Posts Tagged ‘junk science’

The “Junk Science” Behind Bite Mark Analysis

Taylor Thornton — March 19, 2018 @ 3:21 PM — Comments (2)

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Bite mark analysis is a portion of forensic odontology. It is a way to match marks on a victim’s body with a potential perpetrator’s teeth patterns, based on the theory that the victim was bitten by the suspect. Across the country in many different cases, bite mark evidence has been used at trial. Often, the bite mark evidence is the most powerful forensic evidence going against a defendant.

The problem is, bite mark analysis has no real science or research supporting it. There are a number of reasons why testimony regarding bite mark analysis can be incredibly flawed. One reason is that when comparing a suspect’s teeth to a bite mark on a victim, it is not nearly the same as comparing to an impression made at a dentist’s office. Typically the suspects teeth are being compared to a bite into soft tissue or skin. Human skin can heal, it can swell, the body may have even decayed between the time of the crime and when the body was discovered. All of these things can warp the clarity of the bite mark and damage the accuracy of trying to match up a dental impression with the bite. In addition, the teeth of the suspect are typically being compared to a photo of the bite rather than the actual bite, which further skews the reliability.

Another reason why bite mark evidence can be very misleading is that it is presented in court as being right alongside DNA evidence. This is simply not true, DNA is definitively unique to every individual person but bite patterns are simply not this scientifically unique. In fact, it is not even close. Different analysts have come to vastly different conclusions while evaluating the same bite mark evidence. It is dangerous to present such a subjective opinion as scientific physical evidence in court because that kind of evidence is highly persuasive to a jury.

Some experts say that bite mark evidence should only be used to eliminate a potential suspect based on the bite mark not being able to have come from them. At best, bite mark testimony should only conclude that the suspect cannot be excluded from the possibility of inflicting that bite. But, according to forensic dentists, if a bite mark is the only physical evidence against the suspect and the claim is that they are the only person who could have made that bite, that is junk not science.

Bite mark testimony has been responsible for numerous wrongful convictions. One notable case is that of Kennedy Brewer. Brewer was convicted of raping and killing a three-year old girl who was found in lake with several marks on her body that forensic odontologists deemed to be bite marks. It is unclear whether these marks could have come from animals or bugs living in the lake or whether the marks had any scientific integrity after the body had decayed in a body of water. Nevertheless, bite mark testimony convicted Kennedy Brewer of capital murder and sent him to death row. When Brewer was exonerated through post-conviction DNA tests, another innocent man was also able to be exonerated. Levon Brooks was serving his sentence for a very similar rape and murder. When the real perpetrator was found through DNA in Kennedy Brewer’s case, he was found to be responsible for the additional rape and murder that Brooks was convicted of.

Another notable case of wrongful conviction due to the influence of bite mark testimony is that of Ray Krone. After testimony in court from a bite mark expert saying that Krone’s teeth matched a bite mark on the victim, Krone was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. This bite mark analysis was the only physical evidence linking him to the crime. Ray Krone was released in 2002, after 10 years in prison, following DNA evidence proving his innocence. These men were fortunate enough to have their innocence proven. But, there are still countless others sitting in jail convicted of crimes because of the power of bite mark evidence testimony.

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Shaken Baby Syndrome and Wrongful Convictions

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 30, 2015 @ 4:47 PM — Comments (1)

A quick Internet search for “Shaken Baby Syndrome” reveals countless numbers of caretakers being accused of being responsible for the death of an infant. In an article describing one of these recent cases, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown is quoted as saying:

“Shaken Baby Syndrome is the leading cause of child abuse deaths each year…The victims are innocent, helpless children and are too often harmed by those entrusted to care and protect them.”

Recently, however, convictions based on these kinds of accusations are facing serious reconsideration.

In the past, Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, was widely believed to be based on scientific fact, but it’s come to light that this science is likely to be flawed. According to a recent article in the Washington Post,“Testing has been unable to show whether violent shaking can produce the bleeding and swelling long attributed to the diagnosis, and doctors have found that accidents and diseases can trigger identical conditions in babies.” This means that those caretakers that have been accused, convicted, incarcerated, and portrayed as abusive monsters are in many cases actually without any fault in the child’s death.

