Posts Tagged ‘prison’


Two Men at the Mercy of the Courts

Henry Thompson — September 05, 2013 @ 8:00 AM — Comments (0)

In the news last week were two men who have both claimed to be innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted for more than 35 years. The battle for justice is over for both of them, but for very different reasons. On August 28th, Anthony McKinney died while attempting to prove his innocence and regain his life.  On August 29th, Milton Scarborough was given back his life and released from prison after 36 years of denying his guilt.

On August 29th, 2013 Milton Scarborough, 73, of Pennsylvania, was released from prison for a murder he was convicted of in 1976. Scarborough was not found innocent and his conviction still stands as he was released through a deal made between him and the courts. Scarborough has been challenging his wrongful conviction case at the state and federal level, as well as denying his guilt for decades without success. Scarborough contends that with DNA testing he would be exonerated of his crime. A Pennsylvania Superior Court decision noted that the absence of Scarborough’s DNA at the crime scene does not ensure that he was not present at the crime. About a month after this decision was made to not fund DNA testing for Scarborough, however, Lycoming District Attorney Eric R. Linhardt announced that Scarborough would be released to his family. He will be monitored by the courts for the duration of his sentence as a condition of the agreement. If Scarborough would have won an appeal, to retry him would have been difficult and expensive for the state to pursue due to a lack of witnesses and valid testimonies.

On Wednesday August 28, just one day before Scarborough’s release, a man who was desperately trying to prove his innocence died while still in prison. Anthony McKinney was found deceased in his cell yesterday with the cause of death yet to be determined, though foul play is not suspected. McKinney was arrested in 1978 for the murder of a security guard. At 18 years old, McKinney pled guilty after being beaten with pipes by police. Although there were witnesses who stated that McKinney was not present at the murder scene, Anthony McKinney stayed imprisoned for 35 years.

1377717885-mckinneyUnfortunately judges never heard McKinney’s case due to six years of delays and controversies. Karen Daniel, the lead attorney for Anthony McKinney and an attorney for the Center for Wrongful Convictions stated “The criminal justice system failed Anthony.”

In McKinney’s case, his imprisoned life led to his untimely death at age 53. McKinney is a victim of the backlog of cases upon cases that are waiting at the door of courthouses around the country. Along with the large amounts of time taken to prove innocence, prosecutorial bias can slow the process as well.  The Illinois court system failed in its duty to provide justice for all people.

These two cases reflect the priorities of these two justice systems. In either case, the courts and the prosecution had motives for either responding to an inmate’s cries for justice or ignoring them. These actions, as all of the actions of any public official, should be constantly monitored and judged on the basis of fairness and justice.

More information about Scarborough’s case can be found The Patriot News (1) while information of Anthony McKinney can be found at The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Reader.

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The Real. The Authentic. The Bona Fide.

Anne — May 10, 2012 @ 9:48 AM — Comments (0)

While many of us might enjoy the cerebral pleasures that films may bring into our busy—and sometimes over-extended—lives, we, typically, are not privy to the real-world, everyday realities of what goes on in courtrooms, jails, prisons and associated legal institutions across the nation, unless, of course, we are professionally associated with a specific legal case (or cases).

Our lives are most often not directly affected with the burdens associated with individuals incarcerated in county, state and/or federal facilities. Some of the quiet mantras or prejudices those of us on the “outside” may sometimes harbor might suggest a private, subtle reservation: those on the “inside” most likely engaged the act for which they have been imprisoned. No Questions Asked.  End of Story.

With the influx of cable television and “reality” shows, and cable programming’s prominent place in our living rooms, viewers are sometimes left to decipher the good, the bad and the ugly from the fictional, false and artificial.

