Reasons for Exoneration: Witness Misidentification

Victoria Inzana — November 14, 2017 @ 10:48 AM — Comments (0)

In the past Reasons for Exoneration posts, we have focused on perjury and false accusations. These statements are typically made by a witness in an intentionally malicious manner. However, this is not always the case. These statements are known as a mistaken witness identification. According to Innocence Project research, eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful conviction. It has been found to have had a hand in wrongfully convicting about 70% of exonerees.

Despite the fact that research has proven that the human mind does not record events exactly as we see them, or recall them in exact chronological order, courts tend to find witness identifications to be very persuasive. This is why it makes up such a large percentage of wrongful convictions.

Some witness misidentification cases that the Innocence Project has worked on include a witness in a rape case being shown a photo array where the photograph of the suspect was the only photograph was marked with an “R”. Other cases include witnesses who “thought” the person “might be” the perpetrator when later, at trial, the jury was told that the witness had never wavered in their identification.

Because witness identification can be quite unreliable, there are many reforms which could be adopted to make it more accurate. Several procedures have been shown to significantly decrease the number of misidentifications such as:

  • Double- Blind/Blinded administration, where the officer administering the lineup is unaware of who the suspect is
  • A proper lineup composition, where the non-suspects in the lineup resemble the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator, and the suspect appears similar to the fillers so he is not the only one of his race or facial hair
  • Standard Instructions, where the person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup at that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result
  • Confidence Statements, which is a document that law enforcement will collect regarding the level of confidence the witness has in the identification made at the same time the identification is made.
  • Finally, a recording of procedures should be done whenever possible.

 

So far, 21 states and multiple jurisdictions have implemented these reforms.

The Innocence Project of Florida, partnering with the Innocence Project headquarters in New York, was also able to successfully pass a bill in April 2017 to reform eyewitness misidentification error here in the Florida Legislature. There is now a requirement that lineups are conducted using a double-blind or blinded procedure, and witnesses are instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present. Should these practices be omitted, a court can consider noncompliance when deciding whether the identification can be admitted into evidence. The court must also instruct the jury that it consider whether law enforcement followed the eyewitness procedures when determining the reliability of a witness’s identification.

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Reasons For Exoneration: Inadequate Legal Defense

Victoria Inzana — October 27, 2017 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

On October 14th, 2016, Jules Letemps was exonerated from prison. He had been charged with sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial, his defense attorney failed to analyze the deposition of the forensic expert during the trial. This deposition contained details of the testing of semen which was found not to have belonged to Letemps, although the forensic expert could not be sure due to the amount of dilution the semen had undergone. During his incarceration, Letemps obtained the help of Centurion Ministries who fully examined this deposition, where experts in serology concluded that the forensic expert had applied an incorrect standard of testing the dilution of the semen. The experts employed by Centurion also excluded Letemps as the source of the semen- which was supposed to have been obtained by the attacker. The new evidence found by Centurion Ministries, combined with Letemps’ original alibi created so much doubt around his conviction that two days before Letemps’ retrial, he was exonerated.

A large problem that defendants have when at trial is obtaining an adequate defense. This post in the blog series Reasons for Exoneration, will focus on the inability of defense lawyers to properly represent their clients. Often states employ inexperienced, overworked, and sometimes incompetent defense lawyers due to a lack of funds to compensate lawyers for their work.

Should a defendant be convicted of a charge and request post-conviction help on the grounds of inadequate defense, and if an Innocence Project representative has the ability to prove inadequate defense (failure to investigate or sins of omission, for example), then the exoneree has not received a fair trial, has had their rights violated, and it is possible that they will be granted a new trial or the charges against them could be dropped altogether, as in the case of Jules Letemps.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has just recently completed an investigation into the Louisiana Public Defender system in February of 2017. During this investigation, the “Delphi Method” was used to determine the number of hours a defense lawyer should be spending on cases in order to present an adequate defense in court. This method consists of expert panels of public defenders and private defense lawyers estimating the amount of time that should be spent on a case. For a low-level felony case, lawyers should be spending an estimated 21.99 hours to investigate. For a felony case carrying a sentence of life without parole, the consensus was that a defense lawyer should be investigating the case for 200.67 hours. At their current rate, Louisiana state Public Defenders only have the capacity to be handling 21 percent of their workload effectively.

