Posts Tagged ‘law enforcement’

The Coverdell Grant Program for forensic science

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 14, 2009 @ 10:02 AM — Comments (0)

The Innocence Project in New York recently released a report titled, “Investigating Forensic Problems in the United States: How the Government Can Strengthen Oversight through the Coverdell Grant Program.” From the executive summary:

In 2004, Congress established an oversight mechanism within the Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grant Program, which provides federal funds to help improve the quality and efficiency of state and local crime labs and other forensic facilities.

[…] Nearly five years after Congress passed legislation to help ensure that forensic negligence or misconduct is properly investigated, extensive independent reviews show that the law is largely being ignored and, as a result, serious problems in crime labs and other forensic facilities have not been remedied. In short, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs (OJP), which is responsible for the program, has failed to make sure that even the law’s most basic requirements are followed.

Yesterday, the blog for paraphrased some of the results of this study, and reiterated the Innocence Project’s call for increased oversight or, rather, they called for the Obama administration to increasingly take advantage of the grant program that Congress created five years ago. One particularly egregious fact they quote is this: only 13% of designated oversight entities meet the federal law’s forensic oversight requirements. If you were a defendant, would you want to take a 1-in-8 chance that the forensic lab that processed the evidence in your trial was subject to proper oversight?

Finally, “Under new leadership, the Department of Justice can – and should – make sure crime lab problems are properly addressed, which will enhance the public safety and help prevent wrongful convictions.” Remember, working to correct problems in order to preclude wrongful convictions is cheaper than housing wrongfully incarcerated individuals.

No sooner had The Hill run this post than Grits for Breakfast published some presentations from the public meetings held by the National Academy of Sciences, meetings held to address the problems plaguing forensic science labs around the country. They link to this presentation in particular that calls for forensic tests “to be as blind as possible, for as long as possible,” and which contains the shocking graphic on common error rates linked above.

You’ll notice that firearms and fingerprints, while among the most reliable forensic testing methods, still yield erroneous conclusions around 1-5% of the time. Some toolmark and bitemark tests, meanwhile, are reliable less than half of the time. That report also refers to several studies that found that, for example, when a scientist was provided with “context” for certain samples – context such as, “The suspect has already confessed, here’s his hair and a hair from the crime scene” – that error rates were much higher. Those who conducted the psychological studies could induce false positives by giving false context, leading the forensic scientist to believe certain conclusions before they came to them independently.

All of these scientific studies point to the sad state of the crime labs in this country. Scientists might think so, but they are not immune to psychological tendencies – such as suggestibility – that afflict every human being. Independent oversight and common-sense reforms are the necessary solution to the problem.

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Two more criminal justice documentaries

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 09, 2009 @ 10:13 AM — Comments (1)

In response to my previous post about two documentaries about the prison system in America and in Argentina, my colleague Matt Kelley from’s Criminal Justice blog pointed me to two more recent documentaries.

One is Witch Hunt, which has been popping up quite a bit in my Google Reader lately. The documentary tells the stories of regular people who were wrongfully accused, convicted, and sentenced to prison for horrific sexual crimes that they never committed:

Executive Producer Sean Penn presents “Witch Hunt,” the story of John Stoll and dozens of other men and women who found themselves ensnared in a spiral of fear, ignorance and hysteria. These working-class moms and dads were rounded up with little or no evidence, charged and convicted of almost unimaginable crimes. Years later, they would find freedom again, but their lives would be changed forever.

Witch Hunt will air on MSNBC this Sunday, April 12, at 10 PM.

The second documentary is Dhamma Brothers. Dhamma Brothers follows the inmates of Donaldson Correctional Institution near Birmingham, Alabama. Donaldson became the first prison in the nation to conduct an extended Vipassana retreat, which entailed physically and emotionally demanding Buddhist meditation for ten days. It bears some striking similarities to Unit 25 (Unidad 25), which I blogged about before, about a prisoner who trades the “customary horrors” of prison for embracing Christianity while on the inside. It’s fascinating to see these stories told about a spiritual awakening that takes place inside prison, and the profound effects it can have on inmates.

