Posts Tagged ‘DNA testing’

New DNA Testing Reopens Michigan Serial Killer Case

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


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)

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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Jerry Lee Jenkins Exonerated in Maryland

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 12, 2013 @ 9:11 AM — Comments (3)

After serving more than ten years in prison and spending time on the sex offender registry, the Charles County Circuit Court vacated Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) client Jerry Lee Jenkins of his 1986 rape conviction and dismissed all charges against him! DNA testing both proved he was innocent of the crime and that another man, Norman Bruce Derr, was the real perpetrator.

Jenkins was convicted despite the victim testifying at trial that he only looked like her attacker and that she could not be positive that it was him. Furthermore, he had been excluded as the perpetrator of an eerily similar 1984 rape that both the Charles County Police and FBI believed to have been committed by the same person as the 1986 rape.

DNA testing being in its infancy at the time of the trial, the testing done at that time was unable to obtain a result. When Jenkins requested a re-test in the mid-1990’s, he was told the evidence did not exist – something he would continue to be told for the next fifteen years.

In 2006, he learned that Derr had been convicted of the 1984 rape based on a DNA cold hit. It was then that Jenkins wrote to the MAIP, which took him on as a non-DNA case. In 2010, before filing a non-DNA innocence claim based on the Derr evidence, MAIP attempted one last search for DNA evidence. Miraculously, Charles County police were able to locate a box of physical evidence containing a hair. Subsequent testing confirmed the semen in the 1986 case belonged to Derr.

Jenkins had been previously released from prison, but he’s elated to be off the sex offender registry and have the stigma of the rape removed from his record.

Congratulations to Mr. Jenkins, the MAIP, and everyone involved in the case!

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When Does the Fight Stop? – The Role of the Prosecution

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 14, 2013 @ 10:17 AM — Comments (1)

It wasn’t long after Douglas Prade was exonerated of murder that prosecutors for the State of Ohio made known their intentions to appeal the overturned conviction. Postconviction DNA testing proved Prade did not kill his ex-wife, Margo Prade, in November of 1997. However the prosecution continues to push hard the idea that Prade could in fact be Margo’s murderer.

In an Los Angeles Times article, Keith Findley, president of the Innocence Network, said, “Prosecutors have enormous power over all of our lives, . . . yet no other profession is shielded from the complete lack of accountability.” As representatives of the State, the prosecution must present a case that proves a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But doesn’t their responsibility also include making sure the wrong person is not convicted? And correcting the wrong if the wrong person is?

Innocence projects get involved after the trial, conviction and all of the appeals have been exhausted. There has to be a very compelling reason such as newly discovered evidence to open the door to re-visit a conviction. During this phase, the prosecution has the ability to agree to DNA testing–testing that innocence projects pay for, so there is no expense to the State–and  avoid needless litigation just to obtain this vital science. According to the Innocence Network, nationally 19% of prosecutors oppose DNA testing when it requested by an individual in prison. In Florida, the experience of the Innocence Project of Florida (“IPF”) far outpaces the national averages.  For example, in 2011-2012, IPF has requested DNA testing on behalf of clients potentially wrongfully convicted in 22 cases and prosecutors have only agreed to DNA testing once. They have opposed testing 21 out of 22 times or 95% of the time.  This kind of obstruction is an organized form of prosecutorial misconduct, akin to hiding evidence of innocence.

Not only does this misconduct include the effort of hiding evidence that leads to wrongful convictions or preventing a potentially innocent person from getting DNA testing that could prove their innocence, it also includes continuing to fight after the defense has presented sufficient evidence indicating innocence.  There are many reasons and opinions as to why a prosecutor would continue to fight, but it comes down to admitting that a mistake was made. It is a difficult task to admit a wrongdoing; however is the preservation of a wrongful conviction worth keeping an innocent person in prison? After a conviction has been overturned and innocence declared, isn’t the deliberative thoughtful, diligent decision by a judge that a conviction is wrongful enough to give the case up and let the innocent individual go home? Why is it so important that the prosecution appeals the judge’s ruling? The Plain Dealer, a newspaper in Cleveland, Ohio, stated:

“Because the judge might be wrong,” said John Murphy, the executive director of the prosecuting attorney association. “That’s why we have appellate courts. If we believe there is a genuine issue, we have to take it to the appeals courts.”