However, despite a lack of good science proving the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome, it is an understandably emotional issue that is deeply entrenched in society, and the discrediting of the diagnosis has sparked some debate. A letter to the editor was written in response to the aforementioned Washington Post article, arguing for the existence of Shaken Baby Syndrome. Seth Miller, the Innocence Project of Florida’s Executive Director and President of the Innocence Network , and Barry Scheck, a founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, replied to this letter succinctly summing up the issue—

“No one condones child abuse, and no one wants innocent parents and caregivers to be hauled off to prison or separated from their children… We need an open-minded inquiry and dispassionate debate about the troubled science so the criminal justice system can get it right. The time is long overdue to fund basic and applied research in the area of pediatric head injuries. It is a public health issue of enormous importance.”


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Hayne and West: Mississippi’s Corrupt Duo

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 10, 2014 @ 9:28 AM — Comments (4)

Medical examiners often play an integral role in criminal cases when they are called as an expert witnesses to testify on the behalf of the prosecution. In most cases, these medical examiners’ opinions are trusted and their testimony often heavily influences whether someone is found guilty or acquitted.

The infamous Dr. Steven Hayne of Mississippi has been regarded as an incompetent and unreliable medical examiner by the medical and legal communities for years now. Even though Hayne has not been a medical examiner since 2008, his legacy continues to wreak havoc on the lives of those whom he testified against.

Hayne began working with dentist Michael West, his frequent collaborator, in 1987 when he began performing autopsies in Mississippi. Despite lacking sufficient credentials, Hayne monopolized the autopsies performed in Mississippi, claiming he was completing 1200 to 1500 autopsies a year; working 365 days per year, that’s more than 3 autopsies per day. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends about 250 autopsies per medical examiner per year.

With Hayne backing up West’s testimonies, and vice versa, the two frequently worked together, resulting in several men being sentenced to life in prison. One of these men was Levon Brooks in 1990. Brooks was convicted of raping and murdering 3-year old Courtney Smith in Brooksville, Miss. This occurred after Hayne found bite marks on the girl during the autopsy and called Michael West to take dental molds of several suspects and compare them to the marks found. Just ten days after the murder, Levon Brooks was identified as the abductor by Courtney Smith’s sister and was found to be the perpetrator through a dental mold test performed by West. Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.

Again the two collaborated in a strikingly similar case in Mississippi. In this case, a young girl was abducted, raped, and killed. The police focused their search on a friend of the girl’s sister. This man, Kennedy Brewer, was then tried and convicted thanks to another bite mark examination performed by Hayne and West. Brewer was sentenced to death.

One of the first instances in which Michael West used this dental mark examination was in 1989 with the case of Henry Lee Harrison. West used blue ultraviolet light to reveal bite marks on the body which were previously unseen. Just like Steven Hayne, Michael West’s methods have been criticized by many in the past. West and Hayne found that when the two collaborated using the bite mark examination they were very successful.

“He is clearly a sore on the body of forensic science,” says James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University and publisher of Scientific Sleuthing Review, an industry newsletter. “He is forever going beyond what other scientists are willing or able to say.” – ABA Journal 

In 2001, The Innocence Project was investigating the case of Kennedy Brewer and found DNA evidence that proved he was not the perpetrator. However, authorities initially didn’t find the true criminal and Brewer remained in prison until Albert Johnson, another suspect in both cases, was re-interviewed by law enforcement officials. Johnson admitted to committing the crimes that Brewer and Brooks had been convicted of and the two men were freed in 2008.

Upon this news, Stephen Hayne and Michael West underwent intense scrutiny regarding their practices and methods. Hayne was found to be incompetent and overbearing by his peers and those who he worked with.

 For nearly 20 years, Hayne performed as much as 90 percent of the criminal autopsies in Mississippi, which by his own account could approach 1,800 autopsies per year. Over the last two years, The Huffington Post has reported on several other cases in which Hayne and his frequent collaborator Michael West have given questionable testimony or issued forensics reports that led to a wrongful arrest — most recently in January, with an investigation into the 1997 murder of 39-year-old Kathy Mabry.The Huffington Post

Although the media and the general public contended that Stephen Hayne and his partner were incompetent, Hayne still maintained a large following of supporters in his home state. This is only evident through the fact that he was allowed to continue practicing.