Due to this serious issue of inadequate defense, states such as Louisiana and Utah are currently being sued for a failure to meet the constitutional rights of their low-income defendants.  For example, in Louisiana Orleans Parish Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton and Lousiana State Public Defender James T. Dixon Jr. are being sued after the creation of a waiting list for cases, since there are not enough public defenders to “ethically, constitutionally, or within standers handle those cases” which fall beyond the limited number set by Bunton. The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana are suing on the grounds that this waiting list violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel and the 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection of the laws. In the past, other states have been sued such as New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Idaho, California, and Missouri on similar grounds. Should the problem of inadequate defense remain unresolved, there will likely be more states to be sued in the coming future.

Some proposals to reform this broken system include increased funding for Public Defender’s offices and court-appointed attorneys, and to enact and abide by standards set for workload limits, professional independence, and training requirements. In 2004, Virginia led the nation in the number of executions per capita. Reform was passed after a study completed by a law professor tied the decline of death penalty cases to lack of defense lawyers. This prompted the state legislature to create a system of regional defense offices to handle trial-level capital cases. Since 2005, the average sentencing for a death penalty case doubled from one to two days, to four days. On top of that, Virginia hasn’t executed anyone since 2011. The “new” Virginia death penalty is never imposed, a death sentence is so freakish that it raises constitutional concerns. The reform in Virginia and other evidence presented in this article reinforces the words of Stephen Bright, “[The death penalty is] not imposed upon those who commit the worst crimes, but upon those who have the misfortune to be assigned to the worst lawyers.”

 

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Reasons for Exoneration: Perjury or False Accusation

Victoria Inzana — October 20, 2017 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Most people believe that the only reason innocent individuals are exonerated is due to new DNA evidence being revealed in their case. This blog series, Reasons for Exoneration, is intended to highlight the work that the Innocence Project accomplishes on cases that do not focus solely on DNA evidence.

This post is intended to focus on the role of perjury or false accusations in an exoneree’s trial. Perjury is known as the offense of willfully telling an untruth in a court after having taken an oath or affirmation. False accusations are when someone knowingly makes a charge of wrongdoing against another person. These perjury claims are usually proven based on a discrepancy between an initial deposition of a witness and their testimony on the stand. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 73 total exonerations in the year 2016 where perjury played a heavy role in the exoneration.

An example of a case occurred in Miami-Dade County. The defendant, Derrick Robinson had fit the description of a murderer, and so was arrested. During trial, there was an eyewitness who declared that Robinson was the killer. Robinson, who had claimed his innocence until trial had pled guilty to second-degree murder in 1989. After his conviction, another eye-witness came forward and identified a different man as the perpetrator. He revealed the actual perpetrator had threatened his family which leads to his false eye-witness report. After this new information was revealed, Robinson was exonerated in 1991.

If the testimony of the witness who had committed perjury or made a false accusation was an extremely large contribution to the initial conviction of our exonerate, and if it is possible for the representative of the Innocence Project to prove that perjury or a false accusation has happened, it is essential to an exoneree’s case.

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Binge-Worthy Media of the Innocence World

Victoria Inzana — October 18, 2017 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

“I think people love monsters. And so when they get the chance, they want to see them.” -Amanda Knox

For decades, people have been obsessed with those who commit crimes, particularly crimes which are gory, bloody, terrible, and awful. This fascination has never faded, and although it remains, it has been joined by a new and equally enchanting topic. This new topic is Innocence Media. Those who have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated have garnered a new type of appeal from crime-show lovers. In the past, movies such as The Hurricane, or more recently the Netflix series, “Making a Murderer”, have been the shows to watch. Fortunately for the Innocence community, and those who advocate for those who have been wrongfully convicted, there are a number of new media outlets which feed the curiosity about those who are wrongfully convicted, their advocates, and flaws in the criminal justice system.

Movies

 

Amanda Knox

This documentary follows the exoneration of Amanda Knox who was convicted for the murder of Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher. This documentary includes interviews with the prosecution and investigative team on the Knox case, along with Knox and Sollecito themselves. It can be streamed on Netflix.

If you’d like to view the trailer, click here.

13th

Although this documentary is not focused on exoneration or the wrongfully convicted, it’s focus is on the flaws of the justice system in general, specifically relating to race. It also has a focus on the current era of Mass Incarceration, as well as how politics play a role in each movement surrounding the justice system. It can be streamed on Netflix.

If you’d like to view the trailer, click here.

