Florida Supreme Court Sets New Standards for State Death Penalty

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 18, 2016 @ 4:29 PM — Comments (0)


The Florida Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s new death penalty law is unconstitutional. The Court has additionally called for death sentences to be determined by a unanimous jury. This news has caused a major shift in Florida’s criminal justice system with a large number of inmates awaiting possible re-sentencing on Death Row.

““We … hold, based on Florida’s requirement for unanimity in jury verdicts, and under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution, that in order for the trial court to impose a sentence of death, the jury’s recommended sentence of death must be unanimous,” said the Florida Supreme Court.

Now, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature must return to the drawing board, throwing out their original law which allowed for 10 out of 12 members of a jury to be able to impose a death sentence.

What does this mean for all the inmates on death row? Potentially, over 400 of the prisoners on death row in Florida now have a potential way to seek less severe sentences and be taken off death row altogether. This ruling will also offer greater changes to innocent people who have been given a death sentence for a crime they didn’t commit. “Racial disparities, over-zealous prosecutors and a lack of resources for defense counsel continue to plague death penalty cases,” said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

While the way this ruling will affect past cases is unclear, its significance is clear and a sign of the growing doubt being cast on the purpose and justice behind the death penalty in the United States.

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Wrongfully Convicted Man Released after 24 Years in Prison

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 6, 2016 @ 3:16 PM — Comments (0)


Daryl Holloway, 48, has been released from Green Bay Correctional Facility on October 5th, 2016.

Holloway was convicted in 1993 on two counts of sexual assault and two counts of armed burglary. Now, new DNA testing shows that there were errors in previous DNA testing used during the case “that raised a question whether the results they were getting were reliable,” said Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project to Fox 11 News.  Therefore, Milwaukee County Judge Thomas McAdams signed the court order vacating both the conviction and the sentence on Tuesday.

“This has been a long thing. I lost family members and different things. I’m trying to rebuild my life now. I came in mid-twenties. Man, I’m almost 50 now. My whole life has changed,” said Holloway after he was released. Despite the uphill battle, Holloway is positive about the road ahead and says his long-term plans might involve studying law.

For now, he encourages victims of wrongful conviction to keep pushing forward. “Keep fighting,” he said. “Don’t give up. It’s like my mama told me. If you’re right, stand up. If you’re wrong, lay down.”

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Man Awarded $15 Million in Wrongful Conviction Settlement

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 3, 2016 @ 1:23 PM — Comments (0)


After spending 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Rodell Sanders has received a 15 million dollar settlement in compensation for his wrongful conviction in the 1993 murder of Philip Atkins in Chicago Heights.

On December 15th, 1994, Atkins and his girlfriend, Stacy Armstrong, were shot and left for dead in Chicago Heights. Due to Armstrong’s eyewitness testimony (despite the attacker being tall and thin and Sanders being 5’8” and 200 pounds) and a jailhouse informant who later revealed he received cash payments for testifying, Rodell Sanders was arrested and convicted to 80 years in prison.

This, however, didn’t stop him from giving up. Sanders spent years sending out Freedom of Information requests to learn more about his own case and review trial transcripts. “I didn’t want to die in prison. I wanted to make it back out to my family, and I wanted to expose the Chicago Heights Police Department for exactly what they were,” Sanders told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sanders’ perseverance, courage, and diligence paid off because, years later, the chief of police in Chicago Heights during the time of the case was convicted, along with six other police officers, of bribery and extortion for taking money from gang leaders and using their position of power to take out the gang’s competitors.

Once this new information reached the public, Sanders dedicated himself to his exoneration and making the state grant him a re-trial. Sanders poured over law books and trial transcripts all to write his own appeal in efforts to get his case back on the court floor. With the help of the University of Chicago’s Exoneration Project, Sanders returned home to his family in July of 2014 after two separate re-trials.

“I don’t know if you can really say it makes things right because I can never get back those 20 years they’ve taken from me,” Sanders said to the Chicago Tribune. “There are many, many things that I’ve lost, and they can never be given back, so no, it doesn’t make it right.” However, at the very least, it allows victims of wrongful conviction to be able to rebuild their lives, families and hope in a new and sometimes unfamiliar world. Now, Sanders works for Loevy & Loevy, the very law firm that represented him during his fight for compensation. He dreams of helping other people who have been wrongfully convicted seek justice.