In 2002, Jeffery Havard was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s infant child. Hayne was an expert witness during the case of Mr. Havard, despite his own recent credibility issues. Hayne contended that Havard had sexually abused the child and then subsequently killed the child through violent shaking. Mr. Havard was sentenced to death even though he argued that the child had just slipped from his hands and hit her head.

 “Once Havard was convicted, his case was kicked up to the Mississippi Capital Post Conviction Office, a well-funded state legal defense agency that was started after several federal court decisions pretty much demanded it. That office hired former Alabama State Medical Examiner Jim Lauridson to review Hayne’s autopsy in the Havard case. Lauridson found it lacking.”The Huffington Post

Hayne’s autopsies were often lacking even though they were not reviewed consistently by his medical peers. Hayne’s work as an expert witness did not simply send one man to death row in Mississippi: Jeffery Havard is on death row as well as Devin Bennett, Eddie Lee Howard, and Jimmie Duncan thanks to Hayne and West.

Hayne does not continue to practice as a medical examiner, nor is it likely he will continue to act as an expert witness. He still is called to the stand to review and comment on postconviction cases in which he originally performed autopsies.  Hayne, and those who abuse their power within the justice system for their own gain, must be rooted out and expelled if we are to have a justice system that can be trusted to produce reliable outcomes.

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Weekly Update: International Innocence and the Fight for Justice Stateside

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 21, 2012 @ 12:50 PM — Comments (0)

Wrongful Convictions Aren’t Just in the US: The Fight for Innocence Across the Pond

There have been 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the history of the United States; that is 289 people who served time behind bars for crimes they did not commit, 289 people who lost months, years, and even decades of their lives. And wrongful convictions don’t just happen in the United States.

Innocence Network UK founder Dr. Michael Naughton has spent that past seven years trying to fight for the victims of wrongful convictions in the United Kingdom. In spite of his best efforts and those of over 1,200 students working on 102 cases, not one of those victims has had their case overturned.

A This Is Bristol article quotes Naughton as saying, “Back then I still thought that all we had to do was, with the students’ help, find the truth in the forgotten pieces of evidence, place the truth before the CCRC [Criminal Cases Review Commission] and say, hey look, we’ve got the evidence needed to get this poor bloke’s case overturned.

“I thought the prosecution lawyers would be the ones that would be our enemy. I thought the barristers who were meant to defend these people in the first place, would be keen to try to get their convictions overturned.

“But I’ve learn[ed] a lot about defense lawyers since then. Of course they don’t want to see their clients have their convictions overturned. They don’t want to see some smart students come along and find pieces of evidence they failed to find, and in so doing show them up for their professional inadequacies.”

An extremely disheartening insight into the UK’s justice system; it is truly a shame when egos are allowed to get in the way of justice. Read more about Dr. Michael Naughton and the UK’s wrongful convictions here.

Two Nebraska Exonerees Face an Uphill Battle, but Deserve the Right to Fight for Compensation

Two of six exonerees from a 1985 murder-rape case have the right to have their suit for compensation heard according to Gage County, Nebraska judge Daniel Bryan.

Judge Daniel Bryan rejected the state’s motions to have the cases of Ada Joann Taylor and James Dean dismissed; both have sued the State of Nebraska for $500,000 in compensation for their wrongful convictions.

These two and four others were wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of widow Helen Wilson. All six have been exonerated by DNA evidence.

Judge Bryan admitted that these two “have an uphill” battle to prove their cases, but that their cases have a right to be heard, according to an Associated Press article. Read it here.

Exonoree Jeffrey Deskovic Opens Office to Fight for Justice

After spending nearly 16 years in prison for a New York murder he did not commit, Jeffrey Deskovic has dedicated his life to fighting wrongful convictions and helping the victims of their injustice. Deskovic was released in 2006 when DNA evidence revealed the true perpetrator of the crime.

Deskovic recently opened the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, an organization he started with $1.5 million of the compensation that he received from the State of New York as compensation for his wrongful conviction.

The organization will seek to increase awareness of wrongful convictions, pursue legislation to prevent wrongful convictions (like requiring police to videotape interrogations), it will work on individual cases, and it will help exonerees readjust to life outside prison. Thus far the foundation has taken on six cases and has 20 more under consideration.