Crown Heights

Crown Heights (2017)

This movie follows the true story of exoneree Colin Warner who was convicted of murder. Throughout this process, Warner also had his friend Carl King, and wife to support him along the way.  The importance of this film is to denote that wrongful convictions are still an ongoing problem in our country and to raise awareness about them.

It is currently not available to stream because it was just released to theaters. The image below has a list of cities with theaters who have showings. If you would like to view more information about the movie,  please follow them on twitter at @CrownHeightsMOV.

If you would like to view the trailer, please click here.

TV Shows

The Confession Tapes

This television show has a focus on false confessions and is available through Netflix. Each episode (with the exception of the first two which are about the same case) explores a different case where a defendant was pressured into giving a false confession by the police though verbal abuse and aggressive interrogation techniques. Each episode causes you to question whether you would give a false confession yourself.

You can view the trailer by clicking here.

Conviction

Conviction is a fiction-based television show so it’s better for those looking for something a little more lighthearted while sacrificing accuracy. It is about a team of people, led by the daughter of the former president, who investigate cases of those who may be wrongfully convicted. ABC broadcasted this television for only one season, and it is no longer available to watch on their website or on Hulu. However, you can still buy it on Amazon. If you are interested, you can buy it here.

If you would like to view the trailer, click here.

Unlocking the Truth

This show, created by MTV, is hosted by exoneree Ryan Ferguson and his co-host Eva, who has had previous experience in wrongful conviction cases. Their goal throughout the series is to find the “truth”. It is not to exonerate someone, but instead to investigate cases to see if a defendant is actually innocent, and if evidence proves that they are innocent, they deliver that material to the proper authority (usually their lawyers). This television show is quite interesting, I was able to watch the first episode via youtube. If you would like to view all episodes, you can purchase them on Amazon by clicking here.

To view the trailer, click here.

Podcasts

To be clear, there are many podcasts on wrongful conviction, flaws in the criminal justice system, the criminal justice system in general, and crime. However, these are a few of our personal favorites.

Serial

This podcast currently has two seasons. Each season, the host, Sarah Koenig, follows a single case, from beginning to end. The first season deals with the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school girl in Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, was convicted for her murder. The second season is about the return of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl after his imprisonment by the Taliban. Many of his fellow soldiers believe that he deserted the team and deserved his fate. Koenig attempts to figure out whether he deserted in the second season.

If you would like to listen to Serial, please click here. You can also access the podcast from Apple Podcasts, or however you access your podcasts.

Undisclosed

In this podcast, each season explores a new case with a team of experts who investigate cases in which they believe the defendant was wrongfully convicted. After each season is an “addenda” which goes a little more in-depth about each case and its conclusion. They are also currently working on two seasons simultaneously. As the investigators discuss how they obtained their evidence, case facts, and interviews, they are investigating the cases in real time. This makes the listener feel as if they are investigating the case with the team.

If you would like to listen to Undisclosed, please click here. You can also access the podcast from Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you listen from!

 

Actual Innocence

This podcast is extremely different compared to the other two we have mentioned. This podcast is unique because it doesn’t have seasons. It has only episodes, and currently has over 300. However, it doesn’t matter which episode you start on with this podcast because no two episodes cover the same case. Each episode is a different case told by each exoneree. They explain the problems with their cases, their emotions through the process, and the eventual conclusion of each of their cases. This allows the listener to grasp the full impact of a wrongful conviction. These aren’t just names on a paper, fictional people, or a rarity. These are real people who have been wronged in one of the worst ways our society could have wronged them.

 

If you would like to listen to Actual Innocence, click here. You can also access the podcast on Apple Podcasts or other podcast apps!

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Exoneration Anniversary of Jules Letemps

Victoria Inzana — October 14, 2017 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

One year ago today, Jules Letemps was exonerated after 27 years in prison.

Although he was exonerated of a crime he did not commit, he is still not free.

On May 29th, 1989, a young woman on her way to work was waiting for a bus in Orlando, Florida. A man had approached her, placed a metal object to her neck, and led her towards some bushes where he forced her to remove her clothing and repeatedly sexually assaulted her. She was able to flee her attacker, obtain help from a nearby resident, and contact the police. Once home, the victim showered and called her cousin. Together, they went back to the location of the crime to search for her assailant. This was when the victim spotted Jules Letemps, then 26, on his way to work. She immediately summoned an officer who arrested Jules. He attempted to tell the officer that he was on his way to the Toyota dealership where he was employed as a maintenance man where he was charged with the task of washing the cars.

