Archive for the ‘judicial’ Category


Can Our Criminal Justice System Accurately Detect Lies?

Samantha Adams — February 09, 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 (1)

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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Alabama v. Arthur or Conviction v. Science

Marianne Salcedo — 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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California Woman Exonerated After 17 Years

Marianne Salcedo — October 13, 2014 @ 5:08 PM — Comments (0)

On Friday, October 10, 2014, Susan Marie Mellen was formally exonerated of murder in Torrance, California, after spending 17 years wrongfully incarcerated.  A combination of an unreliable witness, who was well known as a habitual liar by the police, and mistakes made by the police detective, who was also responsible for a 1994 case that resulted in the convictions of two men who were subsequently exonerated.

“I believe she is innocent,” California Superior Court Judge Mark Arnold said. “For that reason I believe in this case the justice system failed.”

Despite what Mellen called a “cruel punishment” where she cried herself to sleep each night, she did not give up hope.  Amazingly, she holds no grudge against those who wrongfully convicted her with a sentence of life without parole.  She said, “I always forgave my enemies.  Even your haters, you have to forgive them and sometimes you have to thank them because they bring you closer to God.”

Mellen was arrested in 1997 for killing a homeless man who was staying in the same house where Mellen was living.  A woman known for giving baseless tips to the police testified that Mellen had confessed to the crime — and it was on her testimony that Mellen’s conviction rested.  Through representation by Innocence Matters, Mellen’s conviction was overturned and she was at long last exonerated.

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Michigan Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison

Justin Hirsche — September 09, 2014 @ 9:01 AM — Comments (0)

Jaime Lee Peterson was exonerated today after spending 17 years in custody and in a Michigan prison for the rape and murder of a elderly woman that he did not commit. He was serving a life sentence. The cause of his wrongful conviction stems from his false confession during the interrogation process which happened four months after the murder. Despite knowing that DNA testing of the victim’s rape kit excluded Peterson as the rapist, the jury convicted Peterson at a 1998 trial. The prosecutor led the jury to believe that semen found at the crime scene that was, at that time, untestable most likely belonged to Mr. Peterson. Along with his initial confession, this was enough to sentence him to life in prison. New DNA testing was conducted last year at the urging of Mr. Peterson’s new attorneys, the testing sought to prove that the previously untestable DNA belonged to the same person whose DNA was found initially with the rape kit. All of the male DNA  tested in this case was found to match a man named Jason Ryan (who was actually interviewed during the initial investigation).  Ryan was arrested last year for this decades old crime and currently is awaiting trial. Petersen’s case was led by the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

This case is just another one to add to the troubling ever growing list of coerced false confessions. After initially confessing Jaime (who is cognitively impaired) recanted his statements, but that usually does the person in such a situation no good. Roughly a fourth of those exonerated in America falsely confessed to crimes at some point during their interrogation. Jaime is the fourth man in Michigan to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

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DNA Evidence Clears Two men in 1983 North Carolina Murder Case

Justin Hirsche — 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

Justin Hirsche — 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”.

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Wrongfully Convicted Texas Man Exonerated

Julian Soto — 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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News Roundup From Around The Nation 7/11/14

Julian Soto — July 11, 2014 @ 6:00 PM — Comments (0)

In this week’s news roundup we are happy to report stories of resilience, redemption, and rebuilding.

  • Resilience: (San Antonio, TX) Sonia Cacy spent just 5 years of her 99 year sentence in prison before she was paroled in 1999. However, the fact that she was released early did not satisfy Cacy. She was determined to be officially exonerated of her crime, which she has always maintained she did not commit. Since the day of her release, she has fought to have justice restored to her life and to be compensated for the years stolen from her. Convicted in 1993 of murdering her uncle at the small house they shared in Fort Stockton, she was given 99 years in prison. However, the case against her was primarily the product of an inaccurate reading of an evidence test and the outdated arson investigation techniques of that time. Now, with the several experts refuting the original test reading and the great improvements in arson science, it has become clear that the case against her is one which is weak.  Her case is currently being heard by Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio, who will not rule on the case for a few months, attorneys said. Richardson could recommend that Cacy’s conviction be overturned, though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals would make any final determination on her case
  • Redemption: (Lowell, MA) For the 32 years Victor Rosario has been behind bars, the entirety of which he steadfastly denied setting the 1982 Lowell fire that killed eight people, five of them children. Rosario, 57, was convicted in 1983 after confessing that he and two other men had used Molotov cocktails to set the fire, the deadliest in Lowell’s history. However, changes in how fire investigators determine arson, as well as the fact that Rosario’s confession is now thought to have been coerced, has cast serious doubts about the legitimacy of his conviction. While 32 years in prison had certainly taken a toll on Rosario, he never stopped fighting for his innocence. Therefore, it was an incredible relief when Superior Court Judge Kathe M. Tuttman overturned the murder convictions last Monday, ruling that new evidence cast “real doubt on the justice of the conviction.” The next day Rosario posted his $25,000 bail and was finally able to walk out of prison as a free man. His battle may not be over, as the D.A.’s office plans to retry Rosario, but at this moment in his life; justice has prevailed.
  • Rebuilding: 25 years is an extremely long amount of time in any person’s life. However, those years must feel even longer when they are spent imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. Sadly, that is the reality in Michael Morton’s life. After being wrongly convicted of the murder of his beloved wife, he spent 25 years in prison (separated from his young son) before justice finally prevailed. Today, he is trying to rebuild his life and further the cause of the wrongfully convicted with his new book: “Getting Life”. His book recounts the tragic events in his life and how he dealt with the horrible burden of false imprisonment. The book has just hit shelves and can be found on Amazon.com and many other book retailers.

