Frank Townsend!

A sufferer of severe mental disabilities with a mental capacity of an eight year old, Jerry Frank Townsend was convicted of six murders and one rape that he did not commit. His disabilities were not taken into account when he was sentenced to serve seven life sentences concurrently for these crimes.

In 1979, Townsend was initially arrested for raping a pregnant woman in Miami, Florida. It was during the investigation of this crime that he confessed to several other murders. His confession for these murders is mostly due to Townsend wanting to please authority figures, a common adaptive practice for someone with his mental capacities. In 1980, Townsend was convicted of two first-degree murders that occurred in 1973 in Broward County. He also pled guilty to four other murders in the 70’s.

In 1998, the mother of one of the murdered girls asked a Fort Lauderdale police detective to reviews the Townsend cases. In 2000, the DNA evidence of the semen sample from the child’s shorts pointed toward a man named Eddie Lee Mosely, and not Jerry Frank Townsend. This evidence officially cleared Townsend for two of the six murders, making his confessions to the other four look doubtful. Upon this discovery, the prosecutors asked that Townsend’s convictions be thrown out.

The DNA testing in this case also affected Frank Lee Smith’s case, who died on Florida’s death row before being exoneration by postconviction DNA testing. In Smith’s case, the testing also implicated Eddie Lee Mosley.

On June 15th of 2001, Jerry Frank Townsend was exonerated after spending twenty-two years in prison. Happy 17 years of Freedom, Jerry!

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Exoneration Anniversary: Jonathan Rivera

Sarah Burgess — June 12, 2018 @ 11:19 AM — Comments (0)

Happy 10 year exoneration anniversary, Jonathan Rivera!

In October of 2005, Jonathan Rivera was charged with the murder of Adam Anhang that took place a month prior in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Rivera was misidentified by a witness, causing his wrongful conviction. At the time, Rivera worked at the restaurant that Anhang’s widow, Aurea Vazquez Rijos, owned. In September of 2007, a witness of Anhang’s murder identified Rivera as the perpetrator. Rivera was then convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison, despite the lack of any physical evidence connecting him to Anhang’s murder.

However, the Puerto Rican Department of Justice chose to re-investigate the case and found that soon after Anhang’s murder, a police officer had discovered that a man named Alex Pabon-Colon had actually committed the crime. After Pabon-Colon and Anhang’s widow were indicted with murder and conspiracy, Rivera was exonerated from prison on June 8th, 2008.

Happy 10 years of freedom, Jonathan!

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Beneath a Ruthless Sun: Books on Innocence

Sarah Burgess — June 6, 2018 @ 12:04 PM — Comments (0)

Gilbert King was our keynote speaker for our annual Steppin’ Out Gala a few weeks ago, and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. His books are a must-read, true stories of the harsh realities faced in the American South, rooted in deep-seated racism and discrimination.

In King’s most recent novel, Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found, the scene is 1957 in Okahumpka, Florida. A cold front is blowing its way through central Florida, causing quite a detriment to the citrus crop. Blanche Knowles, the wife of a well-to-do citrus man, claims she was raped in her own home during the freeze while her husband was out of town. Blanche immediately reports to the known-racist sheriff of the town, Willis McCall, that a “husky Negro” was the perpetrator.

Although set 10 years after King’s book The Devil in the Grove, King highlights that Florida is still deeply imbedded in racism and bigotry. McCall tells his boys to gather a group of potential black suspects. Officers raided the local neighborhood North Quarters, an area of run-down homes and shacks where the black town members tended to reside. Much to the surprise of the community, within a few days McCall ends up labeling Jesse Daniels as a suspect and sending him to the insane asylum in Chattahoochee. Daniels is a white nineteen-year-old boy who was mentally disabled and never finished high school.  He was frequently seen riding his bike around town. For 14 years, Daniels resided in the mental hospital for a crime he did not commit.

King’s heroine of his story is presented in the form of Mabel Norris Reese, a local journalist who is forever struck by the oddities of this particular case. Reese was a keen and daring reporter of a weekly newspaper, and dedicated many years to asking the questions that nobody else seemed inclined to ask. She chased this story for years, and was slowly able to uncover bit by bit the hidden truths behind the crime.

Beneath a Ruthless Sun delves deeply into issues plaguing the South—involving racism, civil rights, legal issues, and much more. We are still dealing with these issues today, tainting institutions such as our criminal justice system.

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Exoneration Anniversary: Orlando Boquete

Sarah Burgess — May 23, 2018 @ 3:40 PM — Comments (0)

Happy 12 year exoneration anniversary, Orlando Boquete!

