Archive for the ‘policy’ Category

Washington Representatives Introduce a Bill on the Credibility of Incentivized Informants’ Testimonies

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 02, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Jailhouse informants have recently been a topic of discussion in the state of Washington. Often times, people who are already in prison may receive lighter sentences or have their charges dropped in exchange for giving incriminating testimonies against other suspects. In many cases, these informants lie in order to benefit themselves, which is an issue that lawmakers in Washington hope to fight.

This month, 15 representatives from both the Democratic and Republican parties introduced a bill that would require informants who would benefit from their testimony to have their credibility assessed by judges before allowing the testimonies to be presented to a jury. They hope that changes will be made which would help reduce the chances of wrongful convictions occurring based off this type of testimony. The Innocence Project Northwest drafted the bill, in which the requirements would be the first of their kind in the country.

Nevada’s Supreme Court already had similar evaluation requirements in place for capital cases, as did Illinois before the state removed the death penalty. About 12 states assert that some evidence must confirm informants’ testimonies. In addition, many state and federal courts instruct jury members to pay close attention when considering the testimonies of informants. But some feel that analyzing these testimonies should be the responsibility of jurors, not judges as proposed in the bill.

Lara Zarowsky, the policy director for Innocence Project Northwest, stated that offering incentives to informants could be considered witness tampering, and that people would be more likely to lie if they are receiving money for their testimony.

Statistics show that out of the 337 convictions overturned by DNA evidence nationwide, 16 percent of them involved incentivized informants’ incriminating testimonies. They were also involved in about half of death row exonerations. In addition, at least seven wrongful convictions in Washington have been attributed to the incriminating testimonies of incentivized informants.

The bill lists nine factors that judges would have to consider. Some of them include informants’ criminal histories, whether an informant has benefitted from their testimony in past criminal cases, and whether informants’ stories can be validated by independent evidence.

While this is a House bill, hearings were held for both this bill and a state Senate bill this week. The House bill would grant previously convicted defendants new trials if they can prove that an informant lied, which in turn may have affected the outcome of their trial, but the Senate bill would not. The Senate bill would approve the assessments for incentivized informants’ testimonies, but would not make them mandatory.

Representatives hope the recent DNA exoneration of Donovan Allen will help strengthen their case. Allen was convicted in Washington 15 years ago for the murder of his mother in 2000. In addition to making a false confession, Allen’s case also involved jailhouse informants who made incriminating statements in exchange for having charges dropped.

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The Need for Eyewitness Identification Policies

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 28, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Eyewitness misidentification has been a widely discussed topic in terms of wrongful convictions. While it may seem harsh to question a victim about the certainty of his/her identification of a suspect, research does show that mistakes can be made. Human memories are not set in stone, they are malleable and susceptible to influence and alteration.

Eyewitness misidentification is actually the leading cause for wrongful convictions in the U.S. that have been overturned by DNA. Out of those 337 cases that have been overturned by DNA, eyewitness misidentification was responsible for 71 percent of them. In addition, almost half of those DNA exonerations included cross-racial misidentification.

Concern over eyewitness misidentification has garnered increasing attention, so much so that several organizations and individuals have called for much needed reforms. One state that is paying close attention to the numbers is Missouri.

Missouri’s numbers actually exceed the national average. Surprisingly, out of the nine of Missouri’s wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA, eyewitness misidentification was involved in every single one. Compared to the national average of 71 percent, Missouri surpasses that number at 100 percent. In addition, out of Missouri’s nine DNA exonerations, cross-racial misidentification was involved in five of those cases. Despite these numbers, Missouri has failed thus far to improve their methods when it comes to eyewitness identification.

A jury instruction presented to the Missouri Supreme Court last month was rejected. This instruction would have informed jurors of scientifically proven factors that contribute to eyewitness misidentification. Although the court did adopt a different set of instructions, they disregard scientific research and do not adequately caution jurors of those factors.

Now, some people are calling on the state’s legislature to pass Senate Bill 842, which would require the adoption of the best techniques for improving eyewitness identification across the state. Those techniques are the same ones the Innocence Project in New York have been urging lawmakers and law enforcement across the county to adopt for the past several years. These suggestions include blind administration, lineup composition, instructions, confidence statements, and recording.

