Posts Tagged ‘law enforcement’

IPF Director Seth Miller Presents at One Book Event

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 07, 2014 @ 9:45 AM — Comments (0)

The annual One Book Thomas County celebration of learning in Thomasville, Georgia, has chosen as its focus book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. On Friday, October 17, 2014, at 6:30 p.m., the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, Seth Miller, will be presenting a lecture and discussion on wrongful convictions and eye witness misidentification at Thomasville On Stage and Company, 117 South Broad Street in downtown Thomasville.

“The story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton teaches us the vital lesson that a misidentification can haunt not only the wrongfully convicted individual, but also the well-meaning victim who has to live with the consequences of the mistaken identification,” said Miller. “It is up to policy makers to make modest, evidence-based reforms to prevent misidentifications before they happen, find the true perpetrators, and allow the public to feel confident that the justice system has worked.” This presentation is free and open to the public.

This presentation will be especially timely, concurring with the recent publication of “Identifying the Culprit,” a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences on the shortcomings and limitations of eye witness evidence.

On Saturday, October 18, Ronald Miller and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino will share their true stories of witness misidentification, wrongful conviction, exoneration, and forgiveness. They will be available to sign books. Admission to Saturday’s event is $10.

For more information, go to the One Book Facebook page at or call Annie Jones at The Bookshelf, 229-228-7767.

exoneration,Innocence Project of Florida,justice,policy,post-conviction, , , , ,

The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Everton Wagstaffe Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 26, 2014 @ 10:09 AM — Comments (0)

Since January 1992, Everton Wagstaffe has refused to leave prison in New York on probation because that would require him to admit guilt of a crime of which he has steadfastly maintained innocence. Many state legal systems explicitly require an admission of guilt as a condition for parole. In states such as Florida, the admission of guilt is implicit, requiring the convicted to acknowledge their culpability and demonstrate remorse for their crime and for the people they have wronged. Some prisoners, who have claimed innocence have gone ahead and admitted guilt in order to be eligible for release, but find that they are prevented from pursuing their claims of innocence later because they admitted guilt at the parole hearing. This is the innocent prisoner’s dilemma. Northwestern University law professor Daniel Medwell calls it a true Catch 22.

Wagstaffe was convicted in 1992 of the kidnapping and death of a 16-year old girl whose body was found on a Brooklyn street. He spent nearly 23 years in prison protesting for his freedom. On September 17, 2014, Wagstaffe’s conviction was finally reversed by a panel of New York state appeals court judges who found that prosecutors were not forthcoming with evidence that would have shown that detectives and an eye witness to the crime had misled the jury. There had been no other evidence other than the witness’s testimony, which during the recent review of the investigation documents it was discovered that the witness had  been prompted and coached.

Like some other wrongfully convicted exonerees who refused early release because of their integrity, Wagstaffe declined to accept release on parole or probation rather than admit that he had anything to do with the crime. For the time being, he remains in state prison.

Considering the growing number of conviction reversals and exonerations throughout the United States, the “act of grace” that parole boards function as, needs to consider the possibility of false convictions and allow parolees the ability to pursue their claims of innocence after they are released without penalty.

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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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Michigan Man Exonerated After 17 Years in Prison

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, , , , , , , , , , ,

Free, But with a Cloud

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 01, 2013 @ 10:08 AM — Comments (0)

With a college degree in hand and a healthy outlook on the future, Nicole Harris envisioned in December 2004 that she was on the brink of something big. As the single mother of two young sons, her college graduation was fostered by a network of family members and supporters whose pride in her accomplishments seemed endless. With a degree in psychology she hoped to land a job in her chosen field, and a subsequent move back to her hometown of Chicago would allow her to rejoin her family as well as explore opportunities for employment in her discipline. A few months after graduating, however, her plans for the future went terribly awry. The attainment of a college degree suddenly became a secondary treasure as she found herself charged in the strangulation death of her youngest son, Jaquari, age 4.

