Posts Tagged ‘DNA’


Letting the Guilty Walk Free

Marianne Salcedo — September 19, 2014 @ 9:42 AM — Comments (1)

When the American system of justice allows an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, someone else is getting away with murder. Murder or another crime — but the point is that laws and policies throughout the United States limit access to state-of-the-art DNA testing for inmates who claim innocence. On September 18, 2014, the Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board published an editorial titled, “End the absurd bureaucracy around DNA testing.”

Given the incredible power of DNA to exonerate the innocent and expose the guilty, it’s alarming that a mountain of red tape still impedes its use.

The fact that, out of the 317 exonerations due to exculpatory DNA crime scene test results cited in the editorial, 153 of those results enabled police and prosecutors to identify and catch the real perpetrator, barriers to current DNA testing only serve to destroy innocent lives and let the guilty walk scot-free. As the Star-Ledger editorial notes:

This is not only a problem for the wrongly imprisoned, it’s a threat to public safety.

In Florida, past laws impacting post-sentence DNA testing were fraught with time limits for filing petitions and limitations on how long physical evidence from crime scenes was preserved. In 2006, Florida legislators removed those time limits and extended the time period for preservation of evidence. And to this state’s credit, all DNA test results conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have the ability to be run through both the state’s DNA database and the FBI’s CODIS. In New Jersey, the reliance on private labs for post-sentence testing means that the real perpetrator’s DNA may not be run through CODIS for a possible match ensuring that the true culprit will never be identified.

Gerald Richardson, a 2013 exoneree who was represented by the Innocence Project in New York, will testify before the legislature in New Jersey advocating that the state require post-sentence DNA tests to be compared with CODIS. Not only would identifying the real perpetrator speed the timeframe in which the falsely convicted are released from prison, but public safety would be improved by getting the true criminal off the streets. Our laws and policies should enhance Americans’ safety, not endanger it.

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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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The Changing Nature of Exonerations

Hannah Beery — 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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The Number of Exonerations Continues to Grow

Henry Thompson — October 25, 2013 @ 11:43 AM — Comments (0)

As of October 2013 the number of exonerations documented in the United States was 1,228.

Exonerations nationwide are documented in The National Registry of Exonerations, which is a joint project of the Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law. The registry is a searchable and detailed database of information about those who have been exonerated from prison in the United States.

National-Registry-of-ExonerationsSamuel R. Gross, law professor at the University of Michigan School of Law , and Rob Warden, executive director of The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern School of Law, began reviewing data on exonerations in the United States in 1989.

In 2012, with the help of law student Michael Shaffer and many other volunteers, they published a comprehensive review of exonerations on a national scale and launched the website for the National Registry of Exonerations.

The report contains extensive research data from 1989 to 2012. The three help to define and clarify exonerations and the processes behind them. The report also significantly explained in large detail reasons for wrongful convictions. Here are some excerpts from the inaugural report from The National Registry of Exonerations.

“DNA exonerations also take longer than non-DNA exonerations; the median time from conviction is 14.9 years compared to 7.8 years. This is true for homicide cases, where the median time is 15 years with DNA and 11.9 years without; for sexual assault cases, where the comparable numbers are 14.6 years and 7.1 years; and for child sex abuse exonerations, where the median times are 17 years with DNA and 5.9 without DNA.”

“The 873 exonerations in the Registry  come from 43 states, the District of Columbia, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, 19 federal districts, and the military. They are very unevenly distributed by state, and especially when broke down by county. This suggests we are missing many cases – both innocent defendants from jurisdictions where exonerations are vanishingly rare, and exonerated defendants whose cases have received little or no public attention.”

Along with detailing information regarding DNA testing for exonerations and national data, Gross and Ward explain the types of situations that may lead to wrongful incarceration. These situations are many and varied though common themes tie them together. Some of the most egregious wrongful convictions stem from official misconduct on behalf of law enforcement or the courts.