State compensation for wrongful convictions is an up-hill battle and Sanders’ success can be seen as an exception, not the norm, to the trying efforts of many to receive compensation for their decades spent behind bars. Currently, only 13 states provide any services for exonerees after they have been released from prison. If you want to help the efforts of expanding state compensations and encourage the justice system to give back to its victims, follow the link and sign the pledge!

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Man Wrongfully Convicted of Rape and Robbery Denied Exoneration

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 30, 2016 @ 12:24 PM — Comments (0)


Lawrence McKinney was freed from prison in 2009 after DNA evidence overturning his 1978 conviction in Memphis, Tennessee. He was wrongfully convicted of rape and burglary and sentenced to 100 years for the rape and 10-15 for the burglary. After 31 years in prison, Lawrence finally saw the promise of freedom in the horizon. However, despite being released and having his record expunged, Lawrence was not officially exonerated of his conviction.

Now, Lawrence’s efforts have been tarnished by a Tennessee parole board who claims that the evidence isn’t sufficient for them to recommend the governor formally exonerate him and make him eligible for compensation. The vote was 7-0 against his innocence, reports AP.

Lawrence’s legal team, which includes Lorna McCulsky from the Innocence Project, states that they plan to request the exoneration directly from Gov. Bill Haslam, bypassing the usual (but not required) board recommendation process. If McKinney is exonerated, he would be eligible for compensation up to $1 million dollars due to his wrongful conviction. Tennesee has only paid compensation to two previous exonerated men before and so, Lawrence’s uphill battle continues as he fights after decades of injustice.

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Today in Wrongful Conviction History: September 28th

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 28, 2016 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)

Happy exoneration anniversary to Damon Thibodeaux.

Damon was 22 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his step-cousin in Lousiana. He spent 15 years on death row, in solitary confinement, before his exoneration through DNA testing on September 28th, 2012 with the help of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project.

Following his release, Damon moved to Minnesota and works for Fredrikson & Byron, the law firm that helped facilitate his exoneration. He remains an active speak for wrongful conviction and criminal justice reform.

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Indiana Governor Mike Pence Passes on Pardon to Wrongfully Convicted Man

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 23, 2016 @ 1:04 PM — Comments (1)


Chicago native Keith Cooper was arrested in 1997 after officers falsely identified him as the perpetrator of an armed robbery in Elkhart, Indiana. After nearly a decade spent in prison, the case that had been built against Cooper began to crumble. A jailhouse informant recanted his statement and new DNA evidence pointed to a man already convicted on murder charges in Michigan.

However, in 2005, Cooper was given an ultimatum that many of the wrongfully convicted are faced with: if he wanted to retry his case, despite the possibility it may go south and he end up in prison again, or be granted immediate release with a felony conviction still on his record. Cooper chose the latter and now is fighting the consequences of it.

Despite being free, Cooper realized that keeping his false conviction on his record did him more harm than good.

“I still live with the stigma of a convicted felon. It’s hard for me to get a promotion, it’s hard for me to find jobs and every time I look around the corner, the police stop me and go through a background check,” Cooper told 21Alive. While he had taken the immediate release to take care of his family, he found that while the people he loved welcome him back in, the world did not.

It seemed the only way to wipe the slate clean was to ask the Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, for a pardon. While there has been a long line of people who’ve recommended to Governor Pence that Cooper be pardoned of his conviction, including the deputy prosecutor who helped send Cooper to prison and the Indiana Parole Board, Pence’s administration has decided to pass on his request.

After waiting years to hear back from Governor Pence and an exoneration petition with over 100,000 signatures, the governor’s general counsel told Cooper’s attorney that they “first must exhaust all possible judicial options for appeal,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

Currently, Cooper’s attorney Elliot Solsar says the letter is not an outright denial. However, it is also unclear if Cooper will even be allowed to file a post-conviction petition after the original was withdrawn back in 2005. Therefore, Cooper and his supporters must continue to fight to overturn the conviction ruling that never should have been his in the first place.

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Anniversary of Troy Davis’ Execution: 5 years moving forward

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 21, 2016 @ 2:58 PM — Comments (0)


Today we remember the execution of Troy Davis in Savannah, Georgia on September 21st, 2011.

Troy Davis’ case remains to this day an international symbol of tragedy and the need for progress as more and more countries around the world publically condemn the death penalty. Troy was convicted of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail after a fight broke out at a Georgia bus station. Davis was at the scene of the crime along with several people and Sylvester “Redd” Coles, the man who instigated the fight with a homeless man, Larry Young, over a beer. However, despite eyewitness testimony stating that the man who had argued with Young was the same person who shot Officer MacPhail, Troy Davis was arrested in 1989 for the shooting.