Herewith are ten solid films and programs which address real, authentic and bona fide matters of wrongful convictions, false imprisonment, eyewitness identification, recantations, forensic evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and related issues:

  • The Exonerated (2006): Starring Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon and Aidan Quinn. The film tells the story of six individuals who were exonerated after being sentenced to death. (The film is Court-TV’s film version of the play of the same name.)
  • Conviction (2010): Starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell. “Conviction” presents the true-life story of a woman determined to prove her brother’s innocence for a crime for which he has been falsely convicted.
  •  American Justice: Programs include “Lying Eyes” (2001); “Another Man’s Crimes” (2007); “The Green Beret Murder Mystery” (2000). Bill Kurtis serves as the show’s host.
  • Dead Men Talking (1998): The program covers the National Conference on Wrongful Conviction and the Death Penalty. The show includes a discussion with Barry Scheck, Rolando Cruz, Dennis Williams, and Kirk Bloodsworth.
  • After Innocence (2005): After Innocence tells the dramatic and compelling story of the exonerated – innocent men wrongfully imprisoned for decades and then released after DNA evidence proved their innocence. Focusing on the gripping stories of seven men, including a police officer, an army sergeant and a young father that were sent to prison for decades – in some cases death row – for crimes they did not commit, After Innocence explores the emotional journeys these men face when thrust back into society with little or no support from the system that put them behind bars.
  • ABC (Prime Time): False Confessions (2006): The program focuses on the phenomenon of false confessions and interrogation tactics that can lead people to confess to crimes they did not commit. The cases of John Restivo, Dennis Halstead, and John Kogut, who were exonerated through DNA evidence in New York.
  • Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001): This Oscar-winning documentary follows the defense case of an African American teenager wrongly accused of robbing and murdering a white tourist in Florida. The film focuses on racism and misconduct in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
  • The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006): The story of Darryl Hunt’s decades-long fight for justice after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder. The film follows Hunt’s multiple appeals and chronicles the police misconduct that contributed to the 20 years Hunt spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. The documentary was short-listed for an Academy Award for best documentary.
  • Dallas DNA (2009): A program presented by Investigation Discovery highlights the Conviction Integrity Unity, a division of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office dedicated to clearing innocent inmates through post-conviction DNA testing.
  • A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life (2011): A film by Werner Herzog, the documentary tells the story of two death row inmates in the United States. Conversations were filmed at the prison facilities in Livingston and Huntsville, Texas, with the accused: Michael Perry and Jason Burkett. Herzog maintains that he doesn’t present a position on the issue of the death penalty, but he does have “a story to tell.”

Many of these videos are available for purchase through this website along with several books also dealing with wrongful conviction from amazon.com. A portion of the proceeds are returned to IPF. Click here to review and purchase.

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The Value of a Human Life

Susan — June 20, 2011 @ 4:12 PM — Comments (1)

You often hear the phrase that it’s impossible to place a value on a human life. I would argue that, in fact, “the impossible” occurs every day. Actuaries employed by insurance companies are paid to calculate a premium value for a human life based on an individual’s risk factors determined, in part, by race, gender, and socioeconomic status. I would also argue that some law enforcement officials assign a life’s value when they over-zealously investigate some crimes – especially homicide – while putting others on the back burner.

The death of an upstanding citizen or high profile individual, for instance, usually garners the force of the justice system more vigorously than that of a homeless person or one previously convicted of a crime, petty or otherwise. I would also argue that law enforcement, and society in general, care less about wrongful conviction if the defendant is from meager or questionable circumstances than if he is not.

One has only to watch the endless popular parade of real-life crime documentaries on television. Routinely, programs such as “Dateline” and “48 Hours” feature articulate, well-connected families that know how to use the media to keep alive the investigations of crimes perpetrated against their loved ones. Reruns of “Cold Case Files”, on the other hand, often spotlight crimes against powerless families who mourn the loss of their loved ones until some investigator takes up their case because he or she is assigned to close out old crime files or the agency gets a grant to run DNA tests on exhibits in its evidence locker.

There are obvious dangers in applying a crass cost-benefit analysis to either rushing to flawed judgment in prosecuting individuals accused of crimes or prematurely abandoning the pursuit of justice, however. Even ignoring the suffering of the wrongly accused, let’s focus on the financial costs to communities that house or execute the wrong person.

This came to mind recently as Governor Scott signed into law the end of the Commission on Capital Cases, thus terminating the sole Florida statutory body assigned the responsibility of reviewing capital convictions. He did it to save the State of Florida $400,000, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. However, he apparently did not consider other financial consequences to the State.