At least, these stories are a variation on the trite tale of the convict who “finds Jesus” or converts to Islam inside prison: spirituality in the big house is nothing new, except for when it’s told in a whole new way in these films.

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Timothy Cole Exonerated in Texas

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 08, 2009 @ 10:17 AM — Comments (1)

When Governor Bill Richardson abolished the death penalty in New Mexico, he called it the most difficult decision of his political career.

Now, Judge Charlie Baird in Texas has handed down a decision he has called “the most important of my judicial career.” Timothy Cole was convicted in 1985 for the rape of Michelle Mallin and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Cole died in prison in 1999 for a crime that DNA evidence has since proven he didn’t commit, and yesterday he was officially posthumously exonerated in Texas. Judge Baird’s decision is available here.

Judge Baird said, unequivocally, “the evidence is crystal clear that Timothy Cole died in prison an innocent man, and I find to a 100 percent moral, legal, and factual certainty that he did not commit the crime of which he was convicted.” Judge Baird also went on to fault police misconduct, including the deliberate misrepresentation and suppression of evidence for Cole’s innocence during the investigation.

Perhaps most tragic is that, since 1995, four years before Cole died in prison from complications from asthma, Jerry Johnson had been admitting his guilt for the rape of Michelle Mallin. From Judge Baird’s decision:

Worse, however, was the attitude of the courts to [the actual rapist Jerry] Johnson’s claim of guilt. As early as 1995- four years before Tim Cole died- Johnson tried to clear Tim Cole and admit to the rape of Michelle Mallin. His letters were ignored, set aside, and thrown away until one was received by the family of Tim Cole and the Innocence Project of Texas.

You can read more about Timothy Cole’s exoneration at Grits for Breakfast, Lubbock Online, or the Houston Chronicle.

We’re glad that this sad story is coming to an end – that the family of Timothy Cole is receiving some sort of justice in the clearing of their son’s name. We hope the criminal justice system can look to Timothy’s case and ask itself, “What can be done to make sure this never happens again?”

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What if DNA evidence from a crime scene could tell us what the perpetrator looked like?

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 01, 2009 @ 10:40 AM — Comments (1)

That question is the taken from a new post over at the Criminal Justice blog. The post is inspired by an article in the Wall Street Journal, that explains how researchers at Pennsylvania State University performed a study attempting to link specific genes to “phenotypes,” or their physical expressions. What this means, then, is that scientists might be able to tell, roughly speaking, a person’s physical characteristics by examining their DNA.

As Matt Kelley, the author of the post points out, there is much reason for alarm here. As he says, and as we have noted before, there is cause for concern over “the propensity of criminal justice agencies to use scientific methods before they’re ready.” He adds, “The U.K. and the Netherlands are already using some form of these tests, as are some U.S. states. Germany has outlawed the practice, along with Indiana, Wyoming and Rhode Island.”


The WSJ reports that researchers are able to predict eye color 70-90% of the time and skin color 46% of the time. These numbers aren’t strong enough to rely on. Wrongful convictions happen – and real perpetrators get away – when faulty or limited science puts police on the wrong track in those crucial first few days after a crime. I agree that these tests could be helpful in some cases to confirm other evidence, but can we guarantee that genetic composite sketches won’t be become simply another form of unreliable forensic science?

The question is when and whether this will become more accurate than other methods of identification, and whether this technique can be used without any illusions of its accuracy. The worry is that juries might hear DNA evidence and assume the practice is close to 100% accurate, rather than the more pitiful, but more truthful, measure of its accuracy.

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Jim Webb takes courageous stand on prison reform

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 31, 2009 @ 10:14 AM — Comments (1)

In my Friday roundup, I mentioned Jim Webb’s introduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, which seeks to establish a commission “made up of recognized criminal justice experts, and charged with examining a range of policies that have emerged haphazardly across the country and recommending reforms. In addition to obvious problems like sentencing, the commission would bring much-needed scrutiny to issues like the special obstacles faced by the mentally ill in the system, as well as the shameful problem of prison violence.” (NYT)

The bill represents a tremendously courageous act on his part. Glen Greenwald over at explains why that is in a lengthy post that is well worth a read:

It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb. Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform. To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis). Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.