In blind administration, the officer administering a lineup does not know who the suspect is. This could help prevent misidentification because the officer is much less likely to make suggestive statements, unconscious gestures, or vocal cues that may effect a witness’s identification.

In lineup composition, the suspect should resemble the individuals who are not suspects, and those non-suspects should look like the description of the perpetrator given by the eyewitness. In addition, lineups should be performed sequentially, meaning eyewitnesses view individuals or pictures one at a time rather than together to prevent the problem of relevant judgment.

Upon viewing a lineup, the eyewitness should be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether or not he/she makes an identification. This could help prevent misidentification because eyewitnesses may not feel pressured that they have to pick a perpetrator. Eyewitnesses should also be instructed not to look at the lineup administrator for guidance.

Eyewitnesses should make a confidence statement once they have made identifications, describing in their own words their level of confidence in their identifications.

Law enforcement should be required to record all eyewitness identification procedures.

Some states and jurisdictions have already adopted and enforced these recommendations. One state that may join them is Nebraska. Similar to Missouri, Nebraska State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks presented Legislative Bill 846 to the Judiciary Committee last week. The bill would create a strict policy for law enforcement agencies to follow when conducting eyewitness identification procedures. Although 60 percent of Nebraska’s law enforcement agencies already have similar eyewitness identification policies in place, requiring agencies both statewide and nationwide to adopt policies is the only way to ensure everyone is doing their part in making sure innocent people do not end up in prison.

Florida, unofrtunately, does not have any uniform policy requirement for the preparation and administration of lineups. A bill to fix this, championed by IPF, was narrowly defeated after passing the Florida Senate in 2011.

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Alabama v. Arthur or Conviction v. Science

Alejandra de la Fuente — November 07, 2014 @ 11:15 AM — Comments (0)

Our recent Facebook link of a February 2014 Atlantic Monthly article by Andrew Cohen, “Why Some States Still Fight the Exoneration of the Innocent,” is only the latest in Mr. Cohen’s years-long examination of the Thomas Arthur case in Alabama.

Thomas Arthur was convicted of murder in 1982 in Alabama. Arthur has consistently said that he is innocent of the crime. He was convicted solely based on eyewitness testimony that evolved after an eyewitness to the crime had been arrested and convicted for the murder. After serving 10 years in prison, the “eyewitness” decided to cut a plea deal and implicate Arthur. He has been on death row for 30 years.

In 2008, another man, Bobby Ray Gilbert, confessed to the murder under oath. At that time, a DNA test was conducted and was inconclusive for either man. However, since 2008, new and more accurate tests have been developed, and Arthur’s defense team has requested that the newer test be done. The Alabama courts have declined the request even though it would cost the state nothing to turn over the evidence for testing because Arthur’s family will pay for it.

Writer Andrew Cohen titled his first article about this, “Another Death Row Debacle: The Case Against Thomas Arthur,” and the title continues to fit this case. As Peter Neufeld, Co-Director of the Innocence Project in New York said when Arthur was at one point given a stay-of-execution:

“This indifference to the power of DNA to determine the truth through hard science is unconscionable. It is nothing short of a national scandal that Governor Riley is repeatedly refusing DNA testing before executions when testing could confirm guilt or innocence. With this 45-day window of time, Governor Riley has an opportunity to restore faith in the system and restore credibility to his office.”

As the Innocence Project of Florida has long contended, actions that strengthen the American system of justice, that ensure prisoners behind bars are the real criminals, and that do not allow the guilty to roam society while the innocent are imprisoned, are what we are fighting for. If a more sophisticated DNA test might exonerate Arthur OR prove him guilty once-and-for-all, then reason dictates the testing should be done — and done as soon as possible to ensure the honor of the justice system in the State of Alabama.

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IPF Director Seth Miller Presents at One Book Event

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 07, 2014 @ 9:45 AM — Comments (0)

The annual One Book Thomas County celebration of learning in Thomasville, Georgia, has chosen as its focus book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. On Friday, October 17, 2014, at 6:30 p.m., the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, Seth Miller, will be presenting a lecture and discussion on wrongful convictions and eye witness misidentification at Thomasville On Stage and Company, 117 South Broad Street in downtown Thomasville.

“The story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton teaches us the vital lesson that a misidentification can haunt not only the wrongfully convicted individual, but also the well-meaning victim who has to live with the consequences of the mistaken identification,” said Miller. “It is up to policy makers to make modest, evidence-based reforms to prevent misidentifications before they happen, find the true perpetrators, and allow the public to feel confident that the justice system has worked.” This presentation is free and open to the public.

