Posts Tagged ‘chicago’


Certificates of Innocence for the Exonerated?

Taylor Thornton — March 21, 2018 @ 12:12 PM — Comments (0)

Certificates of actual innocence are the highest form of expunging one’s criminal record. These certificates go beyond just sealing the charge from the party’s criminal record but also recognizes that the charge should have never existed and the party should have never been arrested in the first place. A certificate of actual innocence is only available to those who were convicted of crimes that they were later found innocent of.

A certificate of innocence is important to exonerated individuals because a mark on a criminal record can unfortunately persist to damage their life even following an exoneration. Having charges on one’s criminal record can bar exonerees from many parts of life and can damage their career, their image, and that of their family. A criminal record can keep them from being able to rent a home, from getting a good job, from being approved for a loan, and much more. An exonerated individual should not continue to suffer such struggles after they have already suffered a false arrest or conviction. An innocent person should never suffer the damages for a crime they did not commit.

It seems obvious that those found innocent and exonerated of false convictions deserve certificates of innocence, at the least, as a step to begin rebuilding their damaged lives. However, this is not so simple in many states. Following a massive scandal in Chicago surrounding police Sergeant Ronald Watts, numerous convictions have been overturned. It was found that this sergeant’s corruption was responsible for numerous wrongful convictions and those were subsequently overturned last year with more cases expected to surface as time goes on. A number of men who served time in prison because of these false convictions have received formal certificates of innocence as is laid out in Illinois statute.

However, an issue has come up for some of Sergeant Watts’ victims. According to Illinois statute, certificates of innocence can only be rewarded to those who actually served time in prison for their wrongful convictions. This has left five innocent men, who were only sentenced to probation in their cases, denied these certificates. These men are planning to appeal their cases to a higher court, but as it currently stands in Illinois statute they do not have a right to a certificate of innocence unless they spent time in prison.

This is a serious flaw in the system that allows innocent people to fall through the cracks. While few things can compare to the damage done by serving time in prison, a criminal record of any kind comes with the same stigma and societal damages. Even though these men avoided the harsh punishment of incarceration they still endured the struggles of being on supervision and they can still be barred from access to things like homes and jobs because of their records. An innocent person deserves their innocence regardless of what level to which they have suffered. The state is denying these men a fully cleaned slate simply because they were not damaged enough in the eyes of the courts. Any damage done to an innocent citizen because of a crime they never committed is too much damage. Every exoneree deserves formal innocence declared by the courts.

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The Changing Nature of Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 11, 2014 @ 12:49 PM — Comments (0)

Across the country the “face of exonerations” are changing, and changing quickly. Last year in the United States there were 83 exonerations. Only 13 of these were based on DNA evidence. Ultimately, DNA is useful in only 5-10% of all cases, usually the ‘who dunnit’ type cases. Surprisingly, women make up the fastest growing population in prisons, and most cases involving female crimes are not DNA case, according to an article by TIME Magazine.

So what can we do to help the other 90% of cases?

Well, Texas has taken on this problem by passing legislature recognizing faulty forensic evidence as a basis for post-conviction release.

In Chicago, a federal judge issued a ruling finding “actual innocence” in a case based on shaken baby syndrome. Without the presence of DNA evidence, Jennifer Del Prete proved that it was impossible a jury could have found her guilty of murdering the child in her care. This has developed the idea that shaken baby syndrome is “more of an article of faith than a proposition of science”, according to U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly. Del Prete has not yet been exonerated, but it is likely she will be. When this happens her case is expected to follow in the footsteps of the non-DNA exonerations we had in 2013.

Recognizing the fact that not all wrongful conviction cases involve DNA, everyone in the criminal justice process must understand that wrongful convictions involve misidentifications, false confessions, and invalid forensic science, and be open to other avenues to prove actual innocence. While many states have taken this first step, there are also many who haven’t.

Check out this article from TIME Magazine by Deborah Tuerkheimer, Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law, that goes more in-depth on this particular exoneration topic and was used as a resource for this blog post.

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Women Contend with a Biased Judicial System

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 30, 2013 @ 1:53 PM — Comments (0)

Women are treated differently by the justice system in the United States. Their cases are often fraught with prosecutorial misconduct, falsifying or withholding evidence, and gender-based bias.

In many cases the bias against women by prosecutors, judges, and juries is often pivotal in deciding the case. This bias will often lead to vilification of a woman on the grounds that the crime was committed out of passion, rage, or another archaic nonsensical reason that parrots stereotypes of characteristics of women. In many cases women are convicted using circumstantial evidence. In recent years the plight that women face within the judicial system has begun to be studied by the law community. According to the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School “In 64% of female exonerees’ cases, no crime had occurred” and “40% of female exonerees were victims of police or prosecutorial misconduct”. Thanks to Northwestern University Law School and others this demographic information regarding women and wrongful convictions has shed more light on a significant problem.