Adds Greenwald,

After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has… become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”

It is the existence of this detestable myriad of reasons that brings the cause of criminal justice reform into higher relief. We have been supporters of criminal justice commissions for some time, but it is the realization of our wildest dream that a national reform commission should be formed under the leadership of an intrepid first-term Senator.

The New York Times has thrown their unequivocal support behind the bill with an editorial on Sunday. Ryan Grim authored a piece at the Huffington Post that lays out the bipartisan support that has quickly formed behind the bill, including that from senior Democrats, libertarian pundits, and traditional conservatives as well. Observes the New York Times, “Judging by the bipartisan support in the Senate, a national consensus has emerged that the criminal justice system is broken.”

To visit Senator Webb’s official page on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, click here.

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Friday Roundup

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 27, 2009 @ 10:14 AM — Comments (0)

A few good items in today’s news.

For one, I’ve been blogging a lot lately about nascent death penalty reforms around the country and around the world. A Maryland bill I blogged about earlier harshly restricting the application of the state’s death penalty has passed the state’s House. Governor O’Malley has indicated he will sign the bill.

GenPop has a pretty outrageous post about the unfortunate citizens of tiny Parke County, Illinois, population approximately 17,000. The county was forced to raise taxes on its citizens in order to try a death case, costing in excess of $500,000. As Courtney points out,

Imagine being anti-death penalty in that county. Imagine being anti-death penalty and someone who’s already suffering financially because of the state of today’s economy, and having your taxes raised to put someone to death. That is so backward, barbaric and wrong.

A study by the ACLU of Northern California has concluded that “The 11 new additions to [California’s] death row add almost $1 million to the annual cost of housing people on death row, now totaling $61.2 million more each year than the cost of housing in the general population.” Speaking of an unfair burden levied iniquitously on the citizens of California, “of California’s 58 counties, only 10 counties accounted for nearly 83% of death sentences for 2000 to 2007, and 30 counties had not had a single death sentence since 2000.” That means one half of the counties are forced to pay into a system they haven’t used in almost 10 years, so that a minority of the counties can put their convicts to death.

Senator Jim Webb of Virginia introduced landmark legislation yesterday to create a blue-ribbon commission tasked with comprehensively examining every aspect of the criminal justice system. SentLaw and have more. Kudos to Senator Webb. Adds, “Calling our prison system a ‘national disgrace,’ Webb says ‘we are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing million of lives.’ Amen.”

Finally, congratulations to Innocence Project founders Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. They are being awarded the 2009 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law this April.

The Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law and its counterparts in architecture and civic leadership are the highest external honors bestowed by the University [of Virginia], which grants no honorary degrees. The awards recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors that Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia — excelled in and held in high regard.

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American Violet

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 17, 2009 @ 10:12 AM — Comments (1)

Grits for Breakfasts posts a press release about the feature film American Violet, on the IMDB here.

On April 17, Samuel Goldwyn Films will release AMERICAN VIOLET, a new film based on true events that occurred in a small Texas town. The film examines how drug laws and enforcement practices target African-Americans, and, how the justice system uses threats and intimidation to steer them towards guilty pleas, regardless of their innocence or the evidence against them. As the film points out, more than 95% of criminal convictions in this country are the result of plea-bargains, not jury trials. While the film is based on a specific case, the story it represents is hardly unique or isolated, and, the film’s release presents an exceptional opportunity to explore how the drug war has become the new Jim Crow.

AMERICAN VIOLET is inspired by the real life story of Regina Kelly, an African-American, single mother of four girls who was arrested in 2000 in a military-style drug raid. The raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 15% of the town’s young black male population for felony cocaine distribution. Kelly was innocent. Her name, along with the names of many others arrested (nearly all African-American), were given to police by a single, highly unreliable informant with personal reasons to antagonize her. Despite Kelly’s innocence, she was urged to plead guilty by her family and even her public defender so that she could return to her children and receive a minimal sentence. A felony conviction, however, would have resulted in the loss of her right to vote and the public assistance programs on which her family depended, not to mention the tainting of her personal reputation and her ability to obtain employment. She chose to maintain her plea of not guilty. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project came on board to represent her.