Read more about Deskovic’s case and his foundation here.

DNA Evidence Reveals Junk Science in Decade Old Cases, State Attorney Calls for Hundreds of Case Reviews

After DNA evidence proved the innocence of Washington, DC exonerees Kirk Odom and Santae Tribble, US Attorney Ron Machen announced the upcoming review of hundreds of cases that relied on junk science to get convictions.

Kirk Odom was convicted of rape based on an identification made by the victim and hair analysis, while Santa Tribble was convicted of murder based just on analysis of hair found at the scene. DNA evidence now proves that, in spite of testimony that the hairs matched the respective defendants, neither matched the man who was convicted in each case.

Based on these two exonerations, Machen has announced that they will complete “a sweeping review of cases going back decades. Some in the 70s and 80s and even earlier if we can find the records of cases where hair analysis was used in part to secure convictions.”

Read more here.

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Florida Innocence Commission Meeting

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 17, 2012 @ 12:44 PM — Comments (0)

On Monday Feb. 13, 2012, the Florida Innocence Commission met at the Supreme Court of Florida. The meeting focused on two of the major contributing factors of wrongful convictions: informants/jailhouse snitches and improper/invalid scientific evidence. The first several hours of the meeting were spent discussing the various options available to the Commission with regard to snitches.

The Commission considered giving recommendations for a set of detailed jury instructions in the case of informant testimony, instituting a rule requiring pretrial screenings to determine the reliability of informants, and amending the discovery rules in the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure (Rule 3.220). Ultimately, a majority of the Commission decided against recommending  pretrial reliability hearings. Commission member Mary Barzee-Flores asserted that it would be inappropriate for the courts to exclude witnesses from testifying because they were deemed unreliable. She said, “it is in the province of the jury to determine whether or not a given witnesses testimony is reliable.” The Commission was, however, in favor of creating a special jury instruction to be used in cases with informant testimony. The Commission moved to recommend the use of an instruction informing juries that some witnesses, like informants or snitches, may have been offered certain things (such as safety from prosecution in another case), in exchange for their testimony and  should thus be treated with more caution than the testimony of other witnesses.

The Commission also moved to have a subcommittee that has previously discussed amending the discovery Rules of Criminal Procedure to continue discussing the language to be used in amending that rule.

The next meeting will take place in Orlando on March 12 at 9:30 a.m. The Commission will continue discussing improper/invalid science and the possibly reforms to prevent their use as evidence in trials. The commission will continue meeting until June 2012, when they will release their final report detailing their findings and recommendations.

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Congress Is Stalling Out on Forensic Science Reforms: Why?

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 31, 2012 @ 5:03 PM — Comments (1)

A three year old report by the National Academy of Sciences brought to light the disturbing state of forensics and criminal labs in the United States. Contrary to what Law & Order and CSI would have us believe, the work conducted by these organizations is oftentimes little better than junk science and guess work. These methods, such as analyzing bite marks or the markings on a bullet, can often lead to wrongful convictions.

When this report was released it was met with a great deal of shock and a seeming desire for reform. Democratic Senator for Minnesota Al Franken called the report’s conclusions “damning” and “terrifying.

It would seem, based on reactions to the bill, that Congress would’ve taken action to pass legislation reforming forensic sciences, and yet three years later there is no new legislation on the books. Early last year Patrick Leahy, a Democratic Senator from Vermont and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, introduced a bill that would enact a number of the reforms suggest by the NAS’s report. Here in Florida we are no strangers to the lack of motion that seems so often to occur in the legislature (still no movement on William Dillon’s compensation), and that is exactly what is happening with this bill. Even if this bill does pass in its current form, there is a major disconnect between the recommendations of the NAS and the bill’s reforms according to ProPublica; the report says that the formation of a national forensic science agency to act as an oversight mechanism would be a good foundation. The bill does call for the formation of such an agency, but suggests nesting it within the Department of Justice. The NAS’s report says:

[N]o existing or new division or unit within DOJ would be an appropriate location for a new entity governing the forensic science community… The entity that is established to govern the forensic science community cannot be principally beholden to law enforcement. The potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science are too great.