Troy was convicted and kept on death row in 1991 for over two decades. Through this, his case became less and less clear as time went on. In 2007 and 2008, multiple witnesses in his trial confessed to the Board of Pardons and Paroles that they had either fabricated their testimony or were intimidated by police. In addition, two witnesses with connections to Cole implicated him as the shooter, Quiana Glover even going as well to swear that Cole confessed to the crime in 2009. However, her testimony was excluded from the 2010 evidentiary hearing. Finally, key physical evidence from the case, a pair of Troy’s shorts that contained traces of blood, was thoroughly challenged by the federal court and DNA and serology experts in 2008.

As the evidence got murkier and thoughts of Troy’s possible innocence began to spread, international media coverage sparked across the world. “In that time [he was on death row], he became a leader himself in the movement to end the death penalty, with his steadfast spirit and unshakeable faith in justice inspiring activists around the world. His case became a rallying cry that ignited the abolition movement, drawing hundreds and thousands of people to devote their time and energy to achieving justice,” says James Clark at Amnesty USA. Troy’s case exemplified a very real problem with the death penalty in the U.S: what does it mean for the wrongfully convicted? How much evidence is enough evidence?

Despite this global movement to stay Troy’s execution and the seemingly overwhelming evidence that he was possibly innocent, Troy was put to death by lethal injection. Today, we honor Troy Davis’ cause and recount his injustice so he may be remembered not for his conviction but for his movement. In his last words, he told the people who supported him to “continue to fight this fight.”

Since 1973, 156 people on death row have been exonerated. In addition, the Innocence Project Network has confirmed that they have “worked on cases of people who were executed before DNA testing could be conducted to confirm guilt or prove innocence, and we are aware of several non-DNA cases where evidence of innocence surfaced after people were executed.”

Because of this, policies must be put in place at both a state and federal level that help the criminal justice system understand causes of wrongful conviction, identify, and resolve them in ways that minimize the possibility of wrongful execution. We must also look at the steps forward we have taken since then: three states have abolished the death penalty (Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware). In addition, three states (Pennslyvania, Washington, and Colorado) have placed a moratorium on executions, allowing more room for investigation for people on death row.

Currently, Florida still has capital punishment. However, it could be said that the tides are shifting. In May, Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch from Miami-Dade issued a ruling that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional because jurors are not required to agree unanimously on execution. Additionally, only one person has been executed in Florida this year, compared to seven in 2013. This decline has been reflected nationwide, with executions across the country hitting a 25-year low. Public opinion has slowly been shifting in the state as well, despite Rick Scott’s pro-capital punishment stance. Finally, a recent poll by researcher Craig Haney, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California – Santa Cruz, has found that a majority of Florida residents prefer life without parole to the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

Today, five years after Troy Davis lost his life, we must remind ourselves of his fight and recommit ourselves not only to death penalty reform but overall criminal justice reform to ensure this never happens again.

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Justice Department announces renewed commitment to strengthening forensic science

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 19, 2016 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (4)

The Department of Justice recently released a memo announcing their commitment to advancing the “professional responsibility” of forensic practitioners in the courtroom. Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates stated that “we are continually looking at ways to ensure that forensic evidence is collected, analyzed, and presented in a responsible and scientifically rigorous manner.”

This could possibly be a direct response to reports from last week that revealed a leaked White House report criticizing many established forensic practices such as bite-mark analysis, fingerprint analysis, and DNA mixture analysis. As mentioned in our article last Monday, bitemark analysis was hit particularly hard, stating that it “did not meet the scientific standards for foundational validity.”

The memo indicates that the department’s forensic laboratories “will review their policies and procedures to ensure that forensic examiners are not using the expressions “reasonable scientific certainty” or “reasonable (forensic disciplines) certainty” in their reports or testimony.” The department also emphasized policies put in place by the Attorney General to educate forensic examiners and prosecutors on how to properly assess the importance of forensic evidence in the courtroom, an issue that becomes essential when possibly faulty forensic evidence is used to secure a conviction. The Innocence Project reports that of the first 225 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, more than 50% involved invalid or improper forensic science.

For more information on the Department of Justice’s work to strengthen forensic science, click here.

