Shaken Baby Syndrome and Wrongful Convictions

Samantha Adams — March 30, 2015 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (0)

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.”

 

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Remembering Last Year’s Successes: Exoneration Records in 2014

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.

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The Exonerated: A Play Reading by The Main Street Players

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!

 

 

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Steppin’ Out 2015 is coming soon!

Samantha Adams — March 13, 2015 @ 11:04 AM — Comments (0)

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.

2015 Header Photo

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 jpugh@floridainnocence.org.

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Wrongful Convictions Around the World

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.

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Innocent Man Gains Freedom After Nearly 30 Years of False Conviction

Phuc Phan — February 19, 2015 @ 5:15 PM — Comments (0)
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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.

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Thirteen Exonerees Already This Year: The Registry Keeps Count

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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Can Our Criminal Justice System Accurately Detect Lies?

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.

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More Than a Mistake: The Manipulation Inherent in False Confessions

Samantha Adams — January 27, 2015 @ 10:22 AM — Comments (0)

It is difficult to learn that people are convicted for crimes they did not commit. Accepting the existence of wrongful convictions means facing the fact that America’s criminal justice system is not infallible. But we must acknowledge that while our legal system portrays itself as only punishing those who are guilty, there are many weak areas where the innocent can mistakenly slip through the cracks. For example, it is extremely common for eyewitnesses to inadvertently identify an innocent person, as did Jennifer Thompson when she wrongly identified Ronald Cotton as the man who raped her. The jury, strongly influenced by the eyewitness testimony, thus convicts the innocent man. In such a case, neither the jury nor the eyewitness intends to be unjust; they mistakenly believe that they have correctly identified the criminal.

Unfortunately, there are also instances where wrongful convictions are more than a mistake. While some wrongful convictions can be at least partially explained away by human error, other cases show signs of outright manipulation. A strong indicator that some sort of deception or coercion was inherent in the wrongful conviction is the existence of a false confession.

Police interrogations are a common source of manipulation leading to false confessions. In a recent study, psychologists Stephen Porter and Julia Shaw found that not only is it surprisingly easy to create false memories of committing crime, but also that many of the methods that lead to the creation of these false memories are commonly employed in police interrogations as part of the Reid technique. For example, interrogations following the Reid technique are designed to be accusatory and to elicit a confession from the suspect, and often make use of false evidence and social pressures. All of these methods were employed by Porter and Shaw in their study, and contributed to the creation of the participants’ false memories. In other words, police interrogations are not always intended to correctly identify the culprit; rather, the police often assume that the suspect is guilty and do whatever it takes to force a confession out of him or her, including manipulating the suspect’s memory and producing a false confession.

Eddie Joe Lloyd’s case provides an even more straightforwardly deceitful example of how police interrogations can lead to false confessions. Police convinced the mentally ill Lloyd that by incriminating himself in the 1984 murder of a 16-year-old girl, he would influence the real culprit to confess and thus be helping the police solve a crime. Of course, police instead used his confession to implicate Lloyd himself, and he was sentenced to life in prison, which he served until being exonerated with DNA evidence in 2002. It’s clear, then, that the manipulation involved in police interrogations is not harmless. Confessions are extremely powerful evidence that often lead to conviction, and police who use these sorts of coercive strategies to encourage suspects to falsely confess are a major player in wrongful convictions.

Police are not the only ones guilty of manipulative techniques, however. Prosecutors also play a role in encouraging false confessions through the practice of plea bargaining. Judge Jed S. Rakoff has written an informative article about how prosecutor’s offers of a plea bargain can lead innocent people to plead guilty. While it may seem like plea bargains actually offer defendants a good deal, for example, serving life in prison instead of being charged with the death penalty if they simply plead guilty to the crime without a trial, we must remember that these bargains can be a deal with the devil. If an innocent person has been so far implicated in a crime that he or she is forced to go to court, he or she may believe there is no possibility of being proved innocent, and will instead resort to taking whatever scraps the prosecutor throws at them in the form of a plea bargain. The innocent person is then stuck with a charge and prison time, and faces the obstacle of going against his own confession if he ever wants to prove himself innocent. Rakoff notes that an estimated 2 to 8 percent of convicted felons are actually innocent and plead guilty to avoid harsher sentences, and that 10 percent of the Innocence Project’s exonerations had previously plead guilty to their charge. Plea bargains can certainly be a temptation that is hard to avoid.

Too many innocent people are being manipulated to falsely confess and subsequently convicted based on these false confessions. The fact that players in the criminal justice system are actually working in ways to encourage these false confessions is an unfortunate truth that must be recognized in the fight against wrongful convictions.

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Challenges Experienced by the Innocent After Exoneration

Samantha Adams — January 14, 2015 @ 3:15 PM — Comments (0)

For any released prisoner, regardless of guilt or innocence, the transition from jail to freedom is difficult. Ex-prisoners must re-adapt to the demands and social norms of every day life, all while dealing with the stigma that having been incarcerated brings. Yet, while many prisoners who are released on parole or at the expiration of their sentence have access to social workers, parole officers, halfway houses, and other services designed to guide them through this difficult transition, prisoners who are found innocent and exonerated are not eligible for these services. Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, in regards to the case of Forest Shomberg, who was exonerated in 2009 without access to any transitional services, sums up the issue nicely—

“If you’re guilty of a crime, you get more support from the state when you’re released than if you’re innocent.”

Although there are methods in place for exonerees to receive monetary compensation, either through state wrongful conviction compensation statutes or by filing civil rights claims, this is often a lengthy process that may not prove to be fruitful (as discussed in this previous blog post). In the meantime, the exoneree is left penniless and without the ability to support themselves. Frank Graves, exonerated in 2010 after being incarcerated for 18 years, laments

“I walked out from solitary confinement out onto the streets with nothing.”

This scenario is all too common for the wrongfully convicted in Florida, as the state releases exonerees with nothing more than the possessions they had on them when they entered the prison and a one-way bus ticket. The state does not acknowledge their own wrongdoing, or the difficulties that the exoneree will soon be facing in the outside world.

For example, exonerees often struggle to afford legal fees, medical bills, counseling, and other services that are necessary to get back on their feet. They face emotional challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder or feelings of alienation from society and family members, as exemplified in this New York Times article about exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic. And because records are not always expunged and the charges for which the exonerees were wrongly convicted often received much public attention, exonerees face difficulties proving themselves worthy of employment, making it even more difficult to succeed.

In other words, the battle isn’t over once the innocent are exonerated; there is still much to be done to ensure their successful reintegration into society. One step being taken by the Innocence Project of Florida is the Exoneree Support Fund, which provides exonerees with support, food, clothing, shelter, and health services during their transition from incarceration to freedom. IPF was the first innocence organization to have a full-time social worker on staff to provide assistance to exonerees and to manage the Exoneree Support Fund. We have been fortunate to have been funded for the next three years by the Archibald Foundation of Tallahassee in support of the Exoneree Support Fund. By recognizing and addressing the difficulties inherent in the transition to freedom, we assert that we still care about the wrongfully convicted even when they are no longer behind bars.

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