 

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The Central Park 5: The Truth Concerning Confessions

Julian Soto — June 30, 2014 @ 2:39 PM — Comments (0)

On the night of April 19, 1989 a vicious and horrifying crime was perpetrated in Central Park New York. On that night 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili (who has publicly released her identity) was violently assaulted and raped while jogging in the park. She was raped and beaten almost to the point of death. When found, about four hours later at 1:30 am, she was suffering from severe hypothermia and blood loss from multiple lacerations and internal bleeding, and her skull had been fractured so badly that her left eye was removed from the socket. This crime came at a time when crime rates in New York were at an all-time high and race relations were at a low point. The rape of an affluent white woman, in an area that had been reporting a crime spree by minority youths, was enough to set the city afire with outrage. There were calls for immediate justice coming from all levels of the political and social sphere; the NYPD could feel the fire building under their feet. They immediately threw their investigation into full throttle. In a short time they had rounded up a very convincing group of suspects. This group consisted of 5 Black and Hispanic youths who admitted to being in the park that evening engaging in (various forms of) criminal mischief of a far lesser severity. They ranged in age from 14-16. They confessed to the rape and assault of the jogger. By December 1990, all of the 5 young men were convicted of charges related to the rape. They would proceed to spend a combined 40 years in prison.  All convictions were affirmed on appeal.

On December 19, 2002 the five defendants’ convictions were vacated by New York Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada. Another man, a career violent criminal named Matias Reyes, came forward and claimed responsibility for the crime. He claimed that he assaulted the victim on that fateful night, and he did it alone. His DNA was tested against the DNA which was found on the victim’s body. The test results came back with a match, something which had never happened to the Central Park 5 (as they came to be known). They had already been released from incarceration for several years, but the confirmation of their innocence was a long awaited relief. Twelve years later, the City of New York finally agreed to a $40 million settlement and the Central Park Five were finally able to feel a sense of justice which had eluded them for the past 25 years. The question still remained: how could justice become so derailed?

A confession, or admission of guilt, while being interrogated by the police seems like a very straight forward concept. A guilty party (if so persuaded) would admit to a crime which they had committed, and an innocent person would not. Therefore, the common assumption would be, only guilty people admit to being guilty. Sadly, this is not always the case. In roughly 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions, or pled guilty. These are men and women who have been scientifically proven to be innocent of their charges, yet they still confessed to those crimes. This is the issue with confessions; they give the impression of infallibility, while in reality being far from it.

The case of the Central Park Five is the perfect embodiment of this issue. Five teenagers were picked up by the police, their names were released to the press (before they were arraigned), and then they were intensely questioned by the police, which certainly must have been one of the most frightening experiences of their young lives.  They were questioned, prodded, threatened with addition jail time, and fed lies about the investigation (they were told by detectives that they had found their fingerprints on the victims). They were pushed and pushed, until they broke down and admitted to a crime of which they have scientifically been proven to be innocent. There was no physical evidence in the case and there were no eye witnesses. The case rested solely on those confessions. That was enough to rob these five young men of their youth and put them in prison for a combined 40 years.

This is the danger of a conviction based solely on a confession. A confession is not infallible evidence, and yet is continued to be treated as such. This is quite troublesome, due to there being an incredible amount of factors which could contaminate a confession, rendering it false. Whether it be incompetence/malice on the part interrogators, pressure/fear on the part of the suspect, or a combination of the both, it is far too easy for a miscarriage of justice to occur. Yet, situations similar to the Central Park Five are far from rare. There are currently countless people incarcerated due to convictions based solely on confessions. Surely, many of these people may actually be guilty of their crimes. However, as the Central Park Five have shown, it is incredibly possible that a large number of those prisoners may very well be innocent. They could simply be victims of being pushed into saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time.

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