Taylor Thornton — March 28, 2018 @ 12:00 PM — Comments (0)
In the first post in this series, we discussed which particular groups of people were more vulnerable to giving false confessions and should thus receive special protection from such a thing. But, the truth is, giving a false confession is something anyone can fall victim to. To the average person, this concept seems baffling. It is difficult to wrap the mind around why someone would ever claim guilt for a crime they were not guilty of, especially the more heinous crimes like murder and rape. But, the fact is, hundreds of innocent people have confessed to crimes they’ve later been exonerated of. So, why does this happen?
Explaining why a false confession occurs can be categorized into three components. The first is the misclassification error. Misclassification occurs when police and detectives decide that the innocent party is definitely the guilty party that they are searching for. A false confession always starts, of course, with the police landing their targets on an innocent suspect. Police are trained in interrogation tactics that involve observing very specific body language cues almost as though they are human lie detectors. Research has shown that these are not the most accurate or reliable evaluations of whether someone is telling the truth. However, detectives might use these bodily cues to decide among themselves that this suspect is lying and proceed to an interrogation. Other mistakes can influence police to choose their guilty suspect, like that person fitting a given description of the perpetrator or simply being a person who would have motive like a family member. When investigators decide early on who they think is guilty, other errors will follow as they move forward determined to yield a confession.
The second component is the coercion error. When investigators have misclassified the guilty party, they need to yield a confession from them. The confession is incredibly important when an innocent person has been wrongly presumed guilty because there will likely be little or no other evidence to support a case against this party if they are truly innocent. Thus, investigators begin an interrogation often marked by tactics to coerce the suspect into giving the confession. One strategy is extremely long interrogations. A common theme among false confessions is having sat in interrogation rooms for unimaginable amounts of time before finally giving the confession. Suspects are physically and mentally exhausted, this weakens their ability to stand up to the interrogators. Detectives can use this weakness to their advantage in a number of ways. Investigators sometimes make promises that the suspect can go home if they simply confess, which can become shockingly enticing after 16 hours straight in an interrogation room. Often the suspect just wants to go home, so they give in and tell the interrogators whatever it is that they want to hear so that they can leave. Bad interrogators might also use methods of psychological coercion. This can include promises of leniency, threats of harsher treatment, and making the suspect believe that they have no other choice but to confess. They are often convinced that their guilt is so established that no one will ever believe them and, sometimes and most shockingly, innocent people can even be convinced that they are truly guilty of the crime when they are not. As we discussed in the first False Confessions, these tactics can be particularly effective and damaging for certain groups of people.
Finally, there is the contamination error. A very simple admission of guilt is not enough for a convincing confession. A powerful confession provides details, motives, and emotions that will convince a jury that this suspect must be guilty. Once interrogators have successfully yielded a confession of guilt from their suspect, they now need them to provide those convincing details for the confession to be powerful. This is where the contamination error can come in. In a proper interrogation, police might ask vague questions about the circumstances of the crime, without being leading, that result in the truly guilty party providing details that only they could know. This helps the police prove to a jury that a truly guilty party had to have committed this crime if they go back on their confession later on. However, when interrogating an innocent person interrogators may ask specific and guiding questions in order to get the details that they desire. This can be unintentional on the part of the investigator who truly believes that this suspect is guilty and truly wants to see justice by getting a thorough confession. This can also be more malicious on the part of a truly corrupt interrogator that desires to pin a crime on a person that they know is innocent. Interrogators may insert certain information and attempt to shape the suspects responses in order to create the narrative that they need. This can go so far as implying or even overtly providing details that only the perpetrator of the crime could know. They contaminate the confession by implying or even blatantly inserting information to strengthen their perceived narrative of events. This creates an extremely convincing confession.
When such interrogations are recorded in full, social scientists can study the exact steps taken for an innocent person to admit guilt to a crime they did not commit. Attorneys, of course, can also use this at trial to deny the validity of such a confession. But, when police do not record every part of it, and only have taped evidence of the admission of guilt itself, this can be devastating for the innocent party. With no way to provide an explanation to a jury as to why the accused would confess if they were in fact innocent, that false confession can be the most powerful piece of evidence, and sometimes the only real piece of evidence, against them that can take their life away from them. A video taped confession can protect both the accused and the investigators questioning them. It shows the full truth of the circumstances of the confession and protects the integrity of police officers who are performing their job properly by yielding real confessions without coercion.