Harris steadily maintained her innocence regarding any involvement in her son’s death, but her protestations fell on deaf ears. Her son’s death, insisted prosecutors, resulted from her frustrations due to her son’s constant crying. According to authorities, Harris wrapped a fitted bedsheet cord around her son’s neck and strangled him.

Convicted of the crime by a Cook County jury, Harris spent seven years (of a 30-year sentence) in prison before the 7th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated her conviction in October 2012. On February 25, 2013, she exited the Dwight Correctional Center a “free” woman.  “This isn’t just a legal victory,” said Alison Flaum, an attorney with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Conviction, which joined forces with the law firm Jenner & Block to defend Harris.  “They saw this case for the miscarriage of justice that it was.” Harris has always maintained that her son died accidentally and that she had nothing to do with his death.

Harris’ case  is troublesome, however, on so many levels and in so many ways:

  • Even though she knew she was innocent, she confessed to the crime following a 27-hour interrogation which, she said, included threats and manipulation by police investigating the case.
  • Police initially confronted Harris in a hospital chapel, where she had gone following her collapse after being told that her son had not survived. In such an emotional state, it is no stretch of the imagination to presume that authorial figures often engage powers of persuasion and similar techniques in an effort to elicit false information from vulnerable suspects. 
  • Harris’ oldest son, Diante, then 5, told investigators that he was alone in the home with his brother when he witnessed Jaquari wrap the cord around his neck while he (Daquari) was playing. Authorities, however, dismissed the brother’s claim.
  • The trial judge barred Diante from testifying, deeming him incompetent, presumably, because Diante believed that “Santa Claus, Spider-Man and the tooth fairy” were real figures and not imaginary figures.
  • According to reports in the case, prosecutors noted that Diante told investigators that he was asleep when his brother died.
  • Various reports indicate that Nicole Harris was at a nearby laundromat when the incident occurred, having instructed both young boys to remain in the home during her absence.

In overturning Harris’ guilty verdict, the judges wrote that if Diante had been allowed to testify, his testimony “would have changed the entire tenor of the case [and supported her oldest son’s claims that his brother’s death was accidental].”

Although Harris has been released from the Dwight Correctional Center and can begin the journey to rebuild the life she left behind in 2005, her legal battles are far from over. The State has appealed the October 2012 ruling and has asked the U. S. Supreme Court to review the case. Additionally, Cook County prosecutors could still move to retry the case. On February 25, 2013, the date of Harris’ release, a representative from the State Attorney’s Office said that a decision to retry the defendant had not yet been made.

In the meantime, Nicole Harris has maintained a positive outlook, insisting that she knew that prison wasn’t her “final destination,” that “eventually we’ll have full victory, and it’ll be all over.”

Through all that she has endured, she is certainly due the future she envisioned when she earned her college degree and stepped forward into a life of promise.

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Witness Misidentification: Costs, Causes, and Cures

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 09, 2012 @ 10:39 AM — Comments (0)

Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions web site states that, “erroneous eyewitness testimony — whether offered in good faith or perjured — is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. criminal justice system. According to The Innocence Project’s site, eyewitness misidentification plays a role in over 75 percent of cases that are overturned by DNA evidence. Looking at these numbers, it seems a bit ridiculous that the justice system would consider eyewitness testimony to be sacrosanct pieces of evidence, and yet they are.

Why exactly is it that witness misidentifications are so prevalent? The answer, frankly, is simple, and can be seen in social science research that has been conducted over the past 30 years. The Innocence Project makes a comparison between the human mind and tape recorders, asserting that the human mind is clearly not capable of taking in, processing, and recording exact details and events the way that a video camera or tape recorder can, and for that reason alone human memories should be taken as possibilities, not facts. Further, witnesses often experience some level of victimization as a result of being so closely involved with crime, and anyone who has been a victim of a crime can attest to the way that victimization affects one’s memory.

For a more engaging way to see the flaws of human perception and memory, watch this video. If you read ahead before watching, you’ll cheat yourself out of the experience!

Don’t read ahead…watch the video first.