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New DNA Testing Reopens Michigan Serial Killer Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 16, 2016 @ 11:22 AM — Comments (0)


The Michigan State Police have opened an investigation into the DNA testing conducted for 53-year-old Michael Darnell Harris’ case in 1981. Harris was convicted of killing 77-year-old Ula Curdy of Lansing, Michigan. Now he is serving life sentences for the murder of three other women as well in 1981 and 1982 in Lansang. However, Harris has maintained his innocence for all four crimes.

In 2015, Harris gained permission from Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to conduct DNA testing on semen found on Curdy’s girdle. What came back was DNA that did not match Harris but another man already in the database of convicted offenders and arrestees. A spokesman for the Lansing Police Department said that this claim is currently being reviewed.

Now, the MSP is reopening the case to investigate how the crime lab handled the DNA testing. According to the Detriot Free Press, “records show a former MSP crime lab supervisor who testified against Harris in both the Ingham and Washtenaw county cases was forced to retire in 2004 after officials learned he had a subordinate complete his DNA proficiency test and fraudulently submitted it as his own.” This calls into question the legitimacy of Harris’ convictions where this supervisor was used as an expert witness.

Only time will tell if both of these claims are enough to overturn a conviction, especially when he is serving multiple life sentences. However, his court-appointed attorney Edward Zeineh hopes that if the Curdy murder conviction is overturned, the domino effect could occur in reverse, clearing his name from the three other murders for which he has been convicted.

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White House Report: Bite-Mark Analysis is Junk Science

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 12, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (1)

The Intercept
has obtained a draft report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) titled “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.” In it, they cover multiple common pattern forensic practices such as bite-mark analysis, fingerprint analysis, and DNA mixture analysis to discuss whether or not they can be considered scientifically valid for purposes of introduction in the courtroom.

The draft states that “PCAST finds that bitemark analysis does not meet the scientific standards for foundational validity.” This marks an important transition in forensics for criminal cases, as bite-mark analysis has been used for the last few decades as a way to sway a jury towards a conviction. In fact, it has been widely reported that from the 1990s to today, at least 24 people have been found innocent post-conviction after being wrongfully convicted based on the faulty nature of bite-mark evidence.

Bite-mark evidence has gone through intense scrutiny in recent years, especially as more studies have come out doubting its accuracy. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences put out a report titled A Path Forward that called out bite-mark analysis among other forensic evidence as faulty and unreliable. “Much forensic evidence—including, for example, bite marks and firearm and tool mark identifications—is introduced in criminal trials without any meaningful scientific validation, determination of error rates, or reliability testing to explain the limits of the discipline,” said the report. However, even that wasn’t enough to completely invalidate its use in the courtroom.

Radley Baiko, a reporter for The Washington Post, has written extensively about bite-mark analysis’ shaky history. In 2015, he wrote a four-part series exploring how faulty bite-mark analysis put an innocent man in jail. This is not an uncommon story as Baiko wrote a similar one early this year in February, citing two more cases where bite-mark analysis had lead to a skewed conviction. In fact, the Innocence Project has identified 24 recorded wrongful convictions that were due, at least in part, to a bite-mark analysis, where the individual was later exonerated by DNA. “The real problem is that we’ve entrusted judges to be the gatekeepers of science in the courtroom, and they’ve fulfilled that function about as well as you might expect from people trained in law, not science — pretty poorly,” says Baiko.

Another big problem mentioned in the report is the apparent misconception that teeth marks are as unique as DNA. In 2007, the New York Times wrote an article about the dangers of claiming absolute certainty in findings discovered by bite-mark analysis, especially considering most forensic orthodontists are not regulated. “If you say that this bite fits this person and nobody else in the world, and if you use the bite mark as the only piece of physical evidence linking an attacker to his victim, that’s not science — that’s junk,” said Dr.Richard Souviron, chief forensic odontologist at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, in the article.

Once the full report is released, which The Intercept says could be as soon as this month, we will begin to see the effects that this report will have on bite-mark forensics’ influence on the criminal justice system and the work of post-conviction lawyers across the country. Currently, IPF represents one individual wrongfully convicted based on this junk science and it is our hope that this report will play an integral role in achieving his exoneration.

Do you think that the controversy of bite-mark analysis will lead to a decrease in testing for criminal cases? Or do you think bite-mark analysis still has a place in the criminal justice system, no matter how minimal? For more details, click here for the full article on The Intercept.

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