A false confession, while it may close a case, is not justice. A wrongful conviction always leaves a guilty party on the streets free to offend again and takes away the life of an innocent. It is important to understand why someone might falsely confess in order to make proper and truthful confessions the goal over just any admission of guilt.
Innocence Project of Florida, coercion, coercion error, contamination error, false confession, innocence project, Innocence Project of Florida, misclassification error, police coercion, police interrogations, taped confessions, wronful conviction
Alejandra de la Fuente — July 12, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)
New York has seen a series of overturned convictions recently, including those of Wayne Martin, Myron Green, Carl Dukes, and Lavell Jones.
Martin was convicted in 2010 for the 2005 execution-style murders of Donald Turner Sr. and Ricardo Davids during a robbery-gone-wrong at a tire shop in Brooklyn, in which Turner’s son, Donald Turner Jr., was also injured. Despite his incessant claims of innocence and a hat containing his DNA being the only evidence placing him at the scene, Martin was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutorial misconduct ultimately led a judge to overturn Martin’s double homicide conviction.
Pending a hearing to overturn the conviction, an “irregularity” was found in the homicide investigation report. Prosecutors with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Appeals Bureau discovered that the name of an alternate suspect, Jeffrey Joseph, was included in the report, which was altered to exclude Joseph as a possible shooter—information that was not handed over to the defense. The Brooklyn DA’s Office then asked that Martin’s conviction be set aside and stated that the issue would be investigated further. They went on to say that although they have completed their investigation into Martin’s constitutional violations, they still need to look into the underlying facts of the case. One of Martin’s attorneys joined the prosecution’s motion to vacate the conviction and requested that the indictment be dismissed and his client be released.
In addition to the information regarding the homicide investigation report, it was revealed that former Assistant District Attorney Marc Fliedner failed to provide Martin’s attorney with a police report that could have helped his client’s case. That report contained a statement from Michael Belgrove, who claimed that he recognized Allan Cameron as the man that opened fire at the tire shop when he saw him on television in police custody for the murder of NYPD Officer Dillion Stewart. Both alternate suspects in the 2005 murders are currently in prison, as Joseph was convicted of a different murder and Cameron was convicted of Stewart’s murder.
As prosecutors decide whether to retry Martin, the judge ordered that he would remain in prison until a hearing on July 21.
Green was convicted of manslaughter and reckless endangerment after a driver killed Donald Norton, a pedestrian, in 2012. Green told officers who responded to the incident that he had taken anti-anxiety medications that made him sleepy. He was facing two to six years in prison when the New York Appellate Division overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
Police had ignored Green’s request for a lawyer and took his statements and blood tests. The judge during his trial permitted those statements and tests to be presented, which the appeals court ruled the judge improperly allowed. The Appellate Division Justices stated that although he failed a field sobriety test according to that information, along with other admissible evidence, the evidence that was improperly allowed possibly could have contributed to his conviction.
Carl Dukes and Lavell Jones
Dukes and Jones were convicted for the February 1997 murder of a University at Albany student, Erik Mitchell. Police alleged that they killed Mitchell so that he would not be able to testify against them for an October 1996 robbery of his apartment. Dukes and Jones have long admitted that they were involved in the robbery, but had nothing to do with Mitchell’s murder a few months later. Their murder convictions were largely due to a false confession that Jones, who was represented by the Exoneration Initiative when his conviction was overturned, made after police interrogated him for 36 hours.
A judge overturned their convictions last week after the Albany County District Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the murder charges. Dukes and Jones were also allowed to plead guilty to single counts of robbery for the crime in October 1996. They were sentenced to the maximum of 14 years, but received time served for the past almost 20 years they have spent behind bars, and were released.
The Albany County DA’s Office’s motion to dismiss Dukes’ and Jones’ convictions came after Jeffrey Conrad confessed to Mitchell’s murder. They stated that prosecutors believed him because he was able to provide details about the murder that only the killer could have known. Conrad is currently in an Ohio prison for another murder.
Innocence Project of Florida, Carl Dukes, Exoneration Initiative, false confession, inadmissible evidence, Lavell Jones, Myron Green, prosecutorial misconduct, Wayne Martin
Alejandra de la Fuente — July 11, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)
Compensation has been awarded to the members of the Nebraskan group of exonerees known as the “Beatrice Six.” James Dean, Kathy Gonzalez, Debra Shelden, Ada JoAnn Taylor, Joseph E. White, and Thomas Winslow were all convicted for the 1985 rape and murder of Helen Wilson. White was convicted of first-degree murder in 1989, while the other five co-defendants pleaded guilty or no contest to lesser charges. In 2008, after White, who later died in a workplace accident in 2011, fought for several years to have DNA evidence from the crime scene tested, results cleared the “Beatrice Six” and implicated another man by the name of Bruce Allen Smith who had died several years earlier.