In June of 1982, Orlando Boquete was convicted for attempted sexual battery and burglary. Orlando was misidentified by a witness, leading to his wrongful conviction.

Two men broke into the victim’s apartment in Stock Island, Florida. The victim awoke to one of the men sexually assaulting her, leaving semen on her clothes. The victim described one of the men  as Latino with no shirt and no hair, but did not identify the other intruder.

The police officer began stopping Cuban-American men nearby, and Orlando was the only one with no shirt and no hair. The victim identified him as the perpetrator from inside a police car. Orlando testified that he was at home with his family until he left to go to the convenience store where he was stopped by the officer. The police officer collected biological evidence from the victim’s clothing, but no DNA testing was done. Orlando Boquete was sentenced 50 years in prison.

In 2003, Orlando filed a motion to seek DNA testing from the semen on the clothing collected from the crime. The test, conducted by Orchid Cellmark, concluded that the semen stains did not in fact belong to Orlando. His conviction was overturned on May 23rd 2006. The Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Florida  have been helping Orlando Boquete ever since his release.

Happy 12 years of freedom, Orlando!

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Exoneration Anniversary: Jerry Miller!

Taylor Thornton — April 23, 2018 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (0)

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Happy Exoneration Anniversary Jerry Miller!!

On October 1, 1982 Jerry Miller was convicted of rape, robbery, and kidnapping and sentenced to 45 years following the brutal attack of a woman entering her vehicle in a Chicago, Illinois parking garage. Despite his alibi and the victim being unable to accurately identify her attacker, Miller was convicted based primarily on the identification by employees of the parking garage who had seen the true assailant.

In 2005 the Innocence Project took on Miller’s case. A slip worn by the victim at the time containing DNA was tested and Jerry Miller was able to be excluded. At that time, the Cook County State Attorney’s Office joined the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and the Innocence Project in filing a joint motion to vacate Jerry Miller’s conviction. The DNA testing was also able to identify the true attacker when the profile was entered into the FBI offender database. Happy 11 years of freedom Jerry Miller!!

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District Attorneys Seeking Justice for the Innocent!

Taylor Thornton — April 20, 2018 @ 3:20 PM — Comments (0)

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is one of many district attorneys operating conviction integrity units in their offices.

In the last few years, an awareness seems to be growing in our society for those who are wrongfully convicted and a support for the exoneration of those people. Wrongful conviction stories are showing up more and more frequently in the media across television, movies, and even podcasts as public interest grows (you can read more about some of those here). Over the past few decades, as well, it appears that public opinion is shifting on the way we view crime and punishment as a society, seeming to favor rehabilitation over more punitive measures and harsh mandatory sentences. As this cultural shift grows, we are now seeing support coming from an unusual source: prosecutors.

Typically, the goal of a prosecutor is to get as many guilty verdicts as possible, because that is just their job. But, it appears that a new generation of prosecutors have come along that are placing a greater priority on the quality of their convictions. Across the country, more than 30 district attorneys have created conviction integrity units. A conviction integrity unit is a unit established within a prosecutorial office that serves to go through and investigate the past cases of that office in search of wrongful convictions. The reasons for these wrongful convictions can be intentional malfeasance by the prosecutors or the police, but it can also include bad forensic science or flaws in the investigation.

The conviction integrity unit created within the Brooklyn district attorney’s office had massive success since its establishment in 2011. In just a short amount of time under Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson’s leadership, his unit has been able to overturn over 19 convictions since he took office in 2014. It has become a national leader in exonerations, particularly for murder convictions. This number includes Vanessa Gathers, the first female to be exonerated by this unit. Gathers is one of a number of defendants accusing retired NYPD detective Louis Scarcella of using tactics to extract false confessions from suspects. She has finally had her name cleared after serving 10 years in prison and 5 more on parole for a manslaughter conviction that she was innocent of.

Despite the very quickly growing success of these units, there is still a long way to go before a real dent is made in the number of inmates wrongfully incarcerated throughout the country. Only about 30 district attorney’s offices of the few thousand nationwide have created these units. That being said, these have been a huge and very positive step in the right direction. Changing the culture of the way we view wrongful convictions, especially by those in powerful positions inside prosecutorial offices, gives hope for less injustice moving forward.

One issue not yet being tackled by these units, however, is addressing those cases in which the conviction was valid but the punishment might not be. This is a much more daunting task to address for prosecutors but it is an idea that would likely render much public support. Philadelphia is likely to soon create the first sentence review program in our nation’s history. A sentence review unit would work similarly to conviction integrity units but would instead evaluate if the punishment was fair. New Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is making plans with his staff to create such a unit. Numerous other district attorneys across the country are also working with an organization called Fair and Just Prosecution to create their own units as well.

