Posts Tagged ‘police’

Remembering Last Year’s Successes: Exoneration Records in 2014

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 27, 2015 @ 12:47 PM — Comments (0)

Now that it’s almost April, 2014 may be starting to seem like a distant memory. And while 2015 is quickly shaping up to be a successful year for exonerating innocent prisoners,  we should still take a second to review some of the successes that we had in 2014. The National Registry of Exonerations published an informative infographic detailing some ways in which 2014 was a record-breaking year for exonerations.

First of all, the 127 exonerations that took place in 2014 marked the highest number of annual exonerations out of all the years recorded in the Registry – from 1989 onwards. That means that out of 26 years of exonerations, 2014 was the most successful. The year that came closest to 2014 was 2012, in which 92 people were exonerated.

Besides the high number of exonerations overall, 2014 saw many other noteworthy improvements and successes in the exoneration process. For example, Alexandra Mendez was exonerated on August 22, 2014, only 3 days after her conviction—the fastest exoneration ever. She had been convicted for possession of cocaine, but lab tests of the material revealed it was not in fact a controlled substance, and her conviction was quickly overturned.

Another staggering figure is the number of non-DNA exonerations that occurred last year – 103! That’s more than the total number of exonerations in any other year. A report from the Registry in 2013 revealed that non-DNA exonerations are beginning to overtake DNA exonerations, as biological evidence is more and more frequently being tested before trial, rather than being used to prove innocence post-conviction. This is good news both for those innocent defendants who get cleared by DNA before they’re ever convicted, and for innocent inmates with no DNA evidence, whom can now take advantage of some of the exoneration resources no longer being used by DNA cases.

2014 was also important in the cooperation shown from law enforcement in exonerations. 67 exonerations, or 54% of all exonerations in 2014, were done with cooperation from law enforcement. 2012 was the first year in which law enforcement cooperated in more than 50% of the year’s exonerations, and the trend seems to be continuing.  The support of the police in the fight for justice for the wrongfully convicted is a powerful tool, and we are extremely thankful to officers who support this important cause.

For more information on the successes of 2014, you can read the National Registry of Exonerations’ full report of 2014 exonerations. And if you want to show your thanks to a law enforcement officer who supports the cause of keeping innocent people out of prison, consider attending our 4th Annual Spring Gala, Steppin’ Out, where we’ll be honoring Former Police Chief and Secretary of Corrections and Past President of the International Association of Police Chiefs, Walter McNeil for the non-traditional collaborations he has formed with the innocence community to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future wrongful convictions.

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Weekly Update

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 19, 2012 @ 11:56 AM — Comments (1)

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo called for an expansion of the DNA database in his State of the State speech this month. His call would expand DNA collection to include all felony convictions and all penal law misdemeanors, expanding the DNA database which currently only collects samples for less than half of all criminal convictions in New York state.

Not surprisingly, both the District Attorney’s office and other law enforcement offices support this plan. But according to an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal, “civil libertarians oppose the legislation because they believe it would infringe on people’s rights and they don’t think there is enough oversight and quality control in the system.”  While the focus of this proposed expansion seems to be that an expanded DNA database would allow for greater and more effective prosecution, the revelation of wrongful convictions that this would bring about was also mentioned. Read more here.

A week has passed without any movement on William Dillon’s Compensation Bill. The bill was passed by the Senate last week, and was read in the House last Tuesday but has made no progress since then. We’re hoping that the House will take up and pass this bill soon, to get Dillon the compensation owed to him.

Thomas E. Haynesworth of Richmond, VA, is facing a similar battle with obtaining the compensation that he expected after serving 27 years for a rape he did not commit. Haynesworth has received a proposal for a compensation package, one that could potentially be worth more than $800,000, but he was disappointed with this amount. In Virginia, exonorees are not entitled to compensation but must have that compensation approved by the General Assembly. They may receive up to $40,000 per year served in prison, but there is a cap of 20 years. So, Haynesworth cannot receive compensation for the full amount he time he spent as an innocent man in prison. While this situation is not ideal, Haynesworth is lucky at least to be dealing with this issue in Viginia, one of only 27 states that provides compensation to their exonorees. Read more here.

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Illinois Supreme Court Decides Important Confession Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 14, 2009 @ 2:17 PM — Comments (1)

Bearing in mind that coerced confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, I thought a recent case from Illinois might be of interest. The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that a confession obtained by police detectives from a teen-age suspect a few hours after he was punched by an officer in the jail downstairs was voluntary and admissible. The full text of the opinion (People v. Richardson, Ill., No. 105530, 9/24/09) can be accessed HERE.

An article from the BNA Criminal Law Reporter describes the factual background of the case as follows:

The 16-year-old defendant in this case was arrested for child abuse and aggravated battery of his infant daughter. While detained in the jail, a police officer punched the defendant, causing a black eye. The defendant identified the officer as the lockup keeper in the jail and further alleged that the officer put him in a full nelson and choked him until he passed out. When the defendant’s mother showed up, she raised a stink, and police internal affairs investigators were called.
Meanwhile, detectives investigating the child abuse brought the defendant and his mother upstairs to an interrogation room for questioning. The defendant waived the rights provided by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966), and provided a videotaped statement that was used to convict him of the first-degree murder of his daughter.