I’m talking about real, identifiable expenses including taxpayer costs to prosecute, house, clothe, feed, provide medical care, and (God forbid) put to death the wrongly convicted. And what of the appeals’ process costs footed by the State? Not to mention the court costs incurred by using resources to further clog court dockets by diverting funds to pursue the wrong person. Furthermore, since the actual perpetrator may still be at large, the State might be spending money to investigate and prosecute crimes that could have been prevented had we taken more care to prosecute the right person.

Finally, what about compensation costs once we discover that we got it wrong in the first place? Especially in view of what the Tallahassee Democrat reiterates – that…”since 1973… Florida has exonerated more inmates sentenced to death than any other state.”

These facts seriously call into question the direction our State is taking leaving us asking why?

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Without Words – In 60 Seconds

Jackie — June 17, 2011 @ 10:21 AM — Comments (2)

It is impossible to understand the loss that occurs during a wrongful incarceration and even more difficult to communicate to those who have never been down that road. However, two recent FSU graduates, Michelle Kinne and Michael Dorfman, undertook the challenge of creating a public service announcement for IPF that succinctly demonstrates the loss and the need for our work. We want to share with you their work.


We want to thank Michelle and Michael for their efforts, creativity, and hard work. Hopefully, you’ll see this PSA on TV stations around Florida and their work in years to come.

We hope you’ll share this with your family and friends.

Innocence Project of Florida,justice,prison, , , , ,


Where’s the Outrage?

Susan — June 10, 2011 @ 12:22 PM — Comments (1)

I’ve never been arrested –falsely or otherwise. Nobody I love has ever been imprisoned. So why does it bother me so much that, at this very moment, persons who are perfect strangers to me are doing time for someone else’s crime?

I think I know.

Being put in a cage for a wrong you didn’t commit is one of the worst things that can possibly happen to you. Even though some might not share my passion for this injustice in a world where injustice runs rampant, all would agree that having that happen to them is, in a word, unspeakable. So where’s the public outcry?

To date, Innocence Projects nationwide have helped exonerate more than 270 persons wrongly convicted of crimes. With this in mind, why don’t “we the people” clamor for more safeguards to prevent egregious injustice like this from continuing? With existing DNA testing, the truth is often accessible. So why do prosecutors continue their efforts to suppress the truth? And where’s the outrage when they do?

I believe once-prized beliefs are under siege — namely truth, compassion, courage, and selflessness. They’ve become unfashionable, un-cool and are often trumped by self-importance, shallowness, selfishness, and complacency. The State of Florida, for example, had a chance to reverse this trend during this legislative session. But it did not.

Our elected leaders lacked the political will to say to say “Yes” to improving police photo identification procedures. They rejected efforts to set up reviews for death penalty cases. And they said “No”  to compensating Bill Dillon, who ripped out the fixtures in his cell because it was all he could do to vent his hopelessness and frustration at forfeiting more than 27 years of his life for a crime he didn’t commit.

Shame on our leaders for their callous disregard of upholding the pursuit of justice and readdressing an injustice that has been brought to their attention. And shame on all of us for not displaying more outrage directed at pressuring them to more effectively uphold the values we profess to hold dear.

Collectively, as citizens of our nation and, most specifically, our state, we have to do better.

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A Personal Reflection

Jackie — December 16, 2010 @ 1:05 PM — Comments (3)

I have been with the Innocence Project of Florida for about five months now. I am not an attorney nor do I have a background in law enforcement or criminal justice. I am responsible for our fundraising efforts to support the work done by IPF every day – helping to find and free people who have been wrongfully convicted primarily using DNA testing. And what an honor it is. The following poem was included in a Christmas card we received from one of our clients – a young man of 22 who has been incarcerated for 10 years. (Yes, my numbers are right…he’s 22 and has been imprisoned for 10 years).

So many things in the line of duty
Drain us of effort and leave us no beauty
And the dust of the soil grows thick and unswept
And spirit is drenched in tears unwept
But just as we fall beside the road
Discouraged with life and bowed down with our load
We life our eyes, and what seemed a dead end
Is the street of dreams where we meet a friend

Well, it tugged on my heart. I hope it touches yours.