Jules was charged with three counts of sexual assault, and one count of kidnapping. His trial was held in Orange County in November of 1989, where the main evidence against him was the victim’s testimony. At trial, a forensic analyst testified that she had examined the robe worn by the victim after the assault, and found a semen stain. She claimed that this stain was so diluted that she could not conclude anything. After a two day trial, where Jules’ defense attorney did not cross-examine any of the police officers who testified for the prosecution, he was sentenced to four consecutive terms of life in prison.

With the help of fellow immigrants, Jules filed numerous post-conviction petitions in the hopes of getting his sentence overturned. All of his attempts were unsuccessful. In 2010, Centurion Ministries began examining his case. His attorney, Paul Casteleiro, found the cassette tapes of various pretrial depositions, one of which was the forensic analyst on the case. In her deposition, she explained to Letempt’s attorney the testing procedures used to analyze the semen stain that was found on the robe the victim had been wearing.

In the deposition, the forensic expert explained that the blood type identified on the robe was O, which matches the blood type of the victim. This should have excluded Jules as the perpetrator because his blood type is B. However, due to the dilution, they could not positively exclude Jules, even though no blood type B was found.

Centurion obtained all notable documents of this forensic expert (lab notes and transcribed deposition) and enlisted a number of experts in serology to review the document. It was concluded that the expert was incorrect in the determination that the semen was too diluted to obtain an exact result, and they also were able to positively exclude Jules as the source of the semen.

Once this information was found, Centurion procured the additional counsel of Seth Miller, Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, and filed a motion for post-conviction relief. The court denied this petition, and the appellate court affirmed. Jules’ lawyer, Castelerio, then filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and on July 20th, 2015, Judge Gregory Presnell granted it and ordered a new trial for Jules.

In this new trial, it was ruled that Jules’ trial attorney had provided inadequate defense by failing to investigate the analysis of the forensic expert. The judge determined that the new evidence, combined with Jules’ alibi testimony, raised enough doubt to undermine his conviction and on October 14th, the prosecution dropped their charges.

Usually, when an inmate is exonerated, they are free. However, Jules’ journey is quite different than any other exoneree.

Jules is a Hatian immigrant who came to the United States on “humanitarian parole” in 1981. This is a temporary status granted to those fleeing their country for urgent humanitarian reasons. He had fled Haiti due to political unrest and economic turmoil. Due to a past felony drug charge, immigration officials revoked his parole and planned to try and deport him after he had served his sentence for the wrongful conviction. After 27 years, of wrongful imprisonment, Jules is still waiting to be reunited with his friends and family in Florida. His lawyer, as do many others, believe that permitting his residency here would be proper compensation for the injustice he has suffered.

His next hearing is February 7th; it will likely be months before the court gives a final decision on his deportation.

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Time Magazine Special Edition: The Fight Against Wrongful Convictions

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 17, 2017 @ 5:06 PM — Comments (1)

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To commemorate the Innocence Project’s 25th anniversary, Time magazine’s special edition issue Innocent: The Fight Against Wrongful Conviction is officially out to the public.

The issue focuses on Innocence Project Co-Founders Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck’s road to reform America’s criminal justice system as advances in DNA technology opened the door for wrongfully convicted individuals across the country. The magazine includes profiles on Innocence Project clients such as Anthony Wright and Lewis Fogle as well as articles by California Innocence Project Director Justin Brooks, Jon Eldan from After Innocence, Innocence Project New Orleans Executive Director Emily Maw, and more!

This special edition issue is a huge milestone in the movement to raise awareness of the Innocence Network’s fight for the wrongfully convicted and criminal justice reform. Although the plight of the wrongfully convicted has gained widespread media attention through shows such as Making a Murderer and podcasts like Undisclosed, there are still many individuals who are unaware of the injustices occurring within our criminal justice system.

If you see an edition out in the wild, please tweet us a picture with the hashtag #IPspecialedition!

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: February 9th

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 9, 2017 @ 1:53 PM — Comments (0)

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Today is the exoneration anniversary of Tim Atkins from Los Angeles, California.

In 1987, Tim Atkins went to trial for the armed robbery of Vincente and Maria Gonzalez that resulted in the murder of Vincente. He and Ricky Evans were arrested and charged with murder and armed robbery after a woman named Denise Powell told police she heard the two street gang members bragging about the crime.