“The range of misconduct is very large. It includes flagrantly abusive investigative practices that produce the types of false evidence we have discussed: committing or procuring perjury; torture; threats or other highly coercive interrogations; threatening or lying to eyewitnesses; forensic fraud. At the far end, it includes framing innocent suspects for crimes that never occurred. The most common serious form of official misconduct is concealing exculpatory evidence from the defendant and the court.”

The average number of exonerations has grown by about 220 cases per year. The website is an invaluable resource that is intuitively designed and makes searching out exonerees a simple task. The website allows the user to search using name, exoneration date, contributing factors to exoneration, location, and status. The website also provides relatively short biographies of those profiled and their history regarding their exoneration.

 You can find information about the Registry online and a copy of the inaugural exonerations report created by Gross and Warden can be found here.

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Hank Skinner Continues to Languish on Texas’ Death Row

Henry Thompson — September 30, 2013 @ 2:01 PM — Comments (5)

A man has waited on death row in Texas for his exoneration for twenty years. Hank Skinner was convicted of murdering his then girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two adult sons in January of 1993. The police failed to investigate another potential suspect, Twila’s uncle, who had a history of violent activity and molestation. At the trial, there was little mention of exculpatory evidence due to the fact that Skinner was at the scene of the murder. Upon his conviction, the jury recommended the death penalty. Skinner has been languishing on death row in Texas for twenty years all the while maintaining his innocence.

Now thanks to DNA testing Skinner may have a shot at regaining his freedom. Twila Busby’s uncle had often worn a jacket that was similar to the jacket found next to her body. Upon testing some hair on the jacket and in Twila’s hand it was found that the hairs belonged to her uncle. The District Attorney had made a promise to Hank Skinner that DNA testing would be allowed and taken into account though upon the test results being revealed the D.A was reticent to fulfill that promise.

After years of appeals and Skinner’s lawyers unsuccessfully fighting his case, Hank was to be executed, though at the last minute the state of Texas issued a stay of execution. Just one year later, the courts ruled that he would have access to the biological evidence in his case and justice would be served. Unfortunately for Hank and conveniently for Texas the original jacket that had already been tested was lost. However the hairs were still available. DNA testing on the hairs excluded Skinner and revealed a potential match to Twila’s uncle.

Hank SkinnerWhile the legal wrangling and testing has been going on, Hank was living on death row. Spending the majority of his days in a cramped small cell eating terrible food has begun to take its toll. Hank Skinner was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis recently and is back on death row while a resolution to his case is pending. What’s worse is that Twila Busby’s uncle, the only other suspect in the case, has been deceased for years and his body must be exhumed for Hank Skinner to be freed.

We all hope that Hank Skinner can stay healthy enough to see his family and friends again. More information about Hank Skinner’s case can be found at The Huffington Post and HankSkinner.org.

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FBI To Review 27 Death Penalty Cases for Faulty Forensic Testimony

Anna Fitzpatrick — July 23, 2013 @ 3:33 PM — Comments (2)

A review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed twenty-seven death penalty cases in which the FBI’s forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from a so-called “match” between a hair found at the scene of a crime and hair of the defendant. It is not known how many cases involve errors, how many led to wrongful convictions, or how many mistakes may now jeopardize valid convictions. Those questions will be explored as the review continues.

The discovery of the more than two dozen capital cases promises that the examination could become a factor in the debate over the death penalty. Some opponents have long held that the execution of an innocent person would solidify doubts about capital punishment. But if DNA or other testing confirms convictions, it would strengthen supporters’ arguments that the system works.

At least three Florida men, including DNA exonerees Wilton Dedge and William Dillon, were convicted based on, among other things, testimony provided by John Preston, who claimed that his dogs could perform feats of forensic detection far beyond the abilities of other investigative dogs. Preston testified in each case that his dog picked up the scent of the defendant at the scene of the crime, testimony that all but sealed their fate. By now, though, his claims have been thoroughly discredited by experts in the field of scent tracking, media reports, multiple state supreme courts, police training manuals, and law review articles.  This leads to the question of why Preston was ever considered reliable in the first place and why more was not done to do a re-review of all cases in which Preston and fraudulent dog handlers like him have testified.