This presentation will be especially timely, concurring with the recent publication of “Identifying the Culprit,” a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences on the shortcomings and limitations of eye witness evidence.

On Saturday, October 18, Ronald Miller and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino will share their true stories of witness misidentification, wrongful conviction, exoneration, and forgiveness. They will be available to sign books. Admission to Saturday’s event is $10.

For more information, go to the One Book Facebook page at or call Annie Jones at The Bookshelf, 229-228-7767.

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Exoneree Compensation Across the United States

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 03, 2014 @ 3:17 PM — Comments (0)

A Planet Money story from NPR that we missed last summer (June 2014) entitled, “When Innocent People Go to Prison, States Pay,” provides an excellent overview of compensation for wrongfully convicted exonerees in all fifty states.

Twenty-one states provide no money — though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and the District of Columbia award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another 17 states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment.

Amounts vary from $80,000 per year behind bars in Texas, to $5,000 per year in Wisconsin. Florida and six other states match federal compensation of $50,000 per year.  Not that any amount could make up for the horror and humiliation of being an innocent person wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, but it is something — especially considering that very few exonerees get any sort of an apology from the state.

Even more appalling, as this article notes, is the fact that states are willing to pony up some limited annual compensation in order to prevent innocent exonerees from suing for much greater amounts.  Many states require exonerees to give up the right to sue as a condition of receiving compensation.

At the Innocence Project of Florida our concern is that our state’s compensation law has a loophole known as the “clean hands” provision.

961.04 Eligibility for compensation for wrongful incarceration.A wrongfully incarcerated person is not eligible for compensation under the act if:

(1) Before the person’s wrongful conviction and incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense, or a crime committed in another jurisdiction the elements of which would constitute a felony in this state, or a crime committed against the United States which is designated a felony, excluding any delinquency disposition;

(2) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to, regardless of adjudication, any felony offense; or
(3) During the person’s wrongful incarceration, the person was also serving a concurrent sentence for another felony for which the person was not wrongfully convicted.

So not only will a prior felony of petty theft or possession of marijuana make any exoneree, no matter how unjustly he or she was treated, ineligible for compensation, but if the inmate gets caught up in something while in prison–say badly injuring another inmate who has attacked or tried to rape them, they are also ineligible for compensation in the State of Florida.

In the best of all possible worlds, as Voltaire would say, states would show some recognition of and remorse for their mistakes that led to wrongful convictions and incarcerations of innocent men and women.  Instead, states begin by putting up roadblocks to protect their convictions, right or wrong, issue no apology to the men and women whose lives they have ruined, and then provide limited compensation to spare them from multi-million dollar lawsuits  And Florida adds another insult to the injury with its “clean hands” provision.  We ask the convicted to show recognition and remorse for what they have done; it is only fair to expect the states to do likewise.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 03, 2014 @ 4:03 PM — Comments (0)

After spending 30 long years in prison, two brothers in North Carolina were exonerated Tuesday by a North Carolina Judge. Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown were both released from prison today They had been found guilty of the heinous rape and murder of an 11-year old girl. The two African American men were 15 and 19 at the time of the murder are both considered intellectually disabled. After long hours of unethical interrogation with no lawyer present each separately confessed to the crime, by signing statements written for them by police officers. But when they were sent to trial they recanted all of their statements confessing to the crime. Key evidence was left unaccounted for at the time of the trial. A similar murder had been committed in the same town within a month of the brother’s arrest, and a local man, Roscoe Artis, had confessed to the rape and murder of an 18-year old. Artis lived just a block from where the victim’s body had been found yet he was not seen as a suspect. A cigarette butt found near the vicitim’s body was tested  to see whose DNA would show up on it — there was not a match for either of the exonerees — but their was a match for Roscoe Artis’s DNA. Artis is currently serving a life sentence for his other rape and murder.

Leon Brown was sent away for life and Henry Lee McCollum received the death penalty with no evidence connecting them to the crime, but because they confessed to it under duress they had a huge chunk of their lives stolen. This just furthers the evidence that just because someone confesses to a crime when they are under immense pressure, that does not mean they are guilty of said crime. Roughly 25 percent of those wrongly convicted of crimes have admitted guilt during their initial interrogation, the only way we can stop this cruel treatment is to change the way we interrogate suspects and make sure all interrogations are videotaped. Over the past 23 years there have been over 2,000 exonerations in the United States and with the great news of today we can add two more to that ever growing list.