In one such case, Cynthia Sommer was convicted of poisoning her husband with arsenic and charged with murder. At her trial, a defense forensic toxicologist testified that if her husband had indeed been poisoned with arsenic, then high levels of the chemical would have been found throughout his body; and this was not the case as arsenic was found in only his liver and kidneys. Cynthia Sommer was convicted nevertheless and spent ten months in prison until she was able to prove her innocence based on ineffective assistance of counsel. For whatever reason, Cynthia Sommer’s defense attorney failed to argue on the merits of the toxicologist’s findings and in turn she almost served a life sentence in prison.

Gloria KillianIn another case, Gloria Killian was convicted of first-degree murder, attempted murder, burglary, robbery, and conspiracy. These charges were brought against her with no evidence and they were based solely on the testimony of one man, Gary Masse. This false testimony proved to be enough for the Sacramento, CA sheriff’s office to arrest her. Masse later admitted that his testimony against Killian was a lie and he had tried to make a deal with the prosecution for leniency in his own case in exchange for the testimony. Killian’s conviction was overturned and she was released in August 2002 after being imprisoned for 16 years.

Both of the cases of these women indicate how easy it has become to be convicted of a crime you didn’t commit due to gender-biased evidence and false testimonies. In the case of Gloria Killian, the word of a convicted male murderer was trusted over that of an innocent woman to such an extent that she lost 16 years of her life.

Nicole Harris at her exoneration. This issue will be addressed in an upcoming lecture at Gage Gallery in Chicago sponsored by Roosevelt University. Recently exonerated Nicole Harris and her attorney Karen Daniel, the co-founder of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Women, will talk about the particular struggles that wrongfully convicted women face.

Harris was recently released from prison after a wrongful conviction through a forced confession at the hands of the Chicago Police Department. She had served seven years of a 30-year sentence. Information about the upcoming wrongful conviction lecture can be found at Roosevelt University.

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News Roundup From Around the Nation

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 18, 2013 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

Legislative action passed in California last week will improve the process by which wrongfully convicted Californians will receive compensation for their time served. Senate Bill 618 will streamline the process allowing those who are exonerated to receive their funds quicker and with less hassle. The Bill’s author, Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said “[t]his effort helps prevent the state’s faulty administrative process from perpetrating yet another wrong on these innocent individuals who deserve and need our help to get back on their feet and on with their lives.” For more information visit the California Senators news page here.

Recently, the wrongfully convicted man Carl Chatman was released from prison after serving nine years for a rape he did not commit. Many citizens have expressed outrage at the lack of response from the justice system in regards to Chatman’s accuser. The woman who accused Chatman of raping her had a previous experience in which she accused another man of the same crime. Unfortunately, Mr. Chatman’s situation is not a unique one. Due to the statute of limitations regarding perjury in Illinois, Chatman’s accuser cannot be punished. For more information about Carl Chatman visit the Chicago Sun-Times.

Barri White, a wrongfully convicted man, served six years in high-security jail for the murder of his girlfriend in 2002. In 2005, the BBC investigated his case and found the forensic evidence used to convict him was false and his case had been one of false accusations and demonization. Mr. White stated “I am still fighting, I have had enough of fighting, I deserve a life back. Getting compensation and an apology from the police, that would be my justice. It was six years of my life, my whole 20s, pretty much. They’re supposed to be the best years of your life but I was rotting in jail. Nothing can make up for that. No amount of money is going to bring my six years back.” The BBC program ‘Life after life: Barri and Keith’s story’ aired Monday Sept. 16th in the UK and will be available later online. Information can be found at the BBC.

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Canino

Ronald Cotton was mistakenly identified and wrongfully convicted of raping Jennifer Thompson-Canino in 1984. Cotton was exonerated in June 1995 after DNA testing proved he was not the rapist. In an unusual turn of events, he and Jennifer have become friends and often appear together talking about wrongful convictions and incarceration. The two have written a book, “Picking Cotton“, and are to the keynote speakers at the centerpiece of Miami University (of Ohio) Regional Campus’ upcoming Criminal Justice Week. More information about the talks can be found at the Journal News.

They are also scheduled to be in Jacksonville at both of the Florida State College campuses in March 2014.

In Louisiana recently an exonerated man who was cleared of rape charges finds himself in court again. Darrin Hill, a 47 year old man who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, had been in prison for more than ten years for a rape he did not commit. His accuser pointed him out in a lineup and he was convicted quickly. Over the past 13 years Hill had been in and out of mental hospitals and jails. In 2010, a sexual assault kit that was used by doctors to examine Hill’s accuser was found by staff members of the federal National Institute of Justice-funded Orleans Parish Post-conviction DNA Testing Project. DNA testing revealed that Hill’s DNA was not present but rather the testing revealed the DNA of another man. Hill was exonerated with the help of Innocence Project New Orleans and charges were dropped. Now Hill has to face his accuser again as she refutes her earlier claim that he was her rapist. More information can be found at The Advocate.

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