Samantha Adams — May 18, 2015 @ 4:36 PM — Comments (0)
The website for the National Registry of Exonerations is a treasure trove of information for those who are interested in wrongful convictions and exonerations. The Registry keeps track of exonerations dating back from 1989, and includes details about the cases. The website also displays their extensive information on U.S. exonerations in charts, graphs, and infographics. Recently, the Registry updated their page to include a line graph that presents the numbers of exonerations per year of conviction. In other words, the graph answers the question: How many people who were convicted in any given year were ultimately exonerated?
This graph gives us a new way to think about exonerations and wrongful convictions. We can see how wrongful conviction rates for certain crimes have decreased over time. For example, as DNA testing becomes more advanced, widespread, and fast-paced, less and less people are being wrongfully convicted for rape and other crimes for which DNA evidence is available. The graph shows this; since the late 80s and early 90s, when pretrial DNA testing became more common, there have been less convictions that have resulted in exonerations, implying that the accuracy of sexual assault and rape convictions has improved.
Further, if we compare the conviction year line graph to the line graph that presents the numbers of exonerations by year, we can see how different types of wrongly accused defendants are exonerated at different rates. Current rates for murder exonerations are relatively high, while rates of wrongful convictions for murder in recent years are low. This does not mean that murder convictions in recent years are more accurate; rather, it means that it takes many years for a murder conviction to get overturned compared to other types of crimes. A man who was falsely convicted for murder may spend nearly 40 years incarcerated before being exonerated (See Ricky Jackson, who was wrongly incarcerated for 39 years).
On the other hand, a person who was falsely convicted for another type of crime may be exonerated within the year, or even within a few days, as seen in the case of Alexandra Mendez. We can see that nearly all of the exonerations for convictions in recent years are for crimes under the category of “other”, which is made up for crimes like drug use or attempted murder. This is not to say that all people wrongfully convicted for drug crimes are quickly exonerated, however. Try filtering the Registry of Exonerations by “Crime: Drug Possession or Sale” to see how the time spent wrongly incarcerated for drug crimes can vary. It is just more likely that a wrongful drug case conviction will be quickly resolved than a murder case will; murder has a victim, and the victim’s family may desire finality and closure, which an overturned conviction can disrupt.
Resources like the National Registry of Exonerations are extremely useful to the mission of the Innocence Project of Florida. By providing the public with these graphs and statistics, the problem of wrongful convictions becomes less hidden. The public can begin to understand what helps speed up the exoneration process (for example, DNA testing), or why an innocent person may have a hard time being exonerated (for example, because murder charges are hard to fight). The more educated the public becomes about wrongful convictions, the more people we have on our side in our fight against them.
This blog has been inspired by National Registry of Exonerations May Newsletter. Click here to sign up to receive their newsletters.
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida, drug crimes, exonerations, Murder, The National Registry of Exonerations, wrongful convictions
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Samantha Adams — May 12, 2015 @ 1:32 PM — Comments (0)
Psychological research continues to demonstrate that evidence such as eyewitness identifications or confessions do not necessarily prove guilt; eyewitnesses can misremember events, lineup processes can encourage witnesses to misidentify suspects, and confessions can be coerced. The unreliability of these types of evidence stems from psychological and cognitive processes such as tunnel vision, (in which a criminal justice official becomes so entrenched in the idea that the suspect is guilty that he or she starts to reinterpret information to support this idea,) and the malleability of human memory, (which causes witnesses to remember a crime differently from how it really occurred, and allows suspects to be convinced that they are guilty of a crime that they did not commit cite). Psychology has proved time and time again that not only do humans often incorrectly remember and interpret events, but also that these psychological flaws often contributes to wrongful convictions.