This separation is not for lack of trust in law enforcement or the Department of Justice, but instead because it is required to allow the agency to function effectively as an oversight mechanism. Marvin Schechter, a former member of the committee that wrote the report, said, “For over 100 years, forensic science in this country has been under prosecutorial law enforcement control, and it’s been a disaster.”

Innocence Project co-director and co-founder Peter Neufield says that a national forensics agency involved with the DOJ doesn’t have to be an either- or decision, but instead argues that such an organization should be a collective initiative.

Leahy’s bill has largely stalled out, and no other bill is on the table at present, though West Virginia Democrat Senator John Rockefeller is also considering forensic reform legislation.

We’ll be keeping an eye out for a new bill so that we can finally bring our forensic science up to par and stop putting innocent people behind bars.

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Using Eyewitnesses (Guest Post by Allison Gamble)

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 30, 2011 @ 2:41 PM — Comments (0)

Although the use of eyewitnesses to solve crimes and identify suspects is a technique as old as criminal justice itself, forensic psychology studies have increasingly questioned the validity of eyewitness testimony. Often people may correctly recall what happened at the scene of a crime, or be able to identify a culprit, but there are many ways eyewitness testimony may be swayed subconsciously, which have important ramifications for criminal cases. At times, false events or elements may be introduced into this testimony without an eyewitness’ awareness.

Ensuring that eyewitness testimony is as reliable as possible is essential for ensuring fair criminal investigations and trials. This is due to the influence such testimony can have over the outcome of a case. Mock jurors have been found to be about 45 percent more likely to convict a defendant when they heard eyewitness testimony. Even if the mock jurors knew the eyewitness had poor eyesight, they were only slightly less likely to issue a guilt verdict.

Studies on memory conducted during the 1970s used participants who viewed a scene involving a car at an intersection, and were asked later to describe the scene. When experimenters introduced the words “stop sign” into their questions about the scene, participants claimed to remember a stop sign being present, when the sign did not actually exist. Cues such as these were sufficient to change how people remembered the scene. These studies have important implications for eyewitness testimony, since they show how leading questions can cause people to change not only their testimony, but their actual memories of an event.

Memories tend to deteriorate over time, leading to incomplete retrieval of events that eyewitnesses have seen. In some cases, eyewitnesses asked to recall events could only describe about 68 percent of the details after a week, and this percentage became lower over time. When false memories were introduced, they were still recalled about one-quarter of the time.

Eyewitnesses may sometimes misidentify individuals in a police lineup, as well. A guide prepared by Iowa State University details how the presentation of a lineup can influence suspect identification. Witnesses tend to compare suspects in a lineup to one another to arrive at a decision on a culprit, instead of comparing each suspect to their memory of the culprit. If the witness receives positive feedback after making their decision, they tend to become more confident that they have selected the right person, even if the individual does not truly resemble the actual perpetrator of the crime. In order to prevent feedback from influencing a witness’ decision, law enforcement agencies recommend having an officer unfamiliar with the identities of individuals in lineup photos be the one to present them.

Although eyewitness testimony is far from perfect, there are steps that can be taken to ensure it is more accurate. One method already mentioned is to avoid giving feedback to witnesses on the information they provide. Another is to present lineup mugshots in a sequential order, rather than all at once, so eyewitnesses are more likely to compare each photo to their own memories, rather than comparing photos to one another. Warning juries of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony is another way to ensure convictions are based on more evidence than just this type of testimony.

Eyewitness testimony can be valuable when collected in a way that reduces errors. Deterioration of memory, the ability to remember nonexistent or false events, and overconfidence in memory can all influence eyewitnesses dramatically, however. Any person involved in the criminal justice system should therefore be aware of the limitations of eyewitness memory to avoid relying on such testimony too heavily.

Allison Gamble has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with

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Executions Past, Pending, and Halted

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 16, 2011 @ 4:06 PM — Comments (1)

Rick Perry, the Willingham case and the death penalty. Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of murder and executed in Texas in February 2004. It was a grisly crime; Willingham’s three daughters died in what was supposedly a fire started by arson in 1991. Rick Perry, the man who would be President, was the governor then as he is now.  Although Perry has signed 234 death warrants (more than any other governor), this case stands out. It seems that many believe Willingham should not have been convicted, let alone executed, due to less than perfect arson scientific analysis – what some call “junk science”.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission was set to investigate the matter when Perry intervened two days before the body would hear expert testimony criticizing the handling of Willingham’s case. Not only did Perry replace Chairman Sam Bassett and the other three members, the Texas Attorney General has since limited the commission’s authority through a July ruling.