Did you notice the moonwalking bear? I know I certainly did not when I first watched the video, but after viewing it again I cannot imagine how I missed it. If the human mind isn’t able to notice something so different while sitting in a calm, controlled environment, then how can it possibly be expected to register events under the stress undergone when watching a crime take place?

All of these things said, however, witness identifications and testimonies can be useful and powerful tools of the criminal justice system, if used correctly. There are a variety of steps that could be taken to decrease the probability of misidentification. Most of these measures could be implemented easily and with little to no cost to law enforcement, the legal system, or taxpayers.

Use of a double-blind procedure in orchestrating lineups could seriously cut down on accidental or intentional influencing of witnesses. This double-blind would ensure that neither the administrator or the lineup nor the witness would know which individual was the suspect. There is also a lineup protocol currently endorse by Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the MacArthur Justice Center that, in addition to using a double-blind procedure, presents suspects sequentially as opposed to placing them all side by side. This method is said to reduce the tendency of witnesses to make relative judgements about the suspects, which can often lead to misidentifications.

These methods are incredibly simple to implement and cost little-to-nothing to implement. If law enforcement agencies nationwide were to adopt these methods, they could seriously decrease the largest cause of wrongful convictions. In April of last year the Florida Senate passed a bill known as the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act. This bill would have implemented the above procedures and would also have instituted the use of educational materials and training for law enforcement officers regarding how to conduct a lineup, as well as a standard set of instructions for eyewitnesses before viewing the lineup. Unfortunately, the bill stalled and was ultimately withdrawn from consideration in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, there is not a similar bill being proposed during this legislative session. I guess the citizens of Florida will have to wait until next year.

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Withholding Evidence and Mississippi Burning

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 07, 2011 @ 10:58 AM — Comments (0)

The Kentucky Innocence Project and Louisville Metro Police are working together to free Kerry Porter who has served 15 years for a murder he did not commit.

Says KIP lawyer Melanie Lowe Stratton “It’s hard to believe because I think we want to believe that our justice system does the right thing and works…It’s not worked for Kerry.”

Kerry Porter was convicted of the 1996 killing of Tyrone Camp. However, suspect Francois Cunningham revealed information that implicated another man in Camp’s murder when he agreed to talk to detectives about his own double murder charge. Cunningham’s statements that a friend of his, Juan Leotis Sanders, recruited him to murder Camp, but then did the deed himself when Cunningham turned down the offer, came to light just this week. Sanders subsequently led police toward Porter. Unfortunately, the police followed that wrong path. Not only did they follow the wrong path — the police and assistant attorneys from the commonwealth and U.S. attorney’s offices withheld this exculpatory evidence given to them in March 2010 from Porter and his attorney.

Lowe Stratton indicates that KIP that has been working on this case since 2007 is waiting for DNA testing results in addition to those already performed that do not implicate Porter. Lowe Stratton hopes for Porter’s timely release once those results, due within a month, are received.

Read more about this case at and

The campaign for attorney general in Mississippi is heating up. Incumbent AG Jim Hood is facing Steve Simpson, former prosecutor, circuit court judge, and head of the state’s department of public safety. During his tenure in this last position, Simpson fired longtime state medical examiner Steven Hayne butting heads with Hood in the process and ending Hayne’s controversial 20-year “near-monopoly on the autopsy referrals Mississippi prosecutors and coroners send to forensic pathologists.” Hayne and forensic dentist Michael West (widely considered to be a fraud as reported by Huff Post Politics) had testified in numerous trials and were subject to accusations of expert witness “guns-for-hire”. Two of the convictions that relied on West’s since discredited bite mark testimony were subsequently overturned resulting in the DNA exonerations of Kennedy Brewer who was almost executed and Levon Brooks who served over 30 years combined.

The political problem for Hood who has defended both Hayne and West arises because many convicted on West’s testimony are still serving sentences; one man sits on Mississippi’s death row. And the case against the two men is widening. Hood now claims that his office is looking into 20 cases that may have been tainted by West’s testimony although he refused to release any specific information when asked.

This race is one to watch! 