However, we also have to accept the fact that hard scientific evidence is also not always reliable. Over the years, countless types of forensic evidence have been found to be less dependable than they were once thought to be. For example, in 2002, the National Research Council conducted a study the FBI’s use of bullet lead analysis. Bullet lead analysis was performed to find an association between a bullet used for a particular crime, and bullets associated with suspects for that crime. The NRC found that despite the FBI’s equipment and procedures being up to snuff, their interpretations of analysis results were questionable; the FBI overstated the significance of their results to jurors, making the analysis results seem incriminating to a misleading degree. Following the report, the FBI chose to discontinue these tests, but did not thoroughly notify all the defendants who were affected by this misleading testimony, thus limiting their chances to appeal their convictions.
An even more contemporary example from the FBI is the April 2015 announcement that a large majority of FBI cases that included microscopic hair analysis also overstated the results as more incriminating than they actually are. This is especially relevant here at the Innocence Project of Florida due to the high percentage of Floridian defendants who had been convicted with the help of these analyses. Just because these analyses were misrepresented in court does not necessarily prove the defendants’ innocence, but it does speak to the fragile nature of forensic evidence.
Besides flaws in the significance assigned to results of forensic testing, there are also some fields of forensic science that were previously so plagued with errors that they have had to have been almost completely rewritten. The most noteworthy example is that of arson science. Cases from Cameron Todd Willingham, to David Lee Gavitt, to the very current case of Letitia Smallwood have all been questioned due to the flawed arson science used in their convictions. Arson science from previous decades was actually considered more of an “art”. Rather than experimenting and training, older arson science was based on certain types of burn marks that were thought to indicate arson. However, more recent science, in which researchers set actual fires and observe them, reveals that these same marks appear in accidental fires as well. Arson science reminds us that just because a certain forensic test is considered “science” doesn’t necessarily make it truly “scientific”.
This brief overview of different types of evidence is not meant to demonstrate the hopelessness of preventing wrongful convictions or of using evidence to find the real perpetrators of crimes. Instead, it is a reminder that the resources the criminal justice system has at its disposal to prove someone guilty, from burn marks to confessions, need to be handled with care.
For more information on the fallibility of forensic science, take a look at this article.
Science, eyewitness misidentification, false confession, forensic science
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Samantha Adams — March 30, 2015 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (1)
A quick Internet search for “Shaken Baby Syndrome” reveals countless numbers of caretakers being accused of being responsible for the death of an infant. In an article describing one of these recent cases, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is quoted as saying:
“Shaken Baby Syndrome is the leading cause of child abuse deaths each year…The victims are innocent, helpless children and are too often harmed by those entrusted to care and protect them.”
Recently, however, convictions based on these kinds of accusations are facing serious reconsideration.
In the past, Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, was widely believed to be based on scientific fact, but it’s come to light that this science is likely to be flawed. According to a recent article in the Washington Post,“Testing has been unable to show whether violent shaking can produce the bleeding and swelling long attributed to the diagnosis, and doctors have found that accidents and diseases can trigger identical conditions in babies.” This means that those caretakers that have been accused, convicted, incarcerated, and portrayed as abusive monsters are in many cases actually without any fault in the child’s death.
However, despite a lack of good science proving the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome, it is an understandably emotional issue that is deeply entrenched in society, and the discrediting of the diagnosis has sparked some debate. A letter to the editor was written in response to the aforementioned Washington Post article, arguing for the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Seth Miller, the Innocence Project of Florida’s Executive Director and President of the Innocence Network , and Barry Scheck, a founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, replied to this letter succinctly summing up the issue—
“No one condones child abuse, and no one wants innocent parents and caregivers to be hauled off to prison or separated from their children… We need an open-minded inquiry and dispassionate debate about the troubled science so the criminal justice system can get it right. The time is long overdue to fund basic and applied research in the area of pediatric head injuries. It is a public health issue of enormous importance.”
Innocence Project of Florida,Science, junk science, Shaken baby syndrome, wrongful conviction
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Samantha Adams — March 27, 2015 @ 12:47 PM — Comments (0)
Now that it’s almost April, 2014 may be starting to seem like a distant memory. And while 2015 is quickly shaping up to be a successful year for exonerating innocent prisoners, we should still take a second to review some of the successes that we had in 2014. The National Registry of Exonerations published an informative infographic detailing some ways in which 2014 was a record-breaking year for exonerations.
