Posts Tagged ‘DNA testing’


Exoneration Anniversary: Jerry Miller!

Taylor Thornton — April 23, 2018 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (0)

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Happy Exoneration Anniversary Jerry Miller!!

On October 1, 1982 Jerry Miller was convicted of rape, robbery, and kidnapping and sentenced to 45 years following the brutal attack of a woman entering her vehicle in a Chicago, Illinois parking garage. Despite his alibi and the victim being unable to accurately identify her attacker, Miller was convicted based primarily on the identification by employees of the parking garage who had seen the true assailant.

In 2005 the Innocence Project took on Miller’s case. A slip worn by the victim at the time containing DNA was tested and Jerry Miller was able to be excluded. At that time, the Cook County State Attorney’s Office joined the Cook County Public Defender’s Office and the Innocence Project in filing a joint motion to vacate Jerry Miller’s conviction. The DNA testing was also able to identify the true attacker when the profile was entered into the FBI offender database. Happy 11 years of freedom Jerry Miller!!

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Exoneration Anniversary: Megan Winfrey and Victor Larue Thomas!

Taylor Thornton — April 17, 2018 @ 10:48 AM — Comments (0)

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Happy Exoneration Anniversary Megan Winfrey!!

In 2008 Megan Winfrey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2004 murder of Murray Burr in Coldspring, Texas. Her conviction was based on circumstantial evidence, primarily scent evidence from bloodhounds employed by the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Department who allegedly “alerted” to Megan as well as her brother and father. In February of 2013 Megan Winfrey was acquitted when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the dog scent evidence was insufficient. Megan was released on April 17, 2013 when the state was denied their petition to retry her. Happy 5 years of freedom Megan Winfrey!

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Happy Exoneration Anniversary Victor Larue Thomas!!

Victor Thomas was sentenced to three life terms on June 15, 1986 for the beating and raping of a worker during the robbing of a convenience store in Waxahachie, Texas. Thomas’ conviction rested on his identification by the victim and her testimony in court. After writing numerous letters from behind bars trying to get help, state District Judge Gene Knize took notice of Victor. Judge Knize appointed Victor an attorney, asked the Ellis County District Attorney’s Office to re-investigate the case, and asked for DNA testing. DNA testing excluded Victor from being the attacker and he was released in June of 2001. Finally, Texas Governor Rick Perry pardoned him on April 17, 2002. Happy 16 years of freedom Victor Larue Thomas!!

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There is No Time Limit on True Innocence

Taylor Thornton — April 02, 2018 @ 2:20 PM — Comments (0)

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Exculpatory evidence is any piece of evidence that gives favor to the accused party in a criminal case. This evidence, if strong enough, could exonerate the defendant from any guilt. But, what happens when powerful exculpatory evidence is uncovered after an innocent person has already been wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did not commit? That depends on a number of factors. One of these factors, unfortunately, can include how much time has passed.

A statute of limitations is a law that dictates the amount of time following some event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. In the case of presenting new evidence to exonerate a wrongfully convicted person, depending on the state that person lives in, there may be a time limit on presenting that new exculpatory evidence. In Florida, under rule 3.850 of the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure you only have two years following a sentencing to file a Motion to Vacate Sentence based on, for example, a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. However, there are exceptions to that time limit, an important one being newly discovered evidence. This could include a witness recanting their testimony, a Brady violation like when the prosecution withholds evidence from the defense that could be favorable to the defendant, or new DNA results. The request for DNA testing, under rule 3.853, has no time limitations in the state of Florida.

In comparison to some other states, Florida’s rules might seem very fair. In Alabama, for example, those convicted of a capital crime can apply for DNA testing if it was not done at their original trial but that request must be made within a year of their conviction. It should not be assumed that prisoners are fully aware of these statutes and the workings of the legal system as a whole as the general public typically is not. Placing that time limit on DNA testing can leave an innocent person in prison not knowing they need to file that motion within a certain period of time. There are also other constraints on DNA testing that differ among states like only allowing DNA testing for death row inmates, not allowing DNA testing to inmates who had confessed, or those who entered a guilty plea. All of these restrictions put a limit on true justice.

While states like Florida that do not time bar the right to DNA testing and offer various exceptions to their two year time limit seem very fair in comparison to many other states, it should be called into question whether any restrictions should exist at all. It is fair to say that dragging out court cases for years and giving unlimited appeals would cost an unreasonable amount of time and resources for the criminal justice system and the courts. But it is also quite fair to say that an innocent person sitting in prison for a crime that they did not commit should not simply run out of time to prove their innocence. If a person is truly innocent and suffering the awful punishment of imprisonment for actions they never committed there should always be an option for them to try to prove their innocence. At the very least, no states should place a time restraint on the testing of DNA, one of the most powerful pieces of evidence the accused can have.

One state showed last month that they may agree with this notion. On Monday March 12, 2018 the Governor of Wyoming signed a bill into law that allows wrongfully convicted people to introduce non-DNA evidence at any point following their convictions. This contrasts their previous window of two years to introduce non-DNA evidence and an unlimited amount of time to introduce DNA evidence. Hopefully this new law will serve as an example for the rest of the country to allow for more options for the wrongfully convicted.

It is important to remember that when a person is wrongfully convicted of a crime, that a criminal is left out on the street. When options for exoneration are limited, especially DNA evidence that has the potential to definitively exonerate someone and point directly to a true guilty party, it allows for a criminal to continue to walk free. The potential for tedious and costly wastes of time and resources in the court system is a valid concern. But, it is hard to say that these costs are more important than an innocent person’s right to prove their innocence. There should be no time limit on innocence.