While this task is a lot easier said than done, moves are being made in the right direction to help repair the important flaws in our system. These new progressive prosecutors are starting the important conversations about what success and justice should look like within our nations prosecutorial offices. Raising the integrity of these office and their convictions serves to lessen time spent behind bars by innocent people. It can also serve to find those true assailants left on the streets before they offend and cause harm to anyone again. These units can educate prosecutors and the public alike to raise their awareness on where they might have gone wrong in the past so that these mistakes can be learned from and the tragedies of wrongful convictions can be minimized.

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Exoneration Anniversary: Megan Winfrey and Victor Larue Thomas!

Taylor Thornton — April 17, 2018 @ 10:48 AM — Comments (0)

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Happy Exoneration Anniversary Megan Winfrey!!

In 2008 Megan Winfrey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2004 murder of Murray Burr in Coldspring, Texas. Her conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, primarily scent evidence from bloodhounds employed by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department who allegedly “alerted” to Megan as well as her brother and father. In February of 2013 Megan Winfrey was acquitted when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the dog scent evidence was insufficient. Megan was released on April 17, 2013 when the state was denied their petition to retry her. Happy 5 years of freedom Megan Winfrey!

Image result for victor larue thomas exonerated

Happy Exoneration Anniversary Victor Larue Thomas!!

Victor Thomas was sentenced to three life terms on June 15, 1986 for the beating and raping of a worker during the robbing of a convenience store in Waxahachie, Texas. Thomas’ conviction rested on his identification by the victim and her testimony in court. After writing numerous letters from behind bars trying to get help, state District Judge Gene Knize took notice of Victor. Judge Knize appointed Victor an attorney, asked the Ellis County District Attorney’s Office to re-investigate the case, and asked for DNA testing. DNA testing excluded Victor from being the attacker and he was released in June of 2001. Finally, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned him on April 17, 2002. Happy 16 years of freedom Victor Larue Thomas!!

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False Confessions: What are the Consequences?

Taylor Thornton — April 13, 2018 @ 3:04 PM — Comments (0)

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In the previous posts in this False Confessions series, we discussed the causes that lead to an innocent person giving a false confession. We broke down what kind of tactics used and errors made by interrogators can lead to falsifying a confession and what certain groups can be the most vulnerable to these. What we have not really delved into, however, is what the consequences of this are. The obvious answer, of course, is that a false confession will likely result in a wrongful conviction. But, the consequences of a false confession can persist even after the exoneration of an innocent person. We will discuss these consequences in this post.

A confession is the most powerful piece of evidence that can come before a court. Social science has shown us that confessions are extremely persuasive to a jury. Confessions are especially persuasive when they include descriptive details of the crime. As was discussed in the last post in this series, confessions can also be infected by leading questions or even insertions of information that make the confession even more convincing and believable. Social scientists can present in court the research behind how often and why false confessions may occur. The defense can use these social scientists to try to lessen the powerful persuasive effect of a defendants false confession. But, it is hard to take the images out of a jury’s head of the defendant sitting in front of them saying in their own words that they are guilty. This is why, as stated earlier, false confessions will likely result in a wrongful conviction.

What is even worse, false confession can still follow an innocent person even after they have been exonerated and have had their innocence (supposedly) earned back. When someone has given a false confession of guilt, or even worse entered a guilty plea, when they are innocent, that can threaten their right to monetary compensation for their suffering. An example of this can come from the 2004 Supreme Court Case of Taylor v. Smith. Lola Ann Taylor falsely confessed to rape and murder, along with five others, of Helen Wilson. Taylor gave this false confession after repeated interrogations, including being interrogated by her former psychologist Dr. Wayne Price. When Taylor was exonerated by DNA evidence she had to fight for her compensation under the Nebraska Wrongful Conviction Act. This is because it stipulates that the complainant must be innocent of the crimes as well as have not made a false statement that brought about their conviction, unless that statement was coerced by law enforcement. Taylor had to prove to the court that she was psychologically coerced and did not intentionally give false statements.

Lola Ann Taylor was fortunate to have won her case and be granted her compensation, although some might say she should not have been put through all of that when she was innocent, but some exonerees are not this fortunate. Some exonerees are denied their compensation because of their false confessions, despite the fact that they were coerced, psychologically manipulated, and suffered the same amount as a result of the same failures of the criminal justice system. To deny an innocent person compensation for their time spent suffering behind bars because of a crime that they never committed is unjust, false confession or not.