Many will question whether prosecutors are out to seek justice, as they are sworn to do, or to win cases at all costs. These questions arise when solid DNA testing proves that the convicted person did not commit the crime and then prosecutors turn right around to fight vigorously against the exoneration and against any claim of innocence. The Center for the Global Study of Wrongful Convictions at the University of Cincinnati College of Law stated:

“tragically, when a prosecutor chooses to protect a verdict rather than fulfill his or her first responsibility to seek the truth and true justice, the real perpetrator—even if a violent murderer—can get a free pass.”

When does the focus shift from convicting an innocent man to identifying the real perpetrator?

In an Illinois double murder case, Daniel Taylor was convicted of committing a crime at 8:45 p.m on November 16, 1992. However police records show that Taylor was under arrest for disorderly conduct from 6:45 p.m. to 10 p.m that night, undermining the contentions of the prosecution that Taylor would have have the opportunity to commit the crime. The Chicago Sun-Times stated:

“seven 23rd District police personnel backed Taylor’s lockup alibi. Those records should have been turned over to the defense at the time of the trial, but Taylor’s trial lawyers say they were not.” … “An officer on guard that night claimed ” it’s just not possible that Taylor was freed or escaped earlier than 10 p.m., as prosecutors suggested at trial. Too many personnel from two different watches would have had to conspire to falsify the records, he says.”

For Daniel Taylor, it is simply not possible that he could have committed the murder as prosecutors are charging. Taylor attorneys returned to court last week seeking the right to continue to appeal his case. Northwestern Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions released an article entitled Still Imprisoned Despite Jail Alibi, which highlighted the assertion by State Attorney Anita Alvarez that her office has experienced “a shift in philosophy” and pledged to be “more open to the possibility that police and prosecutors had sent an innocent person to prison.” In her announcement, it was said the state’s attorney’s office was “about always seeking justice,” not simply “racking up convictions.” Taking a brief look into the evidence supporting the wrongful conviction of Daniel Taylor, can one believe that this statement is entirely true?

In convictions such as Douglas Prade and Daniel Taylor, the prosecutorial misconduct played significant roles at different times throughout the proceedings. Unfortunately, these two men will fight for a long time in order to find the freedom the justice system owes them. Prade was exonerated last month after a hearing when the judge ordered his immediately release claiming “no reasonable juror, considering all available evidence, would be firmly convinced that Prade was guilty of aggravated murder.” However Prade is still facing the appeals by the prosecution. Daniel Taylor is still awaiting his grant for re-trial in hopes that one day he will be declared an innocent man. In an imperfect system, one can only hope the intentions of those in the justice system are reputable and in the end, justice will be served.

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Update: Dillon’s Story Told on TV, 3 Hearings & Change a Life

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 10, 2012 @ 2:22 PM — Comments (2)

William Michael Dillon’s wrongful conviction story will be told on Investigation Discovery’s “I Didn’t Do It“, a new series that explores wrongful conviction cases. This episode, “Battered on a Beach”, will debut on Monday, December 10, 2012, at 9 p.m. EST.

In this video, Seth Miller, IPF Executive Director, apprises everyone of IPF’s on-going activities. In addition to discussing the “I Didn’t Do It” episode about William, he also gives a brief litigation update. We have three hearings in ten days in December to get post-conviction DNA testing. Seth explains that post-conviction DNA testing is not automatically granted by the State. Seth also asks for your help to change a life by making a year-end gift.

Your support will change the life of an innocent person languishing in prison; it will change the life of someone who has been proven innocent and released, and it will change a life by helping reform the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.

We hope your holidays are safe, happy and healthy.

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