A federal jury recently awarded the group more than $28 million for their wrongful convictions. Taylor, White, and Winslow received $7.3 million each, while Dean and Gonzalez were awarded $2.19 million each. Shelden received $1.8 million. Collectively, the group spent more than 70 years behind bars, and the differing monetary amounts corresponded with the amount of time each member spent in prison. Although they have not yet been determined, attorney fees will also be included in the payout.
The defendants named in the suit, which claimed the investigation that took place four years after the murder was reckless, were the late Sheriff Jerry DeWitt, who was represented by his estate in the case, Sheriff’s Deputy Burt Searcey, and reserve deputy and psychologist Wayne Price. While DeWitt’s estate was not found liable, Gage County was held responsible for the investigators’ actions along with Searcey and Price, who are still employed by the sheriff’s office.
The “Beatrice Six” claimed that the investigators knowingly coerced three false confessions and ignored forensic evidence that proved they were innocent. Swearing under oath that they were being truthful, the defendants asserted that three suspects voluntarily made the confessions. Jurors were tasked with tasked with determining whether the investigation was reckless and if investigators manufactured false evidence or engaged in a conspiracy. They did not find that investigators engaged in a conspiracy, but ruled in favor of the exoneree group on some of the reckless investigation and false evidence claims, finding that the defendants did not just make mistakes, but acted intentionally.
The federal lawsuit came after a previous civil rights trial ended with a hung jury in 2014. According to the chairman of the Gage County Board of Supervisors, Gage County does not have the type of liability insurance needed to cover the compensation. He went on to say that some time this week, he and the other supervisors would meet to discuss whether they would appeal the verdict.
Compensation, Ada Joann Taylor, Beatrice Six, Debra Shelden, DNA evidence, false confession, James Dean, Joseph E. White, Kathy Gonzalez, Thomas Winslow
Alejandra de la Fuente — January 13, 2016 @ 2:00 PM — Comments (0)
Roger Logan spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was convicted for the 1997 murder of Sherwin Gibbons. Authorities claimed Logan shot Gibbons when his gold chain was stolen after a dice game. His conviction was predominantly based on the eyewitness testimony of one woman, Aisha Jones. Jones claimed to have seen and heard Logan shooting, then ran home and watched Logan finish shooting from her upstairs apartment window. The Conviction Review Unit of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office exonerated Logan in 2014 after an investigation. This investigation revealed that Jones was arrested the day of the murder and was not released from jail until after 7 PM, and therefore could not have witnessed the crime. In addition, investigators mimicked the details of Jones’ testimony and concluded that she could not have possibly witnessed the entire shooting from the street then her window in such a short time frame.
While in prison, Logan lost the chance to say goodbye to some of his family members, including his parents and younger brother who all died while he was behind bars. In addition, Logan’s daughters, who were young girls at the time of his incarceration, now had children of their own. Although nothing can compensate for the time he lost behind bars, Logan announced after his release that he planned to sue both the state of New York and New York City.
Last week, a settlement was reached. Logan will receive $3.75 million from New York City, and $2.975 million from the state of New York.
The comptroller’s office in New York has been settling several wrongful conviction cases before they are filed as lawsuits, Logan’s included. Since 2014, the office has settled eight wrongful conviction cases, totaling $41 million.
Since 2014, Brooklyn’s Conviction Review Unit has exonerated 17 men. The unit has been investigating cases, over 70 in total, linked to retired detective Louis Scarcella. Scarcella has been accused of using threats in order to coerce confessions and providing questionable evidence in cases, mostly witness statements that were later discredited. Logan recalls being taken by this detective and forced to sign a statement, placing him at the scene of the crime. Upon hearing of the investigations into Scarcella, Logan wrote to the district attorney’s office and asked them to reexamine his case. Despite the litany overturned convictions involving, Scarcella maintains his innocence of any wrongdoing and no charges have been brought against him.
Even more money may be headed the Logan family’s way, as Logan’s wife filed a notice of claim against New York City for $100 million, which is still outstanding.