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Wising Up and Owning Up

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 05, 2011 @ 2:49 PM — Comments (1)

The Florida Innocence Commission issued an interim report last week verifying the harm that ensues from witness misidentification. According to this report, it is the major contributor to wrongful convictions and was a factor in nine of 11 identified cases in the State while accounting for 77 percent of 261 specific wrongful convictions across the nation. This begs the question as to why law enforcement is so reluctant to change photo identification procedures to help prevent this tragic phenomenon that results in untold misery, not only for the wrongly accused, but for future victims of the true perpetrator.

The Commission pointed out some simple, cost-free steps police departments can take to help ensure accuracy in photo ID procedures such as presenting photos one at a time, using a method in which the presenter does not see the photo being presented, limiting the photo presentation to subjects similar to those with characteristics the victim/witness described, and informing the viewer that a photo of the perpetrator of the crime may not be there. These are logical, easy-to-adopt methods. So why would the police fail to use them as means to better ensure accurate witness identification?

One can also question why law enforcement/prosecutors are so often reluctant to admit an error – frequently in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary — that indeed a mistake has occurred and the wrong person was convicted. I hasten to point out there are exceptions to this rule like former Washington, D.C. Prosecutor J. Brooks Harrington who readily admitted and sincerely regrets mistakes made by his office. Harrington resigned shortly after dropping charges against a wrongly convicted man only to find out many years later that another of his convictions resulted in an innocent man, Donald Gates, spending 28 years in prison.

One of the first lessons most of us teach our kids is to resist the temptation of denial, admit their mistakes, and make it right. Not only is it the moral thing to do, it builds character to admit a mistake. What’s more, others tend to support those who acknowledge an error. Politicians’ ratings go up, such as John F. Kennedy experienced after he took the blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Hospitals are learning that owning up to errors in patient treatment can deflect malpractice lawsuits. It’s a win-win. Everybody feels better.

So why do some law enforcement officials remain mired in denial of the error of their ways? Is it just their inability to accept blame, especially if coercive tactics used by the police added to the miscarriage of justice? Are they afraid they’ll look bad in the public’s eyes? Or is it just overwhelming guilt?

I’m just asking the questions. I don’t have the answers. I encourage those who do to provide them.

Innocence Project of Florida,legislation,Uncategorized, , , ,

Brief on November Innocence Commission Meeting

Seth — December 02, 2010 @ 9:00 AM — Comments (0)

On Monday, November 22, the Florida Innocence Commission met to dig into the issue of eyewitness misidentification.  The Commission heard from a number of witnesses, including Professor Gary Wells, the godfather of scientific research into witness memory and eyewitness misidentification.  The Orlando Sentinel reports:

To prove how vulnerable eyewitnesses are to making errors, Wells showed the panel a video of a man dropping a bomb down a building’s air shaft. He then showed them a lineup of six suspects and asked panel members to pick the bomber.

About one-quarter of them picked a suspect, and each was wrong. That’s because the bomber wasn’t among them.

Wells has studied eyewitness misidentification for more than 30 years and has worked with law-enforcement agencies across the nation to minimize those mistakes.  His conclusion: Eyewitnesses get it wrong 20 percent of the time.

Obviously, where people who have an intent to subvert justice taint witness identification procedures, we cannot have any confidence in the identifications made in those procedures and there just isn’t much we can do to stop such bad faith.  But the vast majority of the time, you have both law enforcement personnel and witnesses who are acting in good faith to try and identify the true perpetrator of the crime, yet they still get it wrong despite their best efforts.  Dr. Wells’ work has tried to figure out why and the answer has as much to do with the fallibility of human memory as how lineups and photo arrays are prepared and administered to witnesses.  The St. Pete Times notes:

The problem with eyewitness identification comes down to this, said Iowa State University psychology professor Gary Wells: Memory, like physical evidence, can be tainted. One way that happens is through the standard police lineup. Traditionally, a witness will look at half a dozen mug shots at the same time and try to identify a suspect. People tend to pick the person who most resembles the culprit, Wells said, even if the actual criminal isn’t depicted. He said witnesses should get just one photo at a time. Studies show that forces people to dig deeper into their memories. People are also influenced by cues they get from those showing the photos, he said. Detectives may unknowingly give nonverbal cues. Or they’ll say things.