Despite these facts,  the Illinois Supreme Court found that the confession was voluntary and thus admissible. The BNA article provides a thorough description of the court’s decision and its reasoning which was largely based on other Illinois cases and cases from other States holding that a physical assault of  defendant tat was “prior to, disconnected with, and apparently unrelated to the subsequent confession” did not necessarily render a confession involuntary for 14th amendment purposes.

The court could very well be correct that the defendant’s confession was not directly influenced by the prior abuse. There could be other reasons, such as those the court hung its hat on, that influenced the defendant to confess. Indeed it seems like much of the record supports the decision the trial court rendered and the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed.

I still find this case troubling, however. As I understand it the protections exteded by the 14th amendment are based on a recognition of the inherently coercive nature of interrogations which is based in large part on the extreme power imbalance between a criminal defendant in a custodial situation and the officers controlling and manipulating that situation. While I can understand the decision’s reasoning that the totality of the circumstances made the defendant’s confession voluntary, I still feel like the court gave short shrift to the undisputed fact that a law enforcement officer punched the defendant in the face giving him a black eye while he was in custody.

For me, perhaps the most troubling thing about this case and cases like it is that these decisions fail to deter abusive treatment of suspects and detainees. It is even more troubling when it seems, in my humble laymen’s opinion, that the prosecution would have had little if any problem obtaining a conviction without the confession. Then again anything can happen at trial, and perhaps there was more to the case than my quick and casual examination of the facts of this case revealed.

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John Grisham’s The Innocent Man

Alejandra de la Fuente — August 17, 2009 @ 12:31 PM — Comments (0)

I just finished reading John Grisham’s The Innocent Man (featured on our books page here).

The book tells the story of Ron Williamson of tiny Ada, Oklahoma. A washed-up minor league baseball player with delusions of grandeur, Williamson was a somewhat unpleasant character who is eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death because of shoddy police work, tunnel vision, lackluster defense counsel, forensic fraud, and the abject failure of the court to ensure a fair trail. The book could read as a Cliff’s Notes guide to wrongful convictions if it could be boiled down to 10 pages, but that would do it an injustice.

The book’s reputation proceeds it, and it lives up to every word of the praise that has been heaped on it since it was published three years ago. “Meticulously researched,” is a common refrain among reviewers, and they’re dead on. I found it hard to believe, at times, that Grisham was intricately describing reality – dozens of interviews, thousands of pages of documents – rather than crafting a world of his own: his creation is so complete as to be completely engulfing.

I highly recommend the book, but there’s one passage that I must comment on here, rather than trust that everyone out there pick up a copy based on my word and make it at least to page 333.

The setting: three years since Oklahoma’s last execution, they fire up the works once more, with a vengeance, and start rushing death row inmates through the process. First was Thomas Grasso, then Roger Dale Stafford, and then came Robert Brecheen.

On August 11, 1995, a bizarre execution took place. Robert Brecheen, a forty-year-old white male, barely made it to the death chamber. The day before, he swallowed a handful of painkillers that he had somehow smuggled in and stockpiled. His suicide was to be his final effort at telling the state to go to hell, but the state prevailed. Brecheen was found unconscious by the guards and rushed to the hospital, where his stomach was pumped and he was stabilized enough to get hauled back to H Unit [death row] for a proper killing.

And so continues the portrait of America’s criminal justice system that Grisham paints: full of unintentional yet overwhelming absurdity, laced with vengeance, spite, dehumanization, and utterly confusing and overwhelming for whomever should become ensnarled in the maelstrom.

The book, at over 430 pages, would seem like a project to read for some. But it flies by, it is engrossing, it is compelling, and it is all true. A great read by an author who honed his craft at fiction, I recommend it highly!

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Cops caught plotting against innocent driver

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 30, 2009 @ 1:21 PM — Comments (4)

Four South Florida police officers were caught plotting to fabricate an incident report after a minor traffic accident earlier this year. A young woman stopped unexpectedly at a green light. The police car behind her (which was not at a safe distance) crashed into her car, damaging the back end. They arrested the woman for driving under the influence though, technically speaking, the accident was the officer’s fault since he did the hitting.

Little did they know that while they planned how to frame her, the car’s dashboard camera caught everything they were saying.

“We’re gonna spin this a little bit… a little Walt Disney to protect the cops.”

They planned to write in the report that the woman wasn’t driving in front of them, but was in the lane to their left when a cat jumped out of her car, stunning the officer so that he was unable to react when she suddenly swerved into his lane. Of course, the woman never really had a cat in her car.

There’s a big issue when it’s discovered that law enforcement fabricated a report. If they did it for just this minor accident, what else do they make up to save their own butts? In relation to wrongful conviction cases we know that police will often jump on the first suspect in order to avoid criticism and pressure from the public who want the culprit behind bars, no bother of whether or not a full and competent investigation was utilized.

The officers have been suspended until the investigation of all of their prior DUI cases is over. Avoiding a minor ticket may have just caused them their jobs and prison time.