First of all, the 127 exonerations that took place in 2014 marked the highest number of annual exonerations out of all the years recorded in the Registry – from 1989 onwards. That means that out of 26 years of exonerations, 2014 was the most successful. The year that came closest to 2014 was 2012, in which 92 people were exonerated.
Besides the high number of exonerations overall, 2014 saw many other noteworthy improvements and successes in the exoneration process. For example, Alexandra Mendez was exonerated on August 22, 2014, only 3 days after her conviction—the fastest exoneration ever. She had been convicted for possession of cocaine, but lab tests of the material revealed it was not in fact a controlled substance, and her conviction was quickly overturned.
Another staggering figure is the number of non-DNA exonerations that occurred last year – 103! That’s more than the total number of exonerations in any other year. A report from the Registry in 2013 revealed that non-DNA exonerations are beginning to overtake DNA exonerations, as biological evidence is more and more frequently being tested before trial, rather than being used to prove innocence post-conviction. This is good news both for those innocent defendants who get cleared by DNA before they’re ever convicted, and for innocent inmates with no DNA evidence, whom can now take advantage of some of the exoneration resources no longer being used by DNA cases.
2014 was also important in the cooperation shown from law enforcement in exonerations. 67 exonerations, or 54% of all exonerations in 2014, were done with cooperation from law enforcement. 2012 was the first year in which law enforcement cooperated in more than 50% of the year’s exonerations, and the trend seems to be continuing. The support of the police in the fight for justice for the wrongfully convicted is a powerful tool, and we are extremely thankful to officers who support this important cause.
For more information on the successes of 2014, you can read the National Registry of Exonerations’ full report of 2014 exonerations. And if you want to show your thanks to a law enforcement officer who supports the cause of keeping innocent people out of prison, consider attending our 4th Annual Spring Gala, Steppin’ Out, where we’ll be honoring Former Police Chief and Secretary of Corrections and Past President of the International Association of Police Chiefs, Walter McNeil for the non-traditional collaborations he has formed with the innocence community to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida, 2014, exonerations, Non-DNA exonerees, police, records
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Jackie — March 26, 2015 @ 2:21 PM — Comments (0)
On March 13 and 14th 2015, The Main Street Players in Miami did a reading of The Exonerated, a play written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen. In the play, six death row exonerees tell their stories – from the crimes they were accused of, to their time in prison, to their exoneration. Each story is a true account of a real death row exoneree.
All proceeds from the performance were donated to The Innocence Project of Florida. We thank The Main Street Players and congratulate them on their wonderful performance!
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida,post-conviction, Miami Dade Crime Lab, The Exonerated
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Samantha Adams — March 13, 2015 @ 11:04 AM — Comments (1)
Steppin’ Out 2015 is just around the corner, on Thursday, April 16th, at Mission San Luis. The silent auction, as well as the VIP reception for exonerees, sponsors, and award recipients will start at 6 PM, and the dinner and program will run from 7 to 9:30 PM.
Jennifer Thompson, co-author of the NY Times bestseller Picking Cotton, will be honored with the Frank Lee Smith Innocence Award, recognizing her significant contribution to advancing the cause of innocence. Jennifer has used her experience as a crime victim involved in a wrongful conviction case to affect positive change in the criminal justice system and has served as a Commissioner on the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission.
Walter McNeil, former police chief, will receive the Innocence Project of Florida Partner in Justice Award, recognizing the non-traditional collaborations he has formed with the innocence community to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.
To get an idea of what is in store this year take a look through some of the highlights from 2014’s Steppin’ Out.