McCollum and Brown were defended in their search for the truth by Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

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Small Victory For Innocence in Washington State

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 28, 2014 @ 10:44 AM — Comments (0)

Last week, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled, in a 6-3 decision, that DNA testing requests from convicts should be favorably considered. Specifically, judges should presume that the test results would favor the convict in making their decision, instead of denying them the chance to prove there innocence through DNA testing because the chances of exonerative results are remote. This decision spurs from the case of Lindsey Crumpton, who in 1993 was convicted of repeatedly raping a 75-year old woman. He was arrested running from the woman’s house with a bunch of incriminating items, including bedding smeared in blood among other things that the woman all identified as belonging to her. Crumpton is expected to spend the rest of his life in prison.

In 2011, he requested to have DNA testing done on the womans’ rape kit, her bedsheets and other pieces of evidence. A superior court rejected his request on the grounds that DNA testing would most likely not show that he was innocent. The case went all the way to the state supreme court and they reversed the ruling on the grounds that judges should presume that DNA testing will be in favor to convicts. Justice Mary Fairhurst when writing for the majority hit the nail on the head with this great statement: “Many innocent individuals have been exonerated through postconviction DNA tests, including some who had overwhelming evidence indicating guilt… and there is no direct evidence showing that labs have in fact been overburdened by an onslaught of postconviction testing.” This ruling is positive news for anyone falsely imprisoned in the State of Washington, because it now means their request for post-conviction DNA testing  cannot be denied just because the chances of them being proven innocent seem “slim” or “bleak”.


Wrongfully Convicted Texas Man Exonerated

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 06, 2014 @ 3:58 PM — Comments (0)

Michael Phillips’ 24-year nightmare is finally over. In 1990 in a Dallas motel room, a young white woman was brutally raped by a black man wearing a mask. At the time of the assault, Phillips was sleeping in his own room at the motel, but that fact proved inconsequential. Police dragged him out of bed at gunpoint, he was then“identified” in a police lineup, and  convicted of a crime he did not commit. He then spent the next 12 years of his life paying the price of a crime committed by another man. Worst of all, he was unable to be with his father when he died, simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But this was just the beginning of his hardships.

Michael Phillips was released from prison in 2002. However, that was hardly an improvement in his life. Yes, he may had been physically freed, but according to the State of Texas, he was still a convicted rapist. Not just any rapist, but a black man who raped a 16-year-old white girl. He was forced to register as a sex offender and to live with the intense social stigma associated with that title. There was now nowhere he could go where he would not be looked upon as a monster. His life was effectively ruined. This is the quiet tragedy of a false conviction: not only was Phillips wrongfully incarcerated in prison for 12 long years that he can never reclaim, but he then had to live as an ex-con/sexual predator once freed. His wrongful conviction did not just rob him of the the time he served, it stole a quarter-century of this innocent person’s life. Whatever possible future Michael Philip was heading toward in 1990, it was destroyed by the very justice system that was supposed to protect him. Phillips life will forever be defined by a series of tragic mistakes, oversights, and possible prejudice.

On July 24th, 2014,  Michael Phillips was at long last exonerated by a Dallas judge. After 24-years of prison, 24-years of shame, and after living decades of injustice, Mr. Phillips’ is finally recognized as the innocent man that he always was. Unfortunately, Phillips is now a 57-year old in a wheelchair slowly dying from Sickle Cell Anemia. He will never get his life back. Yes, the state will give him some money to compensate for their mistake, but money will not buy back one second of Mr. Philips’ life. People are only given one precious life to live in this world. Our legal system cannot continue to play so lightly with human lives. These are not mistakes which can be fixed. Mr. Philips is human being, and while his life may have been broken by an unfortunate series of events, he still has to keep on living it. This is the core reason why the post-conviction innocence movement is so critical. We cannot keep allowing innocent lives to be wrecked because of mistakes.

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Round Up: Changing the Way We Find Justice

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 23, 2014 @ 4:10 PM — Comments (0)

When dealing with the criminal justice system one is often confronted with policies and techniques that would seem to hinder justice as opposed to support it. Thankfully, there have been several recent developments that point to beginning of a change in these troublesome areas or, at the very least, a recognition that there may be a problem.