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New DNA Testing Reopens Michigan Serial Killer Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 16, 2016 @ 11:22 AM — Comments (0)

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The Michigan State Police have opened an investigation into the DNA testing conducted for 53-year-old Michael Darnell Harris’ case in 1981. Harris was convicted of killing 77-year-old Ula Curdy of Lansing, Michigan. Now he is serving life sentences for the murder of three other women as well in 1981 and 1982 in Lansang. However, Harris has maintained his innocence for all four crimes.

In 2015, Harris gained permission from Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to conduct DNA testing on semen found on Curdy’s girdle. What came back was DNA that did not match Harris but another man already in the database of convicted offenders and arrestees. A spokesman for the Lansing Police Department said that this claim is currently being reviewed.

Now, the MSP is reopening the case to investigate how the crime lab handled the DNA testing. According to the Detriot Free Press, “records show a former MSP crime lab supervisor who testified against Harris in both the Ingham and Washtenaw county cases was forced to retire in 2004 after officials learned he had a subordinate complete his DNA proficiency test and fraudulently submitted it as his own.” This calls into question the legitimacy of Harris’ convictions where this supervisor was used as an expert witness.

Only time will tell if both of these claims are enough to overturn a conviction, especially when he is serving multiple life sentences. However, his court-appointed attorney Edward Zeineh hopes that if the Curdy murder conviction is overturned, the domino effect could occur in reverse, clearing his name from the three other murders for which he has been convicted.

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Exoneration Sought for Four Texas Men Convicted in Rape/Murder Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 14, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

Four Texas men convicted of rape and murder have asked a judge to exonerate them. Richard Kussmaul, James Long, James Pitts Jr., and Michael Shelton were convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 17-year-old Leslie Murphy and the murder of 14-year-old Stephen Neighbors. Long, Pitts, and Shelton were sentenced to 20 years in prison and testified against Kussmaul. The first three have since been released, but Kussmaul remains in prison, as he was charged with capital murder.

The same judge who convicted them over two decades ago heard their requests for post-conviction relief on Wednesday, which, if granted, could result in new trials or overturned convictions. The men hope that more advanced DNA testing and evidence will prove their innocence, and their attorneys claim that a jury never would have convicted them had such testing existed during their trials. Long, Pitts, and Shelton also claimed during the recent hearing that they were forced to falsely testify against Kussmaul at his trial. In order to verify their claims, the State requested a recess so they could interview past witnesses, including a former McLennan County Sheriff’s Deputy.

Although the judge will make a findings of fact, it is up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to decide the group’s fate.

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Innocent Man Gains Freedom After Nearly 30 Years of False Conviction

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 19, 2015 @ 5:15 PM — Comments (0)
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Image Courtesy : LA Times.

Christopher Abernathy, 48, claimed his freedom one more time after the Cook County State’s Attorney lifted his life sentence. The last year DNA test had excluded Abernathy from previous DNA evidence obtained many years ago. He was 18 when he was arrested in the rape and murder of 15-year-old Kristina Hickey, who disappeared Oct.3, 1984. Back in the ‘80s, Abernathy signed an admission of guilt – which Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez called “quite thin”, since Abernathy has a “diminished mental capacity”. So for now, the killer of Kristina Hickey has still not been identified.

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Browsing the National Registry of Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 30, 2014 @ 9:29 AM — Comments (0)

The National Registry of Exonerations is an outstanding source of information about exonerations in the United States since 1989. It is searchable, and recently, we took some time to create a short summary of exonerations in the State of Florida.

There have been 50 exonerations listed for Florida, including capital cases, since 1989. Fifteen have been based on new DNA evidence.  Florida leads the nation in exonerations for death penalty cases.

The factors contributing to Florida exonerations range from mistaken witness identification, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, inadequate legal defense, and false or misleading forensic evidence. By far, the leading factor in Florida cases is perjury of false accusation.

Once you search for the exonerations you wish to examine, links will take you to case summary pages. Here are some examples. Click on the last names to learn more about these cases on the Registry website.

Neely, Todd; Florida; Exonerated 1989; Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct.

Townsend, Jerry; Florida; Exonerated 2001; Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession.

Britt, Cheydrick; Florida; Exonerated 2013; False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense.

Mr. Britt was exonerated with assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida just last year. In the coming months, we anticipate up to three more exonerations. Stay tuned and take some time to read about all of Florida’s exonerees, many of whom IPF has helped to free, and learn about all of the cases of injustice throughout the United States.

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Letting the Guilty Walk Free

Alejandra de la Fuente — 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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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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Two New Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 20, 2013 @ 9:51 AM — Comments (0)

Two men were exonerated this past Friday after spending 59 combined years in prison.

Robert Nelson of Kansas City, MO had been convicted of rape in 1983 and denied DNA testing twice by the courts. It wasn’t until 2011, when prosecutors began testing all evidence from the crime hoping to find an alleged accomplice that Nelson’s innocence came to light with the help of the Midwest Innocent Project.

David Munchinski was convicted of a double homicide in Pittsburgh, PA in 1977 and was released in 2011 after a federal magistrate determined prosecutors withheld evidence during his trial. With the help of the Innocence Institute of Point Park, Munchinski’s charges were officially thrown out last week.

Congratulations to the exonerated as they navigate their new-found freedom and to the projects involved with making that freedom a reality. Keep up the hard work!!

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