Advocates for defendants and the wrongly convicted called the FBI’s reexamination of possibly faulty forensic conclusions a watershed moment in police and prosecutorial agencies’ willingness to re-open old cases because of scientific errors uncovered by DNA testing. “We didn’t do this to be a model for anyone,” said FBI general counsel Andrew Weissman. “When there’s a problem, you have to face it, and you have to figure how to fix it, move forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again.” FBI Laboratory director Chris Hassell has said that the review will be used to improve lab training, testimony, audit systems, and research.

The review is a huge step forward to improving the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States. Faulty forensics and science is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and a revised approach to forensics could help to reduce that number of miscarriages of justices before the occur. Hopefully we’re not far off from reforms in other leading causes, such as eyewitness identification or snitch testimonies.

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New Ruling Finds Expanded DNA Databases Constitutional

Anna Fitzpatrick — June 27, 2013 @ 3:24 PM — Comments (0)

A June 3rd ruling on the U.S. Supreme Court case Maryland v. King states that police can take DNA samples from people who are merely arrested for serious crimes. The post-decision debate has focused on the appropriate breadth of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizures. The federal government and twenty-eight states already authorize versions of what the Court has now ruled is acceptable; and law enforcement officials agree that DNA collection, like taking fingerprints, is a valuable tool for solving crimes.

The controversy stems from a long running battle between crime-fighting technology and centuries-old privacy rights. What makes this case so controversial is not the use of genetic samples in police work, but the fact that under the ruling, a suspect in custody – but still considered innocent under the law – may have their DNA taken, entered into a database, and screened against DNA profiles from evidence in unrelated cold cases to see if there is a match.   All of this is done, despite there being no suspicion that the arrestee has committed other crimes in the past.

Despite the tension between law enforcement’s crime-solving function and civil liberties of citizens, DNA databases are just are a useful tool, especially to the innocents in the criminal justice system. More robust database of DNA samples could aid the wrongfully convicted; the existence of DNA databases provides the possibility to compare unknown DNA profiles from pretrial or post-trial DNA testing of crime scene evidence to profiles in DNA database to prove that someone has been wrongfully convicted. It can also help prevent an innocent person from being ensnared in a criminal prosecution in the first place.

Given that the constitutionality of this practice is now a settled matter, policy makers should develop ways to give the wrongfully convicted greater ability to use the DNA database as an effective tool to prove innocence.

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New DNA Fog Coats Crime Scene and Suspect with Evidence

Anna Fitzpatrick — June 26, 2013 @ 1:45 PM — Comments (0)

In recent years, criminal investigations have increasingly begun to use DNA as evidence in criminal proceedings due to its reliability and accuracy as compared to other forensic methods. Now, a few different companies are making devices that use DNA as a sort of invisible bar code to tag people. The devices allow bank and police officers to spray or splat perpetrators with millions of copies of a colorless DNA tag at the scene of the crime while they are committing the crime.

The DNA tags are made with entirely artificial sequences, so that every tagging device may have a difference sequence. The genetic material is difficult to wash off completely and lasts about two weeks.

The new technology would allow police to accurately identify suspects in crimes such as bank robberies or other thefts. It could also help to reduce police’s reliance on eyewitness identifications, which studies have shown are often inaccurate not only due to preparation and administration of lineups but also plain and simple human error.

This seems like new and interesting technology.  While it appears, on its face, to perpetuate more reliable criminal justice outcomes, does it have the potential to ensnare innocent individuals who are innocently at the scene of a bank robbery, for example, but accidentally come into contact with this genetic fog?

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New DNA Testing Reveals Florida Death Row Inmate’s Innocence

Anna Fitzpatrick — May 16, 2013 @ 4:44 PM — Comments (4)

DNA helped send Clemente Javier “Shorty” Aguirre to death row in 2006 for the murder of two Altamonte Springs neighbors. Now a team of attorneys have used a new round of DNA testing to prove the innocence Aguirre has been maintaining from the start. This round of DNA testing implicates the victim’s daughter, Samantha Williams, as the real perpetrator.