  • (Washington) In Policy Change, Justice Dept. to Require Recording of Interrogations On May 22nd the U.S. Justice Department took a major step towards the insurance of proper interrogation policy. The Justice Department stated on Thursday “that the F.B.I. and other federal law enforcement agencies would be required to videotape interviews with suspects in most instances, bringing the federal government in line with the practices in many state and local jurisdictions”. With the unsettling number of persons who have been exonerated after previously confessing under the pressure of improper integration techniques, this announcement comes with a great sigh of relief from those who work in the innocence movement.
  • To Catch an Arsonist: Will We Ever Have a Reliable Way to Identify Fire Starters? A recent article in the Pacific Standard (a well-respected science and society magazine) takes an in-depth look into the murky science of arson investigation. Increasingly we are seeing people who have spent decades in prison being exonerated due to the debunking of fire investigation techniques previously believed to be secure science.  Such discredited techniques include “Crazed glass” which was the term for a web of lines formed by fire on windows that used to be cited as arson evidence; it is now understood to be an effect of the quick-changing temperature when a hot window is hit by cold water from a fire hose. Discolored “pour patterns” on the floors and walls of a fire scene—supposedly formed by liquid accelerants—is another example. The debunking of these techniques and the attention which they have drawn has led to a greater scrutiny of Forensic Science, which will hopefully lead to improvements in a field that is often called upon to decide the guilt or innocence of thousands of men and women.
  •  (New York) DNA Analysis Exposes Flaws in an Inexact Forensic Science We live in a world where pop-culture and TV increasingly props up forensic science as the savior of justice. However, more and more scientific research reports are being released which conclude that there are serious flaws in many forensic science techniques. Recently there has been a rapid change in the attitude of the scientific community towards to practice of forensic science (with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis). In this recent NY Times article we are given a complete overview of the issues facing the world of Forensic Science, with a focus on the increasingly criticized practice of FBI hair analysis.


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News Roundup From Around the Nation

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 25, 2013 @ 11:50 AM — Comments (0)

Daniel Larson’s innocence was declared more than three years ago after spending 10 years in prison, and yet he still awaits his freedom. The circumstances surrounding Larson’s delayed release are complicated; his lawyer is believed to be at fault for submitting documents to the court later than he should have. Larson’s fiancee’ has started a petition for his immediate release from a California state prison that she will send to the Attorneys General. The petition can be viewed here, and more information about Larson and his case can be found at the LA Times.

Rob WardenThe co-founder of the Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions Rob Warden is set to retire next year. Warden founded the Center in 1999 and helped 25 people regain freedom after being wrongfully convicted. Warden also played an instrumental role in the creation of the National Registry for Exonerations. Rob’s retirement is a huge loss for the community of lawyers and groups doing innocence work.  He is a founder of our movement and he will be sorely missed.  Yet, some are taking pot shots at him on his way out the door. When asked about Warden’s retirement, a spokeswoman for Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said “It is our hope that the new leadership there will display a more respectful and fair-minded view of the work of the prosecutor, rather than the cynical ‘Us versus Them’ theory disseminated by Mr. Warden throughout the course of his tenure.” More information about Warden’s retirement can be found at the Chicago Tribune and the Wrongful Convictions Blog.

In the waning days of September, Clark County, Washington, agreed to settle a lawsuit over wrongful conviction with Larry Davis and Alan Northrop for $10.5 million. The two men were wrongfully convicted of rape in 1993. The men were exonerated thanks to DNA evidence proving that they were innocence and the stellar work of our friends at the Innocence Project Northwest. More information can be found at the National Police Accountability Project.

Nancy Smith and Joseph Allen spent almost 15 years in prison for the supposed molestation of children. Smith and Allen were due in court in 2009 for a records update. Upon their court date, the Judge realized that they were innocent thanks to the convoluted and clearly perjured evidence and they were freed. Unfortunately Mr. Allen’s freedom was taken from him again in 2011 as prosecutors appealed Mr. Allen’s acquittal to the Supreme Court of Ohio. Mr. Allen lost his right to appeal and may never be free again. Mrs. Smith must continue to fight for her own freedom. More information can be found at the Wrongful Convictions Blog.

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