Innocence Project of Florida,prison, , ,


The Problem and the Solution

Ryan — August 25, 2010 @ 9:00 AM — Comments (0)

Flickr user Sean Munson.

While the Innocence Project of Florida was celebrating the first step toward an exoneration for Derrick Williams, many Americans – and people all over the world – were reading the Economist‘s most recent cover story, Rough Justice in America. The multi-part series details the endemic problems in America’s justice system, the gruesome statistics of which will be old news to many of us in the criminal justice community. (One in 100 Americans behind bars; imprisoning several times more people than Germany or Britain by population; increasingly harsh sentencing laws for nonviolent crimes; etc.) But the article was peppered with anecdotes that, as always, help to put a human face on the problem.

A 65-year-old man who imported orchids for a living, indicted for smuggling because his suppliers kept sloppy paperwork, and prosecuted as the “kingpin” of a smuggling ring. He was thrown in prison with an alleged murderer and two alleged drug dealers.

A depressed drug addict, busted in a dawn raid and sentenced to 7 years in prison. (The drug laws in Massachusetts are harsher on drug dealers than they are on armed rapists, the article notes.)

A three strikes offender in Alabama who eventually received a life sentence when the straw that broke the camel’s back was theft of a bicycle. And on, and on.

The Economist says most problems with the justice system can be traced to three systemic flaws: “First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.”

The human face of the problem, well illustrated by the cover story, is horrifying and frustrating. But America, not for the first time, has also been made into an international curiosity by being featured on the cover of the reputable British magazine. It is imperative that we as a country start searching for solutions, and what the Economist‘s article lacks is a mention of the progress is being made.

Flickr user sylvar.

Enter S.714, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010, introduced by Jim Webb (D-VA), which would establish “a National Criminal Justice Commission to undertake a comprehensive review of all areas of the criminal justice system.” The first charge of such a commission would be to make “recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice.”

The bill has been heralded as promising from criminal justice advocates, and enjoys the support of the LAPD, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Human Rights Watch, and other organizations, both in law enforcement and in criminal defense. The remarkable agreement between parties on this bill speaks to the true size and scope of the problem it is designed to address.

An analogous bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by William Delahunt (D-MA), and was passed by the House on July 27th. The bill has been placed on the calendar in the Senate, and awaits further action there. We can hope that it finds similar support in the Senate as it did in the House. If so, it would await signature by President Obama, and would represent a ray of light in the struggle for criminal justice. The bill is the most promising measure in recent memory, and it seems that reasonable people are finally coming together to declare that “Enough is enough,” and it is time to fix our broken justice system.

Ryan Jenkins is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a guest contributor to Plain Error. Photos by Flickr users Sean Munson and sylvar.

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8th Circuit Court of Appeals Rejoins Humanity and Condemns Shackling Of Pregnant Prisoners In Labor

Scott — October 14, 2009 @ 2:55 PM — Comments (0)

I’m not sure if this has been posted here yet, but its been all over the web recently.  Earlier this month, in a 6-5 decision, an en banc 8th Circuit  Court of Appeals overturned last year’s decision by a three judge panel for the Circuit and held that constitutional protections against shackling pregnant women during labor had been clearly established by decisions of the Supreme Court and the lower courts. The full decision is available HERE.

The Americn Civil Liberties Union, which represented the prisoner who brought the complaint, recently issued a Press Release describing the facts of the case as follows:

[Shawanna] Nelson was a 29-year-old non-violent offender who was six months pregnant with her second child when she was incarcerated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADOC) in June 2003. Three months later, after going into labor, she was taken to a local hospital where correctional officers shackled her legs to opposite sides of the bed. Nelson remained shackled to the bed for several hours of labor until she was finally taken to the delivery room.

The shackles caused Nelson cramps and intense pain, as she could not adjust her position during contractions. She was unshackled during delivery, but was immediately re-shackled after the birth of her son. After childbirth, the use of shackles caused her to soil the sheets of her bed because she could not be unshackled quickly enough to get to a bathroom.

Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, hailed the victory:

This is a historic decision by a U.S. Court of Appeals that affirms the dignity of all women and mothers in America…Correctional officials across the country are now on notice that they can no longer engage in this widespread practice.

The fact that this case was such a close split boggles my mind. Then again, there were additional questions in the case relating to qualified immunity of correctional officers that don’t necessarily pertain to the question of whether the federal constitution provides protections for the prisoner in this context.

Until relatively recently, I was unaware of the practice of shackling pregnant women in labor immediately before and after delivery. In fact, I never would have imagined that such a practice existed. This summer Mr. David Mack brought to my attention that this was the practice of our own state of Florida until somewhat recently. I am seldom shocked or surprised by the indignity humans inflict on one another, but this is one of the most inhuman practices I have ever heard of. Lets hope we reach a day soon where this practice is a relic of a cruel past of which we are all ashamed.

judicial,prison,Uncategorized,


A dissenting view…

Ryan — May 29, 2009 @ 2:46 PM — Comments (0)

I read Ryan’s post this morning about the dignity of using state or county prisoners to do menial work on the side of the road like picking up trash or mowing the side of our roads and highways.

On first blush, I tend to agree that it certainly may be demeaning for some and it brings to mind thoughts of enslavement.

That being said, there is another view that goes something like this. For some who choose to take part in those work details, while it may be demeaning to have passerby’s see you in your prison blues, it may also be an anticipated period where one can be off the barbed-wire-enclosed compound and instead out in an ever-changing free world, albeit for a few hours at a time. Some may choose that over standing around on the yard doing nothing all day or sitting in your cell reading the same book over and over again.

Also, I must say that Governor Crist, despite his nickname and his reputation as Attorney General, has been decent on innocence issues since he took over Florida’s government in 2007; certainly better than his predecessor. While we should certainly criticize where it is due, we should also give credit where credit is due.

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That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang

Ryan — May 29, 2009 @ 9:04 AM — Comments (1)

Driving to work a few days ago in Tallahassee, I passed not one, but two separate chain gangs picking up litter along the street. It was the first time in a long while that I had seen them.

It must have been a special day, because there they were, in their black-and-white striped Hamburglar outfits with reflective orange roadwork vests, picking up trash. Several of those temporary orange diamond signs warned drivers, “Inmates Working.” Governor Charlie Crist earned his nickname “Chain Gang Charlie” this way. Here’s a good recap, from the Chicago Tribune:

[Under Attorney General Charlie Crist, Florida] in recent years has resurrected the chain gang, built an additional 21 prisons and passed a law that requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences. In January, Gov. Jeb Bush called for the closing of state legal offices that represent inmates awaiting execution, a move that critics fear would speed the walk to death.

And from the St. Petersburg Times:

When Crist ran for attorney general in 2002, rivals called him unqualified and unethical. He was derided as a vacuous “Chain Gang Charlie” who advocated a return to roadside prison labor gangs, hitched free rides on corporate jets, flunked the Bar exam twice and practiced little law.

It got me to thinking, the armchair ethicist that I am. I might concede that people surrender certain rights when they commit crimes. (I’ll ignore the possibility that these people are innocent, though it’s a distinct possibility, as we know.) But the question is whether they surrender the right to a certain basic dignity.

We might seek a comparison with setting prisoners to work, say, making license plates. What makes that different? Well, here are some considerations. Prisoners are being held in private, they are not being made a spectacle of. They are contributing to the public good just the same, though I would argue in a more meaningful way by contributing government labor versus menial, bottom-rung tasks like picking up garbage. As well, singling out a handful of prisoners, as chain gangs do, adds a unique – and therefore unfairly apportioned – stigma to the experience of those few inmates, whereas making license plates was, as I understand, something a larger percentage of prisoners participated in.

There is something about being singled out, in public, to perform a menial and degrading task that all entails a singularly inhumane treatment of people that, while we might say are “bad people,” are people nonetheless. Instead, the proposers and enforcers of such policies come off as degrading, barbarian and inexcusably insensitive.

Speaking for me only.

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