Individual tickets are $125, or $100 for public defenders and students, and can be purchased online here. More information about event sponsorships can be found here. For more information, please call 850-561-6767 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charitable Giving,Innocence Project of Florida, Innocence Project of Florida, Steppin' Out with the Innocence Project of Florida
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Samantha Adams — March 2, 2015 @ 4:48 PM — Comments (0)
Some causes of wrongful convictions are intertwined with weaknesses specific to the American criminal justice system. However, wrongful convictions are certainly not unique to the USA. Problems like mistaken eyewitness identifications are symptoms of a normal human memory, and thus can exist regardless of the country where the alleged crime takes place. Further, some country’s criminal justice systems experience the same weaknesses as America’s does, and sometimes the problems may be even worse.
For example, although the Japanese criminal justice system is often lauded for its 99 percent conviction rate, it isn’t surprising that along with such a high conviction rate comes some questionable practices. The BBC wrote an article detailing some of the coercive procedures that Japanese police use when interrogating suspects, explaining that most convictions in Japan are hinged on the defendant confessing, which, given these coercive procedures, are at risk for being false.
A rape case in late 2014 in Afghanistan highlights some of the difficulties the Afghan criminal justice system faces, such as police torture, the public’s desire for “justice”, and political interference.
Post-exoneration law also differs by country. While exonerees in the United Kingdom face stringent guidelines dictating whether or not they can be compensated for their time spent in prison, Portugal, Italy, Brazil, and Spain all guarantee compensation for damages caused by judicial errors in their constitutions.
While the Innocence Project of Florida and other American innocence organizations focus specifically on defendants convicted in the particular states that they represent, there is also work being done in other countries to free the wrongfully convicted. Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, The Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, and Taiwan all have organizations that are members of the Innocence Network, which you can read about here. China has recently been taking action to reform their criminal justice system to prevent miscarriages of justice. And some exonerees, like Fernando Bermudez, travel internationally to tell their stories and call the world’s attention to the wrongfully convicted. Although wrongful convictions are a worldwide problem, it is comforting to know that the fight against them is worldwide as well.
For further reading, The National Institute of Justice published an extremely informative report describing international practices related to wrongful convictions.
exoneration,legislation,Uncategorized, causes of wrongful conviction, innocence projects, international, post-exoneration, wrongful conviction
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Phuc Phan — February 19, 2015 @ 5:15 PM — Comments (0)
Image Courtesy : LA Times.
Christopher Abernathy, 48, claimed his freedom one more time after the Cook County State’s Attorney lifted his life sentence. The last year DNA test had excluded Abernathy from previous DNA evidence obtained many years ago. He was 18 when he was arrested in the rape and murder of 15-year-old Kristina Hickey, who disappeared Oct.3, 1984. Back in the ‘80s, Abernathy signed an admission of guilt – which Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez called “quite thin”, since Abernathy has a “diminished mental capacity”. So for now, the killer of Kristina Hickey has still not been identified.
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida,Press Release, Christopher Abernathy, DNA testing, exoneration, wrongful conviction, wrongful incarceration
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Samantha Adams — February 11, 2015 @ 3:54 PM — Comments (1)
We are just barely in to 2015, but this year’s exoneration count is already going strong. Filtering by year through the National Registry of Exonerations website, we can see that as of February 11, 2015, 13 people have been exonerated in 2015.
The Registry website also has many other options to help you filter through cases. For example, you can arrange exonerations by year of conviction, contributing factors to the wrongful conviction, and, whether DNA evidence was used in the exoneration process. The detailed view offers even more information, providing columns that code more specific information about each case. For example, there are codes that signify if a case involved Shaken Baby Syndrome, or if the innocent person was exonerated posthumously. Further, clicking on the last name of each exoneree brings you to a page with a narrative write-up of the crime they were convicted for, what contributed to their wrongful conviction, and how they were exonerated.
Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the Registry is its mission to not only record current and previously documented exoneration cases, but to also discover previously unknown exonerations. Exonerations are just the tip of the iceberg of wrongful convictions, as there are certainly many wrongful convicted people that have never been exonerated, but the Registry’s success in uncovering undocumented exonerations proves that even our current exoneration counts cannot even come close to giving us a full picture of exonerations, let alone how many wrongful convictions there are. An example of one such previously unknown case is Kenneth Treadwell, who was exonerated in September 1999, but was not added to the site until January of this year.