“At first, when I was replaced, I gave the governor the benefit of the doubt. But now that time has passed, I’ve seen this kind of endless drumbeat of strategies and actions to stop this investigation, and it’s been terribly disappointing,” said Bassett.

Perry and his campaign aides deny Bassett’s accusations claiming that Willingham was a “monster” who murdered his three children. Read more about this in Matt Smith’s and Ed Lavandera’s article at CNN Politics. Read more about Rick Perry and his embrace of the death penalty at The Crime Report (Bill Boyarsky).

The reconstituted Commission is set to meet next month to further examine the Willingham case and to begin a review of other cases that contain arson evidence. See Brandi Grissom’s article in The Texas Tribune. The Innocence Project asked commissioners to evaluate the actions of the Texas Fire Marshal’s Office. Stay tuned and remember – only in Texas!

The State of Georgia vs. Troy Davis. Troy Davis is due to be executed in Georgia on September 21. The case has garnered nationwide attention because of allegations that the case against Davis is, at best, seriously flawed. Not only have seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted, but no physical evidence exists to tie the convicted man to the case, although there is evidence of another perpetrator.  Davis has served 20 years on death row for the 1989 murder of a Savannah police officer and continues to declare his innocence.

Three thousand religious leaders from the 50 states have asked the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to halt the execution to investigate this case further. Learn how you can help at Forbes (E. D. Kain, Contributor). The Board will meet on Monday to decide Davis’ fate and The Innocence Project encourages those interested to respond. We will keep you updated. Learn more by reading Emily Hauser’s piece in The Atlantic.

High Court halts another Texas execution.

MSNBC is reporting that the United States Supreme Court on September 15 halted the execution of Duane Buck by the State of Texas. There apparently is no question as to Buck’s guilt – he committed the double murder of his former girlfriend and her companion 16 years ago. He was arrested at the scene of the crime in an agitated state and there were several reliable eyewitnesses including his two children. The problem with this case is the validity of the sentence.

Buck’s attorneys allege that his case was “tainted by consideration of race” when a psychologist publicly testified that black criminals (Buck is black) were more likely to recommit violent acts in the future. The jury must consider the likelihood that the accused will be a continuing threat to society during its sentencing deliberations. We will keep you abreast of new developments.

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Through the Spiraling Nightmare to Freedom

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 08, 2011 @ 5:11 PM — Comments (1)

I loved the music, but the story was even better. The emotions I experienced during William Michael Dillon’s performance at The Moon September 7 ran the gamut from utter despair to complete elation enhanced by Dillon’s wry humor. Even though I am familiar with his story, it never ceases to amaze.

This tale contains just about all of the elements that can contribute to a wrongful conviction. A young man with a drug conviction out for a night of partying is evasive with cops staking out a murder crime scene. It seems the young man is trying to hide the joint in his hand. He hears later that the cops want to question him so he calls them up and they take him in. He has nothing to hide (since he’s innocent) so he willingly answers their questions, follows their orders and volunteers to take a lie detector test.

In return for his cooperation, the 22-year-old is falsely convicted of murder and serves over 27 years before, through his own handwritten petition and the help of the Florida Innocence Project, he is released from prison and eventually exonerated. But if we let the story end here, we fail to grasp Dillon’s message. While he does not dwell on the past, he learned from it to face the future a wiser man. So should we all.

It can happen to any of us. When police and prosecutors, such as those in Brevard County in this instance, manufacture false evidence, intimidate and threaten witnesses into lying on the stand, and basically decide that someone is guilty because it looks that way and they need to close the case – it can happen to any of us. In spite of the fact that witnesses recanted testimony almost immediately and that testimony put Dillon essentially in three places at once, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact that a major prosecution witness was engaged in a sexual relationship with one of the detectives, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact there was not a shred of physical evidence to tie Dillon to the crime, the jury still convicted him. In spite of the fact two witnesses provided an alibi, the jury still convicted him. And it took over 27 years to right the wrong.