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Friday Roundup: the right to counsel

Alejandra de la Fuente — April 24, 2009 @ 11:07 AM — Comments (0)

Just two things in today’s roundup, but both troubling developments concerning how the right to counsel is observed and respected. For one, just yesterday,

The Constitution Project’s National Right to Counsel Committee released its much-anticipated report, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of our Constitutional Right to Counsel, today at an event held at Arnold & Porter LLP. The report details the endemic and systemic failures of the indigent defense system and recommends twenty-two specific and urgently needed reforms to fix them. The full report and other relevant materials are available online here.

Meanwhile, with unintentionally ironic timing, the Obama administration is making known its very worrisome stance on the right to the assistance of counsel. Simple Justice has a very good post here on the importance and history of this right. The post begins this way:

There isn’t a competent lawyer in the practical blawgosphere who hasn’t warned defendants to remain silent and invoke their right to counsel. Immediately. Every time. No matter how smart you think you are, or what they say to you to get you to talk. Don’t do it.

The rule of Edwards v. Arizona is that once a suspect has invoked right to counsel, the police cannot continue to interrogate in the absence of counsel, and the defendant cannot un-invoke his right to counsel without an attorney present…

None of this seems like striking constitutional law today, yet there is a move afoot to change it. This alone might not be terribly shocking, but for the fact that the move comes from the Obama Department of Justice and Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

Here’s to more of the same.

TalkLeft has an analysis here that references this Associated Press article. An amicus brief opposing the government’s move to weaken this right, filed by 19 former prosecutors and judges, can be found here.

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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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New Study: Providing Incentives to Snitches Increases False Information

Alejandra de la Fuente — March 26, 2009 @ 11:00 AM — Comments (0)

From TalkLeft:

The results of the first behavioral study to investigate whether people will provide false secondary confessions raises significant concerns about the use of such evidence when informants are offered incentives. The study was conducted by psychological researchers at the University of Arkansas.

A “secondary confession” is a polite name for snitching. A news article on the study is here. The study is now published in the Journal of Law and Human Behavior in an article titled “Snitching, Lies and Computer Crashes: An Experimental Investigation of Secondary Confessions.”

Bottom line: “[A]n incentive increased the rate of false rather than true secondary confessions.”

The blog also has a fuller explanation of how the study worked, but the bottom line is the bottom line. The authors of the study provide these suggestions:

The concern is partly based on confessions being assumed to be the end-all and be-all of trial evidence, when at least in the case of secondary confessions they should be treated as hearsay,” Swanner said.

She and Beike suggested several safeguards, including video recordings of all interviews and interrogations of informants and suspects as well as pretrial hearings and expert testimony to allow jurors to better assess the validity of secondary confessions entered as evidence.

“It is essential for jurors, prosecutors and judges to be informed about the potentially biasing nature of incentives to confess,” they concluded. “Snitches may indeed lie or come to believe a falsehood about another to be the truth. Jurors must be able to consider this possibility as they make their verdicts.

To learn more about what can be done to prevent false confessions as well, read our page here.

Visit IPF’s Website here; sign up to volunteer here; contribute to our work here.

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Friday Roundup

Alejandra de la Fuente — February 27, 2009 @ 10:29 AM — Comments (1)

Arguments at the Supreme Court begin in Osborne on Monday. Today the New York Daily News has an article calling Alaska’s refusal to grant post-conviction DNA testing “shameful.”

The state admits that a DNA test now would be conclusive as to whether or not Osborne is guilty. But Alaska has no statute entitling anyone to post-conviction DNA testing, and the prosecution has simply refused to give Osborne access to the evidence. Instead, Alaska has fought tooth and nail to deny Osborne that access, in a decade-long legal battle that will soon culminate with a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. The state’s position has been endorsed in “friend of the court” briefs filed by the federal government, 31 individual states and the New York City Corporation Counsel…

Given the numerous cases in which new evidence, including DNA evidence, has exonerated those who like Osborne seemed very likely guilty, a prosecutor owes it to the public to be open-minded with respect to requests like Osborne’s. If such testing had, in 1997, shown that Osborne was guilty, it would have done no harm – and indeed saved the Alaska taxpayers a huge litigation bill. If Osborne had been shown to be innocent, he could have been released.

More links regarding Osborne can be found here and on SCOTUSblog here.

An interesting post for all those who love numbers and statistics – like I do – went up at TalkLeft that exposed some interested line items in President Obama’s stimulus bill, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The post called out money appropriated for criminal justice “lock-em-up” programs:

  • Violence against women prevention and prosecution programs $225,000,000
  • Southern border and high-intensity drug trafficking areas $30,000,000
  • ATF Project Gunrunner $10,000,000
  • Internet crimes against children initiatives $50,000,000
  • Rural drug crime program $125,000,000
  • Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants $1,000,000,000
  • Justice Department salaries and expenses for administration of police grant programs $10,000,000
  • Office of Justice Programs state and local law enforcement assistance (Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants) $2,000,000,000

Finally, several more posts covering the movement to abolish the death penalty, which is picking up steam in many states.

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