In AMERICAN VIOLET, Kelly’s on-screen character is named Dee Roberts (played by newcomer Nicole Beharie) and the ACLU lawyer in the film is played by Tim Blake Nelson. Alfre Woodard, Charles Dutton, Will Patton, Michael O’Keefe and Xzibit also star. The town of Melody and certain other characters and events are fictitious.

Eventually, the charges against Kelly were dropped (as were the charges against most of the others arrested in the same drug raid due to the same informant’s lack of credibility). Yet, she was separated from her children while she was incarcerated, shamed in her small community by being labeled a drug dealer, fired from her job, and had difficulty obtaining employment thereafter; in short, her life was torn apart due to her arrest and her time in jail. Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Reform Project represented her in a lawsuit against the county and the District Attorney (among other parties), for damages, which resulted in a settlement.

More importantly, the case resulted in a change in Texas law, whereby now, cases cannot be prosecuted based solely on the claims of a single informant.

In other news, there is still time to call (505-476-2225) or email New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He has until tomorrow to sign the bill. Matt Kelley at provides a sample email:

Dear Gov. Richardson,

I’m writing to urge you to do the right thing and sign HB285, repealing the death penalty in New Mexico. You are at a crucial point in history today, in which the practice of capital punishment is in decline in the United States – one of the last democracies on earth to apply this cruel and unusual punishment. You have an opportunity to become a national leader on this issue by signing the bill and taking a stand in support of human life. I hope you will be remembered as the man who ended this inhuman practice in New Mexico.

I was one of the 6,000 who left a phone message yesterday. I encourage all of our readers to take the time to send an email, or the 30 seconds to make a call and do your part to help abolish the death penalty in New Mexico.

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How Do We Prevent False Confessions?

Alejandra de la Fuente — December 03, 2008 @ 10:33 AM — Comments (2)

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post on false confessions.

There are numerous techniques police can use while interrogating suspects:
• Utilize the physical environment – usually small but brightly lit
• Ask leading questions
• Provide information about the crime scene
• Adapt a confrontational style / get in the suspect’s face
• Conduct extremely long interviews that last for hours or even days
• Deceive the suspect with false suggestions and/or information, like stories of non-existent physical evidence that links them to the crime
• Tell the suspect if they pass a polygraph they can go home, then lie about the polygraph’s results
• And so it goes…

There are several remedies for false confessions that should be implemented immediately by state law:
• Videotape all interrogations, from the reading of rights to the end, with the tape running continuously
• Set reasonable time limits for interrogations
• Never, ever allow minors and people with reduced mental capacity to be questioned without a parent, guardian, or legal representative present
• Make it illegal for law enforcement to lie to suspects

Some of these are so obvious, I can’t believe they require laws to change them. Why in the world do we allow our children to be taken into some back room and interrogated by the police without our presence? That one’s a no-brainer for me. We need to remember that children are children, regardless of the severity of the crime they’re being questioned about.

In Florida, it’s noteworthy that the Broward County Police Department now records interrogations. We don’t know how many others do so. That’s why the Innocence Project of Florida this year initiated a Public Records Request to all law enforcement agencies in the state, asking for their policies on eyewitness identification and the recording of interrogations. Reviewing the responses should tell us how far we have to go to enact responsible change in these areas.

According to the Innocence Project:

The Supreme Courts of Alaska and Minnesota have declared that, under their state constitutions, defendants are entitled as a matter of due process to have their custodial interrogations recorded. In 2003, Illinois became the first state to require by law that all police interrogations of suspects in homicide cases must be recorded.

Over 500 jurisdictions nationwide, including the states of Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois, regularly record police interrogations. A 2004 study conducted by Illinois officials of 200 locations that implemented this reform found that police departments overwhelmingly embrace the measure as good law enforcement whose time has come.

We can only hope that more states, including Florida, follow suit. Sooner rather than later would be good, too.

*Some of the information in this post was taken from “The False Confessions in the Central Park Jogger Case” written by Elaine Cassel and published on December 17, 2002, at Findlaw.

For more information about false confessions, check out our list of recommended books in the Resource section of our Web site.

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