For example, “Now, take your time” might mean the witness is looking at the wrong face. In one case, a witness said detectives applauded when she picked their suspect. That kind of affirmation can create an inflated sense of certainty in the mind of a witness, who will take it to trial.

The solution? Don’t let detectives conduct the lineup, Wells said. Give the photos to someone who doesn’t know which depicts the suspect.

Many law enforcement agencies, large and small, urban and rural, around the country are performing witness identification procedures with the new, suggestion-proof methods proposed by Dr. Wells, with wonderful success.  A representative from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office even testified at the meeting that his agency is performing sequential, double blind lineups and photo arrays and seeing more accurate outcomes leading to swifter justice.

So what is not to like?  Well, for some on the Commission, whether Florida will adopt a policy that conforms with the national trend and the available science comes down to economics.  Some say that smaller agencies would have to use already limited manpower to do lineups and would have to make both the preparer of the lineup and the administrator of it available for depositions, court hearings, and trial, which could be an expensive proposition.  But there are ways to prevent this such as drafting a statue that requires sequential double blind administration with exceptions for impracticability that allows the agency to simply blind the administrator through other means, such as use of laptop computer technology or the folder-shuffle method.  Ohio has enacted a statutory mandate that does just this.

Others, like the Florida Police Chiefs and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, favor just letting law enforcement agencies individually figure out what is best.  This is obviously a bad idea as it would create a lack of uniformity and, in turn, a lack or justice from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Plus agencies have already had the opportunity to create policies with examples in North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Massachusetts as good guides.  Yet, in response to two public record requests sent by IPF to over 350 law enforcement agencies in Florida, only 37 agencies that responded even had a written policy on eyewitness ID procedures, and an even smaller fraction of those were even close to what Dr. Wells and the rest of the scientific community have suggested as a best practice.

Lastly, we have the obligatory idiotic statement from an ignorant prosecutor (from The St. Pete Times):

Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, said he is troubled by what he sees as an unfair assumption.

“It suggests that your law enforcement is dishonest. And I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to accept that,” he said. “I’m not saying mistakes don’t happen, because they do. But I’m not ready to believe your cops are all crooked.”

This is the typical straw man.  No one has even suggested law enforcement is dishonest.  That was not the tenor of the Commission meeting at all.  Bartlett should call up the Sheriff’s office in neighboring Tampa and ask them whether they proactively implemented the widely-accepted best practices because they thought their own sergeants and deputies were dishonest.  Or maybe they did it because the best practices diminish unintentional suggestiveness that seeps into ID procedures even when everyone is well-intentioned.  Considering Bartlett was not even at the Commission meeting to hear the testimony, he probably should have not even opened his mouth to save himself the embarrassment.

In any event, it appears that the Commission is poised to do something positive in this area and we will keep you informed as the result comes more into focus.

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Orlando Sentinel Does Multi-Part Series on Innocence Issues

Seth — November 16, 2010 @ 11:22 AM — Comments (0)

Rene Stutzman of the Orlando Sentinel is in the midst of a multi-part feature news series entitled Stolen Lives.  It appears that each month, for some indeterminate period of time, the paper will address a different issue related to wrongful conviction.

In the first article last month, the Sentinel featured James Bain, an IPF client who was released from prison last year after 35 years of wrongful incarceration.  DNA tetsing proved his innocence of a 1974 rape of a child in Polk County, Florida.  It is a great article and has this great video of Jamie talking about his wrongful incarceration and his release:

Just this Sunday, Stolen Lives continued with an article on the leading cause of wrongful convictions, eyewitness misidentification, which features the story of Florida exoneree Alan Crotzer.  The article also details a number of well-accepted components of a witness identification procedure that diminishes suggestiveness and increases reliability.

Keep an eye out for future articles in this series.

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