While Evans was assaulted and killed in jail in 1985, Atkins waited two years for his trial. Once it began, Powell could not be located to testify. Despite this, her testimony from the preliminary hearing was presented to the jury as a confession. Maria also identified Atkins as the man who stole her necklace at the scene of the crime. Due to this, Atkins was sentenced to 32 years to life in prison.

In 2001, Atkins wrote to the California Innocence Project where a law student found Powell at a drug rehabilitation center. When approached, Powell admitted her testimony was false. Not only did she confess to lying about overhearing a confession, Powell said police threatened to charge her with a narcotics offense if she didn’t provide information about the two suspects.

In 2007, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Tynan granted Atkins’ a new trial and on February 9th, he was released. While he was cleared of all charges, the state did not grant Atkin’s compensation as they felt he did not wholly prove his innocence.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: December 14th

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 14, 2016 @ 11:11 AM — Comments (1)

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Today is the exoneration anniversary of Philip Bivens, Larry Ruffin, and Bobby Ray Dixon.

In 1979, all three men were wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a woman in Forrest County, Mississippi. All three gave confessions to the police under the threat of the death penalty. Despite the inconsistencies in their confessions with each other and with the evidence in the case, they were sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, the Innocence Project New Orleans and co-counsel Rob McDuff obtained DNA testing that effectively excluded all three of the men convicted and instead pointed towards a different man altogether.

Sadly, Ruffin died in prison in 2002 and Dixon passed away from lung cancer in November of 2010. Neither got to witness their official exoneration on December 14th, 2010 when a Forrest Count Grand Jury declined to indict the three men.

In January of 2013, a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit was filed against the Forrest County law enforcement officials for coercing the three men’s confessions. Although Bivens passed away in 2014, the state agreed to pay $500,000 to the estate of Ruffin and $375,000 each to the estates of Bivens and Dixon in 2015. Earlier this year, Forrest County has settled the federal lawsuit for a total of $16.5 million.

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Florida Supreme Court Grants Re-trial for Death Row Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 28, 2016 @ 4:42 PM — Comments (0)

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In a unanimous decision, the Florida Supreme Court has vacated the conviction of Clemente Aguirre based on DNA evidence that points towards another suspect for the murder of Cheryl and Carol Williams in 2004.

Aguirre was convicted in 2006 for the double homicide after the prosecution found that 64 out of 67 bloody shoe impressions found inside the victims’ residence matched Aguirre’s footwear. In addition, forensic evidence showed that his clothes contained traces of blood that belonged to both Cheryl and Carol Williams. However, Aguirre has maintained his innocence and testified that he had found the bodies while trying to take some beer from his neighbor’s house. He attempted to revive Cheryl Williams and, once he was unsuccessful, ran without calling the police because he is currently an illegal immigrant who could face deportation.

After being denied by a circuit court on his appeal, the Florida Supreme Court has found that they “agree with Aguirre that the cumulative effect of the newly discovered evidence requires a new trial.” At the postconviction evidentiary hearing, Aguirre and his legal team showed that on 150 previously untested bloodstains from the crime scene, his blood was not present. Additionally, it showed that eight of the bloodstains matched someone else entirely: Samantha Williams, Cheryl’s daughter. Samantha had testified at Aguirre’s trial stating that she had found him “standing over her bed” at 2AM months before the murders. In addition, it was her boyfriend who found the bodies and was also her alibi, even though he testified that at the time of the murders he was “dead to the world” asleep.

However, the newly discovered evidence was not simply limited to the presence of Samantha’s blood at the crime scene. There is also proof that Samantha Williams also confessed to the double homicide to four different people.

The Florida Supreme Court’s opinion specifies that Samantha told her friend in 2010 that “demons in her head made her do it.” She also confessed to three of her former neighbors (in three separate instances) to the crime. While the State stated that her confessions were inadmissible as hearsay, the Supreme Court ruled that “the trial court erred by excluding … the testimony of three witnesses that another person had admitted, on three separate occasions, to committing the murder of which the defendant was convicted.”

The Court concluded their decision by stating that “adding the newly discovered evidence to the pictures changes the focus entirely: No longer is Aguirre the creepy figure who appears over Samantha’s bed in the middle of the night; he is now the scapegoat for her crimes.” Because of the reasonable doubt this casts over Aguirre’s culpability, he will receive a re-trial.

To read the Florida Supreme Court’s full opinion, click here.

 

 

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: March 27

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 27, 2016 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (1)

Happy exoneration anniversary Thomas Kennedy! Thomas was exonerated in Washington state in 2012.

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