Compensation,exoneration, Brooklyn Conviction Review Unit, civil settlement, false confession, Louis Scarcella, police misconduct, Roger Logan
Alejandra de la Fuente — May 12, 2015 @ 1:32 PM — Comments (0)
Psychological research continues to demonstrate that evidence such as eyewitness identifications or confessions do not necessarily prove guilt; eyewitnesses can misremember events, lineup processes can encourage witnesses to misidentify suspects, and confessions can be coerced. The unreliability of these types of evidence stems from psychological and cognitive processes such as tunnel vision, (in which a criminal justice official becomes so entrenched in the idea that the suspect is guilty that he or she starts to reinterpret information to support this idea,) and the malleability of human memory, (which causes witnesses to remember a crime differently from how it really occurred, and allows suspects to be convinced that they are guilty of a crime that they did not commit cite). Psychology has proved time and time again that not only do humans often incorrectly remember and interpret events, but also that these psychological flaws often contributes to wrongful convictions.
However, we also have to accept the fact that hard scientific evidence is also not always reliable. Over the years, countless types of forensic evidence have been found to be less dependable than they were once thought to be. For example, in 2002, the National Research Council conducted a study the FBI’s use of bullet lead analysis. Bullet lead analysis was performed to find an association between a bullet used for a particular crime, and bullets associated with suspects for that crime. The NRC found that despite the FBI’s equipment and procedures being up to snuff, their interpretations of analysis results were questionable; the FBI overstated the significance of their results to jurors, making the analysis results seem incriminating to a misleading degree. Following the report, the FBI chose to discontinue these tests, but did not thoroughly notify all the defendants who were affected by this misleading testimony, thus limiting their chances to appeal their convictions.
An even more contemporary example from the FBI is the April 2015 announcement that a large majority of FBI cases that included microscopic hair analysis also overstated the results as more incriminating than they actually are. This is especially relevant here at the Innocence Project of Florida due to the high percentage of Floridian defendants who had been convicted with the help of these analyses. Just because these analyses were misrepresented in court does not necessarily prove the defendants’ innocence, but it does speak to the fragile nature of forensic evidence.
Besides flaws in the significance assigned to results of forensic testing, there are also some fields of forensic science that were previously so plagued with errors that they have had to have been almost completely rewritten. The most noteworthy example is that of arson science. Cases from Cameron Todd Willingham, to David Lee Gavitt, to the very current case of Letitia Smallwood have all been questioned due to the flawed arson science used in their convictions. Arson science from previous decades was actually considered more of an “art”. Rather than experimenting and training, older arson science was based on certain types of burn marks that were thought to indicate arson. However, more recent science, in which researchers set actual fires and observe them, reveals that these same marks appear in accidental fires as well. Arson science reminds us that just because a certain forensic test is considered “science” doesn’t necessarily make it truly “scientific”.
This brief overview of different types of evidence is not meant to demonstrate the hopelessness of preventing wrongful convictions or of using evidence to find the real perpetrators of crimes. Instead, it is a reminder that the resources the criminal justice system has at its disposal to prove someone guilty, from burn marks to confessions, need to be handled with care.
For more information on the fallibility of forensic science, take a look at this article.
Science, eyewitness misidentification, false confession, forensic science
Alejandra de la Fuente — 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.
judicial,justice,Uncategorized, false confession, interrogations, lie detector, police interrogation, polygraph, wrongful conviction
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.
exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida,justice,post-conviction,prison,Prosecutorial misconduct,Science, death penalty, DNA testing, eyewitness misidentification, false confession, Innocence Project of Florida, national registry of exonerations, prosecutorial misconduct, wrongful conviction
Alejandra de la Fuente — 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.
Compensation,Constitution,exoneration,judicial,justice,legislation,post-conviction,prison,Prosecutorial misconduct,Science, DNA, exoneration, false confession, Innocence Project of Florida, innocent, justice, law enforcement, Michigan Innocence Clinic, prosecutorial misconduct, wrongful conviction, wrongful incarceration
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.
Compensation,exoneration,judicial,justice,legislation,policy,prison,Prosecutorial misconduct,Science, death penalty, DNA, DNA testing, false confession, Innocence Project of Florida, post-conviction, prison, prosecutorial misconduct, wrongful conviction, wrongful incarceration
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.
In 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.
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.
exoneration,judicial,justice,litigation,post-conviction,prison, bias, Center on Wrongful Convictions, chicago, circumstantial evidence, crime, cynthia sommer, exonerated, exoneree, false accusation, false confession, false testimony, gender bias, gloria killian, karen daniel, Nicole Harris, northwestern university center on wrongful convictions, roosevelt university, women