On the other hand, the most recently exoneration listed is that of Michael Waithe, who was exonerated on January 30, 2015, for a burglary he was falsely accused for that never actually occurred.
Besides providing a wealth of information about specific exoneration cases in the U.S., the National Registry of Exonerations website also offers general information about wrongful convictions and exonerations. And recently, Samuel Gross, editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, has noted the increased willingness of prosecutors to investigate claims of innocence, and the increase in numbers of conviction integrity units, which are designed “to prevent, to identify, and to remedy false convictions”.
To learn more, you can visit the Registry’s website yourself and browse around. You can also follow the National Registry of Exonerations on Facebook and Twitter to get updates on news relating to exonerations.
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Samantha Adams — February 9, 2015 @ 4:10 PM — Comments (1)
The ability to accurately assess the veracity of statements is an important component of the criminal justice system. We depend on police officers to determine if a suspect is lying or telling the truth; we depend on juries to determine if the defendant’s case or the prosecutions’ case is more believable; we depend on parole boards to determine if a prisoner is ready to be returned to society. In other words, we place a great amount of trust in people’s ability to differentiate between a truthful statement and a lie. The question is, do we place too much trust in this ability? Are humans able to function as accurate lie detectors, or are our attempts to determine the truth just a shot in the dark?
Psychological research suggests that some people are certainly better than others at detecting whether someone is lying or telling the truth; we call these people “wizards”. Research has also shown, however, that employees of the criminal justice system, from judges to police to FBI agents, are no better than the average person at detecting lies, and that the commonly used Reid interrogation method is detrimental for lie detecting abilities.
Rachel Adelson has published an informative article on indicators of lying and on training of law-enforcement officers to be better at detecting liars, and Richard Gray has published a similar article, pointing out many common misconceptions about our ability to detect lies. These articles show a glimmer of hope that lie detecting abilities can be improved and honed. However, psychologist Maureen O’Sullivan advises that efforts be reserved for refining the talents of “wizards” and other individuals who already show some innate talent at determining truthfulness, and cautions that even those who are naturally good at lie detecting still need to put in a considerable amount of work to improve their skills to a useful level.
Another important research finding is that police officers and other authority figures tend to have great confidence in their ability to detect lies even if their lie detecting abilities are no better than the average person’s. Further, jurors place a great amount of trust in the decisions of police officers, believing law enforcement to be more accurate in lie detecting than the average person. So while police can be wrong just as often as you or I would be, police officers themselves and jurors that listen to the police officers’ findings are much more convinced that the police’s conclusion is the right one.
And while the status of human’s lie detecting abilities is still up for debate, it’s now commonly accepted that the polygraph, a machine invented by Leonarde Keeler in the 1930s designed to detect lies, is not up to par. Polygraph tests are no longer admissible as evidence in federal court, and most states have followed suit. Although many people are still under the impression that the polygraph is always able to tell if someone is being deceitful, at best, the polygraph functions as a measure of psychological intimidation designed to push suspects towards confessing.
Weaknesses in lie detecting can largely contribute to wrongful convictions. Police mistakenly determine that an innocent suspect is lying about their innocence, and are confident in their determination. They may administer a lie detector test that further bulks up their confidence and may even produce a confession. Prosecutors, juries, judges, and sometimes even defense attorneys often end up being convinced by the police, rather than assessing the evidence and facts for themselves and “checking the police’s work”, and an innocent suspect ends up convicted and sentenced. Our justice system is based on the assumption that we can accurately determine the truth, but does not have enough safeguards in place to ensure that the truth is always actively sought. This is just another example of how wrongful convictions are not a problem that is easily solved, and require changes at all levels of the criminal justice system.
judicial,justice,Uncategorized, false confession, interrogations, lie detector, police interrogation, polygraph, wrongful conviction
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