Cheryl Williams and Carol Bareis, Aguirre’s next-door neighbors, were mother and daughter found stabbed to death in their trailer in Seminole County on June 17, 2004. An undocumented Honduran, Aguirre initially told police that he didn’t know anything about the murders, though later that same day he admitted that he had discovered their bodies around six a.m. when he went to their house hoping to get some beer. When he found Cheryl Williams’ body lying in the foyer, he rolled her over to check for a pulse. Once he realized she was dead, he feared the killer may still be present and grabbed the knife near Cheryl’s body before walking through the rest of the house. When he realized no one was there, he panicked, discarded the knife, went home and stuffed his now-bloody clothes into a trash bag and threw them on the roof. He didn’t report the crime because he feared deportation.

At trial, the State prosecution presented DNA evidence to show the the victims’ blood was on Aguirre’s clothes, shoes, and the bloody knife, which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony of how he discovered the bodies. The defense, unfortunately, conducted no tests on other bloodstains nor did they even view any of the 197 items of evidence that were collected in this case, much less retain a forensic expert to examine them. The State also offered testimony from a “bloodstain pattern expert” who claimed the stains on Aguirre’s clothes were “impact” or “cast off” rather than “transfer” (which is consistent with Aguirre’s testimony) and alleged that the murders occurred around eight or nine a.m., arguing in closing that Aguirre may have still been in the home when Samantha Williams’ then-boyfriend came to get her work clothes and discovered the bodies. The defense failed to retain any blood pattern, pathologist, or other forensic experts to counter the State’s theories or support Aguirre’s account.

Furthermore, at no time during the trial did Aguirre’s lawyer inquire about or otherwise present the jury with any of the readily-available evidence that Samantha was mentally ill, unstable, and had a volatile and at times violent relationship with her mother, including at least one prior threat to kill her.

On at least three occasions since the murders, Samantha has become so violent and uncontrollable that she has been involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities. Nearly three years prior to the murders, Samantha had been committed to psychiatric care by her mother, during which time she threatened to kill her mother in the presence of others. Then in December 2007, she was videoed as she repeatedly banged her head against the interior of a police car, sobbing, “my family died from me,” and then threatened to “murder” the officer who had taken her into custody. Again in August 2010, police were called to her home after she tried to set herself on fire and told a neighbor that “demons are in her head and caused her to kill her family.”

The attorney who represented Aguirre at his trial has been found constitutionally ineffective by the courts in at least one other death penalty case he handled. In total, Aguirre’s trial attorney has at least ten former clients presently on Florida’s death row.

In August 2011, Aguirre’s new counsel at the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle in Florida, in consultation with the Innocence Project, filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing which found that most of the bloodstains were traced to one or both victims, while no blood from Aguirre was found at the scene. By contrast, two distinct bloodstains were found to come from Samantha and were located in close proximity to the victims’ blood. Although opposed by the State, a second round of testing revealed a total of eight different bloodstains have been identified as Samantha’s, which were spread out over four rooms of the home, each near blood from one or both victims.

At the hearing that began in Sanford, Florida on May 13, 2013, Aguirre’s lawyers will be asking for post-conviction relief based on three separate grounds:

  1. that Aguirre’s lawyer was ineffective for failing to conduct DNA testing and investigate Samantha’s mental health history,
  2.  the new DNA evidence and pre- and post-trial violence by Samantha constitute newly discovered evidence that would have led the jury to an acquittal, and
  3.  the new evidence establishes Aguirre’s innocence.

In what seems like such a clear-cut case of innocence, it is certainly disturbing to consider the lengths the State has gone to in order to protect Samantha Williams from conviction, despite her long history of violence, instability, and pure animosity, while turning a blind eye to the injustices suffered by Aguirre.  Should Aguirre be exonerated, the State will have fought against the freedom of an innocent person and possibly undercut their ability to prosecute the real perpetrator.  This would be the ultimate injustice to both Mr. Aguirre and the victims in this case.

Aguirre is represented by Maria DeLiberato and Marie-Louise Samuels Parmer with the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel – Middle Region.  Nina Morrison and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project and Seth Miller and Melissa Montle of the Innocence of Florida are serving as co-counsel.

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