To wrap up this series on wrongful convictions, there are a number of ways that future damages can be avoided by preventing false confessions from happening in the future. A major solution that we have discussed here before is video taping the interrogation. With a taped confession, investigators can view what lead to the confession and where the details of the confession might have come from. The tapes of these confessions can also be used in court by the defense to delegitimize the confession. However, this is not a full solution. The taping of confessions can be manipulated by using deceptive camera angles or not taping prior interrogation sessions that may be relevant. Also, the taping of a false confession does not catch the suspects whole life on camera, meaning that it would not capture events prior to the interrogation that might effect their mental health or current mental state.

Another method that has been promoted by the Nebraska Innocence Project is not allowing investigators to threaten suspects with the death penalty. The threat of execution can result in an innocent suspect giving a false confession in exchange for a lesser sentence. When presented with the threat of death, the influence to lie to avoid this is too strong to yield a just and truthful confession.

When it comes to false confessions, the consequences are clearly damaging and long-lasting. A false confession and thus wrongful conviction is a loss and an injustice for everyone involved. Not only will an innocent person have a piece of their life stolen, but the police will have failed their mission and failed the victims by leaving the true assailant on the streets.

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More Binge-Worthy Media of the Innocence World

Taylor Thornton — April 9, 2018 @ 3:44 PM — Comments (0)

For a long time it seems that the public has had an interest in crime. Crimes that are particularly violent, scandalous, or just simply awful always seem to capture the attention of the American public. This is why there are dozens of shows about murder, crime solving, and the minds of criminals. There are whole channels dedicated to such programs, like Investigation Discovery, where viewers can find programs like Wives with Knives or Nightmare Next Door.

In recent years, however, there has been a growing popularity for media not just involving crime but for those stories involving wrongful convictions. Bringing light to wrongful convictions and how they happen can only serve to help stop this from happening. The more aware and mindful the public is on how easily a wrongful conviction can happen and the type of damage it can cause, the more careful people will be. That being said, here are six more binge-worthy series, films, and podcasts from the world of wrongful convictions.

If you like any of these, be sure to check out our previous binge-worthy media post for eight more!

Series:

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To start with an obvious one that was touched on in our last post about this, the Netflix original Making a Murderer is one of the most popular series relating to wrongful conviction. This series follows the story of Steven Avery, sentenced to life in prison for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, and his teenaged nephew Brendan Dassey, also sentenced to life for the same murder. Steven Avery was previously a client of the Wisconsin Innocence Project who helped exonerate him of his 1985 conviction of sexual assault and attempted murder. After serving 18 years for this wrongful conviction, Avery was free only two years before being arrested once again. This time, he is arrested for murder. To watch the trailer click here.

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Another more recent series is the 2017 docuseries I am Innocent. This series tells the stories of the victims of wrongful conviction in New Zealand. It also seeks to reveal the cracks in their justice system that cause these. This series can be streamed now on Netflix.

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The 2017 A&E series The Murder of Laci Peterson calls into question the conviction and death sentence of Scott Peterson. This series brings back to the forefront one of the most infamous and high profile cases of the last twenty years over a decade after Laci Peterson’s Christmas Eve disappearance. Through interviews with reporters, family and neighbors, this series revisits the national fascination with Laci Peterson’s disappearance, how Scott Peterson became the most hated man in America, and what the police might have overlooked in order to convict Scott Peterson. For a trailer for this series click here.

Films:

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This 1988 film is an older one but still a must-watch for wrongful conviction junkies. The Thin Blue Line follows the story of Randall Adams, a man sentenced to death for a murder that he did not commit. The film shows a series of reenactments of the crime and interviews about the case with attorneys, police, and witnesses. The title refers to a statement by prosecutor Doug Mulder in his closing arguments for this case that police are the “thin blue line” that separates society and anarchy. To watch the trailer for this film click here.

Pocasts:

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Podcasts are a medium that grows more popular each day, and with this growth comes it’s fair share of wrongful conviction topics. This first podcast is called Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom. In this podcast, the stories of all different exonerees are told based on the files of the lawyers who worked to exonerate them. In addition, the men and women themselves who were wrongfully convicted are interviewed. Click here to stream this podcast on Revolver podcasts.

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This last binge-worthy podcast is Accused: The Unsolved Murder of Elizabeth Andes.  If you’re interested in going more in depth into a case than just one episode, this might be the right podcast for you. This series, as the title indicates, goes through the 1978 murder of Elizabeth Andes in her own home. The police decided they knew within hours who had committed this crime.  Follow this case episode by episode to decide if you agree and whether or not a killer walked free. Stream this podcast here.

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