Dillon’s message delivered both through song and story is one we should all take to heart. It can be a dangerous world out there. Take care. And even though Dillon pointed out with glee to all the lawyers present that he’s “one for one” in writing successful petitions, I’ll bet he would add one more piece of advice. If you run into trouble with the law, call an attorney and remain silent.

My advice is to buy Dillon’s CD and don’t miss an opportunity to see him perform. You won’t regret it.

The CD, Black Robes and Lawyers, is available on iTunes, click here.

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Posthumous DNA Testing in Texas Undermines Propriety of Execution

Seth — November 15, 2010 @ 1:39 PM — Comments (2)

Late last week, Mitotyping, a DNA lab in State College, PA, released results that demonstrate that Texas should not have executed Claude Jones in 2000.  The Texas Observer reports:

Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.

But DNA tests completed this week at the request of the Observer and the New York-based Innocence Project show the hair didn’t belong to Jones after all. The day before his death in December 2000, Jones asked for a stay of execution so the strand of hair could be submitted for DNA testing. He was denied by then-Gov. George W. Bush.

A decade later, the results of DNA testing not only undermine the evidence that convicted Jones, but raise the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man. The DNA tests—conducted by Mitotyping Technologies, a private lab in State College, Pa., and first reported by the Observer on Thursday—show the hair belonged to the victim of the shooting, Allen Hilzendager, the 44-year-old owner of the liquor store.

Now, this doesn’t prove that he is innocent and, as the article states, Jones was no saint.  But the key point here is that Texas prosecutors could not have convicted Jones, much less sent him to his death, had this result been known at the time of trial.  See, the prosecution needed this one hair to “match” Jones because without it, they would only be left with the testimony of an accomplice who stated that Jones confessed to the shooting.  Texas law did not allow a conviction based solely on the testimony of an accomplice.  None of the eyewitnesses to the shooting could provide a positive ID.  So where the law is inconveniently protective of Claude Jones’ right not to be prosecuted and convicted based on what most agree is inherently unreliable accomplice testimony, the prosecutor filled the void with equally unreliable forensic evidence that acted as affirmative evidence of guilt and papered over the unreliability of the accomplice testimony.

While the DNA technology was not available at the time of trial, it was available at the time of execution.  But then-Governor George Bush’s staff failed ot give him the information about the availability of DNA testing on the eve of execution in 2000:

But in 2000, when Jones was fighting for his life, it could be done. On December 6, 2000, the day before the execution, Jones’ attorneys filed a last-ditch motion for a stay—in district court and with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—so they could submit the strand of hair for mitochondrial DNA testing. Both courts turned him down.

Jones’ last hope was Gov. Bush, who in December 2000 was embroiled in the Florida recount controversy that followed the presidential election. Bush had already overseen the execution of 151 people during his governorship, but he’d also expressed support for DNA testing. Earlier that year, Bush had granted a 30-day stay to Ricky McGinn so that DNA testing could be conducted on key evidence in the case. (The tests would prove McGinn’s guilt and he was executed.) Bush, explaining his decision in the McGinn case to CNN in June 2000, said, “To the extent that DNA can prove for certain innocence or guilt, I think we need to use DNA.”

But Bush was never told about Jones’ request for DNA testing. Through a public-information request, the Innocence Project obtained the Dec. 7, 2000, memo that lawyers in the governor’s office sent to Bush, briefing him on the circumstances of Jones’ pending execution. The four-page memo doesn’t mention Jones’ request for DNA testing. Rather, it describes the disputed hair evidence as “testimony from a chemist employed by DPS that the hair samples taken from the crime scene matched those taken from Jones.”

The memo from the general counsel’s office concludes, “At this time, I do not recommend that a reprieve be granted.” Jones was executed a few hours later.

This case confirms what we already know.  The judicial and clemency remedies available to a death-sentenced inmate, despite all our rhetoric to the contrary, are just inadequate to safeguard against this type of wrongful execution, or worse the execution of an innocent person.  The alleged “best criminal justice system in the world” is no match for the political blood-lust that exists in America’s death penalty system.

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